Abraham Lincoln, 1860

George Clark, after Mathew Brady

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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“The short and simple annals of the poor”

Lincoln quoted English poet Thomas Gray (above) to describe his early history. The Lincoln family was poor, but there was nothing “simple” about Lincoln’s rise; his ferocious drive and ambition lifted him out of the anonymous ranks of the poor. And it was Lincoln’s origins as a working man, most famously a rail splitter, that sharpened his sense that political democracy must lead to economic opportunity for ordinary Americans. His growing emphasis on labor led him to recognize how slavery corrupted American society.

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