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Today in history: The birth of the Great Emancipator
He also happened to be America's tallest president
Our 16th president.
Our 16th president. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Feb. 12, 1809: Abraham Lincoln was born. He was the 16th president, serving between 1861 and 1865. Lincoln — widely regarded as America's greatest president — preserved the Union during the Civil War, and helped end slavery in the United States. For this effort, he was known as the "Great Emancipator," though he waffled on the issue of slavery in the early stages of his presidency.

Lincoln's views on slavery gradually evolved. Ending it wasn't his priority — preserving the Union during the war was. In an August 22, 1862 letter to a New York newspaper editor, he wrote:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

Lincoln is criticized by some historians for, in their view, trampling on the Constitution by suspending habeas corpus during the war. Lincoln took it upon himself to assume vast powers during the conflict, and suspending habeas corpus allowed the federal government to lock up anyone it wished without filing any charges against them.

Habeas corpus is the only common-law tradition enshrined in the Constitution, which also explicitly defines (in Article I Section 9) when it can be overridden: "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."

Lincoln had soaring oratorical skills. On November 19, 1863, he delivered what is arguably the greatest of all presidential speeches — the 271-word Gettysburg Address. The speech, delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg — site of a pivotal Civil War battle four months earlier, took just over two minutes to deliver, but summed up, in Lincoln's characteristic eloquence and brevity, why the war was being waged. Lincoln emphasized the principles of human equality and said the Union would be preserved with "a new birth of freedom."

"Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln began, referring to the 87 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed during the Revolutionary War, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

He continued:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on the great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And in his second inaugural address — given just six weeks before his assassination — Lincoln said, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds."

Lincoln, known for his honesty and wit, stood 6'4". He was, with Lyndon Johnson, the tallest president. (Shortest: James Madison at 5'4"). He was the first of four presidents to be assassinated. He had a dream of his death the week before it occurred.

Quote of the Day

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." -Abraham Lincoln

Bonus Quote

"The struggle of today is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also." -Abraham Lincoln

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