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Key experiences in Kentucky that shaped President Lincoln and American history

Aboard a riverboat in Louisville, Abraham Lincoln witnessed the slave trade firsthand. The experience would shape his life, presidency, and American history.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The direction you’re traveling as you drive across the Ohio River determines quite a few things: the flags you’ll see waving, the taxes you’ll pay, the sports teams you’ll hear cheers for, whether you’re greeted by a Hoosier or you’re welcomed to the Bluegrass.

But, there’s at least one thing that you will see whether you’re on the north or the south side of the Ohio River: signs claiming the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

Credit: WHAS

Most of us know our 16th president spent significant chunks of his life in both Indiana and Kentucky; but, in the spirit of friendly competition for Kentuckiana Curiosity, we wanted to find out if one of our states can claim more influence over his life and legacy than the other. 

To help us, we turned to Warren Greer, director of the Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail.

“When I became a historian, I really was fascinated by Lincoln and who he was, and that remarkable rise from that log cabin in Kentucky all the way to the presidency,” Greer said. “And like a lot of people, the more I learned the more fascinated I became.”

Credit: WHAS

Looking at Lincoln’s early years, at least in terms of length, Greer says Indiana wins. 

While he was famously born in that Kentucky log cabin, he spent a great deal of his childhood and teenage years north of the river, living in Spencer County, Indiana from ages 8 to 20.   

No doubt, these years were formative in profound ways; however, when it comes to the key moments and connections that shaped him as a person and president, Greer says Kentucky pulls ahead.

“Kentucky has more in terms of breadth and depth,” Greer explained. “His entire family was from Kentucky—his grandparents, his parents, his sister.  He married a Kentuckian from Lexington, Mary Todd Lincoln.  His best friend Joshua Speed was from right here in Louisville.  And Henry Clay, the great statesman, was Lincoln’s hero.  So, throughout his life, Kentucky has this breadth of connections that followed him throughout his whole life.”

It was also on the Kentucky side of the river, right here in Louisville, that Lincoln had a profound experience that opened his eyes to the evils of slavery.  Aboard a riverboat in 1841, he saw the slave trade firsthand—as twelve slaves, shackled together were being shipped to be sold.

“Lincoln was very moved by that,” Greer said. “He wrote later in his life that that experience had the power of making miserable, and he never forgot about it.”

Credit: WHAS

Abraham Lincoln’s presidency would be defined by that moral question: the end of slavery in America, which took a Civil War under his watch. He was desperate to keep our Union intact, and Kentucky was at the heart of the mission. As a border state between North and South, Lincoln feared it could become a bellwether that would lead to a victory for the Confederacy should it secede.

“Lincoln said at one point that to lose Kentucky was to lose the whole game,” Greer said. “He worked very hard to keep Kentucky in the Union, and those connections he had here played a central role."

“America’s top historians have once again ranked Lincoln as the number one president in American history.  It’s something about that rise from the log cabin to the White House.  Something about the way he confronted slavery and was a champion of equality, and would not compromise on the belief that all people are created equal and deserve all the rights that were included in the Declaration of Independence—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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