Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, usually finishes at or near the top when historians list the best American presidents. He led the country through its greatest crisis, the Civil War, preserving the Union after 11 Southern states had declared themselves a new country. He is revered as the Great Emancipator for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which decreed that slaves in the rebellious states were free, and then pushing for the adoption of the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery throughout the country.
But it is not just Lincoln’s accomplishments that make him one of history’s most studied and written-about leaders. A large part of what makes his story so fascinating and inspiring are the humble beginnings from which he arose and the obstacles he overcame.
Born in a log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky, at a time when the area was still part of America’s western frontier, Lincoln got less than two years of formal schooling. His family moved to an even wilder homestead in Indiana when he was 7, and his mother died there two years later. With no school in the area, young Abraham studied by reading and re-reading the small stock of books his new stepmother brought with her. He practiced writing and mathematics any way he could, including scratching numbers and letters in the dirt. Yet he went on to become a lawyer, a congressman, a senator, and then president, and is in fact considered one of the most eloquent writers and speakers among all the presidents.
The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial in Hodgenville symbolically traces the arc of Lincoln’s life. The centerpiece is a facsimile of the log cabin in which he was born, but the classical-style grandeur of the surrounding building illustrates the heights he achieved and the esteem in which he is held.
The memorial was funded by the private Lincoln Farm Association, a group dedicated to honoring Lincoln and preserving the two Kentucky farms where his family lived. It was designed by a leading architect of the times, John Russell Pope. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, February 12, 1909, and the memorial was finished in 1911. The association donated the site to the federal government in 1916.
The design of the memorial makes use of two significant numbers from Lincoln’s life. There are 16 fence poles on the outside, 16 windows, and 16 rosettes on the ceiling, representing the fact that he was the 16th president. The 56 steps commemorate his age when he was assassinated.