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Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln

Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln

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by Gerald J. Prokopowicz

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In the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, here is the one indispensable book that provides all you need to know about our most revered president in a lively and memorable question-and-answer format.You will learn whether Lincoln could dunk a basketball or tell a joke. Was he the great emancipator or a racist? If he were alive today, could he get elected? Did he


In the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, here is the one indispensable book that provides all you need to know about our most revered president in a lively and memorable question-and-answer format.You will learn whether Lincoln could dunk a basketball or tell a joke. Was he the great emancipator or a racist? If he were alive today, could he get elected? Did he die rich? Did scientists raise Lincoln from the dead? From the seemingly lighthearted to the most serious Gerald Prokopowicz tackles each question with balance and authority, and weaves a complete, satisfying biography that will engage young and old, scholars and armchair historians alike.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

East Carolina University history professor Prokopowicz has created a Lincoln trivia book, answering dozens of questions about the 16th president of the United States. Did he write his own speeches? (Yes, though sometimes he "borrowed" from other writers-the conclusion of the Gettysburg Address echoes abolitionist Theodore Parker.) Do we celebrate Thanksgiving because of Lincoln? (Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving on the urging of writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale.) Did Mary Lincoln hold séances in the White House? (Yes; she was trying to contact her dead son.) How tall was Abe? (Six feet and "nearly" four inches.) Prokopowicz addresses some trendy topics, such as the two depressive episodes Lincoln experienced in the 1830s and 1840s and the debate about Lincoln's sexual orientation. As for the titular question, Prokopowicz insists that people keep asking whether Lincoln owned slaves: he did not, but he "may have rented one." Although the irksome q&a format necessarily lends itself to a certain superficiality, Prokopowicz is learned, his tone is engaging and his suggestions for further reading at the end of each thematic chapter are also a helpful resource. (Jan. 22)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Although organized in a point-by-point, question-and-answer format, this unusual book works as a full narrative biography of Lincoln. Beginning with questions about Lincoln's genealogy and birth, historian Prokopowicz (All for the Regiment) covers Lincoln's entire life in chronological order, answering the kinds of questions visitors most often asked while he worked at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, IN. The result is a surprisingly rich biography that never flinches from addressing uncomfortable issues while dispelling popular myths and misconceptions with solid scholarship in lucid and often witty prose. A remarkable book that makes delightful listening, thanks, also, to Norman Dietz's commanding but warm narration. Highly recommended.
—R. Kent Rasmussen

From the Publisher
“It's fun. It's well written. . . . A valuable catalog of Lincoln information, very accessible, that is a good read from beginning to end.” —America's Civil War“Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is a wonderful book, as witty as it is wise. . . . Every Lincoln student must own this book.” —David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln“The surprises found on almost every page should delight anyone even remotely interested in our national history.” —Larry Cox, King Features“Here is everything one ever wanted to know about Abraham Lincoln-told authoritatively and entertainingly by a fine scholar and gifted writer.” —Harold Holzer, cochairman, U. S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission"A wonderful book, as witty as it is wise. Addressing every question that conceivable can be raised about Abraham Lincoln, Gerald Prokopowicz provides answers that are short, accurate, and in many instances highly amusing."—David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln"From his birth to his death (not to mention the century and a half since), here is everything one ever wanted to know about Abraham Lincoln, told authoritatively and entertainingly by a fine scholar and gifted writer. Facts are reported, myths punctured, and controversies analyzed in a text that proves both an essential reference and a page-turning good read."—Harold Holzer, cochairman, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission"Of the thousands of books about Lincoln (you can get the exact number, and many other facts, from this book), very few bring us as much information, and none is more pleasantly amusing. If you have any interest in Lincoln and start reading this book, you will have a hard time stopping."—William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman"Witty, intelligent, and informative, Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is a book that every level of Lincoln student—from grade school to scholar—will find useful. Prokopowicz has provided accurate answers to the essential questions about our sixteenth president; no more digging around in the Lincoln library is required."—Jean H. Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Civil War Library
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Random House
File size:
6 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Boy Lincoln

It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life.
—Lincoln’s reply to journalist John L. Scripps, 1860,  when asked to provide information  for a campaign biography[1]

When and where was Lincoln born?

February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on the south fork of Nolin Creek, near Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Is the cabin still there?

Sort of.

The site is marked today by a curious memorial on the grounds of the original Lincoln farmstead. There, at the top of a wooded hill, stands what appears to be an old-fashioned bank building incongruously looming over an otherwise bucolic setting. A grand flight of fifty-six stone steps, one for each year of Lincoln’s life, leads the visitor to a pair of imposing bronze doors, hidden behind six massive Doric columns. Within this Greek temple on a Kentucky hillside, resting on the granite floor in the center of the room, is the cabin where Abe Lincoln was born.

Unfortunately, it’s not really Lincoln’s cabin. The National Park Service, which maintains the memorial, describes the crude wooden structure as the “traditional” Lincoln birthplace cabin, inventively using the word “traditional” in place of a more accurate adjective, such as “fake.”[2] The real cabin almost certainly fell down at some point in the decades after the Lincoln family moved away, there being no reason at the time to preserve it. A speculator named A. W. Dennett purchased the farm in 1894, hoping it would become a tourist attraction. He found a two-story cabin nearby that might have been standing when Lincoln was a boy, took it apart, transported it to the birthplace farm, and reassembled it into a smaller one-story cabin. When he found few customers willing to make the pilgrimage to his remote corner of central Kentucky, Dennett took the building apart again with the idea of moving it to places more frequented by potential viewers. For good measure, he bought and disassembled another cabin that supposedly was the birthplace of Jefferson Davis. The two cabins appeared side by side at fairs in Nashville, Buffalo, and other cities.

Eventually Dennett went bankrupt, and both cabins were taken apart (again) and put in storage. In 1906, the Lincoln Farm Association, a group formed to build a Lincoln birthplace memorial, found the pieces in a basement in New York. By that time the logs that formed the two already dubious cabins were hopelessly intermingled. The association sorted out the components and used some of them to make a one-story structure that resembled descriptions of the original Lincoln cabin. The LFA also constructed the present memorial building to house their prize, but when it was completed in 1911, it turned out that the reassembled cabin was too large to fit inside easily. To make room for visitors to walk around it, they sawed off about a quarter of its length, creating the “traditional” birthplace cabin that you can see today. It’s possible (if unlikely) that some tiny fraction of the wood really did once form part of a building that was associated with Lincoln; but it’s also possible that the exhibit now on display has as much to do with Jefferson Davis as it does with Lincoln.[3]

Haven’t I seen the cabin somewhere else?

You probably have.

There are several versions around the country, most of them replicas of the Park Service “birthplace cabin.” One is in Milton, Massachusetts, commissioned in 1923 by Mary Bowditch Forbes.[4] There’s another in Fort Wayne, Indiana, built by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company in 1916, that at one time was carefully furnished with antiques to give a sense of what Lincoln’s childhood home might have looked like. Now, however, it sits neglected in a wooded corner of a public park, used by the maintenance staff as a storage shed for snowblowers.

About the original birthplace cabin—is it true that Lincoln helped his father build it with his own hands?

Next question, please.

Who were Lincoln’s parents?

Thomas Lincoln (1778?–1851) and Nancy Hanks Lincoln (1784?– 1818).

His father married Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (1788–1869), in 1819.

Were Thomas and Nancy married to each other when Abraham was born? I heard that he was born out of wedlock.

Yes, they were married, and no, he was not illegitimate.

Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks were married on June 12, 1806. Their first child, Sarah, was born the following year. Abraham was born in 1809. There is no reasonable doubt that Lincoln was conceived by and born to a lawfully wedded couple, but the question still pops up persistently, probably due to confusion between the matter of Lincoln’s legitimacy and that of his mother, which is indeed doubtful.

His mother was born out of wedlock?

Probably . . .

. . . but you can no longer get into a bar fight over the issue. The question today is forgotten by everyone but a handful of antiquarians who are determined to puzzle out the Lincoln-Hanks genealogy.

In the 1920s, however, this issue bitterly divided the field of Lincoln scholars. Museum director Louis Warren passionately defended the honor of Lincoln’s grandmother Lucey Hanks, while author William Barton and most others just as avidly insisted that her daughter Nancy was a child of sin. Barton’s eventually became the accepted view of the matter, in part because Lincoln himself had apparently shared it. He believed that his mother was born out of wedlock and that his real grandfather was a Virginia aristocrat who took advantage of a “poor and credulous” girl, if the recollections of Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon are accurate.[5]

Today, the very terms of the debate give off a musty odor of obsolescence. Defending her honor? Child of sin? Born out of wedlock? These phrases are rarely heard in connection with single parenting in the twenty-first century. But in the 1920s, unwed motherhood still carried much of the deep social stigma that it had in Lincoln’s day. Further, the 1920s were a decade of upheaval in social and sexual mores, as teenagers took advantage of the invention of the automobile to abandon traditional front-parlor courtship rituals in favor of the modern concept of dating. Contraception became a divisive topic, with Margaret Sanger and others fighting to legalize it, opposed by social conservatives who were horrified at the very idea of discussing the subject publicly. Like the issue of gay marriage eighty years later, the birth control debate exposed deep cultural fault lines.

In Indiana, where Louis Warren lived, many older people were upset by challenges to the society they had known. They were shocked by new ideas about sex and disturbed by the influx of immigrants from Europe speaking strange languages, as well as the growing number of dark-skinned domestic migrants from the Deep South. It is no coincidence that when the Ku Klux Klan was reborn around 1915, it soon had more members in Indiana than in any other state, including (at one point) the governor. It was in this reactionary climate that Warren, a preacher by trade, founded a “Lincoln Shrine and Museum” in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1928. To Warren, the idea that his hero’s mother might herself be a product of the same immorality and sexual promiscuity that seemed to be the hallmark of the modern age must have been anathema, and he spent years arguing that it could not be so.

The argument over Nancy Hanks’s birth was also fueled by public interest in the emerging science of eugenics. The idea that personality traits were inherited persuaded thirty-three states (starting with Indiana in 1907) to pass laws authorizing the sterilization of the feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent, hoping to remove undesirable elements from the gene pool.[6] This line of thinking was eventually discredited by the monstrous eugenic experiments of the Nazi regime in the 1930s, but in the 1920s, when the Nancy Hanks paternity debate raged, it was still socially and scientifically acceptable to talk in terms of “purity of bloodline,” and to assume that Lincoln’s noble character meant that he could only have sprung from noble ancestors. There was no room for a tramp in the Lincoln family tree.

So was Lucey Hanks married when she gave birth to little Nancy? By the end of the twentieth century the consensus was clearly no, based in part on the extensive research of Paul Verduin. Nancy was born in 1783  or 1784, when her mother was still a teenager living in Virginia with her father, Joseph Hanks. The identity of the baby’s father (Abraham’s maternal grandfather) remains unknown, but he could have been any one of several wealthy young men of the neighborhood, including one who was a relation of the famous Lee family. Lucey later moved to Kentucky and married Henry Sparrow, but he refused to admit his bride’s illegitimate daughter to his household, and Nancy was raised by other relatives.[7]

Lincoln’s suspicions that he had a Virginia aristocrat among his ancestors, and that his grandfather never married his grandmother, were likely true. If so, Lucey was hardly alone in conceiving a child before marriage; based on marriage and birth records from the colonial era, some historians estimate that more than a quarter of all brides were already pregnant on their wedding day.[8]

Was Abraham’s last name really Lincoln?

Some relatives pronounced the name “Linkhorn” instead of “Link-un,” but it was still spelled the same way.[9]

No, I mean, was Thomas Lincoln really his father?

Yes, despite claims to the contrary on behalf of numerous others, including:

• Samuel Emory Davis (1755/58–1824), the father of Jefferson Davis, president of the so-called Confederate States of America[10]
• Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782–1850)
• a wandering Virginia aristocrat who took a shine to Nancy Hanks Lincoln
• local farmer Abraham Enlow (or Enloe or Inlow), late of North Carolina (or Virginia)

As historian J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton observed, “Any male person in the United States who was, in 1808, within striking distance of puberty was likely to be saddled with the paternity of Abraham Lincoln.”[11] Of those listed, the last is the only one with even a shadow of an authentic claim. When Lincoln was a boy, rumors floated around the neighborhood that the mumps or some other misfortune had rendered Thomas incapable of fathering children, leading in turn to all kinds of improbable suggestions as to the identity of Abe’s real father. William Herndon collected a story from John B. Helm, according to which Enlow claimed Abraham as his son and challenged Thomas Lincoln to a fight, in which he lost both a piece of his nose and his claim to the boy. The Helm story is weakened by its implication that Nancy Hanks was pregnant with Abraham when she married Thomas Lincoln, which cannot be true since the marriage took place in 1806 and Abraham was not born until 1809.[12]

The real significance of the many rumors of Lincoln’s true paternity is that they show the power of genetic misconceptions in the public mind. To those who believe that biology is destiny, it’s inconceivable that someone as great as Lincoln could be the product of the humble genes of his pioneer parents.

So Lincoln’s greatness was due to his environment, not his genes?

His environment certainly shaped him, but it shaped a lot of people . . .

. . . and they didn’t all turn out like Lincoln. There was another fellow who was born in a log cabin, grew up on the frontier, moved west as a boy, lost a parent at an early age, lost a sibling, traveled to New Orleans, went off to war but didn’t see action, started life on his own in a small town, and got a minor government job while he looked for his way in life. All just like Lincoln, but his name was Nathan Bedford Forrest. He became a wealthy slave trader, then a Confederate cavalry general whose men massacred black Union soldiers after they surrendered at Fort Pillow in 1864, and finally the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee.[13] So perhaps it was neither genes nor environment alone that was responsible for Lincoln’s character.

Where did Lincoln’s ancestors come from?

On his father’s side, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Samuel migrated from Hingham, England, to Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1637.

From there, each succeeding generation of Lincolns moved west or south (or both), deeper into the country, migrating to Pennsylvania and then Virginia. Lincoln’s grandfather, also named Abraham, moved to Kentucky around 1781 with his three sons and was killed by Indians.

Was Lincoln’s father a good-for-nothing bum?

No . . .

. . . but neither was he the model for Lincoln’s restless ambition. There is a traditional belief that Thomas Lincoln was poor and shiftless, the better to exalt his son’s achievement in rising to greatness. Thomas’s stoutest defender, historian Louis Warren, overcompensated by portraying him as a successful farmer who possessed most of the virtues of the Victorian middle class. Perhaps the best pieces of evidence in favor of Thomas are the beautiful cabinets he crafted, which show more skill and aesthetic sensibility than one would expect from a drunken loser.

Thomas Lincoln was persistent but not particularly lucky in his pursuit of the agrarian version of the American dream. In Kentucky, he bought several farms in succession, but three times his ownership came into question due to legal issues involving property titles. This was not unusual, as Kentucky at the time used the “metes-and-bounds” system of recording land titles, in which a property line might be described as running along a particular creek to a certain boulder, and thence to a specific tree. Unfortunately, trees fall down, boulders can be moved, and streams change their courses. With thousands of settlers entering the state and squatting on whatever land seemed available, questions of who owned which patch of Kentucky were bound to arise, and not just for Thomas Lincoln. In the suit over title to the farm on Knob Creek, which he purchased (or thought he did) when Abraham was two years old, Thomas was one of ten farmers who were named as defendants. Eventually he would move his family north to Indiana and then west to Illinois, still pursuing the ideal of a secure, comfortable, self-sufficient agricultural life.

Why did Thomas and Nancy choose the name “Abraham”?

To honor Thomas’s father, who was also named Abraham Lincoln.

Although Lincoln never knew his grandfather Abraham, he certainly knew the dramatic story of his grandfather’s death, which he once described as “the legend more strongly than all others imprinted upon my mind and memory.”[14] The first Abraham Lincoln had been an officer in the Kentucky militia that battled the native inhabitants of the “Dark and Bloody Ground” in the late eighteenth century. One day in 1784, as he was tending to his fields, Captain Lincoln was ambushed and killed by an Indian, who then seized the captain’s little son Thomas. As he was about to return to the woods with the captive boy, a shot rang out from the doorway of the Lincolns’ cabin, and the attacker fell. Thomas’s older brother Mordecai had grabbed a musket and fired it just in time to save the life of the future president’s father.

While the battle line between Indians and settlers had moved west of Kentucky by the time young Abraham was born, accounts like these kept the memory of conflict fresh. The loss of an ancestor in the Indian wars was hardly unusual among the residents of the frontier, but it was remarkable that Lincoln did not seem to inherit any of the animosity of those days, and that in his own encounters with Indians he would display malice toward none.

What was Lincoln’s middle name?

He didn’t have one.

Did he have any brothers or sisters?

One of each.

He had an older sister, Sarah (born in 1807), and a younger brother, Thomas. He also had a stepbrother, John D. Johnston, and two stepsisters, Elizabeth and Matilda Johnston.

Not much is known of Sarah Lincoln. She was two years older than Abraham, married Aaron Grigsby in 1826, and died in childbirth in 1828. Abraham was apparently quite close to his sister and held a grudge against Grigsby for her death. Even less is known of Lincoln’s little brother, Thomas, who was born after the family moved to a farm near Knob Creek, in 1810 or 1811. He died “in infancy,” according to Lincoln, but his age at death remains unknown. Dennis Hanks (Nancy Hanks’s cousin) later said that the baby “did not live 3 days.” Baby Thomas’s grave, not far from the Knob Creek cabin site, remained undiscovered until 1933.[15]

[1] William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Lincoln, ed. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (1889; new ed. 2006), 15.
[2] Perhaps this definition will one day enter common usage, as in "The wily coach called for a traditional field goal," or "Dear, for our anniversary I've bought you this traditional diamond." For the Park Service use of the term "traditional birthplace cabin" see, e.g. Robert W. Blythe, Maureen Caroll, and Steven Moffson, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Historic Resource Study, revised by Brian F. Coffey (2001), ch. 3, fig. 51 caption.
[3] Blythe et al., Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Historic Resource Study, ch. 2; Gloria Peterson, An Administrative History of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (1968).
[4] Of the Boston Forbeses (distantly related to Massachusetts senator John Forbes Kerry), not the magazine Forbeses. The cabin is part of the Mary Bowditch Forbes Lincoln Collection, at the Captain Forbes House Museum in Milton.
[5] William H. Herndon to Ward Hill Lamon, March 6, 1870, in Emanuel Hertz, ed., The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon (1938), 73-74; see also Herndon and Weik, Herndon's Lincoln, 16.
[6] Harry Laughlin, "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law," in Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (1922), 446. The issue returned to the public eye briefly in 2002-03, when the governors of Virginia, Oregon, North Carolina, South Carolina, and California issued apologies to the victims of their states' eugenics laws.
[7] Paul Verduin, "New Evidence Suggests Lincoln's Mother Born in Richmond County, Virginia," Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine 38, no. 1 (December 1988), 4354-89. But the debate continues; see Christopher Callender Child, "The Maternal Ancestry of Abraham Lincoln: The Origin of Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln, a Study in Appalachian Genealogy," New England Ancestors 4, no. 1 (winter 2003), 25-29, 55, which acknowledges that "Nancy Hanks's illegitimacy is not an outrageous idea," but concludes that it is not true.
[8] Statistics varied by region and over time; premarital pregnancy was more common in the Appalachian backcountry and the Chesapeake than in New England, but remained high throughout America at least until the nineteenth century. See D. H. Fischer, Albion's Seed (1989), 681; and John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (2nd ed., 1997), 22-23, 73. In place of statistical research, the study of sexual behavior in the colonial era has, like msot other fields of historical study, taken a turn for the theoretical. When the prestigious William & Mary Quarterly devoted its January 2003 issue to sexuality in early America, the papers it published had much to say about the social construction of sexual identity, but remarkably little about what kinds of sexual behavior were actually common among colonial Americans.
[9] Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (1998), 84.
[10] Lincoln never recognized the Confederacy as a nation, or indeed as anything more than an illegal rebellion. Using the adjective "so-called" for the Confederate States of America is apparently much more effective than challenging the paternity of Nancy Hanks if you are interested in starting an angry history-related confrontation, especially when addressing a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting. For this information I am indebted to my colleague Charles Calhoun at East Carolina University.
[11] J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, "The Many-Sired Lincoln," American Mercury 5, no. 18 (June 1925), 133.
[12] Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 82; Herndon and Weik, Herndon's Lincoln, 17. Everyone wants a piece of Lincoln; North Carolina's desperate bid for reflected Lincolnian glory, through the Enloe story, can be found in Jerry Goodnight and Richard Eller, The Tarheel Lincoln: North Carolina Origins of "Honest" Abe Lincoln (2003), published by the Tarheel Press of Hickory, N.C.
[13] Brian Steel Wills, The Confederacy's Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest (1998), is the standard modern bigraphy of Forrest, in which the author struggles bravely between his recognition that Forrest did terrible things and his fascination with Forrest's larger-than-life personality.
[14] Lincoln to Jesse Lincoln, Springfield, April 1, 1854, in Roy P. Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953), 2:217 (cited hereafter as CW).
[15] Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 27; R. Gerald McMurty, "Re-Discovering the Supposed Grave of Lincoln's Brother," Lincoln Lore, no. 1619 (January 1973), 1-3.

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A remarkable book that makes delightful listening, thanks...to Norman Dietz's commanding but warm narration. Highly recommended." —-Library Journal Audio Review

Meet the Author

Gerald J. Prokopowicz served for nine years as the Lincoln Scholar at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He holds a law degree from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, where he studied under Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald. He is the author of the critically acclaimed All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio 18611862 . He has written numerous articles and book reviews for popular magazines and professional historical journals, and was the editor of Lincoln Lore, the quarterly bulletin of the Lincoln Museum. He is a frequent public speaker on Lincoln-related topics and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Board of Advisors. He is currently chair of the history department at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Did Lincoln Own Slaves by Gerald J. Prokopowicz is an insightful and often times funny tour of Abraham Lincoln's life through the some of the most asked questions about the 16th president. This book proves that a historian can be funny and serious at the same time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ask here.