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Born February 12, 1809
Died April 15, 1865
Sixteenth president of the United States
Abraham Lincoln is widely viewed as the greatest president in American history. He presided over the nation during one of its most difficult trials—the Civil War. Lincoln rose from humble beginnings in Kentucky to become a successful lawyer and state legislator in Illinois. In 1858, his growing concern over the expansion of slavery convinced him to join the antislavery Republican political party and oppose Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln lost the election, but the spirited debates between the two candidates propelled him to national attention. In 1860, he became the sixteenth president of the United States.
But Lincoln's election convinced the slaveholding states of the Southern United States to secede (withdraw) from the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Lincoln considered this act an illegal rebellion against the national government, and the two sides soon went to war. During the war years, Lincoln struggled with incompetent generals and faced criticism over his policies. Yet his guidance and determination helped bring victory to the Union and freedom to millions of black Americans.
Born poor in Kentucky
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in the slave state of Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He was the second child born to Thomas Lincoln, a hard-working carpenter and farmer, and his wife Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Although his parents' families had owned slaves in the past, the Lincolns came to oppose slavery. In fact, the Lincoln family joined an antislavery branch of the Baptist Church when Abraham was a boy.
Slavery had been practiced in North America since the 1600s, when black people were first taken from Africa and brought to the continent to serve as white people's slaves. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.
Lincoln mostly educated himself. His parents could not read or write, and they needed him and his older sister Sarah to help with the farm chores every day. As a result, it was rare when the children had time to attend school. Lincoln only went to school for a total of one year throughout his entire childhood. But he still managed to learn to read. He especially enjoyed reading poetry, because he liked the skillful ways poets put words together. He also became fascinated with a popular book called Life of George Washington by Mason Locke. This may have been the earliest indication of his future interest in politics.
In 1816, the Lincolns moved to the neighboring free state of Indiana. Sadly, Nancy Lincoln died in an epidemic two years later. In 1819, Thomas Lincoln married Sarah ("Sally") Bush Johnston, a widow with three young children. Young Abraham became very attached to his new stepmother. The Lincolns struggled financially during this time, so as a teenager Abraham worked at a series of odd jobs to help out. At nineteen, Lincoln took a flatboat loaded with produce down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans along with another young man. During his time in the Deep South, he saw slaves in chains being sold at auction. The scene haunted him for many years and helped convince him that slavery was wrong. "The Negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trotline [a strong fishing line]," he recalled. "In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual [permanent] slavery."
Becomes a successful lawyer and politician
By the time Lincoln reached his twenties, he had become interested in the law. He started watching trials at the local courthouse, studying law books, and reading the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in order to understand the American justice system. When he was twenty-two, Lincoln left home and moved to New Salem, Illinois. As a clerk at the general store there, he met educated men who encouraged his interest in the law and politics. He practiced writing and public speaking, and joined a debating society. Within a year, he decided to run for the state legislature. "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition," he said of his decision. "Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed [regarded] of my fellow men, by rendering [making] myself worthy of their esteem."
Upon losing his first election, Lincoln volunteered to serve in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War (1832). This conflict came about when white settlers attempted to force the Sauk and Fox Indians to move out of Illinois. Led by Chief Black Hawk (1767–1838), the Indians refused to leave their ancestral territory. Lincoln led a small militia unit through woods and swamps for several weeks, but they did not see any action before the Indians surrendered. After his term of military service ended, Lincoln became postmaster of New Salem and also worked as a surveyor (one who measures land to determine property or boundries, or to make maps).
In 1834, Lincoln ran for the state legislature again and won. He ended up serving four terms in office. He sponsored bills to improve the state's schools and also protested against measures designed to silence abolitionists (people who worked to end slavery). Lincoln also continued studying during this time and got a license to practice law in 1836. He showed great skill as an attorney. He was honest, funny, and sensitive in dealing with people. He also had a quick mind that allowed him to find weaknesses in his opponents' arguments and persuade juries to take his side. He moved to the new state capital of Springfield, Illinois, in 1837. Whenever the legislature was not in session, he traveled around the state as an attorney. He won most of his 250 cases before the State Supreme Court over the next several years.
In 1839, the successful young attorney and politician met Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky family. After a rocky, on-again off-again courtship, they were married three years later. They eventually had four sons together, although only one of them survived to adulthood: Robert Todd (1843–1926), Edward Baker (1846–1850), William "Willie" Wallace (1850–1862), and Thomas "Tad" (1853–1871).
Bursts onto the national scene
In 1846, running as a member of the Whig political party, Lincoln was elected to represent Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. He soon emerged as an opponent of the Mexican War (1846–48). This was a conflict between the United States and Mexico for possession of lands in the West. Lincoln felt that the United States was illegally grabbing territory that belonged to its weaker neighbor. He also worried that westward expansion would complicate the already heated debate between North and South over slavery. Both sides would want to extend their political ideas and way of life to the new territories. Despite Lincoln's arguments, the U.S. government sent troops into the West and forced Mexico to give up huge areas of land in exchange for $15 million.
After Lincoln's term ended in 1849, he returned to his law practice in Springfield. But he continued to keep a close eye on politics and especially the ongoing debate over slavery. For almost thirty years, a federal law known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had prevented the spread of slavery to the Northern half of the country. This law basically established a line across the midsection of American territory above which slavery would not be permitted. By 1850, however, the addition of vast new lands in the West meant that neither side was happy with this arrangement any longer. People living in California, New Mexico, and other western territories wanted to be admitted into the Union as states. But both North and South wanted to influence whether or not slavery would be allowed in the new states. Finally, federal lawmakers came up with the Compromise of 1850. This law called for California to be admitted into the Union as a free state and authorized an end to slave trading in Washington, D.C. But it also provided Southern slaveholders with sweeping new powers to capture runaway slaves in the North.
The fragile peace achieved through this compromise was shattered a few years later. The two western territories of Kansas and Nebraska were next in line for statehood. In 1854, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was based on the concept of "popular sovereignty," which held that the citizens of each new state should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. It explicitly abolished [eliminated] the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and gave the South a golden opportunity to expand the practice of slavery into new territories.
Most people accepted that Nebraska would enter the Union as a free state. But the status of Kansas was much less certain. Both abolitionists and proslavery forces rushed into Kansas in hopes of affecting the decision. Violence erupted throughout the region. But the impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act also was felt far beyond the borders of Kansas. The entire nation was wracked with political change and uncertainty following its passage. The law triggered the disintegration of the national Whig political party, which divided into Northern and Southern factions over the slavery issue. The Southern Whigs joined the proslavery Democratic Party, while the Northern Whigs joined the antislavery Republican Party.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates
Lincoln joined the Republican Party and spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in letters and speeches. His strong opposition to the act convinced him to challenge the Democrat Douglas for his Senate seat in 1858. "I clearly see, as I think, a powerful plot to make slavery universal and perpetual in this nation. The effort to carry that plot through will be persistent and long continued," he said. "I enter upon the contest to contribute my humble and temporary mite [bit] in opposition to that effort."
Upon receiving the Republican Party's official nomination for the Senate, Lincoln gave a controversial speech that made headlines across the country. Some people, especially in the South, felt that he was calling for a war over slavery. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he stated. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
Lincoln ended up meeting Douglas in a series of debates. The two men were both excellent speakers, and their appearances attracted large crowds and a great deal of media attention. The debates reflected the growing division between the Republican and Democratic parties over slavery. Lincoln strongly opposed slavery because he believed it was morally wrong. He also thought that it contradicted the main principles upon which the country was founded. He felt that people of all races deserved an equal opportunity for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But he did not necessarily believe that black people were equal to white people. Like most white people of his time, he held some racist views toward black people. He questioned whether black people and white people could live peacefully and equally together in American society. In fact, for many years he favored the idea of colonization, which involved sending the black residents of the United States to all-black countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
Lincoln recognized that it would be virtually impossible to outlaw slavery in the United States. That would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Southern states would never support such a measure. So he and most other Republicans instead focused on preventing the spread of slavery outside of areas where it was already allowed. As the debates went on, Lincoln proved to be a strong force against slavery. "I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly, those who desire it for others," he noted. "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally." Although Lincoln ended up losing the election, his views made him one of the most prominent members of the national Republican Party. Some people began mentioning him as a potential candidate for president in 1860.
President of the United States
As the presidential election neared, the issue of slavery continued to divide the country. When Lincoln won the Republican nomination, the Southern states threatened to secede (withdraw) from the United States if he were elected president. Lincoln tried to reassure the South that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where it already existed. But most Southerners still felt that a Republican president could not possibly represent their interests. In the meantime, the Democrats had trouble agreeing on a single candidate or platform. They ended up splitting their party into two factions, the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats, and running two separate candidates for president, Stephen Douglas and current vice president John C. Breckinridge (1821–1875). As a result, Lincoln was able to secure enough votes to be elected the sixteenth president of the United States.
Lincoln immediately began working to maintain peaceful relations with the South. In his first inaugural address, he argued against secession and let the South know that he would not make the first move toward war. He closed with a moving plea to his fellow countrymen: "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every last battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
But Lincoln's words seemed to have little effect on the tense situation between North and South. Eleven Southern states had already announced their intention to secede from the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America, by the time Lincoln was inaugurated (sworn in). A few weeks later, the new Confederate government demanded that he remove the Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter, located in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) viewed these troops as a symbol of Northern authority and wanted them to leave. But Lincoln refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a legitimate country and claimed that the Southern states were engaged in an illegal rebellion against the U.S. government. When negotiations failed, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort on April 12, 1861. This event marked the beginning of the Civil War.
Wartime commander in chief
Lincoln faced an extremely difficult job as president during the war years. He had limited military experience, yet he was immediately expected to organize an army and devise a winning military strategy. He knew that every one of his actions could send thousands of young men to their deaths. As a result, conducting the war was difficult on him both emotionally and physically. But Lincoln possessed many traits that made him a great commander in chief. For example, he was able to analyze situations quickly and make good decisions. He was also good at dealing with difficult people. "His political experience had taught him how to win a political fight without making personal enemies out of the men he defeated, and he had as well the ability to use the talents of self-assured men who considered themselves his betters," Bruce Catton explained in The Civil War. Still, Lincoln did experience problems with incompetent and insubordinate (disobedient) generals in the early years of the war. He also faced constant criticism from opponents who disagreed with his policies. He even struggled to maintain order within his own cabinet (a group of advisors who head various government departments). But he overcame these difficulties with tact, diplomacy, and an unbending dedication to doing whatever was necessary to secure victory.
As soon as the war began, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to come to Washington, D.C., and defend the nation's capital against a possible Confederate attack. He also did everything in his power to keep the "border" states—which allowed slavery but remained loyal to the Union—from joining the Confederacy. For example, he suspended the legal provision known as habeas corpus in Maryland, a border state adjacent to Washington. Habeas corpus prevented government officials from imprisoning people without charging them with a crime. Lincoln knew that some people in the border states did not support the war effort, and he wanted the power to put these people in prison to stop them from helping the South. On several other occasions, he invoked the broad war powers granted to the president in the U.S. Constitution in order to keep control of the government and wage the war effectively. As a result, his political opponents called him a dictator and a tyrant.
The war forced Lincoln to remain flexible and periodically rethink his positions on various issues. For example, in the early part of the war he argued that his main purpose in fighting was to save the Union, not to end slavery. He said this in part because he wanted to avoid losing the loyalty of the border states. But black leaders and abolitionists in the North criticized him for moving too slowly toward emancipation (granting freedom to the slaves). In mid-1862, Lincoln decided that he could not forge (form) a lasting peace without putting an end to slavery. He also wanted to increase support for the war in the North and make it easier to recruit new soldiers. He began drafting his Emancipation Proclamation at this time. This war measure would declare all the slaves in the secessionist states to be free and allow black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. It would not affect the status of slaves in the border states or in areas of the South that were already under the control of Union troops. Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, following a narrow Union victory in the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. It warned the South that the final proclamation would take effect on January 1, 1863, unless they voluntarily rejoined the Union before that time. Of course, Lincoln could not force people in Confederate states to free their slaves. In fact, he had no power to enforce the proclamation until Union troops captured enemy territory. But the revolutionary document transformed the purpose of the war and ensured that there would be no further compromises on slavery.
In 1863, Union forces won a series of major battles, including a bloody one at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That November, Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate a new military cemetery. There, he gave a brief speech that became one of the most famous addresses in the English language. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address laid out the principles of democracy for which the North was willing to fight. It introduced the idea of nationalism (a sense of loyalty and devotion to the country as a whole) into Northern debate about the Civil War. Instead of fighting to preserve the Union of fairly independent states with different interests and motivations, he explained, the North was fighting for the higher purpose of preserving the United States as a democratic nation. Lincoln believed deeply in democracy, which he described as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." He felt that if the South won the war and permanently separated from the United States, democracy would have failed.
As the war dragged on into 1864, many people in the North grew weary of fighting. Lincoln faced reelection that year and legitimately worried that he might lose to Democratic candidate George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry). To some Americans it seemed strange to proceed with a presidential election during the middle of a war. In fact, such an event had never occurred before in any other country. But Lincoln knew that holding the election was vital to continuing democracy in the United States. "We cannot have free government without elections," he stated, "and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us." Lincoln ran on a platform that backed his war measures and called for a constitutional amendment banning slavery. Shortly before the election took place, the Union Army claimed a string of stirring victories that changed public opinion toward the war and the president. Lincoln ended up winning reelection by a comfortable margin.
Death sends the North into mourning
By the beginning of 1865, it became clear that the Union was about to win the Civil War. Lincoln turned his attention to the task of putting the country back together as quickly and painlessly as possible. In his second inaugural address in March 1865, he seemed willing to forgive the Southern states for their rebellion. "Fondly do we hope—fervently [with intense feeling] do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," he stated. "With malice [ill will] 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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan; to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations." Sadly, Lincoln would not live long enough to put his postwar plans into action.
On April 9, Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) at Appomattox, Virginia, to end the Civil War. People throughout the North poured into the streets in wild celebration. The end of the war gladdened Lincoln's heart, too. At times it had seemed to him that the war might never end, or that it would end in failure for the Union after years of heartache and pain. But Lee's surrender was a sure sign that Lincoln's heroic efforts to restore the Union had succeeded. When thousands of people gathered outside the White House to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other patriotic songs, the president led them in loud cheers for General Grant and his soldiers.
But the celebrations came to an abrupt end a few days later. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife attended a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington called Our American Cousin. They were seated in a fine balcony overlooking the stage. Midway through the performance, a fanatical supporter of the Confederacy named John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865; see entry) slipped into the rear of the balcony and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Booth then leaped out of the balcony and landed on the stage below. He broke his leg in the fall, but still managed to limp off the stage and escape on horseback before anyone could capture him.
Physicians in the audience rushed to Lincoln's side, but they could do nothing for him. Concerned that the president would not survive any attempt to carry him to the White House, which was more than six blocks away, the doctors decided to take him to a boarding house across the street from the theater. Lincoln died there early the next morning.
News of Lincoln's death had an incredibly shattering impact on communities all across the North. After all, the Union's victory in the Civil War had made the president extremely popular. Northern communities realized that during the previous four years, Lincoln had managed to keep the dream of a restored Union alive despite many periods of doubt and discouragement. They also knew that victory would not have been possible without his guidance and determination. His assassination plummeted them into a mood of deep grief and rage. "While the nation is rejoicing . . . it is suddenly plunged into the deepest sorrow by the most brutal murder of its loved chief," wrote one Union veteran.
The nation remained in mourning in the weeks following Lincoln's death. Thousands of citizens paid their respects to their fallen president when the White House held a service in his honor. On April 20, Lincoln's body was placed on a train so that he could be buried in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. As Lincoln's funeral car passed through the American countryside during the next few days, millions of farmers and townspeople gathered along the train's route to pay their respects.
Where to Learn More
Abraham Lincoln Research Site. [Online] http://members.aol.com/RVSNorton/Lincoln2.html (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Assassins. [Online] http://www.tiac.net/users/ime/famtree/burnett/lincoln.htm (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Bruns, Roger. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society, Inc. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum Home Page. [Online] http://www.somd.lib.md.us/MUSEUMS/Mudd.htm (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Handlin, Oscar. Abraham Lincoln and the Union. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
Stern, Philip Van Doren. The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Random House, 1940. Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Meltzer, Milton, ed. Lincoln in His Own Words. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.
National Park Service. Ford's Theatre National Historic Site. [Online] http://www.nps.gov/foth/index2.htm (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. Reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
Surratt Society. Surratt House Museum. [Online] http://www.surratt.org/ (accessed on October 8, 1999).