Born February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. His father had come with his parents from Virginia and had grown to manhood on the Kentucky frontier. He had evidently become moderately successful as a farmer and carpenter, for in 1803 he was able to pay $118 for a farm near Elizabethtown. Three years later he married Nancy Hanks, described as “intelligent, deeply religious, kindly, and affectionate,” but as “illiterate” as himself. Of her family and background little is known.
The young couple soon moved to the one-room cabin on Nolin Creek where their second child, Abraham, was born. Two years later the family moved to the farm on Knob Creek that Abraham later remembered. There, when there was no pressing work to be done, Abraham walked two miles to the schoolhouse, where he learned the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Five years later, the elder Lincoln sold his lands and carried his family into the untracked wilderness of Indiana across the Ohio River. It was late fall, and there was time only to pull together a crude three-sided shelter of logs, brush, and leaves. The open side was protected by a blazing fire that had to be replenished at all times. The only water was nearly a mile away. For food the family depended almost entirely on game.
They began building a better home and clearing the land for planting. They were making progress when, in the summer of 1818, a terminal disease known as milk sickness struck the region, afflicting Lincoln’s great uncle and great aunt first, then tragically, his mother. On the shoulders of Abraham’s 12-year-old sister, Sarah, fell the burden of caring for the household; the home was soon reduced to near squalor.
The next winter Abraham’s father returned to Kentucky and brought back a second wife, Sarah Bush Johnson, a widow with three children. Abraham learned to love her and in later years referred to her as “my angel mother.” As time passed, the region where the Lincolns lived grew in population, and James Gentry’s little store became a trading center around which the village of Gentryville grew. There Abraham spent much of his spare time, early showing a marked talent for storytelling and mimicry. He grew tall and strong, and his father often hired him out to work for neighbors. Through this came the chance, with Gentry’s son Allen, to take a flatboat of produce down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Lincoln’s first sight of anything other than frontier simplicity.
Meanwhile Lincoln’s father had again moved his family to a new home in Illinois, where he built a cabin on the Sangamon River. This was open prairie country, but the abundant trees along the streams supplied the rails to fence their fields. Young Lincoln, already skilled with his ax, was soon splitting rails, not only for the Lincoln farm but for others as well.
At the end of the first summer in Illinois an attack of fever and ague put the Lincolns again on the move. This time it was to Coles County. Abraham, however, did not go along. He was now of independent age and had agreed with two friends to take a cargo of produce, belonging to one Denton Offutt, down river to New Orleans. Offutt was so impressed with Lincoln’s abilities that he placed him in charge of the mill and store which he had established at New Salem. To the store came people of all kinds to talk and trade and to enjoy the stories and rich human qualities stored up in this unique man. The young roisterers from Clary’s Grove found him to be more than a match for their champion wrestlers and became his devoted followers. The members of the New Salem Debating Society welcomed him; and when the Black Hawk War broke out, the volunteers of the region elected Lincoln to be their captain. On his return he announced himself as a candidate for the Illinois Legislature on a “Henry Clay-Whig” platform of internal improvements, better educational facilities, and lower interest rates. He was not elected, but he did receive 277 of the 300 votes cast in the New Salem precinct.
Lincoln next formed a partnership with William Berry and purchased one of the other stores in New Salem. However, on the death of his partner Lincoln found himself responsible for a $1,100 debt. His appointment as New Salem postmaster and the chance to work as deputy surveyor of the country improved his finances. He also was enabled to widen his acquaintances and to win election to the state legislature in 1834. The skill with which Lincoln conducted his campaign so impressed John Todd Stuart, the Whig leader of the county and an outstanding lawyer in Springfield, that he took Lincoln under his care and inspired him to begin the study of law.
Lincoln served four successive terms in the legislature and became floor leader of his party in the lower house. Meanwhile, he mastered the law books he could buy or borrow and in September 1836 passed the bar examinations and was admitted to practice. He played an important part in having the state capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield, and in 1837, he moved there to become Stuart’s law partner. Coming into a firm already well established, Lincoln had a secure legal future. He not only practiced in Springfield but also rode the Eighth Circuit of some 160 miles through the Sangamon Valley. In 1846 he was elected to the U.S. Congress.
In these years Lincoln had become engaged to Mary Todd, a cultured and well-educated Kentucky woman who was visiting relatives in Springfield. After a rather stormy courtship, they were married on November 2, 1842. The part that Mary played in Lincoln’s life is still a matter of controversy.
Lincoln’s election to Congress came just as the war with Mexico began. Like many Whigs, he doubted the justice of the war, but since it was popular in Illinois he kept quiet. When Congress convened in December 1847, Lincoln, the only Whig from Illinois, voted for the Wilmot Proviso whenever it came up. When William A. Richardson, Illinois Democrat, presented resolutions declaring the war just and necessary and Mexico the aggressor, Lincoln countered with resolutions declaring that Mexico, not the United States, had jurisdiction over “the spot” where blood was first shed. These resolutions, together with one to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, brought sharp criticism from the people back in Illinois. Lincoln was “not a patriot.” He had not correctly represented his state. Although the Whigs won the presidency in 1848, Lincoln could not even control the patronage in his own district. His political career seemed to be ended. His only reward for party service was an offer of the governorship of far-off Oregon, which he refused. He could only return to the practice of law.
During the next 12 years, while Lincoln rebuilt his legal practice, the nation was drifting steadily toward sectional confrontation. Victory in the Mexican war, having added vast western territory to the United States, raised anew the issue of slavery in the territories. To southerners it involved the security and rights of slavery everywhere; to Northerners it was a matter of morals and democratic obligations. Only the frantic efforts of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster brought about the Compromise of 1850 as a temporary truce. The basic issues, however, were not eliminated. Four years later, Stephen A. Douglas, by his bill to organize the Kansas-Nebraska Territory according to “squatter sovereignty” and “with all questions pertaining to slavery … left to the decision of the people,” reopened the whole bitter struggle.
Douglas’s bill, plus the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, brought Lincoln back into politics. He had always viewed slavery as a “moral, social and political wrong” and looked forward to its eventual abolition. Although willing to let it alone for the present in the states where it existed, he would not see it extended one inch. Douglas’s popular sovereignty doctrine, he thought, revealed an indifference to the moral issue and ignored the growing Northern determination to rid the nation of slavery. So when Douglas returned to Illinois to defend his position, Lincoln seized every opportunity to point out the weakness in it.
Lincoln’s failure to receive the nomination as senator in 1855 convinced him that the Whig party was dead, and by summer 1856 he became openly identified with the new Republicans. At their state convention that year he delivered what many have considered his greatest speech. It was an appeal aimed at welding all anti-Nebraska men into a vigorous and successful party. Thus, Lincoln had made himself the outstanding leader of the new party. At the party’s first national convention in Philadelphia, he received 110 votes for vice president on the first ballot. Though he was not chosen, he had been recognized as an important national figure.
Violence in Kansas and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case soon centered national attention on Illinois. There Douglas, who had broken sharply with the new administration over acceptance of the pro-slavery The Lecompton Constitution, had returned to wage his fight for reelection to the Senate. It would be an uphill struggle, with the fate of the national Democratic party in the balance. It would not be like earlier elections, for Illinois had grown rapidly and the population majority had shifted from the southern part of the state to the central and northern areas. In these growing areas the new Republican party had gained a large majority and offered, in Abraham Lincoln, a rival candidate of proven ability. Some Republicans in the East thought that Douglas should not be opposed, because of his stand on Kansas; but Lincoln thought differently. He had delivered his now famous “house divided” speech, and he pressed Douglas for a joint discussion of issues. Out of this came the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln proved his ability to hold his own against the “Little Giant.” In the end Douglas was reelected, but Lincoln had gained national attention. Invitations for speeches poured in from all over the country. His speech at Cooper Institute in New York attracted wide attention and gave him a new standing in the East.
When the Republican National Convention met to choose its presidential candidate for 1860, Lincoln was the first or second choice of most delegations. As a result, when serious objections were raised against other first choices, many turned to Lincoln. That he stood well in the states which the Republicans had lost in 1856 also helped; the bargains and promises which Lincoln’s managers made did the rest. He was nominated on the third ballot. The split in the Democratic party and the formation of the Constitutional Union party made Lincoln’s election certain. He would be a minority, sectional president. Seven Southern states reacted by seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America.
In the critical months before taking office, Lincoln selected his Cabinet. It was a strange group, chosen with the aim of representing all elements in the party. The skill with which Lincoln taught each of his men that he was their master and secured maximum service from them is one of the marks of his greatness. In his inaugural address he clarified his position on the national situation. Secession, he said, was anarchy. The Union could not legally be broken apart. He would not interfere with slavery in the states, but he would “hold, occupy, and possess” all Federal property and places. Firmness and conciliation would go together. The first test came when Secretary of State William H. Seward secretly conferred with Southerners regarding the evacuation of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln firmly but kindly put Seward in his place and refused to yield even though it meant the outbreak of the Civil War. A second test came when Colonel John C. Fremont, in command at St. Louis, invoked martial law and announced the confiscation of the property of all persons who had taken up arms against the government and the freeing of their slaves. Lincoln quickly rescinded the orders and, when Fremont resisted, removed him from command.
From this time on, the problems and fortunes of civil war shaped Lincoln’s life. As president, he was the head of all administration agencies and commander in chief of the armies. On him the criticisms for inefficiency in administration and failure in battle fell first. Radicals in Congress were soon demanding a reorganization of his Cabinet and a new set of generals to lead his armies. He let the dissatisfied congressmen air their views and in the end withdraw in confusion. To the critics of General George McClellan, he pointed to the army this general had created, relieved him when he failed, but brought him back to serve until better men had been developed. Meanwhile Lincoln himself studied military books. He correctly evaluated General Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman and the importance of the western campaign.
Lincoln waited until after the victory at Antietam, when it would have real meaning as a war measure, to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Later, at Gettysburg, he gave the war its universal meaning as a struggle to preserve a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As the war dragged on, Lincoln’s critics began to question his chances for reelection. Salmon P. Chase in the Cabinet and Radicals in Congress plotted to crowd him aside, and only the loyalty of the people and final military success secured his reelection. His second inaugural address was brief. It lacked bitterness toward the South and urged his people “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” Americans could achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.
Lincoln had already taken steps in that direction. As the Federal Army had conquered Southern territory, he had set up military governments and soon had governments in Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia. When Congress opposed this, he applied the “pocket veto” to its bill. He had never learned to hate. He was interested only in a restored Union. He did insist on ending slavery in the reconstructed states, and there are some indications that he favored votes for capable Negroes. What the final outcome might have been, history does not know, for on the night of April 14, 1865, an assassin’s bullet ended his life.
From the Biography Resource Center