braham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was born in Hardin
County, Kentucky, to Nancy Hanks Lincoln and Thomas Lincoln, who were farmers.
In December 1816, the family left Kentucky because of the uncertainty of Thomas
Lincoln's land claim and moved to Indiana where land titles were secure and the
area was free of slavery. Young Abraham helped clear the land for the family
farm, so was only able to get a few months of formal education in a one-room
schoolhouse. In 1818 Nancy Lincoln and some of her relatives died of "milk
sick," a disease likely contracted from the milk of cows that had grazed on
poisonous plants. A year later, Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Bush Johnston, who
was more affectionate with and concerned for Abraham than either of his natural
Lincoln had a passion for learning and self-improvement, thus reading every
book that he could get his hands on. His father, however, simply considered him
to be lazy. Relations between father and son became increasingly strained to the
point that, years later, Abraham declined to visit the dying Thomas or attend
his funeral. In 1830 young Lincoln moved with his family to central Illinois,
then struck out on his own the next year, settling in New Salem. Over the
following six years in the town, he worked at a variety of jobs-store clerk,
postmaster, surveyor, mill hand, and partner in a general store. He served as
captain (an elected position) in the volunteer militia during Black Hawk's War
(1832), but his company saw no military action.
While living in New Salem the fire of politics first took hold of Lincoln, and
he honed his oratorical skills in the local debating society. He initially
entered the political arena in 1832 in a losing bid for the state legislature
(while winning 92 percent of the New Salem vote). Two years later, after
rigorously campaigning throughout the district, he scored a decisive victory.
Lincoln was a Whig and a disciple of Henry Clay and his "American
system," which endorsed government involvement in economic and social
affairs. Meanwhile, Lincoln studied law, receiving his license to practice in
1836 and, the following year, becoming the law partner of John Stuart, a fellow
Whig legislator, in Springfield. Lincoln won reelection to three consecutive
terms in the state legislature (1836, 1838, 1840), where he served as the Whig
floor leader and was instrumental in moving the state capital from Vandalia to
Springfield in 1837. He and one other member criticized a resolution that
condemned antislavery societies, but they also reproved abolitionism as
In 1841, Lincoln retired from the state legislature and formed a law partnership
with Stephen Logan. The next year Lincoln married Mary Todd, the educated and
cultured daughter of a prominent banker from Lexington, Kentucky. Lincoln proved
to be a successful lawyer, developing a wide practice and earning a handsome
income. In 1844, he and Logan dissolved their partnership, and Lincoln
established one with William Herndon. The embers of Lincoln's political
ambition, though, would not die. At the time, the Whig party in the Springfield
district had a one-term rotation system, forcing him to wait for his chance at a
seat in Congress. When he was finally nominated in 1846, he won a convincing
In his sole term in the U.S. House, Lincoln took a vocal stance against what he
considered to be an expansionist war with Mexico. His introduction of
resolutions demanding evidence of the precise "spot of [American]
soil" on which the Mexicans had allegedly attacked American soldiers earned
him (for a time) the nickname "Spotty." He supported the unsuccessful
Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery from any territory gained from
Mexico. He introduced a bill providing for compensated emancipation in
Washington D. C., subject to the approval of district voters, but it died in
committee. His opposition to the war was unpopular in his home district and,
although not up for reelection in 1848 due to the rotation system, the Whig
seeking to replace him went down to defeat. Returning to his private law
practice in Springfield, Lincoln become one of Illinois' preeminent lawyers,
commanding an annual income of $5,000.
In 1854 Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois pushed through
Congress the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on
slavery in the territories of the Louisiana purchase. Although the intent was to
establish territorial government, the law placed the slavery issue at the center
of national politics, provoked a civil war in the territory of Kansas,
exacerbated North-South tension, and destroyed the existing party system. It
also jolted Lincoln from his political hiatus; first, as an
"anti-Nebraska" Whig, but soon as one of the founders of the
Republican party, which featured opposition to the expansion of slavery as its
central plank. Prior to 1854 he had rarely commented in public on the slavery
issue, but from that point until his election as president in 1860, he delivered
approximately 175 anti-slavery speeches. Lincoln believed that halting the
expansion of slavery, and thus isolating to within Southern boundaries, would
eventually bring about its demise. Such a course of events would fulfill, as he
understood it, the vision of the nation's founders, to which the Kansas-Nebraska
Act was a direct challenge.
In October 1854 Lincoln was elected to the state legislature as an anti-Nebraska
Whig, but resigned in February 1855 to become the Whig nominee for U.S. Senator.
He led on the first six ballots, but was unable to secure a majority in the
legislature. Rather than see a regular Democrat elected, Lincoln withdrew in
favor of an anti-Nebraska Democrat, Lyman Trumbell, who prevailed. Disappointed
but not deterred, Lincoln worked to establish the new Republican party in his
home state, and quickly became its leader. In 1856 he was Illinois' favorite son
candidate for vice president at the first Republican National Convention, but
William Dayton was nominated on the first ballot. Lincoln campaigned actively
for the Republican ticket in its losing effort.
In 1858 the Illinois Republican party chose Lincoln to challenge the reelection
bid of Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. The senator seemed vulnerable after
his break with Democratic President James Buchanan over the latter's endorsement
of the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas. The highly unusual
nomination of a candidate before the legislative elections was compounded by a
series of debates between the rivals for office that was held in seven towns
across the state.
Lincoln set the tone for the campaign with his "House Divided"
acceptance speech. Using a biblical metaphor of a house divided against itself
not being able to endure, he contended that the nation would eventually be
comprised of either all free states or all slave states. In the 1857 Dred Scott
case, the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled that the Constitution prohibited
Congress and territorial governments from banning slavery in the territories.
Lincoln and other Republicans feared that the Supreme Court would build on the
Dred Scott precedent to prohibit states from outlawing slavery. Douglas believed
that such talk would push the South toward secession, and, playing on the racist
anxiety of the electorate, insisted that his Republican challenger was endorsing
racial equality, which Lincoln denied.
In the 19th century U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures. In 1858,
the vote tally for Republican legislative candidates was slightly higher, but
malapportionment allowed the Democrats to elect a majority, who returned Douglas
to the Senate. In the long-run, though, Lincoln was the real winner. The
senatorial campaign and, in particular, the Lincoln-Douglas debates made him a
national figure and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in
1860. For Douglas-forced as he was to explain how the Dred Scott decision could
be circumvented to allow for popular sovereignty-it was a Pyrrhic victory that
alienated him and his Northern supporters further from Southern Democrats.
In 1860 the location of the Republican National Convention in Chicago combined
with a determined campaign by his supporters to help catapult Lincoln from
favorite son status to chief competitor of front-runner William Seward of New
York. The spin by Lincoln's campaign managers-that their candidate was more
electable-worked, and the Illinois rail-splitter triumphed on the third ballot.
The convention nominated Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as vice president. Since the
Republican party's sole support came from Northern free states, it took a split
of the Democratic party into two factions to open the possibility of Republican
victory in the general election. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen
Douglas for president, while the Southern Democrats selected Vice President John
Breckinridge as their candidate. Complicating the race further was the entry of
a fourth party-the Constitutional Union-comprised primarily of former Whigs from
border states. Lincoln won a plurality of just under 40 percent of the popular
vote, but a majority in the electoral college. He received the electoral vote of
all the free states except New Jersey (which Douglas won), but none from the
In the interval between Lincoln's election and his inauguration, seven states of
the deep South, those most dependent on slavery, left the union. Lincoln
remained publicly silent, but privately assured leading southerners that he had
no personal intention nor constitutional authority to act against slavery in the
states where it already existed. For many white southerners, however, the
prospect of Republican control of the Supreme Court, the federal bureaucracy,
and of slavery in the territories foretold the end of slavery in the South as
well. A compromise proposal crafted by Senator John Crittendon of Kentucky would
have constitutionally extended the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific and
forever protected slavery south of it. Since it clearly sanctioned the extension
of slavery, Lincoln rejected the offer.
In his inaugural address, Lincoln vowed not "to interfere with slavery
where it exists," yet condemned secession as unconstitutional and promised
to execute federal law and hold federal property in all states. Shortly
thereafter a crisis surfaced over Fort Sumter in the harbor off Charleston,
South Carolina. Confederate officials demanded that the Union commander, Robert
Anderson, surrender the fort, which he refused to do. With supplies dwindling,
Lincoln decided to resupply the fort with non-military provisions only. When the
Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American Civil War
began. Four more slave states left the union.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederates, Lincoln took
unprecedented, unilateral action as president: authorizing state militias into
action; calling for federal military volunteers; guaranteeing the government's
credit at an incredible quarter-billion dollars; proclaiming a blockade of
Confederate ports; suspending the writ of habeas corpus; and using military
detention of civilians (at least 15,000). Although there was sharp debate over
the constitutionality of these policies, Congress or the Supreme Court
acquiesced or ratified them after the fact. Lincoln concentrated on his
presidential role as commander in chief. In frustration, he went through a
series of top generals until he found the gritty, no-nonsense Ulysses S. Grant.
For much of his administration, Lincoln was an unpopular president. There were
two main oppositional factions: Confederate sympathizers in the border states
and lower Midwest; and the peace wing of the Democratic party, often referred to
as "Copperheads." The latter group believed that the Civil War was
undermining the Northern economy, civil liberties, and states' rights.
Particularly objectionable to Northern Democrats were two Lincoln administration
policies: emancipation and the military draft.
Lincoln presented an emancipation plan to his cabinet in July 1862, but was
convinced by Secretary of State Seward to wait until a major Union victory to
announce it publicly. After the Battle of Antietam in September, the president
issued a preliminary proclamation, declaring that he would free the slaves in
Confederate-held territory if the Confederacy did not surrender by January 1,
1863. On that day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and thousands
of slaves were subsequently freed as Union forces marched across the South. It
remained for the 13th Amendment (1865) to free all of the slaves and abolish the
institution of slavery permanently.
In response to the Congressional enactment of a military draft at the request of
the Lincoln administration, anti-draft riots erupted across the North during the
summer of 1863. The most serious occurred in New York City, where huge mobs
demolished draft offices, lynched blacks, and destroyed large sections of the
city in four days of looting and burning (including the Colored Orphan Asylum).
As the campaign season of 1864 approached, Lincoln faced an uphill battle.
Republicans renominated him unanimously, but party radicals were upset by his
lenient wartime Reconstruction policy. War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee
was chosen as his vice presidential running-mate on the National Union ticket.
The Democrats nominated George B. McClellan, a popular general whom Lincoln had
fired as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Peace Democrats inserted a plank
in the party's platform calling for an immediate cession of fighting and a
negotiated settlement. McClellan, though, repudiated the peace plank and
insisted that he would administer the Union war effort more effectively than
Lincoln. Several Union victories in the fall, however, especially the capture of
Atlanta, revived Northern morale and boosted the political chances of the
Republicans. Lincoln won by a landslide in the popular vote and by an even
larger margin in the electoral college.
As the war continued, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched across the
South, while Grant finally wore Lee down in Virginia. On April 9, 1865, Lee
surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, ending the American Civil War. Just over a
week later, on Good Friday, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded Lincoln
at Ford's Theater. The president died the next morning, April 15, 1865.