Born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin in backwoods Hardin co., Ky. (now Larue co.), he grew up on newly broken pioneer farms of the frontier. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a migratory carpenter and farmer, nearly always poverty-stricken. Little is known of his mother, Nancy Hanks, who died in 1818, not long after the family had settled in the wilds of what is now Spencer co., Ind. Thomas Lincoln soon afterward married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow; she was a kind and affectionate stepmother to the boy. Abraham had almost no formal schooling—the scattered weeks of school attendance in Kentucky and Indiana amounted to less than a year; but he taught himself, reading and rereading a small stock of books. His first glimpse of the wider world came in a voyage downriver to New Orleans on a flatboat in 1828, but little is known of that journey. In 1830 the Lincolns moved once more, this time to Macon co., Ill.
After another visit to New Orleans, the young Lincoln settled in 1837 in the village of New Salem, Ill., not far from Springfield. There he began by working in a store and managing a mill. By this time a tall (6 ft 4 in./190 cm), rawboned young man, he won much popularity among the inhabitants of the frontier town by his great strength and his flair for storytelling, but most of all by his strength of character. His sincerity and capability won respect that was strengthened by his ability to hold his own in the roughest society. He was chosen captain of a volunteer company gathered for the Black Hawk War (1832), but the company did not see battle.
Returning to New Salem, Lincoln was a partner in a grocery store that failed, leaving him with a heavy burden of debt. He became a surveyor for a time, was village postmaster, and did various odd jobs, including rail splitting. All the while he sought to improve his education and studied law. The story of a brief love affair with Ann Rutledge, which supposedly occurred at this time, is now discredited.
Early Political Career
In 1834, Lincoln was elected to the state legislature, in which he served four successive terms (until 1841) and achieved prominence as a Whig. In 1836 he obtained his license as an attorney, and the next year he moved to Springfield, where he became a law partner of John T. Stuart. Lincoln’s practice steadily increased. That first partnership was succeeded by others, with Stephen T. Logan and then with William H. Herndon, who was later to be Lincoln’s biographer. Lincoln displayed great ability in law, a ready grasp of argument, and sincerity, color, and lucidity of speech.
In 1842 he married Mary Todd after a troubled courtship. He continued his interest in politics and entered on the national scene by serving one term in Congress (1847–49). He remained obscure, however, and his attacks as a Whig on the motives behind the Mexican War (though he voted for war supplies) seemed unpatriotic to his constituents, so he lost popularity at home. Lincoln worked hard for the election of the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, in 1848, but when he was not rewarded with the office he desired—Commissioner of the General Land Office—he decided to retire from politics and return to the practice of law.
Slavery and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
The prairie lawyer emerged again into politics in 1854, when he was caught up in the rising quarrel over slavery. He stoutly opposed the policy of Stephen A. Douglas and particularly the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In a speech at Springfield, repeated at Peoria, he attacked the compromises concerning the question of slavery in the territories and invoked the democratic ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence. In 1855 he sought to become a Senator but failed.
He had already realized that his sentiments were leading him away from the Whigs and toward the new Republican party, and in 1856 he became a Republican. He quickly came to the fore in the party as a moderate opponent of slavery who could win both the abolitionists and the conservative Free-Staters, and at the Republican national convention of 1856 he was prominent as a possible vice presidential candidate. Two years later he was nominated by the Republican party to oppose Douglas in the Illinois senatorial race.
Accepting the nomination (in a speech delivered at Springfield on June 16), Lincoln gave a ringing declaration in support of the Union: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The campaign that followed was impressive. Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates (seven were held), in which he delivered masterful addresses for the Union and for the democratic idea. He was not an abolitionist, but he regarded slavery as an injustice and an evil, and uncompromisingly opposed its extension.
Though Douglas won the senatorial election, Lincoln had made his mark by the debates; he was now a potential presidential candidate. His first appearance in the East was in Feb., 1860, when he spoke at Cooper Union in New York City. He gained a large following in the antislavery states, but his nomination for President by the Republican convention in Chicago (May, 1860) was as much due to the opposition to William H. Seward, the leading contender, as to Lincoln’s own appeal. He was nominated on the third ballot. In the election the Democratic party split; Lincoln was opposed by Douglas (Northern Democrat), John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat), and John Bell (Constitutional Unionist). Lincoln was elected with a minority of the popular vote.
To the South, Lincoln’s election was the signal for secession. All compromise plans, such as that proposed by John J. Crittenden, failed, and by the time of Lincoln’s inauguration seven states had seceded. The new President, determined to preserve the Union at all costs, condemned secession but promised that he would not initiate the use of force. After a slight delay, however, he did order the provisioning of Fort Sumter, and the South chose to regard this as an act of war. On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon, and the Civil War began.
Although various criticisms have been leveled against him, it is generally agreed that Lincoln attacked the vast problems of the war with vigor and surpassing skill. He immediately issued a summons to the militia (an act that precipitated the secession of four more Southern states), ordered a blockade of Confederate ports, and suspended habeas corpus. The last action provoked much criticism, but Lincoln adhered to it, ignoring the Supreme Court ruling against him in the Merryman Case. In the course of the war, Lincoln further extended his executive powers, but in general he exercised those powers with restraint. He was beset not only by the difficulties of the war, but by opposition from men on his own side. His cabinet was rent by internal jealousies and hatred; radical abolitionists condemned him as too mild; conservatives were gloomy over the prospects of success in the war.
In the midst of all this strife, Lincoln continued his course, sometimes almost alone, with wisdom and patience. The progress of battle went against the North at first. Lincoln himself made some bad military decisions (e.g., in ordering the direct advance into Virginia that resulted in the Union defeat at the first battle of Bull Run), and he ran through a succession of commanders in chief before he found Ulysses S. Grant. In the early stages of the war Lincoln revoked orders by John C. Frémont and David Hunter freeing the slaves in their military departments. However, the Union victory at Antietam gave him a position of strength from which to issue his own Emancipation Proclamation.
The restoration and preservation of the Union were still the main tenets of Lincoln’s war aims. The sorrows of war and its rigorous necessity afflicted him; he expressed both in one of the noblest public speeches ever made, the Gettysburg Address, made at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863. For a time Lincoln was threatened by the desertion of the Republican leaders as well as by a strong opposition party in the presidential election that loomed ahead in the dark days of 1864; but a turn for the better took place before the election, a turn brought about to some extent by a change of military fortune after Grant became commander and particularly after William T. Sherman took Atlanta.
Lincoln was reelected over George B. McClellan by a great majority. His second inaugural address, delivered when the war was drawing to its close, was a plea for the new country that would arise from the ashes of the South. His own view was one of forgiveness, as shown in his memorable phrase “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” He lived to see the end of the war, but he was to have no chance to implement his plans for Reconstruction. On the night of April 14, 1865, when attending a performance at Ford’s Theater, he was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth. The next morning Lincoln died. His death was an occasion for grief even among those who had been his opponents, and many considered him a martyr.
The Lincoln Legend
As time passed Lincoln became more and more the object of adulation; a full-blown “Lincoln legend” appeared. Yet, even if his faults and mistakes are acknowledged, he stands out as a statesman of noble vision, great humanity, and remarkable political skill. It is not surprising that the Illinois “rail-splitter” is regarded as a foremost symbol of American democracy. Paintings, sculptures, and architectural works memorializing Lincoln are legion; the most famous shrines are his home and tomb in Springfield, Ill., and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.