The Gettysburg Address | Study Guide

Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln | Biography


Birth and Childhood

Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809. Both of Lincoln's parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, were born in Virginia. The couple had one child (Sarah) before Abraham was born. The Lincolns had one more child, Thomas, who died in infancy. The Lincoln family moved repeatedly, first to another farm in Kentucky, then to Indiana. In 1818 Abraham's mother died from illness. His father remarried the following year, and Abraham gained three stepsiblings. Abraham was very fond of his stepmother Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln.

Lincoln attended school sporadically through much of his childhood. He only received about a year of formal education overall. He hunted, fished, and worked the family farm, but he disliked this work. He also read whenever he could and continually sought knowledge: neighbors told stories about how Lincoln would walk miles just to borrow a book.

Early Adulthood

In 1830 Lincoln's family moved again, this time to Illinois. Lincoln helped clear his father's farm, but he had no interest in farming and began seeking his own career. He worked as a rail-splitter, then as a flatboatman, guiding a boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. When he returned, he settled in New Salem, Illinois, where he worked as surveyor, postmaster, and storekeeper. He volunteered to serve in the Black Hawk War of 1832 between the Illinois militia with some U.S. Army troops and the Sauk and Fox tribes, but Lincoln saw little action.

Lincoln's Early Legal and Political Career

During this period most lawyers studied under other lawyers, but Lincoln was largely self-taught. He wrote his first legal document in 1831, and in 1834 he borrowed law books and began to study in earnest. In 1836 he received his license to practice law in Illinois, and in 1837 he moved to Springfield, Illinois, the state capital, where he joined John Todd Stuart's law practice.

Lincoln's legal career overlapped with his early political career. He ran for the Illinois House of Representatives in 1832 and lost. He ran again in 1834, and this time he won, and he won again in 1836. In January 1837 he gave his first published speech in the House, and in March of that same year he gave his first public statement against slavery. He won two more terms in the Illinois House, though he was unsuccessful in his bid for Speaker.

In 1841, after he concluded his fourth term in the Illinois House, Lincoln left politics for a time. In 1846 he became the Whig candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Soon after Lincoln was nominated, the United States went to war with Mexico. Lincoln didn't discuss the issue during his campaign, but once elected he denounced the war. Since he was a first-term congressman and his state supported the war, these words were bold. Lincoln didn't run for a second term, but he did campaign for the Whig Party's 1848 presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor.

From 1849 to 1854 Lincoln practiced law successfully in Springfield. He was elected to the state legislature in 1854 but resigned to run for the U.S. Senate, an election he lost. In 1856 Lincoln left the failing Whig Party to join the new Republican Party. Lincoln was a vice presidential candidate in 1856, and though he did not win the nomination, he campaigned for John C. Frémont for president.

President Lincoln

In 1858 Lincoln ran for Congress against Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln lost, but he established a strong enough reputation that the Republican Party selected him as their presidential candidate in 1860. Lincoln was elected president in 1860 in a sharply contested campaign. Lincoln represented the Republican Party against three other candidates, and he won the presidency with less than 40% of the popular vote. The Southern states were disheartened by his election and before he was even inaugurated, the seven states initially forming the Confederacy declared independence. The Civil War consumed Lincoln's first term. He devoted his energies to fighting the rebellion and reunifying the country―forever expanding the powers of the presidency in the process.

Lincoln spent much of his first term fighting with many different factions, but he was overwhelmingly reelected in 1864, carrying 212 of a possible 233 electoral votes and 55% of the popular vote. Slowly, and with great effort on Lincoln's part, the Union eventually won the Civil War.

Lincoln's primary accomplishment as president was winning the Civil War and holding the United States together as a nation. This was closely followed by Lincoln presiding over the end of slavery throughout the United States. He directly ended slavery in the rebellious territories through the Emancipation Proclamation, and he supported the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery throughout the nation. Lincoln had goals for the process of reconstructing the United States after the war, but his untimely death prevented his involvement.

The End of the War and Lincoln's Life

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union army, effectively ending the Civil War. Less than a week later, on April 14, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, John Wilkes Booth assassinated him.

Lincoln's Personal Life

Lincoln married Mary Todd in 1842. The couple were different in many ways—she was short and well-mannered while he was tall and rustic—but they clearly loved one another. The couple had four boys, but only one, Robert, lived to adulthood. Their son Eddie died in 1850, when he was three. Their son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862, adding to Lincoln's burden as a wartime president. Their son Tad outlived his father but died in 1871 at age 18. In 1875 Mary Lincoln was declared insane and confined to a mental institution. She was 56.

Lincoln's Legacy

Abraham Lincoln was a controversial figure while he lived. Many people admired him, but many more loathed him, found him actively tyrannical, or simply thought he was not a good president. The nation began to reevaluate Lincoln after he was killed. This process began almost immediately. Large crowds visited the White House to see Lincoln's body lying in state. A train called "The Lincoln Special" with Lincoln's portrait on the front carried the body from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois. The train carried Lincoln through seven states and 180 cities. Newspapers printed schedules of when the train would stop. When it did, Lincoln's body was taken from the train and put in a horse-drawn hearse and presented so crowds could view it. Thousands of people did. Some waited hours to catch a glimpse.

The popular image of Lincoln began to shift to the positive, and then to the mythic. Americans praised Lincoln as a man of the people, as self-made, and as the Union's savior. He became a martyr for America, and period publications explicitly compared him to the biblical Moses. On the secular level, Lincoln became linked with first President George Washington: they were the two great fathers of the country. In 1982, when the Chicago Tribune asked 49 historians to rate every president through Carter on five qualities ranging from leadership to character, they ranked Lincoln first. Over 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln, more than any other historical figure except the Christian leader, Jesus.

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