Abraham Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer, legislator and vocal opponent of slavery, was elected 16th president of the United States in November 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln proved to be a shrewd military strategist and a savvy leader: His Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for slavery’s abolition, while his Gettysburg Address stands as one of the most famous pieces of oratory in American history.
In April 1865, with the Union on the brink of victory, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s assassination made him a martyr to the cause of liberty, and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history.
Abraham Lincoln's Childhood and Early Life
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, to Nancy and Thomas Lincoln in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. His family moved to southern Indiana in 1816. Lincoln’s formal schooling was limited to three brief periods in local schools, as he had to work constantly to support his family.
In 1830, his family moved to Macon County in southern Illinois, and Lincoln got a job working on a river flatboat hauling freight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. After settling in the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he worked as a shopkeeper and a postmaster, Lincoln became involved in local politics as a supporter of the Whig Party, winning election to the Illinois state legislature in 1834.
Like his Whig heroes Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery to the territories, and had a grand vision of the expanding United States, with a focus on commerce and cities rather than agriculture.
Lincoln taught himself law, passing the bar examination in 1836. The following year, he moved to the newly named state capital of Springfield. For the next few years, he worked there as a lawyer and served clients ranging from individual residents of small towns to national railroad lines.
He met Mary Todd, a well-to-do Kentucky belle with many suitors (including Lincoln’s future political rival, Stephen Douglas), and they married in 1842. The Lincolns went on to have four children together, though only one would live into adulthood: Robert Todd Lincoln (1843–1926), Edward Baker Lincoln (1846–1850), William Wallace Lincoln (1850–1862) and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (1853-1871).
Abraham Lincoln Enters Politics
Lincoln won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846 and began serving his term the following year. As a congressman, Lincoln was unpopular with many Illinois voters for his strong stance against the Mexican-American War. Promising not to seek reelection, he returned to Springfield in 1849.
Events conspired to push him back into national politics, however: Douglas, a leading Democrat in Congress, had pushed through the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which declared that the voters of each territory, rather than the federal government, had the right to decide whether the territory should be slave or free.
On October 16, 1854, Lincoln went before a large crowd in Peoria to debate the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with Douglas, denouncing slavery and its extension and calling the institution a violation of the most basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence.
With the Whig Party in ruins, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party–formed largely in opposition to slavery’s extension into the territories–in 1856 and ran for the Senate again that year (he had campaigned unsuccessfully for the seat in 1855 as well). In June, Lincoln delivered his now-famous “house divided” speech, in which he quoted from the Gospels to illustrate his belief that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”
Lincoln then squared off against Douglas in a series of famous debates; though he lost the Senate election, Lincoln’s performance made his reputation nationally.
Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential Campaign
Lincoln’s profile rose even higher in early 1860 after he delivered another rousing speech at New York City’s Cooper Union. That May, Republicans chose Lincoln as their candidate for president, passing over Senator William H. Seward of New York and other powerful contenders in favor of the rangy Illinois lawyer with only one undistinguished congressional term under his belt.
In the general election, Lincoln again faced Douglas, who represented the northern Democrats; southern Democrats had nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, while John Bell ran for the brand new Constitutional Union Party. With Breckenridge and Bell splitting the vote in the South, Lincoln won most of the North and carried the Electoral College to win the White House.
He built an exceptionally strong cabinet composed of many of his political rivals, including Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates and Edwin M. Stanton.
Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War
After years of sectional tensions, the election of an antislavery northerner as the 16th president of the United States drove many southerners over the brink. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated as 16th U.S. president in March 1861, seven southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.
Lincoln ordered a fleet of Union ships to supply the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April. The Confederates fired on both the fort and the Union fleet, beginning the Civil War. Hopes for a quick Union victory were dashed by defeat in the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), and Lincoln called for 500,000 more troops as both sides prepared for a long conflict.
While the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis was a West Point graduate, Mexican War hero and former secretary of war, Lincoln had only a brief and undistinguished period of service in the Black Hawk War (1832) to his credit. He surprised many when he proved to be a capable wartime leader, learning quickly about strategy and tactics in the early years of the Civil War, and about choosing the ablest commanders.
General George McClellan, though beloved by his troops, continually frustrated Lincoln with his reluctance to advance, and when McClellan failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate Army in the aftermath of the Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln removed him from command.
During the war, Lincoln drew criticism for suspending some civil liberties, including the right of habeas corpus, but he considered such measures necessary to win the war.
Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address
Shortly after the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, and freed all of the enslaved people in the rebellious states not under federal control, but left those in the border states (loyal to the Union) in bondage.
Though Lincoln once maintained that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” he nonetheless came to regard emancipation as one of his greatest achievements and would argue for the passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery (eventually passed as the 13th Amendment after his death in 1865).
Two important Union victories in July 1863—at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania—finally turned the tide of the war. General George Meade missed the opportunity to deliver a final blow against Lee’s army at Gettysburg, and Lincoln would turn by early 1864 to the victor at Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant, as supreme commander of the Union forces.
In November 1863, Lincoln delivered a brief speech (just 272 words) at the dedication ceremony for the new national cemetery at Gettysburg. Published widely, the Gettysburg Address eloquently expressed the war’s purpose, harking back to the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the pursuit of human equality. It became the most famous speech of Lincoln’s presidency, and one of the most widely quoted speeches in history.
Abraham Lincoln Wins 1864 Presidential Election
In 1864, Lincoln faced a tough reelection battle against the Democratic nominee, the former Union General George McClellan, but Union victories in battle (especially General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September) swung many votes the president’s way. In his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, Lincoln addressed the need to reconstruct the South and rebuild the Union: “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
As Sherman marched triumphantly northward through the Carolinas after staging his March to the Sea from Atlanta, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9. Union victory was near, and Lincoln gave a speech on the White House lawn on April 11, urging his audience to welcome the southern states back into the fold. Tragically, Lincoln would not live to help carry out his vision of Reconstruction.
Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination
On the night of April 14, 1865, the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth slipped into the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and shot him point-blank in the back of the head. Lincoln was carried to a boardinghouse across the street from the theater, but he never regained consciousness, and died in the early morning hours of April 15, 1865.
Lincoln’s assassination made him a national martyr. On April 21, 1865, a train carrying his coffin left Washington, D.C. on its way to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried on May 4. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train traveled through 180 cities and seven states so mourners could pay homage to the fallen president.
Today, Lincoln’s birthday—alongside the birthday of George Washington—is honored on President’s Day, which falls on the third Monday of February.
Abraham Lincoln Quotes
“Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.”
“I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
“I am rather inclined to silence, and whether that be wise or not, it is at least more unusual nowadays to find a man who can hold his tongue than to find one who cannot.”
“I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”
“This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
“This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”