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Abraham Lincoln
— 16th President of the United States —



TERM: March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865

BORN: February 12, 1809
BIRTHPLACE: Hardin County, Kentucky
DIED: April 15, 1865, Washington, D.C.
Buried in Springfield, Illinois
MARRIED: Mary Todd, 1842
CHILDREN: Robert, Edward, Willie, Tad

Abraham Lincoln was born on a small farm near Larue, Kentucky. His family lived in a one-room log cabin that was typical for poor farmers on the Kentucky frontier. When Abraham was three, his family moved to another farm in Knob Creek, Kentucky. The farm was located on the main road that connected Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee.

As a young boy, Abraham Lincoln met many people as they moved along the Louisville-Nashville road – pioneer families, peddlers, and politicians who were travelling to the state capital.

There was always plenty of work for the young Abraham. Since there were no schools on the Kentucky frontier, Abraham Lincoln could spend his days working. And he did. He ploughed the fields at planting time, he pulled weeds that grew up around the crops, and he kept the box of firewood filled all the time, along with many other chores. When he was eight, his family moved to Indiana, where his mother died less than two years later. His father then married Sarah Johnson, who helped Abraham learn to read.

By age 16, Abraham was a tall, slim, and strong young man. He did any and all odd jobs anyone would hire him for. He worked as a farmhand, grocery clerk, and rail splitter. He also worked as a deckhand on a flatboat that floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

In 1836, Abraham Lincoln received his license to practice law. After practicing law for a while, he was elected to the House of Representatives. He served one term and then returned to Springfield, Illinois to resume his law practice. In 1855, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed new states to decide whether or not they wanted to be admitted as slave states was passed, Abraham Lincoln was called to action.

In 1858, he ran for the Senate against Stephen Douglas, who was in favour of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. During this election campaign, Lincoln and Douglas debated each other on the topic of slavery. These debates are known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and they are some of the most famous debates in American history. Douglas won the election, but these debates made Lincoln famous.

In 1860, the Republican party chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for president. The elections were held in the fall of 1860 and Lincoln won. Soon afterward, South Carolina and other states seceded from the Union. By the time Lincoln got into office, tensions between the North and South were very strong. If fact, one month after Lincoln took office, southern soldiers fired on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. This was the beginning of the war between the states, now known as the Civil War.

In 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to all slaves in the South. After two years of a war that was being won by the South, this proclamation did not have much effect. But in July 1863, there was a battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the Southern army was forced to retreat, and for the first time the North got the upper hand.

Later that year, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous American speeches of all time:


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.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that 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.

Less than a week after this speech, Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union army and began to force all rebel forces to the Deep South. In the meantime, General William Tecumseh Sherman was marching toward Atlanta in his famous "march to the sea." With things going well for the Union, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1864. When he took his oath of office at the beginning of his second term, he urged that instead of taking vengeance against the South, there should be "malice toward none and charity for all."

On April 14, 1865, five days after the surrender of Confederate forces, Lincoln attended a theater performance with his wife. A man named John Wilkes Booth crept up behind Lincoln and shot him in the head. President Lincoln died the next day.


Sixteenth president of the United States and president during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was immortalized by his Emancipation Proclamation, his Gettysburg Address, and two outstanding inaugural addresses.

Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin on a farm in Hardin County, Ky. 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 cash 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 authentic is known.

Lincoln's Background

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 2 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 which 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 dread disease known as milk sickness struck the region. First it carried off Mrs. Lincoln's uncle and aunt and then Nancy Hanks Lincoln herself. 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 centre 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 neighbours. 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 axe, 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, downriver 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.

Entering Public Life

This was the turning point; the Lincoln of history began to emerge. 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 candida te 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 rode the Eighth Circuit of some 160 miles through the Sangamon Valley. He did not, however, neglect politics, and 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 which Mary played in Lincoln's life is still a matter of controversy.

National Politics

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.

War on the Horizon

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, had 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. Tempers flared and the crisis developed. 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.

Republican Leader

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 centreed national attention on Illinois. There Douglas, who had broken sharply with the new administration over acceptance of the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, had returned to wage his fight for re-election 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 candida te 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 re-elected, but Lincoln had gained national attention. Invitations for speeches pored 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 candida te 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.

Sixteenth President

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 Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbour. 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 Col. John C. Frémont, 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 Frémont resisted, removed him from command.

Civil War

From this time on, Lincoln's life was shaped by the problems and fortunes of civil war. 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 Gen. 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 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. William T. Sherman and the importance of the western campaign.

As to slavery, 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 re-election. 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 re-election. 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 favoured 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. Then, as Edwin Stanton said, he belonged to the ages.


Lincoln, Abraham (1809-65), US President and American civil war leader. His election was the proximate cause of the conflict and his political views shaped it. He was adamant that slavery was not the issue, but rather whether his vision of a unified continental empire would prevail over his opponents' traditional belief in a free association of sovereign states. Fort Sumter controlled the port of Charleston and symbolized his commitment to tariffs and economic autarky, bitterly opposed by the free-trading South. By deliberately provoking hostilities there, he accepted that most of the ‘upper eight’ slave states would secede or, like Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland, adopt a hostile neutrality because of his policy.

The length, cost, and ferocity of the war can also be attributed largely to him. He defined the conflict as between the USA and traitorous individuals in which the states had no standing, because to do otherwise would admit that the Union was not perpetual and that secession was constitutional. There could be no peace negotiations, no compromise, only unconditional surrender to a lawful police action. Lincoln's position predicated the grinding, exhausting struggle it was to become and from the outset, even when most believed in a prompt outcome, he implemented the ‘Anaconda Plan’ devised by army commander Scott for the slow suffocation of secession by sea and river.

He was an ‘accidental’ president, virtually unknown nationally before 1860 and elected with only 40 per cent of the popular vote because the Democrat Party split. Far from being the unquestioned leader of his own party, he was a compromise candidate, expected to be dominated by powerful cabinet members and congressional leaders. His lack of a personal political base forced many undesirable compromises on him, perhaps the most damaging being the appointment of the corrupt Cameron, owed a favour from the Republican Convention, as his first war secretary. But within a year he had replaced him with the fanatically honest Stanton and by various means he gradually brought the rest to heel.

Lincoln's subsequent achievement must be measured from the baseline that he began his presidency with scant experience of even local government. He lacked personal standing and was contemptuously dubbed ‘the baboon’ by Washington society. Not least, his erratic wife only with charity may be called a liability. He assumed power without even the physical means to enforce his authority, the first troops summoned to garrison the capital being compelled to bypass hostile Maryland. His military experience was confined to a short non-combatant stint with the militia during the Black Hawk war of 1832, and he inherited a tiny pre-war regular army, scattered along the frontier. In addition the senior officers were mainly southern, including Lee who declined an offer to command Union forces and went with Virginia.

His performance as C-in-C was far from perfect, but he handled mobilization much more skilfully than his opposite number Davis. Both sides had their share of political officers, but Lincoln was cursed not only with politically irresistible demands by local politicians to be given command over ‘their’ militias, but also by generals who were convinced they could replace him to advantage. Among the former was Sickles of Gettysburg infamy, probably the only general in history to be appointed after he was found legally insane. Among the latter was McClellan, the officer he appointed to succeed Scott and who later stood against him in the 1864 presidential elections.

This does not acquit him of overestimating his own competence as strategist in early 1862, when he dispersed forces and permitted his armies to be defeated in detail. In mitigation, he was ill-served by field commanders who either lacked the killer instinct or made grandiose plans that unwisely assumed the enemy would do what was expected of them. After he learned his own limitations, much of what his generals regarded as ‘meddling’ was his insistence that they close with the enemy to make the Union's great numerical and industrial superiority felt. Once he found in Grant and Sherman a pair of bulldogs who ignored setbacks and would not let go, his ‘meddling’ diminished.

Overall, it is difficult to fault his performance. After early ‘learning’ errors he made the best of whatever human material was to hand and backed winners wherever he could find them. Above all, he rallied an uncertain Union and made full use of its preponderant financial and industrial resources to settle fundamental issues left unresolved since the birth of the republic. In the process, he created a new nation.


Born into a poor family in Hardin County, Kentucky, Lincoln moved with his family to Indiana in 1816 and to Illinois in 1830. In 1831, he settled in New Salem, near Springfield; in 1842, he married Mary Todd, daughter of a prominent family. Lincoln pursued the law and politics, both successfully. As a Whig he served in the state legislature (1834–41) and in the House of Representatives (1847–49), where he criticized the Mexican War. The slavery expansion controversy prompted his reentry into public life in 1854, now in the new Republican Party. His national stature was enhanced when he challenged and lost to Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1858.

In 1860, Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination because of his reputation for public honesty, his availability, and because his rivals had too many political enemies. Winning popular votes only in the North, Lincoln carried the electoral vote against three opponents (including Douglas) and took office on 4 March 1861. The country was divided by the secession of seven Southern states, whose white population believed that Lincoln's election portended the death of slavery. In his inaugural address, Lincoln tried to reassure his “dissatisfied fellow countrymen” that he would not attack slavery where it existed, but neither would he allow the Union to be destroyed. The Southern capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861 did lead to war, to the secession of additional Southern states, and ultimately to the end of slavery.

Thus, Abraham Lincoln addressed two mortal public issues: war and freedom. He addressed them with a political skill never before demanded of a U.S. president and never matched thereafter. Lincoln understood his limitations and his strengths, at once willing to defer to men of demonstrably greater knowledge or ability yet willing to impose his authority over them. As commander in chief, Lincoln understood that mobilizing an effective military force was similar to forming a political coalition, that political goals were akin to grand strategy. He also promoted professional soldiers, usually West Pointers, to significant commands, but he was chided too for appointing “political generals,” which he believed necessary in order to gain popular support for the war. Some of the most egregious tactical blunders on both sides—from Malvern Hill to Cold Harbor to Franklin—occurred under the command of West Pointers.

During 1862–63, when Lincoln effectively acted as general in chief, he tried to impress upon his generals the need for precise aims and energetic execution of plans. Most notable was his frustration with George B. McClellan, a general of ability who seemed reluctant to engage the enemy even when he held a military advantage, which he always did. When McClellan refused to press Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln removed him from command. He also removed another general given to inertia, Don Carlos Buell, Union commander in Kentucky. Only days later, Lincoln wondered if the problem was “in our case” and not in the generals. Their successors (Ambrose Burnside and William S. Rosecrans) could do no better. Hard facts of terrain, distance, and a determined enemy would dictate military progress or the lack of it.

The Union army did know success, however, notably in the major Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863) and the siege of Vicksburg (which ended with Vicksburg's surrender on 4 July 1863). Yet there was no decisive, or Napoleonic victory, nor could there be, as Lincoln came to understand; there would be only a remorseless and bloody struggle until the Confederate army and the Southern will were broken, as they finally were in 1864–65. Victories in Virginia and Georgia were achieved by veteran armies led by redoubtable soldiers, Grant and Sherman, men of ability and determination, educated by their victories and their defeats. In order to overcome criticism of his wartime policies—the Habeas Corpus Act, the establishment of martial law, censorship of opposition newspapers, and arrests of vocal opponents of the war—and to gain the support of War Democrats, Lincoln led a Union Party in 1864 and named Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as his vice president. The Democrats nominated George B. McClellan, but military success, especially after the Battle of Atlanta in September 1864, assured Lincoln's reelection.

Emancipation is the event most associated with Lincoln next to the preservation of the Union. His enemies, North and South, resisted freedom for the slaves during the Civil War; his public friends thought that he was a reluctant emancipator, too calculating in advancing the great cause. A politician of Lincoln's time and place could not be unaware of the depths of racial animosity in the North, a social bias offset only by an intensity of feeling for the Union; yet this should not obscure the time and thought Lincoln gave to emancipation. He commented favorably on various options: colonization; gradual and compensated emancipation; and in 1862, he proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery. On 22 September 1862, after Antietam, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, a war measure grounded in his constitutional mandate as commander in chief, to take effect on 1 January 1863. Lincoln's eloquence of advocacy thereafter elevated political rhetoric to levels unequaled before or since. The Union could be saved only through military force, he said, and emancipation was a necessary corollary to military action. Thus were joined the great issues of war and freedom. Lincoln had effected a revolution and said as much in his immortal speech at Gettysburg.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln suggested that the Civil War was God's punishment for the great sin of slavery, and that even if it continued “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,’” Five days after the war ended, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while watching a play at Ford's Theatre. He died on Good Friday, 15 April 1865.










This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008