Abraham Lincoln Biography

At a Glance

Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest heroes and one of its sharpest political minds. Born into frontier obscurity and raised in a log cabin, Lincoln rose quickly in society from a backwoods rail-splitter to a militia captain in the Blackhawk War. Later, his law career led him into politics and he entered the public spotlight in a U.S. Senate race that centered on the future of slavery in America. Lincoln went on to become the first Republican president and his election led to Southern secession and the Civil War. A shrewd politician, Lincoln managed to lead the North to victory and laid the foundation for the abolition of slavery, but he would not live to see his country reunited. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater, five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered. 

Facts and Trivia

  • In 1860, Lincoln became the first Republican candidate for U.S. president.
  • After the battle of Antietam in 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the states that were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863.
  • In November 1863, Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address” at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Lincoln first appeared on the $5 bill in 1914.
  • Lincoln lost all but one of his young children during his tenure in office and suffered bouts of deep depression throughout his presidency.
  • He remains the only president to have held a patent. It was for a device that would help free steamboats when they ran aground.
  • He approved the Yosemite Grant which provided federal protection for what is now Yosemite National Park.
  • Lincoln is the president who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, which had previously been a regional New England holiday.


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111200668-Lincoln.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Lincoln is generally considered to have been the outstanding figure responsible for the preservation of the federal Union.

Early Life

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, on the Sinking Spring Place, a farm three miles south of Hodgenville, Kentucky. His mother was the former Nancy Hanks, and his father was Thomas Lincoln, both natives of Virginia whose parents had taken them into the Kentucky wilderness at an early age. Thomas Lincoln was a farmer and a carpenter. In the spring of 1811, they moved to the nearby Knob Creek Farm.

The future president had a brother, Thomas, who died in infancy. His sister, Sarah (called Sally), was two years older than he. Much has been made in literature of his log-cabin birth and the poverty and degradation of Lincoln’s childhood, but his father—a skilled carpenter—was never abjectly poor. The boy, however, did not aspire to become either a farmer or a carpenter. A highly intelligent and inquisitive youth, he considered many vocations before he decided upon the practice of law.

In Kentucky during his first seven years, and in Indiana until he became an adult, Lincoln received only the rudiments of a formal education, about a year in total. Still, he was able to read, write, and speak effectively, largely through self-education and regular practice. He grew to be approximately six feet, four inches tall and 185 pounds in weight. He was angular and dark-complected, with features that became familiar to later generations.

Moving with his family to Spencer County, Indiana, in December, 1816, Lincoln learned to use the American long ax efficiently on the Pigeon Creek Farm, where his father constructed another simple log cabin. He grew strong physically, and, largely through books he was able to borrow from neighbors, he grew strong mentally as well. The death of his mother from “the milk sick” in the summer of 1818 left both the boy and his sister emotionally depressed until the arrival of their stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. This strong and resourceful widow brought love and direction back to Lincoln’s life and introduced him to her lively children, Elizabeth, Matilda, and John D. Johnston, then aged twelve, eight, and five, respectively.

While in Indiana, Lincoln was employed in 1827 as a ferryman on Anderson Creek and on the Ohio River into which it flowed. Then, in cooperation with Allen Gentry and at the behest of Gentry’s father, he took a flatboat full of goods down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in 1828. Another childhood companion of this time was Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, who, in his later years, would relate many colorful stories about the future president’s boyhood.

In March, 1830, the family moved to central Illinois, where Thomas Lincoln had heard that the farming was superior. They situated their cabin on a stretch of prairie in Macon County, some ten miles west of Decatur. There Lincoln split many rails for fences, although not as many as would later be accredited to the Rail-splitter. Another nickname he earned in Illinois which would serve him well in his later political career was Honest Abe. His honesty in business dealings became legendary.

Again, in the spring of 1831, Lincoln took a flatboat laden with supplies down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, this time commissioned by Denton Offutt and in the company of John Hanks and John D. Johnston. Hanks would later claim that the sight of a slave auction on this visit to the busy Southern city stirred in Lincoln his famous opposition to slavery, but historians now discredit this legend. Upon his return, Lincoln, having reached maturity, struck out on his own for the village of New Salem, Illinois.

Life’s Work

Lincoln had been promised a store clerk’s position in New Salem by Offutt and worked at this task for almost a year before the store “winked out.” Then, in the spring of 1832, he served as a captain of volunteers in the Black Hawk War for thirty days. This service was followed by twenty days under Captain Elijah Iles and thirty days under Captain Jacob M. Early as a mounted private seeking to discover the whereabouts of the Indian leader for whom the war was named. While he saw no action, the war soon ended, and Lincoln returned home something less than a war hero.

Immediately upon returning to New Salem, Lincoln threw himself into an election for the lower house of the Illinois state legislature but, having no reputation, failed to win the seat. He was a loyal supporter of Henry Clay for president and therefore a Whig, but Clay failed also. In desperation, Lincoln became a partner in a store with William Berry, but its failure left him with an eleven-hundred-dollar “national debt.” In 1834, however, and in 1836, 1838, and 1840 as well, Lincoln won consecutive terms in the state house of representatives. He also served as postmaster of his village from 1833 to 1836 and as deputy county surveyor from 1833 to 1835. Effective in these roles and being groomed for a leadership position in the legislature by Whigs such as John Todd Stuart, Lincoln studied law and passed the state bar examination in 1836.

New Salem was too small a village to sustain a lawyer, and Lincoln moved to the new capital city of Springfield in April, 1837, to join the law firm of Stuart and Lincoln. This firm was successful, and Lincoln won more cases than he lost, but Stuart wanted to devote more time to his political career. In 1841, the partnership was dissolved, and Lincoln joined, again as junior partner, with the master lawyer Stephen T. Logan. Finally, in 1844, he formed his last partnership, taking on young William H. Herndon as his junior partner.

In 1839, Lincoln met his future wife, Mary Todd, at the home of her sister, Mrs. Ninian Edwards. Lincoln and Edwards were already Whig leaders and members of the influential Long Nine. Lincoln and Todd intended to marry in 1841, but on January of that year, he suffered a nervous...

(The entire section is 2488 words.)