Abraham Lincoln

Start Free Trial

Abraham Lincoln Biography

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) 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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 2488 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 breakdown, broke the engagement, and then cemented it again. Their marriage took place at the Edwards home on November 4, 1842. From this union would be born four children: Robert Todd (1843), Edward Baker (1846), William Wallace (1850), and Thomas, called Tad (1853). Lincoln was always a kind and caring husband and father. Their home, purchased in 1844, was located at Eighth and Jackson streets.

When Clay again ran for president in 1844, Lincoln campaigned energetically on his behalf, but Clay was defeated once again. Two years later, Lincoln canvassed the district on his own behalf and won his sole term in the United States House of Representatives over the Democrat Peter Cartwright. During this term, which ran from 1847 to 1849, the Mexican War was still in progress, and Lincoln followed the Whig leadership in opposing it. For this decision, he suffered among the voters at home and had to content himself with the single term. Before leaving Washington, however, he patented a device for lifting riverboats over the shoals.

In the early 1850’s, Lincoln concentrated upon his legal practice, but perhaps his most famous legal case came much later, in 1858, when he defended Duff Armstrong successfully against a charge of murder. Lincoln was a friend of Duff’s parents, Jack and Hannah, and took the case without charging a fee. His use of an almanac in this case to indicate the brightness of the moon on the night of the purported murder is justly celebrated in the annals of courtroom strategy.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case in 1856 aroused Lincoln’s antislavery fervor and brought him back into active politics. In 1855, he campaigned as an Anti-Nebraska (later Republican) candidate for the United States Senate but was compelled to stand aside in favor of his friend Lyman Trumbull, the eventual victor. A year later, Lincoln campaigned on behalf of presidential candidate John C. Frémont. Then, in 1858, he contended with his archrival, Stephen A. Douglas, for another Senate seat.

Before engaging in the famous debates with Douglas, Lincoln gave his most famous speech to date at Springfield, in which he proclaimed, “A house divided against itself cannot stand . . . this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” This House Divided Speech set the tone for his antislavery attacks in the debates that followed. Lincoln was a Free-Soiler and was truly outraged by Douglas’ amoral stance on slavery. Many observers thought that Lincoln had won the debates, but largely because of a pro-Democratic apportionment, Douglas won reelection. Still, the fame Lincoln achieved through these debates assured his consideration for a presidential nomination in 1860.

The Republican Convention of that year was held in Chicago, where Lincoln was especially popular. Then, too, the original leading candidates, William Seward and Salmon Chase, detested each other; accordingly, their delegates turned to Lincoln as a “dark horse” when their favorites destroyed each other’s chances. The Democrats then split their support with the dual nominations of Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge. What was left of the old Whig Party split the South further by nominating as the Constitutional Union nominee John Bell of Tennessee.

Lincoln grew the dark beard associated with him during his campaign. He did not campaign actively but was elected over his divided opposition with 173 electoral votes, while Breckinridge amassed seventy-two, Bell thirty-nine, and Douglas merely twelve. Lincoln had the necessary majority of the electoral college but did not have a majority of the popular votes—no one did. The division in the country at large was made even more coldly clear when seven Southern states seceded over his election.

Inaugurated March 4, 1861, Lincoln took a strong stand against secession; when newly armed Confederate troops fired upon and captured Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861, he announced the start of the Civil War by calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers and a naval blockade of the Southern coast. Four more states then seceded, and the War Between the States began in earnest, lasting four years.

During the war, President Lincoln often visited the fighting front, intercepted telegraphic messages at the War Department, and advised his generals as to strategy. He was a remarkably able wartime leader, but Lincoln was deeply dissatisfied with his highest-ranking generals in the field until he “found his general” in Ulysses S. Grant.

In the midst of the struggle, Lincoln drafted his Emancipation Proclamation, calling for the freedom of the slaves. A few months later, in 1863, he wrote and delivered his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. This speech summed up the principles for which the federal government still fought to preserve the Union. Upon being reelected in 1864, over Democratic nominee General George B. McClellan, the president gave another stirring speech in his Second Inaugural Address. Final victory was only achieved after the defeat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Less than a week later, on April 14, Lincoln was assassinated by the Southern partisan actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, expiring the following morning. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton then was heard to say: “Now he belongs to the ages.”


More books have been written about Lincoln and more legends have been told about him than about any other individual in American history. This sixteenth president often is regarded as the greatest leader America has yet produced or is likely to produce, yet he came from humble stock and little was given him that he had not earned.

He was the first Republican president, was twice elected, had to fight a cruel war yet remained sensitive, humble, and magnanimous to the end. It was his intention, had he lived, to “bind up the nation’s wounds” with a speedy and liberal method of reconstruction. His death assured the opposite, or Radical Reconstruction.

His greatest achievements were the preservation of the federal Union and the liberation of the slaves. The former was achieved with the cessation of fighting in the South, which came only days after his death. The latter was brought about at last by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution a few months later. Yet the nobility and simple dignity he brought to the nation’s highest office are also a part of his legacy.


Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Herndon, William H. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 3 vols. Chicago: Belford, Clarke and Co., 1889. The color and dash of Lincoln’s law partner almost make up for his lack of objectivity. Herndon is strongest when he speaks from experience, weakest when he deals with Lincoln’s early years and personal relationships.

Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr. A New Birth of Freedom. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983. A concentrated examination of the background and circumstances of Lincoln’s greatest speech, the Gettysburg Address. Vivid in the memory of a nation, this speech was considered a failure at the time by the president himself. Well written and beautifully illustrated, the book itself is one of the more important works dealing with a segment of Lincoln’s life.

Lamon, Ward Hill. The Life of Abraham Lincoln. Boston: J. R. Osgood and Co., 1872. Lincoln’s longtime friend, fellow attorney, and marshal of the District of Columbia knew him well but was not very particular about his sources. Certainly he relied too heavily upon Herndon’s fulminations about the Ann Rutledge love affair (a myth) and Lincoln’s stormy marriage to the former Mary Todd.

Nicolay, John G., and John Hay. Abraham Lincoln: A History. 10 vols. New York: Century Co., 1890. This major production is based upon Lincoln’s personal papers but is rather laudatory. There is, perhaps, too much detail and too little insight in these volumes.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977. The best scholarly biography available, this work reflects much new research. It is well written and well documented.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1926.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1939. These two sets are beautifully poetic but lacking in historical accuracy at times. Many readers have started with Sandburg, gained a sense for the subject, and gone on to develop a profound love of Lincolniana.

Thomas, Benjamin. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952. This is probably the finest biography of Lincoln available which is a balanced scholarly-popular work in one volume. It is a must for any shelf of Lincoln books.

Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. New York: Random House, 1984. The most celebrated novel yet written about Lincoln’s presidential years. Well worth reading by those who would gain an understanding of his actions. Without psychoanalysis or unfettered pathos, Vidal has portrayed Lincoln and his wartime contemporaries with exceptional accuracy, taking only a few liberties with history.

Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.