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The Life of Lincoln

Lincoln is such a dominant figure in history that a short biography such as this can not do him justice.  Readers are urged to study him in greater depth through one or more of the books listed in the bibliography.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in what was then known as Hardin, Kentucky, to Thomas and Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln. Two years after his birth the family moved to a 230 acre farm on Knob Creek where one year later, Lincoln's only brother, Thomas, was born. Thomas died while still an infant.

Lincoln's birthplace

Lincoln briefly attended school, but only sporadically. When he was eight years old, the family moved to Spencer County, Indiana. The land was still in forest, and young Lincoln quickly learned to swing an axe with the best.

The year 1818 was not a good year for the young president-to-be. He was kicked in the head by one of the family horses and for a time was believed to be dead. Lincoln himself said in his 1860 autobiography that he was 'killed for a time'. This was only a minor inconvenience, however, compared to the tragedy that would strike the family in October of that year. On October 5, Lincoln's beloved mother died.

Some 14 months after the death of Lincoln's mother, his father married a widow named Sally Johnston at Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Sally brought three children to the marriage, and she proved to be a good mother to young Abe.

For the next few years Lincoln attended school on occasion, but spent more of his time in the fields or doing odd jobs for neighbors. Despite his lack of formal schooling, he borrowed books and read at every opportunity.

On January 20, 1828 Lincoln's married sister Sarah died in childbirth. That Spring, the 19-year old Lincoln and Allen Gentry made a trip on a flatboat owned by Gentry's father, to New Orleans. The two traveled alone and, while there, were attacked by seven black men who planned to rob them. Somehow, Lincoln and Gentry were able to fend the seven attackers off long enough to weigh anchor and escape, despite being slightly injured. Before leaving New Orleans, Lincoln observed his first slave auction, an experience which left him deeply moved.

In 1830 Lincoln, now 21, moved with his family to uncleared land on the Sangamon River in Illinois. The Lincoln family was accompanied by the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law of his stepmother. Lincoln helped clear the ground and build the log cabin into which the family moved. He also split enough rails to fence in some 10 acres of ground.

The first winter in the new homestead was destined to become known as the winter of the deep snow in Illinois, and during that winter Lincoln, his step-brother John Johnston, and John Hanks, a cousin to Lincoln's mother, hired on with a man named Denton Offutt to work on a flatboat from Beardstown, Illinois to New Orleans. The plan was to meet when the snow melted, which it did around March 1. However, there had been so much snow that the land was now flooded, making it impractical to travel by land. The undaunted trio purchased a canoe and set sail down the Sangamon River to Springfield, where they learned that Offutt had not been able to get a boat. The three hired out to Offutt for $12 a month wages, cutting down trees and building a boat. Once built, the boat shoved off for New Orleans. Hanks, a family man with responsibilities, decided not to take the trip.

On this trip Offutt took a liking to the young Lincoln and contracted with him to work as a clerk in Offutt's store on their return. While working for Offutt, Lincoln began to read Shakespeare and learn basic arithmetic.

Within a year Offutt's business began to fail, and with the Black Hawk War breaking out, Lincoln enlisted in a volunteer regiment. To his surprise, he was soon elected captain of his company, something which gave him the utmost satisfaction. He served three months but did not participate in any battles.

Returning from the war, he was persuaded by neighbors to run for the state legislature. Although his own precinct voted for him by a margin of 277-7, he lost the election, the only election he ever lost on a direct vote of the people.

Now unemployed, Lincoln gave serious thought to what he would do. He considered becoming a blacksmith, then thought of studying law. This he ruled out on the basis of his lack of education. Shortly, he and a friend, William Berry, purchased a village store in New Salem. The store never did well and Lincoln found himself sinking deeper into debt. Eventually, the store 'winked out', in Lincoln's words, and he became the New Salem Postmaster. To supplement his meager income, he became a Deputy County Surveyor, despite not knowing how to survey. He immediately purchased a compass and chain and studied surveying, becoming more than adequate at his trade.

The next year, 1834, at the age of 24, Lincoln ran for the State Legislature, winning on the Whig ticket. He garnered more votes than any other candidate for the legislature in that election. John T. Stuart, a lawyer, was also elected, and the two became friends. Stuart encouraged Lincoln to study law, which Lincoln did, using books he borrowed from Stuart. That December he met a young Democrat named Stephen Douglas, with whom he was destined to become intertwined in history.

In January, 1835 Lincoln's former store partner William Berry died, followed in August by the death of Ann Rutledge, to whom Lincoln was rumored to have been informally engaged. The intelligent and beautiful Ann, only 22 years old at the time of her death, had been engaged to a man three years earlier who had gone back east, promising Ann that he would return and marry her. He never did, and Ann and Lincoln began a relationship. Just before Ann died, possibly of typhoid fever, she called for Lincoln, who came to her side. Her death left him deeply depressed.

Lincoln won re-election to the legislature in 1836, shortly after which he obtained his law license. He also began courting a young lady named Mary Owens.

In 1837 he moved to Springfield, where he was taken into Stuart's law firm. That summer he proposed to Mary Owens, who summarily turned him down.

Lincoln's law office

Lincoln won re-election to the legislature again in 1838, and once more in 1840. Both years his party voted for him as House Speaker, but with his party in the minority he was defeated both times. Following his 1840 election, he declined to run for a fifth term.

In 1839 Lincoln served as a lawyer on the 8th Judicial Circuit, travelling throughout nine counties in Illinois. He also met Mary Todd, 21 years old, at a dance. The next year he argued his first case before the Illinois Supreme Court. Later in the year, he and Mary, daughter of Robert S. Todd of Lexington, Kentucky, became engaged, an engagement that would be broken just a few months later.

Following the breaking of his engagement with Mary Todd in January, 1841 Lincoln lapsed into a bout of depression. In March he formed a law partnership with Stephen Logan, and in August he made a boat trip to Kentucky, where the sight of 12 slaves chained together nearly brought him to tears.

In 1842 he decided not to run for re-election. His courtship with Mary resumed, and in September he accepted a challenge to a duel issued by Illinois State Auditor James Shields, who took issue with some letters that had been published. The duel, fortunately, was averted, and on November 4 Lincoln and Mary were married in Springfield.

In 1843 Lincoln unsuccessfully sought the congressional nomination of the Whig Party. His disappointment was tempered by the birth on August 1 of Robert Todd, his first son.

Robert Todd Lincoln as a young man

The following year the Lincolns purchased a home in Springfield for $1500. Late in the year he dissolved his partnership with Stephen Logan and set up his own practice. The second Lincoln son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was born on March 10, 1846, and about seven weeks later Lincoln won the Whig nomination for a seat in Congress. In the August election, he was elected. His one term in Congress was marked by his resolutions stating that the War with Mexico was unconstitutionally begun by President Polk. He based his opinion on the fact that Polk had sent troops to Mexican territory, territory which had never been transferred by treaty to Texas, thus provoking hostilities. Lincoln believed that any land which still belonged to Mexico should remain so until legally transferred, and that sending armed troops was beyond the power of the President, and thus an unconstitutional act.

At the end of his term in Congress Lincoln chose not to run for re-election, and he returned to the practice of law in earnest. In March of 1849 he made an appearance before the United States Supreme Court, losing his case on the Illinois statute of limitations law. Two months later he received United States Patent Number 6469 for his invention of a system of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers to enable steamboats to pass through shallow waters without having to discharge their cargoes. He remains the only United States President to have ever been awarded a patent.

Late in the year his son Edward fell ill, and after an illness of two months, he died. A distraught Lincoln resumed travelling throughout 14 Illinois counties with the 8th Judicial Circuit, gaining a solid reputation as an outstanding lawyer. On December 21, son William Wallace Lincoln, known as Willie, was born.

William (Willie) Lincoln

On January 17, 1851, just four weeks after Willie's birth, Lincoln's father died. With the deaths of his father and Edward within the span of a year, Lincoln threw himself into his law practice, the best way he knew of dealing with his grief. Politics was destined to take a back seat for the next few years.

On April 4, 1853 his fourth son, Thomas (Tad) Lincoln was born. With the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, Lincoln's passion for politics resumed. He was elected to the Illinois state legislature again, but he decided to decline the seat in favor of a run for the United States Senate. The move backfired, however, when he failed to be chosen for the office by the legislature.

Thomas (Tad) Lincoln (photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

In 1856 Lincoln was instrumental in getting the Republican party of Illinois organized. At the Republican convention he received 110 votes for the vice-presidential nomination. The convention brought him to the attention of the rest of the nation and set the stage for the debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858.

In June, 1858 he received the Republican nomination for the United States Senate, where his acceptance speech would become known as the House Divided Speech. The famed debates with Douglas took place in seven towns throughout Illinois. Despite holding his own with Douglas, the state legislature selected Douglas for the senate seat by a vote of 54 - 46.

Lincoln and son Tad

In 1860, largely on the strength of the reputation he built in his debates with Douglas, he received the Republican nomination for the presidency. His opponents were Northern Democrat Douglas, along with Southern Democrat John Breckinridge. In the election Lincoln garnered 1,865,593 popular votes to Douglas's 1,382,713 and Breckinridge's 848,356. A fourth candidate, John Bell, received 592,906 votes. The electoral votes were heavily in Lincoln's favor, with 180 to Breckinridge's 72, Bell's 39, and Douglas's 12. Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States.

Lincoln's election triggered an immediate response from officials in the Southern states who perceived a lessening of their politcal power. Before Lincoln took office, South Carolina followed through with a threat to secede. Within the next couple months South Carolina was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. With feelings at a fever pitch, his life was threatened during his trip to Washington, and his entry into the city had to be done clandestinely.

On March 4, 1861 Lincoln took the oath of office, and a few weeks later, when Lincoln authorized the sending of provisions to Fort Sumter, the Confederacy reacted by firing on the fort, and the nation was plunged into a war that was destined to go on for four long years.

A family portrait of the Lincolns

Three days after the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued his Proclamation Calling Militia and Convening Congress. This call for troops was met by Virginia's secession, followed shortly by North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. On April 19 Lincoln followed with his Proclamation of Blockade against Southern ports and a week later, with Congress still in recess, he suspended Habeas Corpus.

Lincoln's focus on the war was interrupted in June when his old political rival Stephen Douglas died unexpectedly. By the end of the month, with a defeat at Bull Run fresh in his mind, he appointed George B. McClellan commander of the Department of the Potomac.

In September 1861 he was forced to revoke an unauthorized military proclamation of emancipation in Missouri, issued by General John Fremont. In October he replaced Fremont with General David Hunter. A week later, with the resignation of General Winfield Scott, he appointed McClellan as commander of the Union army.

On February 20, 1862, Lincoln's son Willie died, plunging Mary into a depression from which she never fully recovered. In March, after only five months in the position, McClellan was relieved of his command by Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln

In April, 1862 Lincoln signed an Act which abolished slavery in the District of Columbia. Two months later he approved a similar law prohibiting slavery in the Territories, making good on a promise he had made in several pre-election speeches.

In August the Union army suffered a second defeat at Bull Run, and the president relieved General John Pope of his command. In September, the bloodiest day in American military history took place, with 26,000 casualties taken at Antietam. With the Union a marginal victor, Lincoln got the opportunity he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he did on September 22. It was to take effect on January 1.

Lincoln meets with McClellan at Antietam following the battle (photo courtesy National Archives)

In November he named Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, and he closed out the year by signing a bill admitting West Virginia into the Union. On January 1, 1863 his Emancipation Proclamation, went into effect.

Only 25 days into the new year he replaced Burnside with Fighting Joe Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. He followed shortly with an appointment of Ulysses Grant as commander of the Army of the West.

Grant's Commission as Lieutenant General

On March 3 he signed a bill authorizing the first military conscriptions, and in June he replaced Hooker with Geroge G. Meade. Meade had scarcely enough time to learn his new duties when the Battle of Gettysburg took place. The victory at Gettysburg was accompanied by the fall of Vicksburg in the west, but Lincoln was less than thrilled with Meade's reluctance to chase Robert E. Lee following the three day fight at Gettysburg, and he wrote a letter to Meade telling him so.

On July 30, with reports of possible Confederate abuses of prisoners, Lincoln issued his Order of Retaliation, hoping to protect his troops. On August 10 he met with Frederick Douglass concerning the need for equality for United States Colored Troops. In September, with Chattanooga under Confederate siege, he appointed Grant to command the western theater.

On October 3, 1863, he issued his Proclamation of Thanksgiving, setting the stage for a speech in November that would be destined to be recognized the world over. Returning to Gettysburg to serve as a secondary speaker at the dedication of the new national cemetery, Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address.

On the heels of that momentous occasion, Lincoln outlined his plan for restoration of the union after the war in his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. For the next three months, with both armies in their winter quarters, little happened. Then, in March, Lincoln appointed Grant his general-in-chief of all the Union armies and put William T. Sherman in Grant's old position as commander of the west.

As the war plodded on, each Union defeat dragging morale down still further, it appeared that Lincoln would lose his 1864 bid for reelection. Successes by Grant and Sherman, however, buoyed Union hopes and with them, Lincoln's chances for another four years in the White House.

On June 8, 1864 Lincoln was nominated for a second term as president. Ten days later, with the war in full swing, he issued a call for another 500,000 volunteers. In the November election he won an overwhelming victory over George B. McClellan. Winning 55% of the popular vote, he takes 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

On March 4, 1865 he took the oath of office again and delivered his second inaugural address. In the crowd was an actor named John Wilkes Booth, who later bragged that he could have easily killed the president that day.

On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. While there remained a few pockets of resistance, for all intents the war was over. The nation was to be reunited.

Two days later Lincoln delivered his last speech, discussing reconstruction, and Fort Sumter, where the war began, sees the Union flag fly over it once again.

On April 14, 1865, less than a week after the surrender of the Confederacy, Lincoln attended a play at Ford's Theater in Washington. Accompanied by his wife, Major Henry Reed Rathbone, and Rathbone's fiancee Clara Harris, Lincoln looked forward to the presentation of Our American Cousin, starring the famous actress Laura Keene. Shortly after 10:00 p.m, while Lincoln focused his attention on the performance, actor John Wilkes Booth quietly slipped into the presidential box. Before anyone realized what was happening, Booth shot the President in the back of the head, also wounding Rathbone before jumping from the box to the stage. Mortally wounded, the President never regained consciousness. At 7:22 the next morning, Lincoln took his last breath, leading Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to utter his now famous phrase, "Now he belongs to the ages." The sixteenth President of the United States was dead, never to see the reunification of his beloved nation.

A contemporary sketch of the assassination

The nation was plunged into mourning, and his funeral procession wound across country from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, drawing thousands of mourners at every stop. On May 4, 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was laid to rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, eventually to be joined by his wife, Mary, and three of their four sons.

Seven months later, in what many considered a tribute to the late president, the Thirteenth Ammendment to the Constitution was ratified, and slavery was abolished in the United States.

Determined to keep the Union intact whatever the cost, Lincoln had presided over the nation through her darkest hour, serving in a way that few in history have ever been called upon to do. His leadership made him one of the most revered of all American heroes, and poll after poll has named him the favorite president of most American citizens. There is never a close runnerup.