Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln Portrait

Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809, was the 16th President of the United States. Many historians and politicians believe he was the greatest president in terms of leadership, political acumen and character. Lincoln's biography is the stuff of legend. He rose from poverty to become a lawyer, leader and statesman, primarily by virtue of his own determination. During his presidency, Lincoln brought the nation through its greatest challenge, the Civil War, and helped it emerge united if not unscathed. It is impossible to overstate Lincoln's influence on American history from the mid-1800s to the present day.

From Humble Beginnings

Abraham Lincoln was born in LaRue County, Ky., on Sinking Springs Farm. His parents, Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, had moved into the one-room log cabin just two months before Abraham's birth. He was the couple's second child. They had an older daughter, Sarah. Later a younger son, Thomas, would come along, but the boy would not live beyond infancy.

His father was a farmer and carpenter by trade. When Abe was born, Thomas owned or controlled a number of farms in the area but lost most of the land due to property deed disputes. The family moved to Indiana two years after the boy's birth to start over.

Unlike Kentucky, Indiana did not allow residents to own slaves. It was a "free" territory. In addition, Abe's parents belonged to a strict Separate Baptists church, which prohibited drinking, dancing and slavery. Although the Lincolns chose Hurricane Township, Ind. as their new home because it had more reasonable land ownership statues, the fact that it was a free state likely influenced Abe's future stance on slavery.

Thomas Lincoln was a hard worker who supported his family through farming, cabinet making and other carpentry. He was also a community leader as a land and livestock owner. In Hurricane Township, Thomas managed to recoup his losses in Kentucky and acquired 80 acres of land where he founded the Little Pigeon Creek community.

When Abraham was just nine years old, he lost his mother to milk sickness, which results from drinking milk tainted with white snakeroot. His sister Sarah, 11 years old at the time, had to take over her mother's role in the family and became Abe's chief caretaker.

A year later in 1819, Thomas remarried. His bride was Sally Bush Johnson, a widow with three children. Abe and his stepmother became close over the years, and he called her Mother.

A Love of Learning

Abraham Lincoln preferred reading and writing over farm work, which many around him at the time considered to be laziness. Even so, he educated himself for the most part, with help from time to time from itinerant teachers who passed through town. All in all, Abe had only about 12 months' worth of formal instruction growing up. His early reading material included the Bible, "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Aesop's Fables" and biographies of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

As a teenager, Abe earned a reputation for physical strength by besting the leader of the Clary's Grove boys, a group of local bullies. In addition to his farm chores at home, he did odd jobs and gave any earnings to his father to help with family maintenance.

The family moved to Macon County, Ill., in 1830 when Abraham was 21 years of age. He went with them on this move, but as the family prepared to relocate to another part of Illinois the next year, Abe decided it was time he was out on his own.

He lived in the town of New Salem for the next six years. He held various jobs, including boatman, surveyor, soldier, rail splitter and postmaster. He owned and operated a general store. In 1834, Lincoln ran for and was elected as a representative to the Illinois General Assembly. He earned his license to practice law two years later.

Life and Politics

After moving to Springfield, Ill., in 1937, Abe became a junior partner in the law firm of John Todd Stuart. Through Stuart, he met Mary Todd, a visiting cousin from Springfield. She was the daughter of a Kentucky slave owner, Robert Smith Todd.

Abe and Mary began courting three years later, and Abe asked her to marry him in 1840. The wedding took place in Springfield in 1842 when Abe was 33 and Mary just 23 years old.

At first, the newlyweds lived in a second-floor room above a local bar, the Globe Tavern. While there, they welcomed their first child, Robert Todd Lincoln. In 1844, Abe and Mary bought a house near his law office. That same year, Abe established his own law office and took on William Herndon as a junior partner.

The couple's second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was born in 1846. Soon thereafter, Abe won a seat in the United States Congress as a representative for Illinois. He and his family moved to Washington D.C. in 1847. The following year, Mary took their sons and left Washington, returning to their home in Springfield. She said she believed that their departure would allow Abe to give his full attention to his work, although her husband disagreed. In 1849, Lincoln introduced a bill that would abolish slavery in Washington D.C.

In February the following year, the Lincolns' youngest son, Edward, died of what historians believe was tuberculosis. The boy was not quite four years old. In December, Mary gave birth to another son, William Wallace Lincoln. The couple added yet another son to their family two years later. They named him Thomas and called him Tad.

Abe, whose constituents had been regularly re-electing him to the House, made a bid for the Senate in 1854, but dropped out of the race in favor of the front-runner, Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln did get the nomination for the Senate in 1858, delivering the first of his most well-known speeches at the Illinois Republican Convention with the famous line about the house divided.

His opponent for the Senate seat was Stephen Douglas, and over the next few months, they would engage in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in towns throughout the state. Although Douglas ultimately prevailed in the senate race, Lincoln won a presidential nomination in 1860 at the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Voters elected Lincoln in November 1860. He chose Maine's Hannibal Hamlin as his vice president.

A Nation Divided

The first state, South Carolina, seceded from the Union late 1860. Three months later, a coalition of southern states established The Confederate States of America with president Jefferson Davis, effectively splitting the nation in two.

In March, Abraham Lincoln officially became the 16th President of the United States at the age of 52. In April, before he and his family had the chance to settle into the White House, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in North Carolina, and the Civil War was underway.

Abe's 11-year-old son, William, died in February 1862. The cause of death was likely typhoid fever.

In September 1862, Lincoln released the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, legislation that would free those who were enslaved. It would be effective as of January 1, 1863. Congress subsequently passed the Thirteenth Amendment, also promoted by Lincoln, in 1865, which put an end to legal slavery in the U.S.

Meanwhile, throughout the next couple of years until the spring of 1865, the Civil War raged on. Lincoln delivered several well-known speeches at battle sites, including the Gettysburg Address in November, 1863.

President Lincoln won re-election and delivered his second inaugural speech in March 1865. This time, he tapped Andrew Johnson to be his vice president. A month later, General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate forces, conceded defeat, and the war was over.

On April 14, 1865, Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln during a play at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. The president died the next morning.

The Legacy of Abraham Lincoln

As a self-educated man who rose from humble beginnings to the highest office in the nation, Abraham Lincoln's personal life story is a powerful inspiration to others throughout history. As a politician who led the country through its most trying times since its inception, President Lincoln stands as an icon of resolve, wisdom and compassion. His legacy remains just as influential as it was in the post-Civil War era following his untimely death.

Historians view Lincoln's greatest contributions as president to be preserving the Union throughout the war between the states, his championship of democracy and the abolishment of slavery. Through his courageous leadership in a time of extreme crisis, Abraham Lincoln showed strength and determination. Through his notable addresses to the nation, often on the sites of bloody battles, the president demonstrated his commitment to the Union and compassion for the loss of life. Despite his own losses, including a son who died during his presidency, Lincoln managed to keep the welfare of the nation at the forefront of his political actions.

Lincoln's humanitarian commitment to the emancipation of American slaves earned him the enmity of many and certainly contributed to death. However, it is this commitment, along with his solid leadership through crisis and accomplishments in the face of the nation's strife, that keeps his legacy alive throughout the world and makes him the most admired U.S. president in history.