Biography of Abraham Lincoln
AUTHOR: Neely, Mark E., Jr
PUBLISHED ON: March 18, 2003
PUBLISHED IN: Biographies



Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Hardin
(now Larue) County, Ky. Indians had killed his grandfather,
Lincoln wrote, “when he was laboring to open a farm in the
forest” in 1786; this tragedy left his father, Thomas Lincoln,
“a wandering laboring boy” who “grew up, litterally {sic}
without education.” Thomas, nevertheless, became a skilled
carpenter and purchased three farms in Kentucky before the
Lincolns left the state. Little is known about Lincoln’s
mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Abraham had an older sister,
Sarah, and a younger brother, Thomas, who died in infancy.

In 1816 the Lincolns moved to Indiana, “partly on account of
slavery,” Abraham recalled, “but chiefly on account of
difficulty in land titles in K{entuck}y.” Land ownership was
more secure in Indiana because the Land Ordinance of 1785
provided for surveys by the federal government; moreover, the
Northwest Or- dinance of 1787 forbade slavery in the area.
Lincoln’s parents belonged to a faction of the Baptist church
that disapproved of slavery, and this affiliation may account
for Abraham’s later statement that he was “naturally anti-
slavery” and could not remember when he “did not so think, and

Indiana was a “wild region, with many bears and other wild
animals still in the woods.” The Lincolns’ life near Little
Pigeon Creek, in Perry (now Spencer) County, was not easy.
Lincoln “was raised to farm work” and recalled life in this
“unbroken forest” as a fight “with trees and logs and grubs.”
“There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for
education,” Lincoln later recalled; he attended “some schools,
so called,” but for less than a year altogether. “Still,
somehow,” he remembered, “I could read, write, and cipher to
the Rule of Three; but that was all.”

Lincoln’s mother died in 1818, and the following year his
father married a Kentucky widow, Sarah Bush Johnston. She
“proved a good and kind mother.” In later years Lincoln could
fondly and poetically recall memories of his “child- hood
home.” In 1828 he was able to make a flatboat trip to New
Orleans. His sister died in childbirth the same year.

In 1830 the Lincolns left Indiana for Illinois. Abraham made a
second flatboat trip to New Orleans, and in 1831 he left home
for New Salem, in Sangamon County near Springfield. The
separation may have been made easier by Lincoln’s estran-
gement from his father, of whom he spoke little in his mature
life. In New Salem, Lincoln tried various occupations and
served briefly in the Black Hawk War (1832). This military
interlude was uneventful except for the fact that he was
elected captain of his volunteer company, a distinction that
gave him “much satisfaction.” It opened new avenues for his


Lincoln ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois legislature in
1832. Two years later he was elected to the lower house for
the first of four successive terms (until 1841) as a Whig. His
membership in the Whig Party was natural. Lincoln’s father was
a Whig, and the party’s ambitious program of national economic
development was the perfect solution to the problems Lincoln
had seen in his rural, hard- scrabble Indiana past. His first
platform (1832) announced that “Time and
experience…verified…that the poorest and most thinly
populated countries would be greatly benefitted by the opening
of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable
streams…There cannot justly be any objection to having rail
roads and canals.”

As a Whig, Lincoln supported the Second Bank of the United
States, the Illinois State Bank, government-sponsored internal
improvements (roads, canals, rail- roads, harbors), and
protective tariffs. His Whig vision of the West, derived from
Henry Clay, was not at all pastoral. Unlike most successful
American politicians, Lincoln was unsentimental about
agriculture, calling farmers in 1859 “neither better nor worse
than any other people.” He remained conscious of his humble
origins and was therefore sympathetic to labor as “prior to,
and independent of, capital.” He bore no antagonism to
capital, however, admiring the American system of economic
opportunity in which the “man who labored for another last
year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire
others to labor for him.” Slavery was the opposite of
opportunity and mobility, and Lincoln stated his political
opposition to it as early as 1837.


Encouraged by Whig legislator John Todd Stuart, Lincoln became
a lawyer in 1836, and in 1837 he moved to Springfield, where
he became Stuart’s law partner. With a succession of partners,
including Stephen T. Logan and William H. Herndon, Lincoln
built a successful practice. Lincoln courted Mary Todd, a
Kentuckian of much more genteel origins than he. After a brief
postponement of their engagement, which plummeted Lincoln into
a deep spell of melancholy, they were married on Nov. 4, 1842.
They had four sons: Robert Todd (1843-1926), Edward Baker
(1846-50), William Wallace (1850-62), and Thomas “Tad”
(1853-71). Mary Todd Lincoln was a Presbyterian, but her
husband was never a church member.

Lincoln served one term (1847-49) as a member of the U.S.
House of Representa- tives, where he opposed the Mexican
War–Whigs did everywhere–as unnecessary and
unconstitutional. This opposition was not a function of
internationalist sympathy for Mexico (Lincoln thought the war
inevitable) but of feeling that the Democratic president,
James Polk, had violated the Constitution. Lincoln had been
indifferent about the annexation of Texas, already a slave
territory, but he opposed any expansion that would allow
slavery into new areas; hence, he supported the Wilmot
Proviso, which would have barred slavery from any territory
gained as a result of the Mexican War. He did not run for
Congress again, returning instead to Springfield and the law.


Lincoln “was losing interest in politics” when the
Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress in 1854. This
legislation opened lands previously closed to slavery to the
possibility of its spread by local option (popular
sovereignty); Lincoln viewed the provisions of the act as
immoral. Although he was not an abolitionist and thought
slavery unassailably protected by the Constitution in states
where it already existed, Lincoln also thought that America’s
founders had put slavery on the way to “ultimate extinction”
by preventing its spread to new territories. He saw this act,
which had been sponsored by Democratic Senator Stephen A.
Douglas, as a new and alarming development.

Lincoln vied for the U.S. Senate in 1855 but eventually threw
his support to Lyman Trumbull. In 1856 he joined the newly
formed Republican Party, and two years later he campaigned for
the Senate against Douglas. In his speech at Springfield in
acceptance of the Republican senatorial nomination (June 16,
1858) Lincoln suggested that Douglas, Chief Justice Roger B.
Taney, and Demo- cratic presidents Franklin Pierce and James
Buchanan had conspired to national- ize slavery. In the same
speech he expressed the view that the nation would become
either all slave or all free: “A house divided against itself
cannot stand.”

The underdog in the senatorial campaign, Lincoln wished to
share Douglas’s fame by appearing with him in debates. Douglas
agreed to seven debates: in Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro,
Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, Ill. Lincoln knew
that Douglas–now fighting the Democratic Buchanan
administration over the constitution to be adopted by
Kansas–had alienated his Southern support; and he feared
Douglas’s new appeal to eastern Republicans now that Douglas
was battling the South. Lincoln’s strategy, therefore, was to
stress the gulf of principle that separated Republican
opposition to slavery as a moral wrong from the moral
indifference of the Democrats, embodied in legislation
allowing popular sover- eignty to decide the fate of each
territory. Douglas, Lincoln insisted, did not care whether
slavery was “voted up or voted down.” By his vigorous showing
against the famous Douglas, Lincoln won the debates and his
first considerable national fame. He did not win the Senate
seat, however; the Illinois legisla- ture, dominated by
Democratic holdovers in the upper house, elected Douglas.


In February 1860, Lincoln made his first major political
appearance in the Northeast when he addressed a rally at the
Cooper Union in New York. He was now sufficiently well known
to be a presidential candidate. At the Republican national
convention in Chicago in May, William H. Seward was the
leading candidate. Seward, however, had qualities that made
him undesirable in the critical states the Republicans had
lost in 1856: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and New Jersey.
As a result Lincoln won the nomination by being the second
choice of the majority.

He went on to win the presidential election, defeating the
Northern Democrat Douglas, the Southern Democrat John C.
Breckinridge, and the Constitutional Union candidate John
Bell. Lincoln selected a strong cabinet that included all of
his major rivals for the Republican nomination: Seward as
secretary of state, Salmon P. Chase as secretary of the
treasury, and Edward Bates as attorney general.

By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, seven
states had seceded from the Union. His conciliatory inaugural
address had no effect on the South, and, against the advice of
a majority of his cabinet, Lincoln decided to send provisions
to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The fort was a symbol of
federal authority–conspicuous in the state that had led
secession, South Carolina–and it would soon have had to be
evacuated for lack of supplies. On Apr. 12, 1861, South
Carolina fired on the fort, and the Civil War began.


As a commander in chief Lincoln was soon noted for vigorous
measures, sometimes at odds with the Constitution and often at
odds with the ideas of his military commanders. After a period
of initial support and enthusiasm for George B. McClellan,
Lincoln’s conflicts with that Democratic general helped to
turn the latter into his presidential rival in 1864. Famed for
his clemency for court- martialed soldiers, Lincoln
nevertheless took a realistic view of war as best prosecuted
by killing the enemy. Above all, he always sought a general,
no matter what his politics, who would fight. He found such a
general in Ulysses S. Grant, to whom he gave overall command
in 1864. Thereafter, Lincoln took a less direct role in
military planning, but his interest never wavered, and he died
with a copy of Gen. William Sherman’s orders for the March to
the Sea in his pocket.

Politics vied with war as Lincoln’s major preoccupation in the
presidency. The war required the deployment of huge numbers of
men and quantities of materiel; for administrative assistance,
therefore, Lincoln turned to the only large organization
available for his use, the Republican party. With some rare
but important exceptions (for example, Secretary of War Edwin
M. Stanton), Republi- cans received the bulk of the civilian
appointments from the cabinet to the local post offices.
Lincoln tried throughout the war to keep the Republican party
together and never consistently favored one faction in the
party over another. Military appointments were divided between
Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats accused Lincoln of being a tyrant because he
proscribed civil liber- ties. For example, he suspended the
writ of habeas corpus in some areas as early as Apr. 27, 1861,
and throughout the nation on Sept. 24, 1862, and the adminis-
tration made over 13,000 arbitrary arrests. On the other hand,
Lincoln tolerated virulent criticism from the press and
politicians, often restrained his com- manders from
overzealous arrests, and showed no real tendencies toward
becoming a dictator. There was never a hint that Lincoln might
postpone the election of 1864, although he feared in August of
that year that he would surely lose to McClellan. Democrats
exaggerated Lincoln’s suppression of civil liberties, in part
because wartime prosperity robbed them of economic issues and
in part because Lincoln handled the slavery issue so

The Constitution protected slavery in peace, but in war,
Lincoln came to believe, the commander in chief could abolish
slavery as a military necessity. The preliminary Emancipation
Proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862, bore this military
justification, as did all of Lincoln’s racial measures,
including especially his decision in the final proclamation of
Jan. 1, 1863, to accept blacks in the army. By 1864, Democrats
and Republicans differed clearly in their platforms on the
race issue: Lincoln’s endorsed the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution abolishing slavery, whereas McClellan’s pledged
to return to the South the rights it had had in 1860.

Lincoln’s victory in that election thus changed the racial
future of the United States. It also agitated
Southern-sympathizer and Negrophobe John Wilkes Booth, who
began to conspire first to abduct Lincoln and later to kill
him. On Apr. 14, 1865, five days after Robert E. Lee’s
surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln attended
a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in
Washington. There Booth entered the presidential box and shot
Lincoln. The next morning at 7:22 Lincoln died.

Lincoln’s achievements–saving the Union and freeing the
slaves–and his martyrdom just at the war’s end assured his
continuing fame. No small contribu- tion was made by his
eloquence as exemplified in the Gettysburg Address (Nov. 19,
1863), in which he defined the war as a rededication to the
egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and in
his second inaugural address (Mar. 4, 1865), in which he urged
“malice toward none” and “charity for all” in the peace to
come. MARK E. NEELY, JR.


Beveridge, Albert J. – ABRAHAM LINCOLN, 1809-1858, 2 vols.
(1928; repr. 1971) Current, Richard N. – THE LINCOLN NOBODY
KNOWS (1958; repr. 1963) Donald, David – LINCOLN RECONSIDERED,
2d ed. (1961) Fehrenbacher, Don E. – PRELUDE TO GREATNESS
(1962; repr. 1970) – (as compiler) THE LEADERSHIP OF ABRAHAM
LINCOLN (1970) Lincoln, Abraham – THE COLLECTED WORKS OF
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, ed. by Roy P. Basler, et al., 9 vols.
David D. Anderson (1970) Oates, Stephen B.- WITH MALICE TOWARD
NONE: THE LIFE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1977) Randall, James G. –
LINCOLN THE PRESIDENT, 4 vols. (4th vol. with Richard N.
Current; 145-55) Sandburg, Carl – ABRAHAM LINCOLN: THE PRAIRIE
vols. (1939) Thomas, Benjamin P. – ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A


16th President of the United States (1861-65)
Buried: Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Ill.
Nickname: “Honest Abe”; “Illinois Rail-Splitter”
Born: Feb. 12, 1809, Hardin (now Larue) County, Ky.
Profession: Lawyer
Religious Affiliation: None
Marriage: Nov. 4, 1842, to Mary Todd (1818-82)
Children: Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926)
Edward Baker Lincoln (1846-50)
William Wallace Lincoln (1850-62)
Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (1853-71)
Political Affiliation: Whig; Republican
Writings: COLLECTED WORKS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN (8 vols., 1953-55),
ed. by Roy P. Basler
Died: Apr. 15, 1865, Washington, D.C.
Vice-President and Cabinet Members
Vice-President: Hannibal Hamlin (1861-65)
Andrew Johnson (1865)
Secretary of State: William H. Seward
Secretary of the Treasury: Salmon P. Chase (1861-64)
  William P. Fessenden (1864-65)
  Hugh McCulloch (1865)
Secretary of War: Simon Cameron (1861-62)
  Edwin M. Stanton (1862-65)
Attorney General: Edward Bates (1861-64)
  James Speed (1864-65)
Postmaster General: Montgomery Blair (1861-64)
William Dennison (1864-65)
Secretary of the Navy: Gideon Welles
Secretary of the Interior: Caleb B. Smith (1861-63)
  John P. Usher (1863-65)

‘Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia,
Electronic Version’

USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988

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