Abraham Lincoln Biography (1809-1865)
Consistently ranked as one of the best, if not the best President of the United States by historians as well as the public is Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln held the distinction of leading the country through the American Civil War, arguably the largest crisis ever faced by a president.
Abraham was born on February 12, 1809, in a small log cabin at a place called Sinking Spring Farm in rural Kentucky, to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln. They took his name after his paternal grandfather. This humble start in life would also mark the first time that a future President would be born outside the original 13 colonies.
At 2 ½ years of age, the Lincoln family moved to the nearby Knob Creek Farm, where they would remain until Abraham was 8 years old. It was of this place that Abraham later recalled:
"The place on Knob Creek… I remember very well."
These developmental years would find Abraham growing bigger and stronger, and required to do chores around the farm, as any boy of his age would do. These included chopping firewood and carrying water. He was also known to deliver meals to his father who was working at a nearby distillery, sometimes staying to do odd jobs. The ownership of the land they were living on was called into question, and rather than waiting on the legal results, Thomas left with the intention of finding land that no one else could claim as theirs.
[See information on the Lincoln Birthplace Penny, which portrays Lincoln up to this point in his life.]
Lincoln's Formative Years
In 1816, the Lincolns moved to the frontier of Indiana, where young Abraham would continue to grow into a man. These years were not without their trials. Surviving the wilderness was harsh, but they persisted with their work on clearing the trees from their farm in order to make a living. Abraham would often be found carrying a book and his axe, on his way to chop more wood. In the absence of proper schooling, his parents instilled in him a love of reading, giving him the ability to educate himself.
Abraham's mother, Nancy, would die a few years after arriving in Indiana from what was known as Milk Sickness. Relative Dennis Hanks (who was living with them at the time of her death) stated years later:
"She knew she was going to die and called up the children to her dying side and told them to be good and kind to their father - to one another and to the world...."
Abraham's father, Thomas, would remarry a widow named Sarah Bush Johnston, who had three children of her own. Sarah was found to be more than capable of merging the two families, and her presence re-inspired the Lincolns to continue the hard work on their property. Once again, Abraham would spend his time chopping down trees, clearing more land for farming. He could also be seen entertaining friends with stories or imitations of local politicians and preachers, a skill that would serve him later in life.
[See information on the Lincoln Formative Years Penny, which portrays Lincoln up to this point in his life.]
The year 1830 brought about another move for the Lincoln family. Hearing of fertile prairies that were easy to farm, they packed up their belongings and moved to Illinois. At 21, Abraham was now an adult, and would move out on his own to make a living. For six years, he would call New Salem, Illinois home and would venture into several different occupations. These would include store clerk, postmaster, surveyor, rail splitter, soldier, and finally in 1834 he would make a foray into politics when he was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Politics seemed to suit him, and within a few years, he was considered to be a leader of the Whig Party of Illinois.
1837 found Abraham moving to Springfield, the new state capital. His newly received law license in hand, he set up practice, and was adequately successful. Traveling the surrounding nine counties as a lawyer on the 8th Judicial Circuit, he did find time for romance once he met Mary Todd, age 21, at a dance.
Their courtship was not a smooth one. The first of January 1841, Abraham called off his engagement to Mary Todd. This was attributed to the depression that he was thought to be suffering from. A year later, the two were once again engaged, and wed in Springfield on November 4, 1842. Married life was an adjustment for the new bride. She was the daughter of a rich slave-owning family from Kentucky, and was not used to doing the menial tasks required of a less than wealthy housewife.
Four sons would be born to the Lincolns within a ten year period. Robert Todd was the first born in 1843. He would live the longest, well into the 20th century. Eddie would die at the age of 3. Willie lived for twelve years, but would pass while Lincoln was in the White House. Finally, Thomas (known as Tad), who was known to be Lincoln's favorite, would out-survive his father, but only by a few years.
After serving 4 successive terms to the Illinois General Assembly, Abraham turned his site on the national political scene. In 1846, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. As a freshman representative, he did not wield much power, but did impress a number of his colleagues. So much so, in fact, that newly elected President Zachary Taylor offered to appoint him as Governor of the Oregon Territory. Abraham declined the offer, opting instead to return to Illinois and his law practice.
As a private citizen for a number of years, Abraham would return to politics in 1854, giving speeches in response to his opposition of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise and would allow new territories to determine if they would allow slavery. In one such speech (given in Peoria, Illinois,) Abe is attributed with stating:
"Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of self-government.' These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon; and whoever holds to the one must despise the other."
This string of speeches would continue as Lincoln also voiced his opposition to the Dred Scott Decision of the United States Supreme Court. In 1856, Abraham helped to found the new Republican Party of Illinois. At the Republican National Convention, Abe even received some votes to become the Vice President. This was not to be his fate.
His attempt to defeat incumbent Stephen A. Douglas for the position of United States senator from Illinois ended in failure, but not before Lincoln made many public statements such as the "House Divided" speech, forcing him to the forefront of American politics. In this speech, Abraham continued to voice his concerns and foreshadowed the events that would befall the United States:
"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South. "
Losing his bid to become senator, Abraham did catch the attention of many nationwide. Those in the north thought his position on slavery was in their best interests, and those outside the original 13 colonies liked the fact that he was a frontiersman. Without ever going on the campaign trail, Abraham was elected the 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860, a fact further irritating the southern states, as he was not even on the ballot in 9 of them.
In a farewell speech to residents of Springfield, Abraham once again uttered words that would become eerily true for him:
"My friends - No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting… I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. "
[See information on the Lincoln Professional Life Penny, which portrays Lincoln up to this point in his life.]
Following his election, southern states started seceding from the union, first of which was South Carolina. February of the next year found 6 other states joining South Carolina, all of which formed the Confederate States of America. In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln made the following statement towards the southern states:
"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it."
President Lincoln proved to be a man of his word, and did not take military action against the south, until they attacked Union forces at Fort Sumter. At that point, he felt he had no option left but to force the south into submission. Lincoln was known to be a hands on Commander-In-Chief, and could be found down at the telegraph office waiting for dispatches from his generals.
The American Civil War was a costly one, especially in the number of lives. The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 would end up claiming an estimated 50,000 union and confederate troops. That fall, President Lincoln made the Gettysburg Address, a speech dedicating the cemetery there that would come to be one of the most quoted in American history. In it he stated:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. .. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government : of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
President Lincoln would win a second term, and the United States would soon have victory over the Confederate States. Their surrender at Appomattox on April 8, 1865 marked the beginning of the healing between the states. Lincoln's policy was to be kind and generous to the south, but he would not live to ensure that goal. In his second inaugural address, he was quoted to say:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
While attending a play at Ford's theatre, President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth. Booth was an actor and a sympathizer of the southern cause. President Lincoln was carried across the street to the Peterson House, where he lied in a coma for 9 hours, before dying on April 15, 1865. Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated.
The body of the President was carried by train through several states on its way to Springfield, Illinois, where he was to be buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery. His body remains there today in the Lincoln Tomb.
[See information on the Lincoln Presidency Penny, which portrays Lincoln through to this point in his life.]