The 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln, entered into office at one of the most tumultuous times in the country’s history. States had already decided to secede from the Union because of the slavery issue. He is ultimately credited with the decision to end slavery in the United States. Historians have consistently ranked him as one of the top three presidents.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. His family moved to southern Indiana in 1816. Lincoln’s formal education was limited to three brief periods in local schools because he had to work to help support his family. In 1830, his family moved to Macon County in southern Illinois, and Lincoln worked on a river flatboat hauling freight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He moved again and settled in the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he worked as a shopkeeper and postmaster.
Lincoln became involved in local politics as a supporter of the Whig Party, and won the election to the Illinois state legislature in 1834. Like his Whig heroes, Clay and Daniel Webster, Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery to the territories, and had a grand vision of the expanding United States, with a focus on commerce and cities rather than agriculture.
Lincoln taught himself law, passing the bar examination in 1836. The following year, he moved to the newly named state capital of Springfield. For the next few years, he worked there as a lawyer, earning a reputation as “Honest Abe,” serving clients ranging from individual residents of small towns to national railroad lines. He met Mary Todd, a well-to-do Kentucky belle with many suitors (including Lincoln’s future political rival, Stephen Douglas), and they married in 1842.
Road to the White House
Lincoln won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846 and began serving his term the following year. As a congressman, Lincoln was unpopular with Illinois voters for his strong stance against the U.S. war with Mexico. Promising not to seek reelection, he returned to Springfield in 1849. Events conspired to push him back into national politics, however, as Douglas, a leading Democrat in Congress, had pushed the Nebraska Act through Congress.
The act declared that the voters of each territory, not the federal government, had the right to decide whether the territory should be slave or free. On October 16, 1854, Lincoln went before a large crowd in Peoria to debate the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with Douglas, denouncing slavery and its extension. He called the institution a violation of the most basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence.
With the Whig Party in ruins, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party–formed largely in opposition to slavery’s extension into the territories–in 1858 and ran for the Senate again that year after a previous failure. In June, Lincoln delivered his now-famous “house divided” speech, in which he quoted from the Bible to support his belief that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”
Lincoln then confronted Douglas in a series of famous debates. Even though he lost the election, Lincoln’s performance earned him a national reputation. His fame rose even higher in early 1860, after he delivered another rousing speech at New York City’s Cooper Union. That May, Republicans chose Lincoln as their candidate for American President, passing over Senator William H. Seward of New York and other powerful contenders in favor of the more inexperienced Illinois lawyer with only one undistinguished congressional term served.
A Wartime President
In the general election, Abraham Lincoln again faced Douglas, who represented the northern Democrats; southern Democrats had nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, while John Bell ran for the brand new Constitutional Union Party. With Breckenridge and Bell splitting the vote in the South, Lincoln won most of the North and carried the Electoral College.
After years of tensions between the North and the South, the election of an anti-slavery northerner as the 16th president of the United States made many Southerners angry, and by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861 seven southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.
After Lincoln ordered a fleet of Union ships to supply South Carolina’s Fort Sumter in April, the Confederates fired on both the fort and the Union fleet, beginning the Civil War. Hopes for a quick Union victory were dashed by defeat in the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), and Lincoln called for 500,000 more troops as both sides settled in for a long conflict.
While the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis was a West Point graduate, Mexican War hero and former Secretary of War, Lincoln had only a brief and undistinguished period of service in the Black Hawk War to his credit. He surprised many by proving to be a diligent wartime leader, quickly learning about strategy and tactics in the early years of the Civil War, and about choosing the ablest commanders.
General George McClellan, though respected by his troops, continually undermined Lincoln with his reluctance to advance. Finally, when McClellan failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate Army following Antietam in September of 1862, Lincoln removed him from command. During the war, Lincoln drew criticism for suspending some civil liberties, including the right of habeas corpus, but he considered such measures necessary to win the war.
Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address
Shortly after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, and freed all of the slaves in the rebellious states but left those in the Border States (loyal to the Union) in bondage.
Though Lincoln once maintained that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” he nonetheless came to regard emancipation as one of his greatest achievements, and would later argue for the passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.His efforts were rewarded when the 13th Amendment was passed after his death in 1865.
Two important Union victories in July 1863–at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania–finally turned the tide of the war. In November 1863, Lincoln delivered a brief speech of only 272 words at the dedication ceremony for the new national cemetery at Gettysburg. Published widely, the Gettysburg Address eloquently expressed the war’s purpose, harking back to the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the pursuit of human equality. It became the most famous speech of Lincoln’s presidency, and one of the most widely quoted speeches in history.
Re-election and Death
In 1864, Lincoln faced a tough reelection battle against the Democratic nominee, the former Union General George McClellan, but Union victories in battle (especially William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September) swung many votes the president’s way. In his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, Lincoln addressed the need to reconstruct the South and rebuild the Union: “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
As Sherman marched triumphantly northward through the Carolinas, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Union victory was near, and Lincoln gave a speech on the White House lawn on April 11, urging his audience to welcome the southern states back into the fold. Tragically, Lincoln would not live to help carry out his vision of Reconstruction.
On the night of April 14, the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth slipped into the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington and shot him point-blank in the back of the head. Lincoln was carried to a boardinghouse across the street from the theater, but he never regained consciousness, and died in the early morning hours of April 15: