Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is fondly remembered as the 16th president of the United States. A self-educated lawyer, he entered politics by running for local office, and then eventually at the national level for congress and the senate. His election as an anti-slavery expansion President triggered many Southern states to secede from the Union. He is widely credited by historians for preserving the Union of the United States and is considered one of the greatest Presidents in American history. He was famously assassinated, becoming a martyr for the causes enshrined in The Declaration of Independence, such as individual liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln

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Table of contents

    Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This iconic photograph of Abraham Lincoln was taken by Alexander Gardner on November 8, 1863.

    Abraham Lincoln's Biography

    Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky.

    Early life

    Abraham Lincoln was the son of Thomas Lincoln and his mother Nancy. One of three children, Sarah and Thomas but his brother would die as an infant. His mother Nancy died of milk sickness when he was nine years old, leaving his sister Sarah to become a surrogate parent. In 1816 the family moved to Indiana where it was easier to secure land titles. Fearing another milk sickness outbreak, Thomas moved the family again, this time to New Salem, Illinois.

    Milk sickness - poisoning that results from the consumption of meat and dairy from a cow that consumed the plant known as White Snakeroot.


    The young Lincoln was athletic, nimble with an ax, and practiced wrestling as a youth. While he was fully capable of the physically demanding farmstead chores on the land owned by his father, he much preferred to read than perform manual labor. He became self-educated due to his insatiable desire for reading while receiving lessons from traveling teachers on occasion. Some of his first readings were the Bible, Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the memoirs of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).1

    Abraham Lincoln's marriage and family life

    Lincoln met Mary Todd in 1839 and they married in 1842. They had four boys; Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas. Only Thomas would survive his father Lincoln, as his brothers all succumbed to illness. As children, Lincoln frequently brought them into his law office, allowing them to run and play, much to the chagrin of his law partner, William Herndon.2

    Abraham Lincoln's Political Career

    After Abraham Lincoln's father Thomas moved the family to New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln took the opportunity to live on his own at 21 years of age. After opening up a shop and tavern with a business partner, and spent some time working at the post office. He also worked on the Sangamon River. Traveling to New Orleans on a flatboat he was first exposed to slavery. These experiences would influence his personal stance on slavery, and his political stance as well. Abraham Lincoln would first start his political career running for the Illinois state legislature.

    Illinois house of representatives

    In March 1833, Abraham Lincoln ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Illinois General Assembly, advocating for improvements for navigating the Sangamon River, the local conduit that supported commerce. He lacked the resources, education, and political connections, but proved himself capable of drawing crowds with his public speaking.

    Lincoln ran a second campaign, this time successful, for the Illinois House of Representatives for Sangamon County in 1834 and would hold it for four terms until 1842. He was a major proponent of the policy of "free soil". In 1836, he was admitted to the Illinois state bar and moved to Springfield to practice law under the tutelage of his wife Mary Todd's cousin, John T. Stuart. Then he partnered for a couple of years with Stephen T. Logan. In 1844 Lincoln started his own practice with Willaim Herndon who would later complain about Lincoln's children running around the office.2 Lincoln would later return to politics elected as a US congressman for one term.

    Free Soil - a policy stance that insisted that new territories be free of slavery while not opposing the end of slavery in existing states.

    National politics

    Abraham Lincoln ran for the United States House of Representatives. He held the seat from 1847 to 1849. Publicly he vowed to hold the seat for only one term. Lincoln had his ambitions set on serving in the administration of then-presidential candidate Zachary Taylor and offered support for his nomination. Taylor's campaign ultimately offered Lincoln to be governor of the Oregon territory, which he declined, returning to his career in law.

    Lincoln re-entered national politics once he publicly commented on the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was introduced by his future political rival Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln first openly expressed his anti-slavery sentiments in a speech in Peoria, Illinois in October 1854. This became known as his Peoria Speech and is recognized as his return to national politics.

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act sought to strike a balance between Northern anti-slavery and Southern pro-slavery sentiments. The act allowed new territories to decide for themselves if they would join the Union as free or slave states. The successful passage of the act also led to the demise of the Whig party who were free soil advocates, and the formation of the new Republican party, which based its platform on abolishing slavery. Abraham Lincoln, formerly of the Whig party, would join the newly formed Republican party and emerge as a leader and symbol of their platform.

    In 1856 Lincoln attended and gave the final speech at the Bloomington Convention which established the Illinois Republican Party and Lincoln's reputation as an emerging party leader.

    Lincoln ran a campaign and lost the seat for the US senate against Douglass. Despite his loss, the campaign highlighted his oratory skills and garnered him national attention through the series of debates between him and Douglass. They had a total of seven debates. These public debates became the most popular in US history at the time, drawing crowds numbering in the thousands. After he failed to unseat Douglass, Lincoln continued to give speeches across the country. While popular in the midwest, it wasn't until his famous "Cooper Union speech" in New York City that he gained traction with voters in the east. This was a much-needed voter base to compete against the Democrats, the opposing party dominated by Southerners who were in favor of maintaining the slavery status quo.

    At first, Lincoln didn't actively pursue the presidency, but many newspapers speculated his nomination from the Republican party. On May 18, 1860, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln won the nomination. He strategically relied on the tremendous enthusiasm and campaigners of the newly formed Republican party to propel his candidacy. The Northern United States felt that the antebellum South was gradually consolidating its power around national policy-making, especially with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and sought to animate their base with policies that would weaken Southern power, like the abolition of slavery.

    Antebellum South - the name given to the group of states whose economy and prosperity primarily relied on slave labor. Most seceded during the civil war, forming the Confederacy.


    Conservative Republicans like Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery's extension should be contained, that Congress should determine free and slave states, and the utmost political priority was on the preservation of the Union of the United States of America. Lincoln believed secession was unlikely if he won the presidency. This belief would prove to be Lincoln's greatest underestimation.

    Abraham Lincoln was voted in as the 16th president on November 6, 1860. Ten of fifteen Southern states were so vehemently opposed to the election that they didn't even collect ballots for Lincoln. Before he took office in March, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana had officially declared their secession from the Union. The Lincoln administration refused to acknowledge the Confederate States of America and declared secession illegal. At his inaugural address, he insisted he had no intention of abolishing slavery. Still, this public acknowledgment could not quell his disfavor among the southern states. He had to travel to Washington D.C. disguised and even evaded assassination attempts as President-elect.

    Civil War

    On April 12, 1861, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard attacked Fort Sumter, held by the Union army, in Charleston, South Carolina, marking the start of the American Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln responded with a force of volunteers to recapture the fort. A series of escalations followed and led to full-scale war across the states.

    South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina officially comprised the Confederacy. Newly-formed border states located between the Union North and Confederate South, such as Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia, would become the initial battlegrounds.

    As President, Abraham Lincoln exercised and expanded his power as commander-in-chief of the Union forces more so than any president before him. He sought to limit the scope of the war, avoid international intervention, and end it quickly as possible. Lincoln used executive orders to cripple and constrict the South economically, most famously in his 'Emancipation Proclamation", which he signed into law on January 1, 1863. The following November, at the dedication to the first national soldier's cemetery, President Lincoln gave his famous speech the "Gettysburg Address". About a year later, on November 8, 1864, President Lincoln is re-elected.

    After the last Confederate army surrendered, the Civil War would officially end on April 9, 1865.


    While watching a play with his wife and two guests on a private balcony, John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, snuck in and shot recently re-elected President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the neck. One of the guests wrestled with Booth but was stabbed, and the assassin got away. Booth would later be tracked down and killed in a standoff. Lincoln's wound was fatal, and he died early the next morning on April 15, 1865, just four days after the Civil War ended.

    Abraham Lincoln, Theater Balcony, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Abraham Lincoln was shot in the balcony of a theater.

    A train carrying Lincoln's casket would travel to Springfield, Illinois, making stops along the way. Thousands would come to pay their respects.

    Abraham Lincoln's Legacy

    Abraham Lincoln has become a near-mythic figure in American popular history. The log cabin he grew up in has become an emblematic image of a young Lincoln reading and chopping wood and recreations of his childhood house exist in his hometown. Lincoln's personal ambition, and self-education, serve to underscore the ideals of many founding principles of the United States. His ability to realize so many personal ambitions serves as an inspiration to the American pursuit of individual liberty and happiness, and one's supposedly innate capacities to realize the American dream. His death can be seen as a sacrifice to the living of those ideals to the fullest.

    The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC is a literal larger-than-life statue of the late President, with upwards of five million visitors each year. Lincoln's visage has been etched into the Mount Rushmore National Monument, along with countless other monuments across the country.

    Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial Statue, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. was built in 1922.

    Abraham Lincoln's Famous Works

    While famous for writing many letters, essays, and speeches, Abraham Lincoln's most famous works are the 'Emancipation Proclamation' and the 'Gettysburg Address'.

    'Emancipation Proclamation'

    On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order to declare all slaves free. This effectively removed the labor foundation of the South, crippling their economy, and simultaneously bolstered support of the Union army by accepting fleeing former slaves as recruits. Lincoln had previously insisted that he only wanted to stop the spread of slavery to new territories. Before the presidency, it was politically viable for him to maintain this position. However, since the start of the Civil War, the South had incurred a series of decisive military victories against the Union army. It became in the North's strategic interest to disrupt the Confederacy's winning streak. The declaration promised refuge to slaves to escape to Union lines and inspired them to fight for the Union.

    Gettysburg Address

    President Lincoln gave this speech on November 19, 1863, a few months after the Battle of Gettysburg. He was invited to share a few words at the dedication of the first Soldier's National Cemetery on the very same battlegrounds. In retrospect, this battle was considered a vital turning point in the Civil War, halting General Robert E Lee's advance into the Union. The battle also had the highest number of casualties of any battle during the Civil War, with combined casualty estimates between 46,000 and 51,000 American lives.

    Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Cemetery, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Part of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The entire Civil War would cost more American lives than any other war to date.

    Despite the relatively short speech, it is remembered as espousing the basic founding principles of the United States. That all men are created equal, and that these soldiers died valiantly for this cause. He said that the work is not done, and encouraged that the living must carry on the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

    Abraham Lincoln Quotes

    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."

    - 'Gettysburg Address'

    Lincoln is remembered most famously for the opening lines of his 'Gettysburg Address' because he quickly touches upon the basic founding principles of the United States of America. He gave this speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor those who had fallen in the Civil War, particularly those at the Battle of Gettysburg. He intended to encourage those still living to carry on the promise of these principles, by asking the question if such an undertaking, a country founded on such principles, can survive.

    If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

    - 'Lincoln to Horace Greeley', 1862

    As President, Abraham Lincoln's primary goal was to preserve the Union. This quote underlines that fact and was written in a letter to Greeley several months before Lincoln signed the 'Emancipation Proclamation'. Lincoln clearly stated that he supported whichever policies would achieve that end of Union preservation. Privately, he was not in favor of slavery but publicly was strategic about trying to win support from the political spectrum from free soil advocates, who sought to restrict the growth of slavery to new states, to abolitionists, who sought to dismantle the institution of slavery altogether.

    Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."

    -Lincoln, 23, addressing the people of Sangamo County3

    This quote reflects a value that Abraham Lincoln instilled in himself while growing up. Lincoln taught himself to read and write, and his self-education laid the groundwork for his later ambitions in life. He acknowledges the key importance of education in his success but also respects the autonomy of the people to decide for themselves how they should be educated, much like himself.

    Abraham Lincoln - Key Takeaways

    • Abraham Lincoln was born of modest means and took to educating himself while growing up doing manual labor
    • Lincoln studied law and started his own law practice
    • He became involved in national politics after he received widespread attention due to his oratory skills
    • Lincoln was anti-slavery and believed in preserving the Union first, abolishing slavery only if it helped the Union stay intact
    • Lincoln is remembered as a martyr and hero for his accomplishments in governance and leadership
    1. Oates, Stephen B. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (1994)

    2. Sanders, Gerald. Abraham Lincoln: Fact Book & Teacher's Guide (1982)

    3. Lincoln, Abraham. "First Political Announcement". Abraham Lincoln Online. (2022)

    Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln

    Was Abraham Lincoln a Democrat or Republican?

    Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. At the time the party was newly formed and emerged from the collapse of the Whig Party. It was opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories.

    What did Abraham Lincoln do while he was president?

    Abraham Lincoln expanded the power of the presidency. He took an active role in implementing strategy as commander-in-chief of the armed forces during the American Civil War. He used an executive order, The Emancipation Proclamation, to effectively end slavery, cripple the Confederate economy, and bolster Union support.

    What are 3 facts about Abraham Lincoln?

    Three facts about Abraham Lincoln are that he was the 16th president, a lawyer, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

    Why is Abraham Lincoln the best president? 

    Abraham Lincoln is considered one of the best presidents because of his popularity, influence on governance, and his embodiment of the founding principles of the United States of America.

    Why is Abraham Lincoln a hero? 

    Abraham Lincoln is considered a hero because he believed in upholding the founding principles of the United States of America, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery, and ultimately being assassinated for what he believed in.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the presidency by which party?

    What are two of Abraham Lincoln's most famous works?

    When was Abraham Lincoln born?


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