Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. His parents were Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Thomas was a farmer and carpenter while Nancy was illiterate. Abraham had an older sister Sarah and a younger brother Thomas Jr.
When Abraham was two, the family moved to Knob Creek, Kentucky. At age nine, his mother Nancy died of milk sickness. The following year, his father remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston. Abraham became very close to his stepmother who encouraged his thirst for knowledge.
In 1816, the Lincoln family moved to southwestern Indiana due to land title disputes. Thomas claimed 160 acres of uncleared forest in Little Pigeon Creek Community. Abraham spent his youth splitting timber for fence rails, plowing fields, and hunting game. These experiences gave him his legendary strength.
Childhood and Education
Abraham had little formal education as a child. This may have contributed to his drive for self-education as an adult. He briefly attended schools in Kentucky and Indiana which focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. He was mostly self-educated by reading books like Aesop’s Fables, Robinson Crusoe, and The Pilgrim’s Progress.
He learned to become an adept speaker from an early age. Abraham would practice speeches and oratory on trees and logs to improve his skills.
In 1828, 20 year old Abraham moved to New Salem, Illinois where he worked as a clerk and shopkeeper. During this time, he began studying grammar, mathematics and surveying textbooks. This helped develop his skills in logical reasoning and public speaking.
Abraham tried various occupations throughout his 20s from laborer to shopkeeper to postmaster. He failed at several businesses before becoming a lawyer.
His first dose of national politics came in 1832 when he ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois state legislature. Although he lost, this campaign marked the start of his political career.
He was elected captain of a volunteer company during the Black Hawk War against Native Americans in 1832. He saw no combat during this conflict.
Abraham won election to the Illinois state legislature in 1834 as a member of the Whig party. He studied law on his own and became an attorney in 1836. He moved to Springfield, Illinois that same year and handled many transportation cases in the midst of an economic boom.
His law partner John T. Stuart encouraged him to run for Congress in 1843. He campaigned but then withdrew and focused on practicing law for several more years.
Marriage and Family
In 1840 at age 31, Abraham became engaged to Mary Todd who was four years younger. After a brief split, they reconciled and married on November 4, 1842.
The Lincolns had four children although only one survived into adulthood. Their four sons were Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), Edward Baker “Eddie” Lincoln (1846-1850), William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862), and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (1853-1871).
Mary came from a wealthy slave-owning family in Kentucky and Abraham came from humble beginnings. This difference in upbringing sometimes caused tensions in their marriage. Mary had a difficult personality which Abraham’s colleagues disliked.
The Lincolns endured the death of Eddie in 1850 who was three years old at the time. Willie died at age 11 in 1862 likely from typhoid fever. The deaths of two sons took a major emotional toll on both parents.
Tad was Abraham’s favorite and often accompanied his father. He was impulsive with a quick temper. Tad died at age 18 in 1871, several years after Abraham’s assassination. Only Robert survived his parents and had a successful career as Secretary of War and U.S. diplomat.
Abraham Lincoln struggled with “melancholy” most of his adult life which was likely clinical depression. The pressures of marriage, parenting, career, and nation likely worsened his mental state at times.
There are no reports that Lincoln’s depression impaired his ability to function. It may have given him greater compassion and insights into human nature, making him an effective leader. However, his mental health struggles resulted in great inner turmoil throughout his life.
Rise to National Prominence
Lincoln returned to politics in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing slavery in new territories. This controversial law activated Lincoln’s strong moral opposition to slavery.
He joined the new Republican party and ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1855. His eloquent speaking skills and forceful anti-slavery arguments spurred his rise to national prominence despite losing the election.
In 1858, he challenged Stephen A. Douglas for his Senate seat. Their seven legendary debates discussed the moral and economic dimensions of slavery. Douglas defended popular sovereignty and won the election. However, Lincoln’s moral critiques made him a nationally recognized political figure.
In May 1860, Lincoln won the Republican party nomination for President. He campaigned against the expansion of slavery but vowed he had no intention to abolish it in states where it already existed. This position made him seem a moderate between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions.
In November 1860, Lincoln won the election with just 40% of the popular vote in a rare four-way race. His victory triggered the secession of Southern states who feared he would abolish slavery. By the time he took office, seven states had formed the Confederate States of America.
Lincoln’s Presidency and Civil War
Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President on March 4, 1861. He immediately faced the secession crisis and formation of the Confederacy. Within weeks, the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
Lincoln took unprecedented steps to raise armies, supply munitions, enact conscription, and provide financing for the massive war effort. He suspended habeas corpus rights and ordered the blockade of Southern ports.
In 1862, Lincoln signed the Homestead Act providing Western lands to settlers. He also enacted the Pacific Railway Act to construct the transcontinental railroad.
Despite opposition, Lincoln declared his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freeing slaves in Confederate territories. This transformed the war into a fight against slavery. The proclamation did not cover border states or conquered Southern areas to avoid alienating slaveholders in Union territory.
Greatest Speeches and Writings
As a masterful orator, Lincoln delivered two of the most important speeches in American history. His Gettysburg Address in 1863 declared America as a nation dedicated to human equality. His Second Inaugural Address in 1865 called for mercy and reconciliation between North and South as the bloody Civil War neared its end.
Other famous Lincoln writings include his House Divided speech in 1858 and his letters to Horace Greeley in 1862 which exhibited his evolving views on ending slavery.
Lincoln faced opposition within his own Republican party for the 1864 election. But he won re-nomination and later defeated Democrat George B. McClellan. His second term was secured.
By 1865, the Union was prevailing after four years of brutal total war. But Lincoln would not live to help heal and rebuild the fractured nation he fought to preserve.
On April 14, 1865 Lincoln was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theater with his wife. He was just 56 years old. Lincoln died the next morning, plunging the nation into mourning.
Booth was part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward that night. Booth viewed Lincoln as a tyrant trampling states’ rights. His act aimed to decapitate the Union government and throw it into disarray.
The Lincoln assassination conspiracy ultimately failed. But it succeeded in prematurely taking the life of America’s greatest president just as he was on the cusp of his finest hour reuniting North and South. The entire nation keenly felt the loss of its political and moral leader.
Legacy and Remembrance
Abraham Lincoln steered America through its darkest days and greatest moral crisis. His presidency and policies ended slavery, preserved the Union, enacted land reforms, advanced infrastructure, and reshaped the economy.
Beyond these achievements, Lincoln embodied honesty, integrity and humanity rarely equaled. His life story represents the classic American tale of rising from humble origins through hard work and perseverance. His writings on liberty, equality and democracy represent the nation’s most sacred principles.
Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator who freed slaves and the Savior of the Union who defeated secession. He is widely considered America’s greatest president for keeping alive the founders’ vision of human equality amidst the brutal test of civil war.
His image and words have made Lincoln an iconic, larger than life figure admired by Americans and freedom-lovers worldwide for over 150 years. He continues to rank at or near the top in presidential rankings and historical surveys.