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Who is Abraham Lincoln?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. Best known for the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves, he is generally regarded by historians as one of the best leaders the nation has ever had. Although he came from extremely modest beginnings and received very little formal schooling, he had a passion for politics and was able to lead the country through the difficulties of the Civil War. He was elected to a second term as president in 1964, but was assassinated just a few weeks after his inauguration.

Early Life

Abraham ("Abe") Lincoln was born to Thomas and Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln in a log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm in Kentucky on 12 February 1809. He was the third child for the couple, although an older son died as a baby. His father was initially fairly wealthy and well-respected in the community, but he ended up losing much of his land due to a problem with the property titles. As a result, the family moved to Indiana when Abraham was seven years old to get a fresh start, eventually buying some farmland there.

In 1818, just two years after moving to their new farm, Nancy died of a condition caused by drinking milk contaminated with plant toxins. Abe suffered the loss of his mother a great deal and had to work extremely hard with his family to keep the farm going. His responsibilities at home meant that, like many frontier children, he was mainly self-educated, getting to attend school only occasionally, although he loved to read and borrow books whenever possible.

Not long after Nancy passed away, Thomas remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with her own children, and Sarah and Abe became very close. Abe provided some income for his family by helping to build rail fences. His relationship with his father was strained, however, and he decided to leave home in 1831, the year after the family moved to Illinois. One of his first jobs was hauling freight on a flatboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, Louisiana, which allowed him to see slavery firsthand. He also worked as a postmaster and shopkeeper.

Early Career

By 1832, Abraham Lincoln already had become interested in politics. He first ran for office in that year, attempting to gain a seat in the Illinois legislature. His first bid for political office was unsuccessful, but in 1834, he was elected and served four terms. Between 1834 and 1841, he studied and became a lawyer, and he met his wife, Mary Todd, whom he married in 1842. They had four sons, but three died relatively young.

Lincoln’s approach to politics was slightly different than the platform of the Whig Party, of which he was a member. He was supportive of business and free enterprise, but his background of poverty made him sympathetic to the difficulties laborers encountered. He believed strongly in the Constitution, especially in his early years. After serving a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 - 1849, he was almost ready to give up on politics altogether.

Rise to Presidency

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave states and territories the ability to decide independently whether they wanted to allow slavery. Lincoln deeply opposed the passage of this law, because he believed slavery ultimately would hurt the economy, and because he didn't think it was in line with the intent of the Declaration of Independence. His interest in politics was reinvigorated, because he recognized the long-reaching effects the act might have.

After the Whig Party declined, Lincoln joined the Republican Party in 1856. The following year, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the Scott vs. Sanford case, which denied blacks many of their basic rights. Although he didn't think the founding fathers of the country meant to equalize races, Lincoln did think that, through the Declaration of Independence, they had supported the idea that even a black man had the right at least to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Seeing how the slavery problem was causing a rift in the nation, in 1858, he challenged Stephen Douglas for his US Senate seat. He didn't win, but his campaign gained him the support that eventually led to the Republican presidential nomination.

Two years later, despite being a dark horse candidate, Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States on 6 November 1860. The state of the nation at this time was not good: by the time he took the oath of office, seven states already had seceded from the Union, with slavery being a major divisive issue. Even though he tried to reassure the South that he didn't want to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed, just one month after his inauguration, Southerners attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina on 12 April 1861, and the Civil War was under way.

The Civil War and the Emancipation of the Slaves

Throughout the conflict, Lincoln took full advantage of his political and constitutional powers. He initiated many controversial acts, such as blocking Southern shipping ports and the suspending of habeas corpus for the arrests of over 13,000 suspected Southern supporters. These decisions caused enormous difficulties within the lower states, but the president was convinced that stopping the rebellion, even if it meant some temporary agony, was necessary to keep the country from ultimately falling apart.

As the war progressed, President Lincoln employed various strategies to try to gain an advantage, shifting control of the Union army several times. With unification his main goal, he took measures with the support of Congress that banned slavery on federal land and that outlined legal methods of freeing the slaves of rebellion supporters. In short, freeing the slaves became a military tactic rather than an ethical fight, and on 22 September 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave liberty to blacks in the states not under Union control.

Following the order, in 1863, Lincoln delivered what many historians consider to be his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, as part of the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. In roughly three minutes, he affirmed that the Civil War was a fight toward the founding fathers' original principles of liberty and equality. The speech also paid tribute to the fallen soldiers of the fight, asserting that their deaths, which ultimately had protected democracy, were not in vain.

Continuing his abolition efforts for the good of the country, the president proposed an amendment to the constitution that would ban slavery in every state. Once drafted, it initially failed to pass Congress, but it was adopted on 31 January 1865 on the second try. Almost a full year later, on 6 December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, and slavery in America was officially over.


Lincoln wanted to quickly re-establish peace between the North and South once the fighting ended. He did not favor vicious retribution against Southerners and offered pardons to anyone who would sign an oath of allegiance to the United States. Under his guidance, reconstruction began in some parts of the South as early as 1863, although the war would not officially end until 1965.

Reelection and the End of the War

Despite the turmoil within the country, Lincoln was able to draw good support in the 1864 presidential election. During this time, the president relied on Ulysses S. Grant as his new leader of the Union army. Grant was able to drive back Southern forces, but his tactics resulted in many casualties for the North, so Lincoln was not confident in his odds of making it to a second term. The election turned out to be a landslide victory for Lincoln, however, in part because of the president's work with Democrats who supported the war, including Andrew Johnson, who became his vice president. He was inaugurated for his second term on 4 March 1865, and just a month later, on 9 April 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, marking the beginning of the end of the war.


John Wilkes Booth was an American actor who strongly opposed Lincoln's policies. He plotted with friends to kidnap him, but when these plans fell apart, Booth became determined to assassinate him instead. On 14 April 1865, just days after Lee's surrender, he went to Ford's Theater, where he knew the president would be in attendance. Booth was able to make his way into Lincoln's box and shot him in the head. Although the president lived through the night, he never regained consciousness, and he died the following morning.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon293741 — On Sep 27, 2012

Amazing! A very good story and he's one of the best presidents, to me!

By anon212633 — On Sep 08, 2011

Most of this article is glossed over re-creation of historical fact with a bit of outright falsehood thrown in for flavor. Please at least publish the truth. Lincoln was not a great man, nor a great president.

By wesley91 — On Oct 25, 2010

@alex94: I don’t how exactly how many attempts there were, but I find this one very interesting. During the summer months, the President and his family would stay at what was known as “The Soldier’s House”. It was located three miles north of the city. After the President would finish his late night work at the War Department, he would ride on horseback to the house. The President was supposed to be escorted by guards, but Lincoln often refused.

One night on his way to the house there was a rifle shot above his head. The guards rushed down the drive, while the President rode towards them. Once they saw him they noticed his hat was missing. When they found his hat it had a bullet hole in it.

By CarrotIsland — On Oct 25, 2010

@alex94: There where several attempts, but this stood out to me. The first attempt on Lincoln’s life was said to have been on his way to the White House for his inauguration. They were going to blow the train that was carrying President elect in Baltimore. The journey to the White House was supposed to take 12 days, so the President elect could stop and make speeches on the way.

While in Harrisburg, Allan Pinkerton discovered the plan to kill Lincoln in Baltimore. This was where he was the most vulnerable. They changed his clothing and slipped him out of the hotel. He then boarded a train back to Philadelphia where he transferred to a different train under an assumed name. Along this journey they had people at every bridge and every rail crossing hold a lantern up, indicating it was safe to pass.

Once they arrived in Washington D.C. he was escorted to his hotel where he remained until the inauguration.

By alex94 — On Oct 25, 2010

I'm doing a history paper on the assassination of Lincoln. How many attempts were there on his life?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia...
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