Abraham Lincoln like most distinguished men had several personas. The young Lincoln was a frontiersman who lived in the outdoors and became known as a formidable axeman. He experimented in his early career choices, trying jobs as a storekeeper, postmaster and county surveyor. As he progressed in life he became a politician and office holder both at the state and the national level. Simultaneously, he became a superb lawyer who represented clients large and small. Finally, Lincoln as President became a great War Leader who led the Union to victory in the American Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln, the man who was to become the 16th President of the United States, was born on February 12, 1809 in a one-room log cabin on the Sinking Spring Farm in southeast Hardin County, Kentucky (now LaRue County). He was the second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His father enjoyed some status in Kentucky being a landowner but in 1816 they lost everything due to a faulty land title. Thomas moved his family across the Ohio River into Perry County, Indiana. Indiana was free territory while Kentucky allowed slavery. In 1818 Abraham’s 34-year-old mother Nancy died of the milk sickness, after drinking the milk of an infected cow. His older sister, Sarah, died in childbirth. Soon after his wife’s death Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston, whom Lincoln became very close to and called “Mother”. It is said that Sarah inculcated the love of reading in Lincoln.
As a young man Lincoln became quite proficient with an axe, splitting rails for fencing. Thomas moved his family to several locations in Illinois in 1830 and 1831. At 22 Lincoln struck out on his own moving to New Salem in Sangamon County, Illinois. In that same year he was hired to take goods to New Orleans for a local businessman. Arriving in New Orleans Lincoln for the first time witnessed slavery.
Lincoln’s formal education consisted of approximately 18 months of classes from several itinerant teachers. He was mostly self-educated and was an avid reader. He gained a reputation for brawn and audacity after a very competitive wrestling match to which he was challenged by the renowned leader of a group of ruffians, “the Clary’s Grove boys”. There were some in his family, and in the neighborhood, who considered him to be lazy. Lincoln avoided hunting and fishing out of an aversion to killing animals, an interesting trait for someone who lived on the frontier.
Lincoln had several romantic attachments in the 1830’s. The first, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835 from typhoid fever. The second romance with Mary Owens of Kentucky eventually petered out for lack of interest. In 1839 he met Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy slave-holding family from Lexington, Kentucky. The became engaged in December 1840 but the scheduled wedding was cancelled. The later met at a party in Springfield, Illinois. They became engaged again and married on November 4, 1842. The Lincolns had four sons: Robert, Edward, William and Thomas. Only Robert lived beyond 18 years of age.
Lincoln had several jobs in his early life. By his early 20’s he had attained his full height of 6 feet 4 inches and was known as a man of great strength. In 1832 he and a partner started a general store in New Salem but eventually he sold his share. Lincoln served as a captain in the militia during the brief Black Hawk War. In the same year he ran for the Illinois General Assembly but came in eighth of thirteen (four were elected). He later served as New Salem’s postmaster and after more self-education became a county surveyor. In 1834 Lincoln ran for the legislature as a Whig and was elected. Lincoln then decided to become a lawyer and learned by studying Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England and other law books. Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836 he moved to Springfield, the state capitol to practice under John T. Stuart, Marry Todd’s cousin. Lincoln was a successful lawyer being skilled on cross-examination and closing arguments. In 1841 he partnered with Stephen Logan and in 1844 began his partnership with William Herndon. (Today, you can visit their law office directly across the street from the Old State Capitol in Springfield.)
During these years Lincoln developed the political philosophy he was to espouse for the rest of his life. He served four successive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives as a Whig representative from Sangamon County. In the 1835-1836 session he voted to expand suffrage to all white males, whether landowners or not. He was known as a “free soiler” who was opposed to slavery and was a follower of Henry Clay, who was in favor of freeing the slaves and returning them to Liberia in Africa.
In 1846 Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served one two-year term. He was the only Whig in the Illinois delegation. He developed a plan for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia but he dropped it for lack of support. He opposed President Polk’s Mexican War as a desire for “military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood”. He introduced his Spot Resolutions, demanding to know the spot where American blood had been shed. It was this pretext that Polk had used start the war.
Lincoln supported Zachery Taylor for President in the election of 1846. Taylor won and Lincoln was hoping for the position of Commissioner of the General Land Office but a political rival received it instead. He was offered a lesser position in Oregon Territory that he turned down. Lincoln returned to his law practice in Springfield. He practiced all types of criminal and civil law, eventually becoming an expert in transportation cases: initially, riverboats and later, railroads. In 1849 he received a patent for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow. He is the only president to hold a patent. Lincoln appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court in 175 cases, in 51 as sole counsel, of which 31 were decided in his favor. From 1853 to 1860, another of Lincoln’s largest clients was the Illinois Central Railroad.
In 1854 Lincoln began to be a player on the national stage with the issue of slavery. Lincoln returned to politics to oppose the pro-slavery Kansas–Nebraska Act (1854); this law repealed the slavery-restricting Missouri Compromise (1820). He rose in opposition to Senator Stephen A. Douglas who was in favor of the new bill. On October 16, 1854 Lincoln declared his opposition to slavery with his famous Peoria Speech.
In 1854 Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate as a Whig. In those days Senators were elected by the state legislatures. After six ballots Lincoln instructed his supporters to switch to another candidate who eventually won. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had split the Whig party and Lincoln was instrumental in the formation of the new Republican Party from remnants of the Whig Party, disenchanted members of the Free Soil, Liberty and Democratic parties. In 1856 the Republicans nominated John C. Fremont. Lincoln came in second in the vice-presidential balloting. Fremont ran under the slog: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Frémont!” James Buchanan was elected as the 15th President of the United States.
Events began to cascade starting from the from the election. In March 1857, the Supreme Court issued its controversial decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford; Chief Justice Roger B. Taney opined that blacks were not citizens, and derived no rights from the Constitution. Lincoln strongly disagreed with the Court’s opinion. This put an end to his past deference to the Court’s authority. After his nomination for the U.S Senate by the Illinois state Republican Party, Lincoln gave his famous House Divided speech. In it he said:
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.
This set the stage for the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. On February 27, 1860, New York party leaders invited Lincoln to give a speech at Cooper Union to a group of powerful Republicans. Lincoln argued that the Founding Fathers had little use for popular sovereignty and had repeatedly sought to restrict slavery. Lincoln insisted the moral foundation of the Republicans required opposition to slavery, and rejected any “groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong”
The die was cast. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was first to secede from the Union. By February 1, 1861, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit. These states adopted a constitution and declared themselves to be a sovereign nation, the Confederate States of America. The upper South (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas) listened to, but initially rejected, the secessionist appeal. The national authorities refused to recognize the new nation. The Confederacy selected Jefferson Davis as their provisional President on February 9, 1861. The first capitol of the Confederacy was Montgomery, Alabama.
Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States on March 4, 1861. He directed his inaugural speech to the southern states telling them: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies … The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” It was to no avail. On April 12, 1861 the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and the war that would last for four long years and causes tens of thousands of casualties had begun. Three days later Lincoln made his first call to the states for 75,000 volunteers. In short order Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee voted to secede. Kentucky, Maryland Missouri and Delaware remained with the Union. The western counties of Virginia seceded from Virginia and on June 20, 1863 the Mountain State was born.
The rest of Abraham Lincoln’s life was tied up in governing and leading the Union in the greatest war this continent has ever seen. As we detail this struggle the rest of his life will unfold.