||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Lincoln, Abraham (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865)
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, and his
administration spanned the Civil War (1861–1865).
He was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky, to Nancy Hanks
Lincoln and Thomas Lincoln, who were farmers. In December 1816, the family left
Kentucky because of the uncertainty of Thomas Lincoln’s land claim and moved to
Indiana where land titles were secure and the area was free of slavery. Young
Abraham helped clear the land for the family farm, so was only able to get a few
months of formal education in a one–room schoolhouse. In 1818, Nancy Lincoln and
some of her relatives died of “milk sick,” a disease likely contracted from the
milk of cows that had grazed on poisonous plants. A year later, Thomas Lincoln
married Sarah Bush Johnston, who was more affectionate with and concerned for
Abraham than either of his natural parents.
Lincoln had a passion for learning and self–improvement, thus reading every
book that he could get his hands on. His father, however, simply considered him
to be lazy. Relations between father and son became increasingly strained to the
point that, years later, Abraham declined to visit the dying Thomas or attend
his funeral. In 1830, young Lincoln moved with his family to central Illinois,
and then struck out on his own the next year, settling in New Salem. There, over
the next six years, he worked at a variety of jobs, including store clerk,
postmaster, surveyor, mill hand, and partner in a general store. He served as
captain (an elected position) in the volunteer militia during Black Hawk’s War
(1832), but his company saw no military action.
While living in New Salem, the fire of politics first took hold of Lincoln,
and he honed his oratorical skills in the local debating society. He initially
entered the political arena in 1832 in a losing bid for the state legislature
(while winning 92% of the New Salem vote). Two years later, after rigorously
campaigning throughout the district, he scored a decisive victory. Lincoln was
a Whig and a disciple of Henry Clay and his “American system,” which endorsed
government involvement in economic and social affairs. Meanwhile, Lincoln
studied law, receiving his license to practice in 1836 and, the following year,
becoming the law partner of John Stuart, a fellow Whig legislator, in
Springfield. Lincoln won reelection to three consecutive terms in the state
legislature (1836, 1838, 1840), where he served as the Whig floor leader and was
instrumental in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield in 1837.
He and one other member criticized a resolution that condemned antislavery
societies, but they also criticized abolitionism as counterproductive.
In 1841, Lincoln retired from the state legislature and formed a law
partnership with Stephen Logan. The next year Lincoln married Mary Todd, the
educated and cultured daughter of a prominent banker from Lexington, Kentucky.
Lincoln proved to be a successful lawyer, developing a wide practice and earning
a handsome income. In 1844, he and Logan dissolved their partnership, and
Lincoln established one with William Herndon. The embers of Lincoln’s political
ambition, though, would not die. At the time, the Whig party in the Springfield
district had a one–term rotation system, forcing him to wait for his chance at a
seat in Congress. When he was finally nominated in 1846, he won a convincing
In his sole term in the U.S. House (1847–1849), Lincoln took a vocal stance
against what he considered to be an expansionist war with Mexico. His
introduction of resolutions demanding evidence of the precise “spot of
[American] soil” on which the Mexicans had allegedly attacked American soldiers
earned him (for a time) the nickname “Spotty.” He supported the unsuccessful
Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery from any territory gained from
Mexico. Near the end of his term, he suggested a bill providing compensated
emancipation in Washington, D. C., subject to the approval of district voters,
but intense opposition provoked him to withdraw the proposal. His opposition to
the Mexican War was unpopular in his home district and, although not up for
reelection in 1848 due to the rotation system, the Whig seeking to replace him
went down to defeat. Returning to his private law practice in Springfield,
Lincoln became one of Illinois’ preeminent lawyers, commanding an annual income
In 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois pushed through
Congress the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on
slavery in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase. Although the intent was to
establish territorial government, the law placed the slavery issue at the center
of national politics, provoked a civil war in the territory of Kansas,
exacerbated North–South tension, and destroyed the existing party system. It
also jolted Lincoln from his political hiatus; first, as an “anti–Nebraska”
Whig, but soon as one of the founders of the Republican Party, which placed
opposition to the expansion of slavery as its central plank. Prior to 1854, he
had rarely commented publicly on the slavery issue, but from that point until
his election as president in 1860, he delivered approximately 175 anti–slavery
speeches. Lincoln believed that halting the expansion of slavery, and thus
isolating it within Southern boundaries, would eventually bring about its
demise. Such a course of events would fulfill, as he understood it, the vision
of the nation’s founders, to which the Kansas–Nebraska Act was a direct
In October 1854, Lincoln was elected to the state legislature as an
anti–Nebraska Whig, but resigned in February 1855 to become the Whig nominee for
U.S. Senator. He led on the first six ballots, but was unable to secure a
majority in the legislature. Rather than see a regular Democrat elected, Lincoln
withdrew in favor of an anti–Nebraska Democrat, Lyman Trumbell, who prevailed.
Disappointed but not deterred, Lincoln worked to establish the new Republican
Party in his home state, and quickly became its leader. In 1856, he was
Illinois’ favorite–son candidate for vice president at the first Republican
National Convention, but William Dayton of New Jersey was nominated on the first
ballot. Lincoln campaigned actively for the Republican ticket in its losing
In 1858, the Illinois Republican Party chose Lincoln to challenge the
reelection bid of Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. The senator seemed
vulnerable after his break with Democratic President James Buchanan over the
latter’s endorsement of the pro–slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas. The
highly unusual nomination of a candidate (Lincoln) before the legislative
elections was compounded by a series of debates between the rivals for office,
which was held in seven towns across the state (the Lincoln–Douglas debates).
Lincoln set the tone for the campaign with his “House Divided” acceptance
speech. Using a biblical metaphor of a house divided against itself not being
able to stand, he contended that the nation would eventually be comprised of
either all free states or all slave states. In the 1857 Dred Scott case,
the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled that the Constitution prohibited Congress and
territorial governments from banning slavery in the territories. Lincoln and
other Republicans feared that the Supreme Court would build on the Dred Scott
precedent to prohibit states from outlawing slavery. Douglas believed that such
talk would push the South toward secession, and, playing on the racist anxiety
of the electorate, insisted that his Republican challenger was endorsing racial
equality, which Lincoln denied.
In the nineteenth century U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures.
In 1858, the vote tally for Republican legislative candidates was slightly
higher, but malapportionment allowed the Democrats to elect a majority, who
returned Douglas to the Senate. In the long run, though, Lincoln was the real
winner. The senatorial campaign and, in particular, the Lincoln–Douglas debates
made him a national figure and a contender for the Republican presidential
nomination in 1860. For Douglas, forced to explain how the Dred Scott
decision could be circumvented to allow for popular sovereignty, it was a
Pyrrhic victory that alienated him and his Northern supporters further from
In 1860, the location of the Republican National Convention in Chicago
combined with a determined campaign by his supporters to help catapult Lincoln
from favorite–son status to chief competitor of front–runner William Seward of
New York. The spin by Lincoln’s campaign managers—that their candidate was more
electable—worked, and the Illinois rail–splitter triumphed on the third ballot.
The convention nominated Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as vice president.
Since the Republican Party’s sole support came from Northern free states, it
took a split of the Democratic Party into two factions to open the possibility
of Republican victory in the general election. The Northern Democrats nominated
Stephen Douglas for president, while the Southern Democrats selected Vice
President John Breckinridge as their candidate. Complicating the race further
was the entry of a fourth party, the Constitutional Union, comprised primarily
of former Whigs from Border States. Lincoln won a plurality of just under 40% of
the popular vote, but a majority in the Electoral College. He received the
electoral vote of all the free states except New Jersey (which Douglas won), but
none from the slave states.
In the interval between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, seven states
of the Deep South, those most dependent on slavery, left the union. Lincoln
remained publicly silent, but privately assured leading southerners that he had
neither personal intention nor constitutional authority to act against slavery
in the states where it already existed. For many white Southerners, however, the
prospect of Republican control of the presidency, the federal bureaucracy, and
eventually the Supreme Court, foretold the end of slavery in the South, as well
as the territories. A compromise proposal crafted by Senator John Crittenden of
Kentucky would have constitutionally extended the Missouri Compromise line to
the Pacific and forever protected slavery south of it. Because it clearly
sanctioned the extension of slavery, Lincoln rejected the offer.
In his inaugural address, Lincoln vowed not “to interfere with slavery where
it exists,” yet condemned secession as unconstitutional, and promised to execute
federal law and hold federal property in all states. Shortly thereafter, a
crisis surfaced over Fort Sumter in the harbor off Charleston, South Carolina.
Confederate officials demanded that the Union commander, Robert Anderson,
surrender the fort, which he refused to do. With supplies dwindling, Lincoln
decided to ship the fort non–military provisions only. When the Confederates
fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began. Four more
slave states left the union.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederates, Lincoln took
unprecedented, unilateral action as president: authorizing state militias into
action; calling for federal military volunteers; guaranteeing the government’s
credit at an incredible quarter–billion dollars; proclaiming a blockade of
Confederate ports; suspending the writ of habeas corpus; and using military
detention of civilians (at least 15,000). Although there was sharp debate over
the constitutionality of these policies, Congress or the Supreme Court
acquiesced or ratified them after the fact. During his presidency, Lincoln
concentrated on his role as commander in chief. In frustration, he went through
a series of top generals until he found the gritty, no–nonsense Ulysses S.
For much of his administration, Lincoln was an unpopular president. There
were two main oppositional factions: Confederate sympathizers in the Border
States and lower Midwest; and the peace wing of the Democratic Party, often
referred to as “Copperheads.” The latter group believed that the Civil War was
undermining the Northern economy, civil liberties, and states’ rights.
Particularly objectionable to Northern Democrats were two Lincoln administration
policies: emancipation and the military draft.
Lincoln presented an emancipation plan to his cabinet in July 1862, but was
convinced by Secretary of State Seward to wait until a major Union victory to
announce it publicly. After the Battle of Antietam in September, the president
issued a preliminary proclamation, declaring that he would free the slaves in
Confederate–held territory if the Confederacy did not surrender by January 1,
1863. On that day, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and thousands
of slaves were subsequently freed as Union forces marched across the South. It
remained for the 13th Amendment (1865) to free all of the slaves and abolish the
institution of slavery permanently.
In response to the congressional enactment of a military draft at the request
of the Lincoln administration, anti–draft riots erupted across the North during
the summer of 1863. The most serious occurred in New York City, where huge mobs
demolished draft offices, lynched blacks, and destroyed large sections of the
city in four days of looting and burning (including the Colored Orphan Asylum).
As the campaign season of 1864 approached, Lincoln faced an uphill battle.
Republicans renominated him unanimously, but party radicals were upset by his
lenient wartime Reconstruction policy. War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee
was chosen as his vice presidential running mate on the National Union ticket.
The Democrats nominated George B. McClellan, a popular general whom Lincoln had
fired as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Peace Democrats inserted a plank
in the party’s platform calling for an immediate cession of fighting and a
negotiated settlement. McClellan, though, repudiated the peace plank and
insisted that he would administer the Union war effort more effectively than
Lincoln. Several Union victories in the fall, however, especially the capture of
Atlanta, revived Northern morale and boosted the political chances of the
Republicans. Lincoln won by a landslide in the popular vote and by an even
larger margin in the Electoral College.
As the war continued, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched across
the South, while Grant finally wore Confederate General Robert E. Lee down in
Virginia. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, ending the
American Civil War. Just over a week later, on Good Friday, John Wilkes Booth
shot and mortally wounded Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. The president died the next
morning, April 15, 1865.
Sources consulted: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York:
Touchstone Press, 1996); James M. McPherson, “Lincoln, Abraham,” American
National Biography (online); and, Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of
Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994).