Biography of Abraham Lincoln

In 1859 (as he was preparing to run for president), a political associate asked Abraham Lincoln to write an autobiographical sketch so the public could know him better. Supplying his friend with the details of his life, Lincoln urged “if anything is to be made out of it, I wish it to be modest.” (1)

Our 16th president’s life is a story of modesty and perseverance. Born in Kentucky, the son of frontier farmers, Lincoln had little access to education, spending less than one full year in school. Growing up, he said, “I was raised to farm work,” which he continued when the family moved first to Indiana, then Illinois in 1830. (2)

For four months in 1832, Lincoln served as a militia captain in the Black Hawk War and decided to run for the state legislature after his service. Although he lost that election, Lincoln ran again the following year and served in the Illinois State Legislature from 1834 to 1840. After settling in Springfield, Illinois, in 1842 Lincoln married Mary Todd, who was from a prominent Kentucky family. The couple began their family in Springfield and had four boys—Robert, Eddie, Willie and Tad, although only Robert grew to adulthood.

Lincoln began a successful law practice in Springfield and moved away from politics until he was elected as a Whig candidate to the United States House of Representatives in 1846. He served for only one two-year term and returned to riding the circuit as an Illinois lawyer.  With tension over slavery’s expansion rising, Lincoln campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 1858 but lost to incumbent Stephen Douglas. The fiery debates between the candidates, however, earned Abraham Lincoln a national reputation, leading to his nomination as candidate for President on the newly formed Republican ticket in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln faced crisis even before he took office, with the secession of several southern states in December. A little more than a month after his March 1861 inauguration, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. In response, the states remaining in the Union scrambled to answer Lincoln’s call for 75,000 military volunteers. The President and the country soon realized the Civil War would be a long and bloody struggle. Determined to keep the union together and end the war as quickly as possible, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the “states in rebellion” on January 1, 1863. As Lincoln and the Republicans campaigned for re-election in 1864, the President prepared to bring the union back together, stronger than before. During Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he urged Americans to “strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds….” (3)

April 1865 was full of triumph and sadness. With the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond and the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Lincoln and the northern states tried to return to normal life. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the President and his wife were enjoying a performance at Ford’s Theatre when prominent Southern actor John Wilkes Booth entered the President’s box and shot him in the back of the head. Lincoln was brought across the street to a house owned by the Petersen family, where he lay unconscious in a back room until passing away at 7:22 a.m. the following morning.

By Kerry Plunkett, Education Intern

Photo of Abraham Lincoln courtesy of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

1 Abraham Lincoln to Jesse Fell, December 20, 1859. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., accessed 18 October 2011.
2 Ibid.
3 Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., accessed 18 October 2011.