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Reading 1: From Self-Taught Lawyer to President
Abraham Lincoln was the first man elected to the presidency who was born west of the Appalachian Mountains. His up bringing in backwoods Kentucky, in the remote regions of southern Indiana, and on the Illinois prairie shaped his life. In 1831, when he was 22, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois and in 1834 was elected to the first of five terms to the Illinois legislature. He was encouraged to study law by fellow legislator John Todd Stuart during his first term. In 1837, the lanky self-taught lawyer with only one year of frontier schooling rode his horse into Springfield, Illinois with all of his belongings in two saddlebags.
On November 4, 1842, Lincoln married Mary Ann Todd and by May 1844 the young couple had purchased a small Greek Revival-style cottage at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets, the home the family would occupy for the next 17 years. Here three of their four children were born, and one died. Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926) was less than one year old when they moved into their new home. He was named for Mary's father and later attended Harvard College. Edward Baker (1846-1850), nicknamed Eddie, died in the house five weeks short of his fourth birthday. William Wallace, or Willie, (1850-1862), was loved by the Lincolns for his bright and inquisitive nature, and found great pleasure romping around the house with his younger brother, Thomas (1853-1871). This youngest child--Mary's "troublesome little sunshine"--was nicknamed Tad by his father, who said he looked like a tadpole. The Lincolns owned a dog they named Fido.
Over the years the Lincolns enlarged the house to accommodate their growing family. In 1846 they added a downstairs bedroom and in 1855, they expanded the story-and-a-half cottage to a full two-story house. While living in this house Lincoln enjoyed great success as a lawyer and was considered one of the state's best courtroom attorneys. His legal practice regularly took him away from Springfield, especially riding the Eighth Judicial Circuit, a traveling court which met three months at a time in the spring and fall at various county seats throughout central Illinois. Their children certainly made the house a lively place, but Mary often felt alone without her husband present.
Mary largely devoted herself to managing the household and raising their children. Much of the domestic and private side of the home was centered on the kitchen. Here Mary oversaw the activities that made this a well-run and inviting home, allowing Lincoln to devote his time and energy to the practice of law and politics. Mary furnished the entire house, choosing the furnishings and drapery with care to reflect the tastes of a prosperous mid-19th century American family.
Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846. The Whig party, which operated in the U.S. from 1832 to 1856, supported the supremacy of Congress over the Executive Branch. The party was ultimately destroyed by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery to the territories. Following his term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln returned to his Springfield law practice. However, his interest in politics was rekindled by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas' 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the people of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to vote to allow or outlaw slavery. Joining the newly formed Republican Party, whose stance was opposed to the extension of slavery, Abraham Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for the Senate seat in Illinois in 1858. On June 16, 1858 Lincoln delivered his "House Divided Speech" in the Illinois State House where he declared that "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."1 Following the "House Divided" speech, Lincoln engaged in a series of debates with Douglas that included stops at seven communities across Illinois and grabbed the nation's attention. The two held a series of seven debates and although Abraham Lincoln lost the election, the debates brought him national prominence.
Lincoln was not convinced of his presidential potential and wrote "I do not think myself fit for the Presidency."2 A year later however, Lincoln's feelings about the presidency had changed and he admitted that "the taste is in my mouth a little."3 The 1860 Republican Party convention, held in Chicago in May, chose Lincoln as its candidate for President. A committee of delegates from the convention traveled to Springfield and, in the Lincoln parlor, introduced themselves to Lincoln and his family and formally notified him of his nomination. The Lincoln home became the center of attention during Lincoln's 1860 presidential campaign. The nation's split over the slavery issue was reflected in the 1860 election, in which two of the four candidates that ran were Democrats. The Democratic Party members from the northern states selected their own candidate as did the Democrats from the southern states. This split in the Democratic Party all but assured that the Republican, Abraham Lincoln, would win. A fourth candidate also ran under the "Constitutional Union Party," which tried to appeal to both northern and southern voters. On November 6, 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln received 40% of the popular vote to northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas' 29%, southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge's 18%, and Constitutional Union John Bell's 13%.
As Lincoln left Springfield for the nation's capitol he told those gathered at the train depot to see him off, that upon his shoulders was "a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington."4 To Abraham Lincoln would fall the task of leading a divided nation during America's greatest crisis--the Civil War, a task for which in the end he would become its greatest casualty.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why did the Kansas-Nebraska Act rekindle Lincoln's interest in politics?
2. What kinds of jobs did Mary Lincoln have in managing the Lincoln household?
3. Why do you think Lincoln joined the newly formed Republicans when he ran for Senate in 1858? Which party was he affiliated with prior to this?
4. What do you think Lincoln meant by his "House Divided" speech? Do you agree with his sentiments? Why or why not?
5.) Why did the split in the Democratic Party help Lincoln win the election?
1 Roy P. Basler, Ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 Volumes, ``A House Divided'': Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858, Vol 2, p. 462.