Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo

Chapter One:


Abraham Lincoln
Figure 5: The lawyer Abraham Lincoln, 1858

One element of the Lincoln legend is accurate: Lincoln received limited formal schooling—amounting to perhaps one year in total in the remote rural communities of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois where he was reared. Lincoln grew to manhood in Indiana, working on his father's farm and doing odd jobs for neighbors. He early showed a preference for intellectual over manual labor and a driving ambition to better himself. Making his home in New Salem, Illinois, from 1831 to 1837, Lincoln read the law while keeping a store and in 1834 was elected to the state legislature at the age of twenty-five. Lincoln rapidly rose to a leadership position within the Whig Party in Illinois, becoming minority leader in the legislature and directing the successful effort to move the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, which was Lincoln's home from 1837 to 1861. [11]

Lincoln was admitted to the bar in 1836 and began a legal career that, along with politics, became the main professional interest of his life. As a lawyer, Lincoln had his share of divorce cases, property disputes, and criminal trials. By the 1850s, however, Lincoln was widely recognized as one of the ablest appellate court advocates in Illinois. He argued 243 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, including important suits on behalf of the Illinois Central Railroad for which he received large fees. Lincoln served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1847-1849, under an informal arrangement with other prominent Sangamon County Whigs, who agreed to rotate the seat among them. [12]

In the early 1850s, Lincoln devoted himself to his lucrative law practice and was relatively inactive politically. The 1854 repeal of the Missouri Compromise reopened the volatile debate over slavery in the territories. Lincoln, in common with hundreds of thousands of "free-soil" advocates across the Midwest, plunged himself into political action. A new party committed to preventing slavery's extension and calling itself the Republican Party, arose in the Midwest in the summer of 1854 and rapidly gained adherents. The Whig Party, always a minority party in Illinois, began to split over the slavery issue, and Lincoln distanced himself from it. In 1856, he became an energetic member of the Republican Party. The first Republican presidential convention in 1856 nominated John C. Fremont, the Western explorer. Lincoln attracted national attention by garnering 110 votes for the vice-presidential nomination, which ultimately went to William Dayton of Ohio. [13]

Receiving the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator in 1858, Lincoln engaged in a series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the Democrat candidate, in seven Illinois cities. The debates centered on the issue of slavery extension and were closely followed across the nation. Throughout the debates, Lincoln branded slavery an injustice and opposed its spread, while distancing himself from abolitionist doctrines. Douglas, who had presidential ambitions, attempted to mollify free-soil Illinois voters without antagonizing the South, and Lincoln exploited the contradictions in Douglas's position. Douglas supported the right of slaveholders to take slaves to the territories, yet contended that territorial governments could effectively bar slavery through hostile legislation. Douglas won the Senate seat [14] by emphasizing the latter point, but his stance angered Democrats in the slave states. [15]

By the late 1850s, the Whig Party had virtually disappeared, and the Democrat Party was fracturing over the slavery question. In 1860, Douglas was the presidential candidate of the northern Democrats, while John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky was the choice of the southern branch of the party. A group of former Know-Nothings and diehard Whigs formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee. The Republicans convened their nominating convention in Chicago, with the Illinois delegation promoting favorite son Lincoln. Better-known Republicans William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Edward Bates of Missouri—contested the nomination with Lincoln. The convention nominated Lincoln on the third ballot, largely because he had fewer liabilities than the other candidates. [16]


The presidential election of 1860 was actually two separate regional contests. Lincoln vied with Douglas for northern votes, while Breckinridge and Bell contested for the South. The electoral arithmetic and strong free-soil sentiment in the North favored the Republicans; Lincoln won with a clear majority in electoral votes, but only forty percent of the popular vote. Believing that the Republican victory augured the end of slavery, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas seceded from the Union before Lincoln's inauguration and established the Confederate States of America. Upon assuming office on March 4, 1861, Lincoln decided to assert the Federal government's sovereignty by resupplying the besieged U.S. Army garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederate government ordered an attack on the fort, signaling its intention to fight for its independence and igniting the Civil War. Following the Union surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy. [17]

As a minority president of a war-torn republic, Lincoln faced enormous difficulties: raising and equipping armies, finding competent generals, and maintaining civilian morale. The U.S. Constitution made no provision for dealing with rebellious states, and Lincoln frequently improvised, relying on a broad interpretation of his war powers. Particularly controversial was his jailing of suspected southern sympathizers without charges, in defiance of Federal court decisions. Lincoln demonstrated considerable political skill by maintaining popular support for the war despite disastrous defeats for Federal armies and mounting casualties. [18]

Union war strategy focused on blockading southern ports, controlling the Mississippi River, and invading the southern states. Through the first three years of the war, Union armies advanced steadily in the West, but failed to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Lincoln aimed to preserve the Union and was willing at first to protect slavery if it furthered that goal. As the war dragged on and the importance of slave labor to the southern war effort increased, Lincoln and the Republican Party moved to adopt emancipation as a war policy. Lincoln decided in July 1862 to free slaves in the rebellious states but awaited favorable military news to act. At the Battle of Antietam in western Maryland (September 17, 1862), the Army of the Potomac under General George McClellan turned back General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Within days, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the states still engaged in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. De facto freedom for blacks already prevailed in areas liberated by Union troops; the proclamation was designed to undermine Southern resistance, encourage blacks to rally to the Federal effort, and keep England from recognizing the Confederacy. [19]

Lincoln and McClellan
Figure 6: President Lincoln meets with General McClellan at Antietam, 1862

Two Federal victories in early July 1863 marked a turning point in the war. Union General Ulysses S. Grant occupied Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863, giving the Federals complete control of the Mississippi River and depriving the Confederacy of reinforcements and supplies from Texas, Arkansas, and most of Louisiana. In the east, General George Meade repulsed Lee's second invasion of the North at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1-3, 1863). Although the North would continue to suffer setbacks and terrible casualties, the tide was running in its favor. [20]

The 1864 presidential election year tested both Lincoln's leadership and northern commitment to the war. Federal control of the Mississippi and an increasingly effective naval blockade put severe strains on the Confederacy. In March 1864, Lincoln promoted Grant to the rank of lieutenant general and made him general in chief of all Federal armies. Grant moved east to personally supervise the operations of the Army of the Potomac and put General William T. Sherman in charge of all western armies. Grant ordered simultaneous advances by the Army of the Potomac on Richmond and by three combined western armies under Sherman's personal command into Georgia. The Confederacy aimed to hold off the northern armies until after the November election, hoping that a Democrat willing to negotiate southern independence would defeat Lincoln. [21]

Northern civilian morale was strained during the spring and summer of 1864. Grant pushed Lee back in Virginia while Sherman repeatedly outmaneuvered his Confederate foe in north Georgia, but at the cost of 90,000 overall Union casualties in four months. In August 1864, trench warfare outside Petersburg held Grant in check, while Sherman besieged Atlanta. Four years of war seemed to have brought a stalemate, and northern antiwar sentiment mounted. Lincoln's July 1864 draft call for 500,000 more troops added to northern gloom. In this climate, Lincoln anticipated losing the election to Democrat George McClellan. Then Atlanta fell on September 1, 1864, providing a huge boost to northern morale and a corresponding southern letdown. Believing that a final military victory was at hand, northern voters gave the Republicans an overwhelming victory in November. [22]

Vindicated at the polls, Lincoln and the Republican Party pursued the war to a successful conclusion. Sherman's army marched through Georgia and South Carolina, confiscating or destroying anything of value to the Confederacy. Richmond fell in early April 1865; Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. Lincoln was giver little time to formulate his plans for reconstructing the South. On April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Lincoln attended a performance at Ford's Theatre. John Wilkes Booth, an actor and fanatical southern sympathizer, burst into the president's box and shot him. Carried to the Petersen house across Tenth Street from the theater, Lincoln died shortly after seven a.m. the next day. [23]

The news of Lincoln's assassination instantly tempered northern euphoria at the war's end with grief and anger. The conversion of Lincoln from an outstanding, if embattled, wartime leader to a sainted martyr to the Union cause began almost immediately. As described below in Chapter Two, Lincoln's reputation steadily grew following his death; his rise from humble beginnings to momentous presidential achievements commanded the respect of millions. The site of Lincoln's birth in Kentucky was meaningful, not only as the birthplace of a famous American, but as a symbol of the unlimited possibilities of American life. The memorial at the Lincoln farm commemorates Lincoln the man and much of what he came to symbolize for Americans.

Figure 7: This 1865 woodcut from Harper's Weekly depicts the scene at Lincoln's interment at Oak Ridge Cemetery near Springfield, Illinois.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Jan-2003