Abraham Lincoln: A Short Biography


Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. Growing up impoverished, he received very little formal education, later writing that “the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year.”

He first ran for public office in 1832, when he lost an election to serve in the Illinois legislature. He ran again in 1834, this time successfully, and went on to serve four consecutive two-year terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, during which time he emerged as one of the leaders of the Whig Party in the state.

Organized in opposition to Andrew Jackson, the Whigs believed government had an important role to play in developing and shaping the economy. They were committed to the creation of a national banking system to provide stability to the American financial system, funding for internal improvements, and the use of taxes on foreign imports to protect American labor.

Although the issue did not take center-stage in his politics until the 1850s, Lincoln demonstrated his opposition to slavery in 1837, when he was one of only six members of the state legislature to oppose a resolution passed to express support for the continuation of slavery in the South. The pro-slavery resolution was backed by ninety-six of Lincoln’s colleagues.

In 1846, Lincoln was elected to serve in the United States House of Representatives. As a freshman member, he befriended Rep. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, the leading abolitionist in Congress. Working with Giddings, Lincoln crafted legislation designed to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The bill never gained enough support to reach the floor. Lincoln drew far more attention to himself with his public opposition to the Mexican, which, like many Northern Whigs, he saw as fundamentally unjust.

Having pledged to serve only one term in Congress, Lincoln attempted to secure an appointment in the administration of newly-elected Whig President Zachary Taylor. Failing at that, he returned to Illinois to refocus his energies on the practice of law.

In 1854 a political thunderbolt drew Lincoln back into politics and irrevocably changed the trajectory of his life.

Crafted by Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited any further expansion of slavery north of the 36°30 parallel. Slavery was thus catapulted to the center of national politics, where it would remain until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Torn apart by the debate, the Whig Party collapsed. Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party, which had formed in opposition to what some referred to as the “rape of Kansas.” Emerging as one of party’s leaders in Illinois, Lincoln understood that Republicans had to strike a careful balance that would allow them to undermine slavery while still attracting moderate voters. While he worried that radical policies might drive voters away and redound to the benefit of pro-slavery candidates, he also felt that in order to put slavery on the path to extinction, Republicans needed to be an explicitly anti-slavery party. Thus he opposed conservatives within the party who argued that Republicans should oppose the extension of slavery while still remaining neutral on the institution’s moral legitimacy.

In 1858, Lincoln challenged Douglas for his seat in the senate. Lincoln condemned his opponent’s doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty,” claiming that it rested upon indifference or even “covert zeal” for the “monstrous injustice” of slavery.

In a major appearance in Chicago he called on Americans to “discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position…Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” Recognizing that he had confessed to racial views far more radical than those held by most Illinois voters, Lincoln spent much of the remaining campaign attempting to walk back the statement.

In the end, Douglas was able to eke out a victory, thanks in large part to partisan districting. Lincoln’s performance in seven highly publicized debates, however, transformed him into a national figure. Winning his party’s nomination to the presidency, he defeated three opponents in the election of 1860, one of the most consequential and chaotic contests in American political history.

Lincoln’s election set off a national political crisis. By the time he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven slave states had declared themselves seceded from the Union and organized into the Confederate States of America. When Confederate forces opened fire on a United States fortification in Charleston Harbor in April, Lincoln responded by calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down a rebellion “too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” Four more slave states seceded as the country descended into bloody civil war.

Lincoln recognized that it was essential to the survival of the United States that he maintain a broad Unionist coalition that supported the war effort, a task he was perfectly suited for given his career in politics. While he had been elected on a platform calling for and was personally committed to the ultimate destruction of slavery, he felt that as president, his constitutional duty to preserve the Union was paramount. Thus, in the early stages of the war, Lincoln avoided radical measures, desperate to keep the four remaining slave states of the Upper South from seceding. At the same time, he began quietly laying the groundwork for a more revolutionary policy. By resting his moderation on the hope that the South might be placated, he prepared public opinion to accept an all-out assault on slavery as both fair and necessary in the event that that rebels did not come to their senses.

Although his prior military experience amounted to several months dodging mosquitoes as a young man in the Illinois militia, Lincoln proved to be the most capable commander-in-chief in American history. From early in the war, he recognized that Confederate armies rather than Southern cities that represented the heart of the rebellion. Taking a hands-on approach to military matters, he became quick to remove generals who failed to produce results and take the fight to the enemy.

In 1862, with the rebels proving more intransigent that anticipated, Lincoln began to act more openly against slavery. This shift culminated with what was, arguably, the most important act of his presidency, the Emancipation Proclamation. Issued under the president’s war powers, the Proclamation declared that slaves held in areas that were in active rebellion as of January 1, 1863 would be “forever free,” directing the Union Army to liberate every slave it encountered as it penetrated deeper into Confederate territory. While officially the Border States and Confederate territory already under Union control was exempted, Lincoln quietly included Union held regions of several states, ensuring that 50,000 slaves would be freed the moment the Proclamation went into effect.

In the second half of the Civil War, Lincoln finally found a general who shared his strategic outlook and aggressive instincts: Ulysses S. Grant. Assigned the role of general-in-chief in early 1864, Grant coordinated multiple Union offensives across the North American continent, recognizing, as Lincoln did, that Union forces would have to work in concert to bring about an end to the rebellion. In Virginia, seizing the strategic initiative, Grant forced the Confederates to go on the defensive, trapping them in and around Richmond.

Grant’s success, however, as well as that of Sherman in Georgia, came at an immense cost. As casualties mounted and public frustration grew, Lincoln’s prospects for re-election began to look increasingly dim. His opponent was George B. McClellan, who earlier in the war had served as his general-in-chief. While Lincoln was committed to the preservation of the Union and the extirpation of slavery from the United States, McClellan’s supporters were open to forging a peace with the South that would permanently divide the nation and allow slavery to survive. While some of his advisers urged him to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation in order to attract conservative voters, Lincoln held firm.

Finally, in late summer and early fall, a series of decisive Union victories revived public optimism. Lincoln ultimately won 212 out of 233 electoral votes and 55% of the popular vote. Although McClellan expected many Union soldiers to support his candidacy, soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln, giving him the edge in several crucial states.

As his first term drew to a close, Lincoln focused on permanently abolishing slavery by securing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although the House of Representatives had already voted in favor of the Amendment the previous June, it has passed by a margin of 93 to 65 (with 23 not voting), below the constitutionally required two-thirds majority. Determined to deliver a final death-blow to slavery, Lincoln quietly embarked on a round of brilliant politicking. His efforts paid off when the house passed the Amendment by a margin of 119 to 56 on January 31, 1865. Already approved by the Senate in April 1864, the Amendment was sent on to the states for ratification.

When Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1865, he expressed hope that peace would soon return, while also reiterating his firm commitment to abolition, declaring, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

In 1864, Lincoln began privately expressing support for giving voting rights to at least some African Americans. Signaling the possible direction of his second term, he made his views public on April 11, 1865, when, in the final speech of his life he suggested that at the very least, blacks who were literate or had served in the Union Army should be granted the right to vote. It was the first time in American history that a sitting president endorsed voting rights of any kind for African Americans. In the audience was actor John Wilkes Booth. Enraged by Lincoln’s proposal, Booth turned to a friend and said, “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

Booth carried out his threat at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14. When Lincoln passed on the next morning, Secretary Edwin Stanton sadly remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

– P. Sicher


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