The Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln

More of this Feature

• Part 2: Up through the Ranks
• Part 3: Leader of the Free World
• Part 4: And in the End

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The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln Quotes
The Story of the Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address: Structure and Style
Text of the Address
• The Battle of Gettysburg
The Civil War
• More on Abraham Lincoln

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Part 1: Humble Beginnings

Abraham Lincoln worked his way up from humble beginnings to the highest office in the land, preserved the Union despite a frighteningly massive Civil War, freed slaves, and promised a more perfect union, before ending his life as a martyr, the victim of an assassin's bullet. He is remembered for all of these things and more. His name is synonymous with greatness, and he is consistently considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American President.

Born on Feb. 12, 1809, he started life the son of two illiterate farmers living in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. Abraham's father, Thomas, moved the family to Indiana in 1817, to live on public land where Thomas also farmed and hunted game. (Young Abraham shot a wild turkey that year, but the effect that killing the bird had on him was so great that he never hunted game again.)

Frighteningly, a horse kicked Abraham in the head in 1818, and his family feared him dead. He recovered, though. That same year, Abraham's mother, Nancy, died of tremetol, commonly called "milk sickness," which is unheard of today but was quite common in the American frontier in the 19th Century. Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Johnston a few months after Nancy's death, and Abraham had siblings again. (His older sister, Sarah, and younger brother, Thomas, had died in infancy.)

Historians don't write much about these three new siblings; but Abraham's new mother, Sarah, encouraged the youth to read. Young Abe would walk miles to borrow books from friends and neighbors. He read the Bible and other popular books of the time. He attended an area school off and on for the next few years, while also doing manual labor for friends and neighbors.

When Abe was 21, his father moved the family again, this time to Macon County, in Illinois, 200 miles away. They settled on uncleared land along the Sangamon River, near Decatur, Ill. The following year, Thomas Lincoln moved the family again but Abraham didn't go along, instead choosing to strike out on his own. He went west, to New Salem, and secured a job as a clerk in the village store. He started out sleeping in the back of the store and eventually became part-owner of the store.

In 1832, Lincoln got two chances to prove his leadership skills. During the Black Hawk War, a brief series of skirmishes between American militia and Native Americans in and around Illinois, Lincoln was named a captain in the militia. He saw no combat but gained experience with military units all the same. Also that year, he ran for the Illinois General Assembly. He didn't win but gained political experience.

Meanwhile, the general store that Lincoln and William Berry owned went out of business. They bought another one, but that one failed as well, putting both co-owners in debt. Lincoln got a job as postmaster of New Salem and then another job as deputy county surveyor.

All this time, Lincoln had been reading and talking to people and listening to their concerns. He taught himself mathematics. He read great books. All of these things put him in good stead for another run for political office, and he did just that in 1834, winning a seat in the Illinois General Assembly, as a member of the relatively new Whig Party. He also began studying the law, in part by reading Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. Amid his studies, he was re-elected to the Assembly, in 1836. The following year, after winning admittance to the state bar, he moved to Springfield, where he began practicing law, in the office of John T. Stuart.

Lincoln proved an adept lawyer and politician, winning acquittal for a defendant in a famous murder case and also winning re-election yet again, becoming Whig Floor Leader in the process. He traveled the eastern and central parts of the state, on the 8th Judicial Circuit, and then won a spot on the U.S. Circuit Court, eventually arguing cases before the state supreme court. In 1839, he met Mary Todd. The two saw a lot of each other that year and the next, and they became engaged in 1840. They broke off their engagement but then got back together, eventually marrying on Nov. 4, 1842.

Next page > Up through the Ranks > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

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