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Abraham Lincoln
by Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in rural Hardin (now Larue) County, Kentucky, the son of an illiterate carpenter and farmer. Young Lincoln received little formal schooling and was largely self-taught. In 1816 the family moved to Indiana, and in 1830 they moved west again, to Illinois.

In 1831, Lincoln began life on his own by moving to New Salem, Illinois, a town near Springfield. He held various jobs there, including storekeeper and mill operator. In 1832, he led a militia contingent in the Black Hawk War, but saw no action. Back in New Salem, Lincoln failed in the grocery business, incurring a heavy debt. He worked as a surveyor and rail-splitter and began the study of law.

Beginning his political career as a Whig, Lincoln was elected to the first of four terms in the Illinois legislature in 1834. Two years later, he was admitted to the bar and subsequently embarked upon a series of law partnerships, including that with William Herndon, later a Lincoln biographer. He developed a reputation as a skillful attorney, and became one of the leading Whig politicians in Illinois. In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd, the daughter of a socially prominent Lexington, Kentucky family.

Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1847, but quickly got on the wrong side of the voters by opposing the Mexican War and challenging President Polk's assertion that the Mexicans had fired the first shot. He campaigned for the Whig candidate, the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, in the presidential election of 1848, but was disappointed when he did not receive a political appointment from the victor.

Lincoln's law practice thrived in the early 1850s, but he returned to politics after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska in 1854. His outrage at Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas' bill, which opened the American West to the introduction of human slavery, led him to once again seek elective office. Lincoln was elected to the state legislature, but declined in order to pursue an unsuccessful senatorial bid in 1856.

That year, Lincoln left the Whigs for the new Republican Party and quickly gained influence in the organization, receiving consideration for a vice presidential nomination that year. In 1858, Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln to challenge Douglas for his seat in the United States Senate. The two engaged in the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln emerged as an articulate critic of Douglas' doctrine of "popular sovereignty." He regarded slavery as a moral wrong that should not be extended to the territories; however, Lincoln did not advocate the abolition of the institution in the states where it already existed, nor did he believe in the equality of the races. Douglas regained his seat, but Lincoln emerged as a national figure and a leading candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Lincoln bolstered his national reputation with a speech he delivered at Cooper Union in New York City, February 1860. In it he offered an alternative to abolitionists' stringent critique of slavery, and discussed conciliation efforts with the South. His nomination came on the convention's third ballot, due largely to skillful campaign management and many delegates' uneasiness about Seward's radical views. The splintering of the Democratic Party into northern and southern wings assured Lincoln's victory.






© 2004 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project