Abraham Lincoln Biography

Lincoln picture What can one say about what many average American citizens and American historians consider to be the finest president we have ever had? Abraham Lincoln has long been endeared in the hearts of all of humankind-including those southerners and operatives of the status quo antebellum, who at the time viewed him with such racist and virile characterizations, such as calling him the "Orangutan in the White House" and the "Abolition Emperor, King Linkum the First." He was known to others during his lifetime and since then by other names-Honest Abe, the Railsplitter, Uncommon friend of the Common Man, Old Abe, Father Abraham, or the Great Emancipator.(1)

Lincoln knew what it was like to grow up in poverty. Looking back on his childhood, Lincoln once remarked, "It can all be condensed into a single sentence-'The short and simple annals of the poor.'" He was born in the Kentucky backcountry of Hodgenville, Hardin (present-day Larue) County, in a simple log cabin with a dirt floor on February 12, 1809.(2) His father, Thomas, was a carpenter and an itinerate farmer. He and Abraham did not have a good relationship. On the other hand, Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, was the flower of his heart. She was everything Thomas was not, and that made Abraham endear himself to her. She was smart, quick with tall tales and jokes, upstanding among the community womenfolk, and doting to her children, Abraham and his older sister, Sarah. When she died of "milk sickness," young Lincoln was devastated. He made a vow: "All I am or hope to be, I owe to my sainted mother."(3) Lincoln's boyhood to maturity have become the stuff of folklore-in the style of the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree. These stories have become familiar to every youngster over these many years-his budding intellect demonstrated by walking miles in snow and rain to get the latest biography of George Washington, his tall tales designed to make everyone laugh at his own expense, his capacity to study law despite having no formal schooling, his carefree handling of his law practice by keeping no files of cases but instead keeping law papers stuffed in his stovepipe hat, his brashness in asking the upstanding Mary Todd to dance with him "in the worst way." His relationship with Mary revealed his doubts about his own ability to be a good husband to her. He had endured a horrific home life with a father who he did not like, the sudden death of a mother who he had loved but could not save, and the loss of his sweetheart Ann Rutledge, the only girl he ever loved. He, therefore, was a reluctant marriage partner to Mary-on one occasion, even backing out of marriage at the last instance, only to go through with it a year later.(4)

But if his private life was full of contradictions, his public life in the form of politics gave him a devotion and determination to make a difference for his country. When he entered politics in his bid for the Illinois state assembly in 1834 (he had lost his bid for election in 1832), he adhered to all the traditional Whig principles-high protective tariff, internal improvements financed by the General government, a National Bank, protection of propertied interests, land grants which benefited speculators instead of settlers, and general sympathy with the business and professional classes. But he increasingly attached his political fortunes to the issue of slavery, and kept his hatred of slavery his whole lifelong. There were no zigzags in this hatred, for he stated that slavery was "founded on both injustice and bad policy." By the time he ran for the Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1858, fully twenty-five years later, he publicly recognized how his initial feelings were constant-"the same that it is now." On the national scene, Lincoln took his hatred for slavery to the U.S. Congress in 1846. Convinced that President James K. Polk had deliberately provoked war with Mexico in order to increase slave territory in the Southwest, he demanded the president show the precise spot on which hostilities with Mexico began. But it was a patriotic war, and he was frustrated that others could not see the truth behind the war that he saw all too clearly. He left Congress in 1848, persuaded that he had been a failure in his political efforts. But events would prove him incorrect, and slavery agitation allowed him to get back in the political arena.(5)

Lincoln was not only a political moralist of the greatest degree, but he also had an inborn talent in the Machiavellian arrangement of power. This is a very extraordinary combination of characteristics. It gave the antislavery cause the type of strategic foresight that was all too frequently deficient in abolitionism. The Lincoln of the 1850's proved himself to be the foremost leader of the "Free Soil movement," a coalition that abolitionists oftentimes criticized since its objective was "merely" to prevent the expansion of slavery. But this movement was a very important danger to the slaveholding states. They realized that if Lincoln had succeeded in his goal as a congressman in preventing the creation of new slave states while allowing the free-state process to go on expanding to the West, the existing slave states would be reduced to permanent minority status in the Union, unable to restrain abolitionist legislation in Congress or stop the passage of an antislavery constitutional amendment.(6)

Sectional hostility reached a fever pitch after the annexation of Mexican territory in 1848. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to patch hostilities by making the northern states happy with a clause barring slavery in California and the implementation of squatter sovereignty (having people decide slavery by voting), and placating the southern states with a harsh fugitive slave law. But by 1854, when Lincoln discovered Stephen Douglas' plan to make the extension of slavery easier in western territories through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he hit the campaign trail hard-often exhibiting extreme emotion to stress his concern. For example, in Peoria, he stated, "I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world. . . ."(7) This impassioned plea could not give him a Senate seat in 1855, so he was determined to step up pressure on the threat of slavery to the Union in 1858. Although his fellow Republicans counseled him to soften his language, Lincoln nonetheless gave the grave situation an aura of immediacy: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." Lincoln engaged Douglas on this premise in seven face-to-face debates, and even though he was defeated in his Senate bid, his central focus of the debates (slavery) and the passion with which he argued the moral ramifications gave Lincoln a national following and his election to the presidency in 1860.(8)

For years, pro-slavery extremists had threatened secession if the free states put them in a "one-down" power arrangement. This was why Lincoln's election in 1860-in and of itself-brought about the breakup of the Union. Southern belligerents dreaded what Lincoln had promised. Lincoln had a two-step antislavery course of action. The first step was containment. The second was compensated phase-out. The belligerent South refused to pay attention to the inevitable destruction of slavery. But Lincoln would not give one inch on his promise of slavery containment. Neither would he allow the secessionists dissolve the nation without a fight. Here is how Lincoln saw the issues in December 1860 when his dismissed outright a "moderate" compromise to save the Union: "Entertain no compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over. . . . Have none of it. The tug has to come better now than later." So the war began-a war to preserve the Union, but also a war that Lincoln would put to full use for the benefit of his moral strategy.(9)

But before enacting his moral strategy, Lincoln had to straighten out the Union's military machine. From the beginning, concern followed anxiety which in turn led to anguish. The president was always concerned over the defense of his government and the delayed arrival of troops from the Army of the Potomac (especially during the time of the Peninsula Campaign and Antietam). Then, after Chancellorsville, a brutal Union catastrosphe, he was concerned about what the country would say about his prosecution of the Union war effort. He endured a succession of failures in attempting to choose a general, because neither McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, nor Meade saw the war as he saw it. He had a Machiavellian way only a few could truly understand and appreciate. Lincoln was learning from his mistakes in military strategy and tactics. Even though mistakes were made, he knew that it was Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, not the Confederate capital of Richmond, that had to be destroyed. This could be accomplished not only by victories on the battlefield, provided by his great three-way strategic team of Halleck in Washington, Grant and Sheridan in the East, and Sherman in the West, but through an outright attack on the South's motivation for fighting the war-preservation of slavery.(10)

In the course of the war, in moments of victory and defeat, Lincoln could take a sense of accomplishment in what the Founders had achieved, but he knew that more work needed to be done to give Americans hope for the future-a future free of the threat of disunion and civil war over slavery. His moral strategy would provide that hope. At first, he believed that the moral high ground provided by slavery containment would smooth over resistance to an offer of federal money in return for the emancipation of slaves. He went out of his way to get Congress to authorize preliminary funds for this program in 1862. He then put it into effect in border states such as Maryland and Kentucky. But the border states rejected his plan without reservation. Lincoln then radicalized the next phase of his strategy: he changed his direction from the border slave states to the rebellious states, where he established comprehensive and direct emancipation with no compensation whatsoever. Though composed in constitutional and "moderate" terms to placate white supremacist supporters of the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation was a concept that Lincoln had been keeping in reserve for many months before he actually designed it. It was a powerful alternative plan in the event that his "but-out" strategy failed. The amazing reality is this: Lincoln used the Civil War as a grim chance to give shape to a remarkable power coalition that would destroy the power of the slaveholding states forever.(11) The turning point of the war in the Union's favor at Gettysburg gave him an opportunity to rededicate the war toward a moralistic and humanitarian cause. The war was no longer one simply to reconcile southerners into the Union as it had been before, but, instead, as he expressed it, the whole nation would have to be completely different after the war to justify all the bloodletting during the war. He, in short, gave the struggle a new meaning and the country a "new birth of freedom."(12)

Even though his new war aim of emancipation was criticized by many of those who just wanted to fight for reunion, Lincoln refused to cave into pressure to renounce it. Instead, he gave it momentum in his fiery second Inaugural Address of March 1865. It was important for him to find the proper way to explain to his countrymen why God had allowed the war to continue. He believed it was in retribution for the sin of 250 years of enslavement of innocent people. But he also wanted to initiate the uneasy task of bringing the all but defeated South back into the new, more improved Union. For Lincoln had had in mind a lenient peace with the purpose of bringing the Union together again. When in Richmond, a Union general had asked him how he should treat the vanquished southerners, Lincoln replied: "If I were in your place, I'd let 'em up easy, let 'em up easy."(13) Five days after Lee surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln took the time for a pleasant diversion-a hilarious theatrical performance-with his wife, Mary. There, he was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, thus becoming the first American president to die by assassination. What a foolish act, because it only served to bring down a vindictive reconstruction upon the South. Indeed, American history would have been different had he lived! Amidst the hatred for the South all around him, Lincoln was the voice of common sense that has been passed down through the ages: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."(14)


  1. Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1935), 25-26, 45-49; Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Content: Collected Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 229.
  2. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), 4.
  3. Emanuel Hertz, ed., Lincoln Talks: A Biography in Anecdote (New York: Viking Press, 1939), 3.
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life 3 vols. (Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889), I: 35; Douglas L. Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln and 'That Fatal First of January,'" Civil War History 38, no. 2 (June 1992): 104-106.
  5. Gabor S. Boritt, "Lincoln's Opposition to the Mexican War," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 67 (February 1974): 91; Paul Findley, A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress (New York: Crown Publishers, 1979), 124, 130, 138-139.
  6. Richard Striner, The Civic Deal: Re-Empowering Our Great Republic (Washington, D.C.: The Pericles Institute, 2000), 68-71.
  7. Ibid., 70-72.
  8. Henry Steele Commager, ed., Documents of American History (New York: Crofts, 1945), Document no. 186, 345.
  9. Richard Striner, The Civic Deal, 71-72.
  10. Christopher Dell, Lincoln and the War Democrats: The Grand Erosion of Conservative Tradition (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975), chapters 4-6; Richard Striner, The Civic Deal, 76, 77-78.
  11. Richard Striner, The Civic Deal, 72-76.
  12. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), VI: 410; Arthur Zilversmit, ed., Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971), introduction, 42.
  13. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, VIII: 356; Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 206-208; Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Content, 162-163; Richard Striner, The Civic Deal, 79-80.
  14. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 852-853.