Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on Nolin Creek in Hardin (now Larue) County, Kentucky. His father was a carpenter and farmer who owned three farms in Kentucky.
His family moved to Indiana in December 1816, in part because his parents did not approve of slavery, which was legal in Kentucky but not in Indiana. His family moved again in 1830, this time to Illinois. In 1831 Lincoln left home and moved to New Salem, Illinois.
In 1832 he ran unsuccessfully for election to the Illinois General Assembly. With the outbreak of the Black Hawk War, he volunteered for military service and was elected captain of his rifle company, but he saw no fighting.
Lincoln ran for office again in 1834 and was elected, serving four terms in the General Assembly as a member of the Whig Party. During this time, Lincoln also studied law and in 1836 was licensed to practice.
He moved to Springfield, Illinois, in 1837 and started practicing law with John Todd Stuart. He married Mary Todd from Kentucky in 1842, and they had four sons, only one of whom survived to adulthood.
Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Congress and served from 1847 to 1849. While in Congress, he opposed the Mexican-American War because he felt that President James Polk had violated the Constitution.
He also supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in territory gained from the war. Once his term was completed, he returned to his law practice in Springfield.
Lincoln opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed for the possibility of slavery spreading to the new territories in the Union. The act was sponsored by Democratic senator Stephen Douglas.
Lincoln joined the Republican Party in 1856 and in 1858 ran against Douglas for the Senate. The two conducted a series of debates covering a number of issues, including slavery. The debates gained Lincoln national exposure, but he lost the election to Douglas.
Lincoln’s exposure made him a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. The primary Republican candidate was William H. Seward, but Seward was unacceptable to several keys states. Lincoln was the second most popular candidate and more acceptable then Seward, facts which ultimately won Lincoln the nomination.
With a split in the Democratic Party, Lincoln won the election and took office in March 1861. Lincoln wanted to keep the Union together, and in his inaugural speech talked of conciliation, but it was too late.
Seven states had already seceded from the Union, and when Lincoln ordered a ship to take supplies to the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the government of South Carolina ordered the fort to be attacked. This action, on April 12, 1861, officially started the American Civil War.
With the Union defeat at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, the war looked to continue for years, and Lincoln’s inability to find a capable general exacerbated the Union’s problems.
One of Lincoln’s major concerns was the involvement of Europe, particularly Britain and France, in the war. Britain saw the war as a chance to check the growth of the United States, but was unwilling to commit men or material without reassurance that the Confederacy would win.
Intially, Lincoln’s position had been the preservation of the Union. However, as the war progressed, the issue of slavery became more and more important. Lincoln believed that while the Constitution protected slavery during peace, in war it was a different matter.
As such, he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. However, he was concerned that issuing the proclamation would be seen as a sign of desperation if he did so following the continuing losses suffered by the Union army.
It was not until the Union victory at Antietam in Maryland on September 17, 1862, that Lincoln got his chance. While not a decisive victory, the battle did force General Robert E. Lee to retreat to Virginia, and Lincoln took the opportunity to release the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. With this, Britain determined that it would be best served by staying out of the conflict.
The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in states in rebellion; it was not until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that slavery was fully abolished. The Amendment was ratified on December 18, 1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation was worded specifically to exclude border states (such as Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri) that were still loyal to the Union but where slavery was still legal.
While Lincoln could be careful not to alienate certain groups, he was also willing to do what he felt was necessary to defend the Union. To that end, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus on April 27, 1861, in limited areas and then on September 24, 1862, throughout the nation.
It is believed that his administration made as many as 13,000 arrests without cause. He endured harsh criticism from other politicians and newspapers, including being called a tyrant.
It was not until 1864 that the war finally turned in favor of the Union when Lincoln brought General Ulysses S. Grant to Washington from the Western Theater to command all the armies of the Union.
Grant proved a capable general and was able to push the Union army forward against the Confederacy. With the election of 1864, the Democratic Party decided to run former general George B. McClellan against Lincoln.
The only issues that the Democrats could use against Lincoln were his supposed tyrannical policies and the fact that the war was progressing very slowly and weariness was setting in around the country.
With Grant’s campaign to take Richmond, followed by General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Georgia, on September 2, 1864, and then General Philip Sheridan’s destruction of part of Lee’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, the war was obviously nearing its conclusion, and Lincoln won reelection in November 1864.
With the war nearing its end, Lincoln began to look toward what would happen after the war. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln expressed a desire to reform the Union, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
But whatever plan he might have had for the restoration of the South and the reformation of the American Union died with him on April 14, 1865, when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, just five days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.