Skip to main content
A portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln: Biography

Image Credit: | Above: Abraham Lincoln seated on 5th February 1865, in portrait by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln is famous for the Gettysburg Address, abolishing slavery and being one of the four presidents who have been assassinated.

Abraham's father remarried and, as the frontier expanded and became more populated, so the quality of life increased. Lincoln soon broke out on his own and moved to New Salem. Here he was successful, and he managed a mill store.

When the Black Hawk War broke out, the volunteers elected Lincoln to be their captain. After the war, Lincoln announced his intention to stand for the Illinois Legislature. He was not elected, but had pockets of high popular support. In 1834, he tried again, and this time was successful. Lincoln served four terms in the legislature, becoming floor leader of his party.

At the same time, Lincoln was studying law, taking and passing the bar in 1836. He became engaged to Mary Owens from Kentucky after meeting in the early 1830s but on 16 August 1837, he wrote her a letter suggesting he would not blame her for ending the relationship as they had both had second thoughts. She never replied.

In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd, and their relationship, as well as the part she played in his subsequent career, remain a matter of some debate. The pair met in 1839 and were engaged in December 1840 but they called off a wedding scheduled for 1 January 1841 at Lincoln's initiative. However, after meeting again they finally married on 8 November 1842.

In 1844, they bought a house in Springfield near Lincoln's law firm and she took care of the house diligently on a limited budget. They had four sons including Robert Todd Lincoln, who was born in 1843 and was their only child to reach adulthood.

Edward, who was born in 1846 died of tuberculosis in 1850, 'Willie' was born in 1850 and died in 1862, while son Tad was born in 1853 and died of heart failure at the age of 18 in 1871.

In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Congress. His career got off to a stormy start, as he was not a staunch supporter of the war with Mexico, and he believed that slavery should be abolished. Both of these beliefs were not popular in his district of Illinois, and he was not re-elected.

Over the next 12 years, Lincoln practiced law and built up his firm. In 1854, the contentious issue of slavery erupted, with a bill brought by Stephen Douglas to organise the Kansas-Nebraska Territory.

This bill so incensed Lincoln that he re-entered the political fray. However, Lincoln failed to receive the nomination for senator in 1855 and, convinced his former party, the Whigs, were essentially dead, he joined the new Republicans, becoming a prominent figure in the party.

When Douglas returned to Illinois to fight for re-election to the Senate, Lincoln pressed Douglas for a discussion on the issue of slavery. These discussions became the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates and, although Douglas was re-elected, Lincoln had gained national recognition.

In 1860, Lincoln was elected presidential candidate for the Republican Party, although it was not an easy election. He was elected president but, as a result, seven Southern states seceded from the Union.

In Lincoln's inauguration speech, he said that secession was anarchic and illegal. He told The Union that while he would not interfere with slavery, he would hold or repossess all Federal property. Civil war broke out soon after.

It was a difficult time for Lincoln, but his tactics began to prevail. In his Gettysburg address, after a great victory for the North, Lincoln proclaimed that the end of the civil war stood for freedom and equality for all.

However, the war dragged on, and critics began to question Lincoln's strategy and his chances for re-election.

Following victory in the war, Lincoln was re-elected. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln urged the North and South to come together and bury past differences, "With malice toward none; and charity for all".

Lincoln never had an opportunity to govern outside war time as, on 14 April 1865, an assassin killed him.

He was shot while watching the play 'Our American Cousins' at the Ford Theatre by well-known actor and Confederate spy John Wilkes-Booth. Booth originally planned to kidnap the president but Lincoln made a speech on 11 April about voting rights for black people, angering Booth. After being in a coma for nine hours, Lincoln died on 15 April. His body lay in state until 21 April and was taken on a tour of the north by train for three weeks, with thousands attending memorial services for him.

In 2012, Steven Spielberg directed a biopic of the president's life called 'Lincoln'. Daniel Day-Lewis subsequently won a Best Actor Oscar® for his portrayal of the leader.