Born on 12 February 1809, in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County of Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is regarded as one of the greatest heroes of America for his role as the savior of the Union and the emancipator of slaves.
Abraham was the second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who moved to Indiana in 1830, as Thomas lost his property in legal disputes. Consequently, Abraham’s formal schooling was disrupted time and again, as he had to work to support his family. He was only nine years old, when he untimely lost her mother on 5 October 1818 and Thomas married Sara ‘Sally’ Bush Johnston, a widow with three children on 2 December 1819. However, Abraham became close to his stepmother and always referred to her as his ‘angel mother’. He grew up as a tall and strong teenager, accepted the customary practice of helping the family and used to give his father all the earnings from work outside the home until age 21. As the Lincoln family moved to Macon County in southern Illinois in 1830, Abraham got a job working on a river flatboat hauling freight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
Though he was deprived of formal school education, Abraham was an avid reader and was largely self educated. During his early years he used to read and reread Aesop’s Fables, Robinson Crusoe, the King James Bible and others. As he grew up, his thirst for knowledge increased and he devoured the ‘Life of Washington’ by Mason Locke Weems, the ‘Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’ and the likes. During their stay in Illinois, Abraham became increasingly distant from his father, partly because his lack of education and when the family was again preparing to move to a new home in Coles County, Abraham left home and moved to New Salem.
In 1832 Lincoln partnered with Denton Offutt to bought a general store on credit in New Salem, but as the business struggled, he sold his share, served as a postmaster and then as a surveyor. Meanwhile, he became interested in local politics, aspired to be elected in the General Assembly, but lost in the election. In 1832, he was enlisted as a volunteer in the Black Hawk War and was elected captain of his company. After that, he returned to his election campaign again and became successful in his second attempt, winning election to the Illinois state legislature in 1834, as a supporter of the Whig Party and ultimately, he served four successive terms in the House of Representatives.
Abraham Lincoln, the self taught man, taught himself law and passed the bar examination in 1836. During the next year, he moved to Springfield and worked there as a lawyer for the next two years. Soon he earned a reputation as ‘Honest Abe’, serving clients ranging from individual residents of small towns to national railroad lines.
In December 1839, he met Mary Todd, a Kentucky belle with many suitors and one of the daughters of a wealthy slave-owner. They were engaged in 1840 and married on 4 November 1842, in the Springfield mansion of Mary's married sister.
Lincoln was elected to the House of Representatives in 1846, where he served one two-year term as the lone Whig from Illinois. In collaboration with abolitionist Congressman Joshua Giddings, he jointly wrote a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia with compensation to the owners, enforcement to capture fugitive slaves, and a popular vote on the matter. However, as the bill failed to garner sufficient Whig supporters, he abandoned it.
He also challenged the statement of President James Polk that Mexico had started the war by shedding American blood upon American soil and voted to condemn Polk. At the same time, he campaigned for the nomination and election of the war hero Zachary Taylor. As Taylor succeeded at the polls, Lincoln expected to be named commissioner of the general land office as a reward for his campaign services, but was bitterly disappointed when the administration offered him the post of secretary or governor of the Oregon Territory, which is a far away territory and a Democratic stronghold. As acceptance of the offer would inevitably ruin his legal and political career in Illinois, he declined the offer and promising not to seek reelection, returned to Springfield in 1849 at the age of 40 and resumed his law practice.
However, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act, advocated by Senator Douglas narrowly passed Congress in 1854, it alarmed many Northerners, who sincerely wanted to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories, since the act declared that the voters of each territory had the right to decide the status of slavery within the territory. This acted as the catalyst of Lincoln’s return to political life, when on 16 October 1854 he appeared before a huge crowd and delivered his ‘Peoria Speech’. He denounced the system of slavery and its extension and specifically termed it as a violation of the basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence.
As the Whigs were irreparably split by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and other efforts to compromise on the slavery issue, Lincoln knew that his party is almost ruined. To continue his fight, he joined the new Republican Party, formed as a northern party dedicated to antislavery. Though he had campaigned unsuccessfully for the election to the Senate in 1855, he ran for the Senate again in 1858.
Douglas was up for re-election in 1858 and Lincoln, after accepting the nomination, delivered his famous ‘house divided’ speech, in which he quoted from the Gospels to illustrate his belief that government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free. His speech created an evocative image of the danger of disunion. Though he lost the Senate election, his performance made him reputed nationally. His importance rose higher after he delivered another rousing speech to a group of powerful Republicans at Cooper Union in New York City in early 1860.
On May 18, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot, beating candidates such as Senator William H Seward of New York and other powerful contenders. On the other hand, Douglas was selected as the candidate of the Northern Democrats. However, delegates from eleven slave states disagreed with the decision and selected incumbent Vice President John C Breckinridge as their candidate. Another group formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee as their candidate. Basically, Lincoln and Douglas competed for votes in the North, while Bell and Breckinridge primarily found support in the South.
As Douglas and the other candidates campaigned, Lincoln gave no speeches. He relied on the enthusiasm of the Republican Party, who produced an abundance of campaign posters, leaflets, and newspaper editorials, focusing on the party platform, and Lincoln's life story, emphasizing his childhood poverty.
Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States on 6 November 1860, the first Republican president of the country. However, no ballots were cast for him in 10 of the 15 Southern slave states, and he won only two of 996 counties in all the Southern states. With Breckenridge and Bell splitting the vote in the South, Lincoln’s victory was entirely due to his support in the North and states like California and Oregon in the west. But, his victory in the Electoral College was decisive, as he had 180 and his opponents added together had only 123.
The election of an antislavery northerner as the 16th president of the United States, alarmed many southern states and they planned to leave the Union. South Carolina took the lead by adopting an ordinance of secession on 20 December 1860, followed by Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Before Lincoln took the office, six of these states seceded from the Union, declared sovereignty, formed the Confederate States of America and adopted a constitution. On 9 February 1861, Jefferson Davis was selected as the provisional President of Confederation.
Though attempts at compromise followed, the failure of the Peace Conference of 1861 signaled that legislative compromise was impossible. As no leaders of the insurrection had proposed rejoining the Union on any terms by March 1861, Lincoln and the Republican leadership agreed that the dismantling of the Union could never be tolerated.
In the month of April, in compliance with the request of Fort Sumter's commander, Major Robert Anderson, Lincoln ordered a fleet of Union ships to supply provisions to South Carolina’s Fort Sumter. However, on 12 April 1861, the Confederate forces fired on both the fort and the Union fleet, which signaled the beginning of the Civil War. After that and following the absolute defeat of the Union force at the First Battle of Bull Run in Prince William County in Virginia, just north of the city of Manassas on 21 July 1861, Lincoln appointed Major General George McClellan as the general-in-chief.
However, his slow progress frustrated Lincoln and after McClellan offered unsolicited political advice, Lincoln removed him in March 1862 and appointed Republican John Pope as head of the new Army of Virginia. Pope complied with Lincoln's desire to advance on Richmond from the north and thus protecting Washington from counter attack. However, Pope was then soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run in the month of August 1862, forcing the Army of the Potomac back to defend Washington.
Despite his dissatisfaction with McClellan, Lincoln restored him to command of all forces around Washington. Within two days of McClellan's return to command, a huge force under command of General Robert E Lee crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. The ensuing Battle of Antietam, fought on 17 September 1862, was the bloodiest day in United States history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing. In the battle, the Confederate troops had withdrawn from the battlefield and abandoned their invasion, making it a Union strategic victory. However, only due to McClellan’s reluctance to pursue the enemy force, the Confederate Army could retreat safely to Virginia. Lincoln was very much annoyed at it and finally removed McClellan from the command after the midterm election of 1862, replacing him with Republican Ambrose Burnside.
Nevertheless, it was a sufficiently significant victory to give Lincoln the confidence to announce his famous Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September1862, effective from 1 January 1863.This famous decree applied only to those parts of the country, that were under Confederate control, neither to the loyal slave states nor to the federally occupied areas of the Confederacy. However, the proclamation brought freedom during the war to fewer than 200,000 slaves.
Though the proclamation was a death blow at the gigantic evil of slavery, Lincoln felt that a constitutional amendment is required to terminate and prohibit the inhuman system forever, since the proclamation had no provision to erase the risk of re-enslavement and confirm the liberty of the slaves. Lincoln therefore increased pressure on Congress to outlaw slavery throughout the nation with a constitutional amendment. An amendment to the constitution was brought to Congress by December 1863, but this first attempt failed, falling short of the required two-thirds majority on June 15, 1864, in the House of Representatives. But, after a House debate, the second attempt passed on January 31, 1865 and went out to the states for ratification and with ratification, it became the 13th amendment of the constitution on 6 December 1865, outlawing slavery. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not live to rejoice in its ultimate adoption.
The tide of the war finally turned in favour of the Union in July 1863, with the two important Union victories at Vicksburg-Mississippi and Gettysburg-Pennsylvania, though General George Meade missed the golden opportunity to deliver a final blow to Lee’s army at Gettysburg. However, as Sherman marched triumphantly northward through the Carolinas, Lee had to surrender to General Ulysses S.Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on 9th April 1865,in one of the last battles of the American Civil War.
At the dedication ceremony for the new national cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863, Lincoln delivered a brief speech, which became the most famous speech of Lincoln’s presidency and one of the most widely quoted speeches in history. In just 272 words, and three minutes, he defined the war as dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality for all. He declared that slavery would end, the future of democracy would be assured and government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln had to face a tough reelection battle in 1864, against the Democratic nominee, the former Union General George McClellan. But, he was reelected with a large popular majority (55 percent) over his Democratic opponent. In his second inaugural address, delivered on 4th March 1865, Lincoln emphasized the need to reconstruct the South, rebuild the Union and bind up the nation’s wounds, with malice toward none and with charity for all.
With the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, and Lee’s ultimate surrender to General Grant at Appomattox on 9th April, Washington became crazy with jubilation. On the evening of 10 April 1865 a huge crowd of some 3,000 people gathered outside the White House, to whom Abraham Lincoln delivered his last public address, earnestly persuading his audience to welcome the southern states back into the fold. Unfortunately, he would not live to help carry out his vision of Reconstruction.
Five days after Lee's surrender, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on 14 April 1865, while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. Booth was an actor and a Confederate spy from Maryland. After attending Lincoln’s speech on 11 April 1865, when he promoted voting rights for blacks, Booth planned to assassinate Lincoln and General Grant at the theater. He crept up from behind and fired at the back of Lincoln's head and escaped. Lincoln was immediately attended by doctors and was taken to Peterson House, across the street. He remained in coma for nine hours, as the external and internal hemorrhaging continued throughout the night and died in the morning of 15 April at the age of 56.
Booth was located in Virginia 11 days later. As he refused to surrender, he was shot by Union forces on April 26 and died two hours later.
The late President lay in state, first in the East Room, and then in the Capitol Rotunda from April 19 through April 21. The funeral train, Lincoln special, left Washington, DC on April 21 at 12:30 pm and traveled 1,654 miles (2,662 km) never exceeding 20 mph to reach the final destination at Springfield on May 3. It stopped in several principal cities and state capitals en route, where ceremonies and processions were held with the caskets, attended by hundreds and thousands of mourners.
Though Lincoln was born in Kentucky, grew up in Indiana, and served the nation from Washington, he was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield in Illinois, as he always maintained that Springfield is his hometown. The site of the Lincoln Tomb consists of a 117 feet (36 m) tall granite obelisk, surrounded by several bronze statues of Lincoln, along with soldiers and sailors. Upon completion of the memorial in 1874, Lincoln's mortal remains were interred in a marble casket in the center of a chamber known as the burial room or catacombs.
Much later, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC was dedicated to him on May 30, 1922.
Lincoln deserves his reputation as the Great Emancipator. However, he was also a very intelligent war leader, who carried the nation safely through the four-year struggle that brought freedom in its train. His faithfulness, honesty, resolution, insight, sense of humour and courage made him a historical hero. Lincoln was very much attached to the Bible and knew it well. He also was fond of Shakespeare, liked the works of John Stuart Mill and enjoyed the poems of Lord Byron and Robert Burns. He is considered by many as a martyr. As he was assassinated on Good Friday, the day of crucifixion, it is said that, Jesus Christ died for the world and Abraham Lincoln died for his country.