Getting to Know Abraham Lincoln

Our 16th president was a very odd-looking man. Long-limbed and raw-boned, this frontier president grew up without a lot of the niceties we take for granted today. He grew up surrounded by wilderness and not having much schooling. As he remembered it, "...I could read, write, and cipher (simple math) ... but that was all."

But the backwoods boy had ambition to be more than a rifle-toting farmer. He got himself educated, and it was no easy job. To make money, he did farm—and split rails for fences—and ran a store, all the while pushing ahead with his law studies. Back in those days, you could study to be a lawyer by having another lawyer supervise you as you "read law" under him and worked as his clerk. There was no real need to go to formal law school in those days and many did not. In some states, including Virginia, you can still do this today.

On His Way

He was in the army for a time and got an early start in politics. But he went back to lawyering for the railroad companies from his home base of Springfield, Illinois, during the 1840s and much of the 1850s. His business did well, yet he was drawn back into politics at last.

In 1854, he took a stand with the new Republican Party against the spread of slavery in the territories through the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

His famous speech denouncing that act put him in the national political spotlight, squaring off against his later presidential rival, Stephen A. Douglas:

"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... ."

Before the first shots in the Civil War were fired in 1861, the battle lines between the North and the South were clearly drawn and had been for some time. Abraham Lincoln was on the side of emancipation (freedom for the slaves) in that 1860 election. Lincoln won the election, beating his Democratic rivals, Stephen Douglas and John Cabell Breckinridge.

An Excuse for War

South Carolina had been on the look out for a reason to secede from (leave) the Union. They knew that Lincoln would take a hard line against slavery, and as soon as the results were finally, South Carolina was the first Southern state to declare themselves independent.

Within a year, the nation would be gripped in a bloody civil war. Within five years, Abraham Lincoln would be dead--shot by an assassin's bullet. But Lincoln's legacies of freedom for slaves and union of the states would be the foundation of the next stage of American history.

Quick Lincoln Facts

  • Early life: he was born February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Hardin County, Kentucky. He grew up in Indiana.
  • His presidency lasted from 1861 until his death in 1865. He was reelected in 1864.
  • His death: he died April 15, 1865. He was assassinated while watching a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. He was shot by an actor named John Wilkes Booth.
  • Famous for: leading the United States during the Civil War, his Gettysburg Address, and the Emancipation Proclamation

This booklist, Lincoln in the Library, is a guide to some our materials on the 16th president. You might also find our online articles to be helpful, as well as these Web sites:

Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project
lincoln.lib.niu.edu
Lincoln's writings, speeches, a biography, and information on related historical themes, such as law and society, frontier settlement, and Native American relations. For older students

Abraham Lincoln Online
showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln.html
Click on Education to get the president's biography, his writings--including quotes, and places and events to check out to learn more about Lincoln.

The History Place: Abraham Lincoln
www.historyplace.com/lincoln/index.html
Includes a timeline and links to photos, letters, and historic documents.

The White House: Abraham Lincoln
www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/abrahamlincoln/
An article summarizing the 16th president's life and achievements.