A History of the Great Emancipator: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, 1809- 1865
Although the state of Illinois claims itself as “the land of Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln was not born in Illinois, but in Hardin County, Kentucky. On February 12, 1809, the child who grew up to become the 16th President of the United States was born in a small cabin and later grew up on Knob Creek Farm. The Kentucky birthplace of Abraham Lincoln is now immortalized as a National Historic Park, a sign that his life and politics had wide-ranging, national impact. Indeed they did as Lincoln’s presence in the White House is considered a key tipping point in agitating the American Civil War. Among Lincoln’s greatest powers as President was his spoken word, as evident in his 1961 inaugural speech where Lincoln sought to quell talk of secession by saying “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Lincoln was the second child born to parents Nancy and Thomas Lincoln; he was preceded by sister Sarah Lincoln, who was born two years prior. The Lincolns welcomed a baby brother for Sarah and Abraham in 1812-- Thomas, Jr. -- but he died shortly after birth. Abraham Lincoln endured the death of other close family members. His mother died when he was just nine years old. Ten years later, Abraham’s sister died while in child labor. Although alone -- except for his father who remarried in 1819, Lincoln did not rush to create his own family.

At age 35 Abraham Lincoln married fellow Kentuckian Mary Todd during a Springfield, Illinois wedding in November 1842. It was a small, conservative affair with roughly 30 people. During their marriage, the couple had four children: Robert Todd, Edward Baker, William Wallace, and Thomas, who was named after Lincoln’s father and deceased brother. Only one of Abraham Lincoln’s children lived to adulthood: Robert. Edward died shortly before his fourth birthday in 1850 while William died in the White House at age 11 in 1862; Thomas died at age 18 in 1871 during a bout of tuberculosis. Robert went on to live until he was 82.

The education of Abraham Lincoln was anchored on self-teachings and teachings from his step-mother since there were few schools and few teachers in the pioneer farm community where he grew up. Lincoln did attend a single-room cabin-based school briefly age 6 and then again sporadically at age 7, 11, 13, and 15 . Those school experiences combined added up to less than a year. Although lacking in formal education, Lincoln was considered very erudite and innovative.

The launch of Lincoln’s political career was stymied in 1832 when he failed in his first bid for the Illinois Legislature. Two years later, however, his second political campaigned proved charmed when he won election to the Illinois House of Representatives. He served four terms. In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Congress as a representative for the Whig Party.

Eight years later in 1854, Abraham Lincoln announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate; he lost. He was also unsuccessful in his bid for the vice-presidency in 1856. In 1860, however, political luck returned when Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Presidency and makes history as the first Republican elected to America’s highest office. One month after Lincoln’s election, an angry South Carolina made the decision to secede from the United States, thus kicking off a series of events that snowballed into the Civil War.

Ten other states joined South Carolina’s secession strategy -- including Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida -- together forming the Confederate States of America. Although Lincoln initially pledged in 1861 to preserve the union by preserving the Southern lifestyle of slavery, he soon shifted his opinion later that year. In 1863, he issued the pivotal Emancipation Proclamation, which liberated all slaves held by Confederate states, giving the Union an additional cause for fighting the Civil War, beyond the original cause of halting the secession. In November of 1863, Lincoln delivered the landmark Gettysburg Address . It was meant to simply be a speech to dedicate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, but the speech became a clarion call for a new America, with Lincoln saying “This nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and ...government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The Union eventually defeated the Confederate States, ending the Civil War in 1865. Roughly 620,000 people were killed. Lincoln did not live long enough to see the new America he foresaw when he wrote the Gettysburg Address. On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died after being assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as he sat watching a performance at the Ford’s Theatre.

Lincoln’s legacy continues to be celebrated. In 2009, he was remembered with a series of ceremonial events commemorating the Lincoln Bicentennial. That same year, America’s first black U.S. President Barack Obama used Lincoln’s bible during his inauguration and spoke of how his views were shaped by Lincoln.