Abraham Lincoln was born in rural Kentucky in 1809, to parents of low social standing and little education. During his childhood and early youth, the family would move several times, first to Indiana and later to Illinois. Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, died when Lincoln was still a boy, and the next year his father, Thomas remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston, who helped raise the young Lincoln.
Lincoln got his start in life after a pair of flatboat journeys to New Orleans. Soon afterward, he moved to New Salem, Illinois and set up as a store clerk there. When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, he became the captain of his volunteer company, serving for three months but seeing no active duty.
Lincoln's first bid for elected office came in that same year, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois state legislature. Two years later, he ran again and was victorious, becoming a fixture of the Whig party in the General Assembly for the next eight years. At the same time, Lincoln's law career began to flourish. He was admitted to the bar in 1837, and moved to Springfield, the new state capital, later that same year.
Lincoln married Mary Todd in 1842. The couple had four sons together, two of whom would die tragically while still children. Then, in 1846, Lincoln was elected to U.S. Congress, and moved to Washington to serve out his term, where he spoke out against the Mexican War and unsuccessfully attempted to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.
In 1849, Lincoln returned to Springfield to resume his career as a lawyer and devote more time to his family. His political life seemed to be over. But when the slavery question heated up in the middle 1850s, Lincoln took to the stump again, running unsuccessfully for Senate in 1854 and 1858. Despite these losses, Lincoln gained national exposure due to his flair for oration. Such talent was especially evident during the series of debates he engaged in against Stephen Douglas during the campaign of 1858, when Lincoln established himself as a leading opponent of popular sovereignty.
A combination of luck, manipulation, and talent won Lincoln the Republican nomination for president in 1860. An especially fragmented race, featuring four major candidates, resulted in a victory for Lincoln despite the fact that he won less than 40 percent of the popular vote. With an avowed opponent of slavery having gained the nation's top office, several southern states began to consider the prospect of secession.
An initial wave of secession led by South Carolina brought about the establishment of the Confederate States of America, a self-declared independent nation apart from the United States of America. After Lincoln attempted to reinforce Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate forces opened fire and the Civil War began. When Lincoln called for a sizeable militia to quash the rebellion, several more states, led by Virginia, also seceded.
While Lincoln insisted that the Civil War was being fought to preserve the Union, the fate of slavery also played a major role. Lincoln took an overpowering role as commander-in-chief in a time of war. Controversially, he suspended several rights as defined by the Constitution and expanded the powers of both the executive and the federal government considerably. In addition, Lincoln signed several significant pieces of legislation into law, including policies relating to currency, homesteaders, railroads, and taxes.
Today, many view Lincoln's most significant action as president to be his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment and the abolishment of slavery in the United States. He also became noted for his pithy way with words, giving such memorable speeches as the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. Together with his trademark beard and stovepipe hat, Lincoln's talent for simple eloquence has become a part of popular legend.
The Civil War proved long and costly for both sides, and though the Union enjoyed superior numbers and stores, they were often overwhelmed by the superior military minds of the Confederacy. Despite heavy criticisms from all sides, Lincoln maintained enough support to win re-election in 1864. As the war drew to a close, Lincoln made preparations for a charitable reconstruction plan to help unify the nation once again.
Less than one week after the Confederate surrender, while attending a Washington theater, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The nation mourned as he lay in state, and Illinois wept when her favorite son was interred at Springfield a few weeks later. The work of reconstruction would carry on without Lincoln, but his memory would live on in the nation's imagination. For his work in preserving the union and bringing an end to the "peculiar institution" of slavery, Abraham Lincoln would come to earn a place of honor among the greatest of American heroes.