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It's hard to live in America (maybe the world?) and not know anything about Abraham Lincoln. He's one of only two presidents whose face is on not one, but two forms of currency. Plus there's a giant statue of him in Washington, D.C. He was played by Daniel Day-Lewis. And his daring battle against the vampires is well-documented, as is his extraordinary ability to rock a top hat.
The legend of Lincoln as a humble rail-splitter comes from his childhood as part of a humble family living in Kentucky, Indiana, and eventually Illinois. He was born into a single-room log cabin, finally finding independence from his father (they weren't exactly chummy) in 1831, when he built his second steamboat to operate on the Mississippi River.
Yes, he built it. How many other presidents can say they built two boats?
Despite his family's lack of funds or urban environment, young Abe was an eager student, using his down-time from splitting rails to learn as much as possible. His stepmother was especially encouraging of his education.
(For a much fuller story on Lincoln's early life, head on over here.)
Young Lincoln started on the political path after moving to New Salem, Illinois, where he made a name for himself as a well-informed store clerk who, in his spare time, defeated the town bully in a wrestling match. (All that rail-splitting apparently made him freakishly strong. Too bad there isn't a physical fitness requirement for political office, or he would have been successful a lot earlier.)
Although delayed by his attempt to fight in the Black Hawk War of 1832 (he served repeatedly but never saw any action), Lincoln turned his attention to becoming a self-taught lawyer, and was even elected state representative by 1834. The man lost no time making himself a name in Illinois politics.
Honest Abe was immediately popular, partly because of his ability to make nice with everyone without saying anything that would irritate them. For example, although he was opposed to the Mexican-American War, he waited until he was definitely in office as a congressman to speak up about it. (Source)
During his time in the Illinois state legislature (1834-1842), he married Mary Todd, after a somewhat tumultuous engagement, and to the consternation of both families. Apparently a lot people, including Abe himself, weren't sure what she saw in him. (Source). Mary Todd is a fascinating figure herself, and was not at all popular as a First Lady, but that's another story. At any rate, Lincoln seemed to like her quite a bit.
Lincoln took breaks from the political life to practice law, both after serving in the Illinois state legislature and after his single term in the U.S. House of representatives (1846-1848). Then, in 1856, he rejoined the fray with the brand-new Republican Party. He rose in the ranks so quickly that, by 1858, he was the party's candidate for the Senate. The "House Divided" speech and the ensuing seven debates with Stephen Douglas made him a known political figure not just in Illinois, but all around America.
And before you knew it, he had his sights set for the 1860 presidential race.
The 1860 election ended up something like the battle for the Iron Throne of Westeros (minus the bloodshed…and dragons). The Republican Party had quickly risen to become one of the main political parties of the country, while the Democrats split into northern and southern factions because of—brace yourself—ideas about what do about slavery. Finally, a new party called the Constitutional Union party didn't really like what any of the other parties were doing, and tried to at least force a non-majority and make Congress compromise on a candidate. (Source)
Obviously Lincoln won the election. But the election is particularly famous because it was almost entirely sectional, and showed the influence of the electoral college. Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot in many southern states, but he still won. If the Democrats hadn't split, they probably would have won the popular vote, but still lost in the electoral college. (Source)
(If you need to brush up on your U.S. government lessons, we've got you covered here.)
It won't surprise you that the South was none too happy about the outcome of the election. Lincoln's election based entirely on northern support was basically the final straw leading to the Civil War. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, and the attack on Fort Sumter that started the war happened on April 12, 1861.
Didn't get much time to enjoy that Oval Office in peace, did he?
Lincoln's story during the Civil War is pretty tied up with, well, the war. He was he Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army, after all, and he was super-active in that role. (Source)
The military history of the Civil War, and Lincoln's role in it, is complex and long. (There are plenty—like gajillions—of books that go into great detail.) In summary: Lincoln was really inexperienced and changed military leadership a lot, but was good at the big picture and strategy.
On the home front, Lincoln's approach during the Civil War included some tactics that have gotten mixed reviews. He took advantage of being allowed to take increased executive power during wartime. He called the first draft (which caused some problems), used lots of money for the war without congressional approval, and most famously, suspended the writ of habeus corpus, allowing him to imprison suspected Confederate sympathizers without a trial. (Source)
The validity of Lincoln's seizure of executive power to a whole new level remains a topic of debate. One of the positive results of his assertiveness, though, was a little doc called the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1864, Lincoln was pretty confidence he'd lose the election. Public support for the war had severely dwindled, and he'd recently irritated Congress by letting Louisiana re-enter the Union under a more lenient Reconstruction plan. Things like the draft and his extensive use of executive power had already won him some detractors.
But in the end, he won by a pretty comfy margin, and was actually helped significantly by the overwhelming support of Union soldiers. (Source)
Abe is known as the Great Emancipator because he, you know, emancipated the slaves. Lincoln was never supportive of slavery, although he wasn't always in favor of total immediate abolition either.
Although Lincoln did what he could to counter Stephen Douglas' accusations that he was a radical abolitionist, he showed signs early on. In 1837, he was one of five legislators (out of eighty-three) to oppose an Illinois resolution formally condemning abolitionists. The next year, he spoke against the use of violence in democracy when an antislavery newspaper editor named Elijah Lovejoy was killed protecting his printing press from a proslavery mob. He consistently opposed the expansion of slavery into the west, especially against Stephen Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Toward the end of his life, Lincoln told an editor in Kentucky:
"I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." (Source)
Still, he did lean into the white supremacism of the time at various points. In 1840, he denounced Democratic candidate Martin van Buren for having once voted to give Black people the vote. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he said things like:
"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." (Source)
Which: ew. That's horrible.
Historians grappling with this side of Lincoln today point out that this kind of thinking was almost universal at that time. Also, there are so many other instances when he put his career on the line to denounce slavery that we can't doubt his dedication to ending the institution. He spoke about it extensively in the years leading up to the war, and after the war Frederick Douglass praised his zealousness towards abolition. (Source)
As usual, things tend to be more complex than we think (funny how that always happens, isn't it?). It's not that Lincoln was a racist or only freed the slaves for military reasons—there's lots of evidence that he was genuinely very against it for his entire career. But he did navigate the often chaotic political waters of the antebellum period pretty skillfully.
Abraham Lincoln is generally considered one of the best presidents the United States has ever had. (Source)
His political ability was undeniable. Plus, he was so good at speech writing that several of his speeches (which he wrote himself) remain famous works of historical literature. The Gettysburg Address is legend, and his Second Inaugural Address decorates the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. Plus, you know, that top hat was epic.
The "House Divided" Speech is the moment when Lincoln really goes from being a local political celebrity in Illinois to a national name. It also illustrates his ability to see the bigger picture and his understanding of the political climate of the period.
Not a bad guy to find on a lucky penny.