Abraham Lincoln was born Sunday, February 12, 1809, in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. He was the son of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and he was named for his paternal grandfather. Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and farmer. Both of Abraham's parents were members of a Baptist congregation which had separated from another church due to opposition to slavery. When Abraham was seven, the family moved to southern Indiana. Abraham had gone to school briefly in Kentucky and did so again in Indiana.
In 1818 Abraham Lincoln's mother died from milk sickness, a disease obtained from drinking the milk of cows which had grazed on poisonous white snakeroot. Thomas Lincoln remarried the next year, and Abraham loved his new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln. She brought three children of her own into the household.
Abraham Lincoln attended school at irregular intervals. In all he spent less than 12 months going to school, and he didn't attend college at all. As Abraham grew up, he loved to read and preferred learning to working in the fields. This led to a difficult relationship with his father who was just the opposite. Abraham was constantly borrowing books from the neighbors. In 1828 Abraham's sister, who had married Aaron Grigsby in 1826, died during childbirth. Later in the year, Abraham made a flatboat trip to New Orleans.
In 1830 the Lincolns moved west to Illinois. The next year Lincoln made a second flatboat trip to New Orleans. Afterwards he moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he lived until 1837. While there he worked at several jobs including operating a store, surveying, and serving as postmaster. He impressed the residents with his character, wrestled the town bully, and earned the nickname "Honest Abe." Lincoln, who stood nearly 6-4 and weighed about 180 pounds, saw brief service in the Black Hawk War, and he made an unsuccessful run for the Illinois legislature in 1832. He ran again in 1834, 1836, 1838, and 1840, and he won all four times. Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party; he remained a Whig until 1856 when he became a Republican. Additionally, he studied law in his spare time and became a lawyer in 1836.
In the 1860 campaign for President, Lincoln firmly expressed his opposition to slavery and his determination to limit the expansion of slavery westward into the new territories acquired from Mexico in 1850. His election victory created a crisis for the nation, as many southern Democrats feared that it would just be a matter of time before Lincoln would move to kill slavery in the South. Rather than face a future in which black people might become free citizens, much of the white South supported secession. This reasoning was based upon the doctrine of states' rights, which placed ultimate sovereignty with the states.
Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union even if it meant war. He eventually raised an army and navy of nearly 3 million northern men to face a southern army of over 2 million soldiers. In battles fought from Virginia to California (but mainly in Virginia, in the Mississippi River Valley, and along the border states) a great civil war tore the United States apart. In pursuing victory, Lincoln assumed extralegal powers over the press, declared martial law in areas where no military action justified it, quelled draft riots with armed soldiers, and drafted soldiers to fight for the Union cause. No President in history had ever exerted so much executive authority, but he did so not for personal power but in order to preserve the Union. In 1864, as an example of his limited personal ambitions, Lincoln refused to call off national elections, preferring to hold the election even if he lost the vote rather than destroy the democratic basis upon which he rested his authority. With the electoral support of Union soldiers, many of whom were given short leaves to return home to vote, and thanks to the spectacular victory of Union troops in General Sherman's capture of Atlanta, Lincoln was decisively reelected.
What started as a war to preserve the Union and vindicate democracy became a battle for freedom and a war to end slavery when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. Although the Proclamation did not free all slaves in the nation—indeed, no slaves outside of the Confederacy were affected by the Proclamation—it was an important symbolic gesture that identified the Union with freedom and the death of slavery. As part of the Proclamation, Lincoln also urged black males to join the Union forces as soldiers and sailors. By the end of the war, nearly two hundred thousand African Americans had fought for the Union cause, and Lincoln referred to them as indispensable in ensuring Union victory.
While the war raged, Lincoln also suffered great personal anguish over the death of his beloved son and the depressed mental condition of his wife, Mary. The pain of war and personal loss affected him deeply, and he often expressed his anguish by turning to humor and by speaking eloquently about the meaning of the great war which raged across the land. His Gettysburg Address, delivered after the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as his second inaugural in 1865, are acknowledged to be among the great orations in American history. General Robert E. Lee (from the Confederacy) surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant (from the Union) on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War.
Almost all historians judge Lincoln as the greatest President in American history because of the way he exercised leadership during the war and because of the impact of that leadership on the moral and political character of the nation. He conceived of his presidential role as unique under the Constitution in times of crisis. Lincoln was convinced that within the branches of government, the presidency alone was empowered not only to uphold the Constitution, but also to preserve, protect, and defend it. In the end, however, Lincoln is measured by his most lasting accomplishments: the preservation of the Union, the vindication of democracy, and the death of slavery—accomplishments achieved by acting "with malice towards none" in the pursuit of a more perfect and equal union.
President Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth (an actor). Lincoln had been attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the next morning. He was the first US president ever assassinated. Andrew Johnson (Lincoln's Vice-President) became the next US President.