In 1861, Abraham Lincoln was the 16th man to be elected to the presidency of the United States, and, for many, the greatest. His record speaks for itself: he led the Union to victory in the American Civil War, abolished slavery, and delivered some of the most famous speeches in human history.


Lincoln’s words, without the stain of ego or self-interest, have echoed through the years and continue to inspire.

Then with his assassination on 14 April 1865, he became an eternal symbol. Someone who transcended the reality of his mortal life and deeds so that he is remembered as more than the statesman and orator, the great emancipator and saviour of the nation, but as the embodiment of democracy, the exemplification of an ideal United States, and the supreme martyr.

When was Abraham Lincoln born, and what was his early life like?

Born 12 February 1809 to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln in a tiny log cabin in Kentucky, Lincoln had a tough upbringing on the American frontier. His younger brother Thomas died in infancy, his mother Nancy passed away when he was nine, and his older sister Sarah died in childbirth when he was 18. Luckily, he became extremely close with his father’s new wife Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children, whom Thomas married in 1819, and Abraham came to call “mother”.

While Lincoln grew up tall, strong and athletic, with axe-wielding skills, he thoroughly disliked his days of ploughing hard, dusty fields or splitting logs for rail fences. A physical pursuit he did enjoy was wrestling. In fact, today he is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, recognised as an “Outstanding American” in the sport.

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Young Abraham Lincoln splitting logs
An early 20th century depiction of a young Abraham Lincoln, 'The Rail Splitter' by JLG Ferris. (Image by Getty Images)

Determined not to have a life dependent on manual labour rather than intellectual pursuits, the sparsely-educated Lincoln taught himself how to read and write. He devoured every book he could get until he was able to recount Shakespeare and the Bible from memory, then turned his intellect to law and passed the bar in 1836.

As president, Lincoln was always acutely aware of the political advantage gained from his childhood. Guests to the White House would be befuddled with folksy anecdotes of his upbringing in Kentucky and Indiana, as he cultivated a reputation as a man of the people and a true American who thrived from individual initiative and hard work.

How tall was Abraham Lincoln?

In the ubiquitous image of Lincoln, he appeared as a slightly awkward and gangling figure too tall for his time, accentuated by his signature stovepipe hat and beard.

Standing at six feet and four inches, he remains the tallest occupant of the Oval Office, just ahead of Lyndon B Johnson. His lanky frame has led some physicians over the years to speculate whether Lincoln had a genetic condition, such as Marfan syndrome (an inherited disorder characterised by looseness of joints).

Abraham Lincoln’s personality and family life

Lincoln had a wicked sense of humour, a humble outlook and a propensity for telling the truth, hence his nickname ‘Honest Abe’. But he could also be laid low by bouts of depression.

In 1842, he married Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and they had four sons together. However, only one, Robert, would live beyond the age of 18, as the others succumbed to various diseases between 1850 and 1871.

Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. (Image by Getty Images)

Mary suffered from depression too, as well as headaches and a mental condition that was dismissed in her time but now recognised as possibly bipolar disorder or complications from pernicious anaemia. Grief would be a constant factor for Mary as well; after all, she would lose three children, live through the deadliest war in the country’s history, and witness her husband murdered in front of her.

When was Abraham Lincoln elected, and why?

By the time Lincoln married Mary, he had already established a successful career as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and was taking the first steps into politics. He served four terms in the state legislature and had one unremarkable stint in the US House of Representatives from 1847-49.

It was only in the 1850s that his path to the White House opened up before him. And the catalyst was the debate over the future of slavery. Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had been sponsored by the incumbent Illinois senator Stephen Douglas to raise the question of extending slavery to new territories.

The country was divided. Businessmen and politicians in the South, the cotton-producing hub of the world, were angered by progressive voices from the North, including Lincoln’s. Although no staunch abolitionist, he believed slavery to be morally wrong.

Abraham Lincoln making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech
Abraham Lincoln making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

In 1858, he challenged Douglas for his senate seat, leading to a series of seven intense and career-launching debates. During this campaign, he gave his famous speech in which he declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Although ultimately unsuccessful in the election, the passion and eloquence of his oratory propelled Lincoln to national acclaim and set him up to be the Republican candidate for a presidential run in 1860. Taking on Douglas again, he won by sweeping the votes in the North and out west, but without claiming a single slave state.

This was the last provocation the South was going to stand. Before Lincoln took office in March 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, later joined by four more.

The president-elect had three options: accept this new Confederacy, make sweeping concessions, or refuse to accept their legitimacy and force them to rejoin the Union – by force if need be.

Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War

For Lincoln, division was “the essence of anarchy” and a threat to the free government and liberty on which the US had been built. It therefore came as little surprise when he vowed to “make one vast grave yard of the valley of the Mississippi – yes of the whole South, if I must – to maintain, preserve and defend the Union and Constitution in all their ancient integrity”.

And so began the deadliest chapter in the nation’s history. Yet it was in the crucible of the American Civil War that Lincoln forged his immortal reputation. For four gruelling years, Lincoln was driven, almost obsessively, by the goal of keeping the country united.

From the opening salvo at Fort Sumter in April 1861 to Robert E Lee’s surrender in April 1865, an estimated 750,000 men, women and children died in the fighting.

During that time, Lincoln had to grow as a commander-in-chief. Other than a short spell as captain of a militia in 1832, he had no military experience. But, much the same way he taught himself to read and write, Lincoln learned battle tactics and, waking before dawn, spent hours in telegraph stations awaiting updates from his officers.

He expanded the powers of the federal government, made decisions without consulting Congress, and suspended the legal precedent of habeas corpus – which allowed for the arrests of any suspected Confederate sympathisers. A new paper currency, the ‘greenback’, was introduced to pay his Union armies as well.

What were Abraham Lincoln’s greatest achievements?

Lincoln’s growth as a wartime leader deserves to be commended, especially when faced with a succession of generals who failed to deliver what was expected of them. The president finally found his man in Ulyssess S Grant. Ultimately, one of Lincoln’s – and Grant’s – greatest achievements had to be winning the American Civil War and thus preserving the Union.

Arguably though, his supreme political accomplishment was in how he controlled his cabinet. He brought together men from all viewpoints within the Republican Party, including the brilliant moderate William Seward as Secretary of State and the star of the radical faction, Salmon P Chase, to head the Treasury. Lincoln adroitly juggled this group, dubbed the ‘team of rivals’, so as to keep everyone on message.

On 1 January 1863, that message changed. For that was when the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in Confederate territory.

Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation
President Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all those enslaved in rebel-held territory would be "thenceforward, and forever, free". (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” Lincoln had said earlier in the conflict. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” The Emancipation Proclamation drastically changed that, inextricably binding the fate of the North with the end of slavery.

Then in early 1865, he cajoled Congress into passing the 13th Amendment and so abolishing slavery throughout the entire country.

By that point, Lincoln had won a landslide re-election, and with the war entering its final stages he could begin to look forward to a time of peace and reconstruction for the US. His second inaugural address was a poetic powerhouse, adding to his other great achievements in oratory – most notably the Gettysburg Address in 1863.

When did Abraham Lincoln die?

Lincoln’s re-election assured him that he was the man not just to save the Union from the brink, but to rebuild it, bigger and better. That was not to be.

When he woke up on 14 April 1865, he was in an unusually good mood. Five days earlier, the Confederate commander Robert E Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. And so, for the first time in four years, the burden of bloodshed was not pressing down on the president’s shoulders.

That evening, he went with his wife Mary to Ford’s Theatre to see the farcical comedy, Our American Cousin. They arrived late and the performance was halted while they took their seats in the presidential box, to a rousing ovation from the audience.

Lurking in wait, however, was the Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor of the day who had long plotted to get rid of Lincoln in order to save the South.

John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln
An illustration showing John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches a play at Ford's Theatre. (Image by Getty Images)

Booth crept into the box during the third act and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 calibre derringer pistol. Having then attacked one of Lincoln’s guests, Major Henry Rathbone, he leaped from the box to the stage, breaking his leg on landing, and shouted the Viriginia state motto: “Sic semper tyrannis!” (‘Thus always to tyrants!’)

Despite a massive manhunt being orchestrated to track down all conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination, Booth remained on the run for 12 days before being cornered in a barn in Virginia and shot.

As for Lincoln, he lived for another nine hours, although he never regained consciousness. He was carried across the street to the house belonging to William Petersen, where he died at 7.22am the following morning. At his bedside was Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, who reportedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

The country mourned. On ‘Black Easter’, just a day later, sermons preached of how Lincoln made a similar sacrifice to Jesus Christ, and millions of people came to see the funeral procession that took the president’s body from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, by train.


Whether peering up at the Lincoln Memorial, with the nine-metre-high marble statue gazing down in thoughtful repose, or at Mount Rushmore, or staring into the arresting and melancholic eyes of his famous photograph, it is easy to feel that here is a man who is so much more than a man. Like the freed slaves who worshipped his name, many have come to see Lincoln as an incorruptible symbol, a beacon for humankind.

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Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.