By The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times

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Two hundred years after his birth, Abraham Lincoln's historical importance endures. A man of his time - humbly born, self-taught, and ambitious - he seized the opportunities of an expansive society to rise to the country's highest office. A man for all times, Lincoln's strong principles, timeless rhetoric, and resolute leadership have contributed to his status as a globally-recognized figure.

Abraham Lincoln, bust portrait, with TLS (ca. 1858)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Young Lincoln

Lincoln's experiences as a young man nurtured his belief in the merits of hard work. He developed a deep commitment to self-improvement, a yearning to escape the drudgery of the land, and an ambition to make his mark.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, Hodgenville, Larue County, KY (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) (1940-08-22) by Jones, LesterThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky. From an early age, Lincoln knew hardship. His mother and sister died when he was young, and he had little formal education.

A slave auction at the south (1861-07-13) by Davis, Theodore R.The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

As a young man, Lincoln read widely. When he was nineteen, he traveled down the Mississippi River and saw the horrors of slavery firsthand. He witnessed a slave auction and was affected by the separation of families.

The Declaration of Independence printed in Charleston, South Carolina (August 2, 1776) by Thomas JeffersonThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's lifelong opposition to slavery was deeply rooted in his experiences, as well as his understanding of the Declaration of Independence, which outlines the inalienable rights of Americans: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

$100.00 reward! (1861-02-12) by Lincoln, Arch.The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln always hated slavery and wished it eliminated. He feared for the fate of the American republic if slavery continued. Lincoln had both personal prejudice and political reticence to overcome on the issue of race, the greatest test of his presidential and moral leadership.

Carte de visite of Mary Todd Lincoln (ca. 1861) by Brady, Matthew B. (1822-1896)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd, the daughter of a prosperous Kentucky businessman. She reportedly said of her husband, "He is to be President of the United States some day. If I had not thought so I would never have married him, for you can see he is not pretty."

Capitol Building at Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) (ca. 1906) by Brehm, Frederick W.The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846. His term was marked by opposition to the Mexican American War and his support of a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC.

Patent for Abraham Lincoln's improvement in buoying vessels over shoals (1849-05-22) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

While in Washington, Lincoln also argued a case before the Supreme Court and applied for and later received a patent for a device to lift boats over shallow waters, making him the only president to hold a patent.

Abraham Lincoln (1860, printed 1870s-1880s) by Alexander HeslerLos Angeles County Museum of Art

The Path to the Presidency

Lincoln's vision rested on a belief that all individuals, through their industry, enterprise, and self-discipline, to rise in an increasingly fluid and market-oriented society. He vigorously opposed the exclusion of anyone - based on race, religion, or national origins - from this right. 

Reynolds's political map of the United States (ca. 1856) by Reynolds, William C.The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened slavery to western territories once deemed forever free, inspired Lincoln to join the new antislavery Republican Party. He had never doubted that slavery was wrong, but until this point Lincoln had thought that the institution would gradually die.

Read and ponder the Fugitive Slave Law! (1905-01-23) by UnknownThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, a provision the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later ignited a firestorm. In Kansas, pro-slavery settlers from Missouri fought free-soil settlers and abolitionists. Violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas left more than 50 dead in 1856.

Handwritten notes for a speech on slavery and American government (ca. 1857 - 1858) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's Opposition to Slavery
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"Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men...ours began, by affirming those rights...We proposed to give all a chance." -Notes by Abraham Lincoln, c. 1858.

Stephen A. Douglas (ca. 1850 - 1861)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In 1858, Lincoln campaigned against Stephen Douglas to represent Illinois in the US Senate. Although Lincoln lost, his powerful oratory during debates with Douglas brought him national attention.

Manuscript fragment of "House Divided" speech (ca. 1857) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech
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Lincoln's notes for his speech accepting the Republican nomination for the US Senate in 1858 reveal that he identified slavery as an institution that would determine the future of the nation. In these notes he states, "A house divided against itself can not stand."

1860 Pro-Lincoln campaign ribbon, based on Brady portrait (ca. 1860)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's remarkable speech at Cooper Union in 1860 enhanced his standing as a moderate but inflexible Republican in opposing slavery's spread. He won his party's presidential nomination on the third ballot while the Democrats squabbled and split.

Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln, in vindication of the policy of the framers of the Constitution and the principles of the Republican Party. . . (1860-02-27)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." -Abraham Lincoln's address at Cooper Institute, February 27, 1860

Color print depicting Abraham Lincoln (ca. 1860) by Currier & Ives (1834-1907)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Republican Party emphasized Lincoln's character, capitalizing on his nickname "Honest Abe" and his background as a self-educated frontier rail-splitter. He ran on the platform, "Free soil, free labor, free men."

Lincoln and Hamlin presidential election campaign banner (ca. 1860)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The results of the election of 1860 reflected regional divisions in the nation. Lincoln won every northern state but New Jersey, gaining a majority of electoral votes even though he had less than 40% of the popular votes.

Charleston Mercury Extra: The Union is dissolved! (1860-12-20)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The election of Lincoln convinced southern states that the federal government would initiate judicial and legal action against slavery. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to repeal the Constitution and seceded from the Union.

Albumen print of Lincoln & McClellan at Antietam [published by Gardner] (ca. 1862) by Rice, MosesThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Civil War President

Within weeks of taking office, Lincoln was faced with the imminent secession of states in the lower South. His strategic tasks involved keeping the northernmost tier of slave states from seceding, preventing foreign intervention, and maintaining a broad coalition of support.

The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, at the Capitol, Washington, March 4, 1861 (1861) by After Winslow HomerLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Lincoln prosecuted the war through a combination of coercion and persuasion. He called for a military strategy that exploited the Union's superior resources by menacing the enemy, "at different points, at the same time," and by making the enemy's army, not its Capital, the key target.

Benson's battery of horse artillery near Fair Oaks [carte de visite], by Brady (ca. 1862)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln later suspended the writ of habeas corpus and endorsed military arrests, even in areas where civilian courts were able to operate. At the same time, he used his remarkable command of language to inspire and persuade supporters of the Union.

Carte de visite of Jefferson Davis, standing (ca. 1861)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In February 1861, the states of the lower South established a new government, the Confederate States of America. They drafted a constitution and elected a president: Jefferson Davis, a former US Senator and Secretary of War.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor (ca. 1861) by Currier & Ives (1834-1907)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, was the site of the opening shots of the American Civil War. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire after learning of Lincoln's decision to peacefully re-supply the fort.

A Harvest of death (ca. July 1863) by O'Sullivan, Timothy H. (1840-1882)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in our nation's history. In a country of 32 million people, more than 620,000 died, and an equal number were wounded.

Abraham Lincoln to Andrew H. Foote, regarding naval support for Grant's Tennessee campaign (1862-01-23) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's Telegram to Foote
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Acknowledging his limited military training, Lincoln became a "self-taught military expert." This telegram suggests the active role that Lincoln, as Commander in Chief, played in monitoring the day-to-day events and formulating a military strategy for the Union army.

Front view of White House with soldiers in front (ca. 1860) by Brady, Matthew B. (1822-1896)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's presidency was bounded by the Civil War. As a wartime president, he closed newspapers, jailed editors, and used military tribunals to try civilians. In the face of critics who decried his violations of civil liberties, Lincoln argued that such acts were necessary when the nation's survival was at stake.

The President's dedication address at Gettysburg (ca. 1863) by Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Gettysburg Address
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Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln dedicated a cemetery for the Union dead. His address, less than 275 words long, defined the meaning of the Civil War. Drawing on biblical concepts of suffering, consecration, and resurrection, he described the war as a momentous chapter in the global struggle for self-government and equality.

Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation (ca. 1880 - 1890)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Slavery and Emancipation

Although he believed slavery to be a great wrong, at the outset of the war Lincoln believed his first duty was to preserve the Union. In the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln decided on the necessity of emancipation.

Wagon fording the Rappahannock River (ca. 1861 - 1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

"No More Auction Block for Me"
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African Americans were well aware that the "war to save the Union" was also a war that would determine their future. As the war moved south, enslaved people fled to Union lines seeking freedom, refuge, work, and a chance to serve the Union cause.

President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom. January 1st, 1863 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) (ca. 1863) by Blythe, David Gilmore (1815-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

At first, Lincoln promoted "gradual emancipation," with compensation for slave owners and the consent of the voters.

Abraham Lincoln (1869) by George P.A. HealyThe White House

Lincoln knew that, as president, he had no legal authority to abolish slavery. Using his war powers as commander in chief, he could declare an end to slavery in the regions in a state of war with the federal government.

Emancipation Proclamation, engraving published in San Francisco (ca. 1864)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Emancipation Proclamation
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The Emancipation Proclamation did just that. Issued in September 1862 and put into effect on January 1, 1863, it remained a temporary wartime measure. The Emancipation Proclamation was a courageous statement that transformed the war into a fight to end slavery.

Men of Color, To Arms! To Arms! (Private Collection) (ca. 1863)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Men of Color, To Arms! To Arms!
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The Emancipation Proclamation allowed African Americans to enlist. Frederick Douglass and other leading African Americans urged black men to volunteer for service.

Guard of colored soldiers at parade rest. Port Hudson, La. [Carte de visite] (ca. 1864)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

186,000 black soldiers served in the Union army and another 29,000 served in the navy, accounting for nearly 10% of all Union forces. African Americans were essential to the Union's victory.

The gallant charge of the fifty fourth Massachusetts (colored) Regiment. (ca. 1863) by Currier & Ives (1834-1907)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In July 1863, the newly formed 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment led a bloody and unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, losing their commander and 272 of 650 men. Their valor did much to overcome public doubts about the ability of black troops.

Diary of William Woodlin, 8th Regiment United States Colored Troops, Company G (page 58) (December 1863-October 1864) by Woodlin, William P. (fl. 1863-1864)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Excerpt of William Woodlin's Diary
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William Woodlin enlisted in the Colored 8th Regiment Infantry in October 1863. Woodlin describes the bravery of black troops in the siege of Petersburg, reporting that "the johnnies made furious attack on the 30th three times but were repulsed with great loss by the Colored troops of the 10th and 18th Corps...there was a tremendous fire of shells, grape and canister and the like."

Black soldiers with artillery guns behind fortifications (ca. 1861-1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

African Americans were relegated to separate regiments commanded by white officers and received less pay than white soldiers.

Portrait of Black soldier Private Co. I, 54th Mass. Infantry [ambrotype image] (ca. 1863)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Nonetheless, Frederick Douglass predicted that the black soldier would be respected once he had "an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and the star spangled banner over his head."

Lincoln [second] Inauguration (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) (1865-03-04)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Union Preserved; The President Assassinated

In the summer of 1864, the fate of the Union and Lincoln's re-election were by no means certain. However, the fall of Atlanta in late summer transformed the Union's fortunes. Re-elected that November and confident of final victory, Lincoln began to prepare for peace.

The Inaugural Address of President Abraham Lincoln delivered at the National Capitol (1864-03-05)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
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Lincoln's remarkable Second Inaugural Address reflects on God's purposes in punishing the whole nation for the sin of slavery. It also called for reconciliation and charity toward the ravaged South.

Thirteenth amendment resolution (1865-02-01)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In April 1864, the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the US. The measure initially did not receive enough votes in the House of Representatives, but after some political maneuvering and pressure from Lincoln they eventually voted to pass the amendment in January 1865.

The Room in McLean House (ca. 1767) by Major & Knapp Engraving, Manufacturing & Lithographic Co. (fl. 1867)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in central Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee's decision to surrender helped to prevent large-scale guerrilla warfare.

Half-length seated carte de visite portrait of John Wilkes Booth (ca. 1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On April 14, 1865, while attending the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, Lincoln was shot by famous actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The President died of his wounds the next morning.

Lincoln assassination reward poster (1865-04-20)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Lincoln's assassination sent shockwaves through the nation and set off one of the greatest manhunts in American history. Booth died days later, in a shootout with Union soldiers. Four other conspirators were later hanged.

Lincoln funeral caisson in New York (ca. May 1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The nation mourned Abraham Lincoln. A train carrying Lincoln’s body traveled through 180 cities and seven states on its way to Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. He was buried in Springfield, Illinois, on May 4.

Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln (1865-08-17) by Douglass, Frederick (1818-1895)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Douglass Consoles Mrs. Lincoln
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Lincoln was revered as a champion of emancipation. Frederick Douglass remembered him to Mary Todd, thanking her for the gift of Lincoln's walking stick and noting that the stick was not merely a memento but an "inclination of humane interest" in the "welfare of my whole race."

Read the letter at the Gilder Lehrman website.

Speech draft re: influence of Lincoln, given at New York Republican Club of NYC (1909-02-12) by Washington, Booker T. (1856-1915)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Booker T. Washington on Lincoln
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On the centennial of Lincoln's birth, Booker T. Washington wrote, "My first recollection of Abraham Lincoln was on this wise...as I lay wrapped in a bundle of rags on the dirt floor of our slave cabin by the prayers of my mother, just before leaving for the day's work, as she was kneeling over my body earnestly praying that Abraham Lincoln might succeed and that one day she and her boy might be free."

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

The Lincoln Memorial has been a crucial symbol in America's struggle for civil rights. It was here in 1939 that 75,000 people watched Marian Anderson sing, and in 1963 that 200,000 saw Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.

True Sons of Freedom (1918) by Gustrine, CharlesThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

A man for all times, Lincoln has become a global figure. His principles, words, and resolute leadership live on.

Platinum print of beardless Lincoln, Hesler negative printed by Ayres (ca. June 1860) by Hesler, Alexander (1823-1895)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

"He belongs to the ages..." -Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

Credits: Story

Developed by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History from the Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times traveling exhibition.

Special thanks to Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, and Richard Carwardine, President of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.

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