Biography of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

Digitally restored vintage print of President Abraham Lincoln

Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) was the 16th president of the United States, serving from 1861 to 1865. During his time in office, the nation fought the Civil War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. One of Lincoln's greatest accomplishments was the abolition of enslavement in 1864.

Fast Facts: Abraham Lincoln

  • Known For: U.S. president from March 4, 1861–March 3, 1865; issued Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, freeing enslaved people in the southern United States
  • Also Known As: Honest Abe
  • Born: February 12, 1809 in Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky
  • Died: April 15, 1865 in Washington, D.C.
  • Spouse: Mary Todd Lincoln (m. 1842–1865)
  • Children: Robert, Edward, Willie, Tad
  • Notable Quote: "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

Early Life

Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809. He moved to Indiana in 1816 and lived there for the rest of his youth. His mother died when he was 9 but he was very close to his stepmother, who urged him to read. Lincoln himself stated that he had about one year of formal education. However, he was taught by many different individuals. He loved to read and learn from any books he could get his hands on.

On November 4, 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd. She had grown up in relative wealth. Many historians believe that Todd was mentally unbalanced; she struggled with mental health issues throughout her life and may have suffered from bipolar disorder. The Lincolns had four children, all but one of whom died young. Edward died at age 3 in 1850. Robert Todd grew up to be a politician, lawyer, and diplomat. William Wallace died at the age of 12. He was the president's only child to die in the White House. Thomas "Tad" died at 18.

Military Career

In 1832, Lincoln enlisted to fight in the Black Hawk War. He was quickly elected captain of a company of volunteers. His company joined regulars under Colonel Zachary Taylor. Lincoln only served 30 days in this capacity and then signed on as a private in the Mounted Rangers. He then joined the Independent Spy Corps. He saw no real action during his short stint in the military.

Political Career

Lincoln worked as a clerk before joining the military. He ran for the Illinois state legislature and lost in 1832. He was appointed as postmaster of New Salem, Illinois by Andrew Jackson and later elected as a Whig to the state legislature, where he served from 1834 to 1842. Lincoln studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1836. From 1847 to 1849 he served as a U.S. Representative in Congress. He was elected to the state legislature in 1854 but resigned to run for the U.S. Senate. He gave his famous "house divided" speech after being nominated.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln debated his opponent for the Senate seat, Stephen Douglas, seven times in what became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. While they agreed on many issues, the two disagreed over the morality of enslavement. Lincoln did not believe that enslavement should be allowed to spread any further through the United States, while Douglas argued for popular sovereignty. Lincoln explained that while he was not asking for equality, he believed African Americans should receive the rights granted to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lincoln lost the election to Douglas.

Presidential Election

In 1860, Lincoln was nominated for the presidency by the Republican Party with Hannibal Hamlin as his running mate. He ran on a platform denouncing disunion and calling for an end to enslavement in the territories. The Democrats were divided, with Stephen Douglas representing the Democrats and John Breckinridge the National (Southern) Democrats nominee. John Bell ran for the Constitutional Union Party, which took away votes from Douglas. In the end, Lincoln won 40% of the popular vote and 180 of the 303 electoral college votes. Since he was in a four-way race, this was enough to ensure his victory.

First Presidential Term

The main event of Lincoln's presidency was the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Eleven states seceded from the Union, and Lincoln firmly believed in the importance of not only defeating the Confederacy but also reuniting North and South to preserve the Union.

In September 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This declaration freed enslaved Americans in all the Southern states. In 1864, Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to commander of all Union forces.


The Republicans, at this point called the National Union Party, had some concern that Lincoln wouldn't win but still renominated him for a second term with Andrew Johnson as his vice president. Their platform demanded unconditional surrender and an official end to enslavement. Challenger George McClellan had been relieved as the head of the Union armies by Lincoln. His platform was that the war was a failure, and Lincoln had taken away too many civil liberties. Lincoln won reelection after the war turned in the North's favor.

In April 1865, Richmond fell and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. In the end, the war was the most costly in American history and also the bloodiest, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. Enslavement was forever ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.


On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated while attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Actor John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head before jumping onto the stage and escaping to Maryland. Lincoln died on April 15 and was buried in Springfield, Illinois.

President Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed.
John Parrot / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

On April 26, Booth was found hiding in a barn, which was set on fire. He was then shot and killed. Eight conspirators were punished for their roles in the plot to kill the president.


Lincoln is considered by many scholars to be one of the most accomplished and successful presidents in United States history. He is credited with holding the Union together and leading the North to victory in the Civil War. Furthermore, his actions led to the emancipation of African Americans from the bonds of enslavement.


  • Donald, David Herbert. "Lincoln." Niagara, 1996.
  • Gienapp, William E. "Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: a Biography." Oxford University Press, 2002.
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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Biography of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).