Abraham Lincoln was born near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809 to a farmer, Thomas Lincoln, and his wife, Nancy (née. Hanks) Lincoln. Though he had limited access to education, young Lincoln read extensively when not working on the family farm. In early adulthood, he worked on a flatboat transporting produce on the Mississippi River, as a store clerk, postmaster, and surveyor. Ambitious and likeable, he was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1834, studied for and passed the bar exam in 1836, and began practicing law in 1837.
Lincoln ran for and won a seat in Congress as a Whig in 1846, but did not enter the national stage until 1858, when he ran against Stephen Douglas for a Senate seat. Although Lincoln lost this election, he gained fame for his articulate positions on slavery and states’ rights in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and subsequently won the Republican presidential nomination. Without the support of even one southern state, he won the presidency in the election of 1860. Southern secession began soon after, leaving Lincoln with one of the greatest challenges faced by the United States: reunification.
In his first term as president, Lincoln made the difficult decision to declare war on the seceded southern states. On January 1, 1863, he released his famous Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in the United States. Although the Proclamation didn’t take effect in the South until after the war, it was a significant step towards liberty and pinpointed the meaning of the war: not just reunification of the states, but the end of American slavery.
The Civil War did not start off well – Lincoln struggled to find competent generals, and public support fluctuated. The turning point of the war is still debated among scholars today, but an increase in Union military victories and Lincoln’s reelection are often credited to the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant and the success of Sherman’s March. The war ended in April 1865. Sadly, Lincoln did not have time to enjoy peace or work towards Reconstruction. He was assassinated on April 14, 1865 in Ford’s Theatre, less than a week after Lee’s surrender.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing Abraham Lincoln’s influence in American political thought and as a preserver of the union. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838
“…Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.–Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.
Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”
JMC’s Historical Series on Abraham Lincoln
As part of of JMC’s weekly newsletters (packed full of historical stories, news on campus programming, and Center updates), we ran a series on Abraham Lincoln and his lasting legacy. Access Parts I, II, and III below:
Part I: Lincoln’s Leadership in the Face of Defiance, Secession, and His Constitutional Oath
“A couple weeks ago, we examined the infamous legacy of Lincoln’s predecessor, President James Buchanan. Often remembered for his weak attempts to pacify the nation and avoid war, his inaction only strengthened slavery’s foothold and inflamed divisions further.
But what was Lincoln’s role? Did Lincoln push the nation to war, as some at the time suggested? Or was it an unavoidable consequence of persistent southern defiance and the deepening threat of the Union dissolving?…”
Part II: Fighting to Realize Our Founding Principles: The Emancipation Proclamation and the Start of Slavery’s End
But Lincoln’s primary goal in going to war was to save the Union, slavery or not. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the equation.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861. Though Lincoln morally opposed slavery, he avoided any public comments connecting the war and the rights of slaves. He was concerned more with acting constitutionally and a swift victory to prevent the Union from dissolving…”
Part III: The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Legacy, and the Pursuit of Liberty and Equality
“In the small battle-torn town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, Lincoln uttered 266 words that would be remembered as one of the greatest American speeches of all time. In a time of mourning for the many who died, his Gettysburg Address proclaimed our national purpose and served as a rallying cry to defend it—the carnage of the war should not be in vain.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth…”
Selected online resources on Abraham Lincoln:
Diana Schaub on Lincoln at Gettysburg
National Affairs assistant editors Devorah Goldman and Daniel Wiser, Jr. spoke with JMC faculty partner Professor Diana Schaub on her essay on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from the Spring 2014 issue of National Affairs.
Diana Schaub on Lincoln and the Dred Scott Decision
In Fall 2017, Professor Diana Schaub visited Harvard’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy, a JMC partner program. She delivered a lecture on Lincoln’s Dred Scott speech and Lincoln’s understanding of equality.
Allen Guelzo on Lincoln
In 2009, renowned Abraham Lincoln scholar and JMC faculty partner Professor Allen Guelzo sat down with the Jack Miller Center’s Dr. Michael Andrews to discuss why Lincoln is considered one of our nation’s greatest presidents.
Steven Smith on Lincoln and the Problem of “Towering Genius”
In 2016, faculty partner Professor Steven Smith appeared at the Ohio University’s George Washington Forum, a JMC partner program, to speak on Lincoln.
A Jack Miller Center Pathway to the Founding Essay
The year 2008 is not quite over yet, but already, by the annual tally I do for our Civil War Era Studies website at Gettysburg College, 244 Civil War-related books have issued forth from publishers’ presses. And just as daunting, thirty of those are about some aspect of the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, that’s just one, as-yet-unfinished year. That only adds to the burden of sorting-out the approximately 16,000 other books which have been published about Lincoln since his death in 1865. So where, in this bewildering thicket, should someone begin reading about Abraham Lincoln?
What So Proudly We Hail
Many Americans would be surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1809, has never been celebrated as a federal holiday. The day is often associated (erroneously) with Presidents Day, officially Washington’s Birthday and celebrated on the third Monday in February. But even without an official national holiday, Lincoln remains among the most admired American presidents. His face is printed on the five-dollar bill and stamped on the penny. He has national shrines in three states, including one of America’s most iconic landmarks—the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
What accounts for our extraordinary interest in Abraham Lincoln? In this ebook, we examine the words and deeds of our sixteenth president. The first chapter explores the origins and traditions of celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The second chapter looks at the life and career of Lincoln: his improbable rise from humblest origins; his statesmanship during the Civil War, and his tragic death. The final chapter raises questions about how we today are to remember Lincoln.
Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion. Readers are also encouraged to see our “Lincoln and the Constitution” curriculum and video conversations, created in conjunction with the AEI Program on American Citizenship.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Abraham Lincoln or his political thought, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.