Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, the son of a restless pioneer. The family eventually settled in south-west Indiana in 1816. Two years later Abraham's mother died and his father remarried shortly afterwards. His stepmother encouraged education, although there was little schooling in the backwoods country. In 1830 the Lincolns moved on to Illinois and Abraham went to work as a clerk in a store at New Salem. He already had political ambitions, and saw the need to study law and grammar. He won election to the legislature in 1834, and began the practice of law in 1836. At Springfield, in 1842, he married Mary Todd (1818-82).
In 1846 he sat in congress; but professional work was distracting him from politics when in 1854 Stephen A Douglas repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and reopened the question of slavery in the territories. The bill roused intense feeling throughout the North, and Douglas defended his position in a speech at Springfield in October. Lincoln delivered in reply a speech which first fully revealed his power as a debater. He was then elected to the legislature. When the Republican Party was organized in 1856 to oppose the extension of slavery, Lincoln was its most prominent leader in Illinois, and the delegates of his state presented him for the vice-presidency.
In 1858 he stood as candidate for the Illinois seat against Douglas. Lincoln lost, but his views attracted the attention of the whole country. In May 1860 the Republican convention on the third ballot nominated him for the presidency. The Democratic Party was divided between Douglas and John Cabell Breckinridge. After an exciting campaign Lincoln won a comfortable majority. At his inaugural address on 4 March, he declared the Union perpetual, argued the futility of secession, and expressed his determination that the laws should be faithfully executed in all the states. South Carolina had left the Union, and the six gulf states had formed the Confederate States of America. Not even Lincoln's oratorical skills and conciliatory efforts could prevent the impending conflict and on 12 April 1861, the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Lincoln defined the issue of the war in terms of national integrity, not antislavery, a theme he restated in the Gettysburg Address of 1863. Nonetheless, the same year he proclaimed freedom for all slaves in areas of rebellion, and he continued the theme in his re-election campaign of 1864.
In the Republican Convention in June, Lincoln was unanimously nominated for a second term, and in November was re-elected. In his second inaugural address, in March 1865, he set forth the profound moral significance of the war. On Good Friday, 14 April, at Ford's Theatre, Washington, he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, and he died the next morning.
Lincoln was fair and direct in speech and action, steadfast in principle, sympathetic and charitable, a man of strict morality, abstemious and familiar with the Bible, though not a professed member of any church.