(born February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky, U.S.—died April 15, 1865, Washington, D.C.) 16th president of the United States (1861–65), who preserved the Union during the American Civil War and brought about the emancipation of the slaves. (For a discussion of the history and nature of the presidency, presidency of the United States of America.)(In February 2009, on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Britannica asked two prominent contributors to answer some Lincoln-related questions on the Britannica Blog. Noted historian James McPherson, author Tried by War and of Britannica’s article “Translating Thought in Action: Grant’s Personal Memoirs,” addresses Lincoln’s role as commander in chief during the American Civil War; and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, author Angels and Ages and of the cultural life section of Britannica’s United States article, considers Lincoln’s similarities and differences with Charles Darwin, with whom he shares his birthday.)
Among American heroes, Lincoln continues to have a unique appeal for his fellow countrymen and also for people of other lands. This charm derives from his remarkable life story—the rise from humble origins, the dramatic death—and from his distinctively human and humane personality as well as from his historical role as saviour of the Union and emancipator of the slaves. His relevance endures and grows especially because of his eloquence as a spokesman for democracy. In his view, the Union was worth saving not only for its own sake but because it embodied an ideal, the ideal of self-government. In recent years, the political side to Lincoln’s character, and his racial views in particular, have come under close scrutiny, as scholars continue to find him a rich subject for research. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated to him on May 30, 1922.
Born in a backwoods cabin 3 miles (5 km) south of Hodgenville, Kentucky, Lincoln was two years old when he was taken to a farm in the neighbouring valley of Knob Creek. His earliest memories were of this home and, in particular, of a flash flood that once washed away the corn and pumpkin seeds he had helped his father plant. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was the descendant of a weaver’s apprentice who had migrated from England to Massachusetts in 1637. Though much less prosperous than some of his Lincoln forebears, Thomas was a sturdy pioneer. On June 12, 1806, he married Nancy Hanks. The Hanks genealogy is difficult to trace, but Nancy appears to have been of illegitimate birth. She has been described as “stoop-shouldered, thin-breasted, sad,” and fervently religious. Thomas and Nancy Lincoln had three children: Sarah, Abraham, and Thomas, who died in infancy.
Childhood and youth
In December 1816, faced with a lawsuit challenging the title to his Kentucky farm, Thomas Lincoln moved with his family to southwestern Indiana. There, as a squatter on public land, he hastily put up a “half-faced camp”—a crude structure of logs and boughs with one side open to the weather—in which the family took shelter behind a blazing fire. Soon he built a permanent cabin, and later he bought the land on which it stood. Abraham helped to clear the fields and to take care of the crops but early acquired a dislike for hunting and fishing. In afteryears he recalled the “panther’s scream,” the bears that “preyed on the swine,” and the poverty of Indiana frontier life, which was “pretty pinching at times.” The unhappiest period of his boyhood followed the death of his mother in the autumn of 1818. As a ragged nine-year-old, he saw her buried in the forest, then faced a winter without the warmth of a mother’s love. Fortunately, before the onset of a second winter, Thomas Lincoln brought home from Kentucky a new wife for himself, a new mother for the children. Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, a widow with two girls and a boy of her own, had energy and affection to spare. She ran the household with an even hand, treating both sets of children as if she had borne them all; but she became especially fond of Abraham, and he of her. He afterward referred to her as his “angel mother.”