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Born in a Kentucky log cabin to a frontier family who later moved to Indiana and Illinois, young Abraham Lincoln grew up in abject poverty. He had about eighteen months of formal education because he worked to supplement his family’s income. An avid reader, he made extraordinary efforts to gain knowledge while working on a farm and later as a store clerk in New Salem, Illinois. In November 1842 Lincoln married Mary Todd, daughter of a prominent Kentucky slave-owning family. The couple settled in Springfield, Illinois, where their four sons were born.
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Prior to his presidency, Lincoln was a lawyer, an Illinois state legislator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and twice an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate. In 1832 he began his political career with a failed campaign for the Illinois General Assembly and won a seat in 1834. After four terms in the state legislature, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, serving one term.
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In addition to his part-time service in the Illinois legislature and his service in the U.S. Congress, Lincoln was a full-time lawyer for twenty-three years. He taught himself the law and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1837. He moved to Springfield, Illinois, and became a general practice attorney who represented clients in a variety of civil and criminal actions. By the mid-1850s, Lincoln had become one of the most highly respected and successful trial lawyers in the state.
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The Republican Party built popular support for Lincoln by portraying him as “Old Abe the Railsplitter,” a down-to-earth, common man who had risen through hard work. Republican political clubs decorated their headquarters with fence rails and organized massive rallies throughout the North. A poster from a rally inspired young Grace Bedell of Westfield, New York, to write Lincoln that growing a beard would improve his chances of victory.
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Arrival in Washington
Near dawn on February 23, 1861, Lincoln arrived secretly in Washington, D.C., because of a rumored plot to assassinate him as he passed through Baltimore. Lincoln was criticized for and later regretted the furtive manner of his arrival, but his advisors believed the danger was genuine. Lincoln’s train was met by an Illinois congressman, who escorted him to the Willard Hotel, the finest in Washington.
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A Team of Rivals
Lincoln’s cabinet was an amalgam of past political rivals and allies because he appointed leaders of competing factions of the Republican Party to key cabinet posts. Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and Secretary of State William H. Seward all had run against Lincoln for the 1860 Republican nomination. Even though the cabinet was composed of strong personalities who often were barely on speaking terms with each other, Lincoln skillfully used their strengths to benefit the Union cause.
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Life in the White House
White House life was a mixed blessing for the Lincoln family. Lincoln called his White House office the “shop,” a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the president’s home was a public building, open to all citizens. Lincoln received many visitors seeking to advance their careers, influence government policy, or acquire pardons. However, the line only grew, and the exhausted president restricted his “public hours.” Critics attacked Mary for unpatriotic extravagance for her redecorating and frequent entertaining. For the Lincolns’ younger sons, Willie and Tad, the grounds were a playground, but Willie’s death in 1862 cast a shadow over his grieving family.
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Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
Black abolitionist leader and former slave Frederick Douglass believed that African Americans could achieve freedom and full citizenship only by participating in the war. Because Lincoln’s first concern was preserving the Union, he did not publically support the recruitment of black regiments until after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Following the proclamation Douglass recruited two companies of black soldiers, which included two of his sons. The first black man to be invited to the White House, Douglass met with Lincoln to address issues concerning unequal pay and treatment of the soldiers and other matters.
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At War's End
Soon after becoming commander of the Union army in 1864, Grant implemented a strategy of coordinated strikes against the Confederacy on multiple fronts. Grant pressed Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia south toward Richmond. Union forces pinned down Lee’s troops at Petersburg, where the armies engaged in trench warfare for nine months. A decisive Union victory on April 1, 1865, at Five Forks, southwest of Petersburg, opened the way for Grant to completely encircle Lee. Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg. With his army in full retreat westward, Richmond also had to be evacuated. Federal troops entered the Confederate capital on April 3, 1865. Six days later, Lee surrendered his ill-equipped and exhausted army at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the war.
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Soon after his assassination, numerous plans were put forth to memorialize Abraham Lincoln. Although the first steps were taken in 1867, construction of the Lincoln Memorial did not begin until 1914. It was dedicated in 1922 at a ceremony attended by Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Considered a symbol of democracy and freedom, the Lincoln Memorial has served as a national stage for protests, political rallies, performances, and landmark speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 iconic speech “I have a dream.”
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