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Interpreting the Evidence

Lincoln's Sketch of His Life, 1858

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850 - 1877)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Civil War

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Lincoln's Sketch of His Life, 1858 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
A reply President Lincoln gave when asked for a sketch of his life in 1858.
Historical Context
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. His mother was illiterate and his father was an uneducated carpenter and farmer. However humble these circumstances may seem, Abraham Lincoln grew up to be one of the most influential men in American history. His life was wrought with challenges - lost loves, lost business ventures, lost elections - but he continued to steadfastly follow his heart in love, life, and politics.

Lincoln’s early formal schooling was typical for the age. He wore buckskin clothes and a raccoon cap to his log cabin schoolhouse.  It is hard to believe that Lincoln, who developed into an eloquent orator, didn’t even own his first book until he was sixteen years old, and even this caused a mishap.  Lincoln had borrowed a book from a neighbor, but left it out in the rain. The neighbor made Lincoln work off the price of the book by doing chores around his farm. Maybe it was fate, but the book was The Life of Washington by Parson Mason Weems.

Lincoln’s early life seems full of these kinds of stories; the events that were unlucky somehow made him stronger. His mother died when he was only nine years old. When he was ten, he was kicked by a horse and almost killed. When Lincoln was seventeen, his sister died.  During this time, the Lincoln family moved from Kentucky to Indiana, and then to Illinois.

In Illinois, Lincoln joined the local militia for the Black Hawk War but never saw any action. In 1832, he ran for the Illinois State Legislature, but was defeated. Lincoln and a business partner then opened a store, but it too failed. He became postmaster of a small post office and learned surveying. In 1834, his luck changed a little, when he ran again and was elected to the Illinois Legislature. Things seemed to be going well for him until 1835, when his first love died. In 1837 he proposed to Mary Owens, but she rejected him.

However devastating these losses may have seemed, Lincoln persevered. In 1838 and 1840 he was re-elected and became engaged to another young lady, Mary Todd. Mary and Abraham were married in 1843, even though she broke off the engagement once.  Lincoln’s political career continued to do well, and in 1846 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. By 1860, he was President of the United States.

Lincoln took office on March 3, 1861. However, his presidency was challenged even before he became president. On February 18, 1861, just three weeks before his inauguration, Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederate States of America. Then, in April came the Battle of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War.

 
Essential Question
How do individuals influence national and global events?
 
Check for Understanding
Summarize the main idea of this document and evaluate the influence of Lincoln on American society.
 
Historical Challenges
Lincoln was a captain in the Black Hawk War. Research the Black Hawk War. When and where was it fought? How old was Abraham Lincoln at the time? What caused the war, and which Indian tribes were involved? What was the result of the war? Who were some other famous people that fought in the war? With a partner, hold a debate discussing why you are planning to go to war, having one person pretend to be Black Hawk and the other person pretend to be a representative of the United States government. Can you reach a peaceful solution?
 
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: Lincoln was, as he wrote, four times a member of the Illinois Legislature, serving a total of eight years. How many years did each term in the Illinois Legislature last?
English Language Arts: What does "&c." mean? How is it abbreviated today? Abraham Lincoln used "Yours, &c." as a closing to this letter. What sorts of closings do people use in letters today?
English Language Arts: Write a sketch of your own life in full sentences.