His story seems hewn as much from legend and folklore as from history: a rawboned youth from the backwoods of the American frontier, he rose to guide his nation through a bloody Civil War that ended its reliance on human slavery, kept its Union intact and restored its founding vision — only to die at the hand of an assassin as the war ended.
His success story embodies the American Dream: entirely self-taught, he worked his father’s farm; rode flatboats down the Mississippi River; served briefly in the Black Hawk Indian War; then moved to Springfield, Ill., where he studied law, married well and began a long career as a regional lawyer, riding a judicial circuit on horseback. Elected to Congress in 1846, he opposed a trumped-up U.S. war with Mexico and lost favor with his constituents, then retired from politics until the nation’s rising tensions over slavery lured him back into public life in the mid-1850s.
(PHOTOS: Portraits of Abraham Lincoln)
Lincoln became the most articulate voice against human bondage in the nation, earning wide respect in a failed Senate campaign in 1858, then using his new fame to win the nomination of the antislavery Republican Party in 1860. His election brought the secession of 11 states in the South, but he stood firm, rallying the unprepared North to a final battle over the future of the Union. Cursed with a parade of weak generals (at right, he meets with General George McClellan in 1862), he taught himself military strategy and gradually found generals who could fight.
A masterly politician, Lincoln held the Union cause together through a long and bloody conflict. In the wake of the war’s pivotal battle, he rearticulated the nation’s values in his powerful Gettysburg Address. After winning a second term, he pledged the Union would welcome the seceded states back “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He was slain just after the Confederacy urrendered, but his mighty task was done.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
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