Lincoln's Life in Letters - Accordions

At its heart, the museum is a showcase for the millions of items housed in the library across the street. On any given day, at least 100 of those items are on display, drawn from our collection devoted to Illinois history and Abraham Lincoln. Included in that collection are more than 1,600 documents in Lincoln’s hand. We invite you to explore Lincoln’s life through some of the documents that shaped our museum exhibits and the stories they tell.


Childhood

Lincoln’s appetite for reading started early, as did his quest for knowledge. Despite having less than a year of formal education, the future president read whatever books he could find, on a variety of subjects, whenever he could.

Lincoln’s enthusiasm for self-education is wonderfully evident in these pages from a ciphering book he used in his teenage years to teach himself mathematics. This page contains the oldest known Lincoln autograph, as well as a humorous four-line poem.

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Life in New Salem

Lincoln came into his own in the river village of New Salem, Illinois. After arriving in 1831, he worked as a store clerk, surveyor, and postmaster, but it was Lincoln’s experience in the 1832 Black Hawk War that set him on a path to leadership. 

Lincoln’s volunteer company elected him captain, an honor he later recalled “gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.” It also offered a taste of electoral victory that he carried through to his election as a state legislator in 1834. In this document, Lincoln discharges one of his fellow militiamen, fulfilling one of his last duties as captain.

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Lincoln the Lawyer

New Salem was also where Lincoln developed his interest in the law. He taught himself from borrowed law books and passed the bar in 1836.

Lincoln’s law career took him from New Salem to Springfield, where he eventually established himself as one of the most successful and reliable lawyers in the state. In this 1860 letter, Lincoln—now a seasoned attorney—advises an aspiring lawyer how to break into the legal field.

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The Debates

The 1858 race for Stephen A. Douglas’s seat in the U.S. Senate received national attention. Lincoln, representing the new Republican Party, challenged Douglas, one of the most prominent Democrats in the nation, to a series of seven debates in which slavery was the featured topic.

Lincoln wrote these notes before the third debate at Jonesboro, reflecting on the Kansas statehood crisis and the legality of slavery’s expansion. He would ultimately lose the contest, but it would make him a prominent national figure leading into the 1860 presidential campaign.

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1860 Campaign 

The national slavery debate peaked with Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Although most Republicans only wanted to prevent slavery’s expansion, opponents often accused them of seeking its immediate end.

In this letter, candidate Lincoln notes that he has never publicly called for the abolition of slavery, nor was it included in the Republican Party platform. Nevertheless, many white southerners were so angry at his election that they broke away from the United States, sparking the secession crisis and eventual Civil War.

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The Lincoln Family 

Like many Americans during the Civil War, the Lincolns experienced horrific loss inside and outside of their family. Here, ten-year-old Willie writes from the White House to his friend Henry Remann back in Springfield that family friend Colonel Elmer Ellsworth has been killed.

Ellsworth was the first Union officer to die in the Civil War and Willie is dealing directly with the loss of a man he knew and respected. Less than a year later, the Lincolns would experience a terrible loss of their own, when Willie himself died from illness in the White House. 

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Emancipation 

As the Civil War dragged on, the Confederacy’s stubborn defense and the constant stream of African Americans escaping their enslavement to Union lines convinced Lincoln he could only save the union by destroying slavery. He began that process by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, stating all slaves in areas under rebellion were immediately free as of
January 1, 1863.

This is one of 48 printed copies signed by Lincoln when the proclamation went into effect. Yet this was only a war measure. It would take two more years before Lincoln helped shepherd the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, forever abolishing slavery in the United States.

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Gettysburg Address

Almost a year after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to dedicate its new national cemetery. The largest battle ever fought in North America had been waged there from July 1-3, 1863, and Lincoln stood on that same ground on November 19 to give meaning to the bloodshed.

It became his most famous speech and perhaps the most well-known political speech in recorded history. This is one of only five surviving copies in Lincoln’s own hand, acquired by the State of Illinois in 1944 partly through $50,000 raised by schoolchildren donating pennies.

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Mary Lincoln 

By the end of the Civil War, Mary had lost two of her four sons and witnessed the murder of her husband. She was emotionally shattered by these losses and carried that burden for the rest of her life.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library holds the largest collection of Mary Lincoln letters. This letter finds Mary in Chicago only a few months after the president’s death, writing to Governor Richard J. Oglesby fervently advocating for Lincoln’s tomb to be placed in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was one of the many ways she would struggle to protect her husband’s legacy. 

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The originals of all these documents are in our vault, but their images in this exhibit were created by our Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Please visit their website to see more documents written to and by Lincoln from all over the world. If you have a Lincoln document, or know someone who does, please reach out to us. We are always looking for new discoveries.

Research Resources   Law Practice of Lincoln   

Papers of Abraham Lincoln   The Lincoln Log 

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