This Day in History: Abraham Lincoln elected President of the United States

On this day in 1860, Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the United States. Such an achievement must have seemed impossible during his early childhood years.

Lincoln was born in a tiny log cabin in Kentucky. When Abe was 7 years old, his family moved to Indiana, where they squatted on a plot of land until they finally earned enough to purchase it legally. Unfortunately, Abe’s mom died roughly 2 years later. His dad soon remarried Sarah Bush Johnston.

Sarah proved to be a blessing. She encouraged Abe to learn. Abe still never really received much in the way of formal education, but he taught himself as much as he could. His stepmother later recalled that “Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on—and when he came across a passage that Struck him he would write it down . . .”

As a young adult, Lincoln earned money transporting goods on the Mississippi and saved enough to move to New Salem, Illinois. Once there, he found a job clerking at a general store. He was quite popular, at least in part because of his ability to tell a good story! He studied for the bar and was admitted. He ran for the state legislature: He failed on the first try, but succeeded on the second. Later, he was elected to the House of Representatives. In the mid-1850s, he ran for the U.S. Senate—and lost. He was nominated for Vice President in 1856 and lost that, too. Undeterred, he ran for U.S. Senate, again, in 1858. That campaign was technically another failure, but it was also a critical turning point in his career.

The 1858 campaign, of course, featured seven famous debates between Lincoln and his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas. Slavery was the major issue in those debates. Douglas supported state sovereignty, but Lincoln declared slavery an immoral evil. Lincoln still did not go so far as to suggest that slavery should be outlawed where it already existed. He simply wanted to put a stop to its expansion.

Lincoln had to have known that he was never going to win that senatorial race. At that point in our nation’s history, there was no general election for U.S. Senators. Instead, each state legislature selected the senators for its own state. The Illinois legislature was very Democratic. Clearly, a Republican like Lincoln would not win. Nevertheless, the campaign ensured that his reputation was established nationally. He spent the next 16 months traveling the country, supporting other Republican candidates. By 1860, he was able to run his own presidential campaign from home, as was the tradition of the day. People flocked to see him in Springfield.

When the election was finally held, Lincoln earned 180 electoral votes. His three opponents, collectively, earned only 123 electoral votes. He’d done it! Born in a log cabin, without the advantages of a formal education, Lincoln had pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He’d persevered, despite lost campaigns for the state legislature and the U.S. Senate.

Some of you love Lincoln. Some of you really don’t. But perhaps one thing is indisputable: He spent a lifetime turning difficulties and failure into success.

One of Lincoln’s law partners once stated that Abe’s “ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” From that perspective, perhaps Lincoln’s victory is not so surprising, after all. Of course, achieving the presidency turned out to be the easy part. Lincoln’s hardest task still lay ahead.

Seven southern states would secede from the Union before he even had the opportunity to take the oath of office.