About Lincoln’s Biography

by Drew VandeCreek

Lincoln's contemporaries often noted that he had lived a "representative life." By this they meant that he had shared many experiences with ordinary Americans. As a young man Lincoln moved west with his family, worked on a flatboat, fought in an Indian War, tilled the soil, and overcame numerous setbacks to become a successful attorney and politician. Republican political handlers refined Lincoln's experiences into the 1860 presidential campaign's image of "the railsplitter" at work on the frontier. This image has remained a part of Americans' historical memories and makes Lincoln a compelling, even mythic, figure today.

Lincoln/Net provides a set of eight short biographical essays allowing users to examine this image, and the period it reflected, more closely. They show, in a chronological, narrative style, how Lincoln’s experiences before the presidency related to major events, episodes and themes in antebellum American history, and can help users to locate materials found in the site’s large, searchable collections of primary source materials in the contexts of his life and antebellum American history.

For example, a Lincoln/Net user coming upon materials from the presidential campaign of 1840 can discover that this was an important, even watershed, event in American political history. After a period of considerable instability, Americans organized their political lives around two major electoral parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. Lincoln threw himself into the new Whig Party's Illinois campaign and made a name for himself. This system of party competition defined American electoral politics for nearly twenty years and framed the sectional crisis that preceded the Civil War.