As the presidential election of 1860 approached, one of America’s rising political stars was a lawyer from the western state of Illinois who had served only one term in Congress. A frontier boy with almost no formal education, Abraham Lincoln had combined his natural gifts and great political shrewdness to bring himself to the attention of the country.
Those gifts included a formidable intelligence combined with dogged perseverance. Young Abraham read everything he could get his hands on and spent hours practicing writing and math, even if the only materials at hand were sticks to scratch in the dirt. His obsession with learning often put him at odds with his father, Thomas, a farmer and carpenter who was trying to build a homestead and considered study a waste of time in the face of more pressing needs. But Thomas was also known among his neighbors as a good storyteller. Even while father and son clashed, Abraham witnessed and noted the power of a good story to win over an audience, practicing the art himself by gathering other children around and jumping up on a stump to tell them a story.
Both the habit of self-education and the storytelling prowess would serve Abraham Lincoln well as he pursued his career. He worked as a store clerk and as postmaster of the small town of New Salem, Illinois while teaching himself law by reading books. His reputation for fairness and honesty and his personal popularity helped him get elected to the state House of Representatives in 1834. Two years later, he received his license to practice law and decided to move to the larger city of Springfield, which he had helped to make the capital of Illinois while serving in the legislature.
Lincoln then began his career as a frontier lawyer, which brought him into contact with clients from all walks of life and helped him develop a great skill at interacting with a wide variety of people. He also worked hard at polishing his writing and oratorical skills for court appearances and began making occasional political speeches. At a time when newspapers were the only mass medium, political speeches and debates were a popular form of entertainment. They could last for hours, and newspapers would often reprint the remarks in their entirety.
In Springfield, Lincoln also met and courted Mary Todd. She was from his native state of Kentucky, but the contrasts between her background and Abraham’s illustrated the sharp divisions within that state. Smart and very well-educated for a young woman of her time, Mary had grown up amid Lexington’s aristocracy, waited on by slaves and accustomed to a life of plenty. By all accounts, their marriage was based on strong mutual attraction and love. But it was also a practical union. Mary could help smooth Abraham’s way in social circles where he still felt awkward. And he could help her achieve her own ambitions for a life of influence and prestige—which, for a 19th-century woman, came mostly through marriage. Mary would later tell friends that she knew early on that Abraham would be president. In the late 1850s, the rest of the country was beginning to see what she saw in him.