Lincoln & The West

Abraham Lincoln, 1859

During the summer of 1860, the Chicago Press and Tribune asked Republican presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln to prepare a short autobiographical sketch to introduce himself to voters. Writing about himself in the third person, Lincoln focused on family genealogy, migration, and work. He closed with a brief mention that his opposition to slavery’s expansion into the West motivated him to enter national politics after 1854. Today, we can recognize in this autobiography how Lincoln was shaped by the central contests of nineteenth-century political culture, including westward expansion, slavery, Indian removal, and the development of a national infrastructure. Two issues in particular — westward expansion and the future of slavery in the United States — would dominate nineteenth-century American politics and define Lincoln’s career and legacy.

Between 1809 and 1860 — from Lincoln’s Kentucky frontier birth to his election as president — the United States changed dramatically. Flatboat travel gave way to steamships and railroads, which revolutionized transportation and commerce. The frontier pushed beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific. The Whig Party rose and fell, replaced by the Republicans. In the midst of these developments slavery divided the nation. For Lincoln, born in a slave state but residing most of his years in free states, this divide was both personal and political.

This exhibition takes its organizing structure from Lincoln’s 1860 autobiography. Each section begins with a quotation from the autobiography and relates Lincoln’s own experiences to larger currents of American history and culture. At one point in his manuscript Lincoln called for the insertion of an 1837 protest he and a colleague presented to the Illinois legislature. The quotation in the “Antislavery” section is drawn from that document.

Read the entire autobiography online at the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.