When asked, in December of 1859, to provide a short account of his history, Lincoln claimed for himself a past of no higher virtue than "the short and simple annals of the poor." (Lamon 9) His known past extended no further than his grandfather, killed by indians in Kentucky. Even here Lincoln denied any romantic overtones, pointing out that the death was "not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest." (Lamon 10)
For many Americans, however, this simple childhood of wilderness and log cabins was in its own way as romantic as any story of foriegn royalty or wealth. Lincoln was a "pioneer child" and grew to be a pioneer man "--not, indeed, like his ancestors, a leader into new woods and unexplored fields, but a pioneer of a nobler and grander sort, directing the thoughts of men ever toward the right, and leading the American people, through difficulties and dangers and a mighty war, to peace and freedom." (Nicolay 4,9)
While Lincoln's lack of pretension and "clear-grained human worth" earned him the respect of many of his contemporaries, there were those who, like James Russell Lowell, found his ways crude and offensive while he was alive. (Lowell in Emerson xi, 328) But to Emerson, Lincoln was "thoroughly American, had never crossed the sea, had never been spoiled by English insularity or French dissipation; a quiet native, aboriginial man." (Emerson xi, 330)
This view of Lincoln as "a plain man of the people" was shared by many who knew him. (Emerson xi, 331) Like his father before him, Lincoln had very little formal education but had learned instead "under the pressure of necessity." (Lamon 10) The prototype self-made man, Lincoln was "born into a condition of life most humble and obscure." (Lamon 12) Originally from Kentucky, his family moved first to Indiana when Lincoln was a child and later to Illinois. He was, in his own words, "raised to farm work" and knew little else until his second year in Illinois, when he became "a sort of Clerk in a store." (Lamon 10)
Lincoln did not begin to study law until after he was elected to the Illinois legislature. After four terms he moved to Springfield and began practice first with John T. Stuart. At the end of that partnership he joined the firm of Stephen T. Logan, and later started his own practice with William H. Herndon. Although Lincoln served as a member of the Thirtieth Congress, by 1854 his attention to his law practice had begun to overshadow his interest in politics. It was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise which captured his interest once more. (Lamon 11)
While he may never have acquired the classroom education of the most politicians, Lincoln did possess a wide range of experience which served him well in the eyes of the common American. He had the ability to speak a language "level with the ear of all his audience" and the Gettysburg Address was considered by Emerson to one of the "two best specimens of eloquence we have had in this country." (Emerson viii, 125)
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1858 congressional election, according to eye-witnesses and historians alike, marked the turning point in Lincoln's path to the White House. Lincoln's contemporaries credited him with a maneuver, in loosing the debates which, while keeping Lincoln out of the Senate, denied Douglas any chance of the Presidency.
During the Civil War Lincoln continued to fare well in the public's eyes. Lincoln was, Emerson observed, an exceptional kind of leader "--a man who was at home and welcome with the humblest, and with a spirit and a practical vein in the times of terror that commanded the admiration of the wisest." (Emerson viii, 318)
Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865. He died the next day. By April 16th, Lincoln had been immortalized across the nation as The Martyr President.