Lincoln's Life in Letters

We remember Abraham Lincoln most through his words. Certainly, we can all immediately imagine his famous face and tall figure, but what Lincoln said and wrote shape how we see him and what we can still learn from him.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum proudly holds more than 1,600 documents in Lincoln’s hand and even more from members of his family and contemporaries. This exhibit explores items from that collection that provide glimpses of critical moments in Lincoln’s story. We invite you to read these words and reflect on what they mean to you.



Lincoln’s Love of Learning

Lincoln’s quest for knowledge started early, though frontier life provided few opportunities for classroom instruction. Despite having less than a year of formal education, the future president read whatever books he could find. He explored Aesop’s Fables and famous works of literature but also used books to study grammar, math, and other core concepts. He never stopped educating himself—maintaining a lifelong love of learning and self-improvement.

His enthusiasm for education is wonderfully evident in these pages from a “ciphering book” used in his teenage years to teach himself mathematics. The methods Lincoln used are obscure to us, but it is evident how carefully he followed the instructions. However, like any student, he sometimes lost focus, exemplified by the short joke poem and the earliest known Lincoln signature.

Sarah Bush Lincoln

Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln in 1864.

Thomas Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas


Artist Louis Bonhajo’s depiction of Lincoln splitting rails.

Lincoln's Ciphering Book

Includes the oldest known signature from Abraham Lincoln.

Courtesy of The Lincoln Presidential Foundation

Lincoln's Signature

The oldest known signature from Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's Ciphering Book - 2nd page

Transcription of bottom section:

Abraham Lincoln is my ^nam[e]^
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read

Courtesy of The Lincoln Presidential Foundation



Finding his Way

Lincoln came into his own in the river village of New Salem, Illinois.
After arriving in 1831, he worked several jobs, including store clerk, surveyor, and postmaster. His first major step toward leadership, however, came when he volunteered to fight in the 1832 Black Hawk War—a state and federal effort to forcibly remove indigenous people trying to reclaim their land—and his company elected him captain. Lincoln later recalled that election “gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.” In this document, Lincoln discharges a fellow militiaman, fulfilling one of his last duties as captain.

During his Black Hawk War service, Lincoln also ran for the Illinois House of Representatives. He lost that election, but ran again in 1834, won, and eventually served four terms. Lincoln’s quiet ambition and the connections he would make in the legislature provided the foundation for his rise to national leadership.

New Salem Reconstructed

New Salem after its reconstruction as a historic site in the 1930s.

Illinois Capitol

The Illinois State Capitol building at Vandalia.

Lincoln the Surveyor

Artist Fletcher Ransom’s depiction of Lincoln surveying land.

Captain Lincoln's Letter


I do hereby certify that Nathan Drake volunteered and served as a private in the Company which I commanded— in the regiment commanded by. Colonel Samuel M. Thompson— of the Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Samuel Whitesides— in an expedition directed against the Sac & Fox Indians—and that he was enrolled on the 29th day of April & discharged on the 9th day of June 1832— having served forty and two thirds-days— given under my hand this 24th July 1832—

A Lincoln— Captain



For value received
I assign all the benefit of the within discharge to John Taylor and hereby authorise the pay master to pay over to John Taylor, all the wages I may be entitled to receive for my Services

attest Nathan Drake
M. Mobley

A Lincoln Comp[any]



From Partner to Mentor

New Salem was also where Lincoln developed his interest in the law. Without access to a university, he learned the legal trade through borrowed law books—another example of Lincoln’s remarkable ability for self-improvement. In 1836, he passed the bar and soon moved to Springfield to join a practice.

Over the course of his law career, Lincoln handled various types of cases and honed his already formidable skills of persuasion. He had three different partners as his reputation grew, and eventually became a mentor to many young lawyers, including his last partner, William Herndon. This 1860 letter shows us a glimpse of Lincoln the mentor, as he advises a young man named John Brockman how best to enter the legal field. Brockman valued the advice, and his descendants saved the letter, but the Civil War disrupted his legal ambitions and he chose a different path.

First Photograph of Lincoln

The first known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1846.

Country Lawyer

Artist Fletcher Ransom’s depiction of Lincoln
practicing law in a country courtroom.

Law Office

A modern exterior shot of the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Letter to J.M. Brockman, Esq.


Springfield, Ills. Sep. 25, 1860
J.M. Brockman, Esq.
Dear Sir,
Yours of the 24th asking “the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law” is received - The mode is very simple, though laborious and tedious - It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone’s Commentaries, and after reading it carefully through, say twice, take up Chitty’s Pleadings, Greenleaf’s Evidence, & Story’s Equity &c. in succession ---- Work, work, work, is the main thing----
Yours very truly,
A. Lincoln



Challenging Douglas

The national debate over slavery’s expansion took center stage in the 1850s. Lincoln’s beloved Whig Party collapsed over the issue and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas ascended as a major figure in the Democratic Party. These forces pushed Lincoln to publicly adopt a more anti-slavery view and eventually join the new Republican Party.

Lincoln’s 1858 attempt to unseat Douglas happened in the midst of this broader conflict and became a national story. Over a series of seven debates—a unique campaign feature at the time—he and Douglas fought over the legal nature of slavery, the wisdom of Douglas’s policies, and the place of Black people in American society. Lincoln wrote these notes before the third debate at Jonesboro, reflecting on the Kansas statehood crisis and the legality of slavery’s expansion. Lincoln did not win Douglas’s seat but gained a national reputation that positioned him for a presidential run.

Lincoln the Speaker

Artist George L. Parrish, Jr.’s, depiction of Lincoln speaking at the final debate in Alton.

Debate Rival

Stephen A. Douglas

Political Prize Fight

An 1860 political cartoon depicting Lincoln and Douglas fighting.

Debate Speech Notes


Brief Answer to his opening–
Put in the Democratic Resolutions–
Examine his Answers to my questions,
“If the people of Kansas shall, by means entirely unobjectionable in all other respects, adopt a State Constitution, and ask admission into the Union under it before they have the requisite number of inhabitants according to the English Bill— some ninety three thousand— will you vote to admit them?”
“Can the people of a United States Teritory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude Slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?”



Lincoln’s Platform

The national slavery debate peaked with Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. He ran against three other candidates—two from the fracturing Democratic Party and one from the “Constitutional Union” party specifically focused on fostering sectional compromise. Lincoln and the Republicans ran on a platform of preventing slavery’s expansion, but opponents frequently accused them of being abolitionists seeking slavery’s immediate end.

In this letter, candidate Lincoln walks a fine line to resist being characterized as an abolitionist. He notes that he has never publicly called for the immediate end of slavery, nor was it included in the Republican Party platform. While this surely persuaded some moderate Northerners, many white Southerners remained committed to preventing a Republican administration from ever assuming the presidency. With Lincoln’s election, secessionists made good on their promise to treasonously try to form an independent, slaveholding nation.

Letter to George Davis, Esq. (page 1)


Private & confidential–
Springfield, Ills. Oct. 27. 1860
Geo. T. M. Davis, Esq
My dear Sir:
Mr Dubois has shown me your letter of the 20th; and I promised him to write you– What is it I could say which would quiet alarm? Is it that no interference by the government, with slaves or slavery within the states, is intended? I have said this so often already, that a repetition of it is but mockey, bearing an appearance of weakness, and cowardice, which perhaps should be avoided–
Why do not uneasy men read what I have already said? and what our platform says? If they will not read, or heed, then, would they read, or heed, a repetition of them? Of course the

Letter to George Davis, Esq. (page 2)


declaration that there is no intention to interfere with slaves or slavery, in the states, with all that is fairly implied in such declaration, is true; and I should have no objection to make, and repeat the declaration a thousand times, if there were no danger of encouraging bold bad men to believe they are dealing with one who can be scared into anything–
I have some reason to believe the Sub-National Committee, at the Astor House, may be considering this question; and if their judgment should be different from mine, mine might be modified by theirs–

Nominee Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln poses for a photograph only days after receiving the Republican presidential nomination.


Republican supporters called Wide Awakes march for Lincoln in New York.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Campaign Pin

A Lincoln-Hamlin campaign pin.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.



Willie Writes Home

Only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four sons lived to adulthood. By the time they reached Washington, they had already lost one child, Eddy. The war brought loss and hardship to all Americans, and the Lincolns were not exempted. This letter, for instance, vividly shows 10-year-old Willie coming face-to-face with the war’s awful cost. He writes to his neighbor Henry Remann back in Springfield that family friend Colonel Elmer Ellsworth has been killed.

Ellsworth was an American celebrity, and the boys would have met him during the brief time he studied law under Lincoln. Tragically, he became the first Union officer to die in the Civil War, and Willie is telling the story to Henry as best he can. Sadly, Willie himself had less than a year to live, eventually succumbing to illness in the White House.

Willie's Letter


Washington, D.C. May 25/61
Dear Henry

You reqest a letter, & here it is. I want you to give my respects to Edward McClernand, and tell him that I feel very sorry about his mother, and one more thing. Colonel E. E. Ellsworth went over to Alexandra, Va, and determined to take ^the^ secession flag down of the Marshall house. So he rushed up the steps untill he reached the pole, took down the flag, wrapped it around him (8 men with him), and coming down the steps (his comrade, Brownell, being in front of him) & Jackson (a secessionist) behind him, shot him. Immediately his (ellsworths) comrades) went & killed Jackson.

Yours truly
Willie Lincoln.

Mary and two boys

Mary Lincoln with Willie (left) and Tad (right).


William Wallace Lincoln c. 1859

Elmer Ellsworth

A contemporary artist’s depiction of Elmer Ellsworth’s death.



Forever Free

The Emancipation Proclamation bears Lincoln’s name, but it was the product of decades of struggle by numerous people. African Americans, in particular, fought hard to end slavery and were among the first to recognize the Civil War’s potential for emancipation. They pressured Northern soldiers and politicians in numerous ways, especially by fleeing their enslavement to assist the Union war effort.

By the summer of 1862, those efforts and the Confederacy’s stubborn defense had convinced many Northerners that it was time to directly assault slavery. Lincoln was prominent among them and began conceiving of an Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect on January 1, 1863. It freed only enslaved people in areas under rebellion and opened the door for Black enlistment in the U.S. military. The original document burned in the 1871 Chicago Fire, but this is one of 48 copies Lincoln signed to raise funds for Northern soldiers.


African American refugees from slavery during the Civil War.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Emancipation Proclamation

A contemporary imagining of African Americans
reading the Emancipation Proclamation.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

African American Soldiers

A group of African American Civil War soldiers.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Emancipation Proclamation



A New Birth of Freedom

Almost a year after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to dedicate its new National Cemetery. The largest battle ever fought in North America had been waged there from July 1-3, 1863, and Lincoln stood on that same ground on November 19 to try and give meaning to the bloodshed. He spoke with humility about the sacrifices made there but resolved that those losses would help foster a “new birth of freedom” in America.

It became his most famous political speech and perhaps the most well-known in recorded history. The original handwritten text has been lost, but Lincoln wrote five copies over the rest of his life. This is one of those original copies, acquired by the State of Illinois in 1944 partly through pennies and nickels donated by schoolchildren.

The Speech

Artist Louis Bonhajo’s depiction of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

The Wounded

Federal stretcher-bearers tend to fallen soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln about two weeks before delivering the Gettysburg Address.

The Gettysburg Address

Transcription: (page 1)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate— we can not consecrate— we can not hallow— this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before

The Gettysburg Address

Transcription: (page 2)

us— that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion— that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain— that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.



Mary Takes Charge

By the end of the Civil War, Mary had lost two of her four sons and witnessed the murder of her husband. She was emotionally shattered by these losses and carried that burden for the rest of her life. This letter finds Mary in Chicago only a few months after the president’s death, writing to Governor Richard J. Oglesby fervently advocating for Lincoln’s tomb to be placed in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Mary ultimately succeeded in those efforts, arguing against sites in major American cities, like Chicago and Washington. Although Mary herself did not return to Springfield until much later in life, she believed Lincoln’s body belonged there not just because the town had fostered his political rise but also because Eddy Lincoln was already buried there. It was one of the many ways she worked to protect her husband’s legacy.

Letter to the Governor

Transcription: (page 1)

Near Chicago
June 11th

Gov Oglesbey–
From the day’s Chicago paper, I have clipped another interesting editorial, such articles injure those from whom they emanate, far more than myself. My wish to have the Monument, placed over my Husband’s remains, will meet the approval of the whole civilized world, & if not carried out, and a

Letter to the Governor

Transcription: (page 2)

favorable answer, given me by the 15th of this month, I will certainly do as I have said. It is very painful to me, to be heated in this manner, by some of those I considered my friends, such conduct, will not add, very much, to the honor of our state–
I enclose you a scrap, sent from Springfield. ^to the paper to-day^ doubtless emanating, from the fertile pen of E. L. Baker–
Very Resp–
Mrs Lincoln

Lying in State

Lincoln lying in state in New York City.

Mary in Mourning

Mary Lincoln about 1863.

Governor Oglesby

Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Most of the documents displayed here are from the library’s vast collection. The originals are in our vault and the images were created by our Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Please visit our website to see more documents written to and by Lincoln from all over the world. If you have a Lincoln document, or know someone who does, please reach out to us. We are always looking for new discoveries.

Visit the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project


Written by: Christian McWhirter, PhD
Curated and Produced by:
Lance Tawzer
Graphic Design by:
Amanda Flatt
Exhibit Design and Production by:
Thomas Conway
Edited by:
Jacob Friefeld, PhD

Copyediting, Transcriptions, and Document Images:
Daniel Worthington, PhD, Gayle Newenham, and Michelle Tiedje, PhD

ALPLM Imagery: Megan Klintworth
Images from the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and the Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Executive Director: Christina Shutt
Chief of Staff: Melissa Coultas
Chief Operating Officer: Toby Trimmer
Chief Legal Counsel: Dave Kelm


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