1850 -- Abraham Lincoln's political career seemed over. After serving as a militia captain in Illinois during the 1832 Black Hawk War, he climbed the ladder of Illinois politics during the 1830s and 1840s and eventually served a single term in the US House of Representatives from 1847-1849. When his term ended, however, Lincoln -- a shy but ambitious man -- returned to Illinois without much of an idea of what to do other than returning to his legal practice. To make matters worse, Lincoln's marriage was frequently a source of frustration, and in February 1850, his beloved son Edward died of a respiratory illness at the age of four. Less than a year later, his father, Thomas Lincoln, passed away. Lincoln's relationship with his father had been strained and distant for many years, and he did not attend the funeral. With Thomas Lincoln's death, Abraham was the only surviving member of his immediate family. His mother had died in 1818 (when Lincoln was nine years old), and his sister had died in childbirth a decade later. With personal tragedy heaped on top of professional frustration, Lincoln sank into one of his occasional bouts of depression.
1865 -- Having won re-election to a second term as President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln now watched as the nation's armed forces struck a final blow against the Confederate states. After four years of unimaginable war and national strife, Lincoln had successfully steered a course to victory while destroying the institution of slavery, which had survived for more than two and a half centuries in North America. In early April 1865, just days after the Confederate surrender -- a few days before his assassination -- Abraham Lincoln walked through the streets of Richmond, Virginia, where the Confederacy had set up its government during the war. As cheering crowds of freed slaves greeted him, Lincoln witnessed firsthand the "new birth of freedom" he'd spoken of in the Gettysburg Address of July 1863.
Lincoln returned to politics during the 1850s as the nation dealt with a series of conflicts over the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new lands. Lincoln argued forcefully -- and in the language of common sense -- that slavery and freedom were not compatible with each other. Although Lincoln disliked slavery itself, he did not wish to end it entirely (at least not yet). Instead, he wanted to limit its growth and keep new territories in the west free for settlement by farmers and laboring people. His eloquent speeches and thought-provoking arguments helped push him into the national spotlight and into the White House. As president, Lincoln presented a vision of national unity that appealed to a broad range of people from every part of the country. His objections to slavery were based on his own moral judgment, but as a leader he always tried to find solutions that brought the greatest benefits to the greatest number of people.