Abraham Lincoln’s Return to Politics

Abraham Lincoln

After his one term in Congress ended in 1848, Abraham Lincoln became bored with politics. Several years later, controversial legislation would reignite his passion.

Abraham Lincoln served one term in Congress, which ended in 1848. He left Washington, D.C., planning to return to Springfield, Illinois, and practice law. He intended to live a quiet, prosperous life outside the public eye. This was not to be, for history had other plans for the Illinois congressman/lawyer.

The Impetus for Lincoln’s Return to Politics

By 1849, Lincoln had decided that he was finished with politics. In fact, he had become bored with it. However, a controversial piece of legislation would change his mind. In his brief 1860 autobiography, Lincoln wrote, “From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, [I] practiced law more assiduously than ever before… I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again.”

Stephen A. Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

The man responsible for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed the U.S. government to decide the fate of slavery in western territories, was Lincoln’s nemesis, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 declared that the voters of each newly acquired U.S. territory, not the federal government, had the right to decide whether to be slave or free. This was a principle Douglas referred to as “popular sovereignty.”

Lincoln’s Denouncement of Douglas’ Legislation

During the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, Lincoln publicly denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Even though he lost the election to Douglas, Lincoln continued his crusade. The newly formed Republican Party chose Lincoln to be its nominee in 1860. He handily defeated three opponents, including Douglas, to become the sixteenth President of the United States. In April of 1861, the Civil War finally broke out at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Lincoln was re-elected to a second term in 1864. The bloody, costly conflict ended in 1865. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln attended a play at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre in order to celebrate the end of the war and Union victory.

While enjoying the entertainment, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a co-conspirator in a group of Southern sympathizers angered by the president’s stance that the U.S. government should decide the fate of slavery, which Lincoln’s opponents believed was necessary to support the South’s now-ravaged economy. Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, and immediately became a martyr and a figure whose life has been distorted by myths and misconceptions.


  1. Various Authors. “A New Sense of Urgency– National Stage: 1854-60,” excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 56. New York: TIME Books, Time, Inc., 2009.