His parents were Casper Kruger and Elsie Steyn, fairly well-to-do, but landless stock-owners, compelled by drought, locusts and migrating herds of buck to lead a nomadic existence. Young Paul and his brothers were responsible for the stock. Nature hardened him and the Bible was his schoolbook and his daily companion from a very early age. He had a few months of formal instruction in reading and writing but could express his thoughts on paper.
In 1836 they joined the Potgieter trek. The young Paul underwent his baptism of fire at battle of Vechtkop. After a spell in Natal they moved north to Transvaal. When Paul was 16, he received his own farm, Waterkloof, near present-day Rustenburg. In 1842 he married Maria du Plessis who died of malaria in 1846. A year later he married Gezina du Plessis. Kruger served as a field-cornet during his teens and was the commandant of Rustenburg from 1854 onwards. He took an active part in punitive expeditions against various rebellious black chiefs, e.g. against Makapan in 1854 and Mapela in April 1858.
He was scarcely 25 when he became interested in political matters and was present at the Sand River Convention in 1852 where the South African Republic (ZAR) was granted its independence from Britain. Three years later he helped draw up the constitution of this new republic. He played a prominent role in pacifying and uniting the Boer communities in the early 1860's when there was a vehement dissension amongst the burghers about ecclesiastical matters as well a political struggle following the election of M.W. Pretorius as president of the OFS. Kruger was elected commandant-general in April 1862. Peace was restored when an election was held in 1864. Pretorius became president for a second time and Kruger retained his position as commander-in-chief.
President T.F. Burgers came to power in 1872 and as Kruger could not identify with his liberal- mindedness he tendered his resignation early in 1873. Burgers suffered a gradual decline in popularity. Kruger was elected to the Volksraad with a small majority in November 1874. He became reconciled to Burgers's government to a certain extent. When they planned a new presidential election for early 1877 Kruger decided to make himself available for office. The election never took place as Shepstone annexed the republic on behalf of the British Empire. When Burgers left the country Kruger was elected vice-president by the Volksraad.
In an attempt to have the annexation set aside he visited London twice but both the journeys were in vain as the British government was adamant that they would not revoke the annexation. At a series of meetings addressed by Kruger the increasing opposition to British rule was evident Kruger went to work very diplomatically to restrain people from premature violence on the one hand and on the other hand to manoeuvre the British leaders into a morally untenable position. When Piet Bezuidenhout's tactics of tax evasion, however, supported by Commandant Piet Cronje, at Potchefstroom, led to a riot in November 1880, Kruger was no longer able to restrain the people and at a gathering at Paardekraal in December 1880 they restored the republic. Kruger, Piet Joubert and M.W. Pretorius now formed a triumvirate to lead the government.
During the First War of Independence Kruger controlled the political fortunes of the ZAR from his temporary headquarters at Heidelberg. The invading British forces were defeated by Jobber's burghers at Lang's Nek, Ingogo, and Majuba Hill in 1881. The Gladstone government was unwilling to restore British authority by the further use of force and accepted Kruger's proposal of qualified independence. This formed the basis of the negotiations that led to the Pretoria Convention in August 1881. The independence of the Republic was restored, subject to the suzerainty of Great Britain.
The Volksraad decided in 1882 that the office of State president should be re-instated according to the constitution. In the subsequent election of 1883 Kruger stood against Joubert, with Kruger the winner. One of the most important tasks awaiting him was the amendment of the Convention. During his visit to Europe, accompanied by General Nicolaas Smit and Reverend S.J. du Toit the London Convention was signed on 24 February 1884. Britain, however, still controlled the foreign policy of the republic.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand caused radical economical and political changes. Kruger was again reelected as President in 1888. The most vexing problem for Kruger and his State Secretary, Dr W.J. Leyds, was the influx of the Uitlanders (foreigners). Kruger was afraid that they would outvote the older white inhabitants of the Republic. To counter this possibility he made the conditions of naturalization more difficult. In 1890 the government restricted the Uitlander franchise for presidential and Volksraad elections to naturalized citizens who had been in the country for fourteen years. To satisfy Uitlander interests a second Volksraad was created, to be elected by naturalized citizens of two years standing. Though relatively few Uitanders were genuinely concerned about the franchise question, this nevertheless became a central issue between the British government and the government of the Republic.
From 1890 tensions in the country increased. Many mining executives realised that to enable deep-level gold production to prosper a much closer relationship between the industry and state had to be established and that this was only likely if they could realise a change of government. Kruger, on the other hand, was willing to do anything in his power to preserve the Republic's independence. By 1893 Kruger's popularity had suffered a sharp decline and he only narrowly defeated Joubert in the presidential election that year.
Relations between the two governments deteriorated further, following the abortive Jameson Raid in December 1895, set up by the then premier of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes and a group of associates, many of whom had links with deep-level mining. In his handling of the crisis the President revealed great wisdom and statesmanship. Despite the urging of many of his people, he refused to execute Jameson and delivered him with his officers to the British authorities to be punished. Kruger, on the whole adopted a tolerant attitude to the Raiders and their leaders.
Sir Alfred Milner, the newly appointed High Commissioner and an ardent imperialist, became committed to the issues set forth by the British South African League in 1896. They agitated for the relaxation of the franchise laws and were soon urging the British Government to intervene directly in the affairs of the republic. Milner's strategy from 1896 onwards was directed at the strengthening of the loyalty and political cohesion of the English-speaking South Africans and channelling Uitlander discontent and opposition to Kruger's government.
While the situation progressively worsened Kruger turned to the Orange Free State for support and in 1898 a defensive and offensive alliance was negotiated between the two republics. This meant that in case of a war they would present a united front. Through President Steyn's mediation a conference was held between Milner and Kruger in Bloemfontein at the end of May 1899. Here Milner made increasingly difficult demands as Britain was determined to create a unified South Africa. It was clear that the rights of the Uitlanders were no longer the main issue.
Both sides now prepared for war. The British troops in the country were reinforced. After consulting Steyn the ZAR sent an ultimatum to Britain, on 9 October 1899 demanding that they remove their troops from the ZAR's borders within 48 hours. War broke out on 11 October 1899. As the aged president (he was 74) was too old to go to battle he prepared himself for the most strenuous work of directing, encouraging and commanding.
Kruger addressed the Volksraad for the last time in May 1900, pleading for continued faith in the national cause. As the enemy was close Kruger was obliged to leave Pretoria and to move east with General Louis Botha and the retreating army. For a time he was stationed at Machadodorp and Waterval Onder.
After the battle of Dalmanutha it was decided that the President was too old and frail and that he should leave for Europe to attempt to obtain sympathy and help from foreign rulers. On 11 September 1900 he crossed the Transvaal border on his way to Lourenco Marques and was soon on his way to Marseilles on board the "Gelderland" sent by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. He stayed in the Netherlands for the remainder of the war. He and his retinue finally moved to Clarens in Switzerland where he died on 14 July 1904. His body was embalmed and conveyed to Cape Town on board the "Batavier VI". On 16 December 1904 he was interred in the Heroes' Acre in Pretoria.