Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) was the 16th President of the United States, serving during the American Civil War from March 1861 until his death in April 1865. Lincoln guided the nation through the tumultuous war years, ultimately securing victory, maintaining the union, and abolishing slavery. He also worked as a lawyer and from 1847-1849 served in the House of Representatives. Scholars consider him to be one of the best and most important presidents of the United States.
Early Life and Career
Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky February 12, 1809 and grew up on the Kentucky and Indiana frontier. He received little formal education but read voraciously and was mostly self-taught. Working various wage and manual labor jobs as a young man, he eventually trained himself to become a lawyer. In Springfield, Illinois he met Marry Todd and they married in 1842. They had four sons, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Lincoln began a successful law practice and served in the Illinois House of Representatives as a Whig from 1834-1846.
Politics and Campaign for Senate
Abraham Lincoln’s fairly mundane early career gave no real indication that he would one day run for, and become, president of the United States. He came of age in Illinois a traditional Whig, espousing the ideas of Justice Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. Lincoln served in the Illinois State House and afterward represented the state as a Whig in the House of Representatives from 1847-1849. He opposed the Mexican American War and the expansion of slavery that might come as a consequence, although he believed slavery should be left to the states where it already existed in the South. He served one term and left politics in 1850, choosing instead to pursue his career as a lawyer.
Meanwhile the nation had become embroiled in a series of crisis over the question of the expansion of slavery into the territories. Lincoln attributed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 as the reason he regained interest in politics, running briefly for the Senate in 1854 before yielding to the more senior Whig Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln did not hold office and thus he had never put his opinion on the slave issue on the public record in this volatile time. It was then as an obscure, but politically clean, candidate that he decided to run for the Senate in 1858. His Whig Party was by that time defunct, divided as it was over the slavery question, and thus Lincoln ran as a member of the new Republican Party.
Lincoln and the Democratic candidate, Stephen Douglas, engaged in a series of seven debates across Illinois in the summer of 1858. Lincoln needed to differentiate himself from the Northern Democrats and demonstrate that when they combined with Southern Democrats, the Party formed a “slave power” with the effect, intended or not, to spread of slavery. Douglas was anti-slavery, but not as a moral issue. He endorsed popular sovereignty. He simply saw it as antiquated, inefficient, and not likely to spread. Lincoln on the other hand viewed slavery as an economic and political wrong, that if it spread, threatened not just the free northern worker, but the nation as a whole. He opposed popular sovereignty and argued that no person had a right to vote to enslave another. And while Lincoln lost the election, he effectively articulated the core of the moderate Republican platform while distinguishing himself from Douglas and the Northern Democrats. His new notoriety led Republican leaders to invite him to address party members in a speech at Cooper Union in New York in 1860.
President and Civil War
Lincoln was, for many Republicans, an ideal candidate precisely because he was so articulate and politically deft while remaining moderate and unscathed by any official public record on slavery. He won the Republican nomination over party stalwarts like Salmon P. Chase and was paired with Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.
Lincoln won the four way contest (Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and Constitutional Union Party John Bell) by virtue of a split Democratic Party and the greater population of the northern free states. Although he received 40% of the popular vote, he secured the necessary electoral votes (180 electoral votes, 59%). The Republican victory triggered the initial phase of secession and by January 1861 seven states had formed the Confederate States of America. Four more joined after the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s subsequent call for volunteers to put down the rebellion. The Civil War had begun.
From April 1861 to April 1865 Lincoln successfully navigated the nation through the Civil War and managed to achieve two victories, preserving the union and ending slavery. Ever the pragmatist, Lincoln began the war endorsing the popular northern opinion that the war be fought for union, the Constitution, and to preserve the nation as it was. However, as the war evolved Lincoln’s thinking did as well, eventually issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The United States would, for the first time in its history, ban slavery. Here was the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln referenced in his Gettysburg Address. After Union victories in Atlanta and Mobile Bay, Lincoln won re-election in 1864 and affirmation of his handling of the war.
While prosecuting the war Lincoln also managed to effect other important aspects of American history. He signed into law several pieces of traditional Whig legislation including the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, and laws establishing national currency, income tax, a draft, and a transcontinental railroad. He also declared the first national day of thanksgiving and signed into law an act to protect Yosemite Valley and the land that is now Yosemite National Park. Lincoln is one of the most influential presidents in terms of both preserving the United States and fundamentally changing it.
The war was coming to a successful conclusion for Lincoln in the spring of 1865. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9th, 1865. The last major remaining Confederate army would soon surrender in May. So it was with an air of relief that Lincoln attended the play “Our American Cousin” with Mary Todd the evening of April 14th, 1865. Embittered southern sympathizer, and renowned actor, John Wilkes Booth conspired to assassinate and/or kidnap Lincoln and several key members of his cabinet in a last ditch effort to revive the Confederate cause. Booth gained access to the Presidential balcony at Ford’s Theater and with a single shot from his derringer, mortally wounded the president. Lincoln was transported across the street and died there the next morning. An outpouring of national grief followed his death as his body traveled back to Illinois on a funeral train. He is buried at the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. He remains, arguably, America’s most important president.
- Guelzo, Allen, Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2009.
- Miller, David, “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” University of San Diego. San Diego, California. Spring 2014. Various lectures.