Lincoln, Abraham

views updated Jun 11 2018

Abraham Lincoln

Gabor S. Boritt with Matthew Pinsker

THE date was 11 February 1861. One day short of his fifty-second birthday, Abraham Lincoln, president-elect of the United States, was saying his farewell to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois:

My friendsNo one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Lincoln's heart was heavy. His old life was behind him. History tells us that he had very good reason to wonder "when, or whether ever" he would see his home again. The burdens upon him crushed him to the ground.

Humbly he gave credit to his hometown and to his neighbors for all that he was, for all that he had attained. He said, and he knew, that he, by himself, was nothing. But bowed down to the ground though he was, he still could not but fix his eyes on heights heretofore unscaled by any American. He had always looked up thus. Before him he now saw a task greater than Washington'sgreater than the founding of the nation. The arrogance of such a view (however obscured by sincere humility), as well as the historical accuracy of it, is striking. Leaving the safe haven of his little western town, Lincoln sensed that if he should succeed at his task, his achievement and, one would suppose, his fame would surpass that of Washington.

The man from Illinois was fit for the task before him. Utter humility and strength rarely matched were his to the full. It is not surprising that he, a product of the Bible more than any American president before him or since, is so well summed up by an old Hasidic saying: "Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words 'For my sake was the world created,' and in his left, 'I am dust and ashes.' "

Lincoln was born on the Kentucky frontier in 1809, at the dawn of the Republic, to the nearly illiterate Thomas Lincoln and the probably illegitimate Nancy Hanks Lincoln. He was thus southern born, as were his parents, though his ancestry reached back to Pennsylvania and New England. In 1816 his family moved to the new state of Indiana and, as he reached adulthood, to Illinois. Raised to farm work in "a wild region," he found around him absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. "Of course when I came of age," he recounted in his brief autobiography, "I did not know much."

The Bible he did know and in a way and to an extent that are almost unknown to our times. It left deep marks on both his language and his morality. So too, but to a lesser degree, did Shakespeare, some history, poetry, and, as the years went on, Blackstone, Euclid, and liberal texts on economics. Because his reading was so limited and his mind so excellent, he dug very deeply into what he did study. Moreover, what he did study deserved to be studied. Thus it is not romantic to suggest that, his protestations notwithstanding, in fundamental ways Lincoln's education was fortunate.

Lincoln's mother died when her son was nine years old. No small part of the tenderness of both Lincoln's public and private self can be tied to the young boy's loss. Indeed, the "riddle of mortality," to quote the historian Robert Bruce, became his intimate companion throughout life.

His first exposure to the wider world came when, in 1828 and 1831, Lincoln traveled in a flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Thereafter, for many years, he found central Illinois to be good enough to stay in, first in the pioneer village of New Salem and then in Springfield. He volunteered to fight Indians as a citizen soldier, but saw no action. He started studying law. Later, he made fun of his military experience, removing it as far as possible from a real war experience, speaking of it as consisting of "bloody struggles with musquitos" and "charges upon wild onions." Being elected captain of volunteers did give him his first important indication of his gift for leading men"a success," he wrote in 1859, "which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since."

Early Political Career

After an initial defeat, in 1832, Lincoln was elected two years later to the Illinois House of Representatives. He succeeded to leadership rapidly, earning a local reputation as a follower of Henry Clay and as a capable politician in his own right. For a young man who would rise in life, the Whig party provided a hospitable political home. Indeed, into the 1850s, Lincoln's main political task remained advocating his own brand of an economic vision that called for the development of the United States through the nurturing of banking, commerce, industry, and transportation, and through the movement from a poor sort of farming toward intensive, scientific agriculture. Westward expansion held little appeal for him, westerner though he was, a product of his people's westerning experience.

Like other Whigs, he countered the Jacksonian manifest destiny for America with a call for the internal improvement of the nation. At the heart of his persuasion was an intense and continually developing commitment to the ideal that all men should receive a full, good, and ever-increasing reward for their labors so that they might have the opportunity to rise in life. Lincoln's political emphases would not change until the mid-1850s when, at last, he permitted himself to fully face the fact that slavery subverted the "American dream."

In 1842, after a tumultuous courtship, he married Mary Todd, the lovely, cultured daughter of a Kentucky banker. By then he had transformed himself from the barefoot penniless boy into a lawyer-politician in a frockcoat and, in the eyes of some, into "the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction." The couple had four children, all boys, only one of whom lived to manhood. The family had a satisfying domestic life until the presidency, the war, and the death of a child destroyed a crucial part of their tranquillity. But love never deserted the Lincolns.

In 1847 the couple moved to Washington, D.C. Lincoln served a single term in the United States House of Representatives supporting governmental aid for the economic development of the country and opposing the Mexican War. He represented his constituency well, but he failed to distinguish himself, became frustrated by tensions within the Whig party, and so began to lose interest in politics. Law became ever more attractive to him; it provided a good middle-class living for his family and, quite important to Lincoln, also "a superior opportunity" for "being a good man."

Then the 1850s brought a revolution to American politics, making slavery the issue of the times. Lawyering again faded into the background as Lincoln seized the opportunity to reenter the political arena and reinvigorate the Democratic opposition in Illinois. He left the old Whig party to help form the new Republican movement. He won election once again to the Illinois House of Representatives but resigned before serving to pursue a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1855. Although Lincoln lost a close contest, he improved his standing as a leader for the new politicial alignment and emerged in 1856 as a prominent contender for the Republican party's first vice presidential nomination. Two years later, Lincoln ran for the Senate as the endorsed nominee of the Illinois Republicans against the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. It was the Lincoln-Douglas debates during their senatorial campaign that made Lincoln a nationally known figure and popularized his views.

The language he spoke and the moral convictions he championed were memorable:

The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged.

If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

Free labor has the inspiration of hope, pure slavery has not hope.

At rare moments Lincoln proclaimed the full implication of his views:

I want every man to have a chanceand I believe a black man is entitled to itin which he can better his conditionwhen he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him!

Free men had to oppose slavery because it subverted the American dream in myriad ways but, perhaps most important, because by denying blacks the right to rise, slavery endangered that right for all. Though Lincoln did not call for the political or social equality of black people, the issue he and the Republicans presented to the America of the 1850s was huge enough: " 'Can we, as a nation, continue together permanentlyforever half slave, and half free?' The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution."

Lincoln himself gave one answer when he accepted the nomination for senator: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." But Lincoln and the nation were quite unprepared for the violence that came with the answer. Indeed, to fight the political war against slavery, he turned a blind eye toward the probability of a bloody war that would be the price of freedom. He was a pacific man, and as a mature adult he denounced war and military glory as an "attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of bloodthat serpent's eye, that charms to destroy." Looking at the future he confused prognosis and preference. Then at age fifty-two he found himself the leader of a nation at war with itself.

Election of 1860

Lincoln's election to the presidency gave him anything but a solid mandate to lead. In 1860 the Democratic party split into northern and southern branches. Douglas of Illinois ran on the northern ticket, and, though the only candidate to win substantial numbers of votes in all the states, he carried only Missouri. John C. Breckinridge, later a Confederate general, carried the southern Democratic banner and won all the slave states except a few on the border. Some former Whigs and Know-Nothings formed the Constitutional Union party, nominated John Bell, and carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Republicans' Lincoln took every free state except New Jersey, where he received four of seven electoral votes. His honest rail-splitter image, with its connotation of the right to rise blending into his stand opposing slave labor, was enough to give him the electoral college. There being almost no Republican votes in the southern states, his popular vote (1.9 million) was not quite 40 percent of the total. (He received 180, or 59.41 percent, of the electoral vote.) A shift of 25,000 votes, out of a total of 675,000 in New York, an area with a high concentration of swing voters, would have thrown the election into Congress, where his chances would have been very slim. Thirty-nine thousand voters merely staying away from the polls in four smaller strategic states would have done the same.

The votes were barely counted when, in December 1860, South Carolina declared its secession from the Union. It was followed early in 1861 by all the states of the Deep South: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In February these seven states formed the Confederate States of America and adopted a constitution much like that of the United States. They elected Jefferson Davis president, and Alexander H. Stephens, Lincoln's friend from his first stay in Washington, vice president.

The First Term

In his inaugural address, early in March, the president of the United States tried to be conciliatory without giving ground on the Republican principle of opposition to the further growth of slavery. He deprecated war, but war came when Lincoln refused to give up Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the rebels fired upon it on 12 April. Four more states, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina, seceded quickly to join the Confederacy. Its capital was moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia.

Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three monthshe still did not understand the magnitude of the struggle he was to lead. Nonetheless, following and enlarging the path of strong presidents like George Washington and Andrew Jackson, Lincoln acted with great vigor. He commenced his "reign," as opponents would quickly label it, by refusing to call Congress into session in the face of an unprecedented emergency. He proceeded then to double the size of the army and navy; institute an economic blockade of the South on land, as well as at sea; spend treasury funds without appropriations; and suspend both the writ of habeas corpus (where he saw fit) and the freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Lincoln was going to save the Union and, more important, as he understood it, the principles it stood for.

His vigorous and seemingly arbitrary actions immediately called into question among many of his contemporaries the character of his presidency. Criticism grew as the years went by, for he added to his list of unprecedented policies presidential conscription, presidential reconstruction, and presidential emancipation until "this most abused of presidents," to quote historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, "suffered his worst abuse as the alleged assassin of his country's freedom."

In a famous episode in the spring of 1861, John Merryman of Maryland, a leading secessionist, was arrested while the allegiance of the state to the Union hung in the balance. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus and, when it was ignored by military authorities, called upon Lincoln to do his duty. For good measure, in a written opinion Taney declared the presidential suspension of habeas corpus, under article I, section 2 of the Constitution, as well as military arrests to be unconstitutional.

Lincoln ignored Ex parte Merryman. In doing so, he did less than defy the Court, because the Merryman opinion was solely Taney's. Indeed, the full Court wisely refused to hear a similar case on technical grounds. Over the years Lincoln defended often, in his homely fashion, his stance on civil liberties and their relationship to the Constitution: "Often limb must be amputated to save a life; but life is never given to save a limb." By examining literally thousands of less-publicized cases, historian Mark Neely has shown how Lincoln tried repeatedly to achieve that precarious balance between order and liberty during wartime. Eventually both the Congress and the Court approved the emergency measures. When the war was over, however, Lincoln's good friend David Davis spoke for the Supreme Court in Ex parte Milligan (1866), ruling that military trials of civilians while regular courts were functioning were unconstitutional.

In the Merryman case, symbolic of the issue of civil liberties in general, historians tend to defend both Lincoln and Taney because, on the one hand, the Civil War demanded strong practical action to save the Union and, on the other, the affirmation of the fundamental rights of freemen was equally indispensable. Justice Robert H. Jackson summed up matters felicitously in 1955: "Had Mr. Lincoln scrupulously observed the Taney policy I do not know whether we would have had any liberty, and had the Chief Justice adopted Mr. Lincoln's philosophy as the philosophy of the law, I again do not know whether we would have had any liberty."

Though Lincoln is generally seen as a model of the strong president who stood up to Confederates, Peace Democrats ("Copperheads"), Radical Republicans, and a southern-minded chief justice, it is important to clarify that paradoxically he was also a "Whig in the White House," as historian David Herbert Donald has noted. The Whigs, building on the colonial tradition of enmity toward executive usurpations, took their name from the English foes of large royal powers. In the 1830s the American Whigs united against "King Andrew I" (Jackson), and in time Lincoln accepted this central tenet of his party's ideology.

Accordingly, though a Republican by then, President Lincoln made a sharp distinction between executive and legislative powers. In ordinary matters of government, he rarely interfered with the work of Congress; for example, he used the veto sparingly. In matters of patronage, he deferred to the legislators or cabinet officers. On policy matters, too, he gave much leeway to the members of his cabinet, whom he appointed from among the ablest leaders of his party, men like William H. Seward at the State Department, Salmon P. Chase at the Treasury Department, and Edwin M. Stanton in the War Department. Of course, more than theory had guided Lincoln, and he also saw practical short-term benefits to his stance. But over the long run, Lincoln's adherence to the Whig view substantially weakened the powers of the presidency and paved the way for post-war congressional dominance.

Strong president or weak president, despot or Whigwhich one was the real Lincoln? It might be said that only the Civil War called forth and justified the despot. The war was the supreme emergency of American history, and, presumably, more ordinary times would have produced a much tamer president. The professions, as well as the record, of the Whig in the White House buttress such a conclusion. The professions and record, however, may mislead. It is tempting and almost inevitable to go beyond them

and postulate that Lincoln thrived on the wise but broad use of power that the war had "compelled."

The Civil War

The war started badly for the Union. In the first major battle, at Bull Run on 21 July 1861, the inexperienced army of Irvin McDowell was routed by the equally inexperienced Confederates of P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. The slogan "On to Richmond" was shelved, and Lincoln put George B. McClellan in command. But while the general in chief settled down to training the Army of the Potomac, on the diplomatic front danger threatened.

In foreign policy the chief task before the Lincoln administration was to minimize aid from abroad to the Confederacy, especially from Britain and France. Lincoln left much of the task to Secretary of State Seward, though early in his administration it was necessary for him to take charge directly in some crucial cases. At the height of the Sumter crisis, Seward presented Lincoln with a memorandum that not only indicated the desirability of Seward's assumption of the presidential duty but also proposed to avert civil war by resorting to foreign war. Seward wanted to "seek" explanations from Great Britain and Russia, "demand" explanations from Spain and France, "categorically, at once"because of those nations' supposed violations of the Monroe Doctrine. Presumably war with one or more foreign powers would follow and southerners would join northerners to defend their common country. Though Lincoln had little understanding of diplomacy, his common sense told him to play down the document and give Seward time to calm down. Seward's position was thus saved and he would yet become a great secretary of state.

Indeed, later in 1861, Seward played the pivotal role in defusing the Trent affair. By then Britain had granted "belligerent rights" to the South, but not recognition as an independent nation. The American effort to keep Europe out of the war was succeeding at the diplomatic table, but not on the high seas. In early November, a hotheaded captain of the United States Navy, Charles Wilkes, removed from the British steamer Trent the Confederate emissaries to Britain and France, James M. Mason and John Slidell. As the North, much in need of victories, celebrated, London spoke of war. Then, after a decent interval had passed, Lincoln ordered the release of the southerners. There was to be only one war at a time.

In 1862 and again in 1863 the British and the French pushed mediation attempts that in effect would have meant the recognition of Confederate independence. In the end, the South not only failed to obtain European recognition but was unable to get any truly substantial help. Six raiders were built in British and French shipyards, the most famous of which, the Alabama, caused millions of dollars worth of damage to northern shipping before it was sunk in 1864. Yet northern diplomats, most notably Charles Francis Adams, were competent. Northern grain was important to a Europe that suffered crop failures. Southern cotton in turn was increasingly replaced by the cotton of India and Egypt. The Old World was also beset with uprisings, wars, and threats to the balance of power. By 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation appealing to Europeans with antislavery sentiments, it was Adams, the American minister to the Court of St. James's, who spoke of Anglo-American war unless the British put an end to the aid trickling to the Confederacy. Ultimately, success on the diplomatic front depended on the outcome on the battlefield.

In 1862 a string of Confederate victories in the East dazzled the world. The navy remained the one bright spot for Lincoln. Indeed, on 9 March, after the iron-sheathed wooden Virginia (the rechristened Union Merrimack, salvaged by the Confederates) threatened Washington, putting fear into president, cabinet, and the city, it was stopped by the ironclad Monitor. Naval warfare was being revolutionized, and the Union continued its domination of the seas.

On land the picture was different. The Army of Northern Virginia was led by the finest southern generals, Robert E. Lee (who took command in mid-1862), Thomas ("Stonewall") Jackson, and James E. Longstreet. They faced the generally larger Army of the Potomac, led by a succession of second-rate generals. Under McClellan, this army tried to come back from the Bull Run defeat in an elaborate campaign on the Virginia Peninsula but failed. In the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson seemed to play with his opponents, albeit bloodily. At Bull Run again, in late August, the Union troops, under John Pope, repeated their fiasco of the previous year. When Lee invaded Maryland, McClellan, fully in command once more, stopped him at Antietam (17 September 1862) in the single bloodiest day of the war. This, however, was a far cry from victory, though Lincoln chose to treat it as such and issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in its wake (22 September). The year ended with the Army of the Potomac, now under Ambrose Burnside, suffering a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg (1315 December).

The year 1863 promised more of the same as "Fighting Joe" Hooker, his army outnumbering Lee's more than two to one, was beaten back at Chancellorsville, Virginia, on 14 May. Not until Lee ventured north again to Gettysburg did the tide appear to turn. There, during the first three days of July, in a bitter encounter, the Army of the Potomac under its newest commander, George G. Meade, decisively defeated the Confederates of invincible repute. Thereafter to the end of 1863 and beyond, the Union side in the East seemed to be satisfied to rest on its Gettysburg laurels, Lincoln's passionate efforts to the contrary notwithstanding.

In the West, by contrast, the finest northern generals, the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George H. Thomas, faced weak Confederate generals. Though here, too, the war had its shifting tides, on the whole federal arms proved victorious. In February 1862, Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson with substantial naval support, only to be stopped at Shiloh, Tennessee, in a very bloody draw (67 April). On 1 May the Union navy took New Orleans, and five days later the Mississippi River fleet took Memphis. Indeed, throughout the war the Union navy was largely successful. A high point of the western campaigns, as well as of army-navy cooperation, came with the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and its surrender to Grant on 4 July 1863, the day after the battle of Gettysburg. "The signs look better," Lincoln wrote in a public letter in August. "Peace does not appear so distant as it did."

In its broadest terms, the goal of the war had always been clear to the president (though in its many significant details, change was continuous). In his war message in 1861 he had already explained:

This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of mento lift artificial weights from all shouldersto clear the paths of laudable pursuit for allto afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.

In the fall of 1863, Lincoln went to the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to help dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery. He gave a two-minute address there to America, the world, and to history:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on 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 dedicatewe can not consecratewe can not hallowthis 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 usthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotionthat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vainthat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln understood that one of his chief tasks as president was to keep alive the northern will to fight. The challenge of the task was all the greater because the North had the wherewithal to win the war. Lincoln believed not only that right was on the side of the Union but knew that might was too. Might certainly could be more readily measured.

In his war message in 1861, Lincoln had pointed to the material superiority of the North. More than three years later, in his last annual message, he would emphasize that the North was actually "gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely.. . . The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible." The North had to bring this superiority to bear on the battlefield. Though Lincoln's conduct of the war had many facetshe even considered taking command in the fieldhis principal military duty was to rally the people.

At the start of the war the North had perhaps 22 million people against the South's 5 million to 6 million whites and 3.5 million blacks. The North's railroad mileage was twice that of the South's; the cash value of its farms two and a half times greater; and the cash value of its manufactured products about ten times greater. More than 25 percent of the population of the free states was urbanized, as against 10 percent of the slave states. Forty percent of the Union population was engaged in agriculture, compared to 84 percent of the Confederate population. The value of northern farmland was two and a half times the value of land in the slave states, and its agriculture was much more mechanized. Twice as many of the free states' school-age children attended schoolnot counting the slave population of the South, which was not only unschooled but almost wholly illiterate.

Not surprisingly for one who spent the bulk of his public career in Illinois dealing with matters economic, Lincoln's military direction from the White House always carried a large economic ingredient. One of his earliest moves of the war had been the establishment of the blockade of the southern ports, which, by the close of the war, grew to be deadly effective. He insisted that his military make good use of the railroads. He advocated, from late 1862, the use of black troops, in part because the step not only added to northern military strength but also because it weakened southern economic strength. He emphasized the significance of the Mississippi Valley, new weapons, and even the use of reconnaissance balloons.

More subtle links also existed between Lincoln's progressive economic persuasion and his innovative strategic notions, which some historians speak of as his "military genius." Thus, the man who in the 1840s demanded from Congress a centralized and coordinated plan of national improvements in the 1860s made like demands upon his generals for centralization of authority and coordination of plans. And so the Union's unified command system and its central, overall plan of strategy were born. Similarly, Lincoln's decisive championship of cordon offense (advancing on the enemy on every front, thus pitting all the northern resources against all the southern ones) stemmed primarily from his conviction that economic might, more than anything else except morale, would determine the outcome of the war. This oft-attested conviction was fundamental to his recognition that the objective of the Union forces should be not the conquest of territories but the destruction of opposing armies, the destruction of "the most important branch of . . . resources"men.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Lincoln's military policy was the drastic rate at which federal commanders were replaced. In the East, for example, in a period of two years he removed the general in charge seven times. He was criticized harshly then, and since, for failing to support his commanders in defeat. Yet Lincoln's actions reflected a core aspect of his outlook, which under the pressure of war became extreme: he conducted a ruthless campaign of pushing the successful to the fore. His view that in the Civil War one side stood for the "open field" for all, while the other side was against it, thus received more than symbolic corroboration. In the Confederacy the men who held the chief commands early in the war would, with the exception of those who had been killed, be there at war's end. In contrast, there would not be a single general commanding a main army in the Union service of 1865 who had held high command at the beginning of the struggle. In this respect, Lincoln's American dream had triumphed on the battlefield too.

If the president's outlook ever wavered, the booming prosperity of the wartime North helped strengthen it. Government purchases for military needs stimulated various sectors of industry and much of farming. Expanding industries included transportation, iron and steel, woolen clothing, shoes, munitions, and coal. Farmers increased production greatly. Even though one-third of farm-workers went into the army, exports of wheat, corn, pork, and beef to Europe doubled. Farms and factories made the first widespread use of laborsaving machines such as the reaper and the sewing machine. The war forced the economy into an early form of mass production, and the nation expanded as settlers moved westward.

Though war brought prosperity to the North, financing the war was a most difficult undertaking. Taxes and money borrowed from the people in the form of war bonds became the major sources of northern finance, though paper money and consequent inflation played their part too.

The laboring people's wages did not keep up with inflation through much of the war, and there were strikes. Predictably, Lincoln took the side of the laborers. Almost invariably strikers had "just cause" for their action, he explained, and even as employers were denouncing the supposed illegal nature of unions, Lincoln received union members in the White House. Repeatedly he warned against "the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above labor." When he sent his ideas to Congress, warning that if working people surrendered their political power "it would be used to close the door of advancement" against them, it grew painfully clear that in these matters the president was not in step with much of the leadership of his country. The House of Representatives, laying the groundwork not only for the modern American economy but also for the abuses of the Gilded Age, snubbed the president's message. Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens explained the tabling of Lincoln's message by saying that there was "no appropriate committee on metaphysics in the House." Copperhead Clement Vallandigham agreed: "I presume it will go to the Committee of Unfinished Business." And as one historian added, "Unfinished business it remained for the rest of the century."

Some of the victorious troops fresh from Gettysburg were sent to New York City to put down anti-draft riots. Conscription had been employed first in 1862, and more freely in 1863, to stimulate volunteering for the Union army (the same was the case in the Confederacy), and in New York resistance degenerated into the worst riot of American history up to that time. For Lincoln the "most notable feature" of the riots was "the hanging of some working people by other working people." "It should never be so," he stated. "The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds." The words might have come from one of his European admirers, Karl Marx, indicating the idea's international currency, though Lincoln had something quite American in mind. The workingmen hanged were blacks. The riots of 1863 may have been less a protest against the draft, or class distinctions, than against Lincoln's policy toward black people.

Lincoln had always been egalitarian to the bone and opposed to slavery. As a young politician, he had found the courage to denounce slavery in the Illinois House of Representatives. By the 1850s his sentiments had become the centerpiece of his politics, but as president, his job was to reforge a nation the southern part of which was slave owning. He had to do this by rallying the northern, mostly free part of the nation, which included not only the crucial border states that saw slavery as sacred but also huge numbers of negrophobes in such places as the northwestern heartland of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois and the city of New York.

Accordingly, the president moved with great caution toward emancipation, starting in late 1861. When, about the same time, his impetuous commander of the western department, John Charles Frémont, declared the slaves of the Missouri rebels summarily freed, Lincoln said no. He requested the repeal of the order, and when he failed to obtain compliance, he fired the general. In April and May of 1862 when General David Hunter issued similar proclamations of emancipation in the southern department the president once again countermanded the orders. Over the years he would often state his determination "not to go forward fast enough to wreck the country's cause."

Exquisite timing and knowing the limits of the possible were key elements in Lincoln's success as a leader. At first, he hoped to bring the great change to America as gently "as the dews of heaven." His desire for gradualism was supplemented with promises of compensation, for the slave owners stood to lose billions of dollars worth of "property." He hoped thus to induce voluntary action on the part of individual states. And he knew, too, that the slaves would need substantial help to enjoy their newfound freedom. Into his hopes Lincoln put his whole "soul," to borrow the word used independently by two of his confidants, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Supreme Court Justice David Davis. Toward the end of 1862, too late, he still gave beautiful and oft-quoted expression to these hopes:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.. . . As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.. . . Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.. . . In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.

He had worked with representatives of border slave states, with congressmen, with the general public, but the fact was that the gentle road to drastic change, ever difficult, in a time of civil war and revolution was quite unrealistic. It was bound to fail.

Congress moved ahead, too, with the two separate Confiscation Acts that authorized seizing the private property of Confederate military personnel and civilians. But it was the White House that led the way to African-American freedom. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided in favor of immediate abolition of slavery. From then on, he concentrated formidable political powers on bringing as much of the country behind this revolutionary policy as possible.

In August an attack on him by the influential editor of the New York Tribune helped his cause. In "The Prayer of Twenty Million," Horace Greeley accused the president of moving too slowly, deferring too much "to Rebel Slavery." Lincoln replied with a thunderous no and an oath of allegiance to the Union:

If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Lincoln had thus seemingly rebuffed the abolitionist left, though in fact he was about to take their side. His intended audience was that large conservative segment of the electorate that opposed the freeing of the slavessome at any cost, except the cost of the Union. The Union was the common cause on which nearly all northerners could agree, and there Lincoln took his stand. When he would make his decision for emancipation public, he would thus do so on conservative grounds.

A second way to make emancipation acceptable to a reluctant northern public was through the advocacy of black colonization outside the United States, most probably in Central America or Africa. Many northerners feared that the end of slavery in the South would inundate the North with blacks. They would accept emancipation only if it were accompanied by the removal of blacks from America. It was therefore good politics for the president to advocate colonization. He managed to follow this political road in part because he himself still had fears about how successfully the two races could break out of their old relationship. Though at some level of consciousness Lincoln understood the impossibility of the colonization idea, for a time in late 1862, he made much of the policy.

Thus, on the surface it was an uncomplicated Unionist and colonizationist who issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September 1862after Lee's armies were repelled in the battle of Antietam. But in a deeper sense Lincoln was more of an emancipator than a Unionist. And even as he issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, freeing the slaves in the areas still in rebellion, he forgot, almost with indecent haste, about colonization. He had spent none of the paltry sum Congress had appropriated for the purpose. Instead, he focused increasing attention on reconstructing a nation of blacks and whites.

Emancipation itself was a central step in reconstructing the United States. The war had begun with the announced goal of restoring the Union as it was in 1860. In 1861, surely by 1862, the goal had shifted toward Reconstruction, the reshaping of the Union without slavery. As the war continued and then veered toward a close, a further shift occurred, expanding the goal of the struggle to include union, emancipation, and movement toward civil rights for the freedman. The interplays between the North and the South, between factions in both, and between Congress and the executive in Washington were complex, but the central issue remained the role of African Americans in American society. Lincoln moved behind a radical vanguard but ahead of northern opinion, not to mention white American opinion in general and at times ahead of the consensus of his Republican party as well. The question to him was not " 'Can any of us imagine better?' but 'Can we all do better?' " With this clear, pragmatic motto before him, he led Americans toward acceptance of ever greater black freedom.

The president consistently refused to recognize the validity of secession ordinances and, in legal terms, looked upon the Union as an unbroken and unbreakable unit. The war constituted a set of problems that he, as commander in chief, had to deal with, and Reconstruction measures fell into this category of problems. At the same time, he was ready to allow Congress a substantial and constitutionally legitimate role in the Reconstruction process.

In the middle of 1863, as parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and all of Tennessee came under the control of federal arms, Lincoln brought into being local military governments. Their chief task was to rally southern Unionists, subdue and keep away rebels and their sympathizers, and bring about a new day for blacks.

At the end of 1863 the president proposed his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. It included the "10 Percent Plan"well received in Congresswhich called for the formation of civilian governments when one-tenth of the voting population of 1860 took the oath of allegiance to the United States. Emancipation was not to be open for discussion in these states. Many citizens were proscribed from participation in the political process either as voters or officeholders: individuals who had held diplomatic or civil posts in the Confederacy, Confederate officers above the rank of colonel, those who had resigned from the armed forces of the United States or from any branches of the government, and those who had mistreated federal prisoners of war. His proposal notwithstanding, Lincoln insisted that flexibility should be the key to Reconstruction and that different plans might be needed in different times and places.

Louisiana became Lincoln's test case. Initially he had overestimated southern unionism there, as elsewhere in the South. When satisfactory Reconstruction failed to materialize, he increasingly involved himself in personally directing the Louisiana experiment. His style combined daring, strength, and coercion with caution, conciliation, and ambiguity. It demanded movement, but only step by step, and entailed the use of patronage, the military, and other tools of presidential power. It included a precise, lawyerly command of the language, a unique eloquence, and a genius for ambiguity. This last quality, though needed, helped confuse many Radicals in Congress (and later historians as well).

The president created a government, under General Nathaniel P. Banks, that struck down slavery, provided for public schools for blacks and whites, and empowered the state legislature to enfranchise blacks. As white Louisiana Unionists faced the hostile pro-Confederate majority, Lincoln labored with finesse to keep the former unitedhence, much of his ambiguity. Yet, as early as August 1863, Lincoln was ready to have the color line on the franchise breached. In March 1864 he wrote his famous letter to Governor Michael Hahn calling for voting rights for "very intelligent" blacks and black veterans because "they could probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom." Rather than being a mere suggestion for "private consideration," this was a "directive," as historian LaWanda Cox has shown, and was understood as such by Louisiana leaders. In short, Lincoln led the Unionists toward black suffrage while pretending to stay in the background.

Ironically, the Radicals in Washington tried to strike down the Louisiana free-state movement in the name of black suffrage and Lincoln's abuse of military power. The conflict that then developed between the executive and the legislature sometimes overshadowed the cooperation between the two, not merely in various areas of governmental work but specifically on Reconstruction. Lincoln had, after all, worked well with Congress to abolish slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia; to admit West Virginia, split off from Virginia, as a new free state; and to smooth out disagreements over the 1862 Confiscation Act. And they would later work together in establishing the Freedmen's Bureau to help care for the freed slaves and, most momentously, in pushing through Congress the Thirteenth Amendment, thereby abolishing slavery under the Constitution.

Nonetheless, early in 1864, Lincoln provoked a split with the Radicals. Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland and Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio produced a somewhat muddled bill in favor of congressional Reconstruction. Though the bill did not call for black suffrage, it had the aura of Radicalism about it. Lincoln pocket vetoed the billthe only important veto of his presidencymuch less because of the larger issues of Reconstruction than because of the upcoming presidential election. While the Wade-Davis bill had wound its way through Congress, the president had remained silent. Then, to the surprise of many, including his friends in Congress, he declined to sign the measure. Probably many of his friends would have refused to support the Wade-Davis bill if they had known his position. As correspondent Noah Brooks summed it up in Washington in Lincoln's Time (1895), it was only when the executive acted that "for the first time men who had not seriously opposed the passage of the . . . bill began to wish that it had never gone to the President."

It seems that Lincoln wanted the opportunity to veto the bill and draw a sharp line between himself and the Radicals. A few days earlier, equally surprisingly but to the same effect, he accepted the resignation of Chase, the resident Radical of the cabinet. But then, elections are usually won at the center, and Lincoln did win. Soon after he was quite ready to accept more than the Wade-Davis policy for Reconstruction and appoint Chase chief justice of the United States.

Although the Wade-Davis veto soured Lincoln's relations with an important element of his party, its wider political benefits were much needed. After the military successes of 1863, above all at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the year 1864 brought reversals, with the end of the war appearing no closer than before. In the western theater Nathaniel Banks led an expedition into the Red River region of Texas and into dismal failure. Sherman, who had succeeded Grant in the western command that spring, commenced to move from Chattanooga against Atlanta, but the able General Joseph Johnston managed to slow his progress significantly. In the East, progress seemed even slower and was extremely costly. Grant, recently appointed general in chief by Lincoln, promptly took up headquarters with the Army of the Potomac to lead it in person. In the Wilderness region of Virginia (57 May), around Spotsylvania Courthouse (821 May), and at Cold Harbor (3 June), the new general in chief suffered such heavy casualties that some in the North called him "Butcher Grant."

The North could celebrate the death of J. E. B. Stuart, if the death of a gallant foe is a suitable occasion for celebration. But that the Confederates remained very much alive was quickly demonstrated when Jubal Early moved up the Shenandoah Valley toward Washington. At the very time the North had expected the fall of Richmond, Washington was being threatened instead (11 July). Lincoln, as well as assorted cooks and clerks quickly pressed into defensive service, came under fire. To top it all, the Union soldiers, bogged down to a siege at Petersburg, tunneled under the Confederate lines and exploded a section thereof with a mine only to fail in exploiting the advantage. The fiasco was made spectacular by its very novelty.

The president at times despaired of reelection. His own party put up challengers from its Radical wing, first Chase and then Frémont, but Lincoln parried them with relative ease. His aim was to attract the center of the electorate, which would decide the election. The Democratsthemselves divided into various factions, notably for and against warmoved in the same direction and nominated a war Democrat, General George McClellan, as Lincoln's opponent. However, to the Republicans' advantage, the Democrats did so on a peace platform.

The president and his party used their power and considerable political skills to great advantage. They changed the party name from Republican to Union to enlarge its appeal. The vice presidential nomination was taken from the colorless incumbent, Hannibal Hamlin, and given to a loud southern Unionist, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a "self-made man" like Lincoln. Nevada was rushed into the Union to gain additional Republican votes. Also, large efforts were made to garner the military vote.

All the same, the president knew that ultimately it was upon the fortunes of war that all else depended and the northern forces began to prevail late in 1864. In August, Tennessee-born Admiral David Farragut, famous for his victory at New Orleans and his pithy "Damn the torpedoesfull speed ahead," won the battle of Mobile Bay; in September, Sherman took Atlanta, and Sheridan purged the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

In November, Lincoln won reelection with 2.2 million votes, giving him a convincing majority of 400,000. (The electoral vote was 21221.) McClellan carried only Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. The war was going to be finished. There were minor irregularities in the election but they were overshadowed, as Lincoln understood, by the stupendous fact that in the midst of a great civil war, elections were held at all. "It shows," he told a group of serenaders, "how sound, and how strong we still are." Lincoln's understanding of history was as fine as was his leadership.

Yet the war was taking its toll on him. The vigorous middle-aged man who had taken office in 1861 had become the almost old man who appears in his last photograph. Mary Todd, his lovely bride, had grown old too, and after the loss of their twelve-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, she began to lose her grip on reality. Lincoln's heart grew heavy. He said there was a tired spot inside him that nothing could touch. Around him there were death and devastation. The casualties of the warboth North and Southcontinued to mount, by the end reaching 1.5 million men, including about 620,000 deadthis in a nation of 31.5 million.

Reelected to the presidency, Lincoln said, "I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one." He added soon after, "So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man's bosom."

On 15 November, Sherman left Atlanta, beginning the march to the sea. From Atlanta east, the troops lived off the country and destroyed what they could not take. Sherman believed that the Confederacy should not be allowed to live from the southern harvest or have a happy, secure backcountry. Savannah fell before Christmas. Lincoln frankly admitted that he had doubts about Sherman's march and gave all the credit for success to the general. In the new year, Sherman started his march northward through the Carolinas. The war fought there was a newer and uglier kind of war. Columbia, South Carolina, went up in flamesat whose hands, historians still debate.

Sheridan had followed like tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. He seemed ready to use any means to prevent the valley from provisioning Lee's armies or any other army that might try to attack Washington via that route. Bushwhacking southern guerrillas ensured the campaign's deterioration into scorched-earth tactics. The rich, beautiful Shenandoah Valley fell victim to total war. It was a blessing when, at last, Grant broke the grip of Lee, who on 2 April abandoned Richmond. Seven days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Plans for Reconstruction

Lincoln was intent on seeing his Louisiana experiment through but also hoped to work with the Radicals. He had played a crucial role in the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment by a somewhat reluctant House of Representatives. In his last public address, on 11 April, before the White House, he pleaded for saving the Louisiana government that congressional Radicals opposed: "Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it."

What the fowl was to look like he indicated by expressing his personal preference for giving the franchise to blacks who were educated, or propertied, or were Union veterans. How far he was to go beyond that, or with what speed, we do not know, but his course would have depended in no small part on what he judged to be attainable. The direction he took was clear, and though he knew each state to be unique, in his last address he also explained that "what has been said of Louisiana will apply to other states."

Lincoln knew and prized the achievement of black soldiers against heavy odds, which he could not always readily lighten. As early as 1863, he had spoken glowingly of the black man who "with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, . . . helped mankind" to the great consummation of freedom. Blacks had fought in more than 190 battles, and about 68,000 black soldiers and sailors had been killed or wounded. Twenty-one blacks won the Congressional Medal of Honor. A black regiment was the first to march into Richmond when the Confederate capital fell, and Lincoln toured the city escorted by black cavalry. No one could misunderstand the significance of his escort. For the postwar era Lincoln was determined to bring both political and economic advancement to blacks. His commitment to black freedom fit into a larger commitment to a democratic, capitalist America. And so his postwar response to black needs would have also depended in no small part on his response to the coming Gilded Age.

Reconstruction for Lincoln meant more than providing a place for blacks in "a new birth of freedom," central though that issue was. He was also concerned with southern whites, even the former slaveholder, and as late as 1865, he gave serious attention to compensating slaveholders. During the war years his numerous peace feelers and reconstruction schemes included strong appeals to the economic interests of the Confederates. He assumed, somewhat naively for a time of bitter war, that materialist enticements could seduce the South into peace. This assumption largely explains the absurdly vast amount of time he devoted to the problems of trading with the Confederacy (the corruption it bred notwithstanding), especially in cotton. The same was true of his secret feelers about the federal takeover of the Confederate war debt (obliquely attacked in the Wade-Davis Manifesto), his persistent offers for large-scale compensation for slaves, his lack of enthusiasm for congressional laws of confiscation, and perhaps even the unrealistic presidential request that the Pacific Railroad be built on the five-foot gauge used primarily in the South.

After the war ended, such economic incentives were likely to have more substantial effects. The blueprint that Congress created during the war for a modern nation was also a blueprint for the new, reconstructed America. Lincoln not only tried to help set the tone for itthough unsuccessfully in the field of labor relationsbut in crucial instances he made vital contributions to the revolution that changed the government's role in the American economy. He Whiggishly stayed in the background as a rule, letting Congress shape legislation, but when he was needed, as in the case of the establishment of the national banking system and of the Department of Agriculture, he brought the full weight of the presidency to bear. He also encouraged movement toward graduated income taxes (though such taxes were later declared unconstitutional); uniform paper currency (the greenbacks); higher tariff protection for American industry; internal improvements, notably the Pacific Railroad; immigration; the Land Grant College (or Morrill) Act (1862); and the Homestead Act (1862), which provided free homesteads of 160 acres for those who would work the land in the West for five years. The net result, as the president reported while calling for the support of immigration, was that the nation "was beginning a new life."

Nowhere would this new life be more beneficial than in the war-ravaged South. There, Lincoln knew, more than in the rest of the country, the interests of blacks and whites were intertwined, and he had come to nurture a faith that the two races would learn to cooperate. Emancipation, Lincoln believed, did not merely liberate the blacks but also the whites. It made the American dream also a southern dream, with a resultant prosperity for all. In the midst of the hatreds of war, he took pleasure, in private, in creating a "word painting of what the South would be when the war was over, slavery destroyed, and she had an opportunity to develop her resources." Long after one of Lincoln's treasury officials had heard him dream thus, the official found himself listening to a new breed of southerner advocating economic development and a "New South." The official experienced a flash of memory that came with "the vividness of an electric light," as he "recognized the word-picture of Mr. Lincoln.. . ."

The war had been won, the Union saved. But the Union to Lincoln had not been an end but a means. It had to be upheld, as he had explained in 1861, as it held "that thing for which the Union itself was made." The Union was a ship, and its cargo "the prosperity and the liberties of the people. . . . So long as the ship can be saved, with the cargo, it should never be abandoned."

The idea of a Union is essentially national; that of democracy, the American Dream, the right to rise in the world, is universal. One historical view prizes the Civil War as a "war for nationality" and makes Lincoln into the "Great Nationalist" of the modern historians, a man who had a religious faith in the Union. Another view cherishes him as an American Moses or Christ, one who spoke to mankind.

The first view denies the uniqueness of the United States and sees Lincoln as a New World counterpart of those Europeans whose highest goal was the building of a nationalmost as an end in itself. In contrast, Lincoln's dream helped lead America to the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In March 1865, at his second inaugural, Lincoln delivered another speech that might be described as one of the finest in the English language. He again looked ahead:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.. . .

With malice toward none, with charity for all, . . . let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Six weeks later, on the night of 14 April 1865, Good Friday, the president was shot while attending a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington. He died nine hours later. He thus did not live to see how difficult it would be to create a "new life," a "new birth of freedom," in a new America.


David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York, 1995), is by far the finest biography. However, with the book's focus on the pragmatic politician that Lincoln was, his ideas and moral convictions fade. Some of the glory that was Lincoln is missing. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, 6 vols. (New York, 19261939), is the long-beloved popular biography by a poet of note. William H. Herndon, Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. by Paul M. Angle (Greenwich, Conn., 1961), is the indispensable life, based on the research of Lincoln's law partner, Herndon, and ghostwritten by Jesse W. Weik. Earl Schenck Miers et al., eds., Lincoln Day by Day: A Chronology, 18091865 (Washington, D.C., 1960; rev. ed., Dayton, Ohio, 1991), an important reference work and the product of a generation of research by a group of scholars, traces Lincoln's daily activities through his entire life. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), is the best brief portrait. Roy P. Basler, Marion Dolores Pratt, and Lloyd A. Dunlap, eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 19531955); Roy P. Basler, ed., Supplement, 18321865 (Westport, Conn., 1974); and Roy P. Basler and Christian O. Basler, eds., Second Supplement, 18481865 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1990), are standard editions of Lincoln's written and spoken words. See also Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, eds. and comps., Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford, Calif., 1996).

Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York, 1958), consists of judicious essays on some of the controversial subjects of Lincoln's life and career. Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York, 1982), is a useful psychobiography. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana, Ill., 1994), focuses on valuable and rarely used sources. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York, 1982), is the best all-around reference work on Lincoln and associated subjects.

Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford, Calif., 1962), is a perceptive analysis of Lincoln's public career in the 1850s. Philip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence, Kans., 1994), is an impressive synthesis. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Urbana, Ill., 1994), is an interpretation of Lincoln through the examination of his economic persuasion. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York, 1991), provides a fine summary of the president's approach to constitutional issues. La-Wanda Cox, Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership (Columbia, S.C., 1981), is the best analysis of the subject.

Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Lincoln, the War President: The Gettysburg Lectures (New York, 1992), is a collection of essays by leading historians on Lincoln's approach to the war. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York, 1992), is a provocative discussion of Lincoln's most famous speech. William B. Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (Urbana, Ill., 1983), is the best historiographical study of the Lincoln assassination.

Harold Holzer, Gabor S. Boritt, and Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print (New York, 1984), is the only account of the shaping of Lincoln's image through etchings and lithographs, 18601865. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography (New York, 1992), is the best pictorial history. James Mellon, ed., The Face of Lincoln (New York, 1979), is the finest work on Lincoln photographs. Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York, 1994), goes beyond historiography to provide a readable appraisal of Lincoln's role in American culture over the past century and more.

The two finest collections of Lincoln manuscripts are available on microfilm from the Library of Congress: Abraham Lincoln Papers, 97 reels; Herndon-Weik Papers, 15 reels. In addition, a major documentary project promises much new insight into Lincoln's career. The Lincoln Legal Papers, directed by Cullom B. Davis in Springfield, Illinois, will be published in upcoming years on CD-ROM.

Recent works include Lerone Bennett, Jr., Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (Chicago, 2000); Gabor Boritt, ed., The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon (New York, 2001); George P. Fletcher, Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy (New York, 2001); William Lee Miller, Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, 2002); Ronald C. White, Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York, 2002); and Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York, 2001).

Lincoln, Abraham

views updated Jun 08 2018

Lincoln, Abraham

16th president, 1861–1865

Born: February 12, 1809

Died: April 15, 1865

Vice Presidents: Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson

First Lady: Mary Todd Lincoln

Children: Robert, Edward, William, Thomas

Abraham Lincoln, the man who held the Union together during the darkest days of the Civil War, was born in Kentucky and moved to Indiana as a young boy. He became the 16th president of the United States, despite having very little political experience. Growing up, Lincoln received less than one year of formal schooling, and as a young man worked as a shopkeeper, handyman, surveyor, and postmaster. Lincoln was elected to the Illinois state legislature and began the study and practice of law while in office. He was a congressional representative from Illinois in the 1840s and ran for the Senate unsuccessfully in 1858. He was nominated as a presidential candidate in 1860, largely because of his eloquent speeches against the spread of slavery in new territories. Shortly after Lincoln was elected in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Other states soon followed. On the day of his inauguration, the country was on the verge of the Civil War.

  • Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated.
  • Lincoln was the tallest president.
  • Lincoln and his wife, Mary, held seances in the White House.
  • Lincoln received a patent on device he invented to lift barges in shallow water.

During his presidency, Lincoln helped to build the Republican Party into a strong national party. In 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves within the Confederacy. Shortly before his second inauguration, Lincoln formed the Freedmen's Bureau to assist freed slaves in the South.

When Lincoln Was in Office

Telegraph lines linked New York City and San Francisco, California.
The Homestead Act offered settlers 160 acres each of free land.
The Morrill Act gave land to states on which to build colleges.
The Battle of Antietam became the bloodiest day in American military history.
West Virginia became a state.
Congress established free mail service between cities.
The United States instituted a military draft, leading to four days of riots in New York City.
White settlers in Colorado killed more than 100 Indians, most of them women, children, and the elderly, in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, when the war had turned in the Union's favor. A little more than a month after his second inauguration, the Civil War ended. A week later, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth, an actor. The closing words of Lincoln's second inaugural address are inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On the other wall are the words of the Gettysburg Address.

On Lincoln's First Inauguration Day

Abraham Lincoln, the man who took office on March 4, 1861, has been described as "an American original." The eloquence of his language alone sets him apart from his predecessors. Ironically, the man who freed the slaves declares early in his first address that he has no intention of prohibiting slavery in the South.

Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

In Washington, D.C., Monday, March 4, 1861

Fellow-Citizens of the United States:

IN compliance with a custom as old as the Government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly and to take in your presence the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States to be taken by the President "before he enters on the execution of this office."

I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that—I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. 1

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

I now reiterate these sentiments, and in doing so I only press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible that the property, peace, and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming Administration. I add, too, that all the protection which, consistently with the Constitution and the laws, can be given will be cheerfully given to all the States when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause—as cheerfully to one section as to another.

There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:

No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution—to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause "shall be delivered up" their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?

There is some difference of opinion whether this clause should be enforced by national or by State authority, but surely that difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which authority it is done. And should anyone in any case be content that his oath shall go unkept on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it shall be kept?

Again: In any law upon this subject ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution which guarantees that "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States"?

I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypercritical rules; and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much safer for all, both in official and private stations, to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed than to violate any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.

It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our National Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered the executive branch of the Government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak—but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union ;2 that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the Government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to forego for the time the uses of such offices.

The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union. So far as possible the people everywhere shall have that sense of perfect security which is most favorable to calm thought and reflection. The course here indicated will be followed unless current events and experience shall show a modification or change to be proper, and in every case and exigency my best discretion will be exercised, according to circumstances actually existing and with a view and a hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections.

That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events and are glad of any pretext to do it I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak?

Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes, would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it? Will you hazard so desperate a step while there is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence? Will you, while the certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones you fly from, will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?

All profess to be content in the Union if all constitutional rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right plainly written in the Constitution has been denied? I think not. Happily, the human mind is so constituted that no party can reach to the audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied. If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by affirmations and negations, guaranties and prohibitions, in the Constitution that controversies never arise concerning them. But no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can anticipate nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or by State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. May Congress prohibit slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.

From questions of this class spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy a year or two hence arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it? 3 All who cherish disunion sentiments are now being educated to the exact temper of doing this.

Is there such perfect identity of interests among the States to compose a new union as to produce harmony only and prevent renewed secession?

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty from which they may not shrink to decide cases properly brought before them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes.

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This, I think, can not be perfectly cured, and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction in one section, while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all by the other.

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I can not be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic citizens are desirous of having the National Constitution amended. While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have referred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this if also they choose, but the Executive as such has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present Government as it came to his hands and to transmit it unimpaired by him to his successor.

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.

By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new Administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 4

Quotes to Note

  1. "I have no purpose..." Surprisingly, Lincoln, who was elected on an antislavery platform, tries to assure Southern states that he will not take steps to abolish slavery.
  2. "no State upon its own..." Lincoln says that any state that secedes from the Union is violating the laws of the nation.
  3. "why may not any portion..." Lincoln points out that the Confederacy may itself face secession. In fact, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, faced constant disagreement from the representatives of Confederate states that hampered him in effectively governing.
  4. "The mystic chords of memory..." In one of his most beautifully written passages, Lincoln asks Americans to remember the unique nature of the United States and to preserve its heritage.

On Lincoln's Second Inauguration Day

By the time Lincoln took his second oath of office, more than 600,000 Americans had died in the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Union forces were near victory, and much of the discussion among lawmakers was how the defeated Southerners would be treated. Lincoln's final, immortal words offer his beliefs about reuniting the war-torn nation.

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

In Washington, D.C., Saturday, March 4, 1865


AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war-seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. 1

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. 2 The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword 3, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 4

Quotes to Note

  1. "Both parties deprecated war..." Lincoln says that neither side wanted war, but that it became unavoidable because of the difference in beliefs about the nature of the Union.
  2. "It may seem strange..." Lincoln subtly criticizes Southern slaveholders for their belief in the right to benefit from the "sweat" of others—that is, slaves.
  3. "Yet, if God wills that it continue..." Lincoln says that although the end of the war seems near, if the wrongs of slavery require greater punishment then so be it. This statement differs greatly from his statements about slavery in his first Inaugural Address.
  4. "With malice toward none..." Lincoln's views on what should happen after the war were not reflected by many in his own party. The so-called Radical Republicans believed in severe punishment of the states that had seceded.

Abraham Lincoln

views updated Jun 08 2018

Abraham Lincoln

Born February 12, 1809
Hodgenville, Kentucky
Died April 15, 1865
Washington, D.C.

Sixteenth president of the United States

Abraham Lincoln is widely viewed as the greatest president in American history. He presided over the nation during one of its most difficult trials—the Civil War. Lincoln rose from humble beginnings in Kentucky to become a successful lawyer and state legislator in Illinois. In 1858, his growing concern over the expansion of slavery convinced him to join the antislavery Republican political party and oppose Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln lost the election, but the spirited debates between the two candidates propelled him to national attention. In 1860, he became the sixteenth president of the United States.

But Lincoln's election convinced the slaveholding states of the Southern United States to secede (withdraw) from the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Lincoln considered this act an illegal rebellion against the national government, and the two sides soon went to war. During the war years, Lincoln struggled with incompetent generals and faced criticism over his policies. Yet his guidance and determination helped bring victory to the Union and freedom to millions of black Americans.

Born poor in Kentucky

Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in the slave state of Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He was the second child born to Thomas Lincoln, a hard-working carpenter and farmer, and his wife Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Although his parents' families had owned slaves in the past, the Lincolns came to oppose slavery. In fact, the Lincoln family joined an antislavery branch of the Baptist Church when Abraham was a boy.

Slavery had been practiced in North America since the 1600s, when black people were first taken from Africa and brought to the continent to serve as white people's slaves. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.

Lincoln mostly educated himself. His parents could not read or write, and they needed him and his older sister Sarah to help with the farm chores every day. As a result, it was rare when the children had time to attend school. Lincoln only went to school for a total of one year throughout his entire childhood. But he still managed to learn to read. He especially enjoyed reading poetry, because he liked the skillful ways poets put words together. He also became fascinated with a popular book called Life of George Washington by Mason Locke. This may have been the earliest indication of his future interest in politics.

In 1816, the Lincolns moved to the neighboring free state of Indiana. Sadly, Nancy Lincoln died in an epidemic two years later. In 1819, Thomas Lincoln married Sarah ("Sally") Bush Johnston, a widow with three young children. Young Abraham became very attached to his new stepmother. The Lincolns struggled financially during this time, so as a teenager Abraham worked at a series of odd jobs to help out. At nineteen, Lincoln took a flatboat loaded with produce down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans along with another young man. During his time in the Deep South, he saw slaves in chains being sold at auction. The scene haunted him for many years and helped convince him that slavery was wrong. "The Negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trotline [a strong fishing line]," he recalled. "In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual [permanent] slavery."

Becomes a successful lawyer and politician

By the time Lincoln reached his twenties, he had become interested in the law. He started watching trials at the local courthouse, studying law books, and reading the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in order to understand the American justice system. When he was twenty-two, Lincoln left home and moved to New Salem, Illinois. As a clerk at the general store there, he met educated men who encouraged his interest in the law and politics. He practiced writing and public speaking, and joined a debating society. Within a year, he decided to run for the state legislature. "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition," he said of his decision. "Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed [regarded] of my fellow men, by rendering [making] myself worthy of their esteem."

Upon losing his first election, Lincoln volunteered to serve in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War (1832). This conflict came about when white settlers attempted to force the Sauk and Fox Indians to move out of Illinois. Led by Chief Black Hawk (1767–1838), the Indians refused to leave their ancestral territory. Lincoln led a small militia unit through woods and swamps for several weeks, but they did not see any action before the Indians surrendered. After his term of military service ended, Lincoln became postmaster of New Salem and also worked as a surveyor (one who measures land to determine property or boundries, or to make maps).

In 1834, Lincoln ran for the state legislature again and won. He ended up serving four terms in office. He sponsored bills to improve the state's schools and also protested against measures designed to silence abolitionists (people who worked to end slavery). Lincoln also continued studying during this time and got a license to practice law in 1836. He showed great skill as an attorney. He was honest, funny, and sensitive in dealing with people. He also had a quick mind that allowed him to find weaknesses in his opponents' arguments and persuade juries to take his side. He moved to the new state capital of Springfield, Illinois, in 1837. Whenever the legislature was not in session, he traveled around the state as an attorney. He won most of his 250 cases before the State Supreme Court over the next several years.

In 1839, the successful young attorney and politician met Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky family. After a rocky, on-again off-again courtship, they were married three years later. They eventually had four sons together, although only one of them survived to adulthood: Robert Todd (1843–1926), Edward Baker (1846–1850), William "Willie" Wallace (1850–1862), and Thomas "Tad" (1853–1871).

Bursts onto the national scene

In 1846, running as a member of the Whig political party, Lincoln was elected to represent Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. He soon emerged as an opponent of the Mexican War (1846–48). This was a conflict between the United States and Mexico for possession of lands in the West. Lincoln felt that the United States was illegally grabbing territory that belonged to its weaker neighbor. He also worried that westward expansion would complicate the already heated debate between North and South over slavery. Both sides would want to extend their political ideas and way of life to the new territories. Despite Lincoln's arguments, the U.S. government sent troops into the West and forced Mexico to give up huge areas of land in exchange for $15 million.

After Lincoln's term ended in 1849, he returned to his law practice in Springfield. But he continued to keep a close eye on politics and especially the ongoing debate over slavery. For almost thirty years, a federal law known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had prevented the spread of slavery to the Northern half of the country. This law basically established a line across the midsection of American territory above which slavery would not be permitted. By 1850, however, the addition of vast new lands in the West meant that neither side was happy with this arrangement any longer. People living in California, New Mexico, and other western territories wanted to be admitted into the Union as states. But both North and South wanted to influence whether or not slavery would be allowed in the new states. Finally, federal lawmakers came up with the Compromise of 1850. This law called for California to be admitted into the Union as a free state and authorized an end to slave trading in Washington, D.C. But it also provided Southern slaveholders with sweeping new powers to capture runaway slaves in the North.

The fragile peace achieved through this compromise was shattered a few years later. The two western territories of Kansas and Nebraska were next in line for statehood. In 1854, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was based on the concept of "popular sovereignty," which held that the citizens of each new state should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. It explicitly abolished [eliminated] the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and gave the South a golden opportunity to expand the practice of slavery into new territories.

Most people accepted that Nebraska would enter the Union as a free state. But the status of Kansas was much less certain. Both abolitionists and proslavery forces rushed into Kansas in hopes of affecting the decision. Violence erupted throughout the region. But the impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act also was felt far beyond the borders of Kansas. The entire nation was wracked with political change and uncertainty following its passage. The law triggered the disintegration of the national Whig political party, which divided into Northern and Southern factions over the slavery issue. The Southern Whigs joined the proslavery Democratic Party, while the Northern Whigs joined the antislavery Republican Party.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates

Lincoln joined the Republican Party and spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in letters and speeches. His strong opposition to the act convinced him to challenge the Democrat Douglas for his Senate seat in 1858. "I clearly see, as I think, a powerful plot to make slavery universal and perpetual in this nation. The effort to carry that plot through will be persistent and long continued," he said. "I enter upon the contest to contribute my humble and temporary mite [bit] in opposition to that effort."

Upon receiving the Republican Party's official nomination for the Senate, Lincoln gave a controversial speech that made headlines across the country. Some people, especially in the South, felt that he was calling for a war over slavery. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he stated. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."

Lincoln ended up meeting Douglas in a series of debates. The two men were both excellent speakers, and their appearances attracted large crowds and a great deal of media attention. The debates reflected the growing division between the Republican and Democratic parties over slavery. Lincoln strongly opposed slavery because he believed it was morally wrong. He also thought that it contradicted the main principles upon which the country was founded. He felt that people of all races deserved an equal opportunity for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But he did not necessarily believe that black people were equal to white people. Like most white people of his time, he held some racist views toward black people. He questioned whether black people and white people could live peacefully and equally together in American society. In fact, for many years he favored the idea of colonization, which involved sending the black residents of the United States to all-black countries in Africa and the Caribbean.

Lincoln recognized that it would be virtually impossible to outlaw slavery in the United States. That would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Southern states would never support such a measure. So he and most other Republicans instead focused on preventing the spread of slavery outside of areas where it was already allowed. As the debates went on, Lincoln proved to be a strong force against slavery. "I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly, those who desire it for others," he noted. "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally." Although Lincoln ended up losing the election, his views made him one of the most prominent members of the national Republican Party. Some people began mentioning him as a potential candidate for president in 1860.

President of the United States

As the presidential election neared, the issue of slavery continued to divide the country. When Lincoln won the Republican nomination, the Southern states threatened to secede (withdraw) from the United States if he were elected president. Lincoln tried to reassure the South that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where it already existed. But most Southerners still felt that a Republican president could not possibly represent their interests. In the meantime, the Democrats had trouble agreeing on a single candidate or platform. They ended up splitting their party into two factions, the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats, and running two separate candidates for president, Stephen Douglas and current vice president John C. Breckinridge (1821–1875). As a result, Lincoln was able to secure enough votes to be elected the sixteenth president of the United States.

Lincoln immediately began working to maintain peaceful relations with the South. In his first inaugural address, he argued against secession and let the South know that he would not make the first move toward war. He closed with a moving plea to his fellow countrymen: "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every last battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

But Lincoln's words seemed to have little effect on the tense situation between North and South. Eleven Southern states had already announced their intention to secede from the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America, by the time Lincoln was inaugurated (sworn in). A few weeks later, the new Confederate government demanded that he remove the Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter, located in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) viewed these troops as a symbol of Northern authority and wanted them to leave. But Lincoln refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a legitimate country and claimed that the Southern states were engaged in an illegal rebellion against the U.S. government. When negotiations failed, Confederate forces opened fire on the fort on April 12, 1861. This event marked the beginning of the Civil War.

Wartime commander in chief

Lincoln faced an extremely difficult job as president during the war years. He had limited military experience, yet he was immediately expected to organize an army and devise a winning military strategy. He knew that every one of his actions could send thousands of young men to their deaths. As a result, conducting the war was difficult on him both emotionally and physically. But Lincoln possessed many traits that made him a great commander in chief. For example, he was able to analyze situations quickly and make good decisions. He was also good at dealing with difficult people. "His political experience had taught him how to win a political fight without making personal enemies out of the men he defeated, and he had as well the ability to use the talents of self-assured men who considered themselves his betters," Bruce Catton explained in The Civil War. Still, Lincoln did experience problems with incompetent and insubordinate (disobedient) generals in the early years of the war. He also faced constant criticism from opponents who disagreed with his policies. He even struggled to maintain order within his own cabinet (a group of advisors who head various government departments). But he overcame these difficulties with tact, diplomacy, and an unbending dedication to doing whatever was necessary to secure victory.

As soon as the war began, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to come to Washington, D.C., and defend the nation's capital against a possible Confederate attack. He also did everything in his power to keep the "border" states—which allowed slavery but remained loyal to the Union—from joining the Confederacy. For example, he suspended the legal provision known as habeas corpus in Maryland, a border state adjacent to Washington. Habeas corpus prevented government officials from imprisoning people without charging them with a crime. Lincoln knew that some people in the border states did not support the war effort, and he wanted the power to put these people in prison to stop them from helping the South. On several other occasions, he invoked the broad war powers granted to the president in the U.S. Constitution in order to keep control of the government and wage the war effectively. As a result, his political opponents called him a dictator and a tyrant.

The war forced Lincoln to remain flexible and periodically rethink his positions on various issues. For example, in the early part of the war he argued that his main purpose in fighting was to save the Union, not to end slavery. He said this in part because he wanted to avoid losing the loyalty of the border states. But black leaders and abolitionists in the North criticized him for moving too slowly toward emancipation (granting freedom to the slaves). In mid-1862, Lincoln decided that he could not forge (form) a lasting peace without putting an end to slavery. He also wanted to increase support for the war in the North and make it easier to recruit new soldiers. He began drafting his Emancipation Proclamation at this time. This war measure would declare all the slaves in the secessionist states to be free and allow black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. It would not affect the status of slaves in the border states or in areas of the South that were already under the control of Union troops. Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, following a narrow Union victory in the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. It warned the South that the final proclamation would take effect on January 1, 1863, unless they voluntarily rejoined the Union before that time. Of course, Lincoln could not force people in Confederate states to free their slaves. In fact, he had no power to enforce the proclamation until Union troops captured enemy territory. But the revolutionary document transformed the purpose of the war and ensured that there would be no further compromises on slavery.

In 1863, Union forces won a series of major battles, including a bloody one at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That November, Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate a new military cemetery. There, he gave a brief speech that became one of the most famous addresses in the English language. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address laid out the principles of democracy for which the North was willing to fight. It introduced the idea of nationalism (a sense of loyalty and devotion to the country as a whole) into Northern debate about the Civil War. Instead of fighting to preserve the Union of fairly independent states with different interests and motivations, he explained, the North was fighting for the higher purpose of preserving the United States as a democratic nation. Lincoln believed deeply in democracy, which he described as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." He felt that if the South won the war and permanently separated from the United States, democracy would have failed.

As the war dragged on into 1864, many people in the North grew weary of fighting. Lincoln faced reelection that year and legitimately worried that he might lose to Democratic candidate George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry). To some Americans it seemed strange to proceed with a presidential election during the middle of a war. In fact, such an event had never occurred before in any other country. But Lincoln knew that holding the election was vital to continuing democracy in the United States. "We cannot have free government without elections," he stated, "and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us." Lincoln ran on a platform that backed his war measures and called for a constitutional amendment banning slavery. Shortly before the election took place, the Union Army claimed a string of stirring victories that changed public opinion toward the war and the president. Lincoln ended up winning reelection by a comfortable margin.

Death sends the North into mourning

By the beginning of 1865, it became clear that the Union was about to win the Civil War. Lincoln turned his attention to the task of putting the country back together as quickly and painlessly as possible. In his second inaugural address in March 1865, he seemed willing to forgive the Southern states for their rebellion. "Fondly do we hope—fervently [with intense feeling] do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," he stated. "With malice [ill will] toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan; to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations." Sadly, Lincoln would not live long enough to put his postwar plans into action.

On April 9, Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) at Appomattox, Virginia, to end the Civil War. People throughout the North poured into the streets in wild celebration. The end of the war gladdened Lincoln's heart, too. At times it had seemed to him that the war might never end, or that it would end in failure for the Union after years of heartache and pain. But Lee's surrender was a sure sign that Lincoln's heroic efforts to restore the Union had succeeded. When thousands of people gathered outside the White House to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other patriotic songs, the president led them in loud cheers for General Grant and his soldiers.

But the celebrations came to an abrupt end a few days later. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife attended a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington called Our American Cousin. They were seated in a fine balcony overlooking the stage. Midway through the performance, a fanatical supporter of the Confederacy named John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865; see entry) slipped into the rear of the balcony and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Booth then leaped out of the balcony and landed on the stage below. He broke his leg in the fall, but still managed to limp off the stage and escape on horseback before anyone could capture him.

Physicians in the audience rushed to Lincoln's side, but they could do nothing for him. Concerned that the president would not survive any attempt to carry him to the White House, which was more than six blocks away, the doctors decided to take him to a boarding house across the street from the theater. Lincoln died there early the next morning.

News of Lincoln's death had an incredibly shattering impact on communities all across the North. After all, the Union's victory in the Civil War had made the president extremely popular. Northern communities realized that during the previous four years, Lincoln had managed to keep the dream of a restored Union alive despite many periods of doubt and discouragement. They also knew that victory would not have been possible without his guidance and determination. His assassination plummeted them into a mood of deep grief and rage. "While the nation is rejoicing . . . it is suddenly plunged into the deepest sorrow by the most brutal murder of its loved chief," wrote one Union veteran.

The nation remained in mourning in the weeks following Lincoln's death. Thousands of citizens paid their respects to their fallen president when the White House held a service in his honor. On April 20, Lincoln's body was placed on a train so that he could be buried in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. As Lincoln's funeral car passed through the American countryside during the next few days, millions of farmers and townspeople gathered along the train's route to pay their respects.

Where to Learn More

Abraham Lincoln's Assassination. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Abraham Lincoln Research Site. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Assassins. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Bishop, Jim. The Day Lincoln Was Shot. New York: Harper, 1955. Reprint, New York: Greenwich House, 1984.

Bruns, Roger. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society, Inc. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum Home Page. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Handlin, Oscar. Abraham Lincoln and the Union. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

Stern, Philip Van Doren. The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Random House, 1940. Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 1999.

McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Meltzer, Milton, ed. Lincoln in His Own Words. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

National Park Service. Ford's Theatre National Historic Site. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. Reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Surratt Society. Surratt House Museum. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Abraham Lincoln

views updated May 14 2018

Abraham Lincoln

Sixteenth president of the United States and president during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was immortalized by his Emancipation Proclamation, his Gettysburg Address, and two outstanding inaugural addresses.

Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin on a farm in Hardin County, Ky. His father had come with his parents from Virginia and had grown to manhood on the Kentucky frontier. He had evidently become moderately successful as a farmer and carpenter, for in 1803 he was able to pay £118 cash for a farm near Elizabethtown. Three years later he married Nancy Hanks, described as "intelligent, deeply religious, kindly, and affectionate," but as "illiterate" as himself. Of her family and background little authentic is known.

Lincoln's Background

The young couple soon moved to the one-room cabin on Nolin Creek where their second child, Abraham, was born. Two years later the family moved to the farm on Knob Creek that Abraham later remembered. There, when there was no pressing work to be done, Abraham walked 2 miles to the schoolhouse, where he learned the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Five years later the elder Lincoln sold his lands and carried his family into the untracked wilderness of Indiana across the Ohio River. It was late fall, and there was time only to pull together a crude three-sided shelter of logs, brush, and leaves. The open side was protected by a blazing fire which had to be replenished at all times. The only water was nearly a mile away. For food the family depended almost entirely on game.

They began building a better home and clearing the land for planting. They were making progress when, in the summer of 1818, a dread disease known as milk sickness struck the region. First it carried off Mrs. Lincoln's uncle and aunt and then Nancy Hanks Lincoln herself. On the shoulders of Abraham's 12-year-old sister, Sarah, fell the burden of caring for the household; the home was soon reduced to near squalor.

The next winter Abraham's father returned to Kentucky and brought back a second wife, Sarah Bush Johnson, a widow with three children. Abraham learned to love her and in later years referred to her as "my angel mother."

As time passed, the region where the Lincolns lived grew in population, and James Gentry's little store became a trading center around which the village of Gentryville grew. There Abraham spent much of his spare time, early showing a marked talent for storytelling and mimicry. He grew tall and strong, and his father often hired him out to work for neighbors. Through this came the chance, with Gentry's son Allen, to take a flatboat of produce down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans—Lincoln's first sight of anything other than frontier simplicity.

Meanwhile Lincoln's father had again moved his family to a new home in Illinois, where he built a cabin on the Sangamon River. This was open prairie country, but the abundant trees along the streams supplied the rails to fence their fields. Young Lincoln, already skilled with his ax, was soon splitting rails, not only for the Lincoln farm but for others as well.

At the end of the first summer in Illinois an attack of fever and ague put the Lincolns again on the move. This time it was to Coles County. Abraham, however, did not go along. He was now of independent age and had agreed with two friends to take a cargo of produce, belonging to one Denton Offutt, downriver to New Orleans. Offutt was so impressed with Lincoln's abilities that he placed him in charge of the mill and store which he had established at New Salem.

Entering Public Life

This was the turning point; the Lincoln of history began to emerge. To the store came people of all kinds to talk and trade and to enjoy the stories and rich human qualities stored up in this unique man. The young roisterers from Clary's Grove found him to be more than a match for their champion wrestlers and became his devoted followers. The members of the New Salem Debating Society welcomed him; and when the Black Hawk War broke out, the volunteers of the region elected Lincoln to be their captain. On his return he announced himself as a candida te for the Illinois Legislature on a "Henry Clay-Whig" platform of internal improvements, better educational facilities, and lower interest rates. He was not elected, but he did receive 277 of the 300 votes cast in the New Salem precinct.

Lincoln next formed a partnership with William Berry and purchased one of the other stores in New Salem. However, on the death of his partner Lincoln found himself responsible for a $1,100 debt. His appointment as New Salem postmaster and the chance to work as deputy surveyor of the country improved his finances. He also was enabled to widen his acquaintances and to win election to the state legislature in 1834. The skill with which Lincoln conducted his campaign so impressed John Todd Stuart, the Whig leader of the county and an outstanding lawyer in Springfield, that he took Lincoln under his care and inspired him to begin the study of law.

Lincoln served four successive terms in the legislature and became floor leader of his party in the lower house. Meanwhile, he mastered the law books he could buy or borrow and in September 1836 passed the bar examinations and was admitted to practice. He played an important part in having the state capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield, and in 1837 he moved there to become Stuart's law partner. Coming into a firm already well established, Lincoln had a secure legal future. He not only practiced in Springfield but rode the Eighth Circuit of some 160 miles through the Sangamon Valley. He did not, however, neglect politics, and in 1846 he was elected to the U.S. Congress.

In these years Lincoln had become engaged to Mary Todd, a cultured and well-educated Kentucky woman who was visiting relatives in Springfield. After a rather stormy courtship, they were married on November 2, 1842. The part which Mary played in Lincoln's life is still a matter of controversy.

National Politics

Lincoln's election to Congress came just as the war with Mexico began. Like many Whigs, he doubted the justice of the war, but since it was popular in Illinois he kept quiet.

When Congress convened in December 1847, Lincoln, the only Whig from Illinois, voted for the Wilmot Proviso whenever it came up. When William A. Richardson, Illinois Democrat, presented resolutions declaring the war just and necessary and Mexico the aggressor, Lincoln countered with resolutions declaring that Mexico, not the United States, had jurisdiction over "the spot" where blood was first shed. These resolutions, together with one to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, brought sharp criticism from the people back in Illinois. Lincoln was "not a patriot." He had not correctly represented his state. Although the Whigs won the presidency in 1848, Lincoln could not even control the patronage in his own district. His political career seemed to be ended. His only reward for party service was an offer of the governorship of far-off Oregon, which he refused. He could only return to the practice of law.

War on the Horizon

During the next 12 years, while Lincoln rebuilt his legal practice, the nation was drifting steadily toward sectional confrontation. Victory in the Mexican war, having added vast western territory to the United States, had raised anew the issue of slavery in the territories. To southerners it involved the security and rights of slavery everywhere; to Northerners it was a matter of morals and democratic obligations. Tempers flared and the crisis developed. Only the frantic efforts of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster brought about the Compromise of 1850 as a temporary truce. The basic issues, however, were not eliminated. Four years later Stephen A. Douglas, by his bill to organize the Kansas-Nebraska Territory according to "squatter sovereignty" and "with all questions pertaining to slavery … left to the decision of the people," reopened the whole bitter struggle.

Douglas's bill, plus the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, brought Lincoln back into politics. He had always viewed slavery as a "moral, social and political wrong" and looked forward to its eventual abolition. Although willing to let it alone for the present in the states where it existed, he would not see it extended one inch. Douglas's popular sovereignty doctrine, he thought, revealed an indifference to the moral issue and ignored the growing Northern determination to rid the nation of slavery. So when Douglas returned to Illinois to defend his position, Lincoln seized every opportunity to point out the weakness in it.

Republican Leader

Lincoln's failure to receive the nomination as senator in 1855 convinced him that the Whig party was dead, and by summer 1856 he became openly identified with the new Republicans. At their state convention that year he delivered what many have considered his greatest speech. It was an appeal aimed at welding all anti-Nebraska men into a vigorous and successful party. Thus, Lincoln had made himself the outstanding leader of the new party. At the party's first national convention in Philadelphia, he received 110 votes for vice president on the first ballot. Though he was not chosen, he had been recognized as an important national figure.

Violence in Kansas and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case soon centered national attention on Illinois. There Douglas, who had broken sharply with the new administration over acceptance of the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, had returned to wage his fight for reelection to the Senate. It would be an uphill struggle, with the fate of the national Democratic party in the balance. It would not be like earlier elections, for Illinois had grown rapidly and the population majority had shifted from the southern part of the state to the central and northern areas. In these growing areas the new Republican party had gained a large majority and offered, in Abraham Lincoln, a rival candida te of proven ability. Some Republicans in the East thought that Douglas should not be opposed, because of his stand on Kansas; but Lincoln thought differently. He had delivered his now famous "house divided" speech, and he pressed Douglas for a joint discussion of issues. Out of this came the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln proved his ability to hold his own against the "Little Giant." In the end Douglas was reelected, but Lincoln had gained national attention. Invitations for speeches pored in from all over the country. His speech at Cooper Institute in New York attracted wide attention and gave him a new standing in the East.

When the Republican National Convention met to choose its presidential candida te for 1860, Lincoln was the first or second choice of most delegations. As a result, when serious objections were raised against other first choices, many turned to Lincoln. That he stood well in the states which the Republicans had lost in 1856 also helped; the bargains and promises which Lincoln's managers made did the rest. He was nominated on the third ballot. The split in the Democratic party and the formation of the Constitutional Union party made Lincoln's election certain. He would be a minority, sectional president. Seven Southern states reacted by seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America.

Sixteenth President

In the critical months before taking office, Lincoln selected his Cabinet. It was a strange group, chosen with the aim of representing all elements in the party. The skill with which Lincoln taught each of his men that he was their master and secured maximum service from them is one of the marks of his greatness.

In his inaugural address he clarified his position on the national situation. Secession, he said, was anarchy. The Union could not legally be broken apart. He would not interfere with slavery in the states, but he would "hold, occupy, and possess" all Federal property and places. Firmness and conciliation would go together.

The first test came when Secretary of State William H. Seward secretly conferred with Southerners regarding the evacuation of Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln firmly but kindly put Seward in his place and refused to yield even though it meant the outbreak of the Civil War.

A second test came when Col. John C. Frémont, in command at St. Louis, invoked martial law and announced the confiscation of the property of all persons who had taken up arms against the government and the freeing of their slaves. Lincoln quickly rescinded the orders and, when Frémont resisted, removed him from command.

Civil War

From this time on, Lincoln's life was shaped by the problems and fortunes of civil war. As president, he was the head of all administration agencies and commander in chief of the armies. On him the criticisms for inefficiency in administration and failure in battle fell first. Radicals in Congress were soon demanding a reorganization of his Cabinet and a new set of generals to lead his armies. He let the dissatisfied congressmen air their views and in the end withdraw in confusion. To the critics of Gen. George McClellan, he pointed to the army this general had created, relieved him when he failed, but brought him back to serve until better men had been developed. Meanwhile Lincoln himself studied military books. He correctly evaluated Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. William T. Sherman and the importance of the western campaign.

As to slavery, Lincoln waited until after the victory at Antietam, when it would have real meaning as a war measure, to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Later, at Gettysburg, he gave the war its universal meaning as a struggle to preserve a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

As the war dragged on, Lincoln's critics began to question his chances for reelection. Salmon P. Chase in the Cabinet and Radicals in Congress plotted to crowd him aside, and only the loyalty of the people and final military success secured his reelection. His second inaugural address was brief. It lacked bitterness toward the South and urged his people "to bind up the nation's wounds." "With malice toward none; with charity for all," Americans could achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.

Lincoln had already taken steps in that direction. As the Federal Army had conquered Southern territory, he had set up military governments and soon had governments in Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia. When Congress opposed this, he applied the "pocket veto" to its bill. He had never learned to hate. He was interested only in a restored Union. He did insist on ending slavery in the reconstructed states, and there are some indications that he favored votes for capable Negroes. What the final outcome might have been, history does not know, for on the night of April 14, 1865, an assassin's bullet ended his life. Then, as Edwin Stanton said, he belonged to the ages.

Further Reading

Lincoln's writings are gathered in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., 1953), edited by Roy P. Basler and others. The Lincoln Reader (1947), edited by Paul M. Angle, is one of many anthologies of selected writings. Lincoln and His America, 1809-1865: The Words of Abraham Lincoln (1970), arranged by David Flowden and the editors of Viking Press, is a handsome book that gives a portrait of Lincoln's entire life through his own words and includes hundreds of photographs.

The literature on Lincoln is enormous and still growing. A useful bibliography is Paul M. Angle, A Shelf of Lincoln Books: A Critical, Selective Bibliography of Lincolniana (1946). One of the most popular biographies is Carl Sandburg's sprawling study, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (2 vols., 1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (4 vols., 1939), all condensed into one volume in 1954. Among the many good biographies are older works: W. H. Herndon and J. W. Weik, Herndon's Lincoln (3 vols., 1889); the classic work of John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (10 vols., 1890), condensed into an excellent one-volume edition in 1966; Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln (2 vols., 1925); and Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858 (2 vols., 1928). Edgar Lee Masters, Lincoln the Man (1931), portrays Lincoln unfavorably. More recent biographies are Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (1952); Stefan Lorant, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1954); Reinhard Henry Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln (1960); and Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln's Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind (3 vols., 1965).

Interpretative studies of Lincoln's life include Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (1935), which analyzes the creation of a national legend about Lincoln; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (1956); Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958); and David D. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln (1970), which examines Lincoln's personal and political life through the development of his thought and prose.

There are numerous studies of specific aspects of Lincoln's career and influence. Among them are T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals (1941) and Lincoln and the Generals (1952); David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1942; with a new preface, 1962); Reinhard Henry Luthin and Harry J. Carman, Lincoln and Patronage (1943); Jay Monaghan, Diplomat in Carpet Slippers (1945); Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln's War Cabinet (1946); James G. Randall, Lincoln and the South (1946), Lincoln the President (4 vols., 1946-1955), Lincoln the Liberal Statesman (1947), and Mr. Lincoln (1957); William Best HesseHine, Lincoln and the War Governors (1948); Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress (1948); Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (1962); Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (1962); Paul Simon, Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (1965); Dean Sprague, Freedom under Lincoln (1965); and Richard Allen Heckman, Lincoln vs. Douglas: The Great Debates (1967), which attempts to diminish the exaggerated importance of the debates and place them in a better perspective. A critique of special interest is Benjamin P. Thomas, Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers (1947). The 1860 and 1864 presidential elections are detailed in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). □

Lincoln, Abraham

views updated May 18 2018


Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, serving from 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. Lincoln and his supporters preserved the Union by defeating the South in the Civil War.

Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. In 1816 his family moved to a farm in Indiana, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He attended school for less than a year and gained most of his education by reading books. In 1828 and 1831, he made flat-boat trips down the Mississippi River to take produce to New Orleans. On these trips he was first exposed to the institution of slavery.

In 1830 his family moved to Decatur, Illinois. He left his family in 1831 and moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked at various jobs and continued his self-education. He began to study law, then was sidetracked by political ambitions.

In 1832 he ran for the state legislature as a member of the whig party. He aligned himself with the views of Whig party leader henry clay, who served as a U.S. senator from Kentucky. Like Clay, Lincoln promised to use the power of the government to improve the life of the people he represented. During the 1832 campaign, the Black Hawk War erupted in southern Illinois. Lincoln enlisted in the local militia and was elected captain. Though he served for eighty days, he never saw battle. His service in the military distracted him from his campaign for the legislature, and he lost his first election.

In 1834 he was elected to the state legislature. He was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840. John T. Stuart, a fellow legislator and also a lawyer, was impressed with Lincoln's intellectual and oratorical abilities and encouraged him to practice law. In the fall of 1836, Lincoln was admitted to the Illinois bar, and in 1837 he became Stuart's law partner in Springfield, Illinois. In 1841 the pair dissolved their partnership and Lincoln began a new partnership with Stephen T. Logan. By 1844 that arrangement had dissolved and Lincoln took William H. Herndon as a partner. Lincoln was a hardworking attorney who over the years represented railroad companies and other business entities. By the 1850s he had argued many times before the Illinois Supreme Court and various federal courts.

However, his interest in politics continued. In 1847 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party. His one brief term in this office was detrimental to his career, for his opposition to the Mexican War and his stand on several other issues were received unfavorably by his constituents.

He did not seek reelection in 1848, choosing instead to work on the presidential campaign of zachary taylor. After Taylor's victory Lincoln was severely disappointed when he failed to receive a prominent presidential appointment. He abandoned politics and devoted his energies to his law practice in Springfield.

Events involving slavery soon drew Lincoln back into the political arena. The passage in 1854 of the kansas-nebraska act infuriated Lincoln. Senator stephen a. douglas, of Illinois, a Democrat and rival of Lincoln's, had drafted this legislation, which revoked the missouri compromise of 1820. The repeal meant that the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska could allow slavery to exist if they so wished. This was intolerable to Lincoln and many antislavery Whigs and Democrats. Lincoln took to the political stump again, railing against slavery and the congressional actions that had placed the issue at the forefront of national policy.

The Whig party fell apart over the slavery question. In 1856 Lincoln joined others opposed to slavery from both the Whig and Democrat

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."
Abraham Lincoln

parties, in the newly formed republican party. He quickly rose to prominence. The Republicans chose him as their candidate in the 1858 senatorial race against Douglas. The campaign was marked by a series of seven brilliant debates between the two contenders. Lincoln advocated loyalty to the Union, regarded slavery as unjust, and was opposed to any further expansion of slavery. He opened his campaign by declaring, "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." Lincoln lost the election owing to an unfavorable apportionment of legislative seats in Illinois. (At that time U.S. senators were elected by a vote of the state legislature.) Though Republicans garnered larger numbers of votes, Douglas was reelected.

Despite the Senate loss, Lincoln's national reputation was enhanced by his firm antislavery position. He was urged to run for president in 1860. At the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May 1860, Lincoln defeated William H. Seward for the nomination. A split in the democratic party led to the fielding of two Democratic candidates, John C. Breckenridge and Douglas. This split enabled Lincoln easily to defeat his rivals, including john bell, head of the Constitutional Union party. He would be easily reelected in 1864.

By the time Lincoln took his oath of office in March 1861, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union and had established the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was elected president of the new government. Lincoln wished to find a solution short of war that would preserve the Union, but there were few options. When Lincoln allowed supplies to be sent to Fort Sumter, a Union base on an island outside Charleston, South Carolina, the new Confederate government seized the opportunity to interpret this as an act of war. On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces, and the Civil War began.

Lincoln's initial actions against this act of aggression included drafting men for military service, approving a blockade of the Southern states, and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. His troop request led to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Suspending habeas corpus effectively curtailed civil liberties, as persons who were suspected of being Southern sympathizers could be held in custody indefinitely. All these actions were taken by executive order, in Lincoln's capacity as commander in chief, because Congress was not in session at the time.

The Lincoln Assassination: Conspiracy or a Lone Man's Act?

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Five days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops. John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, Confederate sympathizer, and spy, has gone down in history as the lone assailant of Lincoln. However, Booth was killed by federal soldiers before he could be brought to trial. Eyewitnesses at Ford's Theater identified Booth as the man who shot the president at point-blank range with a single bullet to the back of the head. But Booth's exact motive in the killing was never established. In the wake of the first assassination of a U.S. president, eight of Booth's associates were charged as conspirators. All eight were convicted. However, since then, some modern theories have downplayed the roles of Southern radicals in the conspiracy. Some historians have even pointed fingers at the Republicans, Lincoln's own party.

Shortly before his death, Lincoln announced his Reconstruction policy for restoring the United States. He advocated "malice toward none, charity for all." However, more than a handful of Confederates distrusted Yankee politics. Confederate plots to kill the president or kidnap him had certainly existed long before April 1865. Lincoln appeared unconcerned about the threats, however, and refused to heed the advice of his advisers to take fewer risks in his public appearances. "What does anybody want to assassinate me for?" Lincoln once asked. "If anyone wants to do so, he can do it any day or night, if he is ready to give his life for mine. It is nonsense."

Booth fled Ford's Theater immediately after killing Lincoln and headed for refuge in the South. The Union cavalry, after a massive manhunt (announced throughout the nation), cornered Booth at the Garrett farm, his hiding spot in Virginia. Soldiers shot him through the neck leaving him partially paralyzed. Booth somehow managed to exit the barn when it was set on fire. He died at the feet of federal officers on the morning of April 26.

In somewhat mysterious fashion, Booth's "diary" (actually an 1864 date-book), was recovered from the site of his death. Booth wrote a running commentary, in scattered detail, on his plans before he shot Lincoln, and the developments of his final days. He wrote: "For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause, being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done. But it's failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heat. I struck boldly and not as the papers say."

Booth even described himself as a savior, claiming, "Our country owed all her trouble to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment." Booth's diary would not be used directly as evidence in the trial of others with whom he had allegedly conspired. Instead, it is a primary piece of evidence to support the argument that Booth acted alone.

Booth's quick death with no trial left many in the nation questioning the circumstances surrounding the murder of the North's beloved leader. Federal investigators subsequently singled out eight Southern civilians who had, by varying accounts, associated with Booth at a boarding house in Maryland. The eight were held as prisoners, accused of assisting in the crime of the century. David Herold, Lewis Payne, George Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edward Spangler, and Mary E. Surratt were charged as traitors and conspirators in a plot to kill Lincoln, Vice President andrew johnson, secretary of state William H. Seward and General ulysses s. grant.

Lincoln's secretary of war, edwin m. stanton, had conducted most of the criminal investigation. Based on the charges he developed, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was directly implicated, but not tried, in the assassination plot. Stanton and Attorney General james speed subsequently put together a nine man military commission of seven generals and two colonels from the Union Army to sit in judgment. All nine of the appointed officers were staunch Republicans.

In the trial of the suspects, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of one individual in particular, Louis Weichmann. Weichmann had been closely acquainted with most of the conspirators and had first learned of their plot, according to his testimony, at a Maryland boarding house run by Mary Surratt. The accounts Weichmann gave primarily implicated Surratt and a country doctor, Samuel Mudd. The defense noted that Weichmann had not reported any of the alleged activity at the boarding house until after the assassination. However, the evidence to which Weichmann led investigators, particularly a boot of Booth's with the inscription "J. Wilkes," found at the home of Dr. Mudd, appeared to seal the fate of the eight defendants.

On June 29 the commission met behind closed doors to consider the evidence. They deliberated for two days and then sentenced four prisoners to death and four to imprisonment and hard labor. On July 7 Surratt was the first to be led to the gallows. Atzerodt, Herold, and Payne also received the death penalty.

Though four people were sent to their deaths, and four to prison, for the crime, historians continue to debate the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. One book that stirred much discussion on the subject was Otto Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, published in 1937. Eisenschiml postulated that Stanton and a group of Northern industrialists plotted the death of Lincoln to secure the interests of radical Republicans who were bent on the takeover of the newly restored Union. That theory, however, has been largely rebutted by other historians.

further readings

Coyle, Marcia. 2002. "History with a Sept. 11 Twist; Heirs Attack Action by Army Tribunal in Lincoln's Killing." The National Law Journal 24 (April 29): A1.

Guttridge, Leonard F., and Ray A. Neff. 2003. Dark Union: The Secret Web of the Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators that Led to Lincoln's Death. New York: Wiley.

Johnson, James H. 2001. "The Trial of the 19th Century: Vengeance Trumped the Rule of Law in the Lincoln Conspiracy Case." Legal Times 24 (June 3): 28.

During the early stages of the war, the North suffered great losses, particularly at Bull Run. A succession of Union generals failed to achieve military success. Not until General ulysses s. grant emerged in 1863 as a strong and successful military leader did the Union army begin to achieve substantial victories. In 1864 Lincoln named Grant the commander of the Union army. In April 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, signaling the end of the war.

Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, he had been elected on a platform that pledged to allow slavery to remain where it already existed. However, wartime pressures drove Lincoln toward emancipation of the slaves. Military leaders argued that an enslaved labor force in the South allowed the Confederate states to place more soldiers on the front lines. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had prepared an emancipation proclamation, but he did not want to issue it until the Union army had better fortune on the battlefield. Otherwise the proclamation might be seen as a sign of weakness.

The Union army's victory at Antietam encouraged the president to issue on September 22, 1862, a preliminary proclamation that slavery was to be abolished in areas occupied by the Confederacy effective January 1, 1863. The wording of the Emancipation Proclamation on that date made clear that slavery was still to be tolerated in the border states and areas occupied by Union troops, so as not to jeopardize the war effort. Lincoln was uncertain that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of his action, so he lobbied Congress to adopt the thirteenth amendment, which totally abolished slavery.

Lincoln's writing and speaking skills played a vital part in maintaining the resolve of the Northern states during the war and in preparing the nation for the aftermath of the war. In 1863, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln delivered his poignant Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a national cemetery for soldiers who had died at the bloody battleground. The speech summarized the tragic and human aspects of Gettysburg and distilled Lincoln's resolve to protect the Union. At his second inauguration, in March 1865, Lincoln reached out to the South as the end of the war approached. He proclaimed, "With malice toward none; with charity for all."

Even before the war ended, Lincoln began to formulate a plan for Reconstruction, which included the restoration of Southern state governments and the amnesty of Confederate officials who vowed loyalty to the Union. These proposals met fierce opposition in Congress, as the Radical Republicans sought harsher treatment for the South and its supporters.

The war ended on April 9, 1865, but Lincoln did not have a chance to fight for his Reconstruction proposals. He was shot in the head on April 14 by John Wilkes Booth during the performance of a play at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C. He died the next day. After lying in state in the Capitol, his body was returned to Springfield for burial.

further readings

Amar, Akhil Reed. 2001. "Abraham Lincoln and the American Union." University of Illinois Law Review. (October): 1109–33.

Cottrell, John. 1966. Anatomy of an Assassination. London: Muller.

Eisenschiml, Otto. 1937. Why Was Lincoln Murdered? New York: Crosset and Dunlap.

Good, Timothy S., ed. 1995. We Saw Lincoln Shot. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

Keneally, Thomas. 2003. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Lipper/Viking.

Pinsker, Matthew. 2002. Abraham Lincoln. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Pitman, Benn. 1954. The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. New York: Funk & Wagnall's.

Roscoe, Theodore. 1959. The Web of Conspiracy: The Complete Story of the Men Who Murdered Abraham Lincoln. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Stephens, Otis H., Jr., and John M. Scheb II. 2003. American Constitutional Law. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Stone, Geoffrey R. 2003. "Abraham Lincoln's First Amendment." New York University Law Review 78 (April): 1–29.

Tidwell, William A. 1995. Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War, April '65. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.

Weichmann, Louis J. 1975. A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Conspiracy of 1865. New York: Knopf.

Zane, John Maxcy. 2002. Lincoln, the Constitutional Lawyer. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.


"Emancipation Proclamation," "Gettysburg Address," "House Divided Speech," and "Second Inaugural Address" (Appendix, Primary Documents).

Lincoln, Abraham

views updated May 18 2018

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States in 1861. His leadership during the political and constitutional crises of the American Civil War (1861–65) earned him a place in history as one of the United States's most highly regarded presidents.

Early life

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in the backwoods of Kentucky. His parents were both illiterate farmers, and Lincoln was raised to be a farmer too. He received very little formal schooling, but he borrowed books and read as much as he could on his own.

In 1819, the Lincoln family moved to Indiana , where his mother died soon after. Because Lincoln's relationship with his father was strained and distant, Lincoln's sister, Sarah, became his greatest support. After Sarah's death in 1828, Lincoln joined a four-month voyage on a flatboat expedition down the Mississippi River. This allowed him to see parts of the country that he had never seen, inspiring him to pursue a different future than becoming a farmer.

In 1831, Lincoln left the family homestead. After another expedition down the Mississippi, he volunteered for the Illinois state militia during the Black Hawk War (1832), a conflict with Native Americans. He never experienced any fighting, but his company noticed his leadership and elected him captain.

In 1832, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked in a variety of jobs, then moved to the state's capital, Springfield, in 1837. In November 1842, he married Mary Todd, and over the next eleven years they had four sons.

Political career

Lincoln's interest in a political career started in 1832, when he first ran for the state legislature. Though he lost that election, he was elected in 1834 for the first of four terms. Lincoln was self-motivated, and he taught himself law and earned a license to practice by 1836.

While serving as a legislator, Lincoln practiced law, using Springfield as his base starting in 1847. From there, Lincoln followed the yearly rounds of a federal circuit judge to the state's outlying counties to represent clients who needed experienced attorneys. This work improved Lincoln's skill as a lawyer, and it also helped him make political contacts.

Lincoln's service in the state legislature came to an end in 1841. He practiced law until 1847, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He accomplished very little there, however, and in his disappointment returned to Springfield after one term, vowing to stay out of politics.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act , which stated that the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery within their borders. This caused a political stir because it effectively negated the 1820 Missouri Compromise . Under that law, Congress had allowed Missouri to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, but it had banned slavery in the northern territories of the Louisiana Purchase . Angered by the new law and the possible spread of slavery, Lincoln was inspired to run for the U.S. Senate in 1855, but he lost.

The Republican Party was formed in 1854 by people who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln quickly joined and became an active leader in Illinois. In 1857, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Dred Scott case, which supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Fueled again by anger, Lincoln ran a second time for the Senate.

This time, Lincoln's opponent was U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861), the Democratic sponsor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Facing a difficult race, Lincoln invited the senator to engage in a series of seven debates. The fiery exchanges drew large crowds and national press coverage. Douglas emphasized explosive race issues, and characterized Lincoln as a radical abolitionist (opponent of slavery). Lincoln responded by carefully defining his conservative antislavery views: he favored maintaining slavery where it was already and banning it only from spreading to new areas.

Though the election was close, Douglas won and returned to Washington, D.C. But the attention surrounding the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Lincoln's performance earned him the Republican nomination for president in 1860.

Election of 1860

Known for his support of business, his support of free labor (the labor of white workers who owned property), and his opposition to the spread of slavery, Lincoln was an attractive Republican nominee. His party also was in favor of a protective tariff, or tax, to aid U.S. business; a homestead act (a law allowing the sale of undeveloped land in the West to farmers); a transcontinental railroad to aid national development; banking reform; and other internal improvements.

The Democratic Party convention that convened in early May in South Carolina resulted in a deadlock, with no candidate chosen. Southern Democrats wanted a federal slave code that would allow slavery in the western territories. Northern Democrats favored popular sovereignty, letting each state decide whether to allow slavery within its borders.

The divisions in the Democratic Party eventually grew too deep, and the Northern and Southern Democrats announced separate presidential candidates. A fourth candidate ran from the Constitutional Union Party. Its platform neglected the explosive issue of slavery, focusing instead on preserving the Constitution and the Union . After a complex, four-way campaign, Lincoln was elected president.

State secessions

Southern fears of a Republican president grew throughout the campaign of 1860. Many feared that Republicans would emancipate, or free, all African Americans throughout the Union and strengthen federal control over state governments.

When Lincoln won the election, panic spread throughout the South. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to vote to secede, or withdraw, from the Union. (See Secession .) Before Lincoln was inaugurated, Alabama , Florida , Georgia , Louisiana , and Mississippi seceded too, joining to form the Confederate States of America .

In an attempt to maintain calm, Lincoln refrained from making public comments about the secessions before his inauguration. Privately, he and other Republicans tried to assure Southerners that they were not a threat to them or their property. But the Confederates were not persuaded, and they continued to establish their own government. They named their first president, former U.S. senator Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) of Mississippi, wrote a constitution, scheduled elections, and even authorized an army of ten thousand men before Lincoln took office.

Lincoln's inauguration

Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. His inaugural address was vague enough to allow flexibility in handling the growing crisis but also reassure the Union. While restating his party's commitment to not interfere with slavery in the states, he also argued forcefully that secession was wrong. Lincoln pledged to uphold the Union, to “hold, occupy, and possess” federal property, and to collect all federal taxes and fees.

In the final parts of his inaugural address, Lincoln explained that it was up to Southerners to solve the constitutional and political crisis of secession. He pledged that the government had no interest in initiating a civil war, and conflict would arise only through others’ acts of aggression. He ended by asking Southerners to work through the tensions rather than break the bonds of the Union.

Civil War

After his inauguration, Lincoln sought to keep control of all federal property in the Confederate states. This goal was challenged by the South Carolina governor's demand that Lincoln remove the military troops from his state. Lincoln chose instead to resupply the men of Fort Sumter in Charleston. He warned the Confederate commander of the supply ship's approach and told them not to interfere.

After discussing the issue, Confederate president Davis and his cabinet demanded the Union surrender of Fort Sumter. Receiving a rejection, the Confederates destroyed most of the fort and forced a surrender on April 14, 1861. As a result of the battle, Arkansas , North Carolina , Tennessee , and Virginia also seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. The Civil War had begun.

The White House was not prepared for a rebellion so soon after President Lincoln's inauguration. Lincoln had recruited highly qualified men to lead the government's departments, but it was difficult at first to control them. He also had a series of ineffective generals, and this motivated him to educate himself in military history and strategy to better guide his army. Tens of thousands of men volunteered to serve, but the Union Army lacked everything from shoes to muskets to supply them.

Lincoln acted quickly and assertively in spite of his challenges. He organized a war plan based on the experience and guidance of Winfield Scott (1786–1866), the U.S. army commander, to defeat the Confederacy over time by cutting off supplies. But neither the public nor Lincoln wanted to wait for a supply shortage to bring about the South's collapse. In a rush to a decisive Union victory, Lincoln ordered an attack on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. There, at the Battles of Bull Run , the Union suffered a decisive defeat.

Although General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) saw many Union successes in the western states and territories, the battles in the East were often Union failures. The Union generals were not as aggressive as Lincoln knew they needed to be to win. The Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, however, marked turning points for the Union Army .

These successes were key to Lincoln's winning a second presidential election in 1864. Eventually, Lincoln assigned General Grant to command the Army of the Potomac, and General William Sherman (1820–1891) replaced Grant in the west. The forcefulness of these generals led to Union victory. Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse , Virginia, on April 9, 1865, and the rest of the Confederate troops surrendered nine days later.

Ending slavery and honoring the dead

Slavery was a complex problem for Lincoln during the Civil War. Slavery allowed the South to establish factories and to maintain essential manpower in the economy behind battle lines without sacrificing soldier power. Although the Union Army could have been helped by slaves escaped from the South, by law slaves were considered property and had to be returned to their owners, who often came to find them.

Lincoln understood that he needed to allow escaped slaves to remain in the Union, but he also wanted to keep slave-holding border states such as Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland in the Union. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation , which declared that all slaves within the rebellious Confederate states were forever free.

Although it failed to eliminate slavery in the states that had remained loyal to the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for the eventual passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On January 31, 1865, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment officially ended slavery in all areas of the United States and made emancipation permanent.

Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania , in 1863. The address was only a few hundred words long, but Americans regard it as a great speech that honored the dead as well as the very ideals on which the United States was founded.

Lincoln's legacy

Though President Lincoln is remembered best for his leadership and devotion to preserving the Union of the United States, Lincoln's legacy includes other accomplishments, too. His work with a supportive Congress produced legislation that would have been impossible with divisive politics.

Together, Lincoln and Congress formed a new banking system and enacted the Legal Tender Act of 1862 to establish the first official currency of the United States. The Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, both passed in 1862, were important laws that boosted the economy and helped speed the development of the western United States. Lincoln's actions, which were based on the belief that the president could create unity among independent states, dramatically strengthened federal power and minimized state power.

President Lincoln's service was abruptly ended on April 14, 1865. While he was watching a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., he was shot and killed by a Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865).

Lincoln, Abraham

views updated May 23 2018

Lincoln, Abraham 1809-1865


Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was born February 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky. His opinions against slavery seem to have been shaped while he was a boy, partly by his fathers antislavery opinions, partly by the fact that his father took everything Lincoln earned until he was of majority, and partly by a trip to New Orleans where he witnessed the institution in operation.

Lincolns political career began in 1832, when he ran as a Whig for the Illinois state legislature from the town of New Salem and lost. He won two years later, though, and began studying law. New Salem was not a promising town, and Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837. There he honed his legal skills, ultimately becoming one of Illinoiss most prominent attorneys and, in the 1850s, a successful corporate lawyer. It was also in Springfield that he met Mary Todd (18181882), whom he married in 1842. They had four sons together, only one of whom lived past eighteen.

After four terms in the legislature, Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. To the extent that he made a name for himself in Washington, it was by challenging the grounds on which the Mexican War began. Lincoln was not reelected. Discouraged about politics, he focused on his practice instead. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which allowed Kansas to decide whether it would have slavery and sparked a virtual civil war within the territory, reengaged Lincoln. He won his fifth legislative term but resigned to run for the U.S. Senate, a campaign he lost in 1855.

The following year, he joined the Republican Party, which positioned him for his most dramatic campaign to date: his 1858 race for the Senate against one of the countrys best-known Democrats, Stephen A. Douglas (18131861). Lincolns acceptance of the nomination has come to be known as his House Divided speech. Equally famous is the series of debates he had with Douglas in seven different towns across the state. The Lincoln-Douglas debates drew thousands of observers and national press attention as the two men argued about whether or under what circumstances slavery should be allowed to spread into the territories. Douglas tried to undermine Lincoln by painting him as an abolitionist (Lincoln actually did not target slavery in the states where it already existed; his goal was to keep it from moving into the territories), and Lincoln pressed on the moral aspect of slavery and Douglass position. Lincoln lost the contest, but gained nationwide recognition, which he leveraged in a prominent 1859 speech at New Yorks Cooper Union.

Despite Lincolns rising prominence, he remained a man with little political baggage. That made him an appealing compromise candidate for the Republicans at their 1860 convention. In November Lincoln ran against three other candidates, including his old nemesis, Douglas. Lincoln won with just 39.8 percent of the popular vote, but a clear majority of electoral votes.

Despite Lincolns repeated assertions that he was interested only in keeping slavery out of the territories, southerners were convinced that he wanted to abolish it completely and immediately. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, on December 20, 1860. Six states followed shortly thereafter, and four more joined after the rebels opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

Lincoln initially believed that a number of Unionists in the South would rise up against the Confederate government, so for the first year of the war he favored a strategy that avoided targeting slavery. As late as the spring of 1862, Lincoln believed in trying to compensate slaveowners in places such as the border state of Kentucky for their property, and he thought freed blacks should be sent to colonies elsewhere, on the grounds that blacks and whites could not live together. By July 1862, Lincoln realized that the Confederacy did not have a critical mass of Union supporters, and he decided to hit at the rebels point of vulnerability. In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 (he had issued a preliminary version the previous September), he believed he was striking at the Confederates in two ways: First, the proclamation would deny southerners their slaves, and second, it would also deny them the workforce that kept the Confederate army going. The proclamation was limited, however, affecting only those parts of the South that were in rebellion and out of the Federals reach.

Lincoln was fundamentally moderate. He was also a man of his times. Both these points account for his approach to the slavery question as president. Critics have assailed Lincolns slowness on emancipation, but he believed the Constitution limited his powers in this regard. Because of these constitutional concerns, he issued the proclamation as a military measure. One thing is clear from the historical record, however, and that is that Lincoln was always personally opposed to slavery. He was also willing to change, and he did. In fact, it is difficult to generalize about most of Lincolns policies because he underwent such transformation in office. For instance, Lincoln abandoned his positions on compensation and colonization and, in the summer of 1864, when he was under great pressure to abandon emancipation as a condition for peace, he staked his career on protecting freed-men, saying he would be damned if he abandoned them. He also approved of Shermans March through Georgia and later into the Carolinas, a maneuver that amounted to hard, if not total, wara far cry from his gentler approach at the wars outset.

Even as he moved toward harder war, Lincoln wanted a soft peace. His early efforts at reconstruction called for Louisiana to establish a new state government when just 10 percent of the voters in the 1860 election took a loyalty oath and accepted emancipation. Many in Congress deemed this to be too lenient, but Lincoln at the end of his life appeared to be determined to return the rebel states to the fold with as little rancor as possible, while simultaneously protecting and advancing the rights of blacks. This included extending the vote to at least some African Americans. Lincoln was preparing a new reconstruction plan when he was assassinated April 14, 1865Good Fridaywhile watching a play. He died the next morning.

While we will never know Lincolns precise plans for Reconstruction or how they would have changed in response to the contingencies of the day, it seems fair to say that Reconstruction would have been markedly different under Lincoln. Instead, his successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), proved to be a white supremacist who easily bent to the wishes of southern elites. This led to such tragic consequences as the Black Codes, laws that all but reinstated slavery in many parts of the South. Johnsons ready acquiescence to southern demands prompted Congress to wrest control of Reconstruction from the president and impose its own plan on the South, which proved to be to the short-term benefit of black southerners but provoked a bitter and violent response from whites in the region.

SEE ALSO Slavery; U.S. Civil War


Carwardine, Richard. 2006. Lincoln. New York: Knopf.

Donald, David Herbert. 1995. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Gienapp, William E. 2002. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.

McPherson, James M. 1990. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thomas, Benjamin P. 1952. Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Knopf.

Jennifer L. Weber

Abraham Lincoln

views updated Jun 08 2018

Abraham Lincoln

The Emancipation Proclamation
Issued January 1, 1863

The president frees the slaves

"I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free. . . ."

By the time President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he had been considering the idea of freeing the slaves for some time. Lincoln had believed that slavery was wrong when he was elected president in 1860. He felt that black people were entitled to the same legal rights as white people. When the Civil War began in 1861, he knew that freeing the slaves would hurt the Confederate war effort and aid the Union. But he still wanted to proceed carefully, because he knew that emancipation (the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression) had many opponents, even in the North. The president was particularly concerned about the reaction of the four slave-holding "border" states that had remained loyal to the Union—Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky. He worried that if he suddenly outlawed slavery, these states would leave the Union and join the Confederacy.

The U.S. Congress took the first step toward freeing the slaves in August 1861. At that time, it passed a law that allowed the Union Army to seize enemy property that was used in the war effort. Slaves were considered property in the Southand were often used as laborers in Confederate Army camps. In effect, the Confiscation Act enabled Union troops to take any slaves they found away from their owners. Such slaves became known as "contrabands." Another law passed in March 1862 forbade Union Army officers from returning fugitive slaves to their owners in the South. In July 1862, Congress passed an even stronger Confiscation Act that granted freedom to any slaves who came under the control of Union troops. They also gave the president power to use these freed slaves as laborers or even soldiers in the Union Army.

Also in July 1862, President Lincoln read the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet (a group of trusted advisors who supervised various government departments). His secretary of state, William H. Seward (1801–1872), suggested that he wait to issue it until the Union Army achieved a victory on the battlefield. Seward argued that if the president issued his proclamation at a time when the Union's chances of winning the Civil War seemed slim, it would be dismissed as a desperate attempt to avoid defeat. But if he waited until events went in the Union's favor, then the proclamation would seem more like a statement of moral principle. The proclamation would make it clear that the North was fighting not only to restore the Union, but also on behalf of basic American values of freedom and liberty for all men and women.

The Union Army managed to win a brutal battle at Antietam in Maryland in September 1862. Lincoln took this opportunity to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. This document warned the Confederate states that the president planned to free the slaves as of January 1, 1863, unless those states voluntarily rejoined the Union before that time. Since Lincoln was issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, it would only apply to enemy territory—those states that were in rebellion against the United States. It would not apply to areas in the South that had been captured and occupied by Union troops, or to the slave-holding border states that were still part of the Union. This meant that 830,000 black men and women would remain slaves out of a total of 4 million slaves in the South.

Many people found it strange that Lincoln granted freedom to the slaves in Confederate states. Since those states had seceded from (left) the United States at the beginning of the Civil War, the American government had no power to enforce such an order there. The slaves might be emancipated according to a piece of paper, but in reality they would not be free until Union troops arrived. Some Northern abolitionists were disappointed that the Emancipation Proclamation would not apply to the border states or to occupied areas. As a writer for the London Spectator noted, the proclamation did not say "that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States." Some people doubted whether the president's proclamation was even legal. Lincoln issued the order under the broad powers that the Constitution gives the president in times of war as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army. But the Constitution allowed slavery, and only Congress holds the power to propose changes to the Constitution.

Despite these criticisms, Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It was "one of the strangest and most important state papers ever issued by an American President," according to Bruce Catton in The Civil War.

Things to remember while reading Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation:

  • • President Lincoln's proclamation did not free all the slaves in the United States. In fact, it only freed the slaves in the Confederate states that had left the Union. It did not apply to the four slave-holding border states that remained part of the Union. It also did not apply to the areas of Southern states that were under control of the Union Army at the time it was issued. Lincoln outlines which states he means in the second paragraph of the document. The exceptions he mentions are areas that were loyal to the Union or were under Union control. He explains that these areas will be "left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued," meaning that slavery would continue to exist there, at least "for the present."
  • • Upon hearing about the Emancipation Proclamation, some Southerners accused the president of trying to help the Union's war effort by causing slave uprisings across the Confederacy. Lincoln addresses this issue in the fourth paragraph of the document. He expressly asks freed slaves not to engage in violence, unless they are forced to defend themselves.
  • • In the fifth paragraph of the document, Lincoln declares his intention to use freed slaves in the Union Army. This was a relatively new idea at the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Discrimination had prevented black men from serving in the Union Army until late 1862.

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief of the Army andNavy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do, publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days from the first day above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof, respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except for the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northhampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

What happened next . . .

Reactions to Lincoln's announcement were divided along predictable lines in the South. White Southerners criticized the Emancipation Proclamation, while slaves and free blacks in the South supported it. The Confederate government said that Lincoln had no authority to make such a statement and encouraged people to disregard it. Many whites claimed that the president issued the document in hopes of creating widespread slave rebellions across the South.

As slaves in the South heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, they began to recognize what the Civil War meant for their future. If the North won, slavery would be abolished (completely eliminated) throughout the land. As a result, some slaves began to rebel against their masters and to help the Union cause. Some simply refused to work, while others started fires to destroy property belonging to whites. Thousands of slaves decided to flee the South for freedom in the North. This movement deprived the Confederacy of a valuable labor force and helped increase the size of Union forces. Although most slaves were thrilled to learn that they were free, some also recognized that freedom brought uncertainty and new responsibilities. Since many slaves had not received basic education and were not trained in any special skills, they were concerned about how they would make a living and take care of their families.

In the North, early reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation were mixed. Abolitionists and free blacks were thrilled by the news. They recognized the president's reasons for proceeding cautiously, and they knew that the document was still a revolutionary one even if it did not immediately free all of the nation's slaves. After all, the proclamation said that any slaves who were freed during the war would remain "forever free." It also promised that the U.S. government would "recognize and maintain" their freedom. So they felt that the document would have some positive effects regardless of the final outcome of the war. At the same time, some Northerners opposed the idea of freeing the slaves. Some working-class whites worried that former slaves would come to the North and take their jobs. Other Northerners felt that emancipation would prolong the war and cost more lives.

Reaction was mixed among soldiers in the Union Army as well. Many Northern soldiers did not feel strongly about outlawing slavery prior to the war. Instead, they fought in order to preserve the Union. Other soldiers, particularly those who came from slave-holding border states, actually supported slavery. By the middle of 1863, however, most Union soldiers had accepted the idea of emancipation. For one thing, they recognized that freeing the slaves hurt the Confederate war effort by taking away valuable property as "contraband of war." For another thing, black soldiers began contributing to Union victories in battle. As white soldiers saw the courage of their black counterparts, many came to believe that emancipation would help the Union win the war.

As Northern support for emancipation increased in the months following Lincoln's announcement, it changed the way many people viewed the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that the North was fighting for a broader cause than simply restoring the Union. They were also fighting for the cause of human freedom. "The Emancipation Proclamation announced a new war aim," James M. McPherson wrote in Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. "The Union army became officially an army of liberation. The North was now fighting to create a new Union, not to restore the old one."

Did you know . . .

  • • The process of ending slavery that began with the Emancipation Proclamation was completed with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment, which permanently outlawed slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress in January 1865 and ratified (approved) by the states in the fall of that year.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.—one of the leaders of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s—made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on January 1, 1963, at a ceremony to honor the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. King acknowledged that black people still faced discrimination in American society, but expressed his hope that they would soon achieve true equality. At one point in the speech, King said: "I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

For Further Reading

Berlin, Ira. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Cox, LaWanda. Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.

Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963. Reprint, Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1995.

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964, 1995.

Trefousse, Hans L. Lincoln's Decision for Emancipation. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.

Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Lincoln, Abraham

views updated Jun 11 2018

Abraham Lincoln

Born: February 12, 1809
Hodgenville, Kentucky
Died: April 14, 1865
Washington, D.C.

American president

The sixteenth president of the United States and president during the Civil War (18611865), Abraham Lincoln will forever be remembered by his inspirational rise to fame, his efforts to rid the country of slavery, and his ability to hold together a divided nation. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, and two outstanding inaugural addresses are widely regarded as some of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American politician.

Starting life in a log cabin

Abraham Lincoln was born to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky. Two years later the family moved to a farm on Knob Creek. There, when there was no immediate work to be done, Abraham walked two miles to the schoolhouse, where he learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

When Abraham was seven, his father sold his lands and moved the family into the rugged wilderness of Indiana across the Ohio River. After spending a winter in a crude shack, the Lincolns began building a better home and clearing the land for planting. They were making progress when, in the summer of 1818, a terrible disease known as milk sickness struck the region. First it took the lives of Mrs. Lincoln's uncle and aunt, and then Nancy Hanks Lincoln herself died. Without Mrs. Lincoln the household began to fall apart, and much of the workload fell to Abraham and his sister.

The next winter Abraham's father returned to Kentucky and brought back a second wife, Sarah Bush Johnson, a widow with three children. As time passed, the region where the Lincolns lived grew in population. Lincoln himself grew tall and strong, and his father often hired him out to work for neighbors. Meanwhile, Lincoln's father had again moved his family to a new home in Illinois, where he built a cabin on the Sangamon River. At the end of the first summer in Illinois, disease swept through the region and put the Lincolns on the move once again. This time it was to Coles County. Abraham, who was now a grown man, did not go along. Instead he moved to the growing town of New Salem, where he was placed in charge of a mill and store.

Entering public life

Life in New Salem was a turning point for Lincoln, and the great man of history began to emerge. To the store came people of all kinds to talk and trade and to enjoy the stories told by this unique and popular man. The members of the New Salem Debating Society welcomed him, and Lincoln began to develop his skills as a passionate and persuasive speaker. When the Black Hawk War (1832) erupted between the United States and hostile Native Americans, the volunteers of the region quickly elected Lincoln to be their captain.

After the war he announced himself as a candidate for the Illinois legislature. He was not elected, but he did receive 277 of the 300 votes cast in the New Salem precinct. In 1834, after another attempt, Lincoln was finally elected to the state legislature. Lincoln's campaign skills greatly impressed John Todd Stuart (18071885), a leader of the Whigs, one of two major political parties in the country at the time. Stuart was also an outstanding lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and soon took Lincoln under his care and inspired him to begin the study of law.

Lincoln served four straight terms in the legislature and soon emerged as a party leader. Meanwhile, he mastered the law books he could buy or borrow. In September 1836 Lincoln began practicing law and played an important part in having the Illinois state capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield. In 1837 Lincoln himself moved to Springfield to become Stuart's law partner. He did not, however, forget politics. In 1846 Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Congress. During these years Lincoln had become engaged to Mary Todd (18181882), a cultured and well-educated Kentucky woman. They were married on November 2, 1842.

First failure

When Congress met in December 1847, Lincoln expressed his disapproval with the Mexican War (184648), in which American and Mexican forces clashed over land in the Southwest. These views, together with his wish to abolish, or end, slavery in the District of Columbia, brought sharp criticism from the people back in Illinois. They believed Lincoln was "not a patriot" and had not correctly represented his state in Congress.

Although the Whigs won the presidency in 1848, Lincoln could not even control the support in his own district. His political career seemed to be coming to a close just as it was beginning. His only reward for party service was an offer of the governorship of far-off Oregon, which he refused. Lincoln then returned to Illinois and resumed practicing law.

War on the horizon

During the next twelve years, while Lincoln rebuilt his legal career, the nation was becoming divided. While victory in the Mexican War added vast western territory to the United States, then came the issue of slavery in those new territories. To Southerners, the issue involved the security and rights of slavery everywhere. To Northerners, it was a matter of morals and justice. A national crisis soon developed. Only the efforts of Senators Henry Clay (17771852) and Daniel Webster (17821852) brought about the Compromise of 1850. With the compromise, a temporary truce was reached between the states favoring slavery and those opposed to it. The basic issues, however, were not eliminated. Four years later the struggle was reopened.

Lincoln's passionate opposition to slavery was enough to draw him back into the world of politics. He had always viewed slavery as a "moral, social and political wrong" and looked forward to its eventual abolition. Although willing to let it alone for the present in the states where it existed, he would not see it extended one inch.

At the same time, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (18131861) drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would leave the decision of slavery up to the new territories. Lincoln thought the bill ignored the growing Northern determination to rid the nation of slavery. Soon, in opposition to the expansion of slavery, the Republican party was born. When Douglas returned to Illinois to defend his position, Lincoln seized every opportunity to point out the weakness in it.

Republican leader

Lincoln's failure to receive the nomination as senator in 1855 convinced him that the Whig party was dead. By summer 1856 he became a member of the new Republicans. Lincoln quickly emerged as the outstanding leader of the new party. At the party's first national convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he received 110 votes for vice president on the first ballot. Although he was not chosen, he had been recognized as an important national figure.

National attention began turning toward the violence in Kansas and the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, which debated the issue of slavery in the new territories. Meanwhile, Douglas had returned to Illinois to wage his fight for reelection to the Senate. But unlike in earlier elections, Illinois had grown rapidly and the population majority had shifted from the southern part of the state to the central and northern areas. In these growing areas the Republican party had gained a growing popularityas had Abraham Lincoln.

As Lincoln challenged Douglas for his seat in the Senate, the two engaged in legendary debates. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln delivered his famous "house divided" speech, stating "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." Lincoln proved his ability to hold his own against the man known as the "Little Giant." In the end Douglas was reelected as senator, but Lincoln had gained national attention and his name was soon mentioned for the presidency.

The sixteenth president

In 1860 the Republican National Convention met and chose Lincoln as their candidate for president of the United States. With a divided Democratic party and the recent formation of the Constitutional Union party, Lincoln's election was certain. After Lincoln's election victory, parts of the country reacted harshly against the new president's stand on slavery. Seven Southern states then seceded, or withdrew, from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.

In his inaugural address he clarified his position on the national situation. Secession, he said, was wrong, and the Union could not legally be broken apart. He would not interfere with slavery in the states, but he would "hold, occupy, and possess" all property and places owned by the federal government. By now there was no avoiding the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Civil War

From this time on, Lincoln's life was shaped by the problems and fortunes of civil war. As president, he was the head of all agencies in government and also acted as commander in chief, or supreme commander, of the armies. Lincoln was heavily criticized for early failures. Radicals in Congress were soon demanding a reorganization of his cabinet, or official advisors, and a new set of generals to lead his armies. To combat this, Lincoln himself studied military books. He correctly evaluated General Ulysses S. Grant (18221885) and General William T. Sherman (18201891) and the importance of the western campaign. Thanks, in part, to Lincoln's reshuffling of his military leaders, the Union forces would soon capture victory over the Confederates.

Afterward, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation called for the freeing of all slaves in territories still at war with the Union. Later, during his Gettysburg Address, he gave the war its universal meaning as a struggle to preserve a nation based on freedoms and dedicated to the idea "that all men are created equal."

Lincoln was reelected in 1864. As the end of the Civil War appeared close, Lincoln urged his people "to bind up the nation's wounds" and create a just and lasting peace. But Lincoln would never be able enjoy the nation he had reunited. Five days after the Confederate army surrendered and ended the Civil War, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1965. The president died the next day.

Although the reasons for Lincoln's assassination would be debated, his prominent place in American history has never been in doubt. His work to free the slaves earned him the honorable reputation as the Great Emancipator. His ability to hold together a country torn apart by civil war would forever secure his place as one of America's greatest presidents.

For More Information

Bruns, Roger. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Jacobs, William Jay. Lincoln. New York: Scribner's, 1991.

Judson, Karen. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Enslow, 1998.

Miller, William Lee. Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954. Reprint, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Lincoln, Abraham

views updated May 29 2018


(b. February 12, 1809; d. April 15, 1865) Sixteenth president of the United States (1861–1865).

Abraham Lincoln's life was lived under the shadow of war. During his lifetime he would witness three major American wars: the War of 1812, the War with Mexico (1846–1848), and the Civil War (1861–1865).

Born in Kentucky to impoverished parents, Lincoln migrated with his family to Indiana and then to Illinois, where he left his father's farm in 1831 to settle in New Salem, Illinois, and try his hand unsuccessfully at business. In 1832, the Sac and Fox chieftain, Black Hawk, attempted to resettle his followers on lands near Rock Island, Illinois, which they had previously vacated by treaty. Governor John Reynolds called out the Illinois militia, and New Salem's militia company was sworn into state service on April 28, 1832, with Lincoln elected as captain for thirty days' service. He re-enlisted two more times in other units, and was finally mustered out on July 10, 1832, near Black River, Wisconsin, without having seen action.

The Black Hawk War would prove to be Lincoln's only direct experience of soldiering. In 1836, after years of private study, he was licensed as a lawyer—a profession in which he had considerable success. He aligned himself politically with the American Whig party, and endorsed the Whigs' ideological suspicion of the military, a suspicion aggravated by the popularity of General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans (1815), as the figurehead of the rival Democratic Party. When Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1847 as the only Whig in Illinois's congressional delegation, he joined with Whig representatives from other states to criticize President James K. Polk's conduct of the War with Mexico.

In 1856 Lincoln joined the then-new Republican Party and two years later he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, engaging in a series of debates on slavery that attracted wide attention. As he rose to national prominence and became president in 1860 as the Republican candidate, he was increasingly forced to confront the likelihood of conflict over the slavery issue. That likelihood became a reality after the slave-holding states of the South formed the Confederate States of America and opened fire on the United States garrison in Fort Sumter. From that point onward, the Civil War demanded that Lincoln devote his energies to precisely the military affairs he liked least.

Lincoln had no experience in developing strategic doctrine, and the program of self-education he set for himself by reading textbooks in military science never raised his sights above conventional, and sometimes deeply-flawed, notions of strategy. On a few occasions, he even suggested taking field command of the armies; May 9–10, 1862, he personally participated in an amphibious expedition that captured Norfolk, Virginia. However, his real genius lay along the lines where political and military issues met, and as the constitutionally mandated commander-in-chief of the United States army and navy, he turned his attention to four major areas of war-related policy-making.

legal status of the war

Lincoln maintained that the secession of the Confederate states was a constitutional and legal nullity. The federal Union, as shaped by the Constitution, did not allow individual states to unilaterally withdraw from the Union. Once the Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter April 12–14, 1861, Lincoln issued a proclamation, calling on

the states for 75,000 militia to suppress what he described (using the words of the Militia Act of 1792) as "combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." Hence, Lincoln regarded the Civil War, from the viewpoint of law, strictly as a local insurrection, rather than a declared war between two sovereign and equal nations.

This, however, posed serious problems in international law. Captured Confederates could, as insurrectionists, be indicted as traitors and executed under civil law; but in practice, both Union and Confederate armies treated captives as prisoners of war, organized prisonerof-war camps and exchange policies, and in general behaved as though a normal state of belligerent war existed, rather than a civil insurrection. Much more important was the legal problem that emerged when Lincoln sought to impose a naval blockade on the Confederacy. On April 19, 1861, Lincoln announced the imposition of a complete "efficient" blockade of the Confederacy's ports "in pursuance of the laws of the United States and of the law of nations," which authorized capturing ships attempting to run the blockade, under whatever flag, and turning them over to admiralty courts for sale as prizes of war. However, according to the Paris Convention of 1856 (the first attempt by nations, in the aftermath of the Crimean War, to establish mutually-agreed-upon codes to govern international war) full blockades could only be imposed between sovereign belligerent nations—which was exactly what Lincoln denied that the Confederacy was.

This was a calculated risk. On May 13, 1861, the British government took advantage of the contradiction and extended recognition of belligerent rights to the Confederacy; and in 1863 the United States Supreme Court, ruling on a major suit known as Prize Cases, came within one vote of striking down Lincoln's blockade proclamation as unconstitutional. But the efficiency of a blockade in choking off supplies to the Confederacy was, in Lincoln's mind, worth the risk.

military personnel

The United States Army had only 16,000 men on its rolls in 1861, and only four of general officer rank. Lincoln sought to deal with the rebellion by calling on the states for the use of their militia alongside the regular army. But the state militias were clearly unequal to the task of serious campaigning, and in May Lincoln issued a call for 42,000 so-called volunteers. The use of volunteers rather than militia as a supplement to the regular army was first resorted to in the War with Mexico, and involved the organization and enlistment by the states of soldiers who were then mustered into federal service.

The army's senior major general, Winfield Scott, was unwilling to parcel out the regular army's cadre of professional officers to lead the volunteer units. This, together with the comparatively small number of experienced former officers who returned to military service for the war, forced the commissioning of officers at all ranks who had little experience or who had conflicting political convictions. This created embarrassing confrontations for Lincoln, especially with Major General John Charles Fremont, whom he cashiered for imposing sweeping martial law decrees (including slave emancipation) in politically sensitive areas; and with Major General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, whom he cashiered for failing to press military opportunities against the Confederates. Not until 1864, when he offered the post of general-in-chief to Major General Ulysses Simpson Grant, did Lincoln find a senior commander sufficiently competent to bring the war to a successful close. By that point, conscription had been added as a means of swelling recruitment for the Union armies.

powers of the commander-in-chief

Although the Constitution designates the president as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in time of war, there was little jurisprudence or precedent to provide a clear picture of what Lincoln's war powers as commander-in-chief actually were. In 1861 the arrest of a Confederate recruiter, John Merryman, in Maryland provoked U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to issue a writ of habeas corpus so that Merryman could be tried in a civil court rather than held in military detention. Citing the Constitution's allowance for suspension of the writ in times of insurrection, Lincoln had authorized military arrests such as that of Merryman "for the public safety." The difficulty was that the Constitution did not specify exactly who had the power to suspend the writ—the President, Congress, or the courts—and Taney categorically denied that Lincoln possessed the authority, commander-in-chief or not. Lincoln ignored Taney, and Congress later endorsed Lincoln's action.

A far larger difficulty loomed over whether Lincoln's war powers authorized him to deal with what he believed was the root cause of the war, slavery. The litigation over Merryman and the blockade taught Lincoln that any effort to use those powers to decree the emancipation of the South's slaves would be challenged in the federal courts. But by mid-1862, the progress of the war was so discouraging that Lincoln determined to risk the issue of an Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, on the strength of "military necessity." The question of the legality of the Proclamation was never put to the test, as Congress approved a constitutional amendment banning slavery in January, 1865, and its ratification lifted emancipation above court scrutiny.


Lincoln began working on plans to reintegrate a defeated Confederacy into the union in 1862, appointing military governors for those portions of the Confederacy occupied by Union troops. The record of the military governors, however, was uneven, so Lincoln turned in 1863 to fostering the organization of civilian loyalist regimes as the new governments of the conquered Southern states. Congress refused to recognize the legitimacy of the representatives these regimes sent to Washington, and by 1865, Lincoln was gradually returning to the idea of using military governors to oversee the political reconstruction of the South.

Although Lincoln refused to discuss any peace terms short of national reunification, by the last year of the war he was willing to sanction three separate peace initiatives. He would not, however, modify his insistence on emancipation and the restoration of federal authority as conditions for peace. In his second inaugural address (on March 4, 1865), Lincoln declared his hope that the Civil War could come to its close "with malice toward none, with charity for all." But this hope was cut short by his death only six weeks later from an assassin's bullet. The subsequent reconstruction of the defeated Confederacy was politically confused and ineffectively managed by Lincoln's successors.


Bruce, Robert V. Lincoln and the Tools of War. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merrill, 1956.

Davis, William C. Lincoln's Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Hattaway, Herman, and Jones, Archer. "Lincoln as Military Strategist." Civil War History 26 (1980): 293–303.

Hendrick, Burton J. Lincoln's War Cabinet. Boston: Little, Brown, 1946.

Lowry, Thomas P. Don't Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice. Mason City, IA: Savas, 1999.

MacCartney, Clarence Edward. Lincoln and His Generals. Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co., 1925.

MacCartney, Clarence Edward. Mr. Lincoln's Admirals. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1956.

Prokopowicz, Gerald J. "Military Fantasies." In The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon, edited by Gabor S. Boritt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Williams, Kenneth P. Lincoln Finds a General: A Military Study of the Civil War. 5 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1949–59.

Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Knopf, 1952.

Allen C. Guelzo

See also:Emancipation Proclamation; Lincoln, Mary Todd.

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