Abraham Lincoln

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(CC) Photo: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken in Chicago by William Shaw in 1859.[1]

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865), was 16th President of the United States of America and served during the American Civil War (1861-1865). He is best known for saving the Union and abolishing slavery, and is an icon of American values. With a profound sense of American history, unswerving commitment to republican ideals, and an almost Shakespearean command of the language, Lincoln articulated a vision of a new birth of freedom for the American nation. The destruction of the Confederacy, and of the slave power that menaced republican ideals, affirmed Lincoln's vision in the Gettysburg Address (1863) and guaranteed that "...government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Frontier Life

Lincoln and son, Tad.

Lincoln grew up in a hard-luck, hard-scrabble environment on the middle border. His paternal ancestors were English; they migrated from Hingham, England, to Hingham Massachusetts, in 1637. In the 1730s they moved to backwoods Pennsylvania and Virginia. His grandfather moved to Kentucky in 1782, where he was scalped by Indians raiding his farm in 1786. His father Thomas owned some farmland near Elizabethtown, where he farmed and worked as a carpenter. He married Nancy Hanks (Abraham's mother) in 1806; she was illiterate, but little is known about her family. Thomas never owned slaves and lost his lands in court cases, which embittered him against slavery. The family moved to southern Indiana (where slavery was illegal) when Abe was seven. They lived in dire poverty in a dugout on a hillside --too poor even for a log cabin of the sort Abe was born in. Abe's mother died in 1818, and Thomas married Sarah Johnson, a widow with three children who treated her stepson Abe well. His parents were devout followers of the Primitive Baptist religion, but Abe avoided camp meetings and never joined a church. There were no regular schools, but itinerant teachers came about from time to time, working for the room and board. Abe had about 18 months of schooling, but he was self-taught. A voracious reader with a good memory, he borrowed every book available, and soon mastered the Bible, American history, English history, and Shakespeare.

Unusually ambitious and hungry for knowledge, he seemed to his neighbors too tall, too ugly, too clumsy, too lazy, and too disrespectful of his father. But Lincoln told great stories and bawdy jokes and socialized well. In his law practice, his easy rapport with juries, buttressed by meticulous research and attention to detail, facilitated a successful career. He rode circuit half the year through central Illinois, then returned to his home in Springfield, Illinois, to handle all sorts of cases, even high-paying ones for the new railroad corporations.

Whig Politician

Lincoln tested his remarkable leadership skills with four brilliant terms as a Whig leader in the Illinois state legislature, and one as an unimportant backbencher in Congress, where he is best known for opposing the war with Mexico.

As an admirer of Henry Clay, Lincoln enthusiastically promoted economic modernization, including banks, canals, railroads and tariffs to encourage factories.[2] He actively promoted a state canal scheme that collapsed and left the state in debt for decades, with no canals operational. Undaunted, he promoted railroads. His political problem was that Whigs rarely carried the state of Illinois. Frustrated by the slow collapse of the Whig party, and his inability to get a suitable reward after working hard for Zachary Taylor in 1848, Lincoln withdrew from politics in 1849 and concentrated on his law business. In 1842 he had married Mary Todd of Springfield, whose parents were wealthy slaveowners in Kentucky. (Lincoln's in-laws supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.)

Crises of 1850s

Returning to the political arena in 1854, Lincoln played a major role in building a powerful new Republican party in Illinois and the fast-growing West. His basic principle was that slavery had to be eventually abolished; he rejected the abolitionist position that it was a sin and had to be abolished immediately. "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent," he insisted. "I say this is the leading principle, the sheet-anchor of American republicanism." Slavery, he continued, was incompatible with the "consent of the governed" clause of the Declaration of Independence. Cultivating the growing German vote, he avoided nativism and the Know Nothings. The Germans, nevertheless, mostly became Democrats as did all the Irish Catholic immigrants in the larger towns and cities. Yankee immigrants into northern Illinois formed the backbone of the new party, and Lincoln, who always admired Yankee energy and erudition, worked well with them. He assembled a complex coalition, including many from Indiana and Kentucky, that held its own in central Illinois. Southern Illinois was the Democratic stronghold, but its population growth lagged the rest of the state, so there was a trend toward the Republicans.

In 1855 the Republicans controlled the state legislature and Lincoln was in line for a seat in the U.S. Senate; however, he was outmaneuvered and forced to deliver the seat to Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln kept control of the party, and started giving speeches in neighboring states that gained him regional visibility.

Since Compromise of 1850, Stephen A. Douglas of Chicago, had emerged as the dominant figure in the Democratic Party. He had desires on the presidency, and challenged Democratic President James Buchanan for control of the party. Douglas denounced Buchanan as a politician too much in league with the slaveowners and who had cheated the people of Kansas out of fair government (see Bleeding Kansas). Many anti-slavery Democrats, mostly in the East, were ready to support Douglas. In 1858, Lincoln challenged Douglas for the open Illinois Senate seat, which became one of the most dramatic Senate races in U.S. history. The race, especially the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, propelled Lincoln into the national spotlight. He attacked Douglas for himself being in league with southern slaveholders (easy to do given the pro-slavery domination of the Democratic Party), and warned that Douglas's efforts to compromise between freedom and slavery were doomed.[3] It was also during this race, that Lincoln delivered his famous oration of the immediate future of the United States, saying:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.... 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. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Lincoln's powerful rhetoric downplayed the Constitution and emphasize the U.S. Declaration of Independence as the expression of core American republican values. Intense study of history and the Constitution convinced Lincoln that the nation was founded on equal rights, which meant that slavery had to be stopped from expansion; without expansion it would fade away and eventually be replaced everywhere by free labor. The debates established his reputation as the most articulate and prominent party leader in the West, even though Douglas won reelection.

In 1860 most observers expected the Republicans would win the presidency since they dominated more than enough northern states to control a majority of electoral votes; they needed no southern votes (and received almost none). The party sought the candidate who seemed most likely to carry the close states of Illinois and Indiana. Lincoln's reputation was "moderate" -- antislavery regarding the western territories, but not abolitionist or hostile toward the South--and proved acceptable to all factions of the party. Once nominated he gave no speeches. Instead of the fervent crusading campaign of 1856, the confident young party spent its energy in getting out its votes, using its large network of newspapers and the "Wide Awakes," a young man's marching society,

Four parties contested the presidency in 1860 because Americans had four radically different interpretations of the "republicanism" they were all committed to. Lincoln and the Republicans demanded equal rights and freedom for all men, arguing that federal sponsorship of slavery was incompatible with the Declaration of Independence that created the nation in the first place; the party promised to keep the Union together.[4] Douglas and the northern Democrats fervently believed in democracy; the people were always right, and what they wanted--be it slavery or no--was always best. The Southern Democrats said the Constitution of 1787 had guaranteed rights protected by the states--meaning of course slave property. To the extent that Yankees were repudiating that compact, it was the Yankees who threatened the Union, and the Southerners who were defending their historic rights. The Constitutional Union party said equal rights, democracy and property were all secondary to American nationalism. No two parties could agree on any coalition. Even if Lincoln's three opponents had formed a coalition--a political impossibility--he would still have won the electoral college because of narrow majorities in nearly all the northern states. Eventually during the war Lincoln tried to synthesize all the viewpoints, guaranteeing a permanent union and speeding up the end of slavery.

Civil War: 1861

To the seven cotton states, Lincoln's election signaled a declaration of permanent Yankee hostility, and the inexorable destruction of states' rights. Led by South Carolina they seceded one by one.[5] By February, 1861, they had declared the formation of a new country, the Confederate States of America, and elected Jefferson Davis as president. The border states tried to remain neutral; elder statesmen met to fashion some sort of compromise; and the Buchanan administration stood paralyzed as the new Confederacy peacefully took over federal properties in its territory.

Aware that this was a crisis in mankind's history, Lincoln pledged never to surrender "that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but I hope to the world for all future time."[6] Yet for the most part Lincoln stood silent, focusing his attention on the patronage compromises necessary to fashion the first Republican administration. Believing (falsely) that most southerners were unionists at heart and that a small radical faction had seized power, Lincoln refused to compromise or even negotiate with Confederate delegations. He resolved to keep the one bit of property still in Federal hands, Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.[7] The Confederates, knowing they could never be recognized as a legitimate nation if some other country had a fort in its major harbor, insisted on surrender. Jefferson Davis ordered the first shot. That attack on the American flag set off a wave of patriotism and nationalism across the North, as war fever reached a high pitch. Both parties strongly supported Lincoln's war measures. In the lower border states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas) there was a sense of betrayal as Unionists were stunned by Lincoln's demand they furnish soldiers to invade a fellow state. They rejected the invasion of the seceding states as a violation of state's rights. These border states did not have a cotton base and had refused to join the Confederacy, but now they did so.

Confusion reigned in the upper border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, as well as western Virginia. Lincoln outmaneuvered the Confederacy and kept control there. He split off West Virginia as a separate state. In Maryland he had pro-Confederate leaders arrested and kept in military prison (without trial), until the state was secure. In Missouri he sent in the army to capture the state, and it did. In Kentucky he agreed to an informal neutrality that lasted until the Confederates broke it, then he sent in the army under Ulysses Grant.

Lincoln consistently underestimated the scope and strength of the rebellion. After Ft. Sumter was attacked he asked the governors for only 75,000 soldiers for only 90 days--not appreciating that over twenty times more men would be needed, for nearly twenty times as long. In terms of military policy, Lincoln demanded that his generals march "On to Richmond!" in the conviction that the capture of the rebel capital would delegitimize the very existence of a rival nation, and lead to the speedy downfall of the Confederacy. Richmond proved impossible to capture until the very end, when Lee's army had practically melted away and the Yankees had an overwhelming numerical advantage. As for slavery he needed support from the Unionist slaveowners early in the war, and therefore reversed a proclamation by General John C. Fremont (the 1856 Republican nominee) to free slaves in Missouri in August, 1861.

Lincoln blundered when he called for a blockade of southern ports in May, 1861, because that gave the Confederacy a degree of legitimacy as the European powers recognized the blockade and also the belligerent status of the Confederacy. (Legally Lincoln should have declared the ports closed to all traffic.) On the other hand, his blockade shut down all commercial shipping from all southern ports and played a major role in defeating "King Cotton" by strangling the southern economy. The Confederacy soon became a prison, with only fast, small blockade-running ships able to sneak in and out. Cooperation between the Army and Navy, under Lincoln's close supervision, soon led to landings at key points along the southern coast, especially the Sea Islands off Georgia, and to the enormously important capture of New Orleans in April 1862.

Civil War: 1862-3

Lincoln's success as president stemmed from his single-minded devotion to the Union. His fixed policy was to never compromise with secession. Everything else was on the table, including civil liberties and slavery. In his presidency, especially during the wartime, the individual liberties had eroded significantly. For example, he suspended habeas corpus, allowing his army to arrest 18,000 outspoken supporters of the rebellion and hold them in military prison without trial.[8] There were some summary executions by federal forces, especially in Kentucky, but Lincoln did not authorize them.

Throughout 1862 he worked up plans for unionist elections in the South, including stillborn schemes for compensated emancipation and deportation of the freed slaves out of the country. His plan assumed that 10% of the legal voters would support the Union, a goal he had a hard time reaching when applied to Louisiana and Arkansas. His preliminary proclamation in September, 1862, threatened emancipation of slaves in areas that did not start returning to the Union. The proclamation mollified radical elements in his party, but drove the majority of northern Democrats into opposition to the war. Recruiting became much more difficult, and the effort to impose a draft produced more resentment than soldiers. The Emancipation took effect January 1, 1863, and in practice freed all the slaves in the Confederacy. It was not a law, however, so Lincoln worked to get the border states to abolish slavery, and to secure a constitutional amendment to permanently end slavery. The 13th Amendment passed Congress narrowly in February, 1865; was ratified; and took effect in December, 1865.[9]

Lincoln grew into the role of commander-in-chief, first leaving too much up to McClellan, then unsuccessfully trying to micromanage events and to manipulate leaders like Hooker and McClernand, and finally reaching a working understanding with Grant and Sherman. Lincoln worked closely with his secretaries of War and Navy, seeing his role as Commander in Chief of the military as paramount. He was keenly interested in the development of new rifles, guns and ships; and in recruitment and conscription. He selected all the generals, promoting or removing them according to a complex calculus of party politics, public opinion, and--most of all--victory on the battlefield. He ran through a series of inept or under- confident generals who kept failing to defeat Robert E. Lee or capture Richmond. George McClellan in particular was brilliant at training and organizing an army, but proved most reluctant to actually fight a battle. Frustrated, Lincoln demoted McClellan, but then had to reinstate him when the replacements failed.

The western theater provided bigger victories and better generals. Lincoln brought Halleck east in 1862 to act as chief of staff, and Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 to assume overall command of all the armies. Grant shrewdly accepted all of Lincoln's suggestions regarding military strategy, and in turn Lincoln gave him complete political support. This proved especially critical in the hot summer of 1864, when Grant's relentless attrition campaign against Lee threatened Lincoln's reelection chances. Grant vowed to fight it out all summer, which meant agonizingly high casualty totals and a series of defeats by Lee's army. Lincoln grimly replaced Grant's losses and pushed him forward. Lee could not replace his losses and was forced into a hopeless position in trenches around Richmond. Lincoln also supported William T. Sherman's daring plan to cut loose from his long supply line, and march from Atlanta to the sea in late 1864, destroying a swath of Georgia plantations; and proving to the Confederates they could not control their lands. Sherman gave Savannah to the nation as a Christmas present, then marched north, devastating much of South Carolina and North Carolina. The puzzle for historians is why Lee and Davis fought on to the bitter end in April 1865, when they could have had much better terms from Lincoln over the winter. Indeed, Lincoln personally met with high Confederate officials on February 3, 1865, but they insisted on independence so there was nothing to discuss.

Lincoln put strong men in his cabinet and let them run their departments.[10] He did monitor the distribution of major patronage appointments, but otherwise largely rubber-stamped Secretary of State William Seward's conduct of foreign affairs. Seward's main goal was to block the recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France; he succeeded, as no country large or small recognized Richmond. Nonetheless, Seward and ambassador Charles Francis Adams Sr. were unable to stop Britain from building several commerce raiders (which operated under the Confederate flag, with Southern officers and British crews). Britain also built hundreds of blockade runners which operated under the British flag with British crews. Lincoln also rubber-stamped Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase's financial legerdemain, which resulted in full funding of the war effort through bonds and taxes, the creation of a national banking system to provide a stable basis for war financing and postwar prosperity, and the extensive purchases of cotton at high prices from rebels.

Meanwhile the Republican Congress was passing momentous legislation ranging from heavy new income taxes, excises, high tariffs and massive spending bills, to a national banking system, transcontinental railroads and land grants to education. The Republicans were enacting their program for rapid modernization of the economy; although Lincoln had little to do with this legislation, he approved it enthusiastically and repeatedly boasted of the economic growth and prosperity during his term.[11]

Civil War: 1864-5

When Congress passed the harsh "Wade-Davis" plan for Reconstruction in 1864, Lincoln vetoed it. The plan would allow ex-Confederates no role in their states after the war; years of military rule were implied and Lincoln strongly rejected that. Lincoln wanted to reincorporate them into the Union; in his plan they only had to promise future loyalty to the Union. He planned to control reconstruction himself, following a policy of "charity to all, and malice to none," with the fastest possible return to full citizenship of the erring southern brethren. Lincoln took the lead in enlisting some 190,000 black soldiers and sailors, in the knowledge that a record of fighting for the country was the surest test of republican citizenship. The Emancipation Proclamation was not legislation but merely a presidential proclamation that would expire at the end of the war; Lincoln in winter 1864-65 used the political momentum of his reelection landslide, and the obvious nearness of Confederate collapse, to replace it with the permanent Thirteenth Amendment in February, 1865.

In his great Second Inaugural speech, Lincoln used but 703 words in 25 sentences to draw timeless meanings from a struggle that had exhausted a nation and cost more than 600,000 lives. He used the Bible to underscore his theological interpretation of God's will; "The Almighty has His own purposes" in punishing Americans--all Americans--for the sin of "American Slavery." He chose his words carefully, so as not to inflame the aroused passions of his 30,000 listeners, many of them soldiers. Lincoln's famous phrase, "And the war came" stresses inevitability and places no blame on anyone. According to White (2001) with this phrase, "Lincoln is setting the stage for a different angle of vision, an alternative perspective on the meaning of the war." Lincoln argues that this war cannot be understood simply as the fulfillment of human plans.

McPherson (2004) examines why it is "harder to end a war than to start one." As in the case of World War II, the Civil War did not end with a negotiated peace but with unconditional surrender by the losing armies. The issues over which the Civil War was fought - union versus disunion, freedom versus slavery - proved to be nonnegotiable. Nevertheless, during the war there were numerous efforts to achieve peace through negotiations. These efforts proceeded through three stages: foreign mediation, unofficial contacts, and quasi-official conversations. All failed. The author analyzes the aborted effort by Britain and France to mediate the conflict and end the war on the basis of Confederate independence in 1862, the unofficial contacts between Northern civilians and Confederate officials in 1864, and the Hampton Roads conference of February 1865, in which Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward met with three Confederate officials, including Vice President Alexander Stephens. All of these efforts foundered on the irreconcilable positions of Lincoln and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. As Lincoln stated in his message to Congress in December 1864, the central issue of union or disunion "can only be tried by war, and decided by victory."


  1. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, #DN007087. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Enhanced.
  2. Boritt (1994)
  3. June 16, 1858. At the Republican state convention, this speech was not part of the debates. Basler (1946) p.372
  4. The 1860 GOP platform said: That all men are created equal... is essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions; and that the Federal Constitution, the Rights of the States, and the Union of the States, must and shall be preserved.[1]
  5. They did not call upon the right of rebellion. They said one state right was the right to secede.
  6. Lincoln, "Address in Independence Hall, Philadelphia," February 22, 1861, online at [2]
  7. The Union also controlled two remote forts in Florida.
  8. Neely 1992
  9. By then there were only about 40,000 legal slaves left in Kentucky, and a couple thousand in West Virginia and Delaware, compared to 4 million when the war began.
  10. Goodwin (2005)
  11. Richardson (1997)