The need  for true leadership in all sphere of life
cannot be overemphasized. The turmoil, chaos and
confusion plaguing society can only be arrested by
good leadership. Leadership is not just occupying
position; it is influence. The one who influences
things is the true leader and not the one occupying
We at Daniel Ukwu Leadership Foundation seeks to
promote leadership values and encourage good
governance. In pursuit of what we represent as an
organization, we wish to study the lives of
prominent leaders whose landmark achievements
and contribution made them stand out in life. We
wish to inspire and challenge young and intending
leaders to rise to the occasion and be that man/
woman that this nation and Africa has long waited
We will be perusing in this article the life of
arguably one of America’s greatest leaders:
Abraham Lincoln. His life attests to the claim that
where and how a man is born is not an excuse to
settle for the less in life. We see in Lincoln, a man
who rose from humble beginnings to become
arguably one of America’s finest leaders of all
Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 to April 15,
1865) was the 16th president of the United States
and is regarded as one of America’s greatest
heroes due to his role as savior of the Union and
emancipator of the slaves. His rise from humble
beginnings to achieving the highest office in the
land is a remarkable story. He was suddenly and
tragically assassinated at a time when his country
needed him to complete the great task remaining
before the nation. His eloquence of democracy and
insistence that the Union was worth saving embody
the ideals of self-government that all nations
strive to achieve. Lincoln’s distinctively human and
humane personality and incredible impact on the
nation has endowed him with an enduring legacy.
Family and Childhood
Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, the
second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in
a one-room log cabin on the Sinking Spring Farm
near Hodgenville, Kentucky. He was a descendant
of Samuel Lincoln, an Englishman who migrated
from Hingham, Norfolk, to its namesake of
Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1638. Samuel’s
grandson and great-grandson began the family’s
western migration, which passed through New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Lincoln’s
paternal grandfather and namesake, Captain
Abraham Lincoln, moved the family from Virginia
to Jefferson County, Kentucky, in the 1780s.
Captain Lincoln was killed in an Indian raid in 1786.
His children, including eight-year-old Thomas, the
future president’s father, witnessed the attack.
After his father’s murder, Thomas was left to
make his own way on the frontier, working at odd
jobs in Kentucky and in Tennessee, before settling
with members of his family in Hardin County,
Kentucky, in the early 1800s.
Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks were married on
June 12, 1806, in Washington County, and moved to
Elizabethtown, Kentucky, following their marriage.
They became the parents of three children: Sarah,
born on February 10, 1807; Abraham, on February
12, 1809; and another son, Thomas, who died in
infancy. Thomas Lincoln bought or leased several
farms in Kentucky, including the Sinking Spring
farm, where Abraham was born; however, a land
title dispute soon forced the Lincolns to move. In
1811, the family moved eight miles (13 km) north,
to Knob Creek Farm, where Thomas acquired title
to 230 acres (93 ha) of land. In 1815 a claimant in
another land dispute sought to eject the family
from the farm. Of the 816.5 acres (330.4 ha) that
Thomas held in Kentucky, he lost all but 200 acres
(81 ha) of his land in court disputes over property
titles. Frustrated over the lack of security
provided by the Kentucky title survey system in
the courts, Thomas sold the remaining land he held
in Kentucky in 1814, and began planning a move to
Indiana, where the land survey process was more
reliable and the ability for an individual to retain
land titles was more secure.
In 1816, the family moved north across the Ohio
River to Indiana, a free, non-slaveholding
territory, where they settled in an “unbroken
forest” in Hurricane Township, Perry County.
(Their land in southern Indiana became part of
Spencer County, Indiana, when the county was
established in 1818.) The farm is preserved as
part of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. In
1860, Lincoln noted that the family’s move to
Indiana was “partly on account of slavery”; but
mainly due to land title difficulties in Kentucky.
During the family’s years in Kentucky and Indiana,
Thomas Lincoln worked as a farmer, cabinetmaker,
and carpenter. He owned farms, several town lots
and livestock, paid taxes, sat on juries, appraised
estates, served on country slave patrols, and
guarded prisoners. Thomas and Nancy Lincoln were
also members of a Separate Baptists church, which
had restrictive moral standards and opposed
alcohol, dancing, and slavery. Within a year of the
family’s arrival in Indiana, Thomas claimed title to
160 acres (65 ha) of Indiana land. Despite some
financial challenges he eventually obtained clear
title to 80 acres (32 ha) of land in what became
known as the Little Pigeon Creek Community in
Spencer County. Prior to the family’s move to
Illinois in 1830, Thomas had acquired an additional
twenty acres of land adjacent to his property.
On October 5, 1818, Nancy Lincoln died of milk
sickness, leaving eleven-year-old Sarah in charge
of a household that included her father, nine-
year-old Abraham, and Dennis Hanks, Nancy’s
nineteen-year-old orphaned cousin. On December
2, 1819, Lincoln’s father married Sarah “Sally”
Bush Johnston, a widow from Elizabethtown,
Kentucky, with three children of her own. Abraham
became very close to his stepmother, whom he
referred to as “Mother”. Those who knew Lincoln
as a teenager later recalled him being very
distraught over his sister Sarah’s death on January
20, 1828, while giving birth to a stillborn son.
As a youth, Lincoln disliked the hard labor
associated with frontier life. Some of his neighbors
and family members thought for a time that he
was lazy for all his “reading, scribbling, writing,
ciphering, writing Poetry, etc.”, and must have
done it to avoid manual labor. His stepmother also
acknowledged he did not enjoy “physical labor”, but
loved to read. Lincoln was largely self-educated.
His formal schooling from several itinerant
teachers was intermittent, the aggregate of which
may have amounted to less than a year; however,
he was an avid reader and retained a lifelong
interest in learning. Family, neighbors, and
schoolmates of Lincoln’s youth recalled that he
read and reread the King James Bible, Aesop’s
Fables, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress,
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Mason Locke
Weems’s The Life of Washington, and The
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, among others.
As he grew into his teens, Lincoln took
responsibility for the chores expected of him as
one of the boys in the household. He also complied
with the customary obligation of a son giving his
father all earnings from work done outside the
home until the age of twenty-one. Abraham
became adept at using an axe. Tall for his age,
Lincoln was also strong and athletic. He attained a
reputation for brawn and audacity after a very
competitive wrestling match with the renowned
leader of a group of ruffians known as “the Clary’s
Grove boys”.
In early March 1830, partly out of fear of a milk
sickness outbreak along the Ohio River, several
members of the extended Lincoln family moved
west to Illinois, a non-slaveholding state, and
settled in Macon County, 10 miles (16 km) west of
Decatur. Historians disagree on who initiated the
move; Thomas Lincoln had no obvious reason to leave
Indiana, and one possibility is that other members
of the family, including Dennis Hanks, might not
have attained the stability and steady income that
Thomas Lincoln had. After the family relocated to
Illinois, Abraham became increasingly distant from
his father, in part because of his father’s lack of
education, but occasionally lent him money. In 1831,
as Thomas and other members of the family
prepared to move to a new homestead in Coles
County, Illinois, Abraham was old enough to make
his own decisions and struck out on his own.
Traveling down the Sangamon River, he ended up
in the village of New Salem in Sangamon County.
Later that spring, Denton Offutt, a New Salem
merchant, hired Lincoln and some friends to take
goods by flatboat from New Salem to New Orleans
via the Sangamon, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers.
After arriving in New Orleans—and witnessing
slavery firsthand—Lincoln returned to New Salem,
where he remained for the next six years.
Marriage and Children
In 1840, Lincoln became engaged to Mary Todd, who
was from a wealthy slave-holding family in
Lexington, Kentucky. They met in Springfield,
Illinois in December 1839 and were engaged the
following December. A wedding set for January 1,
1841, was canceled when the two broke off their
engagement at Lincoln’s initiative. They later met
again at a party and married on November 4, 1842,
in the Springfield mansion of Mary’s married
sister. While preparing for the nuptials and feeling
anxiety again, Lincoln, when asked where he was
going, replied, “To hell, I suppose.” In 1844, the
couple bought a house in Springfield near Lincoln’s
law office. Mary Todd Lincoln kept house, often
with the help of a relative or hired servant girl.
He was an affectionate, though often absent,
husband and father of four children. Robert Todd
Lincoln was born in 1843 and Edward Baker Lincoln
(Eddie) in 1846. Edward died on February 1, 1850,
in Springfield, probably of tuberculosis. “Willie”
Lincoln was born on December 21, 1850, and died of
a fever on February 20, 1862. The Lincolns’ fourth
son, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, was born on April 4,
1853, and died of heart failure at the age of 18 on
July 16, 1871. Robert was the only child to live to
adulthood and have children. The Lincolns’ last
descendant, great-grandson Robert Todd Lincoln
Beckwith, died in 1985. Lincoln “was remarkably
fond of children”, and the Lincolns were not
considered to be strict with their own.
The deaths of their sons had profound effects on
both parents. Later in life, Mary struggled with
the stresses of losing her husband and sons, and
Robert Lincoln committed her temporarily to a
mental health asylum in 1875. Abraham Lincoln
suffered from “melancholy”, a condition which now
is referred to as clinical depression.
Lincoln’s father-in-law and others of the Todd
family were either slave owners or slave traders.
Lincoln was close to the Todds, and he and his
family occasionally visited the Todd estate in
During his term as President of the United States,
Mary was known to cook for Lincoln often. Since
she was raised by a wealthy family, her cooking
abilities were simple, but satisfied Lincoln’s tastes,
which included, particularly, imported oysters.
Earlier Career and militia service
In 1832, at age 23, Lincoln and a partner bought a
small general store on credit in New Salem, Illinois.
Although the economy was booming in the region,
the business struggled and Lincoln eventually sold
his share. That March he began his political career
with his first campaign for the Illinois General
Assembly. He had attained local popularity and
could draw crowds as a natural raconteur in New
Salem, though he lacked an education, powerful
friends, and money, which may be why he lost. He
advocated navigational improvements on the
Sangamon River.
Before the election, Lincoln served as a captain in
the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War.
Following his return, Lincoln continued his campaign
for the August 6 election for the Illinois General
Assembly. At 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm), he was tall
and “strong enough to intimidate any rival”. At his
first speech, when he saw a supporter in the crowd
being attacked, Lincoln grabbed the assailant by
his “neck and the seat of his trousers” and threw
him. Lincoln finished eighth out of 13 candidates
(the top four were elected), though he received
277 of the 300 votes cast in the New Salem
Lincoln served as New Salem’s postmaster and later
as county surveyor, all the while reading
voraciously. He then decided to become a lawyer
and began teaching himself law by reading
Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England
and other law books. Of his learning method,
Lincoln stated: “I studied with nobody”. His second
campaign in 1834 was successful. He won election to
the state legislature; though he ran as a Whig,
many Democrats favored him over a more powerful
Whig opponent.
Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois
Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836, he moved to
Springfield, Illinois, and began to practice law
under John T. Stuart, Mary Todd’s cousin. Lincoln
became an able and successful lawyer with a
reputation as a formidable adversary during cross-
examinations and closing arguments. He partnered
with Stephen T. Logan from 1841 until 1844. Then
Lincoln began his practice with William Herndon,
whom Lincoln thought “a studious young man”.
Successful on his second run for office, Lincoln
served four successive terms in the Illinois House of
Representatives as a Whig representative from
Sangamon County. He supported the construction
of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which he
remained involved with later as a Canal
Commissioner. In the 1835–36 legislative session, he
voted to expand suffrage to white males, whether
landowners or not. He was known for his “free soil”
stance of opposing both slavery and abolitionism. He
first articulated this in 1837, saying, “[The] Institution of slavery is founded on both injustice
and bad policy, but the promulgation of abolition
doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its
evils.” His stance closely followed Henry Clay in
supporting the American Colonization Society
program of making the abolition of slavery
practical by its advocation and helping the freed
slaves to settle in Liberia in Africa.
U.S. House of Representatives, 1847–49
From the early 1830s, Lincoln was a steadfast Whig
and professed to friends in 1861 to be “an old line
Whig, a disciple of Henry Clay”. The party,
including Lincoln, favored economic modernization in
banking, protective tariffs to fund internal
improvements including railroads, and espoused
urbanization as well.
Lincoln ran for the Whig nomination for Illinois’s
7th district of the U.S. House of Representatives
in 1843, but was defeated by John J. Hardin.
However, Lincoln won support for the principle of
rotation, whereby Hardin would retire after only
one term to allow for the nomination of another
candidate. Lincoln hoped that this arrangement
would lead to his nomination in 1846. Lincoln was
indeed elected to the House of Representatives in
1846, where he served one two-year term. He was
the only Whig in the Illinois delegation, but he
showed his party loyalty by participating in almost
all votes and making speeches that echoed the
party line. Lincoln, in collaboration with abolitionist
Congressman Joshua R. Giddings, wrote a bill to
abolish slavery in the District of Columbia with
compensation for the owners, enforcement to
capture fugitive slaves, and a popular vote on the
matter. He abandoned the bill when it failed to
garner sufficient Whig supporters.
On foreign and military policy, Lincoln spoke out
against the Mexican–American War, which he
attributed to President Polk’s desire for “military
glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in
showers of blood”. Lincoln also supported the Wilmot
Proviso, which, if it had been adopted, would have
banned slavery in any U.S. territory won from
Lincoln emphasized his opposition to Polk by
drafting and introducing his Spot Resolutions. The
war had begun with a Mexican slaughter of
American soldiers in territory disputed by Mexico
and the U.S. Polk insisted that Mexican soldiers had
“invaded our territory and shed the blood of our
fellow-citizens on our own soil”. Lincoln demanded
that Polk show Congress the exact spot on which
blood had been shed and prove that the spot was on
American soil.
Congress never enacted the resolution or even
debated it, the national papers ignored it, and it
resulted in a loss of political support for Lincoln in
his district. One Illinois newspaper derisively
nicknamed him “spotty Lincoln”. Lincoln later
regretted some of his statements, especially his
attack on the presidential war-making powers.
Realizing Clay was unlikely to win the presidency,
Lincoln, who had pledged in 1846 to serve only one
term in the House, supported General Zachary
Taylor for the Whig nomination in the 1848
presidential election. Taylor won and Lincoln hoped
to be appointed Commissioner of the General Land
Office, but that lucrative patronage job went to an
Illinois rival, Justin Butterfield, considered by the
administration to be a highly skilled lawyer, but in
Lincoln’s view, an “old fossil”. The administration
offered him the consolation prize of secretary or
governor of the Oregon Territory. This distant
territory was a Democratic stronghold, and
acceptance of the post would have effectively
ended his legal and political career in Illinois, so he
declined and resumed his law practice.
Prairie lawyer
Lincoln in 1857
Lincoln returned to practicing law in Springfield,
handling “every kind of business that could come
before a prairie lawyer”. Twice a year for 16
years, 10 weeks at a time, he appeared in county
seats in the midstate region when the county
courts were in session. Lincoln handled many
transportation cases in the midst of the nation’s
western expansion, particularly the conflicts arising
from the operation of river barges under the many
new railroad bridges. As a riverboat man, Lincoln
initially favored those interests, but ultimately
represented whoever hired him. In fact, he later
represented a bridge company against a riverboat
company in a landmark case involving a canal boat
that sank after hitting a bridge. In 1849, he
received a patent for a flotation device for the
movement of boats in shallow water. The idea was
never commercialized, but Lincoln is the only
president to hold a patent.
In 1851, he represented the Alton & Sangamon
Railroad in a dispute with one of its shareholders,
James A. Barret, who had refused to pay the
balance on his pledge to buy shares in the railroad
on the grounds that the company had changed its
original train route. Lincoln successfully argued
that the railroad company was not bound by its
original charter extant at the time of Barret’s
pledge; the charter was amended in the public
interest to provide a newer, superior, and less
expensive route, and the corporation retained the
right to demand Barret’s payment. The decision by
the Illinois Supreme Court has been cited by
numerous other courts in the nation. Lincoln
appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court in 175
cases, in 51 as sole counsel, of which 31 were
decided in his favor. From 1853 to 1860, another of
Lincoln’s largest clients was the Illinois Central
Railroad. Lincoln’s reputation with clients gave rise
to his nickname “Honest Abe.”
Lincoln’s most notable criminal trial occurred in
1858 when he defended William “Duff” Armstrong,
who was on trial for the murder of James Preston
Metzker. The case is famous for Lincoln’s use of a
fact established by judicial notice in order to
challenge the credibility of an eyewitness. After an
opposing witness testified seeing the crime in the
moonlight, Lincoln produced a Farmers’ Almanac
showing the moon was at a low angle, drastically
reducing visibility. Based on this evidence,
Armstrong was acquitted.
Lincoln rarely raised objections in the courtroom;
but in an 1859 case, where he defended a cousin,
Peachy Harrison, who was accused of stabbing
another to death, Lincoln angrily protested the
judge’s decision to exclude evidence favorable to
his client. Instead of holding Lincoln in contempt of
court as was expected, the judge, a Democrat,
reversed his ruling, allowing the evidence and
acquitting Harrison.
Republican politics 1854–60
The debate over the status of slavery in the
territories exacerbated sectional tensions between
the slave-holding South and the North, and the
Compromise of 1850 failed to defuse the issue. In
the early 1850s, Lincoln supported efforts for
sectional mediation, and his 1852 eulogy for Henry
Clay focused on the latter’s support for gradual
emancipation and opposition to “both extremes” on
the slavery issue. As the 1850s progressed, the
debate over slavery in the Nebraska Territory and
Kansas Territory became particularly acrimonious,
and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed
popular sovereignty as a compromise measure; the
proposal would take the issue of slavery out of the
hands of Congress by allowing the people of each
territory to decide the status of slavery
themselves. The proposal alarmed many
Northerners, who hoped to stop the spread of
slavery into the territories. Despite this Northern
opposition, Douglas’s Kansas–Nebraska Act narrowly
passed Congress in May 1854.
For months after its passage, Lincoln did not
publicly comment on the Kansas–Nebraska Act, but
he came to strongly oppose it. On October 16, 1854,
in his “Peoria Speech”, Lincoln declared his
opposition to slavery, which he repeated en route
to the presidency. Speaking in his Kentucky accent,
with a very powerful voice, he said the Kansas Act
had a “declared indifference, but as I must think,
a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery. I
cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the
monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it
because it deprives our republican example of its
just influence in the world …” Lincoln’s attacks on
the Kansas–Nebraska Act marked his return to
political life.
Nationally, the Whigs were irreparably split by the
Kansas–Nebraska Act and other efforts to
compromise on the slavery issue. Reflecting the
demise of his party, Lincoln would write in 1855, “I
think I am a Whig, but others say there are no
Whigs, and that I am an abolitionist […] I do no
more than oppose the extension of slavery.”
Drawing on the antislavery portion of the Whig
Party, and combining Free Soil, Liberty, and
antislavery Democratic Party members, the new
Republican Party formed as a northern party
dedicated to antislavery. Lincoln resisted early
attempts to recruit him to the new party, fearing
that it would serve as a platform for extreme
abolitionists. Lincoln also still hoped to rejuvenate
the ailing Whig Party, though he bemoaned his
party’s growing closeness with the nativist Know
Nothing movement.
In the 1854 elections, Lincoln was elected to the
Illinois legislature but declined to take his seat. In
the aftermath of the elections, which showed the
power and popularity of the movement opposed to
the Kansas–Nebraska Act, Lincoln instead sought
election to the United States Senate. At that
time, senators were elected by the state
legislature. After leading in the first six rounds of
voting, but unable to obtain a majority, Lincoln
instructed his backers to vote for Lyman Trumbull.
Trumbull was an antislavery Democrat, and had
received few votes in the earlier ballots; his
supporters, also antislavery Democrats, had vowed
not to support any Whig. Lincoln’s decision to
withdraw enabled his Whig supporters and
Trumbull’s antislavery Democrats to combine and
defeat the mainstream Democratic candidate, Joel
Aldrich Matteson.
In part due to the ongoing violent political
confrontations in the Kansas, opposition to the
Kansas–Nebraska Act remained strong in Illinois and
throughout the North. As the 1856 elections
approached, Lincoln abandoned the defunct Whig
Party in favor of the Republicans. He attended the
May 1856 Bloomington Convention, which formally
established the Illinois Republican Party. The
convention platform asserted that Congress had
the right to regulate slavery in the territories and
called for the immediate admission of Kansas as a
free state. Lincoln gave the final speech of the
convention, in which he endorsed the party
platform and called for the preservation of the
Union. At the June 1856 Republican National
Convention, Lincoln received significant support on
the vice presidential ballot, though the party
nominated a ticket of John C. Frémont and William
Dayton. Lincoln strongly supported the Republican
ticket, campaigning for the party throughout
Illinois. The Democrats nominated former
Ambassador James Buchanan, who had been out of
the country since 1853 and thus had avoided the
debate over slavery in the territories, while the
Know Nothings nominated former Whig President
Millard Fillmore. In the 1856 elections, Buchanan
defeated both his challengers, but Frémont won
several Northern states and Republican William
Henry Bissell won election as Governor of Illinois.
Though Lincoln did not himself win office, his
vigorous campaigning had made him the leading
Republican in Illinois.
Lincoln–Douglas debates and Cooper Union speech
Douglas was up for re-election in 1858, and Lincoln
hoped to defeat the powerful Illinois Democrat.
With the former Democrat Trumbull now serving as
a Republican Senator, many in the party felt that
a former Whig should be nominated in 1858, and
Lincoln’s 1856 campaigning and willingness to
support Trumbull in 1854 had earned him favor in
the party. Some eastern Republicans favored the
reelection of Douglas for the Senate in 1858, since
he had led the opposition to the Lecompton
Constitution, which would have admitted Kansas as
a slave state. But many Illinois Republicans
resented this eastern interference. For the first
time, Illinois Republicans held a convention to agree
upon a Senate candidate, and Lincoln won the
party’s Senate nomination with little opposition.
Accepting the nomination, Lincoln delivered his
House Divided Speech, drawing on Mark 3:25, “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.” The speech
created an evocative image of the danger of
disunion caused by the slavery debate, and rallied
Republicans across the North. The stage was then
set for the campaign for statewide election of the
Illinois legislature which would, in turn, select
Lincoln or Douglas as its U.S. senator. On being
informed of Lincoln’s nomination, Douglas stated
“[Lincoln] is the strong man of the party…and if I
beat him, my victory will be hardly won.”
The Senate campaign featured the seven Lincoln–
Douglas debates of 1858, the most famous political
debates in American history. The principals stood in
stark contrast both physically and politically.
Lincoln warned that “The Slave Power” was
threatening the values of republicanism, and
accused Douglas of distorting the values of the
Founding Fathers that all men are created equal,
while Douglas emphasized his Freeport Doctrine,
that local settlers were free to choose whether to
allow slavery or not, and accused Lincoln of having
joined the abolitionists. The debates had an
atmosphere of a prize fight and drew crowds in
the thousands. Lincoln stated Douglas’ popular
sovereignty theory was a threat to the nation’s
morality and that Douglas represented a conspiracy
to extend slavery to free states. Douglas said that
Lincoln was defying the authority of the U.S.
Supreme Court and the Dred Scott decision.
Though the Republican legislative candidates won
more popular votes, the Democrats won more seats,
and the legislature re-elected Douglas to the
Senate. Despite the bitterness of the defeat for
Lincoln, his articulation of the issues gave him a
national political reputation. In May 1859, Lincoln
purchased the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, a German-
language newspaper which was consistently
supportive; most of the state’s 130,000 German
Americans voted Democratic but there was
Republican support that a German-language paper
could mobilize. In the aftermath of the 1858
election, newspapers frequently mentioned Lincoln
as a potential Republican presidential candidate in
1860, with William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase,
Edward Bates, and Simon Cameron looming as rivals
for the nomination. While Lincoln was popular in the
Midwest, he lacked support in the Northeast, and
was unsure as to whether he should seek the
presidency. In January 1860, Lincoln told a group
of political allies that he would accept the 1860
presidential nomination if offered, and in the
following months several local papers endorsed
Lincoln for president.
On February 27, 1860, New York party leaders
invited Lincoln to give a speech at Cooper Union to
a group of powerful Republicans. Lincoln argued
that the Founding Fathers had little use for
popular sovereignty and had repeatedly sought to
restrict slavery. Lincoln insisted the moral
foundation of the Republicans required opposition
to slavery, and rejected any “groping for some
middle ground between the right and the wrong”.
Despite his inelegant appearance—many in the
audience thought him awkward and even ugly—
Lincoln demonstrated an intellectual leadership
that brought him into the front ranks of the party
and into contention for the Republican presidential
nomination. Journalist Noah Brooks reported, “No
man ever before made such an impression on his
first appeal to a New York audience.”
Historian Donald described the speech as a “superb
political move for an unannounced candidate, to
appear in one rival’s (Seward) own state at an
event sponsored by the second rival’s (Chase)
loyalists, while not mentioning either by name
during its delivery”. In response to an inquiry about
his presidential intentions, Lincoln said, “The taste
is in my mouth a little.”
1860 Presidential nomination and campaign
On May 9–10, 1860, the Illinois Republican State
Convention was held in Decatur. Lincoln’s followers
organized a campaign team led by David Davis,
Norman Judd, Leonard Swett, and Jesse DuBois,
and Lincoln received his first endorsement to run
for the presidency. Exploiting the embellished
legend of his frontier days with his father
(clearing the land and splitting fence rails with an
ax), Lincoln’s supporters adopted the label of “The
Rail Candidate”. In 1860 Lincoln described himself:
“I am in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean
in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and
eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black
hair, and gray eyes.”
On May 18, at the Republican National Convention
in Chicago, Lincoln became the Republican
candidate on the third ballot, beating candidates
such as Seward and Chase. A former Democrat,
Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, was nominated for Vice
President to balance the ticket. Lincoln’s success
depended on his campaign team, his reputation as a
moderate on the slavery issue, and his strong
support for Whiggish programs of internal
improvements and the protective tariff.
On the third ballot Pennsylvania put him over the
top. Pennsylvania iron interests were reassured by
his support for protective tariffs. Lincoln’s
managers had been adroitly focused on this
delegation as well as the others, while following
Lincoln’s strong dictate to “Make no contracts that
bind me”.
Most Republicans agreed with Lincoln that the
North was the aggrieved party, as the Slave Power
tightened its grasp on the national government
with the Dred Scott decision and the presidency of
James Buchanan. Throughout the 1850s, Lincoln
doubted the prospects of civil war, and his
supporters rejected claims that his election would
incite secession. Meanwhile, Douglas was selected as
the candidate of the Northern Democrats.
Delegates from 11 slave states walked out of the
Democratic convention, disagreeing with Douglas’
position on popular sovereignty, and ultimately
selected incumbent Vice President John C.
Breckinridge as their candidate. A group of former
Whigs and Know Nothings formed the Constitutional
Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
Lincoln and Douglas would compete for votes in the
North, while Bell and Breckinridge primarily found
support in the South.
Lincoln had a highly effective campaign team who
carefully projected his image as an ideal candidate.
As Michael Martinez says:
Lincoln and his political advisers manipulated his
image and background….Sometimes he appeared as
a straight-shooting, plain-talking, common-sense-
wielding man of the people. His image as the “Rail
Splitter” dates from this era. His supporters also
portrayed him as “Honest Abe,” the country fellow
who was simply dressed and not especially polished
or formal in his manner but who was as honest and
trustworthy as his legs were long. Even Lincoln’s
tall, gangly frame was used to good advantage
during the campaign as many drawings and posters
show the candidates sprinting past his vertically
challenged rivals. At other times, Lincoln appeared
as a sophisticated, thoughtful, articulate,
“presidential” candidate.
Prior to the Republican convention, the Lincoln
campaign began cultivating a nationwide youth
organization, the Wide Awakes, which it used to
generate popular support for Lincoln throughout
the country to spearhead large voter registration
drives, knowing that new voters and young voters
tend to embrace new and young parties. As
Lincoln’s ideas of abolishing slavery grew, so did his
supporters. People of the Northern states knew
the Southern states would vote against Lincoln
because of his ideas of anti-slavery and took
action to rally supporters for Lincoln.
As Douglas and the other candidates went through
with their campaigns, Lincoln was the only one of
them who gave no speeches. Instead, he monitored
the campaign closely and relied on the enthusiasm
of the Republican Party. The party did the leg
work that produced majorities across the North,
and produced an abundance of campaign posters,
leaflets, and newspaper editorials. There were
thousands of Republican speakers who focused first
on the party platform, and second on Lincoln’s life
story, emphasizing his childhood poverty. The goal
was to demonstrate the superior power of “free
labor”, whereby a common farm boy could work his
way to the top by his own efforts. The Republican
Party’s production of campaign literature dwarfed
the combined opposition; a Chicago Tribune writer
produced a pamphlet that detailed Lincoln’s life,
and sold 100,000 to 200,000 copies.
On November 6, 1860, Lincoln was elected the 16th
president of the United States, beating Douglas,
Breckinridge, and Bell. He was the first president
from the Republican Party. His victory was entirely
due to the strength of his support in the North
and West; no ballots were cast for him in 10 of the
15 Southern slave states, and he won only two of
996 counties in all the Southern states.
Lincoln received 1,866,452 votes, Douglas 1,376,957
votes, Breckinridge 849,781 votes, and Bell 588,789
votes. Turnout was 82.2 percent, with Lincoln
winning the free Northern states, as well as
California and Oregon. Douglas won Missouri, and
split New Jersey with Lincoln. Bell won Virginia,
Tennessee, and Kentucky, and Breckinridge won the
rest of the South.
Although Lincoln won only a plurality of the popular
vote, his victory in the electoral college was
decisive: Lincoln had 180 and his opponents added
together had only 123. There were fusion tickets in
which all of Lincoln’s opponents combined to support
the same slate of Electors in New York, New
Jersey, and Rhode Island, but even if the anti-
Lincoln vote had been combined in every state,
Lincoln still would have won a majority in the
Electoral College.
As Lincoln’s election became evident, secessionists
made clear their intent to leave the Union before
he took office the next March. On December 20,
1860, South Carolina took the lead by adopting an
ordinance of secession; by February 1, 1861,
Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana,
and Texas followed. Six of these states then
adopted a constitution and declared themselves to
be a sovereign nation, the Confederate States of
America. The upper South and border states
(Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina,
Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas)
listened to, but initially rejected, the secessionist
appeal. President Buchanan and President-elect
Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy,
declaring secession illegal. The Confederacy
selected Jefferson Davis as its provisional
President on February 9, 1861.
There were attempts at compromise. The
Crittenden Compromise would have extended the
Missouri Compromise line of 1820, dividing the
territories into slave and free, contrary to the
Republican Party’s free-soil platform. Lincoln
rejected the idea, saying, “I will suffer death
before I consent … to any concession or
compromise which looks like buying the privilege to
take possession of this government to which we
have a constitutional right.”
Lincoln, however, did tacitly support the proposed
Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which
passed Congress before Lincoln came into office
and was then awaiting ratification by the states.
That proposed amendment would have protected
slavery in states where it already existed and
would have guaranteed that Congress would not
interfere with slavery without Southern consent. A
few weeks before the war, Lincoln sent a letter to
every governor informing them Congress had
passed a joint resolution to amend the Constitution.
Lincoln was open to the possibility of a
constitutional convention to make further
amendments to the Constitution.
En route to his inauguration by train, Lincoln
addressed crowds and legislatures across the
North. The president-elect then evaded possible
assassins in Baltimore, who were uncovered by
Lincoln’s head of security, Allan Pinkerton. On
February 23, 1861, he arrived in disguise in
Washington, D.C., which was placed under
substantial military guard. Lincoln directed his
inaugural address to the South, proclaiming once
again that he had no intention, or inclination, to
abolish slavery in the Southern states:
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.”
—?First inaugural address, 4 March 1861
The President ended his address with an appeal to
the people of the South: “We are not enemies, but
friends. We must not be enemies … 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.” The failure of the Peace
Conference of 1861 signaled that legislative
compromise was impossible. By March 1861, no
leaders of the insurrection had proposed rejoining
the Union on any terms. Meanwhile, Lincoln and the
Republican leadership agreed that the dismantling
of the Union could not be tolerated. Lincoln said as
the war was ending:
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.
The Civil War
Major Anderson, Ft. Sumter commander
The commander of Fort Sumter, South Carolina,
Major Robert Anderson, sent a request for
provisions to Washington, and the execution of
Lincoln’s order to meet that request was seen by
the secessionists as an act of war. On April 12,
1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops at
Fort Sumter, forcing them to surrender, beginning
the war. Historian Allan Nevins argued that the
newly inaugurated Lincoln made three
miscalculations: underestimating the gravity of the
crisis, exaggerating the strength of Unionist
sentiment in the South, and not realizing the
Southern Unionists were insisting there be no
William Tecumseh Sherman talked to Lincoln during
inauguration week and was “sadly disappointed” at
his failure to realize that “the country was
sleeping on a volcano” and that the South was
preparing for war. Historian David Herbert Donald
concludes that, “His repeated efforts to avoid
collision in the months between inauguration and
the firing on Ft. Sumter showed he adhered to his
vow not to be the first to shed fraternal blood.
But he also vowed not to surrender the forts. The
only resolution of these contradictory positions was
for the confederates to fire the first shot; they
did just that.”
On April 15, Lincoln called on all the states to send
detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture
forts, protect Washington, and “preserve the
Union”, which, in his view, still existed intact
despite the actions of the seceding states. This call
forced the states to choose sides. Virginia declared
its secession and was rewarded with the
Confederate capital, despite the exposed position
of Richmond so close to Union lines. North Carolina,
Tennessee, and Arkansas also voted for secession
over the next two months. Secession sentiment was
strong in Missouri and Maryland, but did not
prevail; Kentucky tried to be neutral. The
Confederate attack on Fort Sumter rallied
Americans north of the Mason-Dixon line to the
defense of the American nation. Historian Allan
Nevins says:
The thunderclap of Sumter produced a startling
crystallization of Northern sentiment … Anger
swept the land. From every side came news of mass
meetings, speeches, resolutions, tenders of business
support, the muster of companies and regiments,
the determined action of governors and
States sent Union regiments south in response to
Lincoln’s call to save the capital and confront the
rebellion. On April 19, mobs in Baltimore, which
controlled the rail links, attacked Union troops who
were changing trains, and local leaders’ groups
later burned critical rail bridges to the capital.
The Army responded by arresting local Maryland
officials. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas
corpus in areas the army felt it needed to secure
for troops to reach Washington. John Merryman, a
Maryland official involved in hindering the U.S.
troop movements, petitioned Supreme Court Chief
Justice and Marylander, Roger B. Taney, author of
the controversial pro-slavery Dred Scott opinion,
to issue a writ of habeas corpus, and in June
Taney, acting as a circuit judge and not speaking
for the Supreme Court, issued the writ, because in
his opinion only Congress could suspend the writ.
Lincoln continued the army policy that the writ was
suspended in limited areas despite the Ex parte
Merryman ruling.
Union military strategy
After the Battle of Fort Sumter, Lincoln realized
the importance of taking immediate executive
control of the war and forming an overall Union
military strategy to put down the rebellion. Lincoln
encountered an unprecedented political and
military crisis, and he responded as commander-in-
chief, using unprecedented powers. He expanded
his war powers, and imposed a blockade on all the
Confederate shipping ports, disbursed funds
before appropriation by Congress, and after
suspending habeas corpus, arrested and imprisoned
thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers.
Lincoln was supported by Congress and the
northern public for these actions. In addition,
Lincoln had to contend with reinforcing strong
Union sympathies in the border slave states and
keeping the war from becoming an international
Running the ‘Machine: An 1864 political cartoon
satirizing Lincoln’s administration—featuring
William Fessenden, Edwin Stanton, William Seward,
Gideon Welles, Lincoln, and others
The war effort was the source of continued
disparagement of Lincoln, and dominated his time
and attention. From the start, it was clear that
bipartisan support would be essential to success in
the war effort, and any manner of compromise
alienated factions on both sides of the aisle, such
as the appointment of Republicans and Democrats
to command positions in the Union Army.
Copperheads criticized Lincoln for refusing to
compromise on the slavery issue. Conversely, the
Radical Republicans criticized him for moving too
slowly in abolishing slavery. On August 6, 1861,
Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act that authorized
judiciary proceedings to confiscate and free slaves
who were used to support the Confederate war
effort. In practice, the law had little effect, but
it did signal political support for abolishing slavery
in the Confederacy.
In late August 1861, General John C. Frémont, the
1856 Republican presidential nominee, issued,
without consulting his superiors in Washington, a
proclamation of martial law in Missouri. He declared
that any citizen found bearing arms could be
court-martialed and shot, and that slaves of
persons aiding the rebellion would be freed.
Frémont was already under a cloud with charges of
negligence in his command of the Department of
the West compounded with allegations of fraud and
corruption. Lincoln overruled Frémont’s
proclamation. Lincoln believed that Fremont’s
emancipation was political, neither militarily
necessary nor legal. After Lincoln acted, Union
enlistments from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri
increased by over 40,000 troops.
In foreign policy, Lincoln’s main goal was to stop
military aid from countries abroad to the
Confederacy. Lincoln left most diplomatic matters
to his Secretary of State, William Seward. At
times Seward was too bellicose, so for balance
Lincoln maintained a close working relationship with
Senator Charles Sumner, the chairman of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Trent
Affair of late 1861 threatened war with Great
Britain. The U.S. Navy had illegally intercepted a
British mail ship, the Trent, on the high seas and
seized two Confederate envoys; Britain protested
vehemently while the U.S. cheered. Lincoln ended
the crisis by releasing the two diplomats.
Biographer James G. Randall has dissected Lincoln’s
successful techniques: his restraint, his avoidance
of any outward expression of truculence, his early
softening of State Department’s attitude toward
Britain, his deference toward Seward and Sumner,
his withholding of his own paper prepared for the
occasion, his readiness to arbitrate, his golden
silence in addressing Congress, his shrewdness in
recognizing that war must be averted, and his
clear perception that a point could be clinched for
America’s true position at the same time that full
satisfaction was given to a friendly country.
Lincoln painstakingly monitored the telegraphic
reports coming into the War Department
headquarters. He kept close tabs on all phases of
the military effort, consulted with governors, and
selected generals based on their past success (as
well as their state and party). In January 1862,
after many complaints of inefficiency and
profiteering in the War Department, Lincoln
replaced Simon Cameron with Edwin Stanton as War
Secretary. Stanton centralized the War
Department’s activities, auditing and cancelling
contracts, saving the federal government
$17,000,000. Stanton was a staunchly Unionist pro-
business conservative Democrat who moved toward
the Radical Republican faction. Nevertheless, he
worked more often and more closely with Lincoln
than any other senior official. “Stanton and Lincoln
virtually conducted the war together,” say Thomas
and Hyman.
In terms of war strategy, Lincoln articulated two
priorities: to ensure that Washington was well-
defended, and to conduct an aggressive war effort
that would satisfy the demand in the North for
prompt, decisive victory; major Northern newspaper
editors expected victory within 90 days. Twice a
week, Lincoln would meet with his cabinet in the
afternoon, and occasionally Mary Lincoln would
force him to take a carriage ride because she was
concerned he was working too hard. Lincoln learned
from reading the theoretical book of his chief of
staff General Henry Halleck, a disciple of the
European strategist Jomini; he began to appreciate
the critical need to control strategic points, such
as the Mississippi River. Lincoln saw the importance
of Vicksburg and understood the necessity of
defeating the enemy’s army, rather than simply
capturing territory.
Lincoln understood that the Federal government’s
power to end slavery was limited by the
Constitution, which before 1865, committed the
issue to individual states. He argued before and
during his election that the eventual extinction of
slavery would result from preventing its expansion
into new U.S. territory. At the beginning of the
war, he also sought to persuade the states to
accept compensated emancipation in return for
their prohibition of slavery. Lincoln believed that
curtailing slavery in these ways would economically
expunge it, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers,
under the constitution. President Lincoln rejected
two geographically limited emancipation attempts
by Major General John C. Frémont in August 1861
and by Major General David Hunter in May 1862, on
the grounds that it was not within their power, and
it would upset the border states loyal to the Union.
On June 19, 1862, endorsed by Lincoln, Congress
passed an act banning slavery on all federal
territory. In July, the Confiscation Act of 1862 was
passed, which set up court procedures that could
free the slaves of anyone convicted of aiding the
rebellion. Although Lincoln believed it was not within
Congress’s power to free the slaves within the
states, he approved the bill in deference to the
legislature. He felt such action could only be taken
by the Commander-in-Chief using war powers
granted to the president by the Constitution, and
Lincoln was planning to take that action. In that
month, Lincoln discussed a draft of the
Emancipation Proclamation with his cabinet. In it,
he stated that “as a fit and necessary military
measure, on January 1, 1863, all persons held as
slaves in the Confederate states will
thenceforward, and forever, be free”.
Privately, Lincoln concluded at this point that the
slave base of the Confederacy had to be
eliminated. However, Copperheads argued that
emancipation was a stumbling block to peace and
reunification. Republican editor Horace Greeley of
the highly influential New York Tribune fell for the
ploy, and Lincoln refuted it directly in a shrewd
letter of August 22, 1862. Although he said he
personally wished all men could be free, Lincoln
stated that the primary goal of his actions as the
U.S. president (he used the first person pronoun
and explicitly refers to his “official duty”) was
that of preserving the Union: My paramount object
in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to 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. What
I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do
because I believe it helps to save the Union; and
what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe
it would help to save the Union … [¶] I have here
stated my purpose according to my view of official
duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-
expressed personal wish that all men everywhere
could be free.
The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on
September 22, 1862, and put into effect on
January 1, 1863, declared free the slaves in 10
states not then under Union control, with
exemptions specified for areas already under Union
control in two states. Lincoln spent the next 100
days preparing the army and the nation for
emancipation, while Democrats rallied their voters
in the 1862 off-year elections by warning of the
threat freed slaves posed to northern whites.
Once the abolition of slavery in the rebel states
became a military objective, as Union armies
advanced south, more slaves were liberated until all
three million of them in Confederate territory
were freed. Lincoln’s comment on the signing of
the Proclamation was: “I never, in my life, felt
more certain that I was doing right, than I do in
signing this paper.” For some time, Lincoln
continued earlier plans to set up colonies for the
newly freed slaves. He commented favorably on
colonization in the Emancipation Proclamation, but
all attempts at such a massive undertaking failed.
A few days after Emancipation was announced, 13
Republican governors met at the War Governors’
Conference; they supported the president’s
Proclamation, but suggested the removal of
General George B. McClellan as commander of the
Union Army.
Enlisting former slaves in the military was official
government policy after the issuance of the
Emancipation Proclamation. By the spring of 1863,
Lincoln was ready to recruit black troops in more
than token numbers. In a letter to Andrew Johnson,
the military governor of Tennessee, encouraging
him to lead the way in raising black troops, Lincoln
wrote, “The bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled
black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would
end the rebellion at once”. By the end of 1863, at
Lincoln’s direction, General Lorenzo Thomas had
recruited 20 regiments of blacks from the
Mississippi Valley. Frederick Douglass once observed
of Lincoln: “In his company, I was never reminded
of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color”.
Gettysburg Address (1863)
With the great Union victory at the Battle of
Gettysburg in July 1863, and the defeat of the
Copperheads in the Ohio election in the fall, Lincoln
maintained a strong base of party support and was
in a strong position to redefine the war effort,
despite the New York City draft riots. The stage
was set for his address at the Gettysburg
battlefield cemetery on November 19, 1863.
Defying Lincoln’s prediction that “the world will
little note, nor long remember what we say here”,
the Address became the most quoted speech in
American history.
In 272 words, and three minutes, Lincoln asserted
the nation was born not in 1789, but in 1776,
“conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal”. He
defined the war as an effort dedicated to these
principles of liberty and equality for all. The
emancipation of slaves was now part of the national
war effort. He declared that the deaths of so
many brave soldiers would not be in vain, that
slavery would end as a result of the losses, and the
future of democracy in the world would be
assured, that “government of the people, by the
people, for the people, shall not perish from the
earth”. Lincoln concluded that the Civil War had a
profound objective: a new birth of freedom in the
1864 re-election
Lincoln was a master politician, bringing together—
and holding together—all the main factions of the
Republican Party, and bringing in War Democrats
such as Edwin M. Stanton and Andrew Johnson as
well. Lincoln spent many hours a week talking to
politicians from across the land and using his
patronage powers—greatly expanded over
peacetime—to hold the factions of his party
together, build support for his own policies, and
fend off efforts by Radicals to drop him from the
1864 ticket. At its 1864 convention, the Republican
Party selected Johnson, a War Democrat from the
Southern state of Tennessee, as his running mate.
To broaden his coalition to include War Democrats
as well as Republicans, Lincoln ran under the label
of the new Union Party.
When Grant’s 1864 spring campaigns turned into
bloody stalemates and Union casualties mounted,
the lack of military success wore heavily on the
President’s re-election prospects, and many
Republicans across the country feared that Lincoln
would be defeated. Sharing this fear, Lincoln wrote
and signed a pledge that, if he should lose the
election, he would still defeat the Confederacy
before turning over the White House: This morning,
as for some days past, it seems exceedingly
probable that this Administration will not be re-
elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate
with the President elect, as to save the Union
between the election and the inauguration; as he
will have secured his election on such ground that
he cannot possibly save it afterward.
Lincoln did not show the pledge to his cabinet, but
asked them to sign the sealed envelope.
While the Democratic platform followed the “Peace
wing” of the party and called the war a “failure”,
their candidate, General George B. McClellan,
supported the war and repudiated the platform.
Lincoln provided Grant with more troops and
mobilized his party to renew its support of Grant in
the war effort. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in
September and David Farragut’s capture of Mobile
ended defeatist jitters; the Democratic Party was
deeply split, with some leaders and most soldiers
openly for Lincoln. By contrast, the National Union
Party was united and energized as Lincoln made
emancipation the central issue, and state
Republican parties stressed the perfidy of the
Copperheads. On November 8, Lincoln was re-
elected in a landslide, carrying all but three
states, and receiving 78 percent of the Union
soldiers’ vote.
Reconstruction began during the war, as Lincoln
and his associates anticipated questions of how to
reintegrate the conquered southern states, and
how to determine the fates of Confederate
leaders and freed slaves. Shortly after Lee’s
surrender, a general had asked Lincoln how the
defeated Confederates should be treated, and
Lincoln replied, “Let ’em up easy.” In keeping with
that sentiment, Lincoln led the moderates
regarding Reconstruction policy, and was opposed
by the Radical Republicans, under Rep. Thaddeus
Stevens, Sen. Charles Sumner and Sen. Benjamin
Wade, political allies of the president on other
issues. Determined to find a course that would
reunite the nation and not alienate the South,
Lincoln urged that speedy elections under generous
terms be held throughout the war. His Amnesty
Proclamation of December 8, 1863, offered
pardons to those who had not held a Confederate
civil office, had not mistreated Union prisoners,
and would sign an oath of allegiance.
A political cartoon of Vice President Andrew
Johnson (a former tailor) and Lincoln, 1865,
entitled The ‘Rail Splitter’ At Work Repairing the
Union. The caption reads (Johnson): “Take it quietly
Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than
ever.” (Lincoln): “A few more stitches Andy and
the good old Union will be mended.”
As Southern states were subdued, critical decisions
had to be made as to their leadership while their
administrations were re-formed. Of special
importance were Tennessee and Arkansas, where
Lincoln appointed Generals Andrew Johnson and
Frederick Steele as military governors,
respectively. In Louisiana, Lincoln ordered General
Nathaniel P. Banks to promote a plan that would
restore statehood when 10 percent of the voters
agreed to it. Lincoln’s Democratic opponents seized
on these appointments to accuse him of using the
military to ensure his and the Republicans’ political
aspirations. On the other hand, the Radicals
denounced his policy as too lenient, and passed
their own plan, the Wade-Davis Bill, in 1864. When
Lincoln vetoed the bill, the Radicals retaliated by
refusing to seat representatives elected from
Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
Lincoln’s appointments were designed to keep both
the moderate and Radical factions in harness. To
fill Chief Justice Taney’s seat on the Supreme
Court, he named the choice of the Radicals, Salmon
P. Chase, who Lincoln believed would uphold the
emancipation and paper money policies.
After implementing the Emancipation Proclamation,
which did not apply to every state, Lincoln
increased pressure on Congress to outlaw slavery
throughout the entire nation with a constitutional
amendment. Lincoln declared that such an
amendment would “clinch the whole matter”. By
December 1863, a proposed constitutional
amendment that would outlaw slavery was brought
to Congress for passage. This first attempt at an
amendment failed to pass, falling short of the
required two-thirds majority on June 15, 1864, in
the House of Representatives. Passage of the
proposed amendment became part of the
Republican/Unionist platform in the election of
1864. After a long debate in the House, a second
attempt passed Congress on January 31, 1865, and
was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.
Upon ratification, it became the Thirteenth
Amendment to the United States Constitution on
December 6, 1865.
As the war drew to a close, Lincoln’s presidential
Reconstruction for the South was in flux; having
believed the federal government had limited
responsibility to the millions of freedmen. He
signed into law Senator Charles Sumner’s
Freedmen’s Bureau bill that set up a temporary
federal agency designed to meet the immediate
material needs of former slaves. The law assigned
land for a lease of three years with the ability to
purchase title for the freedmen. Lincoln stated
that his Louisiana plan did not apply to all states
under Reconstruction. Shortly before his
assassination, Lincoln announced he had a new plan
for southern Reconstruction. Discussions with his
cabinet revealed Lincoln planned short-term
military control over southern states, until
readmission under the control of southern
Historians agree that it is impossible to predict
exactly what Lincoln would have done about
Reconstruction if he had lived, but they make
projections based on his known policy positions and
political acumen. Lincoln biographers James G.
Randall and Richard Current, according to David
Lincove, argue that:
It is likely that had he lived, Lincoln would have
followed a policy similar to Johnson’s, that he would
have clashed with congressional Radicals, that he
would have produced a better result for the
freedmen than occurred, and that his political
skills would have helped him avoid Johnson’s
Eric Foner argues that:[300] Unlike Sumner and other Radicals, Lincoln did not
see Reconstruction as an opportunity for a
sweeping political and social revolution beyond
emancipation. He had long made clear his opposition
to the confiscation and redistribution of land. He
believed, as most Republicans did in April 1865,
that the voting requirements should be determined
by the states. He assumed that political control in
the South would pass to white Unionists, reluctant
secessionists, and forward-looking former
Confederates. But time and again during the war,
Lincoln, after initial opposition, had come to
embrace positions first advanced by abolitionists
and Radical Republicans. … Lincoln undoubtedly
would have listened carefully to the outcry for
further protection for the former slaves … It is
entirely plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress
agreeing on a Reconstruction policy that
encompassed federal protection for basic civil
rights plus limited black suffrage, along the lines
Lincoln proposed just before his death.
Redefining the republic and republicanism
Lincoln in February 1865, about two months before
his death
The successful reunification of the states had
consequences for the name of the country. The
term “the United States” has historically been
used, sometimes in the plural (“these United
States”), and other times in the singular, without
any particular grammatical consistency. The Civil
War was a significant force in the eventual
dominance of the singular usage by the end of the
19th century.
In recent years, historians such as Harry Jaffa,
Herman Belz, John Diggins, Vernon Burton and Eric
Foner have stressed Lincoln’s redefinition of
republican values. As early as the 1850s, a time
when most political rhetoric focused on the sanctity
of the Constitution, Lincoln redirected emphasis to
the Declaration of Independence as the foundation
of American political values—what he called the
“sheet anchor” of republicanism. The Declaration’s
emphasis on freedom and equality for all, in
contrast to the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery,
shifted the debate. As Diggins concludes regarding
the highly influential Cooper Union speech of early
1860, “Lincoln presented Americans a theory of
history that offers a profound contribution to the
theory and destiny of republicanism itself.” His
position gained strength because he highlighted the
moral basis of republicanism, rather than its
legalisms. Nevertheless, in 1861, Lincoln justified
the war in terms of legalisms (the Constitution was
a contract, and for one party to get out of a
contract all the other parties had to agree), and
then in terms of the national duty to guarantee a
republican form of government in every state.
Burton (2008) argues that Lincoln’s republicanism
was taken up by the Freedmen as they were
In March 1861, in Lincoln’s first inaugural address,
he explored the nature of democracy. He
denounced secession as anarchy, and explained that
majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional
restraints in the American system. He said “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