Back when I was in eighth grade, I entered an American history essay contest at a local prep school. The winner would receive a partial scholarship to the school. It was actually a timed test in a classroom setting and we didn’t know what the question would be.
I had barely made it to the school in time as I had to serve as an altar boy at my local church. As it turned out, the church was beginning a special prayer service called “Forty Hours Devotion.” (If you’re Catholic, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you can read about it here.) The Mass that preceded the Forty Hours Devotion took an extra long time, so my classmates and I barely made it to the school in time for the test.
The essay question was: Name the greatest President and explain why. I opted to pick Abraham Lincoln, cranked out about eight paragraphs in an hour, and went home. A week later, I found out I had won the contest, which guaranteed me admission to the school for the next year. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as that school was awful, and I spent the most miserable year of my childhood there.
What’s my point here? I’m not sure. But, I hope I’m writing something more cogent on the man that I and nearly every historian considers to be America’s greatest President than I did back in eighth grade.
Abraham Lincoln biographies are not hard to find. He is the most popular figure in American history to write about. His life story almost defines America. He left an enormous amount of writing behind. He was one of the most intelligent men to hold the office, despite having just one year of formal education. He was, perhaps, the best speaker to be President. And to, top it off, he was also an incredibly shrewd politician.
George McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and failed Presidential candidate in 1972, added to the canon of Lincoln biographies with this slender work, released this year, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. It is a good read about the life of the most famous President. Also, McGovern manages to add some new details about Lincoln’s political dealings that added to my understanding of the 16th President.
Abraham Lincoln, so closely identified with the state of Illinois, was actually born in then Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He shares his birthday with Charles Darwin. His parents were Thomas and Nancy. And, as we’ve learned from childhood, Lincoln was born in a log cabin.
Thomas Lincoln wasn’t extremely poor; but, due to some financial setbacks, he moved the family out of Kentucky to Indiana. Thomas also did not feel comfortable living in a state where slavery was legal. In Indiana, Nancy Lincoln passed away at age 34 after contracting a fever from drinking milk from diseased cows. Thomas would later remarry. Abraham’s stepmother, Sarah, was the one who saw that young Abraham was a special child. She gave him books and did her best to educate him. Lincoln would develop a formidable knowledge of literature and history. He also became an accomplished speaker and writer almost entirely of his own making. Few Presidents not named Thomas Jefferson were as well-read as Lincoln, and perhaps none was more eloquent as a writer and speaker.
In 1830, the family settled in Illinois, first in Macon County, and then later in Coles County. At age 22, Abraham Lincoln set out on his own and moved to New Salem, Illinois.
Lincoln was interested in politics early. He ran for a seat in the Illinois Legislature in 1832 at age 23. He finished in eighth place. But, in 1834, Lincoln won. He ran as a Whig Party candidate and favored Henry Clay’s (his political idol) platform of a national bank and Federally-funded internal improvements. At this time, Lincoln began to teach himself law. He would soon be admitted to the Illinois State Bar. He quickly gained a reputation as a formidable litigator.
During his time as a legislator, Lincoln saw other dramatic changes in his personal life. His first love, a woman named Ann Rutledge, passed away in 1835. Lincoln went into a deep depression, one that likely would have required hospitalization today. These bouts of depression would recur throughout Lincoln’s life even when he was President.
Lincoln eventually became engaged to a woman named Mary Todd. The relationship started and stopped due to each person’s delicate psychological conditions. They eventually married late in 1842. They would have four sons, but only one, the eldest Robert, lived past the age of 18.
In 1844, Lincoln decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. However, the district had three Whig party candidates, all of whom were friends. Lincoln hit upon the idea that each of the three should serve one term and then give the office to the next in line.
So, Lincoln was not elected to the House of Representatives until 1846. Lincoln was an outspoken opponent of President James Polk’s plans to declare war with Mexico. Lincoln opposed the war because he opposed giving the South more territory where it could expand slavery. At this point, Lincoln was not opposed to slavery, per se, just to its expansion in to new territories.
Lincoln looked forward to the election of a Whig President in 1848. Zachary Taylor turned his success on the battlefield into a home at the White House. However, Taylor died in office. His successor, Millard Fillmore, signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which divided up the new territories into free and slave areas. This had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an act which Lincoln felt was essential to checking the growth of slavery in the United States. Back in Illinois, all Lincoln could do was rally Whig opposition to the measure. Although this was futile, Lincoln made important political connections in Illinois through his efforts.
The Whig Party died out after Winfield Scott lost to Franklin Pierce in the 1852 Presidential election. The party split along sectional lines. Northern Whigs formed a new party that was strongly opposed to the spread of slavery. They called themselves Republicans.
In 1854, Lincoln gave what McGovern described as his first great speech. Before a crowd in Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln railed against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, another attempt to smooth out the slavery controversy. This act allowed for “popular sovereignty” (essentially plebiscites of the residents of the territories, although it never worked perfectly) to decide whether or not the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be organized as free or slave states.
Lincoln declared the measure to be contrary to earlier laws like the Missouri Compromise, as well as antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
Repeal the Missouri compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the declaration of independence—repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.
The speech greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile in the slavery debate. According to McGovern, it also represented a turning point in Lincoln’s life. Slavery was becoming less of a political issue and more of a moral one to Lincoln.
In 1858, Lincoln was tabbed by the Republicans to run for the Senate against the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln gave, in McGovern’s view, his second great speech in accepting the nomination. (Emphasis mine.)
If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “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 and Douglas would engage in a series of seven debates throughout Illinois. It turned out to compelling political theater (even though each debate lasted over three and a half hours) as the race drew national attention. Lincoln, who stood 6’4″ (tallest ever to become President), faced off against the 5’4″ Douglas. Both men could command the stage. In the end, the Democrats won enough seats in the Illinois legislature to reelect Douglas to the Senate.
Nevertheless, the publicity generated from the debates further improved Lincoln’s position nationwide. In 1860, it was beginning to look increasingly like the Republicans could win the Presidency, as the Democrats started to tear apart on a sectional basis. In February of 1860, Lincoln gave what McGovern called “his third famous speech.” It was an address at the Cooper Union in New York City.
The speech laid out Lincoln’s idea that the Founding Fathers intended for slavery to disappear. He urged the Federal government to act and do the right thing. Slavery was too important of an issue to be used as a political bargaining chip.
Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
At the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, Lincoln’s supporters managed to get him nominated on the second ballot. There were backroom deals (Cabinet choices and patronage promises) made to help secure some delegates; but, ultimately, the Republicans knew that Lincoln had wide appeal to all Northerners.
The Democrats could not agree on a candidate. They held two conventions and nominated two different candidates, Douglas and John Breckinridge. John Bell of Tennessee was a fourth candidate, running under the Constitutional Union Party banner. Bell tried to appeal to the still strong nativist movement (think Lou Dobbs) that had once been called the Know-Nothing Party.
Even though Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in eight Southern states, he won the election easily. Lincoln picked up 39.9% of the popular vote. Douglas finished in second at 29.5%. In terms of electoral votes, Lincoln had 180 with Breckinridge in second at 72.
Southerners reacted to the election of Lincoln by threatening to secede. Lincoln did not believe that Southern states would go with through such a plan. It had been talked about for decades, dating back to the Jackson administration. But, this time, the South meant it. South Carolina voted to secede in December of 1860. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, eight states has passed acts of secession.
Due to threats made against his life, Lincoln sneaked into Washington in the middle of the night before the Inauguration. In his Inaugural Address, he held out an olive branch to the South.
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.
However, just a month later, Lincoln decided to send supplies to Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina. Southerners interpreted this action as hostile and opened fire on the fort. The Civil War had begun.
Lincoln’s actions during the beginning of the Civil War were controversial and remain so to this day. Believing that secession was unconstitutional, Lincoln refused to meet with any Southern leaders. He viewed their actions as acts of rebellion.
Soon after the Civil War began, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights. At first, the suspension was only in an area immediately surrounding the capital, although it would later extend to the whole country. Lincoln believed that he had to take drastic steps to keep the secessionists in check. However, the President has no authority to suspend the right of habeas corpus. That right is reserved to Congress (Congress would subsequently approve the suspension.) Despite an unfavorable court ruling, Lincoln maintained the suspension of habeas corpus. Even McGovern, who writes in a worshipful style, has a hard time defending Lincoln’s actions.
Later on, Lincoln would order newspapers that were sympathetic to the Confederacy to be shut down. He also authorized the Treasury to make direct cash payments to individuals, another unconstitutional action. (The Treasury can only make payments to people if Congress appropriates the money.)
Nevertheless, Lincoln believed that he had to take these drastic steps in order to preserve the union and the Constitution.
By 1862, Lincoln had finally moved into the camp that believed that slavery had to be totally abolished. Lincoln did not want to wait for the war to end. He believed that under his powers as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that he could order the freedom of the slaves. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. He showed it to his Cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward, who would become Lincoln’s most trusted adviser, told him that the Proclamation should not be issued until after a major victory by Federal forces. Seward feared that if the Emancipation Proclamation were issued when the Confederacy was winning on the battlefield, it would look like a desperate maneuver to curry favor internationally.
However, early in the war, the Confederacy was winning more than its share of battles. The Union Army was hampered by poor leadership. Union generals were unwilling to confront the main portion of the Confederate Army. But, after the horrifically bloody battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, a day that saw more Americans die on a battlefield than any other day ever (over 3,600 men on both sides), Lincoln felt that his military position was secure enough to issue the Proclamation.
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln’s proclamation read, in part:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
While the Emancipation Proclamation did little in actually making any slave free immediately, it forever changed the terms of the engagement. The Civil War was no longer being fought over abstract concepts like Federal or State sovereignty. It was not fought over the concept of whether or not the Constitution was a voluntary pact. It was now a battle between two forces: one who believed that no one had the right to hold another person as property, and another that believed that it did.
Lincoln was an active Commander in Chief during the Civil War. He changed generals in charge of the Army as often as George Steinbrenner changed Yankees managers in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln finally found his man: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant agreed with Lincoln’s concept of fighting a total war against the South. No longer would the Union just try to wear down the South into surrender. Instead, the North would try to destroy the South completely.
The process would be a long and painful one. Hundreds of thousands died during the Civil War. Lincoln started conscripting soldiers, a plan that met with massive opposition in parts of the country. In New York City, riots in opposition to conscription lasted for a week and killed over 100 people. But, the Union Army kept getting its supply of soldiers. And the Union contingent would always remain numerically superior to the Confederacy.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cemetery for the soldiers who died in massive battle there earlier in July was to be dedicated. Lincoln spoke only briefly at the ceremony. But his words, the Gettysburg Address, are, perhaps, the most famous speech ever given by a President. Lincoln succinctly summarized everything that the United States was fighting for and what it hoped to be.
Fourscore 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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this 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 us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Despite the war, there was still another election to be held in 1864. Lincoln believed that a Presidential election would be beneficial to the country. It would demonstrate that the nation’s democratic principles had not been compromised by the rebellion.
Lincoln took no chances during the election. He dropped his Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, from the ticket in favor of pro-Union Tennessee senator Andrew Johnson. Hamlin had been toying with the idea of replacing Lincoln with Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. Lincoln decided to take both Hamlin and Chase out of the picture. Chase would become Chief Justice. Other Republicans wanted Grant to run in 1864, but the general declined.
The Democrats ran one of Lincoln’s fired commanders, George McClellan. Although McClellan had shown to be mostly incompetent on the battlefield, the soldiers he commanded had mostly loved him. The election of 1864 was expected to be close. McClellan’s hope rested on the belief that the North was tired of the war and would accept peace at any terms. Lincoln even believed that he was going to lose.
But, in the fall of 1864, the war began to turn decisively in the Union’s favor. On September 2, 1864, Union forces under the command of General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and burnt it to the ground. Grant’s troops won a series of bloody conflicts in Virginia.
Lincoln, a master politician at any time, arranged for soldiers to get leaves to go home to vote, or, to vote absentee from the battlefields. Soldiers became fundraisers for Lincoln in some cases. The election of 1864 was a huge victory for Lincoln. Lincoln won all but three states (Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey) and over 55% of the vote.
After the election, Sherman led his army on a march through the state of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, laying waste to nearly everything in its path. The South was being brought to its knees by the onslaught of power from the North.
With victory seemingly at hand, Lincoln again struck a conciliatory tone during his Second Inaugural. The brief address (the shortest Inaugural Address ever given) contained these words:
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.
Although it may have seemed that all of Lincoln’s activities as President involved the war, he made three other notable contributions to the United States. The first was the income tax, which was implemented as a wartime measure to raise funds. The second was the Homestead Act, which gave away land in the territories to people who would improve it. The third was the Morrill Act, which set up the Land Grant College system, which established many of the nation’s largest and most prestigious state universities. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally banned slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress during Lincoln’s time, although it would be ratified later.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. The war was over. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington. Lincoln had now become a martyr. He passed almost instantly from politician to legend.
McGovern asks if anything can be learned from rehashing the life of Abraham Lincoln so many times. Perhaps, we don’t think about Lincoln’s life enough. As McGovern writes:
Abraham Lincoln holds the highest place in American history. General William T. Sherman said, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” He was our greatest president, against whom all others will forever be measured. We wish our leaders could be more like him; we wish we all could be. There has never been an American story like Abraham Lincoln’s.
Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency was far from perfect. But if you compare him to the men who came before and after him in the office, he was indispensable. One adage goes “History is written by the winners.” Thankfully for the United States, I wrote about Abraham Lincoln the way I did.
Other stuff: Abraham Lincoln is memorialized seemingly everywhere. He is buried in Springfield, Illinois, which is also the site of the Abraham Lincoln Home. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the capital. If you can’t find something that bears Abraham Lincoln’s image on it, you are either someone who doesn’t like pennies, or you are a person who believes that the South will rise again. If you’re the latter, you’re wrong. All the South gets now is exaggerated love of its college football teams from ESPN.