A Reference Resource
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, seven slave states left the Union to form the Confederate States of America, and four more joined when hostilities began between the North and South. A bloody civil war then engulfed the nation as Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union, enforce the laws of the United States, and end the secession. The war lasted for more than four years with a staggering loss of more than 600,000 Americans dead. Midway through the war, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves within the Confederacy and changed the war from a battle to preserve the Union into a battle for freedom. He was the first Republican President, and Union victory ended forever the claim that state sovereignty superseded federal authority. Killed by an assassin's bullet less than a week after the surrender of Confederate forces, Lincoln left the nation a more perfect Union and thereby earned the admiration of most Americans as the country's greatest President.
Born dirt-poor in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln grew up in frontier Kentucky and Indiana, where he was largely self-educated, with a taste for jokes, hard work, and books. He served for a time as a soldier in the Black Hawk War, taught himself law, and held a seat in the Illinois state legislature as a Whig politician in the 1830s and 1840s. From state politics, he moved to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1847, where he voiced his opposition to the U.S. war with Mexico. In the mid-1850s, Lincoln left the Whig Party to join the new Republican Party. In 1858, he went up against one of the most popular politicians in the nation, Senator Stephen Douglas, in a contest for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln lost that election, but his spectacular performance against Douglas in a series of nationally covered debates made him a contender for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.
Fighting for Unity and Freedom
In the 1860 campaign for President, Lincoln firmly expressed his opposition to slavery and his determination to limit the expansion of slavery westward into the new territories acquired from Mexico in 1850. His election victory created a crisis for the nation, as many southern Democrats feared that it would just be a matter of time before Lincoln would move to kill slavery in the South. Rather than face a future in which black people might become free citizens, much of the white South supported secession. This reasoning was based upon the doctrine of states' rights, which placed ultimate sovereignty with the states.
Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union even if it meant war. He eventually raised an army and navy of nearly 3 million northern men to face a southern army of over 2 million soldiers. In battles fought from Virginia to California (but mainly in Virginia, in the Mississippi River Valley, and along the border states) a great civil war tore the United States apart. In pursuing victory, Lincoln assumed extralegal powers over the press, declared martial law in areas where no military action justified it, quelled draft riots with armed soldiers, and drafted soldiers to fight for the Union cause. No President in history had ever exerted so much executive authority, but he did so not for personal power but in order to preserve the Union. In 1864, as an example of his limited personal ambitions, Lincoln refused to call off national elections, preferring to hold the election even if he lost the vote rather than destroy the democratic basis upon which he rested his authority. With the electoral support of Union soldiers, many of whom were given short leaves to return home to vote, and thanks to the spectacular victory of Union troops in General Sherman's capture of Atlanta, Lincoln was decisively reelected.
What started as a war to preserve the Union and vindicate democracy became a battle for freedom and a war to end slavery when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. Although the Proclamation did not free all slaves in the nation—indeed, no slaves outside of the Confederacy were affected by the Proclamation—it was an important symbolic gesture that identified the Union with freedom and the death of slavery. As part of the Proclamation, Lincoln also urged black males to join the Union forces as soldiers and sailors. By the end of the war, nearly two hundred thousand African Americans had fought for the Union cause, and Lincoln referred to them as indispensable in ensuring Union victory.
Personal Tragedies and Triumphs
While the war raged, Lincoln also suffered great personal anguish over the death of his beloved son and the depressed mental condition of his wife, Mary. The pain of war and personal loss affected him deeply, and he often expressed his anguish by turning to humor and by speaking eloquently about the meaning of the great war which raged across the land. His Gettysburg Address, delivered after the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as his second inaugural in 1865, are acknowledged to be among the great orations in American history.
Almost all historians judge Lincoln as the greatest President in American history because of the way he exercised leadership during the war and because of the impact of that leadership on the moral and political character of the nation. He conceived of his presidential role as unique under the Constitution in times of crisis. Lincoln was convinced that within the branches of government, the presidency alone was empowered not only to uphold the Constitution, but also to preserve, protect, and defend it. In the end, however, Lincoln is measured by his most lasting accomplishments: the preservation of the Union, the vindication of democracy, and the death of slavery—accomplishments achieved by acting "with malice towards none" in the pursuit of a more perfect and equal union.
The man who preserved the Union and issued the Emancipation Proclamation came into the world on February 12, 1809. Abraham Lincoln was born in humble surroundings, a one-room log cabin with dirt floors in Hardin County, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, could not read and could barely sign his name. He was a stern man whom young Abe never liked very much. Himself born to impoverished parents, Thomas Lincoln was a farmer and carpenter who moved the family from rural Kentucky to frontier Indiana when young Abe was seven years old. Thomas built a crude 360-square foot log cabin where he lived with his wife, Abe, and elder daughter, Sarah.
Lincoln's mother, the illegitimate Nancy Hanks, died when Lincoln was only nine years old. Although Lincoln later said that he owed everything to her guidance, he seldom mentioned her in his conversation or writings. Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Bush Johnston shortly after Nancy's death, and young Abe immediately bonded with his stepmother. A bright woman, she encouraged Abe's education, and took his side in the frequent arguments the young boy had with his father.
Rural life was difficult in America's frontier during the early 1800s. Poverty, farm chores, hard work, and reading by the light of the fireplace dominated young Abe's life until he was seventeen, when he found work on a ferryboat. Enjoying the river, he built a flatboat two years later and ran a load of farm produce down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Selling the boat for its timber, he then returned home. Upon reaching home he dutifully, but resentfully, gave his full earnings to his father.
When Abe was twenty-one, the family again moved, this time to Illinois just west of Decatur. The father and son built another log cabin not much bigger than the one they had lived in before. Following this move, Abe built a second flatboat and made another run down river, but this time as an independent operator. After that haul, he lived on his own, moving to the town of New Salem, Illinois in 1831.
As a young man, Lincoln stood out from the crowd, tall and lanky at six-feet four-inches. He arrived in New Salem and landed a job as a clerk in a general store. Soon thereafter, Lincoln started to make a name for himself, successfully wrestling the town bully and amazing most of his neighbors with his strength and ability to split rails and fell trees—a survival skill that he developed as a child of the American frontier. In small towns during that era, the general store was a meeting place, and thus Lincoln grew to know the community well. He delighted people with his wit, intelligence, and integrity. For the less literate citizens of New Salem, Abe's ability to read and write was invaluable. He quickly became a popular member of the town, endearing himself to the locals as a good-natured and "bookish" young man.
Six months after his arrival in town, Abe let his ambitions get the best of him. He announced his candidacy for a seat in the Illinois state legislature, declaring himself as an independent candidate. A few weeks after throwing his hat in the ring, the Black Hawk War broke out, and Lincoln volunteered to fight Indians. His fellow volunteers elected him the temporary captain of their company, an honor that he valued more than his nomination for the presidency, and off they marched to war. It was a thirty-day stint, and when it was up, Lincoln—having seen no military action—signed on for another twenty days, and then again for a third term of thirty days. In his last duty, he served as a private in the Independent Spy Corps, which unsuccessfully tried to track down Chief Black Hawk in southern Wisconsin. As a soldier, Lincoln saw no action in the war, but his tour of duty prevented him from campaigning for office.
Back home in New Salem, Lincoln resumed his campaign for the legislature, but there was too little time left before the election for him to make himself known throughout the large district. Although he won 277 of the 300 votes in New Salem, he lost in the county, coming in eighth in a field of thirteen. Thereafter, he refocused his energies on studying law on his own, arguing cases before the local justice of the peace even before passing the state bar exam in 1836, and getting his license in 1837. Lincoln also participated in Whig political functions, serving as secretary in the party's meetings.
Despite his political leanings, Abe attracted attention from leaders of the time. Democratic President Andrew Jackson appointed Lincoln postmaster of New Salem, even though Lincoln had supported National Republican candidate Henry Clay in the 1832 presidential election that reelected Jackson. Democrats allowed Lincoln's appointment probably because no local Democrat wanted the job, and, additionally, his determination to avoid partisan posturing made him acceptable to almost everyone in New Salem. To supplement his meager pay of $55 per year, Abe chopped wood, split rails, worked as a county deputy surveyor, and handled routine legal work for small fees.
Political Success and Strategies
In 1834, Lincoln ran again for the state legislature, and this time he won. Even the Democrats supported him. His strategy had worked: he issued no platform statement, made no promises, and gave few speeches. Instead, he shook hands, told jokes, and visited nearly every family in the county. He ran and won again in 1836, 1838, and 1840. Once in office, his Whig leanings came early to the front as he supported internal improvements and the chartering of a state bank.
As a young legislator, Lincoln generally voted along Whig Party lines. In 1837, Lincoln took highly controversial position that foreshadowed his future political path, joining with five other legislators—out of eighty-three—to oppose a resolution condemning abolitionists. In 1838, he responded to the death of the Illinois abolitionist and newspaper editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who was killed while defending his printing presses from a mob of pro-slavery citizens in Alton, Illinois. In a statesmanlike manner, Lincoln gave a cautious speech at the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum, emphasizing the dangers to democracy and the rule of law when citizens use violence instead of votes and reason to have their way.
In 1840, with a keen political eye, Lincoln campaigned for the populist war hero and Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Abe denounced Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren for having once voted to give free blacks the vote in New York. In taking this position, Lincoln clearly appealed to the racism of the overwhelming majority of Illinois voters. Like many other opponents of slavery, Lincoln, at this point, did not favor citizenship rights for blacks.
Taking Political Risks
After four terms in the state legislature, Lincoln left office in 1841 but returned to public life in 1846 to win the Whig nomination for a seat from the Illinois seventh congressional district to the U.S. House of Representatives. Ten days after the nomination, America went to war with Mexico. During the months of the campaign, Lincoln said nothing about the Mexican-American War, which allowed him to win the district by a large majority. Once in office, however, Lincoln voiced his opinion on the conflict. Congressman Lincoln boldly challenged President James Polk's assertion that the Mexicans had started the war by attacking American soldiers on American soil. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln scathingly denounced the Polk administration for taking the country to war by misrepresenting the situation to the nation, claiming (correctly) that the conflict had begun on territory contested by the two sides. It was a blatant and public attack on a popular President by a young unknown congressman from a state that was solidly behind the war.
Some of his friends were shocked at Lincoln's bold position, but his stand was common among congressional Whigs. Lincoln earlier had promised not to run for a second term in order to win the party's nomination over two other aspiring candidates. He also had little chance as a Whig for election as a U.S. senator or governor of Illinois. No Whig had ever obtained either position from Illinois.
In 1848, intent on keeping his name before the national audience, Lincoln campaigned in Maryland and Massachusetts for Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor. Then he retired to Springfield, where he practiced law from 1849 to 1854, becoming one of the more successful lawyers in the state, representing all kinds of clients, including railroad interests. Although elected in 1854 again to the state legislature, he promptly resigned to run for the U.S. Senate, losing on the ninth ballot in the state legislature (which in those days chose U.S. senators).
After his defeat, Lincoln abandoned the defunct Whig Party and joined the new Republican Party in 1856. This new national party was comprised of many former Whigs who opposed slavery—referred to as "Conscience Whigs"—Free-Soilers, and antislavery Democrats. The Republicans took a firm stand against slavery. They were dedicated to the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the prevention of the further extension of slavery westward. The new party also demanded the immediate admission of Kansas into the Union as a free state, denounced the Ostend Manifesto, which called for the annexation of Cuba (where slavery was legal), and called for federal support of internal improvements-especially the construction of a railroad to the Pacific.
As a favorite-son candidate from Illinois, Lincoln was placed in nomination for vice president but failed to win at the convention in Philadelphia. He thereafter aggressively stumped the state in support of John C. Frémont for President. Although the Democratic candidate James Buchanan won the election and carried Illinois, Lincoln's Republican Party did surprisingly well, winning most of the northern counties and 30 percent of the popular vote.
The Issue of Slavery: 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Two years after Frémont's defeat, Abraham Lincoln won his party's nomination to the U.S. Senate. This put him head-to-head in a race with the powerful senator Stephen A. Douglas, one of Lincoln's rivals from his days in the Illinois state capital, who was running for a third term as a Democrat. There followed a series of seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas in towns across Illinois over the next seventy days. Several factors helped to attract national attention to the campaign battles. First, Douglas, one of the key figures behind the Compromise of 1850, enjoyed a reputation as the "Little Giant" of the Democratic Party and its best stump speaker. Second, the national debate over slavery was reaching a boiling point. During the four years leading up to these historic debates, Americans had witnessed some incredibly violent and explosive events that were sharply dividing the nation. Responding to the fervor, journalists accompanied the candidates, writing articles detailing the debates and offering editorial commentary that was unprecedented in American political history. The whole country watched the debates unfold.
A leader of the Democratic Party, Douglas had made himself politically vulnerable when he broke with Democratic President James Buchanan and southern Democrats over the issue of Kansas statehood. Douglas opposed the admission of Kansas as a slave state under the terms of the controversial, proslavery Lecompton constitution. That constitution, which was widely believed to have been the result of voter fraud by Missouri "border ruffians," would have legalized slavery in the new state. Douglas, hoping to appeal to antislavery northern Democrats and Republicans, took a popular sovereignty stance and opposed the constitution as unrepresentative of the majority opinion in Kansas. Enraged southern Democrats accused Douglas of party treason.
Lincoln understood that he would have to take a high moral ground to undermine the temptation of some Republicans to vote for Douglas as a means of dividing the national Democratic Party. To this end, Lincoln's campaign began with his famous "House Divided Speech" delivered in Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858. Recognized as one of the most important speeches in American history, his powerful message warned that the crisis over slavery would not be resolved until the nation stood either completely slave or totally free. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he declared, in prophetic words that supported the "irrepressible conflict" doctrine. He then turned on Douglas by saying that the threat to the nation's unity came principally from Douglas's popular sovereignty perspective. Lincoln envisioned a dozen "Bleeding Kansas" episodes in which settlers fought over the issue of slavery in order to get the upper hand in the territories.
A Constitutional, Moral, or Local Issue?
Furthermore, Lincoln charged Douglas with being part of secret cabal to extend slavery to the free states. He boldly announced that slavery was simply immoral and had to be dealt with forthrightly by the U.S. Congress. For Lincoln, slavery violated the fundamental assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. He argued that its continued existence and support in the nation ran counter to the wishes of the Founding Fathers. Ultimately, only the power of the federal government could resolve the issue by extinguishing slavery from the nation. Although Lincoln contended that there existed no constitutional way of interfering with slavery where it presently existed, he believed that it should not be allowed to expand westward. For him, the matter was a question of right and wrong, with Douglas indifferent to a moral wrong.
Douglas met the challenge by trying to portray Lincoln as a radical abolitionist. He disagreed with Lincoln's claim that the Founding Fathers had opposed slavery, pointing out that many of them, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had owned slaves. He played down the moral issue in favor of his commitment to a Jacksonian egalitarianism for white Americans, saying that the power to decide about the existence of slavery should be left to each community and on the local level. And he argued that slavery in any case would never survive outside of the South for simple economic reasons. Douglas asserted in his Freeport Doctrine (delivered at Freeport, Illinois) that the people could keep slavery out of their territories. Despite the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, which defended the property rights of slaveowners, Douglas claimed that local communities could decide for themselves to not pass local police laws to preserve the institution of slavery and not to protect slaveowners. He warned the nation not to try to judge political issues on moral grounds lest emotions spill over into civil war. Ultimately, Douglas argued that the issue came down to conflicting ideologies: a view of the nation as a confederacy of sovereign and equal states versus a federalist empire of consolidated states. He accused Lincoln of being an abolitionist at heart, and a dangerous fanatic whose policies would result in racial consolidation and racial equality. In doing so, Douglas appealed shamelessly to the race prejudice of Illinois voters.
Limited Racial Equality
It was on this last issue of racial equality that Lincoln had the most difficulty in answering Douglas. Lincoln could not easily declare that slavery was immoral and that African Americans were endowed with God-given rights as presented in the Declaration of Independence without leaving himself vulnerable to Douglas's race-baiting attacks. Either African Americans were equal to white Americans, Douglas proclaimed, or they were not. Lincoln answered by trying to contend that there were physical and social differences between the races that would "probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality." On the other hand, true to his "free labor" Republican ideology, Lincoln insisted that "there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Nevertheless, he saw limits to what this meant. Like most other Republicans, he opposed granting blacks the rights to vote, sit on juries, hold public office, or intermarry with whites. Blacks were equal, he said, to all men in their freedom to earn the just rewards for the work they did rather than to have those earnings confiscated by tyrants, kings, and slavemasters.
In those days, U.S. senators were elected by their state legislatures, not by a direct popular vote. Thus, the debates were designed to appeal to voters who would elect members of the state legislature, who would in turn elect the U.S. senator from Illinois. When the votes were counted, although Republican candidates won a slight plurality of the popular vote, the malapportionment of legislative districts favored southern Illinois, where the Democrats were strongest. As a result, the Democrats retained their majority in the legislature and elected Douglas over Lincoln by fifty-four votes to forty-six. Nevertheless, the campaign had given Lincoln a national reputation and made him a leader of the Republican Party.
The Campaign and Election of 1860
Going into the presidential election of 1860, the issue of slavery had heated the nation to the boiling point. How were the political parties going to maintain unity in the midst of such intense sectional conflict?
Winning Republican Support
After Abraham Lincoln's defeat in the race for the U.S. Senate, he spent the next sixteen months speaking and traveling all over the North making campaign speeches for numerous Republican candidates. His style avoided the wordy moral rhetoric of the abolitionists in favor of clear and simple logic. Lincoln was successful in laying the groundwork for his candidacy, since by the spring of 1860, many politicians were indebted to Lincoln for his support. Furthermore, because he was out of office and new to national prominence, he had offended no one in particular within the party. Most importantly, Lincoln had established a solid group of campaign managers and supporters who came to the Republican convention prepared to deal, maneuver, and line up votes for Lincoln. His chief opponent, and the man who was sure that he had the nomination in his pocket, was William H. Seward of New York. However, his front-runner status proved to be his greatest obstacle in that it opened him to political criticism even before the convention delegates had met.
The most powerful and prominent former Whig in the Republican Party, Seward—former New York governor and sitting U.S. senator—was known to be an uncompromising foe of slavery. Seward had voiced his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 and his hatred of slavery by saying, "there is a higher law than the Constitution" which should guide American actions regarding slavery. Eight years later, he coined the term "irrepressible conflict" in describing the state of relations between the North and the South as long as slavery remained alive in the nation. His close friendship with New York political boss Thurlow Weed alienated many midwestern Republicans, who feared political corruption. Additionally, Seward's long-established support for Irish immigrants, the basis of his New York City constituency, turned away former members of the anti-immigrant American Party, whose votes were needed to carry Pennsylvania and other states in the lower North.
When the Republican delegates gathered in Chicago at the Wigwam (a huge boxlike building) on May 16, they knew that the election of 1860 was theirs to lose. Almost immediately, a stop Seward movement emerged, based upon the argument that he would never carry Indiana or Pennsylvania. Seward led Lincoln on the first ballot 173 1/2 to 102. "I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none," Lincoln telegraphed his campaign managers, but they ignored him to line up delegate support. They won over Indiana and Pennsylvania by offering cabinet posts to those states. Lincoln then gained seventy-nine votes on the second ballot. With the momentum swinging his way, Lincoln won the third ballot.
The delegates then nominated the former Democrat from Maine, Senator Hannibal Hamlin, as Lincoln's vice presidential running mate. Holding true to its antislavery but moderate core, the party platform opposed the extension of slavery westward and denounced John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The platform also considered other key constituents by endorsing a protective tariff, a transcontinental railroad, and a Homestead Act that promised to give free land to settlers. This new Republican Party offered to bind the nation together as a free-labor society modeled on northern capitalism, free wage-labor, and the ultimate extinction of slavery.
After the historic debates with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas found himself vilified by southern Democrats. He tried unsuccessfully to argue that his middle way would enable the nation to pass over the momentary issue of slavery in the territories and thus preserve the Union. But southern radicals would have none of it. When the Democratic convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, both northern and southern delegates were ready for a showdown. The traditional rule that a two-thirds majority was required for a candidate to win nomination enabled southern Democrats to veto the nomination if they voted as a bloc. The first test came when the southern delegates insisted on a plank favoring a federal slave code for the territories. Douglas, knowing that he would lose every northern state if he agreed, refused to endorse the plank. When the delegates defeated the plank by a small majority, fifty southern delegates, led by Alabama "fire-eater" William L. Yancey, walked out of the convention. Even with these radicals gone, Douglas could not win a two-thirds majority. Neither could anyone else, and after fifty-seven ballots, the convention adjourned to meet in Baltimore in six weeks to try again.
When the badly shattered Democratic Party reconvened in June, there was no hope for unity. A raucous floor fight broke out over which delegates from the Charleston convention should be recognized. When the Douglas forces finally established dominance in this matter, the southern delegates pushed the slave code plank once again. For a second time, the Douglas forces beat it back and managed to nominate Douglas on a second ballot over John C. Breckinridge, the incumbent vice president. Herschel V. Johnson, a former governor of Georgia who supported both states' rights and unionism, was named to the second spot on the ticket. (He would later become a Confederate senator.) The party platform excluded reference to a slave code in the territories and supported the power of federal authority over the territories. It also affirmed its support for a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific and the acquisition of Cuba.
Furious southern delegates, including many who had boycotted the convention, then reconvened at Maryland Institute Hall to nominate John C. Breckinridge as the candidate of the Southern Democratic Party for the presidency. To run with him, the convention selected Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon. The party platform supported a federal slave code in the territories, the acquisition of Cuba, and the construction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean.
Constitutional Union Party
As the Republicans prepared to meet in Chicago, and after the debacle of the Democratic Party meeting in April, a third group of political leaders met in Baltimore on May 9 to form the Constitutional Union Party. Twenty-one states were represented by men who had been members of the old Whig Party and felt uncomfortable about the new Republican Party's radical leanings. They were also southern Whigs who feared sectional division over slavery as a threat to property and domestic tranquility; some of these Whigs were former members of the American Party who were dissatisfied with either of the existing political groups. The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell of Tennessee, Speaker of the House in 1836, war secretary under Presidents Harrison and Tyler, and a long-time U.S. senator. He was a southerner who supported slavery but opposed its extension into the territories. Bell's running mate, former U.S. senator from Massachusetts and one-time president of Harvard University, Edward Everett, believed principally in the need to compromise on slavery in order to preserve the Union. Unlike the Republicans and Democrats, this new party refused to issue a platform statement other than to recognize "no political principle other than the Constitution" and the preservation of the Union.
White-Hot Campaign Trail
The campaign that followed witnessed none of the candidates except Douglas on the public stump. Breckinridge gave only one speech, Bell said nothing, and Lincoln, in keeping with campaign traditions, stayed at home in Springfield receiving delegations who came to pay their respect. Douglas, on the other hand, broke with tradition and campaigned all over the nation. He traveled from New England to the Deep South, shaking hands and giving speeches. Most of his appearances, to his dismay, were peppered with questions about what would happen should Lincoln be elected. In answering, he always affirmed the President's duty to enforce the laws. By October, concluding that the election was lost to Lincoln, Douglas began urging people to reject secession and work within the system.
Although the other three candidates did little or no active campaigning, each party sent hundreds of activists out on the trail. Southern firebrand William Yancey aroused northern crowds by his incendiary warnings of secession should Lincoln be elected. Bell supporters handed out bells and rang them loudly at their rallies. None outdid the Republicans, however, as thousands of young men turned out in "Wide Awake" torchlight parades in support of Lincoln. Barbecues, picnics, rallies, rail-splitter battalions, and marches composed of six-foot-four Lincoln supporters listened to party celebrities extolling the honesty of Old Abe, the "Woodchopper of the West." Sympathetic voters were urged to "Vote Yourself a Farm" by voting for Lincoln and his Homestead Act platform.
His opponents countered by making fun of Lincoln's limited experience as a statesman and his "slang-whanging stump speaker" style, which they said reflected a limited intellect that would be an embarrassment to the nation should he be elected President. The Charleston Mercury ridiculed his looks, depicting him as a "horrid looking wretch . . ." unfit for office. Cartoons showed Lincoln dancing with black women and championing "amalgamation" and "miscegenation" (mixing of the races). One widely distributed picture showed Lincoln steering a ship with a thick-lipped black man embracing a young white girl sitting at his feet on deck. Other pictures were much cruder and even more blatantly racist, of a type never before so prevalent in a national election. One secessionist in Georgia warned that Lincoln planned to force the inter-marriage of black and white children, and that within "ten years or less our children will be the slaves of Negroes."
Impact of 1860 Election
The election of 1860 positioned the nation on the brink of fundamental change. A Republican win would end the South's political dominance of the Union. Southerners had been President of the U.S. for two-thirds of the time since 1789, and none of the northern Presidents had ever won reelection. Up to that point in American history, southerners had also controlled the speakership of the House, the presidents pro tem of the Senate, and the majority of Supreme Court justices for most of the time. A Lincoln victory needed only the addition of Pennsylvania, plus either Indiana or Illinois, to the Republican list of states won by Frémont in 1856.
When the votes were tallied, Lincoln, who was not on the ballot in any southern state, carried all of the North but one state in the popular vote. With respect to popular support, Douglas came in second, followed by Breckinridge and Bell. The electoral college results, however, placed the candidates in a different ranking. Most southerners voted for Breckinridge, who carried eleven slave states of fifteen. Bell won in the more conservative upper South states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Despite his popular support, Douglas carried only Missouri. In the final electoral college count, Lincoln beat Breckinridge 180 votes to 72. Bell polled 39 and Douglas came in last with 12 votes.
Clearly, the extreme positions identified with Lincoln and Breckinridge appealed to the majority of voters. On the other hand, the combined vote for Bell and Douglas was nearly one hundred thousand more than that for Lincoln. Taken together, those two candidates beat Breckinridge in large parts of Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky as well as in substantial portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Had the Democratic Party stayed united, it would have carried the popular vote but still lost in the electoral college due to Lincoln's win in the North. Thus, the 1860 election revealed the importance of the heavily populated northern states in achieving victory in the electoral college.
The Campaign and Election of 1864
The amazing fact about the election of 1864 is that it occurred in the first place. In the middle of a devastating civil war, the United States held its presidential election almost without discussion about any alternatives. No other democratic nation had ever conducted a national election during times of war. And while there was some talk of postponing the election, it was never given serious consideration, even when Lincoln thought that he would lose.
The second noteworthy fact about the election is that Lincoln won with a huge electoral college victory and a substantial popular vote of 55 percent. Up to the very eve of the election, Lincoln was doubtful about his chances, and most of his key advisers had been warning him through the summer of 1864 to expect the worst. Part of the problem stemmed from the growing dissatisfaction within his own party by Radical Republicans, who doubted Lincoln's commitment to ensuring political equality for the formerly enslaved once the war had ended. They also opposed Lincoln's mild approach to reconstruction that he had applied to Louisiana. The President's strategy allowed for the reorganization of the state's government if only 10 percent of its white males swore loyalty to the union and accepted the abolition of slavery. Radical Republicans contended that if such a plan were applied broadly to all the defeated Confederate states, the former rebels might return to power with little protection for the former slaves. To counter Lincoln's plan, Radical Republicans in Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill, which established a more severe reconstruction model—50 percent of the voters had to swear loyalty to the Union—to be administered by Congress. When Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill and invited Southerners to rejoin the Union under his 10 percent plan or else the Wade-Davis plan, his opponents within the party publicly attacked him—and this was just months before the election of 1864.
Although Lincoln won nomination for a second term on the first ballot when the Republicans met in Baltimore in June, a dissident convention of Radical Republicans had met earlier in Cleveland on May 31. They chose the name Radical Democracy for their party, and they nominated John C. Frémont as their presidential candidate. This move for Frémont never got off the ground, however, and most Radicals swung back to Lincoln by summer's end. The initial break indicated, however, the uncertainty in the political support for Lincoln within his own party.
More serious than the division among Republicans was the threat posed by the Democratic Party, which met in Chicago in August. The Democrats boldly proclaimed the Civil War a failure, demanded the immediate ending of hostilities, and called for the convening of a national convention to restore the Union by negotiation with the Confederate government. The Democrats nominated General George B. McClellan, former commander of Union forces whom Lincoln had fired because of his failure to pursue Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army after the battle at Antietam in 1862.
The ensuing campaign attacked Lincoln, and the Republicans gave equal measure in return. In its September 24, 1864, issue, Harper's magazine listed all the abusive terms that had been applied to Lincoln in the previous months: Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Fiend, and Butcher. The Democrats confidently believed that the nation had grown weary of the war and of the way Lincoln had conducted it. Thousands of Americans disliked the draft, and at one point Lincoln had been forced to send troops to quell draft riots in New York City. Then too there was the hue and cry raised by the Democrats over Lincoln's abuse of power as President in censoring the press, extending military rule over areas adequately served by civilian government, and arresting and detaining war critics without benefit of a trial. The Democratic platform attacked Lincoln's use of presidential powers and claimed he had acted unconstitutionally.
Most importantly, Democrats believed that Lincoln had doomed his chances for reelection by turning the war from a conflict to preserve the union into a battle to abolish slavery. Evidence of the President's shift in purpose was found in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was announced in September 1862 and officially proclaimed in January of 1863. Additionally, his decision to arm blacks and to allow them to serve in the U.S. Army was also perceived as having changed the war into a crusade to end slavery, which most northerners—so the Democrats believed—only weakly supported.
In reality, however, Lincoln's chances were better than anyone (including he) guessed at the time. His campaign slogan of "not changing horses in mid-stream" made sense to most Americans. Moreover, large numbers of northern Democrats supported Lincoln as the best hope of preserving the Union. When Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was replaced by Andrew Johnson, the Union Democrat from Tennessee who was Lincoln's military governor of occupied Tennessee, thousands of moderate Democrats in the border states moved into the Lincoln column. Additionally, the anti-Lincoln Democrats were in great disarray. Although the Democratic platform condemned the Union war effort as a failure and called for the immediate halt to the fighting and a negotiated settlement, McClellan denounced the platform and came out strongly for the preservation of the Union "at all hazards."
Equally important, the Republican platform took a firm stand on the war and its aftermath, appeasing Lincoln's Radical opponents within the party. It vowed to crush the Confederacy and punish rebel leaders, supported a constitutional amendment to end slavery, offered aid to Union veterans, and demanded unconditional surrender. It seems, too, that most northerners accepted the Emancipation Proclamation and the arming of black soldiers as a military necessity that would cause anarchy within Confederate lines and weaken the South's will to continue fighting. The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to border slave states still in the Union and parts of secessionist states that had remained Unionist greatly reassured many Democrats that it was a reasonable tool of war, one that tried to protect the property of loyal slaveowners.
Most importantly, the vast majority of U.S. soldiers and their families supported Lincoln and wanted to end the war with victory rather than a negotiated stalemate. On election day, General Grant insured that the soldiers could and would vote by absentee ballot; and for those who came from states where no absentee provisions existed, he furloughed them by the thousands so that they could go home and vote for Lincoln. This vote by the soldier-citizens of the war—who overwhelmingly supported Lincoln—when combined with the military victories won by Admiral Farragut in seizing Mobile Bay and General William Tecumseh Sherman at Atlanta in the late summer of 1864, united the Republican Party behind Lincoln and won him the election. In this landslide victory, the President won the electoral votes of twenty-two states, losing only Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey to McClellan.
Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign victory lit the fuse that would explode into the Civil War. Between the time of his election in November and his inauguration in March of 1861, seven states from the lower South seceded from the Union. Delegates from these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed the Confederate States of America. They drafted and passed a constitution that was similar to the U.S. Constitution, except in four areas. The Confederate constitution supported states' sovereignty, guaranteed the perpetual existence of slavery in the states and territories, prohibited Congress from enacting a protective tariff and giving government aid to internal improvements, and limited the presidential term to six-years.
Passing over the most radical southern secessionists, the convention named Jefferson Davis as president of the new nation. Davis was a Mississippi slaveowner and U.S. senator who had been the secretary of war in the Pierce administration. Alexander Stephens, a moderate Georgia Whig who had become a Democrat, was named vice president. Davis's inaugural address emphasized secession as a peaceful move that rested upon the consent of the governed to alter or abolish forms of government that were destructive to their freedoms and interests.
The southern position assumed that the United States was a compact of southern states. In this perspective, each state individually had agreed to allow the national government to act as its agent without ever relinquishing fundamental sovereignty. Any state at any time could withdraw from the compact with the other states. Most northerners saw the Union as something permanent, a perpetual Union, as a "more perfect Union" than the one operating under the Articles of Confederation.
Lincoln denied that the states had ever possessed independent sovereignty as colonies and territories. He claimed that the states had accepted unconditionally the sovereignty of the national government with the ratification of the Constitution. To those southerners who claimed the right of revolution to justify secession—just like the Founding Fathers had revolted against England—Lincoln answered with a legalistic distinction rooted in common sense. The right of revolution, he argued, is not a legal right but a moral right that depends upon the suppression of liberties and freedoms in order for it to be justified. What rights, freedoms, or liberties were being trampled underfoot by his election? The South still enjoyed all the constitutional freedoms they had always enjoyed. To exercise revolution with no moral cause to justify it is "simply a wicked exercise of physical power." Most northerners agreed with Lincoln that secession amounted to an unconstitutional act of treason.
Response to Secession
Lincoln passed the time between the Montgomery convention and his inauguration in public silence while sending private messages to Congress and key military officers. He tried to reiterate his campaign promise that he would take no actions as President to impair or limit slavery in those states where it existed. In demonstrating his intent, the President even supported a thirteenth amendment then passed by Congress that would guarantee slavery in the existing slave states.
However, Lincoln drew the line at supporting a package of compromises sponsored by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, known as the Crittenden Compromise. This proposal included a series of constitutional amendments to guarantee slavery in the states. Furthermore, the compromise sought to prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia and deny Congress the power to interfere with the interstate slave trade. Crittenden's legislation also empowered Congress to compensate slaveholders who lost runaway slaves to the North and protected slavery south of latitude 36'30' in all territories "now held or hereafter acquired." Lincoln understood that to accept the amendments would be to overturn the Republican platform, and he instructed party leaders to make no concessions whatsoever on the slavery expansion issue. The compromise was defeated in the Republican-controlled Congress. Lincoln also rejected overtures from a "Peace Convention" held in Washington, under the auspices of former president John Tyler, giving its delegates no encouragement.
Hoping to show his peaceful intentions, Lincoln prepared his inaugural address with an eye to keeping the upper South from joining the secessionists. His speech, delivered on March 4, 1861, was firm but conciliatory. He reaffirmed his promise not "to interfere with slavery" where it existed, and he assured the Confederate states that he would not "assail" (violently attack) them for their actions at Montgomery. On the other hand, Lincoln made it clear that he would "hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government . . ." He pleaded with the southerners: "We must not be enemies." He reminded them that no state could leave the Union "upon its own mere motion" and pledged to enforce the laws, "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war."
The very next day, the new President received a dispatch from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the federal installation at Fort Sumter, on an island in Charleston harbor. Anderson notified the President that the fort would have to be resupplied or evacuated. In a master stroke that allowed him to attempt to supply the fort without engaging Confederate forces, Lincoln sent unarmed supply ships to Fort Sumter—giving advance notice of their peaceful intentions. This shifted the decision as to who would fire the first shot from Lincoln to Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president did not blink. He ordered General Pierre G. T. Beauregard to compel Sumter's surrender before the supply ships could arrive. At 4:30 in the morning on April 12, 1861, Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. After a thirty-three-hour attack and exchange of fire, Major Anderson surrendered the fort and the Civil War had begun.
From Bull Run to Appomattox
Few people expected the war between the Confederacy and the Union to last as long as it did, four and a half years; to incur so much bloodshed, over six hundred thousand deaths; to involve so many soldiers, nearly 3 million men; or to be so total an effort on both sides. It was the bloodiest war in American history. Lincoln thought at first that calm heads among the southern slaveholders would soon prevail; southerners thought that the North would move to a negotiated peace at the first sight of blood. The North did not seriously take the South's willingness to fight almost to the death for its ideals; the South had no idea that Lincoln would show the iron will to endure almost any cost in order to preserve the Union.
The American Civil War that followed Fort Sumter's surrender involved fundamental strategies on both sides that altered little over time. For the Union, Lincoln adopted the so-called "Anaconda strategy" first proposed by old "Fuss and Feathers," General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Mirroring the tactics of the anaconda, a South American snake that suffocates and kills its prey through constriction, the strategy required the encirclement of the Confederacy by securing the border states. Additionally, Scott proposed mounting a massive naval blockade, severing the South in two by taking the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans, and pushing relentlessly upon the Virginia front while protecting Washington, D.C., from Confederate attack. Within a year, Lincoln modified the plan to include invasion of the South. The Confederacy, on the other hand, felt that its best hope lay in fighting a defensive war by using offensive tactics to make the northern armies suffer severely for each inch of ground won in battle. In time, the North's will to fight would be sapped, and foreign powers—such as England—would come to the aid of the Confederacy with weapons, loans, and military support.
For Lincoln, Union victory required him successfully to address an array of specific and interrelated issues:
- Finding the right generals who could press the North's advantages in men and resources by engaging the enemy and winning battles;
- Raising a citizen's army of volunteers willing to be trained and to die for the Union;
- Marshalling the American economy to meet the tremendous war needs;
- Dealing with dissent on the home front without destroying the democratic freedoms upon which the nation was founded;
- Preventing foreign recognition of the Confederacy;
- Conducting the war in a way that would enable a just peace to be achieved; and
- Dealing with the problem of slavery in a war that slavery had caused, in a nation in which most whites were antiblack.
Given the complexities of these issues, it is clear that navigating the Civil War was the greatest challenge ever faced by an American President.
Finding the Right Generals
Lincoln appointed and replaced his generals at a pace that most observers considered unwise. In his mind, however, he wanted commanders who could win battles, pursue defeated armies, and engage the enemy no matter the cost in lives or materials. He was impatient with all the training and preparations for battle because he believed that the South was inadequately prepared to accept substantial casualties and that the Union's superior numbers gave it a distinct advantage. Lincoln cared little whether the officers were Democrats or Republicans as long as they could manage men and were politically acceptable. He knew that he would have to make political appointments in order to win support for the war in Congress, and he did so with dispatch and a refusal to be bothered by the criticism of so-called professional soldiers. Lincoln responded to such complaints by saying that everyone would just have to learn on the job.
His dismissal of George B. McClellan after that general had defeated the Confederate icon General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland took nearly everyone by surprise. Lincoln had wanted McClellan to pursue and destroy Lee's retreating army at Antietam; he wanted the same thing of General George C. Meade at Gettysburg. In Lincoln's mind, both of these Union victories failed because they allowed the Confederates to escape intact to fight another day. Lincoln finally found his ideal general in Ulysses S. Grant, the western commander who captured Vicksburg in July 1863. Transferred to the eastern front, Grant fought Lee in a series of battles that pressed his advantage in numbers and tenacity. In these engagements, Grant never retreated nor resisted the opportunity to kill enemy soldiers. His protégé, General William Sherman, who had served with him in the western theater, also won Lincoln's admiration by taking the war home to the southern people on his march through the South, capturing Atlanta and laying waste to the southern countryside. For Lincoln, the war might have ended months earlier if Grant or Sherman had been in command at Gettysburg or Antietam. In Lincoln's opinion, every soldier killed in battle, and every sacked southern home or burned field of crops, shortened the war and saved lives.
Raising a Citizen's Army
The Civil War was fought on both sides by citizen-soldiers who volunteered for stints of between ninety days and the duration of the war. A great many of them reenlisted after their time expired, receiving bonuses and privileges. In March 1863, the Union passed a conscription law to require military service, but even then nearly two-thirds of the new soldiers were volunteers. Lincoln delegated the responsibilities of feeding, equipping, and transporting the Union forces to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a former Democrat from Ohio. Stanton worked closely with the individual states, which initially equipped and supplied their vastly expanded militia units. By 1863, the War Department operated as an effective and massive government agency that linked the farms that supplied the food and the industries that supplied the armaments to the battlefield with remarkable efficiency.
President Lincoln took a personally active role in the war, visiting soldier camps in the D.C. area. He also frequently intervened to grant presidential pardons to deserters and young soldiers who were about to be executed for various crimes while in the army. In Lincoln's public messages, he also demonstrated gratitude for the great service to the Union offered by his soldiers in blue. Most of the volunteers greatly respected "Mr. Lincoln," as he was called by them.
Not all northern citizens, however, eagerly volunteered for war. And as the carnage mounted, the numbers declined. Lincoln accepted conscription as a necessary measure which he hoped would spur more volunteers who could avoid the draft by serving for shorter terms. Almost immediately, so-called Peace Democrats attacked the law as "aristocracy legislation" because it allowed a draftee to hire a substitute for $300. About 25 percent of the men drafted from 1863 to 1865 had hired substitutes, another 45 percent were exempted for health reasons, and another 25 percent simply dodged the draft. As a result, only about 7 percent of all men drafted actually served. The protests spilled over into several American cities, where recent immigrants accused draft agents of calling up more poor working men and recent immigrants than anyone else. A bloody riot broke out in New York City on July 13, 1863, in which 105 people, many of them innocent African Americans, lost their lives. Lincoln rushed five units of the U.S. Army from the battlefield at Gettysburg to end the fighting.
Marshalling the American Economy
Lincoln appointed several efficient cabinet members responsible for leading and preparing the American economy for war. His first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, the party boss of Pennsylvania, had thrown his support to Lincoln at the Republican convention in return for a cabinet appointment. But he was a corrupt and inefficient ally, who once described an honest politician as "a man who, when he's bought, stays bought." In 1862, Lincoln replaced him with Edwin M. Stanton, who restored honesty and efficiency to the department.
At the U.S. Treasury, Lincoln named Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a leading abolitionist who constantly criticized Lincoln for his less-than-radical stand on emancipation. Despite their differences, Chase proved to be a remarkably apt director of the nation's finances. Among his most innovative and long-lasting programs was his use of the Legal Tender Act of 1862 to issue fiat currency, called "greenbacks," which were not backed by specie (gold or silver), to help finance the war. These paper dollars carried with them no promise to pay with gold in the future. They were valued instead as "legal tender" notes, meaning that everyone was required to accept them at face value in the settlement of debts. But the majority of the Union's war expenses was financed by taxes, loans, or the sale of government bonds.
Chase supervised the first income tax (3 percent on incomes over $800) in the nation's history as well as the national banking system, which was established by Congress and signed into law by Lincoln in 1863. This law resurrected the central banking system destroyed by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. It authorized the chartering of national banks, which could issue bank notes as loans to customers for up to 90 percent of the value of the U.S. bonds held by each bank. This provision created an instant demand for government bonds as many private banks and state banks were forced to become national banks and bought bonds in order to issue bank notes to their borrowers. In time, these bank notes became an important form of currency in the nation, circulating with greenbacks, paper checks drawn on deposits, and gold-backed certificates as the principal medium of exchange.
Chase also worked closely with the nation's bankers, merchants, and industrialists to find ways to sell bonds to the larger public. Assisted by Philadelphia financier Jay Cook, Secretary Chase used patriotic appeals to sell war bonds in amounts as small at $50. Cook sold over $400 million in bonds, earning a fortune for himself in commissions. By the end of the war, the U.S. had borrowed $2.6 billion, the first case in American history of mass financing for defense and war.
Dissent on the Home Front
Opposition to Lincoln's program and policies by Peace Democrats escalated into full-fledged counterwar measures by 1862. Most of these opponents were old-line Democrats who resented the centralizing laws and measures supported by the Republican majority in Congress. They especially opposed the national banking system, the newly passed protective tariffs, the draft, martial law, and any talk of emancipating slaves. Winning several congressional seats in 1862, Peace Democrats became more vocal and their critics began referring to them as "Copperheads." The term apparently came from the practice of some midwestern, hard-money Democrats who wore copper pennies around their necks in protest of legal tender greenbacks. Others claim that the term was a derogatory comparison of Peace Democrats to the copperhead snake.
When the war began, Lincoln decreed by executive order that all people who discouraged enlistment in the army or otherwise engaged in disloyal practices would be subject to martial law. This presidential action suspended the writ of habeas corpus (which prevents the government from holding citizens without trial). Between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand citizens, mostly from the border states, were arrested on suspicion of disloyal acts.
The most notorious Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham, a former Ohio congressman, was arrested by the military commander of Ohio in May 1863 for advocating—in his campaign for governor—a negotiated peace and antiwar demonstrations. A military court convicted him of treason and sentenced him to confinement for the duration of the war. Lincoln banished him behind Confederate lines to keep him from becoming a martyr. (By 1864, Vallandigham was back in the North, drafting the peace platform of the Democratic Party.) The incident raised serious questions about the violation of Vallandigham's First Amendment rights—freedom of speech—and the legitimacy of having military courts in areas like Ohio, in which civilian courts functioned. (After the war, in Ex Parte Milligan, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional military trials of civilians during wartime in areas where civil courts are open and functioning.)
Conducting the War
Foremost in Lincoln's mind in 1861 was how to keep the upper South from joining the Confederacy. After the fall of Fort Sumter, however, what with the secession of four more states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas), Lincoln turned his attention to military victory above all else. On the field of war, he wanted battle victories, but he did not otherwise want to do anything that might lessen Union sympathies in the South. This produced serious conflicting interests for the President. For example, Lincoln never recognized the legitimacy of the Confederacy and refused to officially negotiate with any of its representatives, yet he agreed to treat all captured prisoners as members of a sovereign nation rather than as traitors to be executed or imprisoned. Until 1863, when African American soldiers began enlisting in Union ranks, Lincoln and Davis supported a prisoner exchange policy that kept few prisoners in long-term prison camps.
With the enlistment of blacks in the U.S. Army, the Confederates announced that they would either execute captured black soldiers or return them to slavery. Lincoln stopped the execution threat by threatening in turn to execute one Confederate prisoner for every black soldier killed. The Confederacy unofficially abandoned the execution policy but refused to back down on returning the black soldiers to slavery. As a result, very few prisoners were exchanged after the summer of 1863.
With the fall of Vicksburg and New Orleans, Lincoln confronted the issue of how to "reconstruct" the defeated states. Should Confederate leaders and soldiers be punished for treason, deprived of their property, imprisoned, or exiled abroad? What about the average Confederate soldier? Should they be given the vote? On what terms should the Confederate states be allowed back into the Union? What powers would the Union have over the defeated states? And what about the former slaves?
Initially, Lincoln hoped to offer an olive branch to the defeated states by suggesting a no-revenge policy towards the Confederacy. When his forgiving tone enraged radical Republicans, Lincoln backed off. On the issue of slavery, he first talked about colonization as the best solution, and he funded projects in Central America and Haiti, both of which never got off the ground. Concerned about the election of 1864, Lincoln hoped to appeal to border state Democrats with his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which he issued in December 1863. According to its terms, Lincoln offered a presidential pardon to all southern whites (with the exception of government officials and high-ranking military offices) who swore an oath of allegiance to the United States and accepted the abolition of slavery. Additionally, if the number of white males swearing allegiance to the Union equaled 10 percent of the voters in 1860, that group could form a new state government.
Radical Republicans in Congress countered with their own Reconstruction proposal in the Wade-Davis bill in July 1864. According to its provisions, a majority of a state's white voters were required to take an oath of loyalty and to guarantee black equality. Then loyal state voters could elect delegates to a constitutional convention as the first step in the readmission process. Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill, and then invited southerners to rejoin the Union under either plan, knowing that they would select his proposal without doubt.
When Louisiana whites took advantage of Lincoln's proclamation in 1864, they adopted a state constitution that abolished slavery and provided a school system for whites and blacks alike. But the document did not provide for suffrage for educated blacks or Union veterans, despite a personal plea from Lincoln, though it did empower the legislature to enfranchise blacks. The reconstructed Louisiana state legislature then passed labor laws aimed at putting the formerly enslaved back on the plantations as low-paid wage laborers with limited freedom of travel and no political or civil rights. Angry Republican congressmen, understanding these new laws to be a reincarnation of the old slave codes, refused to admit Louisiana's representatives and senators to Congress—or those from Arkansas and Tennessee, which had also organized under Lincoln's "10 percent plan." Nor did these Republicans allow the counting of the electoral votes from these three states in 1864 election.
Following Union military successes and his reelection in the fall of 1864, Lincoln apparently had second thoughts about his reconstruction plans. Two days after General Lee's surrender at the village of Appomattox Courthouse, Lincoln promised that a new policy would be forthcoming. The President intended to include voting rights for some blacks—probably for those owning property and who were literate-and stronger measures, including an army of occupation, to protect their civil rights. Unfortunately, three days after this statement, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln dead at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
The Problem of Slavery during the War
There can be no question but that Lincoln hated slavery, that he believed that it mocked and contradicted the Declaration of Independence, and that it was the one issue that threatened the survival of the Union. It is also clear, however, that as a politician, Lincoln had always compromised on the slavery issue. For example, as a congressman, he identified with the Free-Soil, nonexpansionist antislavery forces rather than those abolitionists opposed to slavery as a moral evil with which no compromise could be tolerated. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln denounced racial equality in politics and society. As a presidential candidate, Lincoln promised to uphold the institution where it was constitutionally protected in southern states, and he supported the voluntary colonization of blacks to Africa.
Once he became President, Lincoln attempted to act consistently with his campaign positions, with the Constitution, and with the wishes of his Republican constituency. His purpose, he said again and again, was to save the Union—not to free the slaves. At first, Lincoln announced his commitment to not interfere with slavery. He did this in order to keep four slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—in the Union, and to obey the Constitution, which did not empower the federal government to abolish slavery. And he hoped to win the support of northern Democrats by not using the war to kill slavery as an institution. Nevertheless, events began to push Lincoln in the direction of emancipation within a few months after the fall of Fort Sumter. Almost immediately, Lincoln found himself besieged by prominent Republican senators—especially Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Ben Wade of Ohio—insisting that he use the President's war power as commander in chief to free the slaves immediately.
Lincoln tried to meet these demands without losing the border slave states by proposing a gradual emancipation program in which the federal government would pay loyal slavemasters in the border states for the voluntary emancipation of their slaves. The border states refused to accept the plan, however, and Lincoln came away from the discussions convinced that few slavemasters would ever voluntarily abandon slavery.
Additionally, once the war started, thousands of slaves began to run to Union lines. Thousands of other slaves began to exhibit insubordinate and even rebellious behavior on their home plantations, especially as more and more southern white males went away to war. Northern free blacks urged Lincoln to act decisively to encourage slave rebellions. They called for the President to issue an emancipation proclamation. Also, it seemed almost certain that an act of emancipation would make it difficult for England or France to officially recognize the Confederacy in view of the antislavery sentiments among their home populations—especially in England.
Accordingly, Lincoln announced to his cabinet on July 22, 1862, that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces in time of war. The Proclamation would free all slaves in areas still in rebellion, and henceforth it would be a Union objective to destroy slavery within the Confederate South. His cabinet persuaded Lincoln to wait until a Union victory, lest it appear to the world like an act of desperation. When General McClellan stopped Robert E. Lee's advance into Maryland at Antietam Creek in September 1862, Lincoln announced his preliminary proclamation. The President warned that if the rebellion did not end by January 1, 1863, he would issue his presidential order of emancipation and move to destroy slavery in the rebel states once and for all.
Just prior to his July announcement to his cabinet, Lincoln had signed the Second Confiscation Act passed by Congress, which provided for the seizure and liberation of all slaves held by people who supported the rebellion. This bill, however, exempted loyal slaveowners in the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, however, made no such exceptions. In the final Proclamation, Lincoln left out occupied Tennessee and certain occupied parts of Louisiana and Virginia as well as the loyal slave states. The document declared, with the exception of those areas, that all slaves in the rebellious states were hereafter "forever free." It also asserted that black men would now be enlisted in the Union army as regular soldiers (the U.S. Navy had accepted black sailors from the beginning of the war).
In a single stroke of his pen, Lincoln issued the most revolutionary measure ever to come from an American President up to that time. And he had never been more eloquent than in his message to Congress in December of 1862, after the upsurge of Democratic strength in the congressional election, in which he linked emancipation to saving the Union: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."
By the end of the war, over 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army, winning distinction on the field of battle. Most of these soldiers were former slaves (150,000) who flocked to Union lines, often bringing their families with them. This flood of formerly enslaved people amounted to one of the greatest folk movements in American history, and it also created a massive refugee crisis. Lincoln met the problem by establishing a refugee system that put most able-bodied women and children refugees to work for wages on abandoned and captured farms and plantations supervised by the government. Often, these refugee farms and plantations were protected by a home guard of black solders—the husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers of the formerly enslaved workers. This was especially the case in the Mississippi River valley from New Orleans to Memphis.
The President was worried that his wartime proclamation might be nullified (voided) by the courts after the war on the grounds that any confiscation of "property" required due process of law, and that such a policy could only be adopted by a law passed by Congress. Thus, Lincoln used his reelection victory in 1864 to promote a constitutional amendment that would end slavery everywhere in the nation. The Republican platform of 1864 had endorsed the Thirteenth Amendment—which the U.S. Senate had passed in April, and Lincoln used all the powers of his office, including patronage, to push it through the House, which adopted the amendment on January 31, 1865. Lincoln would not live, however, to see it become part of the Constitution after its ratification in December 1865.
Homestead Act of 1862
Legislation granting public lands to small farmers had been among the campaign promises of the 1860 Republican platform, and Lincoln supported early passage of the Homestead Act, which he signed into law on May 20, 1862. The bill stipulated that any adult citizen (or person intending to become a citizen) who headed a family could obtain a grant of 160 acres of public land by paying a small registration fee and living on the land for five years. The settler could own the land in six months by paying $1.25 an acre. By the end of the Civil War, 15,000 homestead claims were filed, and many more followed in the postwar era. Designed originally as a means of allowing the poor to have their own farms, the law benefited few people. This was because to take advantage of the nearly free homestead lands, families had to find the initial resources to travel west, to clear the land, and to sustain themselves—all before they could harvest crops for markets. Most of the land originally went to poor midwestern and eastern farmers, who then sold their properties after five years to land speculators allied with the railroad interests. Nevertheless, the law established the basic framework for the development of western territories.
Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862
Lincoln also signed into law and supported the legislation sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill, senator from Vermont, transferring giant allocations of federal lands to the states to be sold for the support of agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. The amount of land granted each state was proportional to its representation in Congress—thirty thousand acres for each senator and representative. In total, under the original act, some 17 million acres were given to the states. The bill demonstrated Lincoln's commitment to make the federal government an important force in higher education, one that would insure its democratization. Military science was also to be included in the curricula of these so-called land-grant colleges. Later, these schools in the Midwest and South were to become the great state university systems.
A key part of Abraham Lincoln's military strategy rested upon an effective blockade of the South's 3,500 miles of shoreline, including a dozen major ports and nearly two hundred inlets, bays, and navigable rivers. This was an almost impossible task for a nation with only a handful of naval ships. By the war's end, however, Lincoln had commissioned about five hundred ships, with an average of 150 on patrol at any one time. These ships captured or destroyed approximately fifteen hundred blockade runners. On the other hand, five out of six blockade runners evaded capture, enough to allow Britain to argue that it was a "paper blockade" not recognizable by international law. Most of this cargo, however, was lightweight luxury items, small munitions, and medicines. On the export side, the Confederacy shipped but a small percentage of its cash-earning cotton crop abroad during the war, five hundred thousand bales compared to 10 million bales for the three years prior to the start of the Civil War.
Foreign Recognition and Intervention in the War
The issue of the blockade's effectiveness became the major foreign policy question in the first few years of the war. The Confederacy confidently expected England to escort Confederate cotton vessels or to send British merchant and war ships to southern ports to pick up vitally needed cotton. To hasten this active intervention, the Confederacy informally cut off most cotton exports in 1861. Surprisingly, England took no official action to break the blockade and even tolerated the seizure by the Union of British ships trading with the Confederacy. Nor did England ever officially extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy.
This is not to say that the failure of England and other European countries officially to support the Confederacy was a foregone conclusion. Nor is it to say that no aid was extended from England to the Confederate war effort. Far from it. At several times during the war, both England and France came close to recognition and to intervention. It took all the skill of America's minister to England, Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of President John Adams and the son of President John Quincy Adams, to keep England out of the war.
Southern Belligerency Status
The first crisis occurred when England issued a proclamation of neutrality, which rested upon the logic of the Union's declared blockade. According to English reasoning, although Lincoln proclaimed the rebels to be insurrectionists and thus not recognizable under international law as a belligerent power engaged in war, his declared blockade was an act of war, which would have to be conducted against a sovereign state. Thus Lincoln had actually granted belligerency status to the Confederacy and thereby forced foreign powers to do the same. By proclaiming neutrality, England afforded the Confederacy the status of a belligerent power. Other European nations followed England's lead. Belligerency status gave the Confederacy the right, according to international law (signed by European nations after the Crimean War in 1856), to contract loans and to purchase arms from neutral nations. It also allowed England to provide safe harbors for both Union and Confederate warships and merchant vessels, to build blockade runners and warships for the Confederacy, and to formally debate in Parliament the merits of active intervention.
The delicacy of the situation exploded into near battle when two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, were seized by the U.S. Navy from a British ship, the Trent, en route to England. England's Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, sent Lincoln an ultimatum demanding an apology and the release of Mason and Slidell, and ordered troops to Canada in preparation for war. He also seized all English shipments to the U.S., including a vital supply of saltpeter, the principal ingredient of gunpowder, of which the Union was in desperately low supply. Lincoln had little choice but to release Mason and Slidell, although he avoided a public apology. England, greatly relieved, refused to press the issue.
For the remainder of the war, English shipbuilders constructed dozens of lightweight blockade runners for the Confederacy as well as several warships. The C.S.S. Alabama and Florida sunk sixty-four American merchant ships in the course of the war. In France, Louis Napoleon sent thousands of French soldiers into Mexico to overthrow the regime of Benito Juérez in hopes of making the nation a French colony. He unofficially supported the Confederacy but stopped short of formal recognition. In the summer of 1862, a coalition of European nations—Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia—came close to offering to mediate the war, which would have been tantamount to recognizing Confederate independence.
In the end, however, no European nation offered mediation nor extended recognition of the Confederacy. Among the reasons undermining active European intervention were several principal considerations. Economically, there were developments that shifted trade relations to emphasize the North's economic ties with Europe. To begin with, huge cotton exports in 1857-1860 had enabled English manufactures to stockpile inventories that carried them through much of the war. Additionally, new sources of cotton in Egypt and India replaced the southern supply after 1862. Furthermore, the Union became a major consumer of British iron, ships, armaments, and woolen uniforms and blankets, which absorbed the decline in the U.S. market for English cotton textiles. At the same time, crop failures in western Europe in 1861 and 1862 increased European dependence on American grain and flour, making King Corn as powerful as King Cotton.
Socially, the open hostility of England's working class to the Confederacy as a nation of aristocrats and slavemasters countered the support for the Confederacy by English members of the upper class. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation served to transform British antislavery sentiment into strong political opposition to the Confederacy. On the diplomatic front, there was a delicate balancing act between France and England, as neither side wanted to be the first to recognize Confederate independence lest the other use it to foment a new alliance with the Union.
All of these factors came to play in a series of diplomatic flourishes and sentiment shifts that reflected the battlefield fortunes of Union armies. But nothing was perhaps more consequential than the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation when combined with Lincoln's iron determination to win the war. Once the war became a crusade to destroy slavery, and once the Union Army presented itself as an army of liberation, rather than just an army of national self-preservation, it was almost impossible for England to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. British public opinion had become strongly abolitionist, and no government could have taken the other side.
On April 3, 1865, Abraham Lincoln entered Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Only hours before, President Jefferson Davis had fled. As Lincoln walked through the streets escorted by ten sailors, crowds of African Americans shouted "Glory to God! Glory! Glory! Glory! Glory, Hallelujah. The Great Messiah!"
A few miles away, the great commander of the Confederate Army of Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, his army reduced to 35,000 weary men, confronted Grant's 120,000 bluecoats. Faced with the inevitable, Lee, making the most difficult decision of his life, sent word to Grant that he would meet him in a farm house at the village of Appomattox Courthouse to surrender his army and thereby end the war. The surrender occurred on April 9. As a sign of Union respect for Confederate valor, the defeated officers of Lee's army were allowed to retain their swords.
Five days later, as the victorious Lincoln watched Laura Keene's light comedy Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., a darkly clad figure burst through the door of Lincoln's box in the balcony and shot the President point-blank in the back of his head. Mary Todd Lincoln screamed and tried to shield Lincoln with her body. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, leaped from the box to the stage to make his escape, shouting "Sic semper Tyrannis! [Thus always to Tyrants] The South is avenged!" Ten days later, after a near hysterical search by the army and the secret service, Booth was discovered hiding in a barn in rural Virginia. In the attempt to capture him, the barn was set on fire and Booth either shot himself or was killed in the shoot-out.
The wound to Lincoln's head took the President's life early the next morning. For the citizens of the Union, Lincoln's death muted the celebration of victory over the Confederacy. After seven days of official mourning in the capitol, Lincoln's coffin was carried on a slow-moving funeral train back to Springfield, Illinois. All along the 1,700 mile route, in small towns and villages, in fourteen different cities, including New York, and across the midwestern countryside, people gathered to see the train pass and to offer their last respects to the "Great Emancipator." Thousands of Americans remembered over the years the sight of the passing funeral train as one of the most deeply emotional events of their lives. Among those watching Lincoln's final journey to Springfield was a young Theodore Roosevelt who observed Lincoln's coffin pass in parade from the upstairs window of his family home in Manhattan.
Lincoln's assassin was the member of a well-known acting family and an ardent Confederate sympathizer. For most of the war, Booth, a Shakespearean performer, continued his theatrical career in the North while brooding and plotting to assist the Confederate cause by kidnapping Lincoln and holding him hostage as a bargaining chip. When he heard Lincoln endorse black suffrage on April 11, 1865, Booth conspired with several accomplices to kill Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and General Ulysses S. Grant. Four of his coconspirators were convicted and hanged for taking part in the plot or for having known about it in advance.
The Lincoln family in the White House established a routine of sorts that reflected the presence of their sons, the demands of war, and the highly complex and many-sided character of Abraham and Mary. On a superficial level, the day went from breakfast together as a family at 8:00 in the morning, reunion again for dinner at 8:00 in the evening, and then bedtime. Until little Willie's death in 1862, the two younger sons demanded a good deal of attention, and both parents gave them ample attention, although Lincoln grew more distant as the war progressed and occupied much of his day. It was the general rule of the White House that Mary Lincoln could burst in on her husband without notice to discuss family or politics or whatever was urgently on her mind. In the evening, she read newspapers in anticipation of talking with Abraham when he came to bed about what was newsworthy and to hear his reports on the state of the war. The Lincolns' older son Robert was away from Washington for most of the war either as a student at Harvard or, after 1864, as a young staff officer to General Grant.
Although Lincoln was almost entirely self-educated, he took great pleasure in the study of Shakespeare, Byron, the Bible, Aesop's Fables, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, or any writings with tragic and melancholy themes. Among his favorite poems was Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven." Lincoln loved to study the great orators, and he labored over his writings, whether they were personal letters or speeches like the Gettysburg Address—which was not quickly composed, as legend suggests, on a slip of paper while traveling by train to Gettysburg. Many of his contemporaries well understood the man's genius. Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the greatest intellectual of the day, ranked Lincoln with Aesop in his lighter moods and among the giants of literature in his more serious moments. "His brief speech at Gettysburg will not," said Emerson, "easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion." The great orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg in comparison to Lincoln's two minutes, confided afterwards to the President: "My speech will soon be forgotten, yours never will be. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines."
Lincoln was an intensely brooding person, plagued with chronic depression, and gloomy reflections about life and mortality. His poetry, speeches, letters, and conversations were filled with references to death, almost as if he were obsessed by it. He also worried about insanity and feared losing his mind. He never drank after his twenties. Above all else, Lincoln valued logical thought and was intrigued with mathematics. Yet he also was quite superstitious. He looked for signs and visions and believed that dreams were the omens of coming events. Skeptical of organized religion and not a member of any church, he nevertheless believed in an omnipotent God that controlled human destiny.
Known for his humor and folksy anecdotes, he liked to tell all kinds of jokes, bawdy stories, and yarns—usually poking fun at himself. He used his humor to drive home his points, and also as a means of dealing with his depressions. He enjoyed puns, corny jokes, and teasing solemn people. He kidded a group of temperance advocates who came to visit him at the White House by telling them that the southern soldiers seemed to drink more than his Union bluecoats, wondering if there might be a connection between drinking and southern valor under fire. Upset with General McClellan's hesitancy to move on Richmond, Lincoln wrote him: "Dear General, if you do not want to use the army I would like to borrow it for a day or two." When he was accused of being two-faced, Lincoln responded: "If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
Other than his jokes, avid reading, swapping stories and gossip with friends and cronies, an occasional game of chess, the theater, and poetry writing, Lincoln enjoyed little else. He detested hunting and did not like participating in group games or structured events if he could avoid them. His greatest relaxation seemed to be in sharing conversation with Mary and Tad Lincoln at the end of the day or when seated together in their carriage rides around the city.
An astounding 81 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls in 1860; four years later, the number had dropped to just under 74 percent. Census figures revealed that the nation's population in 1860 numbered 31,443 321 people, an increase of nearly 36 percent since 1850. (In no decade since has America's population growth been above 27 percent.) Two new states came into the Union during the war years: West Virginia, in 1863, as the nation's thirty-fifth state, and Nevada, in 1864. West Virginia broke off from Virginia when the latter seceded from the Union. Lincoln helped the new state along by sending troops, supplies, weapons, and gold from the Treasury (without a congressional appropriation). Nevada had grown up almost overnight with the discovery of silver at the Comstock lode in 1859.
Human Cost of War
Nearly every family in the Confederacy and the Union felt the impact of war with the death and wounding of loved ones and neighbors. The total number of casualties on both sides exceeded well over 1 million. More than 364,000 Union soldiers had died, with 140,000 from battle wounds. Another 275,175 returned home wounded, often crippled for life. The defeated rebels lost 258,000 men, and almost as many suffered wounds. Nearly 800,000 males served in the Confederate armies—nearly 90 percent of the free men aged eighteen to sixty years of age. Many more Union soldiers served, approximately 2.3 million men, but this represented only 44 percent of those eligible as able bodied males. In almost every major battle but one, Chickamauga, the North outnumbered the South in troops in the field, sometimes two to one. And in every major battle, except in the 1864 Wilderness engagement, Southern casualties equaled or exceeded Union casualties.
The total cost of the war is estimated to have reached $20 billion, or five times the total expenditures of the federal government since its inception in 1791. Because most of the fighting occurred on southern soil, the war impacted southern society to a far greater extent than it did the North. A huge agricultural industry based upon plantation slavery was totally destroyed, and nearly every part of southern society was altered in revolutionary ways. Small towns and villages became cities as the rural populations flocked to them to work in war-related industries or to find security from the Yankee invaders. Places like Mobile doubled in population, and the Confederate capital of Richmond grew by 250 percent. Southern white women on the plantations and farms found themselves doing work previously done by slaves and men. Numerous women also shifted from their previous roles in life to work in the Confederate bureaucracy and as schoolteachers. Inflation caused untold human suffering as prices increased almost 7,000 percent, causing bread riots in many southern towns and high levels of desertion by southern soldiers running home to care for their families. And the extent of human suffering and actual starvation among the southern people loomed large as the war slowly constricted the South. Events such as Sherman's march to sea, the conquest of the Mississippi River valley, the nonstop fighting in the Shenandoah valley, and Union attacks on the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia took their toll on the southern people. Once the war ended, economic reconstruction would be dominated by financiers from the North, who would lend money to southern business and industry leaders at high rates of interest.
In the North, although urban workers experienced a decline in their living standards in the face of a 77 percent inflation rate, most Union citizens on the home front enjoyed substantial prosperity. War contracts pumped giant sums of federal dollars into the economy, probably in excess of $1 billion. Railroad builders and industrialists took advantage of the demand to centralize their operations and to amass huge profits without having to pass much on to workers in wage increases. Agriculture also prospered, and by the end of the war large-scale commercial farming had become a reality. A new generation of mechanical mowers, efficient horse-drawn reapers, and improved plows enabled boys and women to increase production per acre even as their husbands and fathers were away at war. The average white southerner suffered greatly from the war, losing slaves and farm animals and members of their families in far greater proportion than was the case in the North. At war's end, a devastated and uncertain southern white citizenry faced a powerful and enriched North, which had transformed itself from a primarily agrarian and craft economy into an industrial powerhouse.
Liberation of African Americans
The war, moreover, in ending slavery liberated 4 million African Americans who stood ready to participate fully in the postwar economy and society as free citizens. The vast majority of the formerly enslaved had little but the shirts on their backs when they emerged from slavery. Few could read or write. Most of them were in disarray either because slavery had broken up their families or else because of the chaos of war. Almost all of them were determined, however, to have their own farms, to live free of any white supervision, to have their marriages legally recognized, and to obtain an education for their children. Armed with the conviction that freedom required independence from white control, the southern "freedmen" stood ready in 1865 to demand conditions of social, political, and even economic equality with any and every white person in the nation. More than a few abolitionists and Radical Republicans agreed with them and were prepared to fight the new battle of racial equality in the postwar South.
The movement to pass the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, guaranteeing blacks suffrage and other citizenship rights, however, posed an issue for the women's movement. Some women agreed with abolitionists that it was necessary to gain black suffrage first; others argued that women should not give precedence, and that white women deserved the vote before black men. The differences split the suffrage movement, and two organizations that emerged to fight for women's suffrage did not heal their wounds until the turn of the century.
In 1982, forty-nine historians and political scientists were asked by the Chicago Tribune to rate all the Presidents through Jimmy Carter in five categories: leadership qualities, accomplishments/crisis management, political skills, appointments, and character/integrity. At the top of the list stood Abraham Lincoln. He was followed by Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. None of these other Presidents exceeded Lincoln in any category according to the rate scale. Roosevelt fell into second place because he did not measure up to Lincoln in character. Washington, close behind, ranked third because of his lesser political skills. It is the general opinion of pollsters, moreover, that the average American would probably put Lincoln at the top as well. In other words, the judgment of historians and the public tells us that Abraham Lincoln was the nation's greatest President by every measure applied.
Interestingly, had the average Union citizen been asked the same question in the spring of 1863, there can be no doubt but that Lincoln would have fared poorly. Not much more could have been said for him even a year later, when Lincoln thought that he would lose his bid for reelection. It would take Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and his own death a week later to propel Lincoln into the pantheon of presidential greatness.
And Lincoln's canonization began almost immediately. Within days of his death, his life was being compared to Jesus Christ. Lincoln was portrayed to a worshipping public as a self-made man, the liberator of the slaves, and the savior of the Union who had given his life so that others could be free. President Lincoln became Father Abraham, a near mythological hero, "lawgiver" to African Americans, and a "Masterpiece of God" sent to save the Union. His humor was presented as an example of his humanity; his numerous pardons demonstrated his "great soul"; and his sorrowful demeanor reflected the burdens of his lonely journey as the leader of a "blundering and sinful" people.
Historians, mindful of Lincoln's mythic place in American popular culture, accord him similar praise for what he accomplished and for how he did it. Because he was committed to preserving the Union and thus vindicating democracy no matter what the consequences to himself, the Union was indeed saved. Because he understood that ending slavery required patience, careful timing, shrewd calculations, and an iron resolve, slavery was indeed killed. Lincoln managed in the process of saving the Union and killing slavery to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him. Because he understood that victory in both great causes depended upon purposeful and visionary presidential leadership as well as the exercise of politically acceptable means, he left as his legacy a United States that was both whole and free.
As the most activist President in history, Lincoln transformed the President's role as commander in chief and as chief executive into a powerful new position, making the President supreme over both Congress and the courts. His activism began almost immediately with Fort Sumter when he called out state militias, expanded the army and navy, spent $2 million without congressional appropriation, blockaded southern ports, closed post offices to treasonable correspondences, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in several locations, ordered the arrest and military detention of suspected traitors, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863.
To do all of these things, Lincoln broke an assortment of laws and ignored one constitutional provision after another. He made war without a declaration of war, and indeed even before summoning Congress into special session. He countered Supreme Court opposition by affirming his own version of judicial review that placed the President as the final interpreter of the Constitution. For Lincoln, it made no sense "to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution." Following a strategy of "unilateral action," Lincoln justified his powers as an emergency authority granted to him by the people. He had been elected, he told his critics, to decide when an emergency existed and to take all measures required to deal with it. In doing so, Lincoln maintained that the President was one of three "coordinate" departments of government, not in any way subordinate to Congress or the courts. Moreover, he demonstrated that the President had a special duty that went beyond the duty of Congress and the courts, a duty that required constant executive action in times of crisis. While the other branches of government are required to support the Constitution, Lincoln's actions pointed to the notion that the President alone is sworn to preserve, protect, and defend it. In times of war, this power makes the President literally responsible for the well-being and survival of the nation.
Lincoln's legacy of executive authority did not last beyond his death, and over the next forty years both Congress and the courts overshadowed the White House in power and influence. Still, the most lasting accomplishments attributed to Lincoln are the preservation of the Union, the vindication of democracy, and the death of slavery, all accomplished by the ways in which he handled the crisis that most certainly would have ended differently with a lesser man in office. His great achievement, historians tell us, was his ability to energize and mobilize the nation by appealing to its best ideals while acting "with malice towards none" in the pursuit of a more perfect, more just, and more enduring Union. No President in American history ever faced a greater crisis and no President ever accomplished as much.