There is probably no other American President in history who has inspired as much awe and respect as Abraham Lincoln. His humble beginnings and his legendary leadership have earned him a place forever in the hearts and minds of the American people.
Lincoln was the oldest son of a Kentucky frontiersman. The family fell on hard times during his childhood, with the result that they became squatters on farmland in Indiana. Lincoln’s mother died when he was only nine years old, and he had to work very hard on the farm to help support his family. Although both of his parents were probably illiterate and Lincoln only went to school briefly and sporadically, he managed to learn to read. Neighbors remembered how he would walk miles just for access to books.
Eventually, the Lincolns moved to Illinois where “Honest Abe” worked steadily as a farmer, a postmaster, and finally the manager of a general store. He was so highly respected and well-liked that when war broke out between the U.S. and the Native Americans, Lincoln was elected a captain of the volunteer soldiers from his area. Although he didn’t see any real action, his involvement brought him powerful political connections. He served one term in the House of Representatives but was unpopular because of his views on the Mexican-American war. He chose not to run for reelection but instead pursued his law career. Lincoln had taught himself law and was admitted to the bar in 1837. He was a very successful lawyer, working for a firm at first and later as a partner with William Herndon.
But Lincoln re-ignited his political career when confronted with several events that inflamed his moral beliefs. The Kansas-Nebraska Act gave states individual states the right to allow slavery, and the Supreme Court decision in the Scott vs. Sanford case set a precedent that African-Americans did not have the rights of citizens. Lincoln’s passionate conviction that all men have “certain inalienable rights” led him to join the newly-formed Republican party and to challenge Stephen Douglas (the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act) for his Senate seat.
Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a very memorable debate in 1858, mostly centered on the issue of slavery. Although Lincoln lost the election, his performance in this debate impressed the Republican Party so much that it led to his achievement of the Republican nomination for President. In this election, he once again faced Douglas but this time overcame him to win the Presidency in 1860. Lincoln took office just as the Civil War broke out. Seven states had already seceded from the Union and Fort Sumter was under attack by the Confederate army.
Lincoln’s reaction to Confederate rebellion earned him some unpopularity. He used the money from the Treasury to finance the war without the approval of Congress and briefly suspended habeas corpus to arrest suspected Confederate sympathizers without a warrant. The first year and a half of the Civil War also saw repeated defeats of the Union army. But decisive Union victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania turned the tide in the North’s favor. At a cemetery in Gettysburg, Lincoln gave the famous Gettysburg Address which reiterated his beliefs in the equal rights of man and has become one of the most quoted speeches in history. Lincoln also issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which symbolically if not literally freed all slaves, in 1863.
After winning reelection, Lincoln began working to unify the fractured country. He advocated for peaceful unification with the South, but he was at odds with most of his Cabinet who demanded retribution from the Confederate states.Lincoln’s plan for peaceful Restoration was shattered when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1864. Ironically, Booth’s goal was to help the war-scarred Southern states. In fact, the assassination achieved just the opposite because he killed the one person who was most likely to heal the division between North and South.
Throughout his life, Lincoln always expressed the view that he had a divine mandate to unify the country and to ensure basic rights for all men. Given his shortened life, he may have achieved more than any other American President in history.
- “Abraham Lincoln” Whitehouse.gov, https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/abrahamlincoln.
- “Abraham Lincoln” Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/abraham-lincoln-9382540#childhood.
- “Abraham Lincoln.” History.com, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/abraham-lincoln.