Abraham Lincoln

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: USA Presidents

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

In office
March 4, 1861 –  April 15, 1865
Vice President(s)   Hannibal Hamlin (1861 to 1865); Andrew Johnson (March - April 1865)
Preceded by James Buchanan
Succeeded by Andrew Johnson

Born February 12, 1809
Hardin County, Kentucky
Died April 15, 1865
Washington, D.C.
Political party Whig, Republican
Spouse Mary Todd Lincoln
Religion No affiliation

Abraham Lincoln ( February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) was an American politician who was elected the 16th President of the United States (serving from 1861 to 1865), and was the first president from the Republican Party. Today, he is best known for ending slavery and preserving the Union through his supervision of the Federal (i.e., Northern) forces during the American Civil War. He selected the generals and approved their strategy; selected senior civilian officials; supervised diplomacy, patronage, and party operations; and rallied public opinion through messages and speeches. Lincoln's influence was magnified by his powerful rhetoric; his Gettysburg Address rededicated the nation to freedom and democracy and remains a core component of the American value system.

To achieve his main goal of preserving the Union, Lincoln first ended slavery in the Confederacy through his Emancipation Proclamation (1863), then in 1865 secured passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery forever. He took personal charge of Reconstruction, seeking to speedily re-unite the nation through a policy of generous reconciliation. He was opposed by the Radical Republicans, who advocated much harsher policies.

His leadership qualities were evident in his bringing all factions of the party into his cabinet, in defusing a war scare with Britain in 1861, in handling the border slave states in 1861, and in his landslide reelection in 1864 presidential election. Copperheads criticized him vehemently for refusing to compromise on slavery, declaring martial law, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, ordering arrests of 18,000 opponents including public officials and newspaper publishers, needlessly ending the lives of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers in the war, and for overstepping the bounds of executive power as set forth in the Constitution. On the other hand, Radical Republicans criticized him for moving too slowly in abolishing slavery, and not being ruthless enough toward the conquered South.

Lincoln had a lasting influence on U.S. political and social institutions, redefining republican values, promoting nationalism, and enlarging the powers of the federal government. Scholars rank Lincoln as one of the two or three greatest presidents. His assassination in 1865 as the war ended made him a martyr for national unity and an icon of Americanism.

Lincoln to 1854

Symbolic log cabin at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site
Symbolic log cabin at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site

Early life

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. He was born in a one-room log cabin on the 348 acre (1.4 km²) Sinking Spring Farm. The farm was in Nolin Creek, three miles (5 km) south of Hodgenville, Kentucky. This was the southeast part of Hardin County (now part of LaRue County), and was at that time considered the " frontier". Lincoln was named after his grandfather, who was killed in 1786 in an Indian raid. He had no middle name. Lincoln's parents were uneducated farmers. Lincoln had one elder sister, Sarah Lincoln, who was born in 1805. He also had a younger brother, Thomas Jr, who died in infancy. Thomas Lincoln for a while was a respected and relatively affluent citizen of the Kentucky backcountry. He had purchased the Sinking Spring Farm in December 1808 for $200 cash and assumption of a debt. But Thomas lost all his property in court cases and when Lincoln was a child the family was living in a dugout on the side of a hill in Indiana, with not even a log cabin to shelter them. His parents belonged to a Baptist church that had pulled away from a larger church because they refused to support slavery. From a very young age, Lincoln was exposed to anti-slavery sentiment. However, he never joined his parents' church, or any other church, and as a youth he ridiculed religion.

In 1816, when Lincoln was seven years old, he and his parents moved to Perry County (now in Spencer County), Indiana. He later noted that this move was "partly on account of slavery," and partly because of economic difficulties in Kentucky. In 1818, Lincoln's mother died of " milk sickness" at age thirty four, when Abe was nine. Soon afterwards, Lincoln's father remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston. Sarah Lincoln raised young Lincoln like one of her own children. Years later she compared Lincoln to her own son, saying "Both were good boys, but I must say — both now being dead that Abe was the best boy I ever saw or ever expect to see." Lincoln was affectionate toward his step-mother, but distant from his father.

In 1830, after more economic and land-title difficulties in Indiana, the family settled on government land on a site selected by Lincoln's father in Macon County, Illinois. The following desolate winter was especially brutal, and the family nearly moved back to Indiana. When his father relocated the family to a nearby site the following year, the 22-year-old Lincoln struck out on his own, canoing down the Sangamon River to Sangamon County, Illinois, in the village of New Salem. Later that year, hired by New Salem businessman Denton Offutt and accompanied by friends, he took goods from New Salem to New Orleans via flatboat on the Sangamon, Illinois and Mississippi rivers. While in New Orleans, he may have witnessed a slave auction that left an indelible impression on him for the rest of his life. Whether he actually witnessed a slave auction at that time or not, he visited Kentucky often and probably saw similar atrocities from time to time.

His formal education consisted of perhaps 18 months of schooling from unofficial teachers. In effect he was self-educated, studying every book he could borrow. He mastered the Bible, William Shakespeare's works, English history and American history, and developed a plain style that puzzled audiences more used to grandiloquent oratory. He was a local wrestler and skilled with an axe; some of the rails he split were exhibited at the 1860 Republican National Convention, as the party celebrated the poor-boy-made-good theme. He avoided hunting and fishing because he did not like killing animals even for food and, though unusually tall and strong, spent so much time reading that some neighbors thought he must be doing it to avoid strenuous manual labor.

Young Abraham Lincoln
Young Abraham Lincoln

Early career

Lincoln began his political career in 1832, at age 23, with a campaign for the Illinois General Assembly as a member of the Whig Party. The centerpiece of his platform was the undertaking of navigational improvements on the Sangamon River in the hopes of attracting steamboat traffic to the river, which would allow sparsely populated, poor areas along and near the river to grow and prosper. He served as a captain in a company of the Illinois militia drawn from New Salem during the Black Hawk War, although he never saw combat. He wrote after being elected by his peers that he had not had "any such success in life which gave him so much satisfaction."

For a few months he operated a small store in New Salem, Illinois, selling tea, coffee, sugar, salt, blue calico, brown muslin, straw hats--and whiskey. After coming across the second volume of Sir William Blackstone's four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England, he taught himself law and was admitted to the bar in 1837. That same year, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, and began to practice law with Stephen T. Logan. He became one of the most respected and successful lawyers in Illinois and grew steadily more prosperous. Lincoln served four successive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, as a Whig representative from Sangamon County, beginning in 1834. He became a leader of the Whig party in the legislature. In 1837, he made his first protest against slavery in the Illinois House, stating that the institution was "founded on both injustice and bad policy".

It was in 1837, that Lincoln met his best friend, Joshua Fry Speed. In 1842, Lincoln wrote a series of anonymous letters which were published in the Sangamo Journal, mocking prominent Democrat and State Auditor James Shields. When Shields found out it was Lincoln, he challenged him to a duel. Since Shields was the challenger, Lincoln chose the weapon and specified "Cavalry broad swords of the largest size." Lincoln, much taller with long arms, had an overwhelming advantage; the duel was called off at the last minute.

In 1841, Lincoln entered law practice with William Herndon, a fellow Whig. In 1856, both men joined the fledgling Republican Party. Following Lincoln's death, Herndon began collecting stories about Lincoln from those who knew him in central Illinois, and published them in Herndon's Lincoln.


On November 4, 1842, at the age of 33, Lincoln married Mary Todd. She came from a prominent slave-owning family from Kentucky and allowed his children to spend time in Kentucky surrounded by slaves. The couple had four sons.

  • Robert Todd Lincoln ( August 1, 1843 - July 26, 1926): born in Springfield, Illinois, and died in Manchester, Vermont.
  • Edward Baker Lincoln ( March 10, 1846 - February 1, 1850): born and died in Springfield.
  • William Wallace Lincoln ( December 21, 1850 - February 20, 1862): born in Springfield and died in Washington, D.C.
  • Thomas "Tad" Lincoln ( April 4, 1853 - July 16, 1871): born in Springfield and died in Chicago.

Only Robert survived into adulthood. Lincoln greatly admired the science that flourished in New England and was one of the few men in Illinois at the time to send a son to elite eastern schools; he sent Robert Todd Lincoln to Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College). Robert had three children and three grandchildren, but none of these had children, so Abraham Lincoln's bloodline ended when Robert Beckwith (Lincoln's great-grandson) died on December 24, 1985.

Among his wife's family, four of his brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy with one wounded and another killed in action. Lieutenant David H. Todd, a half-brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, served as commandant of the Libby Prison camp during the war.

Antiwar activist

Lincoln in the 1840s
Lincoln in the 1840s

In 1846, Lincoln was elected to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives. A staunch Whig, Lincoln often referred to party leader Henry Clay as his political idol. As a freshman House member, Lincoln was not a particularly powerful or influential figure in Congress. He spoke out against the Mexican-American War, which he attributed to President Polk's desire for "military glory — that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood". Besides this rhetoric, he also directly challenged Polk's claims as to the boundary of Texas. Lincoln was among the 82 Whigs in January 1848 who defeated 81 Democrats in a procedural vote on an amendment to send a routine resolution back to committee with instructions for the committee to add the words "a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States". The amendment passed, but the bill never reemerged from committee and was never finally voted upon. Lincoln damaged his reputation by an intemperate speech in the House. He announced, "God of Heaven has forgotten to defend the weak and innocent, and permitted the strong band of murderers and demons from hell to kill men, women, and children, and lay waste and pillage the land of the just." Two weeks later, Polk sent a peace treaty to Congress. No one in Washington paid any attention to Lincoln, but the Democrats orchestrated angry outbursts from all over his district, where the war was popular and many had volunteered. In Morgan County, resolutions were adopted in fervent support of the war and in wrathful denunciation of the "treasonable assaults of guerrillas at home; party demagogues;" slanderers of the President, defenders of the butchery at the Alamo, traducers of the heroism at San Jacinto. Lincoln's law partner William Herndon warned Lincoln that the damage was mounting and irreparable; Lincoln himself was despondent, and he decided not to run for reelection. In the fall 1848 election, he campaigned vigorously for Zachary Taylor, the successful general whose atrocities he had denounced in January. Lincoln's attacks on Polk and Taylor came back to haunt him during the Civil War and indeed was held against him when he applied for a major patronage job from the new Taylor administration. Instead Taylor offered Lincoln a minor patronage job in remote Oregon Territory. Acceptance would end his career in the fast-growing state of Illinois, so he declined. Returning instead to Springfield, Lincoln gave up politics and turned his energies to making a living as an attorney, which involved grueling travels on horseback from county courthouse to county courthouse.

Prairie lawyer

By the mid-1850s, Lincoln faced competing transportation interests — both the river barges and the railroads. In 1849, he received a patent related to buoying vessels. Lincoln represented the Alton & Sangamon Railroad in an 1851 dispute with one of its shareholders, James A. Barret. Barret had refused to pay the balance on his pledge to the railroad on the grounds that it had changed its originally planned route. Lincoln argued that as a matter of law a corporation is not bound by its original charter when that charter can be amended in the public interest, that the newer proposed Alton & Sangamon route was superior and less expensive, and that accordingly the corporation had a right to sue Mr. Barret for his delinquent payment. He won this case, and the decision by the Illinois Supreme Court was eventually cited by several other courts throughout the United States.

An important example of Lincoln's skills as a railroad lawyer was a lawsuit over a tax exemption that the state had granted to the Illinois Central Railroad. McLean County argued that the state had no authority to grant such an exemption, and it sought to impose taxes on the railroad notwithstanding. In January 1856, the Illinois Supreme Court delivered its opinion upholding the tax exemption.

Lincoln's most notable criminal trial came in 1858 when he defended William "Duff" Armstrong, who was on trial for murder. The case is famous for Lincoln's use of judicial notice, a rare tactic at that time, to show that an eyewitness had lied on the stand. After the witness testified to having seen the crime by the light of the moon, Lincoln produced a Farmer's Almanac to show that the moon on that date was at such a low angle that it could not have provided enough illumination to see anything clearly. Based upon this evidence, Armstrong was acquitted.

Lincoln was involved in more than 5,100 cases in Illinois alone during a 23-year legal practice. Amounting to about one case per business day, many cases involved little more than filing a writ, while others were more substantial and drawn-out. Lincoln and his partners appeared before the Illinois State Supreme Court more than 400 times.

Republican politics 1854–1860

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which expressly repealed the limits on slavery's spread that had been part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, drew Lincoln back into politics. Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the most powerful man in the Senate, proposed popular sovereignty as the solution to the slavery impasse, and he incorporated it into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas argued that in a democracy the people of a territory should decide whether to allow slavery and not have a decision imposed on them by Congress.

It was a speech against the act, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, that caused Lincoln to stand out among the other free soil orators of the day. In the speech, Lincoln commented upon the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

Abraham Lincoln

[The Act has a] declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Abraham Lincoln

He helped form the new Republican Party, drawing on remnants of the old Whig, Free Soil, Liberty and Democratic parties. In a stirring campaign, the Republicans carried Illinois in 1854 and elected a senator. Lincoln was the obvious choice, but to keep the new party balanced he allowed the election to go to an ex-Democrat Lyman Trumbull.

In 1857-58, Douglas broke with President Buchanan, leading to a fight for control of the Democratic Party. Some eastern Republicans even favored the reelection of Douglas in 1858, since he led the opposition to the administration's push for the Lecompton Constitution which would have admitted Kansas as a slave state. Accepting the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1858, Lincoln delivered a famous speech in which he stated, "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'( Mark 3:25) I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other." The speech created a lasting image of the danger of disunion because of slavery, and rallied Republicans across the north.

The 1858 campaign featured the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a nationally famous contest on slavery. Lincoln warned that the Slave Power was threatening the values of republicanism, while Douglas emphasized democracy, as in his Freeport Doctrine, which said that local settlers should be free to choose slavery or not. Though the Republican legislative candidates won more popular votes, the Democrats won more seats, and the legislature reelected Douglas to the Senate. Nevertheless, Lincoln's eloquence transformed him into a national political star.

During the debates of 1858, the issue of race was often discussed. During a time period when racial egalitarianism was considered politically incorrect, Stephen Douglas informed the crowds, "If you desire Negro citizenship… if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves… then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favour of the citizenship of the negro." On the defensive, Lincoln countered that he was "not in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." Lincoln's opposition to slavery was opposition to the Slave Power, and he was not an abolitionist in 1858. But the Civil War changed many things, including Lincoln's beliefs in race relations.

Election of 1860

"The Rail Candidate", Lincoln's 1860 candidacy is held up by slavery issue (slave on left) and party organization (New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley on right)
"The Rail Candidate", Lincoln's 1860 candidacy is held up by slavery issue (slave on left) and party organization (New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley on right)

Entering the presidential nomination process as a distinct underdog, Lincoln was eventually chosen as the Republican candidate for the 1860 election for several reasons. His expressed views on slavery were seen as more moderate than the views of rivals William H. Seward and Salmon Chase. His "western" origins also appealed to the newer states. Other contenders, especially those with more governmental experience, had acquired enemies within the party and were weak in the critical western states. Lincoln was seen as a moderate who could win the west. Most Republicans agreed with Lincoln that the North was the aggrieved party as the Slave Power tightened its grasp on the national government. Despite his Southern connections (his in-laws owned slaves), Lincoln misunderstood the depth of the revolution underway in the South and the emergence of Southern nationalism. Throughout the 1850s he denied there would ever be a civil war. His supporters repeatedly denied that his election would be a spark for secession.

Lincoln did not campaign or give speeches. The campaign was handled by the state and county Republican organizations. They were thorough and used the newest techniques to sustain the enthusiasm of party members and thus obtain high turnout. There was little effort to convert non-Republicans, and there was virtually no campaigning in the South except for a few border cities such as St. Louis, Missouri, and Wheeling, Virginia; indeed the party did not run a slate of electors in most of the South. In the North, there were thousands of Republican speakers, tons of campaign posters and leaflets, and thousands of newspaper editorials. They focused first on the party platform, and second on Lincoln's life story, making the most of his boyhood poverty, his pioneer background, his native genius, his rise from obscurity to fame. His nicknames, "Honest Abe" and "the Rail-Splitter," were exploited to the full. The point was to emphasize the superior power of "free labor", whereby a common farm boy could work his way to the top by his own efforts.

On November 6, 1860, Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States, beating Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge of the Southern Democrats, and John C. Bell of the new Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln was the first Republican president. He won entirely on the strength of his support in the North: he was not even on the ballot in nine states in the South — and won only 2 of 996 counties in the other Southern states. Lincoln gained 1,865,908 votes (39.9% of the total,) for 180 electoral votes; Douglas 1,380,202 (29.5%) for 12 electoral votes; Breckenridge 848,019 (18.1%) for 72 electoral votes; and Bell 590,901 (12.5%) for 39 electoral votes. There were fusion tickets in some states, but even if his opponents had combined in every state, Lincoln had a majority vote in all but two of the states in which he won the electoral votes and would still have won the electoral college and the election.

Civil War

Secession winter 1860–1861

As Lincoln's election became more probable, secessionists made it clear that their states would leave the Union. South Carolina took the lead followed by six other cotton-growing states in the deep South. The upper South ( Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas) listened to and rejected the secessionist appeal. They decided to stay in the Union, though warning Lincoln they would not support an invasion through their territory. The seven Confederate states seceded before Lincoln took office, declaring themselves an entirely new nation, the Confederate States of America. President Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy, which became the immediate cause of the war.

President-elect Lincoln evaded possible assassins in Baltimore and on February 23, 1861, arrived in disguise in Washington, D.C. At Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, the Turners formed Lincoln's bodyguard; and a sizable garrison of federal troops was also present, ready to protect the capital from Confederate invasion or insurrection from Confederates in the capital city.

Photograph showing the March 4, 1861, inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in front of U.S. Capitol Building
Photograph showing the March 4, 1861, inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in front of U.S. Capitol Building

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln declared, "I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments", arguing further that the purpose of the United States Constitution was "to form a more perfect union" than the Articles of Confederation which were explicitly perpetual, and thus the Constitution too was perpetual. He asked rhetorically that even were the Constitution a simple contract, would it not require the agreement of all parties to rescind it?

Also in his inaugural address, in a final attempt to unite the Union and prevent the looming war, Lincoln supported the pending Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which had passed Congress. It explicitly protected slavery in those states in which it already existed, and was designed to appeal not to the Confederacy but to the critical border states. Lincoln adamantly opposed the Crittenden Compromise, however, which would have permitted slavery in the territories. Despite support for the Crittenden compromise among some Republicans, Lincoln denounced it saying it "would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and state owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego [at the far end of South America]."

By the time Lincoln took office, the Confederacy was an established fact, and no leaders of the insurrection proposed rejoining the Union on any terms. No compromise was found because no compromise was possible. Lincoln perhaps could have allowed the southern states to secede, and some Republicans recommended that. However, conservative Democratic nationalists, such as Jeremiah S. Black, Joseph Holt, and Edwin M. Stanton had taken control of Buchanan's cabinet around January 1, 1861, and refused to accept secession. Lincoln and nearly all Republican leaders adopted this nationalistic position by March 1861: the Union could not be broken.

Fighting begins: 1861–1862

After Union troops at Fort Sumter were fired upon and forced to surrender in April 1861, Lincoln called on governors of every state to send 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and "preserve the Union," which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states. Virginia, which had repeatedly warned Lincoln it would not allow an invasion of its territory or join an attack on another state, then seceded, along with North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Nevins argues that Lincoln made three serious mistakes at this point. He at first underestimated the strength of the Confederacy, assuming that 75,000 troops could end the insurrection in 90 days. Second, he overestimated the strength of Unionist sentiment in the South and border states; he assumed he could call the bluff of the insurrectionists and they would fade away. Finally he misunderstood the demands of Unionists in the border states, who warned they would not support an invasion of the Confederacy.

The slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware did not secede, and Lincoln urgently negotiated with state leaders there, promising not to interfere with slavery in loyal states. After the fighting started, he had rebel leaders arrested in all the border areas and held in military prisons without trial; over 18,000 were arrested. None were executed; one — Clement Vallandingham — was exiled; all were released, usually after two or three months. See Ex parte Merryman.

Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln met with his Cabinet for the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation draft on July 22, 1862. L-R: Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Welles, Caleb Smith, William H. Seward, Montgomery Blair and Edward Bates.
Lincoln met with his Cabinet for the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation draft on July 22, 1862. L-R: Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Welles, Caleb Smith, William H. Seward, Montgomery Blair and Edward Bates.

Congress in July 1862 moved to free the slaves by passing the Second Confiscation Act. The goal was to weaken the rebellion, which was led and controlled by slave owners. This did not abolish the legal institution of slavery (the 13th Amendment did that), but it shows Lincoln had the support of Congress in liberating the slaves owned by rebels. Lincoln implemented the new law by his "Emancipation Proclamation."

Lincoln is well known for ending slavery in the United States. In 1861-62, Lincoln made it clear that the North was fighting the war to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. Freeing the slaves became, in late 1862, a war measure to weaken the rebellion by destroying the economic base of its leadership class. Abolitionists criticized Lincoln for his slowness, but on August 22, 1862, Lincoln explained,

Abraham Lincoln
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." ... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Abraham Lincoln

The Emancipation Proclamation, announced on September 22 and put in effect January 1, 1863, freed slaves in territories not under Union control. As Union armies advanced south, more slaves were liberated until all of them in Confederate hands were freed (over three million). Lincoln later said: "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper." The proclamation made abolishing slavery in the rebel states an official war goal. Lincoln then threw his energies into passage of the 13th Amendment to permanently abolish slavery throughout the nation.

Lincoln had for some time been working on plans to set up colonies for the newly freed slaves. He remarked upon colonization favorably in the Emancipation Proclamation but all attempts at such a massive undertaking failed. As Frederick Douglass observed, Lincoln was, "The first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of colour."

Domestic measures

While Lincoln is usually portrayed bearded, he first grew a beard in 1861 at the suggestion of 11-year-old Grace Bedell
While Lincoln is usually portrayed bearded, he first grew a beard in 1861 at the suggestion of 11-year-old Grace Bedell

Lincoln believed in the Whig theory of the presidency, which left Congress to write the laws while he signed them, vetoing only bills that threatened his war powers. Thus, he signed the Homestead Act in 1862, making available millions of acres of government-held land in the west for purchase at very low cost. The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, also signed in 1862, provided government grants for agricultural universities in each state. Lincoln also signed the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864, which granted federal support to the construction of the United States' first transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869. Other important legislation involved money matters, including the first income tax and higher tariffs. Also included was the creation of the system of national banks by the National Banking Acts of 1863, 1864, and 1865 which allowed the creation of a strong national financial system.

Lincoln sent a senior general to put down the " Sioux Uprising" of August 1862 in Minnesota. Presented with 303 death warrants for convicted Santee Dakota who had massacred innocent farmers, Lincoln affirmed 39 of these for execution (one was later reprieved).

1864 election and second inauguration

After Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga in 1863, victory seemed at hand. Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant General-in-Chief on March 12, 1864. When the spring campaigns all turned into bloody stalemates, Lincoln strongly supported Grant's strategy of wearing down Lee's army at the cost of heavy Union casualties. Lincoln easily defeated efforts to deny his renomination, and selected Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat from the Southern state of Tennessee as his running mate in order to form a broader coalition. They ran on the new Union Party ticket; it was a coalition of Republicans and War Democrats.

Republicans across the country had the jitters in August, fearing that Lincoln would be defeated. Acknowledging those fears, Lincoln wrote out and signed the following pledge that he would destroy the Confederacy even if he was defeated for reelection; he did not show it to his cabinet, asking them each to sign the sealed envelope. Lincoln wrote:

Abraham Lincoln
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.
Abraham Lincoln

That is, Lincoln pledged to destroy the Confederacy before he left office on March 4, 1865.

The Democratic platform followed the Peace wing of the party, calling the war a "failure." However their candidate, General George McClellan, supported the war and repudiated the platform.

Lincoln provided Grant with new replacements and mobilized the Union party to support Grant and talk up local support for the war. Sherman's capture of Atlanta in September ended defeatist jitters; the Democratic Party was deeply split, with some leaders and most soldiers openly for Lincoln; the Union party was united and energized, and Lincoln was easily reelected in a landslide. He won all but two states, capturing 212 of 233 electoral votes.

On March 4, 1865, he delivered his second inaugural address, which was his favorite of all his speeches. At this time, a victory over the rebels was at hand, slavery was dead, and Lincoln was looking to the future.

Abraham Lincoln
Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether".

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations

Abraham Lincoln

Conducting the war effort

The war was a source of constant frustration for the president, and it occupied nearly all of his time. Lincoln had a contentious relationship with General George B. McClellan, who became general-in-chief of all the Union armies in the wake of the embarrassing Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run and after the retirement of Winfield Scott in late 1861. Lincoln wished to take an active part in planning the war strategy despite his inexperience in military affairs. Lincoln's strategic priorities were two-fold: first, to ensure that Washington, D.C., was well defended; and second, to conduct an aggressive war effort in hopes of ending the war quickly and appeasing the Northern public and press, who pushed for an offensive war. McClellan, a youthful West Point graduate and railroad executive called back to military service, took a more cautious approach. McClellan took several months to plan and execute his Peninsula Campaign, which involved capturing Richmond by moving the Army of the Potomac by boat to the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. McClellan's delay irritated Lincoln, as did McClellan's insistence that no troops were needed to defend Washington, D.C. Lincoln insisted on holding some of McClellan's troops to defend the capital, a decision McClellan blamed for the ultimate failure of his Peninsula Campaign.

McClellan, a lifelong Democrat who was temperamentally conservative, was relieved as general-in-chief after releasing his Harrison's Landing Letter, where he offered unsolicited political advice to Lincoln urging caution in the war effort. McClellan's letter incensed Radical Republicans, who successfully pressured Lincoln to appoint fellow Republican John Pope as head of the new Army of Virginia. Pope complied with Lincoln's strategic desire for the Union to move towards Richmond from the north, thus guarding Washington, D.C. However, Pope was soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run during the summer of 1862, forcing the Army of the Potomac back into the defenses of Washington for a second time. Pope was sent to Minnesota to fight the Sioux.

Panicked by Confederate General Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland, Lincoln restored McClellan to command of all forces around Washington in time for the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. It was the Union victory in that battle that allowed Lincoln to release his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln relieved McClellan of command shortly after the 1862 midterm elections and appointed Republican Ambrose Burnside to head the Army of the Potomac, who promised to follow through on Lincoln's strategic vision for an aggressive offensive against Lee and Richmond. After Burnside was stunningly defeated at Fredericksburg, Joseph Hooker was given command, despite his idle talk about becoming a military strong man. Hooker was routed by Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863 and relieved of command early in the subsequent Gettysburg Campaign.

After the Union victory at Gettysburg, Meade's failure to pursue Lee, and months of inactivity for the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln decided to bring in a western general: General Ulysses S. Grant. He had a solid string of victories in the Western Theatre, including Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Earlier, reacting to criticism of Grant, Lincoln was quoted as saying, "I cannot spare this man. He fights." Grant waged his bloody Overland Campaign in 1864, using a strategy of a war of attrition, characterized by high Union losses at battles such as the Wilderness and Cold Harbour but by proportionately higher losses in the Confederate army. Grant's aggressive campaign eventually bottled up Lee in the Siege of Petersburg and result in the Union's taking Richmond and bringing the war to a close in the spring of 1865.

Lincoln authorized Grant to destroy the civilian infrastructure that was keeping the Confederacy alive, hoping thereby to destroy the South's morale and weaken its economic ability to continue the war. This allowed Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan to destroy farms and towns in the Shenandoah Valley, Georgia, and South Carolina. The damage in Sherman's March to the Sea through Georgia totaled in excess of $100 million.

Lincoln had a star-crossed record as a military leader, possessing a keen understanding of strategic points (such as the Mississippi River and the fortress city of Vicksburg) and the importance of defeating the enemy's army, rather than simply capturing cities. However, he had limited success in motivating his commanders to adopt his strategies, until in late 1863 he found in Grant a man who shared his vision of the war, his insistence on using black troops, and was able to bring that vision to reality with his relentless pursuit of coordinated offensives in multiple theaters of war.

Lincoln showed a keen curiosity with military campaigning during the war. He spent hours at the War Department telegraph office, reading dispatches from his generals on many nights. He frequently visited battle sites and seemed fascinated by watching scenes of war. During Jubal A. Early's raid into Washington, D.C., in 1864, Lincoln had to be told to duck his head to avoid being shot while observing the scenes of battle.


The last photograph taken of Lincoln alive, April 10, 1865.
The last photograph taken of Lincoln alive, April 10, 1865.

Rhetoric mobilizes the nation

Lincoln was more successful in giving the war meaning to Northern civilians through his oratorical skills. Lincoln possessed an extraordinary command of the English language, as evidenced by the Gettysburg Address, a speech dedicating a cemetery of Union soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg that he delivered on November 19, 1863. Lincoln's choice words resonated across the nation and across history, defying Lincoln's own prediction that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Lincoln's second inaugural address is also greatly admired and often quoted. In these speeches, Lincoln articulated better than anyone the rationale behind the Union effort.

Civil liberties suspended

During the Civil War, Lincoln appropriated powers no previous President had wielded: he used his war powers to proclaim a blockade, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, spent money without congressional authorization, and imprisoned 18,000 suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial. All his actions, although vehemently denounced by the Copperheads, were subsequently upheld by Congress and the Courts.


Reconstruction began during the war as Lincoln and his associates pondered the questions of how to reintegrate the Southern states back into the Union, and what to do with Confederate leaders and with the freed slaves. Lincoln was the leader of the "moderates" regarding Reconstruction policy, and usually was opposed by the Radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade in the Senate (though he cooperated with those men on most other issues). Lincoln was determined to find a course that would reunite the nation as soon as possible and not permanently alienate the Southerners, and throughout the war Lincoln urged speedy elections under generous terms in areas behind Union lines. Critical decisions had to be made during the war, as state after state was reconquered. Of special importance were Tennessee, where Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson as governor, and Louisiana where Lincoln tried a plan that would restore the state when 10% of the voters agreed. The Radicals thought that policy was too lenient, and passed their own plan, the Wade-Davis Bill in 1864. Lincoln vetoed Wade-Davis, and the Radicals retaliated by refusing to seat representatives elected from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia; the war was effectively over. The other rebel armies surrendered and there was no guerrilla warfare. Lincoln went to Richmond to make a public gesture of sitting at Jefferson Davis's own desk, symbolically saying to the nation that the President of the United States held authority over the entire land. He was greeted at the city as a conquering hero by freed slaves, whose sentiments were epitomized by one admirer's quote, "I know I am free for I have seen the face of Father Abraham and have felt him." When a general asked Lincoln how the defeated Confederates should be treated, Lincoln replied, "Let 'em up easy."


The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.

Originally, John Wilkes Booth had formulated a plan to kidnap Lincoln in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners. However, on April 11, 1865 Lincoln gave a speech outside the White House giving his support to voting rights to blacks. This infuriated Booth, who was in the attending crowd. His plan to kidnap Lincoln changed to a plan for assassination.

Lincoln had met frequently with Grant as the war drew to a close. The two men planned matters of reconstruction, and it was evident to all that they held each other in high regard. During their last meeting, on April 14, 1865 ( Good Friday), Lincoln invited Grant to a social engagement that evening. Grant declined. Finally, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (his step-sister and fiancee) agreed to go.

John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and a Confederate spy from Maryland, heard that the President and Mrs. Lincoln, along with the Grants, would be attending Ford's Theatre. Having failed in a plot to kidnap Lincoln earlier, Booth informed his co-conspirators of his intention to kill Lincoln. Others were assigned to assassinate vice-president Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Without his main bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, to whom he related his famous dream of his own assassination, Lincoln left to attend the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. As a lone bodyguard wandered, and Lincoln sat in his state box (Box 7) in the balcony, Booth crept up behind the President's box and waited for the funniest line of the play, hoping the laughter would cover the noise of the gunshot. On stage, a character named Lord Dundreary (played by Harry Hawk) who has just been accused of ignorance in regards to the manners of good society, replies, "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap..." When the laughter came Booth jumped into the box with the President and aimed a single-shot, round-slug .44 caliber Deringer at his head, firing at point-blank range. The bullet entered behind Lincoln's left ear and lodged behind his right eyeball. Major Henry Rathbone momentarily grappled with Booth but was cut by Booth's knife. Booth then leapt to the stage and shouted " Sic semper tyrannis!" (Latin: "Thus always to tyrants") and escaped, despite a broken leg suffered in the leap. A twelve day manhunt ensued, in which Booth was chased by Federal agents (under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), until he was finally cornered in a barnhouse in Virginia and shot, dying soon after. Of Booth's other conspirators, only one came close to assassinating his target: Lewis Powell attacked and critically injured Secretary of State Seward.

An army surgeon, Doctor Charles Leale, quickly assessed the wound as mortal. The President was taken across the street from the theatre to the Petersen House, where he lay in a coma for nine hours before he died. Several physicians attended Lincoln, including U.S. Army Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes of the Army Medical Museum. Using a probe, Barnes located some fragments of Lincoln's skull and the ball lodged 6 inches (15 cm) inside his brain. Lincoln never regained consciousness and was officially pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. April 15, 1865. There is some disagreement among historians as to Stanton's words after Lincoln died. All agree he began "Now he belongs to the..." with some stating he said "ages", while others believe he said "angels". After Lincoln's body was returned to the White House, his body was prepared for his lying in state in the East Room.

The Army Medical Museum, now named the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has retained in its collection several artifacts relating to the assassination. Currently on display in the museum are the bullet that was fired from the Deringer pistol, the probe used by Barnes, pieces of Lincoln's skull and hair, and the surgeon's cuff stained with Lincoln's blood.

Lincoln's funeral train carried his remains, as well as 300 mourners and the casket of his son William, 1,654 miles (2,661 km) to Illinois.
Lincoln's funeral train carried his remains, as well as 300 mourners and the casket of his son William, 1,654 miles (2,661 km) to Illinois.

Lincoln's body was carried by train in a grand funeral procession through several states on its way back to Illinois. The nation mourned a man whom many viewed as the savior of the United States. Copperheads celebrated the death of a man they considered an unconstitutional tyrant. He was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, where a 177 foot (54 m) tall granite tomb surmounted with several bronze statues of Lincoln was constructed by 1874. To prevent repeated attempts to steal Lincoln's body and hold it for ransom, Robert Todd Lincoln had Lincoln exhumed and reinterred in concrete several feet thick in 1901.

Presidential appointments

Administration and Cabinet

Lincoln was known for appointing his political rivals to high positions in his Cabinet to keep in line all factions of his party — and to let them battle each other and not combine against Lincoln. Historians agree that except for Cameron, it was a highly effective group.

Office Name Term
President Abraham Lincoln 1861–1865
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin 1861–1865
  Andrew Johnson 1865
Secretary of State William H. Seward 1861–1865
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase 1861–1864
  William P. Fessenden 1864–1865
  Hugh McCulloch 1865
Secretary of War Simon Cameron 1861–1862
  Edwin M. Stanton 1862–1865
Attorney General Edward Bates 1861–1864
  James Speed 1864–1865
Postmaster General Horatio King 1861
  Montgomery Blair 1861–1864
  William Dennison 1864–1865
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles 1861–1865
Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith 1861–1863
  John P. Usher 1863–1865

Supreme Court

Lincoln appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

  • Noah Haynes Swayne 1862
  • Samuel Freeman Miller 1862
  • David Davis 1862
  • Stephen Johnson Field 1863
  • Salmon P. Chase Chief Justice – 1864

Major presidential acts

Enacted as President

  • Signed Revenue Act of 1861
  • Signed Homestead Act
  • Signed Morill Land-Grant College Act
  • Signed Internal Revenue Act of 1862
  • Signed Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864
  • Established United States Department of Agriculture (1862)
  • Signed National Banking Act of 1863
  • Signed Internal Revenue Act of 1864

Lincoln spent most of his attention on military matters and politics, but with his strong support, U.S government established the current system of national banks with the National Bank Act. His Administration increased the tariff to raise revenue, imposed the first income tax, issued hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds and the first national Greenbacks (paper money), encouraged immigration from Europe, started the transcontinental railroad, set up the Department of Agriculture, and encouraged farm ownership with the Homestead Act of 1862. During the war, his Treasury department effectively controlled all cotton trade in the occupied South—the most dramatic incursion of federal controls on the economy.

States admitted to the Union

Legacy and memorials

Daniel Chester French's seated Lincoln faces the National Mall to the east.
Daniel Chester French's seated Lincoln faces the National Mall to the east.
A portrait of Lincoln as seen on the U.S. five dollar bill.
A portrait of Lincoln as seen on the U.S. five dollar bill.
Lincoln's likeness on Mt. Rushmore.
Lincoln's likeness on Mt. Rushmore.
Lincoln as depicted on the Illinois state quarter
Lincoln as depicted on the Illinois state quarter

Lincoln's death made the President a martyr to many. Repeated polls of historians have ranked Lincoln as among the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Among contemporary admirers, Lincoln is usually seen as a figure who personifies classical values of honesty, integrity, as well as respect for individual and minority rights, and human freedom in general. Many American organizations of all purposes and agendas continue to cite his name and image, with interests ranging from the gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans to the insurance corporation Lincoln Financial. The Lincoln automobile is also named after him.

Lincoln stamp, issued Nov. 19, 1965.
Lincoln stamp, issued Nov. 19, 1965.

Lincoln has been memorialized in many city names, notably the capital of Nebraska. Lincoln, Illinois, is the only city to be named for Abraham Lincoln before he became President. Lincoln's name and image appear in numerous places. These include the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (pictured, left); the U.S. $5 bill and the 1 cent coin; as part of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial; Lincoln's Tomb, Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. In addition, New Salem, Illinois (a reconstruction of Lincoln's early adult hometown), Ford's Theatre and Petersen House (where he died) are all preserved as museums. The Lincoln Shrine in Redlands, California is located behind the A.K. Smiley Public Library. The state nickname for Illinois is Land of Lincoln.

Counties in 19 U.S. states ( Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) are named after Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln's birthday, February 12, (the same date as Charles Darwin), is observed in Illinois and many other states as a separate legal holiday, Lincoln's Birthday. It was previously a national holiday that is now Presidents' Day. Over time Presidents' Day has become a common name for the federal holiday. A dozen states have legal holidays celebrating the third Monday in February as 'Presidents' Day' and a combination Washington-Lincoln Day.

Proof-quality Lincoln cent with cameo effect, obverse.
Proof-quality Lincoln cent with cameo effect, obverse.

Lincoln's birthplace and family home are national historic memorials: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, Kentucky and Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2005 in Springfield as a major tourist attraction with state-of-the-art exhibits. The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery is located in Elwood, Illinois.

Statues of Lincoln can be found in other countries. In Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, is a 13-foot (4 m) high bronze statue, a gift from the United States, dedicated in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The U.S. received a statue of Benito Juárez in exchange, which is in Washington, D.C. Juárez and Lincoln exchanged friendly letters, and Mexico remembers Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican-American War. There is also a statue in Tijuana, Mexico, showing Lincoln standing and destroying the chains of slavery. There are at least three statues of Lincoln in the United Kingdom — one in London by Augustus St. Gaudens, one in Manchester by George Grey Barnard and another in Edinburgh by George Bissell. In Havana, Cuba, there is a bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Museum of the Revolution, a small statue of him in front of the Abraham Lincoln School, and a bust of him near the Capitolio.

The ballistic missile submarine Abraham Lincoln (SSBN-602) and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) were named in his honour. Also, the Liberty ship, SS Nancy Hanks was named to honour his mother. During the Spanish Civil War the American faction of the International Brigades named themselves the Abraham Lincoln Brigade after Lincoln.

In a recent public vote entitled " The Greatest American," Lincoln placed second (placing first was Ronald Reagan).

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