Pre-service occupations: lawyer, state representative, U.S. representative and failed U.S. Senate candidate
Key events during his administration: Civil War (1861-1865); Emancipation Proclamation (signed 1863); 13th Amendment (proposed 1864); various internal acts including Homestead Act, Morill Land Grant College Act, three internal revenue acts, two railroad acts and National Banking Act; formation of the Department of Agriculture (1863); West Virginia (1863) and Nevada (1864) admitted to the Union; his assassination (1865)
Presidential rating: Successful and largely unpopular
It’s a name that evokes so many different emotions and reactions. Hero? Dictator? The Great Emancipator? Tyrant who forced an unnecessary war? Savior of the Union? Shredder of the Constitution? Author of big government? White supremacist? The greatest president?
Those aren’t just labels from the 1860s. They come from today.
Abraham Lincoln is the most controversial president of them all. He’s also the most written-about figure in American history. Here are a sampling of titles released on Lincoln just within the last few years: Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Harold Holzer’s fascinating Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Abraham Lincoln President, Allen C. Guelzo’s equally fascinating Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, Daniel Mark Epstein’s Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, no fewer than three books on the relationshipo between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Dilorenzo’s bizarre The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.
I grew up knowing of Lincoln as one of the “greats.” It was only when I started expanding my study of the Civil War that I understood how much unease there was with the Lincoln legacy—enough unease to take it seriously.
I realize that what I say here can’t possibly be the last word on Lincoln. Ridiculous! But I will attempt to put his presidency in context of the previous 15, instead of letting it stand out on its own as something completely unique. For as we’ve already seen, four presidents had faced secession crises: Madison in 1815 (his evaporated when the War of 1812 ended successfully); Jackson in 1831-32; Fillmore in 1851; and Buchanan in 1860-61. And all presidents since Jackson had to contend seriously with the question of slavery, to varying degrees of success or failure (mostly failure).
The point is that Lincoln did not exist in a vacuum, though we often treat him as if he did. He’s been placed on such a high pedestal, and his murder—or martyrdom, if you will—placed an aura around him that created two parallel Lincolns, setting him apart from every other president. He’s a man either praised or damned, exalted or cursed. There seems to be little leeway with him. The passionate feelings over Lincoln and his legacy have rarely gone away, either. The new Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, with its astonishing “Ghosts in the Library” holographic presentation, still only manages to capture a part of this enigmatic man.
So, what I will attempt to do in this entry is treat Lincoln as just another president, and see where we end up. Fortunately, some resources do exactly that.
I can’t cover his entire presidency in a short essay, although this one will be longer than all of the others to date; so, if it seems like something is getting glossed over, keep in mind that the purpose of these essays is to examine each man in the context of his times, and not through a modern lens.
To fully understand Lincoln the president, we must first examine where he came from, and what led him to the presidency.
A Whig congressman and rising star
It’s well known—or used to be—that Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky and basically schooled himself. He was never a fabulously wealthy man, and by today’s shallow standards, he was too ugly and had too high a voice to get elected president.
In the interests of space, I’m omitting large discussion of Lincoln’s family and his physical and mental health. After all, Lincoln has been analyzed, psychoanalyzed and picked apart more than any other American—and more than anyone else in Western civilization save for perhaps Shakespeare—and to dive into the various opinions on these subjects would greatly increase the length of this essay and take it beyond my intended scope. I’ll just mention them.
In sum, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, the daughter of a slave owner, had four sons, only one of which lived a long life: Edward died in Springfield, Willie died in February 1862, Tad died in 1871, and Robert lived until 1926. Mary had four brothers who fought for the Confederacy. Willie’s death devastated the first family. Mary, a well-versed and educated person, was apparently also a high-strung individual and quite difficult to get along with, which undoubtedly added to the president’s woes.
In addition, Lincoln has been at various times “diagnosed” as clinically depressed, manifested in what was described as a deep sense of fatalism. And for a long time it was believed that he had Marfan syndrome because of his large frame, but that has now been discounted.
Lincoln taught himself law after the fashion of the era and entered politics as a Whig. His earliest political stances remained with him throughout his political (and actual) life: government support for internal improvements and opposition to slavery. In the 1830s h described slavery as an “injustice and bad policy.” After serving four terms in the Illinois state legislature (and a quite unmemorable stint as a volunteer during the Black Hawk “war”), Lincoln came to Washington late in Polk’s term. His time in Congress was quite forgettable—even by his contemporaries—and is only remembered because he later became president.
He was a staunch Whig and follower of Henry Clay. If you recall, the Whigs became a party specifically to thwart the “tyranny” of President Andrew Jackson. Chief among Whig complaints was Jackson’s use of executive authority; they believed Congress was superior to the president. It’s often seen as a massive contradiction that Lincoln opposed Jackson’s, and later Polk’s, use of executive authority, but became a strong adherent when he himself became president, and there is truth to the charge.
Quite often when men become president, they take an exact opposite position than the one they held at an earlier time in their career or espoused during the campaign. For example, during the 1992 campaign, then-Gov. Bill Clinton said he would reverse U.S. policy and welcome all Haitian refugees to America. They took him at his word, and came by the hundreds; but when he became president, Clinton quietly continued the policy. In 1999, then Gov. George W. Bush said (words to the effect) the United States had no business nation building, but after invading Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s spent the balance of his presidency doing just that. Likewise, when Lincoln became president, his Whig opposition to the “tyranny” of Jackson and the “unconstitutionality” of the Mexican War were forgotten. The Union had to be preserved—and he was seen in Springfield drawing upon Jackson for inspiration, back when it was thought secession could be resolved peacefully.
Lincoln’s uncharitable attacks on Polk and the Mexican War hurt him at home. Despite supporting Gen. Taylor for the presidency, Lincoln found himself on the outs and didn’t re-enter politics until the Kansas-Nebraska mess—as a member of the newly formed Republican Party.
Whigs also differed sharply with the Jacksonian approach to economics and infrastructure. Whigs believed that the federal government should foster internal improvements, while Jacksonian Democrats believed that such power rested with the states. Lincoln adhered to the ideal that the economy—especially the Northern economy—“rested on equal opportunity for all in the struggle for life.” (Paludan, p.215) He held to his hero Henry Clay’s “American system” of economics, with support for internal improvements, high tariffs and a national bank—all of which were strongly opposed by the Democratic Party. Lincoln’s Whig background meshed quite easily with the Republican platform of “free soil, free labor and free men” in the 1850s (considering many Whigs formed the basis of the new party). “Free soil, free labor and free men” essentially meant a country free from the “curse” of slavery, where a man could stake his claim and make a living for himself without the leave of another—and the federal government would help him do it.
With solid Whig credentials and ideals, Lincoln attracted national attention in when he opposed Stephen A. Douglas in the latter’s campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Their series of seven debates are a marvel of political rhetoric and maneuver. Lincoln, quite aware of the intense racial questions of the day, was forced to acknowledge that he was not in favor of “Negro equality” and that his anti-slavery views were directed against the Slave Power of the South. In other words, he was stating he was anti-slavery, not pro-black. These words have been used as “proof” of Lincoln’s white supremacy, but I believe that if you take them at face value, without understanding the context of the times and the situation, you completely misunderstand them.
Anti-slavery champion—but not a radical
In Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary from 1990, black feminist historian Barbara Fields defensively claimed, “Who freed the slaves? Well, the slaves did, of course.” The implication was that Lincoln had little or no role. I thought that was utter nonsense then, and I still do. Her defensiveness seems to come from a tendency of some latter-day scholars who are loathe to give Lincoln—a (gasp) white man—credit for destroying slavery when, they charge, he was no abolitionist, and the slaves were the ones who quit plantations en masse. * (See Final Assessment section.) However, that’s because they either just don’t know Lincoln, or have such an incredibly twisted view of him that their eyes are colored by race. And according to Lincoln biographer Phillip Shaw Paludan, not many Lincoln scholars know him well enough.
Before the war, Lincoln staked his claim to being against the expansion of slavery, as did many men who eventually formed the Republican Party. All well and good. But he did so for a very specific reason: a brilliant bridging of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787 wherein equality was the basis of the self- governing nation. Lincoln said, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.” Paludan points to this and other such statements, speeches and letters concerning government and economics that became the basis of Republicanism. Lincoln embraced these ideals better than anyone else, especially because “None of the speeches and letters he wrote ever noted a difference between the promises of 1776 and the government organized in 1787.” (Paludan, p.18) Therefore, Lincoln believed firmly that slavery and a free society simply couldn’t co-exist because 1) the founders had intentionally “hedged and hemmed” slavery in to eventually make it extinct and 2) slavery in the republic was an utter violation of self-government.
Now, why is that critical to understand? Lincoln wasn’t arguing for equality among the races, as his political enemies so often charged that he was doing (not yet, anyway; by the end of his life, he was moving solidly in that direction, and to ignore that fact is to do violence to Lincoln’s legacy). And why does this separate Lincoln from other men of the age? No one had so firmly connected the two founding documents of America in such a way before—and so successfully.
He did indeed “hate” slavery, as he explained in his debates with Douglas.
“I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example [Big Mo note: not a reference to the party) 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.” (Excerpted in Geulzo, p.4)But in many other ways, Lincoln’s views were quite typical. When people seek to glorify Abraham Lincoln, they seem to overlook that this brilliantly spoken man espoused some very typical Whig and Republican views. For example, he sought to end the expansion of slavery into the federal territories, as did most Republicans (only radicals and abolitionists wanted outright elimination of slavery), and he sought government support for internal improvements, including a national back and a Pacific railroad. (See section below on Lincoln and Congress for more.)
In sum, Lincoln was no radical. As we shall see, his approaches (yes, that’s deliberately plural) to ending slavery would be quite tortured and a mixture of the conservative and the radical. Toward the end of his life, he would espouse actual equality for all, not just for all whites, and to deny him that is just plain wrong.
Election of 1860
I don’t want to spend much space on this election and the reason for secession because I believe those were covered thoroughly in the essay on James Buchanan. Instead, let’s look at why Lincoln was the Republican candidate.
With the Democratic Party hopelessly divided between the Buchanan and Douglas camps (and a third party, the Constitutional Union, thrown into the mix later in the year), it became clear that the Republicans would win the 1860 election. Lincoln won the nomination quite easily. However, he got the party’s nod almost by default—or rather, because he was a better bet than other more prominent Republicans.
We tend to magnify everything Lincoln did and apply far more importance to certain things than they warranted at the time. For example, the Lincoln-Douglas debates elevated Lincoln to national prominence, but they did not instantly make him presidential material. In 1860, he was not the most well known Republican; William Henry Seward was, followed by Salmon P. Chase. Lincoln had to actually win the nomination by convincing Easterners that he was one of them, that he held the same views and that he would take on the Slave Power with vigor. Far more important to his capture of the nomination than his debates with Douglas was his February 1860 speech at Cooper Union in New York City, where Lincoln accomplished those three tasks and more. Two recent Lincoln books have highlighted this speech’s importance.
He knocked Seward out of his front-runner status and won the nomination formally later in the year. Seward had tied himself to radical abolitionism, a position he had been backing away from as he tried to play peacemaker in the Senate, but he was still seen as too radical to win. Seward was a former Whig who had taken a bold and firm stand against slavery—so much so that even though he moderated his views to play peacemaker in the Senate, Republican leaders knew that if nominated, Seward would never win, even against divided Democrats.
Lincoln’s nomination made secession inevitable, although probably any Republican’s nomination would have done the same thing. Lincoln got only 39.9% of the popular vote, but won 180 electoral votes and the presidency.
Assembling the cabinet
Lincoln assembled what eventually became a brilliant and effective cabinet, but it must be said that it was not one created with war in mind.
Therefore, give care to assigning how much “brilliance” there was behind Lincoln’s appointments. The revisionist charge that Lincoln was hot to go to war to set up a new Whig empire (most recently propagated by Thomas Dilorenzo) goes “splat!” when we consider whom Lincoln chose as his secretary of war. Simon Cameron was a kingmaker of Pennsylvania politics—and no friend of James Buchanan—and his posting to the war department was purely political. He could manage a political machine but he could not manage a war. It’s questionable whether he could have even managed the department in peacetime. Cameron would be gone within a year, but during that time chaos ruled the department. If Lincoln had designs for empire or immediate war, wouldn’t he rather have someone competent in that crucial position?
One-time Lincoln critic Edwin McMasters Stanton, a lawyer and Democrat who had helped bring stability to Buchanan’s administration during the secession crisis, would replace Cameron. Stanton was a crafty man who skillfully and efficiently reorganized the department. He may not have been, shall we say, a saint, but Stanton proved critical to Lincoln’s success.
At State, Lincoln chose the man who had wanted the nomination and was far better known than Lincoln, William Henry Seward. Even though Seward seemed to have moderated some of his views—more out of political expediency, apparently—he was forever identified with radical abolitionism. At first, he resented Lincoln being president over him, but eventually came around to respecting his chief. Nevertheless, Seward proved to be an able secretary of state, although his attentions were mostly on domestic affairs.
At Navy, Lincoln chose Gideon Welles, a lawyer and journalist and former Democrat. Welles proved more than equal to his task, and served America well throughout the Lincoln and Andrew Johnson administrations. Welles, whom Lincoln nicknamed “Neptune,” built the navy that strangled the South.
At Treasury, Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase, another man who believed he should be president (he lost the nomination to Lincoln). Chase was instrumental in permanently changing United States fiscal policy. Other cabinet members included Montgomery Blair, a member of the prestigious Blair political family, as postmaster general, and Edward Bates, another rival for the presidency (though to a much lesser extent than Seward and Chase), as attorney general.
Overall, it was an excellent cabinet. As historian Doris Kerns Goodwin describes in her award-winning book Team of Rivals, Lincoln had the political mastery to sooth ruffled feathers, coddle rivals and convince them to join his cabinet. Lincoln would eventually earn their respect and admiration—though not without challenge—and prove that a western rail-splitter was more than up to the monumental task before them.
Plea for Union
If you’ve always thought the situation changed once Buchanan left office and Lincoln took over, you’re wrong. When Lincoln took office, he continued James Buchanan’s policy of waiting. In his inaugural address, he claimed that secession was illegal but said that the federal government would not stop it except to defend itself and reclaim federal property. However, he said that the issue of civil war rested in the secessionists’ hands, and not his.
He sought compromise, even supporting a constitutional amendment that would leave slavery alone where it already existed (he offered the carrot of leaving slavery alone right up until the moment he signed the Emancipation Proclamation) but essentially did nothing truly provocative for more than a month until sending a re-supply ship to Sumter. Northern newspapers and politicians grew impatient with the seemingly “rudderless” administration, and they wanted action against the “traitors” in the South. Opinions vary on whether Lincoln maneuvered Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy into striking first at Fort Sumter, but I believe he did. By playing a waiting game, Lincoln tried the patience of the North, yet he got the South to open hostilities. And don’t forget, Buchanan had left Sumter intact for Lincoln, which gave him a huge ace in the hole.
It must be said, though, that Lincoln’s performance in March and April was well nigh inept. David Herbert Donald says that “total confusion” reigned in the administration during this period (p. 291), and it’s easy to agree.
But even with Sumter fallen and the war joined, Lincoln maintained a soft approach. He appealed to Union as strongly as he could. Even as the middle Southern states left the Union in response to his call for militia—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas—the president believed, or wanted to believe, that secession would burn itself out and once passions cooled, the southern states would see the errors of their ways and come back to the fold. Calling out the militia did exactly what Buchanan feared it would do, by the way, and led directly to the final secessions.
Certainly, there were strong Unionist sentiments in the mountainous regions of the Carolinas, eastern Tennessee, western Virginia and other pockets of the South, such as parts of Louisiana where slavery’s grip was virtually non-existent. They would answer the president’s call to Union in their own way.
With 11 states gone, Lincoln spent the first year of the war making sure that the remaining slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware didn’t also quit the Union. The latter state was never in much danger of secession, but the former three, especially Kentucky and Missouri, definitely were. Losing those states to the Confederacy would have all but split the Union and, in theory, driven tens of thousands of men into Confederate arms. Keeping those states in the Union was President Lincoln’s most critical goal early in the war, and anyone who downplays that, especially those who wonder or complain why he didn’t free the slaves immediately, is exercising incredible ignorance about Lincoln.
Waging War: Commander-in-chief
There’s no way I can re-fight the Civil War here. It would take up too much room, and I don’t want to debate the merits of this or that general. Lincoln wanted generals who would, to use a modern phrase, take care of business. In the early phases of the war, that meant going out and fighting the Confederate armies. There were those in the North who urged harsher action against the South, but the president at first wanted a much more measured response, in keeping with his strong belief that there were enough Unionists in Southern states who would flee to the Confederates if harsh measures were employed.
The president also wanted to make sure that the war would not just be a Republican war, but a “people’s war”—meaning that it wasn’t just the administration making war. He wanted Democrats in the mix as well. He achieved that in his cabinet with Edwin M. Stanton, and most of his field commanders early in the war were actually Democrats (For example: George McClellan, Don Carlos Buell, U.S. Grant (though nominally) and William S. Rosecrans). But that unity he sought would not last the war.
Lincoln was also smart enough to know that he was no soldier. Yet he proved to be a particularly bad commander in chief for the first two years. With a public that demanded action and victory elusive, Lincoln attempted to force generals into action and made frequent command changes in the principal Eastern army (the Army of the Potomac). There is no question that the Union army was pushed into action in July 1861 long before it was ready, and paid the price.
When Lincoln appointed George McClellan after the Bull Run disaster to lead the entire war effort, it seemed the war was in good hands. But McClellan proved to be a superb organizer and disciplinarian, not a fighter. Lincoln had to push, prod and finally order “McNapoleon” into action.Lincoln and Little Mac came to loggerheads often. Lincoln wanted action, and McClellan didn’t want to fight until conditions were just right. McClellan continually complained of interference from Washington (which was true to an extent) and a lack of support (which wasn’t true) and Lincoln complained of McClellan having a bad case of “the slows.” (Meaning, he just wouldn’t move.) The president actually had to use an executive order to get McClellan to take the Army of the Potomac into action.
Lincoln had actually feared McClellan and other Democrat generals might launch a coup over his policies. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, as McClellan tried to author policy for Lincoln while down on that Peninsula.
The president kept switching generals in an attempt to find one who would lead his armies to victory. McClellan came to grief on the Peninsula at the hands of Robert E. Lee. Lincoln formed a new army under John Pope, but Lee creamed it at Second Bull Run. The president put McClellan back in overall command when Lee’s army invaded Maryland, but after the incredible bloodbath of Antietam, Lincoln sacked McClellan for good.
He was trying to mould a general to fit his designs, and it wasn’t working. Instead of giving the generals the basic war aims and goals, and letting Stanton and general-in-chief Henry Halleck manage the details (Halleck replaced Winfield Scott), he was trying to run the war himself. He tried two more times: First, he placed Ambrose Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac, and it seemed a good choice until Burnside refused to change his plans in the face of a well-entrenched enemy and got mauled at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Then Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joe Hooker—a hard fighting man who suggested a dictatorship was needed, to which Lincoln replied if Hooker won, he’d risk it. But Hooker, too, came to grief at Chancellorsville in May 1863., again at the hands of Lee. Just before Gettysburg, Lincoln sacked Hooker and replaced him with George Meade, who would command that army until the end of the war.
In the west, Lincoln toyed less with his generals, mainly because he found less of a need. Ulysses S. Grant won victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donnellson and the horrific field of Shiloh, Federals won victories at Pea Ridge, Ark., and New Orleans. But other commanders proved slow to combat rebel forces and eventually were replaced. After Gettysburg, when Lincoln fretted that Meade would not mount a spirited chase of the defeated Lee, the president finally realized that he needed to back off. To use a modern term, his micromanagement of the war was not helping matters at all.
Although Meade expressed some obtuseness when he gleefully declared that the army had succeeded in “driving the invaders from our soil”—to which Lincoln cried, “the whole country is our soil!”—the general was right in that his smashed army couldn’t deliver the pursuit that Lincoln demanded. He had to back off and let the professionals take over. After Gettysburg, he finally did. Does this mean that the war might have ended sooner—with a Union victory—had Lincoln not micromanaged? It’s possible, for repeatedly changing generals translated into time wasted. New commanding generals take time to reorganize and retrain—and the one-defeat-and-you’re-gone pattern with McDowell, Pope, Burnside and Hooker was a serious drain on morale. (Well, so were their defeats and repeated thrashing at the hands of the rebels, which is why Lincoln replaced generals like horseshoes.)
When he brought Grant east in early 1864 to command all Union armies, Lincoln’s approach was quite different than it had been two and a half years ago with McClellan. He was tired of generals who were reluctant to fight, or who would complain and complain without producing results. He, like the country, wanted the thing over with. More importantly, he completely backed off, except to ask Grant what he needed.
Just before Grant stepped off on the Wilderness campaign, Lincoln wrote to Grant: “The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. ...If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know.”Grant replied that he was grateful for the president’s support—and, more importantly, that regardless of what happened, it would not be for lack of support from the president. Lincoln was gratified to read that, because it meant, for once, that a general was going to take the blame if things went wrong.
Lincoln picked the right man, who picked the right team, and although things didn’t go perfectly, and the battles got more vicious, the war was over by next spring. The war of 1864-65 was a lot harder and harsher than the war of 1861-63, with Union policy turned toward targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in addition to defeating the rebel armies. Under Grant and his chief lieutenants Sherman and Sheridan, the South was made to pay a high price for secession. Undermining the civilian support for the Confederate armies undermined secession itself. The harsh policies of 1864-65 in turn helped emphasis Lincoln’s softer reconciliation policy.
Civil liberties: Unconstitutional or stretching the Constitution?
The chief modern libertarian complaint against Lincoln was that he shredded the Constitution by violating civil liberties. It’s an old complaint, too. The charge of “dictator” arose soon after the fall of Sumter when Lincoln took certain actions that stretched the Constitution to its limit, surpassed Constitutional limits or were supposed to be under the authority of Congress.
Let’s look at the charges closely. The accusation that Lincoln smashed or shredded the Constitution doesn’t really have merit, because he adhered strongly to the Constitution throughout the war. Mark Neely, Jr., writes that, “The tedious historical debate over whether Lincoln’s policies were constitutional is a legacy of the party platforms of a bygone era and the constitutional moralizing legacy of sore losers like [Confederate Vice President Alexander] Stephens.” (p.XI) In other words, to modern historians such as Neely, the debate is settled and moot, and I agree. Lincoln stretched the Constitution according to his Whig background, meaning he adhered to a looser understanding of Constitutional bounds than Jacksonian Democrats, but he didn’t break or destroy it.
At the same time, Lincoln was leading the country in entirely new territory, almost completely without any guidance from the founders. He had to forge a new path. I don’t argue that Lincoln was a deep constitutional thinker, because he really wasn’t. Nor do I claim he was an intellectual. Rather, his “policy was to have no policy,” as he said early in the war, to the consternation of his cabinet, which wanted a policy. He looked upon events in a manner of tackling them on at a time, but the amazing thing is that he was remarkably consistent.
Shortly after Sumter, President Lincoln called for a special session of Congress—to meet on July 4. The date was symbolic, of course, but setting such a date also gave the president several months in which to act without needing to first go to Congress. Lincoln fully used to the utmost extent those powers already granted to him by the Constitution, including calling forth state militias to serve under federal control for a specific period of time. But he also authorized actions that, Constitutionally, were within Congress’ sphere of authority, not his. Such actions included denying “disloyal” publications the use of the mail, use of federal funds for state recruiting and pledging government credit. He and Secretary of State Seward also took charge of suspending the writ of habeas corpus in certain areas.
Lincoln explained that he believed the founders would have expected him or any president to act to preserve the union and the government, rather than wait for Congress to assemble. It was a bold and new direction for American government, and both Lincoln and Congress knew it. Had Lincoln merely taken the steps and not gone to Congress for ratification of his measures, the legislative branch most likely would have slapped him down; or the high court would have. He sought that approval from Congress at its emergency session in July and August 1861, and all of his extra-ordinary measures were approved with the sole exception of the suspension of the writ. In fact, Congress wouldn’t take a position on it yea or nay until 1863, preferring, it seems, to let the administration dangle on its own actions for a while.
Until 1861, explains Paludan, most Americans had never been touched by the writ:
Until the Civil War, “[O]nly slaves, criminals and Native Americans [had] felt the power of governmental authority. Some states stifled opinions that threatened public morality, but in politics American spoke loud, often, and as the highly politicized newspapers of the period demonstrated, with very little restraint.Indeed. The Constitution gives the government authority to suspend it “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” However, it was rarely ever done. The most notable occurrence came when Andrew Jackson was master of New Orleans during the last months of the War of 1812. To continue:
“The vast general liberty of most white Americans generated few reasons to define specific freedom under habeas corpus.”
“So far as [most Americans] were concerned Lincoln’s suspension was an unusual and unprecedented outreach of federal executive power.
Action was imperative, however, as Baltimore demonstrated.” (Paludan, p.72; the author is referring to a post-Sumter incident where Southern sympathizers and secessionists had attacked a Massachusetts regiment moving through Baltimore after Sumter and many people were killed.)
Lincoln had something of a showdown with Chief Justice Taney in 1861 over his temporary use of Congressional powers, wherein Taney accused Lincoln of dictatorship. Paludan writes that the actual actions of the federal government, and who was arrested and under what circumstances, thwarts the accusation of dictatorship. (Paludan P.78.) More to the point, Neely goes to great lengths to explain that, even though the administration suspended the writ in various forms in various locations and at various times during the war, Lincoln was not thinking of it as an absolute suspension of the writ. Meaning, both Republican and Democratic judges could still issue writs regardless of the actions of the federal government.
Lincoln and the Republican-led Congress and the Democratic opposition finally had a real showdown in the summer of 1863 over the large numbers of civilian arrests over the previous two years. The vast majority of people had been arrested on suspicions, but relatively few for outright traitorous activities. Usually, “treasonous” activities and words were enough to lead to an arrest. “Treason” was so broadly considered that one commander in Missouri complained that he would have to lock up three-quarters of the state just for having secessionist thoughts. The most visible case was that of Ohio Congressman Clem Vallandigham, the most notorious of the “Copperhead” Democrats, who was arrested by the Army during a particularly incendiary speech and sent to prison. Lincoln, as he often did, reduced the sentence and banished the congressman to the Confederacy.
Democrats, in their most organized opposition to the administration outside of elections, protested loudly across the North. By this time Congress had passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which gave him legislative authority, so his famous “Corning letter” in reply is quite powerful. I consider it an even more important Lincoln document than his address at Gettysburg later in the year, because in it he explains exactly his understanding of the war, his constitutional authority to wage it and to fight behind the lines, if you will. You can read this critical letter here; it would take too much space to excerpt.
So, in sum:
1. Lincoln believed—correctly—that the Constitution gave him
the authority to act when face with rebellion and invasion.
2. Congress eventually gave him legislative authority.
There is a third factor, which Mark Neely discusses in his book. The administration was keen to follow the rule of law, and not turn the nation over to military dictatorship. It’s unfortunate, though, that for months, many commanders operated without a set policy from Washington for dealing with possible enemy civilians (see next section). Military commissions were eventually established, following the model created by Gen. Winfield Scott during the Mexican War. Neely explains that often the suspension of the writ and the use of military commissions became confused; the former involved holding civilians without charge, and the latter necessitated a trial for the civilian and resolution (freedom, imprisonment or execution). The Supreme Court did not rule on Habeas Corpus at all during the war, but in 1866 declared the military commissions to be unconstitutional. (Neely, p.35) (The situation is somewhat similar to the Supreme Court’s rulings pertaining to terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. What the G. W. Bush administration did was legal until the Supreme Court said otherwise. President Bush then quite properly turned to Congress and asked for a new law.)
Missouri: Total failure of policy
While Lincoln’s civil liberty polices enjoyed success throughout much of the rest of the North, they were a total failure in Missouri. Whether the president believed that the military and civil authorities could handle the problems there or he just was unfocused on anything west of the Mississippi that didn’t have anything to do with land and railroads is debatable. But Missouri descended into anarchy by the end of 1861 and turned into a bloody mess that didn’t end until after the war. (Editor’s note: my ancestors were caught in this mess, and one of the men in my family was killed sometime around the end of hostilities.)
Missouri remained in the Union, thanks to the zealous actions of Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, who literally chased the pro-Confederate state government and state guard into southwest Missouri by August 1861. Lyon was killed at the battle of Wilson’s Creek, but Lyon’s actions kept Missouri in unsteady Union hands; the deal was sealed at the larger battle fought at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, the following March. However, the slave state was thoroughly divided six ways from Sunday in its loyalties, and an intense guerrilla war raged there for the remainder of the war.
Part of the problems stemmed from Lyon’s actions. Part of it came from simmering resentments over Bleeding Kansas, as troops from the now-free state of Kansas entered Missouri to settle scores. And part of it stemmed from an utterly ambiguous Union policy that governed civilians in war zones.
Commanders such as Henry Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant frequently asked for directions in 1861 as to what they were permitted to do with civilians, civilian property, restitution for goods taken, slaves, and so on. It was a long time before they got a response, and they wound up making their own rules, which varied wildly from commander to commander.
Things got so bad in Missouri that people literally didn’t know who was who, and who was on what side. There were Union soldiers, regular Confederate soldiers, state militia on the Union side, rebel guerrillas, and people who just wanted to be left alone. A man might be a true-blue Union man but end up becoming a bushwhacker guerilla because his sister was arrested under suspicion of being a spy, or federal troops took his horse. Or he might be a Southern sympathizer but switched sides because rebels forced him to give them shelter and food. In other words, often Missourians would join one side or the other depending on which side hurt them more.
To make matters worse, the ambiguousness of federal policy in the state lead to thousands of civilian arrests, many of them without just cause. There were thousands more civilian arrests in Missouri than all other places in the country combined.
The absolute worst incident in the state occurred in August 1863 when guerrilla chieftain William C. Quantrill and his men sacked Lawrence, Kansas (supposedly in response to the death of his sister in Union hands), and killed between 150 to 200 men and boys. In response to this egregious attack and other guerrilla activities, Union Gen. Ewing issued General Order No. 11, which ordered the immediate evacuation of four Missouri counties bordering Kansas. Anyone who could prove loyalty could move to a Union stronghold. Anyone whose loyalty was suspect had to get out immediately, and their farms and crops would be burned. Lincoln later approved the order.
There was another massacre a year later when “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his men murdered 124 unarmed Union soldiers in Centralia. Things didn’t settle down after the war, either. One of my own ancestors was killed in “1865 or 1866,” his tombstone reads, and his death was definitely war-related. Many Quantrill and Anderson men became outlaws after the war, most notably Frank and Jessie James.
The whole, sad state of affairs in Missouri is not a mark in Lincoln’s favor.
The tortured road to Emancipation
When the war began, abolitionists jubilantly announced that slavery’s reign in America was at and end. But they soon became disillusioned with the president, who signaled that ending slavery was not the first thing on his mind. The Union would come first. However, ending slavery was on his mind. Allen C. Guelzo explains:
“In Lincoln’s case, prudence demanded that he balance the integrity of ends (the elimination of slavery) with the integrity of means (his oath to uphold the Constitution and his near religious reverence for the rule of law). …As mentioned above, Lincoln was keen to keep the border states in the Union, and wanted to lure the other states back into the Union. The administration’s official position was that the secessionist governments were illegal and thwarted the will of the people, especially the Unionists who did not want secession. It was a huge stretch to claim that the majority in the South didn’t want secession, but not by much, because Unionist sentiments did run strong in mountain regions in eastern Tennessee, the western Carolinas and western Virginia (which broke off from Virginia and formed a new state, which the administration declared was entirely constitutional).
"Abraham Lincoln understood from the first that his administration was the beginning of the end of slavery and that he would not leave office without some form of legislative emancipation policy in place. By his design, the burden would have to rest mainly on the state legislatures, largely because Lincoln mistrusted the federal judiciary and expected that any emancipation initiatives which came directly from his hand would be struck down by the courts. This mistrust is also what lies behind another curiosity: Lincoln’s rebuffs to the covert emancipations that Congress constructed under the cover of the two Confiscation Acts (of August 1861 and July 1862), the “contraband” theory confected by the ingenious Benjamin Butler, and the two martial-law emancipation proclamations attempted by John Charles Fremont and David Hunter. Lincoln ignored the Confiscation Acts, showed no interest in Butler’s “contraband” theory, and actually revoked the martial-law proclamations—not because indifferent to emancipation, but because he was convinced (and with good reason) that none of these methods would survive challenges in federal court.” (Guelzo, p.5-6)
Early in the war, Lincoln was still courting those Unionists and people in the North who did not see the war as a contest over slavery—just Union. Such a radical, revolutionary change all at once could turn the war on its ear and make support for the North wither and die, while support for the Confederacy could grow tremendously—especially if Missouri and Kentucky were to secede if administration aims changed from Union to Union and emancipation. And there was a lingering danger that England, and to a lesser extent, France, would join the war on the Confederacy’s side. Making the war an effort to end slavery might have appeared to English reformers, but not to those taken in with the idea of “the gallant Southerner.”
But that doesn’t mean slavery wasn’t ending pre-emancipation. There were unseen repercussions from the three events mentioned in the Guelzo quote above. In the fall of 1861, John C. Fremont, the Republican presidential candidate in 1856 and now commander of the department of Missouri, issued an order freeing the state’s slaves. Lincoln quickly revoked the order. Likewise, Gen. David Hunter issued a similar order in Florida, which provoked the same response. Leading abolitionists and a few Republican lawmakers were quite dismayed at the president’s actions. Congress also made its own policy, stemming from actions in the field. In two separate Confiscation Acts, Congress authorized army officers to confiscate slaves as “contraband” of war (first started by Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler) as such actions took assets out of rebel hands. Congress and the president were wary at first of ordering federal soldiers to return escaped slaves (Lincoln had pledged to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law as a sop to the South), and there was the sticky problem of what to do about masters who remained loyal to the Union whose slaves had come into army camps. The Confiscation Acts solved those problems for the most part, but for Lincoln, Congressional action really didn’t solve the problem of slavery.
Everywhere that Union armies went, slavery disintegrated. That fact left abolitionists wondering why the president wouldn’t act. Lincoln was actually torn between two worlds: the world of the old, and the world of the new. Thus, he took a very conservative approach (classical definition of conservative, not the modern political definition) to ending slavery. There are three things to keep in mind:
First, as mentioned above, Lincoln needed to maintain a political balance. People impatient with any president to perform this or that action tend to forget that not everyone is on their side, and the president must play politics to gain support. It’s a sad, ugly fact of American republican democracy. In slang terms, Lincoln needed to get all of his ducks in a row before acting.
Second, he wanted to try to lure Southerners with Union sentiments back into the fold and keep the border states in the Union. For the most part, he succeeded, and after the Union victories in the west in 1861-62 (Forts Henry and Donellson, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, Iuka, Corinth and Perryville) and in the east at Antietam, the border-states issue became moot. Kentucky, much of Tennessee and Maryland remained firmly in the Union.
Third, Lincoln had hoped to use the border states as a showcase of how slavery could die out while simultaneously demonstrating that secession was folly. He even sought gradual, compensated emancipation over a couple of decades. This seems fantastical to modern ears, but remember, Lincoln was dealing with a society as a whole that was not ready for sudden emancipation. The arguments against it were very strong, centered around worries of a massive influx of low-class, uneducated, mob-like Negroes looking for work swarming northern cities—an argument that was actually part of the Democratic Party’s propaganda. Lincoln preferred emancipation to be done by the masters themselves, perhaps instinctively knowing the massive troubles that were going to follow. But border state slaveholders didn’t respond to any carrots of emancipation.
So, the president pursued a conservative course at first. With nothing else working to his satisfaction, he presented his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet in July 1862—which definitely surprised them. It was a clear departure from previous policy. Radicals would be pleased to some extent, but the cabinet feared, correctly, that such policy would probably cost them in the fall elections. Secretary of State Seward counseled Lincoln to wait for a victory before announcing it. Lincoln agreed, and waited until after McClellan stopped Lee at Antietam in September before releasing it.
The thunderclap results were as predicted. The Republicans lost a lot of ground in the fall elections, while abolitionists were quite jubilant over the intent, if not the actual words. The document itself is underwhelming—and is quite contradictory with Lincoln’s message to Congress in December 1862. The preliminary proclamation essentially gave the seceded states 100 days to rejoin the Union as-is, (e.g., with slavery) or else slavery would end. Of course, no state took up the offer, and Lincoln signed the final (and slightly different) document on Jan. 1.
It must be noted that the Emancipation Proclamation actually did free the slaves in the South, instead of not freeing any slave, as has long been critically charged. Instead, as Paludan writes:
“Lincoln did not, as some charged, free the slaves only in places only in places where he could not reach them; he freed the slaves in the only place that he could legally reach them—in places that he ruled under presidential war powers. The language of the great deed had to be a lawyer’s language because Lincoln was taking a legal action. He was placing the great ideal of freedom within the constitutional fabric—the only place that it could have life in a constitutional republic.” (Paludan, p.188)The document itself is indeed dull, written in lawyer’s language—again, Lincoln the lawyer comes through, making sure everything he does is nice and legal and can withstand a court challenge. That’s why the proclamation is full of legalize and not the soaring prose of his greatest speeches. The president also intended this measure to be temporary, to be replaced by unbreakable legislation—which was accomplished through the 13th Amendment, first introduced in Congress a year later.
Also note that in his end-of-the-year message to Congress, Lincoln still pressed for the conservative approach, which seemed like a giant step backwards and completely at odds with the preliminary proclamation. Perhaps the president was giving a final nod to the world that was; perhaps he was holding out hope that the South would finally come to its senses, and gradual emancipation could take place. It’s never been quite clear. But after Jan. 1, Lincoln permanently abandoned the conservative approach to emancipation, and he never looked back.
Emancipation: war tactic or heartfelt move?
It’s long been charged that Lincoln freed the slaves as a mere wartime measure, and that he was a racist who didn’t give a rat’s ass about blacks one way or another. Some of the evidence presented includes how he was “pushed” into emancipation, some pre-war speeches, and his August 1862 exchange with newsman Horace Greeley and his support for African colonization. I believe that the charges are false, because they don’t fit with Lincoln’s character nor with the actual, written evidence.
Now, Lincoln may—may—have been like many other whites of the times and believed in white superiority. Very few people then believed in real equality. However, if you read carefully into Lincoln’s words and understand the context of the times you’ll understand him better. For example, the exchange with Greeley came when the New York City newsman wrote an open letter to the president in August 1862 called The Prayers of Twenty Millions,” which essentially argued for a much more aggressive war and rapid emancipation. Lincoln replied in a lawyerly fashion that:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”It’s taken as damning evidence that he didn’t care about emancipation or the slaves, but only if you take that quote by itself. Remember, he had already written the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation when he replied to Greeley!
Another point of contention is the fact that Lincoln was a supporter of the colonization project, whereby free and freed blacks would be resettled in Africa. That same August he met with a delegation of black leaders and enthusiastically pushed the project. He told them that, “I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence.” Evidence of Lincoln’s racism? Hardly. Not if you take into consideration that Lincoln was speaking of whites as a whole, and not of himself. He was searching for a solution, and while thoroughly unrealistic on so many levels, colonization was a favored dream of a few.
However, Lincoln, toward the end of his life, was becoming more and more of an egalitarian, as judged by his 1864-65 speeches and letters. So, it’s wrong to believe that this is an either-or proposition. Lincoln freed the slaves to save the Union. Because if the Union was to survive, slavery had to die. He knew it long before he took office.But anyone looking back and thinking he could have just done so the second he took office is, quite frankly, a fool who knows nothing of the intricacies of being the president of the United States.
But anyone thinking he could have just done so the second he took office is, quite frankly, a fool who knows nothing of the intricacies of being the president of the United States.
Perhaps Frederick Douglass said it best when speaking in 1876 before an audience of Republican bigwigs (words surrounding excerpt are Guelzo’s):
“I have said that President Lincoln was …pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of the white man.” And sure enough, when Lincoln was “viewed from genuine abolition ground,” he naturally seemed “tardy, cold, dull and indifferent.” But this was not the only yardstick Douglass wanted to apply to Lincoln. “Measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” (Guelzo, p.250)
Waging War: Public opinion
One of the most critical components of the modern presidency is the ability to marshal public opinion to a common cause. Some presidents can do it well (FDR, Reagan), some can’t (G. W. Bush). Lincoln needed the public on his side. He had to keep the public engaged, which meant military victories. Armies marching and defeating rebels meant far more than brass bands, towering speeches and pretty parades. The people needed action. He and the Congress could put the tools of war in place, but the generals needed to fight and win. That’s why he continually tinkered with his commanders early on to find the ones with the necessary killer instinct.
But when costly battles produced stalemate or outright defeat, Lincoln still needed that public on his side to sustain the fight. Unfortunately, the Democratic opposition—never truly organized beyond the 1863 protest and the 1864 election—waning enthusiasm and Confederate victories made recruiting increasingly difficult.
Two aspects need mentioning here: the draft and the now-famous speech at Gettysburg. The Confederate Congress had instituted a draft in 1862, and the United States Congress followed suit the next year. The draft was necessary to sustain Northern manpower. Without getting into specifics, it wasn’t too popular and raised charges of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Immigrants, particularly Irish in New York, protested loudly. Anger over conscription and emancipation exploded in New York City in the summer of 1863 in the worst and bloodiest riot in America history.
Historians differ on whether the draft was critical to Union success. Certainly it played a role, perhaps as much as the 180,000 black men who wore the Union blue.
Lincoln’s speechifying also played a major role in keeping the public geared toward winning the war, but I believe that the concentration on Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg is overblown. His Gettysburg Address has been so magnified that it seems to have been ripped from the pages of Holy Scripture, instead of a two-minute speech that made newspapers hoot. Don’t misunderstand, the words are magnificent, but I believe the importance that’s been placed on that one speech belongs firmly ensconced within the hallowed, post-war Lincoln legacy. It wasn’t critical one way or another toward winning the war, and certainly didn’t herald at that time a “second American revolution” or a “remaking of America” as latter-day historians and politicians have said. The war itself and the dull, legalistic Emancipation Proclamation had already done that.
Lincoln and Congress: The rise of federal power
When latter-day hard-core conservatives and libertarians charge Abraham Lincoln with being the author of big government, meaning, the first president to truly spread the federal government into many facets of regular American life, they overlook two important factors: Congress and the Republican Party platform of 1860.
Almost every president before him was keenly aware of the constitution and the powers of the presidency. To varying degrees, they expanded the powers of the executive branch, but in 1861, Congress was still the dominant branch, and the president was still constitutionally rather weak. To make things happen, a president had to work closely with Congress to pass several significant bills that forever changed the relationship between the people and the federal government.
Congress acted vigorously on the Republican Party platform of 1860 and war measures that Lincoln had taken prior to the emergency session in 1861, as well as new items that came up as the war progressed. Among the significant pieces of legislation passed were various internal acts including the Homestead Act, the Morill Land Grant College Act, three internal revenue acts, two railroad acts and a National Banking Act (a pet project of the old-line Whigs), and the formation of the Department of Agriculture (breaking off from the Department of the Interior).
All of these acts passed without much serious Democratic opposition, and they did much to further westward expansion. But was this the dawn of big government? Not really. Many of the wartime measures expired when the fighting ended. The most visible agent of government power—the Army—demobilized quickly. And the executive branch gradually became weaker again until the Harrison presidency brought executive activism to the fore once more.
But in some respects, executive power did increase and remained so. For example, Senators attempted to interfere when Lincoln’s cabinet caused him some troubles midway through the war. Seward, the “Premier,” as he styled himself, strayed, it seems, from his abolitionist roots. He seemed to become more politician than true to the cause, and took positions and pushed policies that dismayed many Republicans. The situation got so bad that most Republican senators wanted him gone by the end of 1862, and fueled by partially unfounded rumors from Chase, party leaders confronted Lincoln.
In a masterful bit of politics, Lincoln maneuvered both Chase and Seward into giving their resignations so he could reject both, thereby placating both factions of the party that favored both men. It was a complicated situation, but basically, the Senate attempted to tell Lincoln that he had to take their advice over matters of policy and over matters concerning his cabinet officials. Lincoln refused, and set a precedent whereby the executive would have full say over his cabinet after the members were approved by the Senate; and he would seek the Senate (and the House’s) advice on matters, but would not be bound by it. This understanding would be sorely tested in the Johnson administration, but would survive.
The Lincoln presidency was one of the few administrations that did not have to concern itself much with foreign matters, except to make sure England stayed out of the war. The minister to England during this time was Charles Francis Adams, of the famed Adams family. The Union blockade of Southern ports—a policy error in name, because a “blockade” implies sovereignty—actually hurt English shipping and threw upwards of a quarter of a million English dockworkers out of work. The British agitated and made noise toward recognizing the Confederacy, but timely Union victories and skillful diplomacy by Adams and Seward kept England at bay.
The most England did was build ships that the CSA used as commerce raiders (such as the C.S.S. Alabama), but Adams would later press that further ships coming off British quays would be considered an act of war, and no more were built.
France, meanwhile, under the hapless Napoleon III, did nothing, although Napoleon did install his relative Maximilian as emperor over Mexico (Buchanan’s analysis of the dire mess of Mexico was indeed correct), but Seward was so unconcerned that the matter wasn’t dealt with until after the Confederate surrenders.
One of the best things about Lincoln as president is that he started thinking about how to bring the seceded states back into the Union even before he was inaugurated. His early plans need a brief mention.
The president wanted states to come back into the Union as quickly as possible—and with loyal men in charge. The first state to experience some “reconstruction” was Louisiana, as New Orleans fell in April 1862, and after a long and tempestuous experience under the reign of “Beast” Butler, Lincoln created the “10 percent” plan and presented it to Congress in December 1863. Ten percent of those eligible to vote in 1860 could organize a new state government loyal to the Union, agreeing to the authority of the United States government and—most importantly—recognizing that slavery was finished. Officers and high-ranking men of the “so-called” Confederacy were ineligible.
The plan was only a beginning, and designed at first with Louisiana in mind. I’ll speak much more at length on Reconstruction on my reports on Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.
Ultimately, though, Lincoln made it clear that he intended to “let ‘em up easy.” Neither Grant nor Sherman would forget, and the terms they offered Lee and Johnston at their respective surrenders reflect Lincoln's attitude. (Grant's presidency is also a reflection of Lincoln's attitude, as we shall see in a later essay.)
By the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was convinced that he would not be re-elected. The promise of the well-organized spring campaigns were stalled in front of Petersburg/Richmond and Atlanta, and rebel raiders were causing problems in the Shenandoah Valley, Mississippi and Tennessee. His opponent was George McClellan, the former general whom Lincoln had finally fired for lack of aggressiveness.
The Democratic platform was based on ending the “failed” war—but its candidate was in favor of the war! The Republican platform was clear.
Nevertheless, only Union victories at Mobile Bay (Aug. 5), Atlanta (Sept. 2) and Cedar Creek (Oct. 19), coupled with the accommodations letting Union soldiers vote, convinced enough Northerners to re-elect Lincoln. The war would be fought to a conclusion, instead of negotiated to one.
As everyone knows, actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, and he died early the next morning. It was part of a murder plot aimed at crippling the administration: Seward was attacked, but lived. Grant was a target, but didn’t come to the theater with Lincoln, and Vice President Johnson’s would-be attacker fled. (You can read in Jay Winik’s masterful April 1865 about how this crisis nearly undid the peace that was beginning to spread.)
Lincoln was the first president assassinated, but the third to die in office. It is interesting to speculate what would have become of his second term had he lived (and had he survived the disease that some believe was claiming him—it was once believed he had Marfan syndrome, though most researchers no longer do). Certainly, “let ‘em up easy” would not have sat well with the Radicals in Congress, and indeed, it didn’t. How long would it have been before Lincoln and his party would have been at odds? With Lincoln wanting to usher the South back into the Union and Radicals seeking to grind the South into the dust, would the man who spoke eloquently of “binding up the nation’s wounds” be cast aside by the vengeful wing of the party? Would Lincoln have become the one impeached in 1868 instead of his successor, Andrew Johnson?
It’s mere speculation, of course, but Lincoln’s attitude after four years of war was not one of vengeance, but forgiveness. The nation had been through enough. Now it was time to heal. But with him dead—belonging to the ages, as Stanton said just after the president expired—vengeance ruled.
The Lincoln legacy as the “Great Emancipator” and savior of the Union remains in place, albeit damaged. He’s not the statuesque president people think he is—but he’s certainly not the fantastical president his detractors think he is, either.
Rather, Abraham Lincoln emerges as someone much better: a real man struggling with his limitations, the limits of law and constitution, the conflicting visions of what was and what could be, the reality of the intense prejudice of the era, and what the nation was to become.
There is no way that I could possibly provide a complete picture of Lincoln—in fact, no biographer has been able to.
It’s sad to note, though, that many black Americans no longer have Lincoln close to their figurative hearts, and look upon him as just another white supremacist. Emancipation to the modern black American was nothing more than a whit man’s trick to get rid of slavery in order to get rid of blacks. This view is exemplified by Lerone Bennett in his 1999 book Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Seen through the lens of radical black power of the 1960s that has turned into bitter resentment and alienation today, Forced into Glory all but puts a robe and hood on Lincoln. Alas, they have little understanding of Abraham Lincoln, or patience for a man who wouldn’t do things now! now! now! like so many of his contemporaries were demanding.
As for me, though, I see Lincoln as a man who finally dealt with the issue that he had to deal with—but he dealt with slavery in the way that he wanted to deal with it. If slavery were to die, then by golly it would die in a way that would be permanent and by the book.
As his second term opened, Lincoln looked forward to a better future, fully cognizant of the tremendous changes that had just taken place and were continuing to unravel. The skillful politician was ready to continue applying the rule of law to make sure that all were treated fairly. He wanted the nation to finally live up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration and carried fourth through the Constitution, which h expressed so eloquently in the most beautiful inaugural address ever spoken by a president:
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.
There are more books and essays written on Abraham Lincoln than any other man in American history. You could spend the rest of your life arguing over and debating Lincoln, too. I needed to pick my titles carefully; so, I used six books for this study, and all are worth your time.
The best one for the purposes of my study was Philip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (1995), part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency series. Paludan’s book fit my bill perfectly: a study that examines the presidency of Abraham Lincoln instead of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, if you catch my drift.
My other two primary resources were Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004); and Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1992) (Pulitzer-Prize winner);
Also useful were: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995), hailed as the best one-volume life of Lincoln for this generation (though I had problems with the author’s style in a few places where he claims to know what Lincoln was thinking after writing that there is no documentary support); and Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 and Speeches and Writing Vol. 2 1859-1865 (Library of America, 1989).
(The American Presidents series volume on Lincoln, written by George McGovern, of all people, was not yet available for this study, though I probably wouldn’t have read it anyway. Why couldn’t Schlesinger have commissioned a former Republican office-holder to write a book on Lincoln?)
All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.
1. Anthony Berger of the Matthew Brady Studio took this photo of the president on Feb. 9, 1864. This was used as the basis for the $5 bill until the recent redesign.
2. Lincoln circa 1846, approximately the time of his service in Congress—and criticism of the Mexican War.
3. Matthew Brady photographed the lanky Lincoln was photographed just before his Cooper Union speech in Februay 1860. Library of Congress, American Memory Collection, Words and Deeds in American History, Civil War Photo Album ca. 1861-65 from the James Wadsworth Family Papers.
4. Hon. Abraham Lincoln, born in Kentucky, February 12, 1809. The Nov. 10, 1860, Harper’s Weekly cover shows a Lincoln image engraved from a Brady photograph.
5. The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet, painted by F.B. Carpenter. Lincoln’s cabinet is, from left, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (who replaced Simon Cameron), Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who went to the Supreme Court in 1864, Lincoln, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Attorney General Edward Bates.
7. Lincoln met with Army of the Potomac commander Gen. McClellan on the Antietam battlefield on Oct. 3, 1862, three weeks after the battle. McClellan stands facing the president (fourth left from Lincoln) in this Alexander Gardner photo. McClellan was still at Antietam a month later when Lincoln, tired of the generals “slows,” fired him permanently. (Lincoln supposedly once said that the Army of the Potomac was “Gen. McClellan’s bodyguard.”)
8. Alexander Gardner photographed these Confederate dead, who were probably Louisianans of Starke’s Brigade, killed on the Hagerstown Turnpike north of Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862. It was the single bloodiest day in American history.
9. Alexander Gardner took this photo of Lincoln on Nov. 8, 1863. It’s one of the most used and recognized pictures of the president. (Gardner, by the way, was an assistant of Matthew Brady’s, whose work was often mistakenly credited to Brady.)
10. George Caleb Bingham painted General Order No. 11, an elaborate image that nevertheless captures the intensity of the August 1863 order evacuating four Missouri counties of every person whose loyalty to the Union was suspect.
11. President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom. January 1st, 1863, painted by David Gilmour Blythe. Of course, Lincoln only signed the proclamation on Jan. 1. Compare this image with the following one.
12. Adalbert Volck’s 1864 sketch depicts a much different scene than the previous image: Lincoln I shown writing the Emancipation Proclamation with his foot on the Constitution, Liberty shrouded (upper left) and the Devil holding Lincoln’s inkstand.
13. A fanciful presentation of the Gettysburg Address; this one was issued by a company on the occasion of its 75th anniversary in 1948. Author’s private collection.
14. The Peacemakers, painted by George P. Healy. From left, Gen. William T. Sherman, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln, and Rear Admiral David D. Porter confer on the River Queen at City Point, Va., in March 1865. This is one of my favorite paintings.