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Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and politician noted early on for his integrity and graceful rhetoric, was president of the United States during the U.S. Civil War; he is credited with saving the Union and freeing the slaves. After his assassination in 1865 his role was mythologized and remains controversial for those who see his Emancipation Proclamation as a failure and criticize his active support for resettlement of slaves in Africa.
Abraham Lincoln, as U.S. president during the American Civil War, is renowned for his role in freeing the slaves and saving the Union. He was born 12 February 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky. His family moved several times, eventually settling in Illinois. Lincoln had little formal schooling; he was taught to read by his stepmother. He loved books, read for the bar, and eventually became a successful lawyer, well known for personal integrity. He married Mary Todd, the daughter of a slave-owner in Kentucky.
By 1832 Lincoln developed an interest in politics and served in the state legislature and in the United States Congress. He allied himself with the Whig Party, which distrusted what it perceived as a growing slave power in the South that corrupted the cause of democracy. Lincoln joined the Republican Party shortly after its founding in 1854. His reputation both as a lawyer and for his personal integrity made him an obvious choice to challenge the incumbent Democratic senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. Their campaign centered on a series of debates over the extension of slavery into the territories that caught the attention of the entire nation. Newspapers printed the speeches verbatim. In the end the Democrat-dominated Illinois senate reelected Douglas, senators being elected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote at the time.
The losing senatorial campaign propelled Lincoln to the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Lincoln won the election, though with only a plurality of popular votes, from the northern tier of states. Many considered the Republicans too radical; most in the party, like Lincoln, were not abolitionists, but were opposed to the spread of slavery. Yet for many in the South, Lincoln was seen as especially dangerous, which prompted Southern states to begin to secede from the union in December 1860. In spite of calls for him to intervene, Lincoln remained silent, thinking that it would be imprudent to act before his inauguration the following March. By then, however, eleven states had seceded and adopted a new constitution creating a Confederacy.
On 12 April 1861, the Civil War began when troops of the newly formed Confederacy fired on Federal troops attempting to resupply Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor. Scholars disagree over responsibility for that event: Lincoln for ordering the fort resupplied, or the South for firing.
Early in the war, which both sides thought would be short, Lincoln had widespread popular support. He had early difficulties finding a general who could win. Frustrated by generals who lacked offensive drive and tactical knowledge, Lincoln resorted to reading everything he could about military tactics. Eventually, he settled on Ulysses S. Grant.
As the war dragged on, he faced increasing criticism domestically and even within his own cabinet. He responded by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, arresting and jailing those deemed a threat, and closing Democratic newspapers that criticized the war effort. Lincoln’s justification for those actions was that they were necessary to preserve the Union.
Internationally, European nations seemed poised to intervene on the side of the South. Partially in response, and following a Northern victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves would be freed in states still in rebellion on 1 January 1863. Critics noted that no one was actually freed. But the proclamation gave new purpose to the war, deterred foreign intervention, and gave hope to those in slavery.
As the war continued, Lincoln’s supporters feared that he could not be reelected. The Democrats nominated General George McClellan, whom Lincoln had dismissed. The fall of Atlanta in September 1864 restored confidence to the nation and brought a second term for Lincoln. With that election success, Lincoln pressed for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would actually free the slaves. Lincoln also turned toward the issues of Reconstruction. His proposed leniency toward the South faced substantial opposition in Congress. His pocket veto of the Wade- Davis bill in 1864 was a harbinger of difficulties to come.
At the end of the war, in April 1865, Lincoln visited the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. There, witnessing his emerging iconic status, newly freed slaves pressed to touch his hand. Only days later, however, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. In the national mourning that followed, those who only shortly before had been vehement political opponents turned their rhetoric to encomium.
The mythology that developed after Lincoln’s assassination makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. “Honest Abe” and “Father Abraham” are familiar sobriquets. “Great Emancipator,” however, is controversial. Revisionists remind that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no one. Others accuse Lincoln of racism, pointing to his active support for resettlement in Africa. Lincoln’s elegant rhetoric and political acumen did, however, hold the nation together. The hope of freedom his words engendered eventually became reality.
The mythology of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” reverberates throughout the world and continues to define Lincoln. This is particularly evident in Africa and Latin America. Russian texts point not only to Lincoln’s antislavery stance, but also to Lincoln’s heritage as a revolutionary figure. Like many mythological figures, Lincoln rises above the reality and is interpreted by what people feel is important in their own world view.
- Bennett, L., Jr. (2000). Forced into glory: Abraham Lincoln’s white dream. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company.
- Donald, D. H. (1995). Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Donald, D. H. (2001). The Lincoln enigma. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Gienapp, W. (2002). Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Oates, S. B. (1984). Abraham Lincoln: The man behind the myths. New York: Harper and Row.
- Sandberg, C. (1939). Abraham Lincoln (Vols. 1–4). New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.
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