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date: 22 May 2018

Lincoln, Abraham

The Oxford Companion to United States History

James A. Rawley

Lincoln, Abraham 

(1809–1865), sixteenth president of the United States.

Lincoln was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. A paternal ancestor had arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1637. Abraham's father, Thomas, a respected farmer though semiliterate, shared the restlessness of the frontier, and in 1816 the family moved to Indiana. In 1818, when Lincoln was nine, his mother, Nancy Hanks, died. His father soon married Sarah Bush Johnston, who became a loving stepmother. Abraham attended school for scarcely a year, but he read such works as the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and Aesop's Fables and displayed a remarkable capacity for self-education. Migrating with his family to Illinois in 1830, young Lincoln tried various occupations and served briefly in the Black Hawk War (1832). Passing the bar exam in 1836, he moved in 1837 to Springfield, the state capital, where law and politics absorbed his interests. Joining the Whig party, he served in the Illinois legislature (1834–1841) and a term in Congress (1847–1849), during which he opposed the Mexican War and proposed a bill providing for the gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves with local consent. Returning to Springfield, Lincoln virtually abandoned politics while developing a thriving law practice with his partner, William Herndon, and rearing a family. In 1842 he had married Mary Todd, who was from a prominent Kentucky family. Of their four sons, only the eldest, Robert, lived to maturity.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, opening the territories to slavery, aroused Lincoln and thrust him back into politics. At the 1856 convention of the new Republican party, he was a favorite-son candidate for the vice presidential nomination. Lincoln's skill as a stump speaker, enhanced by his six-foot-four-inch height, contributed to his political rise. In 1858, Illinois Republicans nominated him for the U.S. Senate; in accepting, Lincoln asserted: “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” In seven well-publicized debates with his Democratic opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln attacked slavery expansion. He lost the election but gained national recognition.

In 1860, the Republicans nominated Lincoln for president. A four-way contest in a divided nation gave him the presidency, but only 39 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes in any of the eleven southern states that would soon secede. By 1 February 1861—more than a month before Lincoln's inauguration—seven states of the Lower South had seceded to form the Confederacy. Confronting a gathering crisis, Lincoln in his inaugural address pledged not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but he insisted that the Union must be preserved, and affirmed the duty of any president “to administer the present Government and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successors.” With the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on 13 April, the Civil War began.

Further inflamed by Lincoln's call to arms, four more states seceded. Four border states remained loyal, however, and keeping them in the Union became one of Lincoln's prime concerns. By the time Lincoln summoned the fractured Congress to Washington on 4 July 1861, he had already adopted war measures that stretched the Constitution, declaring martial law and suspending habeas corpus in areas of the Union where antiwar sentiment ran high.

Inevitably, the war dominated Lincoln's presidency. The rout of Union forces at the Battle of Bull Run near Washington in July 1861 spurred Congress to make abundant authorizations of money and men, but Lincoln had trouble finding generals who could use these resources effectively. George B. McClellan (1826–1885), while skillful in organizing troops, proved reluctant to confide in Lincoln or to conduct an aggressive war. Not until March 1862 did McClellan's huge Army of the Potomac advance, approaching Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, by the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers, contrary to Lincoln's preference for an overland march shielding Washington.

Frustrated by McClellan's caution, his overestimation of enemy strength, and his complaints of lack of support, Lincoln relieved him in August 1862 but reappointed him after a second Union reverse at Bull Run. At the Battle of Antietam, 17 September 1862, McClellan repelled General Robert E. Lee's invading forces but failed to pursue the enemy. The partial victory at Antietam did, however, enable Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, on 1 January 1863, freeing the slaves in rebel areas, welcoming freedmen into military service, and laying the groundwork for the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865, officially ending slavery.

Lincoln's troubles continued with defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia. The tide turned in July 1863, however, as Union forces repulsed the Confederates’ northern advance at the Battle of Gettysburg, and Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg, Mississippi, dividing the Confederacy in the West. On 9 March 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant to command all Union armies. Leaving the western campaign to General William T. Sherman, Grant laid plans to defeat Lee's army in Virginia and invade the Lower South. By late 1864, Sherman's march through the South had brought him to Savannah, Georgia, while Grant, although failing to defeat Lee in the field, had enveloped Lee's forces at Petersburg, Virginia.

Throughout 1864, Lincoln's reelection remained doubtful. His generals’ inability to end the war conclusively was accompanied by a growing peace movement and a congressional struggle over postwar Reconstruction. The Democrats nominated McClellan and adopted a peace platform (which McClellan repudiated). Lincoln himself despaired of reelection, but Union successes in Georgia and Mobile Bay brought him victory with 55 percent of the popular vote. His Second Inaugural Address of March 1865, meditating on the war's meaning and looking forward to peace (“With malice toward none, with charity for all”), ranks with his brief but eloquent Gettysburg Address of 19 November 1863 as a masterpiece of American public oratory.

Looking to the postwar period, Lincoln in December 1863 had proclaimed a Reconstruction plan that Congress believed too lenient and an infringement on its authority. Proceeding with plans for dealing with the collapsing Confederacy, Lincoln pocket-vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill of July 1864, which required a harsher approach. By early 1865, Lincoln was moving in the direction of enfranchising and educating some freedmen while displaying flexibility in restoring seceding states to the Union. His cabinet failed to support his suggestion for compensating slaveholders, however.

On 9 April 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. Lincoln, however, had little time to savor victory. On the night of 14 April, as he sat with his wife at Ford's Theatre in Washington, he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and rabid Confederate supporter. He died the following morning. Grief enveloped the North as his body was borne back to Springfield for burial.

Historians have long probed Lincoln's life and character, seeking the key to his almost saintlike standing in the American pantheon. His earthy humor, his ability to joke when things seemed darkest, and his endless supply of homespun stories certainly helped him cope with the crises of war. Beneath the humor, however, lay a profound melancholy. His relations with the temperamental and unstable Mary Todd Lincoln were often strained, and the death of his beloved son Willie in 1862 brought further grief. His frontier origins, his plainspoken eloquence, his magnanimity toward the defeated South, and the circumstances of his death all contributed to his enduring reputation as perhaps the greatest of presidents. Walt Whitman's elegiac When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd and Oh Captain, My Captain, beloved of school orators, launched a tide of commemorative poems, biographies, and works of art. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1914–1917), housing Daniel Chester French's heroic seated statue, remains one of the capital's best-known icons. Carl Sandburg's multivolume biography (1926–1939) presented Lincoln as a son of the West who supremely embodied the straightforward frontier virtues that underlay his grandeur of character and nobility of thought. Although debunking historians have presented Lincoln as a calculating politician, vacillating and temporizing in his approach to racism and slavery, and psychohistorians have dissected his enigmatic and sometimes tortured personality, Abraham Lincoln's standing in the hearts of the American people seems unassailable.

See also Antebellum Era; Antislavery; Confederate States of America; Federal Government, Executive Branch: The Presidency; Lincoln-Douglas Debates.


Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858, 2 vol., 1928.Find this resource:

J.G. Randall, Lincoln the President, 4 vols., the 4th completed by R.N. Current, 1946–1955.Find this resource:

T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, 1952.Find this resource:

Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 1994.Find this resource:

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 1995.Find this resource:

James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For, 1996.Find this resource:

James A. Rawley