Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Lincoln entered office at a critical period in U. S. history, just before the Civil
War, and died from an assassin’s bullet at the war’s end, but before the greater implications of the conflict could be resolved. He brought to the office personal integrity, intelligence, and humanity, plus the wholesome characteristics of his frontier upbringing. He also had the liabilities of his upbringing–he was self-educated, culturally unsophisticated, and lacking in administrative and diplomatic skills. Sharp-witted, he was not especially sharp-tongued, but was noted for his warm good humor. Although relatively unknown and inexperienced politically when elected president, he proved to be a consummate politician. He was above all firm in his convictions and dedicated to the preservation of the Union.
Lincoln was perhaps the most esteemed and maligned of the American presidents. Generally admired and loved by the public, he was attacked on a partisan basis as the man responsible for and in the middle of every major issue facing the nation during his administration. Although his reputation has fluctuated with changing times, he was clearly a great man and a great president. He firmly and fairly guided the nation through its most perilous period and made a lasting impact in shaping the office of chief executive.Once regarded as the “Great Emancipator” for his forward strides in freeing the slaves, he was criticized a century later, when the Civil
Rights Movement gained momentum, for his caution in moving toward equal rights. If he is judged in the historical context, however, it can be seen that he was far in advance of most liberal opinion. His claim to greatness endures.
The future president was born in the most modest of circumstances in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Ky., on Feb. 12, 1809. His entire childhood and young manhood were spent on the brink of poverty as his pioneering family made repeated fresh starts in the West. Opportunities for education, cultural activities, and even socializing were meager.
Lincoln’s paternal ancestry has been traced, in an unbroken line, to
Samuel Lincoln, a weaver’s apprentice from Hingham, England, who settled in
Hingham, Mass., in 1637. From him the line of descent came down through
Mordecai Lincoln of Hingham and of Scituate, Mass.; Mordecai of Berks county, Pa.; John of Berks county and of Rockingham county, Va.; and
Abraham, the grandfather of the president, who moved from Virginia to
Kentucky about 1782, settled near Hughes Station, east of Louisville, and was killed in an Indian ambush in 1786.
Abraham’s youngest son, Thomas, who became the father of the president, was born in Rockingham county, Va., on Jan. 6, 1778. After the death of his father, he roamed about, settling eventually in Hardin county, Ky., where he worked at carpentry, farming, and odd jobs. He was not the shiftless ne’er-do-well sometimes depicted, but an honest, conscientious man of modest means, well regarded by his neighbors. He had practically no education, however, and could barely scrawl his name.
Nancy Hanks, whom Thomas Lincoln married on June 12, 1806, and who became the mother of the president, remains a shadowy figure. Her birth date is uncertain, and descriptions of her are contradictory. Scholars despair of penetrating the tangled Hanks genealogy, and the legitimacy of Nancy’s birth is a subject of argument. Lincoln, himself, apparently believed that his mother was born out of wedlock. In either case, Nancy came of lowly people. Reared by her aunt, Betsy Hanks, who married Thomas Sparrow, she was utterly uneducated.
Thomas and Nancy Lincoln set up housekeeping in Elizabethtown, Ky., where their first child, Sarah, was born on Feb. 10, 1807. In December
1808, Thomas bought a hard-scrabble farm on the South Fork of Nolin Creek, where Abraham was born. Soon after Abe’s second birthday the family moved to a more productive farm along Knob Creek, a branch of the Rolling Fork, in a region of fertile bottomland surrounded by crags and bluffs. The old
Cumberland Trail from Louisville to Nashville passed close by, and the boy could see a vigorous civilization on the march–settlers, peddlers, circuit- riding preachers, now and then a coffle of slaves. This was probably his first view of human bondage, for the small landholdings of the region were not suited to slaveowning, and local sentiment, especially among the
Baptists, with whom the Lincolns had affiliated, was hostile to slavery.
Like most frontier children, Abraham performed chores at an early age, but occasionally he and his sister Sarah attended classes in a log schoolhouse some two miles (3 km) from home. Nancy bore a third child, Thomas, but he died in infancy.
Faulty land titles, which were a constant problem to Kentucky settlers, were especially troublesome to Thomas Lincoln. Because of a flaw in title, he lost part of a farm he had bought before his marriage, and both his other Kentucky farms became involved in litigation. For this reason, and because of his roving disposition, he resolved to move to Indiana, where land could be bought directly from the government.
Abraham was seven years old when, in December 1816, the Lincolns struck out northwestward. They crossed the Ohio River on a ferry near the village of
Troy, made their way 16 miles (26 km) farther north through thick woods and tangled underbrush, and settled near Pigeon Creek, in present Spencer county, Ind. Thomas hastily threw up a half-faced camp, a rude shelter of logs and boughs, closed on three sides and warmed only by a fire at the open front. Here the family lived while Thomas built a cabin. The region was gloomy, with few settlers, and wild animals prowled in the forest.
By spring Thomas had cleared a few acres for a crop. In an autobiography that Abraham Lincoln composed in 1860, he said of himself: “Abraham, though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument–less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.” So, year by year the clearing grew, and the family’s diet became more varied as farm products supplemented game and fowl. At first, Thomas was a mere squatter on the land, but on Oct. 15,
1817, he applied for 160 acres (65 hectares) at the government land office in Vincennes. Unable to complete payment on so large a tract, he later gave up half, but paid for the rest.
The Lincolns had not been long in Indiana when they were joined by Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow, the relatives by whom Nancy had been reared. They arrived from Kentucky with Dennis Hanks, the illegitimate son of another of
Nancy’s aunts. An energetic youth of 19, he became Abraham’s companion.
Within a year, however, the Sparrows became victims of the “milk-sick”
(milk sickness), a disease dreaded by Indiana settlers, and soon afterward, on Oct. 5, 1818, Nancy Lincoln, too, died of this malady. Without a woman to keep the household functioning, the Lincolns lived almost in squalor.
To remedy this intolerable condition, Thomas Lincoln returned to
Elizabethtown, where, on Dec. 2, 1819, he married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children. A kindly, hard-working woman, she brought order to the Lincolns’ Indiana homestead. She also saw to it that at intervals over the next two years Abraham received enough additional schooling to be able, as he said later, “to read, write and cipher to the Rule of Three.”
All told, however, he attended school less than a year.
During the 14 years the Lincolns lived in Indiana, the region became more thickly settled, mostly by people from the South. But conditions remained primitive, and farming was backbreaking work. Superstitions were prevalent; social functions consisted of such utilitarian amusements as corn shuckings, house raisings, and hog killings; and religion was dogmatic and emotional. Abe, growing tall and strong, won a reputation as the best local athlete and a rollicking storyteller. But his father kept him busy at hard labor, hiring him out to neighbors when work at home slackened.
Abe’s meager education had aroused his desire to learn, and he traveled over the countryside to borrow books. Among those he read were Robinson
Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, William Grimshaw’s History of the United States, and Mason Weems’ Life of Washington. The Bible was probably the only book his family owned, and his abundant use of scriptural quotations in his later writings shows how earnestly he must have studied it.
Young Lincoln worked for a while as a ferryman on the Ohio River, and at 19 helped take a flatboat cargo to New Orleans. There he encountered a manner of living wholly unknown to him. Soon after he returned, his father decided to move to Illinois, where a relative, John Hanks, had preceded him. On
March 1, 1830, the family set out with all their possessions loaded on three wagons. Their new home was located on the north bank of the Sangamon
River, west of Decatur. When a cabin had been built and a crop had been planted and fenced, young Lincoln hired out to split fence rails for neighbors.
In the autumn all the Lincoln family came down with fever and ague. That winter the pioneers experienced the deepest snow they had ever known, accompanied by subzero temperatures. In the spring the family backtracked eastward to Coles county, Ill. But this time Abraham did not accompany them, for during the winter he, his stepbrother John D. Johnston, and his cousin John Hanks had agreed to take another cargo to New Orleans for a trader, Denton Offutt. A new life was opening for young Lincoln. Henceforth he could make his own way.Supposedly it was on this second trip to New
Orleans that young Lincoln, watching a slave auction, declared: “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.” But the story is almost certainly untrue. Lincoln at this period of his life could scarcely have believed himself to be a man of destiny, and John Hanks, who originated the story, was not with Lincoln, having left his fellow crewmen at St. Louis.
Near the outset of this voyage, at the little village of New Salem on the
Sangamon River, Lincoln had impressed Offutt by his ingenuity in moving the flatboat over a milldam. Offutt, impressed likewise by the prospects of the village, arranged to open a store and rent the mill. On Lincoln’s return from New Orleans, Offutt engaged him as clerk and handyman.
By late July 1831, when Lincoln came back, New Salem was enjoying what proved to be a short-lived boom based on a local conviction that the
Sangamon River would be made navigable for steamboats. For a time the village served as a trading center for the surrounding area and numbered among its enterprises three stores, a tavern, a carding machine for wool, a saloon, and a ferry. Among its residents were two physicians, a blacksmith, a cooper, a shoemaker, and other craftsmen common to a pioneer settlement.
The people were mostly from the South, though a number of Yankees had also drifted in. Community pastimes were similar to those Lincoln had previously known, and life in general differed only in being somewhat more advanced.
Lincoln gained the admiration of the rougher element of the community, who were known as the Clary’s Grove boys, when he threw their champion in a wrestling match. But his kindness, honesty, and efforts at self-betterment so impressed the more reputable people of the community that they, too, soon came to respect him. He became a member of the debating society, studied grammar with the aid of a local schoolmaster, and acquired a lasting fondness for the writings of Shakespeare and Robert Burns from the village philosopher and fisherman.
Offutt paid little attention to business, and his store was about to fail, when an Indian disturbance, known as the Black Hawk War, broke out in April
1832, in Illinois. Lincoln enlisted and was elected captain of his volunteer company. When his term expired, he reenlisted, serving about 80 days in all. He experienced some hardships, but no fighting.
Politics and Law
Returning to New Salem, Lincoln sought election to the state legislature. He won almost all the votes in his own community, but lost the election because he was not known throughout the county. In partnership with William F. Berry, he bought a store on credit, but it soon failed, leaving him deeply in debt. He then got a job as deputy surveyor, was appointed postmaster, and pieced out his income with odd jobs. The story of his romance with Ann Rutledge is rejected as a legend by most authorities, but he did have a short-lived love affair with Mary Owens.
In 1834, Lincoln was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, and he was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840. Political alignments were in a state of flux during his first two candidacies, but as the WHIG and
DEMOCRATIC parties began to take form, he followed his political idol,
Henry Clay, and John T. Stuart, a Springfield lawyer and friend, into the
Whig ranks. Twice Lincoln was his party’s candidate for speaker, and when defeated, he served as its floor leader.
His greatest achievement in the legislature, where he was a consistent supporter of conservative business interests, was to bring about the removal of the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, by means of adroit logrolling. When certain resolutions denouncing antislavery agitation were passed by the house, Lincoln and a colleague, Dan Stone, defined their position by a written declaration that slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils.” An internal improvement project that Lincoln promoted in the legislature turned out to be impractical and almost bankrupted the state. On national issues Lincoln favored the United States Bank and opposed the presidential policies of
Andrew JACKSON and Martin VAN BUREN.
His friend Stuart had encouraged him to study law, and he obtained a license on Sept. 9, 1836. By this time New Salem was in decline and would soon be a ghost town. It has since been restored as a state park. On April
15, 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield to become Stuart’s partner. His conscientious efforts to pay off his debts had earned him the nickname
“Honest Abe,” but he was so poor that he arrived in Springfield on a borrowed horse with all his personal property in his saddlebags.
With the courts in Springfield in session only a few weeks during the year, lawyers were obliged to travel the circuit in order to make a living. Every year, in spring and autumn, Lincoln followed the judge from county to county over the 12,000 square miles (31,000 sq km) of the Eighth Circuit.
In 1841 he and Stuart disolved their firm, and Lincoln formed a new partnership with Stephen T. Logan, who taught him the value of careful preparation and clear, succinct reasoning as opposed to mere cleverness and oratory. This partnership was in turn dissolved in 1844, when Lincoln took young William H. Herndon, later to be his biographer, as a partner.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 4, 1842, after a somewhat tumultuous courtship,
Lincoln had married Mary Todd. Brought up in Lexington, Ky., she was a high- spirited, quick-tempered girl of excellent education and cultural background. Notwithstanding her vanity, ambition, and unstable temperament and Lincoln’s careless ways and alternating moods of hilarity and dejection, the marriage turned out to be generally happy. Of their four children, only Robert Todd Lincoln, born on Aug. 1, 1843, lived to maturity. Edward Baker, who was born on March 10, 1846, died on Feb. 1,
1850; William Wallace, born Dec. 21, 1850, died on Feb. 20, 1862; and
Thomas (“Tad”), born April 4, 1853, died on July 15, 1871.
Though Mrs. Lincoln was by no means such a shrew as has been asserted, she was difficult to live with. Lincoln responded to her impulsive and imprudent behavior with tireless patience, forbearance, and forgiveness.
Borne down by grief and illness after her husband’s death, Mrs. Lincoln became so unbalanced at one time that her son Robert had her committed to an institution.
Having attained a position of leadership in state politics and worked strenuously for the Whig ticket in the presidential election of 1840,
Lincoln aspired to go to CONGRESS. But two other prominent young Whigs of his district, Edward D. Baker of Springfield and John J. Hardin of
Jacksonville, also coveted this distinction. So Lincoln stepped aside temporarily, first for Hardin, then for Baker, under a sort of understanding that they would “take a turn about.” When Lincoln’s turn came in 1846, however, Hardin wished to serve again, and Lincoln was obliged to maneuver skillfully to obtain the nomination. His district was so predominantly Whig that this amounted to election, and he won handily over his Democratic opponent.
Lincoln worked conscientiously as a freshman congressman, but was unable to gain distinction. Both from conviction and party expediency, he went along with the Whig leaders in blaming the Polk administration for bringing on war with Mexico, though he always voted for appropriations to sustain it.
His opposition to the war was unpopular in his district, however. When the annexations of territory from Mexico brought up the question of the status of slavery in the new lands, Lincoln voted for the Wilmot Proviso and other measures designed to confine the institution to the states where it already existed.
Disillusionment with Politics
In the campaign of 1848, Lincoln labored strenuously for the nomination and election of Gen. Zachary TAYLOR. He served on the Whig
National Committee, attended the national convention at Philadelphia, and made campaign speeches. With the Whig national ticket victorious, he hoped to share with Baker the control of federal patronage in his home state. The juiciest plum that had been promised to Illinois was the position of commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington. After trying vainly to reconcile two rival candidates for this office, Lincoln tried to obtain it for himself. But he had little influence with the new administration.
The most that it would offer him was the governorship or secretaryship of the Oregon Territory. Neither job appealed to him, and he returned to
Springfield thoroughly disheartened.
Never one to repine, however, Lincoln now devoted himself to becoming a better lawyer and a more enlightened man. Pitching into his law books with greater zest, he also resumed his study of Shakespeare and mastered the first six books of Euclid as a mental discipline. At the same time, he renewed acquaintances and won new friends around the circuit. Law practice was changing as the country developed, especially with the advent of railroads and the growth of corporations. Lincoln, conscientiously keeping pace, became one of the state’s outstanding lawyers, with a steadily increasing practice, not only on the circuit but also in the state supreme court and the federal courts. Regular travel to Chicago to attend court sessions became part of his routine when Illinois was divided into two federal districts.
Outwardly, however, Lincoln remained unchanged in his simple, somewhat rustic ways. Six feet four inches (1.9 meters) tall, weighing about 180 pounds (82 kg), ungainly, slightly stooped, with a seamed and rugged countenance and unruly hair, he wore a shabby old top hat, an ill-fitting frock coat and pantaloons, and unblacked boots. His genial manner and fund of stories won him a host of friends. Yet, notwithstanding his friendly ways, he had a certain natural dignity that discouraged familiarity and commanded respect.
Return to Politics
Lincoln took only a perfunctory part in the presidential campaign of
1852, and was rapidly losing interest in politics. Two years later, however, an event occurred that roused him, he declared, as never before.
The status of slavery in the national territories, which had been virtually settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, now came to the fore. In 1854, Stephen A. Douglas, whom Lincoln had known as a young lawyer and legislator and who was now a Democratic leader in the U.
S. SENATE, brought about the repeal of a crucial section of the Missouri
Compromise that had prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of the line of 36degrees 30&;. Douglas substituted for it a provision that the people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska could admit or exclude slavery as they chose.
The congressional campaign of 1854 found Lincoln back onthe stump in behalf of the antislavery cause, speaking with a new authority gained from self- imposed intellectual discipline. Henceforth, he was a different Lincoln– ambitious, as before, but purged of partisan pettiness and moved instead by moral earnestness.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act so disrupted old party lines that when the Illinois legislature met to elect a U.S. senator to succeed Douglas’ colleague,
James Shields, it was evident that the Anti-Nebraska group drawn from both parties had the votes to win, if the antislavery Whigs and antislavery
Democrats could united on a candidate. However, the Whigs backed Lincoln, and the Democrats supported Lyman Trumbull. though Lincoln commanded far more strength than Trumbull, the latter’s supporters were resolved never to desert him for a Whig. As their stubbornness threatened to result in the election of a proslavery Democrat, Lincoln instructed his own backers to vote for Trumbull, thus assuring the latter’s election.
Campaigns of 1856 and 1858
With old party lines sundered, the antislavery factions in the North gradually coalesced to form a new party, which took the name REPUBLICAN.
Lincoln stayed aloof at the beginning, fearing that it would be dominated by the radical rather than the moderate antislavery element. Also, he hoped for a resurgence of the Whig party, in which he had attained a position of state leadership. But as the presidential campaign of 1856 approached, he cast his lot with the new party. In the national convention, which nominated John C. Frйmont for president, Lincoln received 110 ballots for the VICE-PRESIDENTIAL nomination, which went eventually to William L.
Dayton of New Jersey. Though Lincoln had favored Justice John McLean, he worked faithfully for Frйmont, who showed surprising strength, notwithstanding his defeat by the Democratic candidate, James BUCHANAN.
With Senator Douglas running for reelection in 1858, Lincoln was recognized in Illinois as the strongest man to oppose him. Endorsed by Republican meetings all over the state and by the Republican State Convention, he opened his campaign with the famous declaration: “`A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven joint debates, and these became the most spectacular feature of the campaign. Douglas refused to take a position on the rightfulness or wrongfulness of slavery, and offered his “popular sovereignty” doctrine as the solution of the problem. Lincoln, on the other hand, insisted that slavery was primarily a moral issue and offered as his solution a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, which tolerated slavery where it existed but looked to its ultimate extinction by preventing its spread. The
Republicans polled the larger number of votes in the election, but an outdated apportionment of seats in the legislature permitted Douglas to win the senatorship.
Election of 1860
Friends began to urge Lincoln to run for president. He held back, but did extend his range of speechmaking beyond Illinois. on Feb. 27, 1860, at
Cooper Union, in New York City, he delivered an address on the need for restricting slavery that put him in the forefront of Republican leadership.
The enthusiasm evoked by this speech and others overcame Lincoln’s reluctance. On May 9 and 10, the Illinois Republican convention, meeting in
Decatur, instructed the state’s delegates to the national convention to vote as a unit for him.
When that convention met in Chicago on May 16, Lincoln’s chances were better than was generally supposed. William H. Seward, the acknowledged party leader, and other aspirants all had political liabilities of some sort. As Lincoln’s managers maneuvered behind the scenes, more and more delegates lined up behind the “Illinois Rail Splitter.” Seward led on the first ballot, but on the third ballot Lincoln obtained the required majority.
A split in the Democratic party, which resulted in the nomination of
Douglas by one faction and of John C. Breckinridge by the other, made
Lincoln’s ELECTION a certainty. Lincoln polled 1,865,593 votes to Douglas’
1,382,713, and Breckinridge’s 848,356. John Bell, candidate of the
Constitutional Union party, polled 592,906. The ELECTORAL vote was Lincoln,
180; Breckinridge, 72; Bell, 39; and Douglas, 12.
On Feb. 11, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield to take up his duties as president. Before him lay, as he recognized, “a task … greater than that which rested upon [George] Washington.” The seven states of the lower South had seceded from the Union, and Southern delegates meeting in Montgomery,
Ala., had formed a new, separate government. Before Lincoln reached the national capital, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President of the
Confederate States of America. The four states of the upper South teetered on the brink of secession, and disunion sentiment was rampant in the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.
When Lincoln reached Washington on February 23, he found the national government incapable of meeting the crisis. President James Buchanan deplored secession but could not check it, and Congress fruitlessly debated compromise. The national treasury was near bankruptcy; the civil service was riddled with secessionists; and the miniscule armed forces were being weakened by defection of officers to the South.
It was not immediately evident that Lincoln could avert the dissolution of the United States. Few American presidents have assumed office under greater handicaps. Warned of an attempt on his life being planned in
Baltimore, Lincoln had to enter the national capital surreptitiously, arriving after a secret midnight journey from Harrisburg, Pa. Widely publicized, the episode did little to inspire public confidence in the government or to create an image of Lincoln as a dynamic leader. That so many citizens could believe their new president a coward was evidence of a more serious handicap under which Lincoln labored: he was virtually unknown to the American people. Lincoln’s record as an Illinois state legislator, as a one-term member of the House of Representatives in the 1840’s, and as an unsuccessful senatorial candidate against Douglas was not one to inspire confidence in his abilities. Even the leaders of the Republican party had little acquaintance with the new President.
Almost at the outset, Lincoln demonstrated that he was a poor administrator. Accustomed, as his law partner William H. Herndon said, to filing legal papers in his top hat, Lincoln conducted the administration of the national govern ment in the same fashion. Selecting for his cabinet spokesmen of the diverse elements that constituted the Republican party, he surrounded himself with men of such conflicting views that he could not rely on them to work together. Cabinet sessions rarely dealt with serious issues. Usually, Lincoln permitted cabinet officers free rein in running their departments.
Nor was Lincoln an effective leader of his party in the Congress, where after secession the Republicans had overwhelming majorities. Long a Whig, vigilant against executive “usurpation,” he earnestly felt that as president he ought not to exert even “indirect influence to affect the action of congress.” In consequence there was poor rapport between Capitol
Hill and the WHITE HOUSE. Even those measures that the President earnestly advocated were weakened or defeated by members of his own party. But on important issues relating to the conduct of the war and the restoration of the Union, Lincoln followed his own counsel, ignoring the opinions of
More than counterbalancing these deficiencies, however, were Lincoln’s strengths. Foremost was his unflinching dedication to the preservation of the Union. Convinced that the United States was more than an ordinary nation, that it was a proving ground for the idea of democratic government,
Lincoln felt that he was leading a struggle to preserve “the last, best hope of earth.” Despite war-weariness and repeated defeats, he never wavered in his “paramount object.” To restore national unity he would do what was necessary, without regard to legalistic construction of the
CONSTITUTION, political objections in Congress, or personal popularity.
Partly because of that single-minded dedication, the American people, in time, gave to Lincoln a loyalty that proved to be another of his great assets. Making himself accessible to all who went to the White House,
Lincoln learned what ordinary citizens felt about their government. In turn, his availability helped create in the popular mind the stereotype of
“Honest Abe,” the people’s president, straightforward, and sympathetic.
Lincoln’s mastery of rhetoric further endeared him to the public. In an age of pretentious orators, he wrote clearly and succinctly. Purists might object when he said that the Confederates in one engagement “turned tail and ran,” but the man in the street approved. Lincoln’s 268-word address at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg meant more than the preceding two-hour oration by Edward Everett.
Another of Lincoln’s assets was the fact that he was a genius at the game of politics. He astutely managed the patronage at his disposal, distributing favors so as to bind local politicians to his administration and to undermine potential rivals for the presidency. He understood the value of silence and secrecy in politics and refrained from creating divisive issues or causing needless confrontations. He was extraordinarily flexible and pragmatic in the means he employed to restore the Union. “My policy,” he frequently said, “is to have no policy.” That did not mean that his was a course of drift. Instead, it reflected his understanding that, as president, he could only handle problems as they arose, confident that popular support for his solutions would be forthcoming.
Lincoln believed that the ultimate decision in the Civil War was beyond his, or any other man’s, control. “Now, at the end of three years struggle,” he wrote, as the war reached its climax, “the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man, devised or expected. God alone can claim it.”
In 1861, Lincoln’s weaknesses were more evident than his strengths.
Immediately after his inauguration he faced a crisis over Fort Sumter in the Charleston (S. C.) harbor, one of the few remaining U.S. forts in the seceded states still under federal control. Informed that the troops would have to be supplied or withdrawn, the inexperienced President anxiously explored solutions. Withdrawal would appear a cowardly backdown, but reinforcing the fort might precipitate hostilities. Lincoln painfully concluded that he would send supplies to Sumter and let the Confederates decide whether to fire on the flag of the Union. Historians differ as to whether Lincoln anticipated that hostilities would follow his decision, but they agree that Lincoln was determined that he would not order the first shot fired. Informed of the approach of the federal supply fleet,
Confederate authorities at Charleston during the early hours of April 12 decided to bombard the fort. Thus, the Civil War began.
Because Congress was not in session, Lincoln moved swiftly to mobilize the
Union by executive order. His requisition to the states for 75,000 volunteers precipitated the secession of Virginia, North Carolina,
Tennessee, and Arkansas. Kentucky tried to adopt an official policy of
“neutrality,” while secession sentiment in Maryland was so strong that for a time Washington, D.C., was cut off from communication with the North. In order to restore order, Lincoln directed that the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus be suspended, at first along the line between Washington and
Philadelphia and later throughout most of the North, so that known secessionists and persons suspected of disloyalty could be held without trial. At the same time the President, without congressional authorization– and thus in direct violation of the Constitution–ordered an increase in the size of the regular Army and Navy. Doubting the loyalty of certain government officials, he also entrusted public funds to private agents in
New York to purchase arms and supplies.
When the 37th Congress assembled in special session on July 4, 1861, it was thus confronted with a fait accompli. The President, acting in his capacity as commander in chief, had put himself at the head of the whole Union war effort, arrogating to himself greater powers than those claimed by any previous American president. His enemies termed him a dictator and a tyrant. In fact, his power was limited, partly by his own instincts, partly by the knowledge that his actions would be judged in four years at the polls, and chiefly by the inadequacy of the federal bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, the role of Congress was sharply defined: it could appropriate money to support the war, it could initiate legislation on issues not related to the war, it could debate questions relating to the conflict. But direction of the Union war effort was to remain firmly in
The first responsibility of the President was the successful prosecution of the war against the Confederate States. In this duty he was hampered by the lack of a strong military tradition in America and by the shortage of trained officers. During the early months of the conflict the
War Department was headed by Simon Cameron, and corruption and inefficiency were rife. Not until January, 1862, when Lincoln replaced Cameron with the imperious but efficient Edwin M. Stanton, was some semblance of order brought to the procurement of supplies for the federal armies. Navy secretary Gideon Welles was above suspicion, but he was inexperienced in nautical affairs and cautious in accepting innovations, such as the ironclad monitors.
Even more difficult was the task of finding capable general officers. At first the President gave supreme command of the Union forces to the elderly
Gen. Winfield Scott. After the Confederate victory at the first battle of
Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Lincoln increasingly entrusted power to George B.
McClellan, a brilliant organizer and administrator. But McClellan’s caution, his secretiveness, and his willingness to strip the defenses of
Washington the better to attack Richmond led Lincoln to look elsewhere for military advice. Borrowing “a large number of strategical works” from the
Library of Congress, he attempted to direct the overall conduct of the war himself by issuing a series of presidential general war orders. Gen. Henry
W. Halleck, whom Lincoln brought to Washington as a strategic planner, served more as a glorified clerk, and the President repeatedly exercised personal supervision over the commanders in the field.
Not until the emergence of Ulysses S. GRANT, hero of Vicksburg and
Chattanooga, did Lincoln find a general to whom he could entrust overall direction of the war. Even then, the President kept a close eye on military operations, advising and even occasionally overruling the general, but mostly supporting and encouraging him.