Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (born on February 12, 1809 – died on April 15, 1865) was an American lawyer and politician. He was the sixteenth President of the United States, from March 4, 1861, until his death in April 1865. He led the Union to victory in the American Civil War, managing to keep the federal states united; he strengthened the federal government and modernized the country’s economy.

Abraham Lincoln
Birth date February 12, 1809
Birthplace Hodgenville
Death date April 15, 1865 (age 56)
Death place Washington
Causes of death assassination
Military data
Country served United States
Armed Force Illinois Militia
Years of service 3 months (April 21, 1832 – July 10, 1832)
Grado Captain
Wars Black Hawk War
Other charges politico
16th President of the United States of America
Term of office March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin
Andrew Johnson
Predecessor James Buchanan
Successor Andrew Johnson
Illinois House of Representatives Member – 7th District
Term of office March 4, 1847 – March 3, 1849
Predecessor John Henry
Successor Thomas L. Harris
General data
Political party Whig
(before 1854)
National Union
Signature Abraham Lincoln signature

Lincoln was born in a cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, in poverty. Largely self-taught, he became a lawyer in Illinois and then leader of the Whig Party, eventually being elected to the state legislature, where he served for eight years. He was elected deputy to the House of Representatives in 1846. He opposed the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and, after only one term, resumed his legal activity. Returning to active politics in 1854, he soon became one of the leaders of the newly formed Republican Party, which immediately won a majority in the State of Illinois. In the midterm elections of 1858, he ran for senator; He took part in a series of debates with his opponent, Democratic Party leader and incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas, speaking out against the expansion of slavery in the Western Territories. He was defeated by Douglas by a narrow margin.

After being unsuccessfully proposed as vice president at the Republican convention for the 1856 presidential election, in the 1860 election he secured the nomination for president as a moderate, although most delegates had initially endorsed other candidates. Although opposed by the slave states of the South, he won the favor of the North and was elected president. Lincoln’s victory prompted seven enslaved states to leave the Union and form the Confederate States of America even before he took office. Lincoln found support among pro-war Democrats, but faced radical Republicans, who demanded harsher treatment for secessionist states, and war-threatening Democrats.

He closely oversaw the war effort, especially the selection of generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, and made important decisions about Union war strategy. In the ongoing conflict, his actions toward abolitionism culminated in the first executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862, which decreed the liberation of all slaves from the territories of the Confederate States of America beginning January 1, 1863. He then pushed Congress to enact the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment, which definitively banned slavery throughout the country in 1865.

Lincoln gained the decisive support of pro-war Democrats and was re-elected president in 1864. Anticipating the conclusion of the war, he ushered in the Reconstruction Era, seeking to reunite the nation through a policy of reconciliation. On April 14, 1865, five days after the surrender of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee, Lincoln was the victim of an assassination attempt by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth who shot him while he was in the theater; Lincoln died at dawn the next day.

He is still considered, both by historiography and by a large part of public opinion, one of the most important and popular presidents. The work of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency has had a lasting influence on the political and social institutions of the United States of America. The Gettysburg Address, the most significant and famous of those he delivered, is considered one of the cornerstones of the unity and values of the American nation.

“Thus his gaze rose to dominate political perspectives far above and beyond the horizons of all his countrymen, ranging beyond the borders of the United States over the whole world, where the very fate of democracy was at stake. He pushed his gaze not only beyond his continent, but beyond time. He pondered the future and charted the direction of American policy for a century to come.”
Raimondo Luraghi, History of the American Civil War, pp. 213-214

Lincoln Family

Origins and youth

The "Sinking Spring Farm" log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born (photo of 1921)
The “Sinking Spring Farm” log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born (photo of 1921)

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, the second son of Thomas Lincoln I (1778-1851) and Nancy Hanks (1784-1818), in a log cabin, consisting of a single room, of the farm of “Sinking Spring Farm”, near Hodgenville in Kentucky (today’s Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park).

He was named after his paternal grandfather. His father, a skilled blacksmith and carpenter, was descended from Samuel Lincoln (1622-1690), an English emigrant originally from Hingham, Norfolk, who settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, at the age of just 16. Samuel’s grandchildren began the family migration westward, via New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The future president’s paternal grandfather, Captain Abraham Lincoln, moved to Jefferson County, Kentucky, most likely in the early 1780s; here six years later he was killed during a raid carried out by Native Americans during the Northwest Indian War. His sons, including eight-and-a-half-year-old Thomas, watched helplessly as the attack occurred. After the murder of his father, young Thomas began his great adventure towards the frontier of the West, working occasionally in Tennessee before moving with the whole family to Hardin County, also in Kentucky, in the early nineteenth century.

Her mother, who grew up with the wealthy Berry family, is generally considered the daughter of Lucy Hanks, although no evidence of Nancy’s birth has ever been found. According to William Ensign, author of The Ancestry of Abraham Lincoln, she was the daughter of Joseph Hanks; however, the debate is destined to continue on whether or not she was born into a legitimate marriage bond. Another researcher, Adin Baber, claims that Nancy was allegedly the daughter of Abraham Hanks and Sarah Harper of Virginia.

Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks were married on June 12, 1806, in Washington County, Kentucky, and moved to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. They became parents of three children: Sarah, born February 10, 1807; Abraham, on February 12, 1809, and Thomas, who died in early childhood. Over time, Thomas happened to rent several farms, including “Sinking Spring”, where Abraham was born; however, a dispute over actual land tenure and titles forced the Lincolns to move again.

In 1811 the family moved 13 km north to Knob Creek Farm, where Thomas acquired titles to 93 acres of land. After four years a competitor, in yet another territorial dispute, tried to expel the family from the farm; of the 330 acres Thomas initially owned in Kentucky, he lost more than 81 acres in title disputes.

Frustrated by the lack of security provided by the local justice system, he sold the land he still had left and began planning a gradual move that would take him all the way to Indiana, where the courts seemed to be more reliable and therefore the ability to keep the land more certain.

In 1816, the Lincolns crossed the Ohio River north into Indiana, a free territory where slavery was not practiced as the previous ones; they stopped in the forest of the “Hurricane Township” in Perry County, Indiana (their land became part of Spencer County when it was created in 1818).

The farm is preserved as part of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. During the campaign for the presidential election of 1860, Abraham recounted that family migration was mainly due to the difficulties encountered in maintaining possession of the land.

During his years between Kentucky and Indiana, Thomas worked as a farmer, stipettai, and carpenter. He came to own farms, real estate and livestock. He paid taxes, participated in popular juries, valued real estate for purchase, served in patrols that were to find fugitive slaves who had taken refuge in the surrounding countryside and kept them as prisoners. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were also active members and participants of a separate Baptist church, which had restrictive moral standards and opposed the use of alcoholic beverages, dance, and slavery.

Within a year of the family’s arrival in Indiana, Thomas declared a farm equal to 65 acres of land. After some financial difficulties, he managed to obtain the 32-acre property in what later became known as the “Little Pigeon Creek Community”. Prior to the family’s departure for Illinois in 1830, Thomas had acquired another 20 acres adjacent to his property.

During Lincoln’s youth in Indiana, several significant family events occurred. On October 5, 1818, Nancy Lincoln died of intoxication from contaminated milk, leaving her husband Thomas with their two children, Sarah, 11, and Abraham, 9, as well as Dennis Hanks, a nineteen-year-old orphaned cousin. On December 2, 1819, Thomas Lincoln married Sarah “Sally” Bush Johnston, an Elizabethtown widow who already had three children.

Abraham became very fond of his stepmother and always had a very good relationship with her, going so far as to call her “mother”. Those who knew Lincoln as a teenager later recalled that he was very upset about the untimely death of his sister Sarah, recently married to Aaron Grigby, on January 20, 1828, while trying to give birth to a stillborn son. He had not yet turned 21.

During his youth, Lincoln was never particularly fond of the hard work associated with frontier life. Some of his neighbors and family members thought for a time that he was lazy, always intent on “reading, scribbling, writing poetry, and inventing riddles”; They believed that he did it solely to avoid the heaviest manual labor. Even the new stepmother was led to recognize that he was not suitable for physical labor, preferring him by far to study and read.

Lincoln was largely self-taught. Its formal education by several itinerant teachers was intermittent and remained very incomplete, also because its total duration could have corresponded yes and no to that of a single normal school year; however, he remained an avid reader and maintained a lifelong interest in learning.

Family, neighbors and early schoolmates remembered that Abraham read and reread, among others, the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables,  the works of John Bunyan (primarily The Christian’s Pilgrimage),  Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Weems’ Life of Washington,  and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

As he grew older, however, he began to take on the responsibilities expected of him as a “boy of the house”. He also respected the customary filial obligation to always hand over to his father all possible earnings from work occasionally carried out outside the home, until he turned 21. Abraham became over time very skilled in the use of the axe. Decidedly tall for his age, he also found himself strong and athletic; he gained a reputation for strength and boldness following a fight challenge fought with the recognized leader of a group of local thugs known as “Clary’s Grove boys”.

In early March 1830, partly out of fear of an epidemic of infected milk spreading along the Ohio River, several family members moved west to Illinois, a slave-free state; they will stop in Macon County, 16 km west of Decatur. Historians do not agree on who started this umpteenth move; Thomas would have had no obvious reason to leave Indiana suddenly, while one possibility is that other family members, including Dennis Hanks, could not have achieved Thomas’s stability and steady income.

After this last move, Abraham began to distance himself more and more from his father, partly due to his lack of education; Occasionally he also had to lend him money. When Thomas and other family members prepared to settle on a new farm (now the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site) in Coles County in 1831, Abraham was old enough to make his own decisions.

Becoming independent, he traveled along the Sangamon River and ended up in the village of New Salem (now “Lincoln’s New Salem”) in Sangamon County (now Menard County). Later in the spring, merchant Denton Offutt hired him and some of his friends to transport goods by boat to New Orleans via the Sangamon River, Illinois, and the Mississippi River. After arriving there and witnessing slavery firsthand, he turned back and remained there for the next six years.

Marriage and children

According to some sources, Abraham’s first interest (or romantic love) was in Ann Rutledge, whom he first met after he moved to New Salem; These same sources would indicate that the two were already having an affair in 1835, although not yet formally engaged. The girl died at the age of 22 on August 25, 1835, most likely of typhoid fever.

In the early 1830s, Abraham had met Mary Owens when she visited her sister from her native Kentucky. Toward the end of 1836, he agreed to meet the young woman as soon as she returned to New Salem; in November he courted her for a short time; Both, however, had doubts. On August 16 of the following year, Abraham wrote her a letter suggesting that he would not blame her if she decided to end the relationship; She never got an answer and the courtship ended abruptly.

In 1840 he became engaged to the future Mary Todd Lincoln, from a wealthy family of slavers in Lexington, Kentucky; they had met in Springfield, Illinois the previous December. They got engaged exactly twelve months later. The marriage, scheduled for January 1, 1841, was abruptly canceled after the two broke off the relationship on Abraham’s initiative. Later they met again at a party: finally, they were married on November 4, 1842, in the villa of her sister, already married.

As he was preparing for the wedding, Abraham again felt anxious, so much so that, when asked where he was going, he was heard replying with: “To hell, I guess!” In 1844 the couple bought a house (now a historic site) near his law firm. Mary took care of the house, often with the help of a relative or a young maid by the hour.

Abraham proved to be a loving husband and father, though often absent; He had four children:

  • Robert Todd Lincoln, Springfield, August 1, 1843 – Manchester, Vermont, July 26, 1926;
  • Edward Baker Lincoln, Springfield, 10 March 1846 – Springfield, 1 February 1850, who died most likely of tuberculosis;
  • William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, Springfield, December 21, 1850 – Washington, February 20, 1862, died of typhoid fever;
  • Thomas “Tad” Lincoln III, Springfield, April 4, 1853 – Chicago, July 15, 1871, apparently died of a heart attack.

Robert was the only one to reach maturity and to have children himself; He died at almost 83 years of age. The last descendant of the president, great-grandson Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in 1985. Lincoln today has no living heirs.

Abraham seems to have been “remarkably affectionate with children” and the Lincolns were never considered overly harsh towards them. The premature death of three of their children caused profound effects on both parents; many years later Mary suffered greatly following the tragic end of her husband, to such an extent that Robert had to have her temporarily admitted to an asylum in 1875. Abraham suffered his entire life from chronic “melancholy,” a condition that is now called a depressive disorder.

Abraham’s father-in-law and others of the Todd family were either slave owners or traders; Lincoln remained on good terms with his wife’s relatives and continued to visit their estate occasionally. During her presidential term, Mary was recognized as having a particular culinary ability; these skills satisfied the tastes of Abraham, an avid taster of imported oysters.

Early career and service in the Illinois militia

In 1832, he and a partner bought a small general store in New Salem on credit. Although the economy in the region was booming, business struggled and Abraham eventually found himself forced to sell his share. In March of the same year, he began his political career, with the first election campaign for the Illinois General Assembly, advocating the development and improvement of Sangamon navigation; He was able to interest the public in his speeches thanks to his sense of humor, but he lacked formal education, powerful friends and above all money, and failed to get elected.

During the election campaign, he had to serve as a captain in the state militia during the Black Hawk War against the Sauks; He later recounted that he had to defend a Native American from his own subordinates. On his return, he continued the campaign until 6 August. 1 meter and 93 centimeters tall, he was “imposing enough to intimidate any rival who stood in front of him”; During his first public debate, he saw one of his supporters attacked in the crowded crowd and went to grab the assailant by the neck, throwing him to the ground. He finished eighth out of 13 candidates (including the first four elected), although he received 277 votes out of the country’s total of 300 voters.

He was head of the local post office and later county inspector; meanwhile, he spent all his free time reading voraciously. Lincoln decided to become a lawyer and began studying law with William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and other legal texts. Regarding his own method of learning, he stated: “I studied with no one! ” His second election campaign in 1834 was victorious; the candidate of the Whig Party, beat another more prominent Whig exponent.

He was re-elected three more times, serving four successive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, representing Sangamon County. He supported the construction of the canal between Illinois and Michigan, of which he would later become commissioner. In the 1835-36 legislative session, he voted in favor of extending voting rights to all white males, whether landowners or not. He was known to have positions relatively close to those of the Free Soil Party, in opposition to both the proponents of slavery and the more radical abolitionists. In 1837, he declared: “The institution of slavery is based on both injustice and bad politics, but the promulgation of the doctrines of abolition tends to increase rather than mitigate its evils.” Like Henry Clay, he supported the American Colonization Society, which advocated the abolition of slavery and the simultaneous aid of freed slaves to settle in Liberia.

He began working as a lawyer in court in 1836 and moved to Springfield, Illinois; he practiced for John Todd Stuart, cousin of Mary Todd. He became a capable and successful lawyer, with a reputation as a great fighter in trials, cross-examinations and concluding harangues. From 1841 to 1844 he also collaborated with Stephen Trigg Logan; he then practiced with William Henry Herndon (who was ten years younger), whom Abraham considered a “young and serious scholar”.

House of Representatives: 1847-1849

From the early 1830s, he was a militant Whig and in 1861 he told friends that he was “a Whig of the old guard, a disciple of Henry Clay”. The party was in favor of the economic modernization of the country especially in the banking sector, but also through the assumption of protectionist customs duties to finance infrastructure, the railway network and urbanization.

In 1843 he sought the nomination of his Whig party in the seventh state district of the House of Representatives, but was defeated by John Jay Hardin; however, he obtained that Hardin would not be reappointed at the end of his term. This allowed him to be the party’s candidate in 1846 and to be elected for a two-year term. He was the only Whig representative on the Illinois delegation, but he showed his loyalty to the party’s leadership by participating in almost every vote and delivering speeches reiterating the official line. In collaboration with abolitionist Congressman Joshua Reed Giddings, he signed a bill that would abolish slavery in Washington with compensation to former owners, strengthen enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and call for a referendum on the issue. However, he had to abandon the bill when he lacked the support of other Whig MPs.

On foreign and military policy he expressed a negative judgment of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, which he attributed mainly to President James Knox Polk’s desire for “military glory”: “that attractive rainbow born of a rain of blood.” He also supported the “Wilmot Condition” (named after its proponent David Wilmot) which, if adopted, would prohibit slavery in any Mexican territory conquered by the Union. The war had begun following the killing of some U.S. soldiers by Mexican soldiers; Polk insisted that the Mexican military “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow citizens on our soil“.

Lincoln asked the president to show the exact spot where it was poured and to prove that the spot was indeed U.S. soil: “all just to make the assembly better educated!” These requests became known as spot resolutions. They were never considered by Congress, nor did the press mention them, and caused him to lose political support in his own district. An Illinois newspaper dubbed him “Spotty Lincoln.” Later he had occasion to regret some statements, in particular the attack on presidential powers in times of war.

Realizing that Clay was unlikely to win the presidency, Lincoln, who had promised to serve a single term, supported General Zachary Taylor for the Whig nomination in the 1848 presidential election; when Taylor was elected, he hoped to be appointed commissioner of the “General Land Office” (one of the independent agencies of Zachary Taylor’s presidency), but, thanks to cross-recommendations, the position went to state rival Justin Butterfield (considered by the new administration a very experienced lawyer, while for Abraham he was nothing more than an “old fossil”). As a consolation prize he was offered the governorship of Oregon Territory, a distant and solid bastion of the Democrats; accepting the role would spell the end of his legal and political career in Illinois, so he declined the invitation and returned to the bar profession.

Legal Activity

Returning to work as a lawyer in Springfield, dealing with “every kind of activity that could have happened to a prairie lawyer”, he demonstrated his skill as an orator, so much so that during his trials people flocked to listen to him; He made himself understood by everyone thanks to his simple language. He managed to win a case concerning a fraud in the horse trade: the victory came with irony against the prosecutor, who had put his shirt upside down, managing to discourage him until he could achieve full success.

Twice a year, for 16 years, he presented himself for a period of ten consecutive weeks in the county courts; He handled many cases involving transport conflicts, both river and rail during westward expansion, particularly those arising from river barge operations under the many new railway bridges. Initially, he was the “riverboat man”, but in the end he represented anyone who wanted to hire him. He later represented a bridge construction company against a riverboat company (the Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Co.), in one borderline case involving a boat sunk after hitting a bridge.

In 1849 he received a patent for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow water. The idea was never commercialized, but he was the only president in history to have held a patent for his own invention.

In 1851 he represented the Alton & Sangamon Railroad of Chicago in a dispute against one of its shareholders, James A. Barret, who had refused to pay the balance arising from his promise to purchase shares in the railroad on the grounds that the company had altered the original route of the railroad. He successfully argued that the company was not bound by statute to the original route at the time of the promise made; It could well have been modified in the public interest to provide a new, better and cheaper path. The company obtained the right to demand payment due. The decision made by the Illinois Supreme Court was cited by numerous other courts in the nation.

Lincoln appeared before the state Supreme Court in 175 trials; He was the only defender in 51 and of these, he won 31.

From 1853 to 1860 another of his major customers was the Illinois Central Railroad. In a tax exemption lawsuit, McLean County argued that the state did not have the authority to grant such an exemption and wanted to tax the company anyway. In January 1856, the Court decided to uphold the favorable opinion, agreeing with Lincoln’s arguments. His reputation with customers gave rise to his nickname “Honest Abe”.

The most notable criminal law trial occurred in 1858, when he assumed the defense of William “Duff” Armstrong, tried for the murder of James Preston Metzker. The case is famous for Lincoln’s use of a fact of judicial evidence to challenge the credibility of an eyewitness. After he testified that he witnessed the event thanks to the moonlight, Lincoln brought to the courtroom a farmers’ almanac (Farmers’ Almanac) with which he irrefutably demonstrated that the moon was – at the time of the crime – at a low angle, thus drastically reducing visibility. On the basis of this evidence, Armstrong was acquitted.

Very rarely did he raise objections in the courtroom; but in an 1859 case where he defended a cousin, Peachy Quinn Harrison, accused of stabbing a rival to death, Lincoln angrily protested the judge’s decision to exclude some favorable evidence for his client. Instead of accusing him of “contempt of court,” as might have been expected, the magistrate, a Democrat, changed his decision, admitting the evidence; Lincoln’s client was later acquitted.

Republican politician: 1854–1860

Birth of a leader

The bitter debate over whether slavery is permissible in the Western territories exacerbated pre-existing regionalist tensions between the Southern and Northern states; The “Compromise of 1850” failed to defuse the problem. In the years immediately following 1850 Lincoln supported efforts to mediate on the issue, and his eulogy of Henry Clay focused on his support for progressive emancipation and opposition to both extremes.

The dispute over Nebraska Territory and Kansas Territory began to be bitter; Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed the “principle of popular sovereignty” as a measure that could bring the parties closer together. The hypothesis would have taken the issue out of the hands of Congress, leaving the citizens with the right to vote of each territory to be able to choose for themselves whether to live in a free state or slave. The project, however, met with opposition from many Northerners, who hoped to stop the spread of slavery in the territories using only federal laws; despite this opposition, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, drafted by Douglas, was passed, albeit by a very narrow margin, in May 1854. It effectively repealed the limits on slavery contained in the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820.

In the months immediately following, Lincoln made no public comment on the new law. On October 16, however, in the “Peoria speech” he openly declared his opposition, which he continued to repeat several times in the years preceding his election as president; speaking with his recognizable Kentucky accent and powerful voice, he declared that the Kansas-Nebraska law was impartial (as stated by its author) only superficially, but in reality “contains a real hidden zeal for the spread of slavery. I can’t help but hate her. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.

I hate it for depriving our Republican example of its positive influence on the world… These strong attacks marked his return to political life almost full-time. Nationally, the Whig members were deeply divided, and other attempts at compromise quickly failed; Reflecting on the end of the party, Lincoln wrote in 1855: “I think I am a Whig, but others say that there are no more Whigs and that I am an abolitionist… I do nothing but oppose the extension of slavery.”

Drawing on the anti-slavery current of the Whigs and gathering former members of the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party and some anti-slavery members of the Democrats, the fledgling Republican Party was formed in 1854 as an essentially northern and abolitionist political force. Lincoln resisted early attempts to recruit him, fearing it would serve as a springboard for extremist abolitionists; for a short time, he hoped to revive the Whigs, although he did not fail to complain about his growing closeness to the nativist and anti-immigrant movement Know Nothing.

In 1854 he was again chosen to serve in the state legislature but declined to take office. Elections that year showed strong opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act; at this point Lincoln sought the nomination of senator in Congress. At that time senators were chosen by the state parliament. After leading in the first six votes, without obtaining the necessary qualified majority, he instructed his supporters to opt for Lyman Trumbull. The latter, an anti-slavery Democrat, had received few votes in previous votes; those who supported him, even non-Democrats, had promised not to vote for any Whigs. Lincoln’s decision to withdraw allowed former Whigs to converge with anti-slavery Democrats, defeating the favored Democratic candidate, Illinois Governor Joel Aldrich Matteson.

Continued violent political clashes in Kansas (the “bleeding Kansas”) kept opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act strong in Illinois and throughout the North. As the 1856 presidential election approached, Lincoln left the now-defunct Whig Party and joined the Republicans. He attended the Bloomington convention in May of that year, which formally established the Illinois Republican Party. The political program stated that Congress had full rights to regulate slavery in the territories and demanded the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state. Lincoln delivered the final speech, in which he supported the party’s program, but also asked to do everything to preserve the unity of the nation.

At the national convention of June 1856, he received significant support in voting for the nomination as vice-presidential candidate, although in the end the two nominated candidates were John Charles Frémont and William Lewis Dayton. Lincoln strongly supported them, campaigning fiercely for the party throughout his state. The Democrats instead nominated former ambassador James Buchanan, who had been out of the country since 1853 and had thus avoided debate over slavery in the territories, while the “Know Nothing” chose former Whig President Millard Fillmore.

In the November election, Buchanan defeated both of his challengers, but Frémont won several northern states and Republican William Henry Bissell won as governor of Illinois; Lincoln found himself the undisputed leader of the Illinois Republicans.

Historian Eric Foner (2010) contrasts the abolitionists and anti-slavery Radical Republicans of the Northeast, who viewed slavery as a moral sin, against conservative Republicans, who thought it was bad because it ended up harming whites themselves and blocking progress and economic development. Foner argues that Lincoln was a moderate centrist, opposing slavery primarily because it violated the principles of republicanism instilled by the Founding Fathers, particularly the equality of all men and democratic self-government as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

In March 1857, just two days after James Buchanan’s inauguration of the presidency, the Supreme Court ruled Dred Scott v. Sandford; Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney stated that blacks could under no circumstances be considered citizens and therefore did not possess any of the rights granted by the United States Constitution. While many Democrats hoped that Dred Scott’s case would end the slavery dispute in the territories, the ruling provoked a further wave of outrage in the North. Lincoln asserted that the ruling was the product of a Democratic conspiracy to favor “slave power”:

“The authors of the Declaration of Independence never meant to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social ability, but,” rather, regarded all created men as equal and possessed in principle equal inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Lincoln-Douglas debates and Cooper Union speech

Stephen A. Douglas was ready to be reappointed senator from Illinois in 1858, but Lincoln hoped he could defeat the powerful Democrat of his own state. Many in the Republican Party believed that a former Whig should be appointed in 1858; the fact that Lincoln had worked on Trumbull’s behalf during the 1856 campaign earned him some credit.

Some Eastern Republicans favored Douglas’ renomination, thanks to his opposition to the “Lecompton Constitution,” written by the Kansas slave legislature, but many Illinois Republicans perceived this as interference. For the first time, Illinois Republicans called a convention to find a common candidate; Lincoln won the Party nomination, without much opposition. At the time of acceptance, he pronounced the famous “Discourse of the House Divided”, drawing on the words of the Gospel according to Mark 3:25: “A house divided against itself cannot stand, I believe that this government cannot permanently resist half slave and half free, I do not expect the Union to dissolve. I don’t expect the house to collapse, but I do expect it to cease to be divided: it will become one thing or another“.

The speech had the strength to evoke an image of the danger of disunity caused by the debate on slavery and had the ability to unite all the Republicans of the North. Attention was focused on the state legislature, which would have to choose Lincoln or Douglas as senator. Upon informing of Lincoln’s appointment, his opponent declared: “He is the strong man of his Party… And if I defeat him, my victory will certainly be stunted.”

During the campaign, the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates took place, which would remain the most famous political clashes in the entire history of the United States. The contenders represented a sharp contrast both physically and politically; Lincoln warned that “slave power” was threatening the values of Republicanism and accused Douglas of falsifying the values of the Founding Fathers who explicitly asserted that all men were created equal. Douglas, for his part, emphasized his “Freeport doctrine”, according to which local settlers should remain free to choose whether or not to allow slavery: he accused Lincoln of siding with the most fanatical abolitionists.

The debates took on an almost competitive air and attracted crowds of thousands. Lincoln claimed that Douglas’ theory of the principle of popular sovereignty posed a threat to the very morality of the nation, a veritable conspiracy to extend slavery into the free states. He countered that the challenger was openly challenging the authority of the Supreme Court and its legitimate ruling in the “Dred Scott v. Sandford” case.

Although Republican candidates for the state legislature garnered a majority of popular votes, Democrats won more seats; therefore, Douglas could be re-elected. Despite the defeat, Lincoln’s ability to articulate problems on the field gave him his final national political stature.

In May 1859 he purchased the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, a German-language newspaper that played a substantial supporting role; most of the state’s 130,000 German Americans voted Democratic, but a newspaper specifically aimed at their community could trigger a moderate mobilization in favor of the Republicans.

In the aftermath of the election, major newspapers began citing Lincoln as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 1860, with William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Simon Cameron looming as rivals for the nomination. While he remained very popular in the midwestern United States, he still lacked decisive support in the northeastern United States; he, therefore, remained in doubt whether he should run for the presidency immediately. In January, he finally declared to a group of political allies that he would accept the nomination, if offered; in the following months, several local newspapers openly sided with Lincoln.

On February 27, New York party leaders invited him to give a speech at the newly opened The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Lincoln argued that the “Founding Fathers” had little to do with supposed “popular sovereignty” and had instead repeatedly sought to limit slavery; He also insisted that the moral foundations of the Republicans called for opposition to slavery and rejected any “attempt to seek a compromise between what is right and what is irretrievably wrong.” Despite his inelegant appearance – many in the audience considered him embarrassing and even ugly – Lincoln demonstrated an intellectual leadership that launched him into the top positions in influence within the party and in the running for the presidential nomination. Journalist Noah Brooks reported, “No man has ever made such an impression in his first appeal to a New York audience.”

Historian David Herbert Donald called the rally a “superb political move by an unannounced candidate, to appear in the same state as a potential rival (Seward) at an event sponsored by the faithful of the second rival (Chase), without mentioning either by name throughout the speech.” In response to an inquiry into his presidential intentions, Lincoln declared, “The taste is already a little bit in my mouth.”

Nomination and election campaign of 1860

“I know of nothing greater or better exercise or more positive test than the past, the triumphant result of faith in humanity, than a well-fought national election in America.”
Walt Whitman

On May 9–10, 1860, the Republican Convention was held in Decatur, Illinois. Lincoln’s followers organized an electoral committee led by David Davis, Norman Blue Judd, Leonard Swett and Jesse Kilgore Dubois; Lincoln received the first public support to run for president. Taking advantage of the embellished legend of his frontier days with his father (deforesting plots and splitting wood to make planks, rails, fences) his supporters adopted the motto “The Rail Candidate”. He described himself thus: “I am about six feet four inches (193 cm), of slender build, with an average weight of one hundred eighty pounds (80 kg), dark complexion, with frizzy black hair and gray eyes.”

On May 18, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, friends managed – thanks to improper promises – to get him the nomination already on the third ballot, beating candidates like Seward and Chase. A former Democrat, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, was joined as a vice presidential candidate, as a balancing act. The success depended largely on his reputation as a moderate on the slave issue, his strong support for infrastructure investment programs and tariffs. The Pennsylvania delegates were decisive, linked to the interests of that state’s iron industry and attracted by the prospect of high tariffs. Lincoln activists had focused on this delegation, trying to stick to Lincoln’s demand “not to enter into electoral agreements that are a constraint.”

Most Republicans agreed with Lincoln that the North was penalized by “slave power,” which increasingly influenced the national government and the presidency of James Buchanan. Throughout the 1850s Lincoln doubted that there was the possibility of civil war, and his supporters rejected the suggestion that his election would incite secession.

Douglas was chosen as the candidate of the Northern Democrats. Delegates from eleven slave states left the Democratic Convention, disagreeing with its position on popular sovereignty, and eventually selected incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge as their nominee. Finally, a group of former Whigs and Know Nothing formed the Constitutional Union Party and appointed John Bell of Tennessee. Lincoln and Douglas would compete for votes in the North, while Bell and Breckinridge found support primarily in the South.

Even before the Republican Convention, Lincoln’s campaign committee began to forge relationships with a national youth organization, Wide Awakes, and used it to generate popular support across the country for voter registrations, assuming that new and younger voters tended to vote for a new party. In addition, many in the North began to support Lincoln, as they believed that the South would definitely vote against him.

While Douglas and the other candidates began their campaigns, Lincoln remained the only one not to give public speeches, relying on the enthusiasm of party volunteers. The result of their door-to-door work produced substantial majorities throughout the North and an abundance of advertising posters, leaflets and newspaper editorials. Republicans focused on the party’s program and Lincoln’s life story, emphasizing the poverty he endured as a child. The goal was to demonstrate the superior power of “free labor,” whereby any peasant boy could reach the top by his own efforts. The number of newspapers favorable to the Republicans was much greater than all rivals; an author in the Chicago Tribune published a pamphlet detailing Lincoln’s life, selling 100 to 200,000 copies.

Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

Elections of 1860 and secession

In 1860 Northern and Western electoral votes (shown in red) led Lincoln to the White House
In 1860 Northern and Western electoral votes (shown in red) led Lincoln to the White House

On November 6, Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States, defeating Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell. he was the first member of the Republican Party to enter the office. His victory was due entirely to the strong support won in the North and West; it was not on the ballot papers in ten of the fifteen slave states and in the others it came first only in two of the 996 southern counties. He received 1,866,452 votes, against Douglas’s 1,376,957, Breckinridge’s 849,781 and Bell’s 588,789. Voter turnout was 82.2%. Lincoln won the Northern Free States, California, and Oregon. Douglas won only in Missouri, while he gathered some of New Jersey’s electors, while the others went to Lincoln. Bell won in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky; Breckinridge triumphed in the rest of the South.

Although he garnered only a relative majority of popular votes, his victory in the electoral college was clear: Lincoln had 180 at-large electors, while his combined opponents had only 123. Lincoln’s opponents coalesced in New York State, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, but Lincoln won in the top three and took some big voters in the fourth. Even if the same coalition had run in all the states, on the basis of the popular votes cast, Lincoln would still have won a majority of electors.

When it became apparent that Lincoln had won, the secessionists made clear their intention to leave the Union even before he took office on March 4. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina took the initiative, adopting an ordinance of secession; Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed on February 1, 1861. Six of these states adopted an autonomous constitution and declared themselves a sovereign nation, the Confederate States of America.

The upper Southern and border states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas), which would become the so-called buffer states in the Civil War, initially rejected the call. Outgoing President James Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln categorically refused to recognize the new political entity, declaring secession illegal. The Confederation chose Jefferson Davis as interim president on February 9. There were attempts at mediation. The “Crittenden Compromise” (named after John Jordan Crittenden) proposed to extend the line marked by the “Missouri Compromise” by dividing the territories into slaveholders and free, but was opposed by Lincoln and the Republican Party, because it was contrary to their electoral program against the extension of slavery. Lincoln said, “I will die before I consent… to any concession or compromise which appears to acquire the privilege of taking control of this government, to which we are entitled under the Constitution.”

However, he seemed to tacitly consent to the proposed “Corwin Amendment” (named after its author Thomas Corwin), which was passed by Congress before he took office and awaited ratification by the states. Such a project would protect slavery in states where it already existed, as well as ensure that Congress would not interfere without the express consent of the South. A few weeks before the war, the president sent a letter to all governors informing them that Congress had passed a resolution to amend the Constitution. He, therefore, seemed to remain open to the possibility of a constitutional convention to make changes.

In the run-up to his inauguration, he gave speeches in public and in parliaments throughout the North; he also avoided a planned bombing in Baltimore, which was discovered by his head of security, Detective Allan Pinkerton. On February 23, she arrived secretly and in disguise in Washington, which was immediately placed under the protection of a considerable military garrison.

Lincoln addressed the South in his inaugural address, proclaiming once again that he had no inclination to abolish slavery in the Southern states:

“There seems to be some apprehension among the people of the South that with the arrival of a republican administration, their property and their personal peace and security will be endangered; but in reality, there was never any reasonable reason to have such concern. In fact, the most extensive evidence to the contrary has always existed and has always been available to control them. It can be found in almost all the published speeches of the one who now addresses you. I am merely quoting one of those speeches when I declare that “I have no intention, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where slavery exists. I don’t think I have any legal right to do that, and I don’t have any inclination to do so either.”
First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

The president concluded with a heartfelt appeal: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies… Although passion can be strong, it does not have to break our bonds of affection. The mystical agreements of memory, which come from every battlefield and patriotic grave, every living heart and hearthstone – throughout this vast land – will continue to swell the chorus of the Union, when they are still touched, surely will be, by the best angels of our nature“.

The failure of the “Peace Conference” held at the “Willard InterContinental Washington” signaled that compromise was impossible. It was March 1861 and no leader of the insurrection had proposed to join the Union in any form. Meanwhile, Lincoln and the Republican leadership agreed that the dismantling of the Union could not be tolerated. The president returned to these moments on the occasion of the inaugural address of his second presidency, as the war was drawing to a close:

“Both sides deprecated war, but one of them would do it rather than allow the nation to survive, while the other would accept it rather than let it die; So in the end the war came.”

Civil war

The commander of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Major Robert Anderson, sent a request for supplies; Lincoln’s order to comply with this demand was seen by secessionists as an act of war. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union Army troops barricaded inside the fort, forcing them to surrender: the American Civil War had begun.

Historian Allan Nevins argued that the new president made three miscalculations: overestimating the strength of unionist sentiment in the South, underestimating the severity of the crisis, and not realizing that Southern Unionists were opposed to invasion by the North.

William Tecumseh Sherman spoke with Lincoln during the week following the inauguration and was “sadly disappointed” that Lincoln had not realized that “the country was sleeping on a volcano” and that the South was preparing for war. Historian David Herbert Donald concludes that “his repeated efforts to avoid collision in the months between the inauguration and commencement of hostilities at the Fort clearly demonstrated that he remained consistent with his promise not to be the first to shed fraternal blood, but had also promised not to abandon the forts. The only solution to these contradictory positions was for the Confederates to fire the first shot: and they did just that.”

On April 15, Lincoln invited all states of the Union to send detachments, totaling 75,000 troops, to recapture the fortifications, protect the federal capital, and “preserve the integrity of the country,” which, in his view, was still intact despite the actions of the secessionist states. This call to arms forced states to definitively choose sides. Virginia declared its secession and for this reason was rewarded by the Confederacy, making Richmond the Confederate capital, despite its exposed position, so close to the front lines. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas also voted to secede in the next two months.

Separatist sentiment also remained strong in Missouri and Maryland, but failed to prevail; Kentucky remained neutral. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter pushed all states north of the Mason-Dixon line to defend the nation. A. Nevins states: “The bombardment of Fort Sumter produced a surprising crystallization of Northern sentiment… A collective anger swept through the entire North. From all sides came news of mass meetings, speeches, resolutions, offers of financial support, the formation of companies and regiments, the decisive action of governors and parliaments all siding with Lincoln”.

The Union States began to march their regiments south. On April 19, in Baltimore, a mob in control of the railroad links attacked Union troops who were changing trains; Groups led by local leaders later burned railway bridges to the capital. The Union Army responded by having Maryland’s top local officials arrested and imposing martial law. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in all areas where the army felt the need to do so, to ensure that troops reached Washington unharmed. John Merryman, a Maryland official engaged in obstructing the movement of Northern troops, petitioned Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney to  request habeas corpus,  and in June the latter, acting as a district justice, approved the request, as in his opinion only Congress could suspend the law. Lincoln, however, maintained his position of suspension in limited areas.

Union military strategy

After the Battle of Fort Sumter, Lincoln took executive control of the war and established the Union’s military strategy; He responded to an unprecedented political and military crisis by adopting unprecedented powers as a true commander-in-chief. He extended his powers in warfare, ordered a naval blockade of all Confederate seaports, allocated funds even before congressional approval, suspended habeas corpus, and had thousands of suspected Southern sympathizers arrested and imprisoned without trial. For these actions, the president won the support of Congress and public opinion in the North; He also had to strengthen Union sympathies in the buffer states in the American Civil War and prevented the war from becoming international.

From the outset, it was clear that having the support of all parties would be essential to ultimate success and that any compromise provoked discontent on either side of the political spectrum, such as the nomination of a Republican or a Democrat to a military command post. The “Copperheads” attacked him for refusing to compromise on slavery; on the contrary, the most radical Republicans accused him of moving too slowly for its abolition. On August 6, 1861, he signed the confiscation deed authorizing judicial attorneys to first capture and release all slaves that were used to support the Confederate war effort. In practice, the law had limited impact but indicated political support for abolitionism.

At the end of August, General John Charles Frémont, the Republican Party’s first candidate in the 1856 presidential election, without consulting his superiors, issued a proclamation instituting martial law in Missouri; It declared that any private citizen found carrying weapons could be court-martialed and be shot, and that the slaves of those who aided the rebellion would be freed. Frémont was already accused of negligence in his command of the department of West, aggravated by suspicions of fraud and corruption. Lincoln annulled the proclamation, deeming it eminently political in nature, devoid of military necessity. After this presidential action, Union enlistments from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri increased by more than 40,000.

In foreign policy, Lincoln’s main objective was to stop foreign military aid to the Confederacy. He relied on his Secretary of State William H. Seward and worked closely with Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The diplomatic incident known as the “Trent Affair”, which broke out in late 1861, threatened to involve Britain in the war. The Union Navy had illegally intercepted a British mail ship, the “Trent”, on the high seas and seized two Confederate envoys; the United Kingdom protested vehemently, while the whole North applauded. Lincoln managed to end the crisis by releasing the two diplomats. Biographer James Garfield Randall analyzed the techniques of Lincoln’s success:

“His restraint, his ability to avoid any outward expression of truculence, his swift action to soften the State Department toward Britain, his deference to Seward and Sumner, his suspension of his own document prepared for the occasion, his readiness to arbitrate, his golden silence in confronting Congress, his cunning in recognizing that war must be avoided, and his clear perception that it could be won.  a point in favor of America’s position and at the same time to grant full satisfaction to a friendly country.”

The president scrupulously controlled the telegraph reports that came to the War Department; He kept a close eye on all phases of the military effort, consulting with governors and personally selecting generals based on their past success (as well as their state and party).

In January 1862, after many complaints about inefficiency and profiteering within the War Department itself, he replaced Simon Cameron with Edwin McMasters Stanton as Secretary of War. He centralized the ministry’s activities, controlling and canceling contracts, saving the federal government over $17 million; he was a staunchly unionist, pro-business conservative Democrat who shifted to radical Republicans. He was the senior official who worked most often and most closely with Lincoln: “Stanton and Lincoln virtually waged the war together.”

In terms of war strategy, Lincoln articulated two priorities: ensuring that Washington was well-defended and leading an aggressive military effort for a quick and decisive victory; the main editors of Northern newspapers expected the decisive victory within ninety days. Twice a week the president met with his cabinet in the afternoon. Sometimes his wife Mary, worried that he was working too hard, would convince him to take a carriage ride. Lincoln learned much from reading the theoretical book of his chief of staff, General Henry Halleck, a disciple of European strategist Antoine de Jomini. He began to appreciate the critical need to control strategic points, such as the Mississippi River; he saw the strategic importance of the city of Vicksburg and understood the need to definitively defeat the enemy army, rather than provisionally conquer its territory.

General McClellan

After the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major open battle of the Civil War, and the retirement of the aging Winfield Scott in late 1861, the president appointed young General George McClellan as commanding general of the U.S. Army. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, railroad executive, and Democrat of Pennsylvania, he spent several months planning his Peninsula campaign, much longer than Lincoln had wished.

The goal was to capture Richmond, transferring the Army of the Potomac by boat to southeastern Virginia and then overland to the Confederate capital. McClellan’s repeated delays and his argument that troops were not needed to defend Washington succeeded in irritating both Lincoln and Congress. The president insisted on keeping some units always ready to defend the capital; McClellan, who consistently overestimated the strength of Confederate troops, blamed the latter decision for the eventual failure of the entire campaign. Lincoln removed McClellan in March 1862, after he offered unsolicited political advice to the president in a letter of his own, urging him to exercise extreme caution. The office remained vacant until July when Henry Halleck was appointed. John Pope was called to command the new Army of Virginia; he respected Lincoln’s desired strategy of moving northward to Richmond, thus protecting the capital from an attack from the South.

However, lacking reinforcements as requested by McClellan Pope, he was heavily defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862, forcing McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to defend Washington for the second time. Despite dissatisfaction with McClellan’s inability to support Pope, Lincoln reappointed him to command all the forces encamped around Washington, to the dismay of all members of his government, primarily W. H. Seward.

Just two days after McClellan’s return to command, Confederate troops under General Robert Edward Lee crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, leading to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. The subsequent Union victory was among the bloodiest in American history, but it finally gave the president the opportunity to announce that he would issue an “emancipation proclamation” in January; Lincoln had been writing for some time to publish it, so as to avoid it being perceived as the product of despair.

McClellan resisted the president’s call to pursue Lee’s retreating army, while his counterpart Don Carlos Buell also refused orders to hurl the Army of Ohio against rebel forces in eastern Tennessee; As a result, Lincoln replaced Buell with William Starke Rosecrans and, after the 1862 midterm election, chose Ambrose Burnside over McClellan. Both appointments were politically neutral and therefore better accepted.

Burnside, against the president’s advice, prematurely launched an offensive across the Rappahannock River and was defeated by Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. Desertions in 1863 numbered in the thousands and increased even more after Fredericksburg. Lincoln then appointed Joseph Hooker, despite making statements about the need for a dictatorship to win the war. The midterm elections of 1862 saw Republicans suffer heavy losses, due to dissatisfaction with the failure to end the war quickly, as well as rising inflation, new tax increases, persistent rumors of corruption, the suspension of habeas corpus, the bill on conscription, and finally also the fear that freed slaves might end up threatening the labor market.

The proclamation announced in September brought votes for Republicans in rural New England and the upper Midwestern United States, but contributed to losing votes in cities and the lower Midwest. While Republicans were discouraged, Democrats were stimulated and did particularly well in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and New York State. The Republicans retained majorities in Congress and in the major states except New York. The Cincinnati Gazette argued that voters were “depressed by the interminable nature of this war, as it had hitherto been waged, as well as by the rapid depletion of national resources without any appreciable progress in return.”

Union soldiers on the banks of the Rappahannock River just before the Second Battle of Fredericksburg (May 3, 1863)
Union soldiers on the banks of the Rappahannock River just before the Second Battle of Fredericksburg (May 3, 1863)

In the spring of 1863, Lincoln was optimistic about the coming military campaigns, believing that the end of the war was near if a series of victories could be achieved; these plans included Hooker’s attack on Lee north of Richmond, Rosecrans in Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant in Vicksburg, and a naval assault on Charleston. Hooker was defeated by Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, but continued to command his troops for a few more weeks. He opposed Lincoln’s order to divide his army into two sections at Harper’s Ferry, thus permanently weakening his position; when he controversially offered his resignation, Lincoln accepted it. He was replaced by George G. Meade, who pursued Lee into Pennsylvania for the Gettysburg Campaign, which was a major Union victory, although Lee’s army managed to avoid encirclement.

At the same time, after the initial setbacks, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg and the Union Navy achieved some success in Charleston Harbor. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the president understood that his military decisions would be carried out more effectively by transmitting orders to the generals through the Secretary of War or the general-in-chief, avoiding making interference in the military line of command apparent. Even with these new dispositions he often continued to provide detailed guidance to his generals.

Emancipation of slaves

The power of the federal government on the issue of slavery was limited by the Constitution, which had delegated the matter to the choices of individual states. Both before and during the presidential campaign, Lincoln argued that preventing slavery in the new territories in the West would lead to its progressive overcoming. At the beginning of the war, he also tried to persuade states to accept emancipation with monetary compensation in exchange for the prohibition of slavery. The president rejected two geographically limited attempts at emancipation, made by Maj. Gen. John Charles Frémont in August 1861 and Major General David Hunter the following May, on the grounds that this was not in their power and would test the loyalty of the buffer states.

On June 19, 1862, Congress passed a law banning slavery throughout the federal territory; Lincoln countersigned the law. In July, the Confiscation Act was passed, instituting judicial procedures to free slaves belonging to people convicted of aiding the rebels. Although the president believed it to be unconstitutional, he also countersigned this law. He presented that such an initiative could only be undertaken with the wartime powers of “commander-in-chief” and therefore planned to assume them. That same month he discussed with his ministers a draft of the “Emancipation Proclamation.” It stated that “as an appropriate and necessary military measure, beginning on January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves in the Confederate States shall become and continue to be forever free.”

In private, he admitted that the Confederacy’s slave base should have been eliminated. The Copperheads argued that emancipation would easily become an obstacle to peace and reunification. Republican Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, agreed. Lincoln wrote in a letter dated August 22 that, if he personally desired that all men could be free, the primary goal of his actions as president of the United States was to preserve the Union:

“I would save the Union. I would save it as quickly as possible in the face of the Constitution. The sooner national authority can be restored, the more similar the Union will be to the “Union that was”. If someone did not want to save the Union, without at the same time-saving slavery, I would not agree with them. If anyone did not wish to save the Union without at the same time defeating slavery, I would not agree with them. My supreme objective in this battle is to save the Union and not to end or save slavery.

If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would; And if I could save it by freeing only a few, I would do it in this case too. What I do about slavery and race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I avoid doing I avoid because I do not believe it can help save the Union. I will have to stop whenever I believe I am doing something that harms the cause and I will have to work harder whenever I believe that doing more will benefit the cause.

I will have to try to correct the errors when they prove to be errors; and I will have to adopt new views as soon as they show that they are correct views. I have supported my resolutions here in accordance with the point of view of my official obligations; and I have no intention of changing my oft-repeated personal will that all men may be free.”

In any case, at the time of writing this letter, Lincoln was already moving toward the “emancipation proclamation.” His letter to New York judge James Cook Conkling on August 26, 1863, which included the following excerpt, is revealing:

“It took more than a year and a half to suppress the rebellion before the proclamation was held, the last hundred days of which passed with the explicit awareness that it was coming, without being warned by those in revolt. The war has progressed in our favor since the proclamation was announced. I know, as far as it is possible to know the opinions of others, that some commanders of our armies in the field, who have given us the most important successes, believe in the policy of emancipation and the use of colored troops constitutes the heaviest blow to the rebellion so far; and that at least one of these important successes would never have been achievable without the decisive contribution of black soldiers.

Among the commanders who hold these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism or Republican political leanings, but support them from a purely military perspective. I confront these pertinent views with the oft-raised objections to the fact that empowering and arming blacks are unwise military choices and have not been adopted as such in good faith.

You say you will not fight to liberate the blacks. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but it doesn’t matter. Fight then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the Proclamation on purpose to help you save the Union. The moment you have won all the resistance to the Union, if I urge you to fight again, it will be a good time for you to declare that you will not fight to liberate the blacks.

I thought that in your struggle for unity, at whatever level the blacks have ceased to help the enemy, at that level they have weakened the enemy’s resistance to you. Do you think otherwise? I thought that any black who can be employed as a soldier leaves less to do for white soldiers to save the Union. Does it seem to be different? But black people, like other people, act on motives. Why should they do anything for us if we are not willing to do anything for them? If they put their lives at risk for us, they must be driven by the strongest of motives – even the promise of Freedom. And the promise made must be kept!”

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, and enacted on January 1, 1862, declared slaves free in ten states not yet under Union control, with specific exemptions for areas already controlled by the federal government in two states. Lincoln spent the hundred days between the proclamation and its entry into force preparing the army and the entire nation for the epochal turning point, while the Democrats for their part appealed to their voters, emphasizing the threat that freed slaves posed to the whites of the North; but here the proclamation did not implement radical changes, as the economic-labor system was no longer based on slavery for decades.

Once the abolition of slavery in the rebellious states became a military goal, the Union Army’s advance southward led to the liberation of three million slaves. Lincoln’s comment on the signing of the proclamation was, “I have never in my entire life felt more certain that I was doing the right thing than when I signed that document.”

For a while, the president continued to think about previous plans to establish colonies for newly freed slaves. He commented favorably on colonization in the same proclamation, but all attempts at such a massive enterprise turned out to be unfeasible. A few days after the announcement, thirteen Republican governors met at the Conference of War Governors, the Logan House Hotel in Altoona, Pennsylvania; They supported the president’s choice, but also suggested the removal of George McClellan as commanding general of the U.S. Army.

Enlisting former slaves became official government policy. In the spring of 1863, Lincoln was ready to recruit the first “black troops” in more than symbolic numbers. In a letter to Andrew Johnson, then governor of Tennessee under military control, encouraging him to pave the way for a substantial increase in black troops, Lincoln wrote: “The mere sight of 50,000 armed and well-trained black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi River would have ended the rebellion in one fell swoop.”

By the end of 1863, under Lincoln’s direction, General Lorenzo Thomas had already recruited twenty regiments of blacks from the Mississippi Valley. Frederick Douglass later observed, “In the company of the president, I never thought of my humble origin or the unpopular color of my skin.”

Despite his decisive action in the fight against slavery, his positions on the problem of different populations were far from those of perfect equality, as exemplified by his 1858 declaration:

“I am not, and have never been, in favor of any realization of social and political equality between the white and black races; There is a physical difference between the two and I believe that this will forever prevent coexistence in terms of equality. And since they cannot live together in this way, as long as they remain together there must be the upper and lower positions, and I, like everyone else, am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white race.”

Some scholars, including Stacy Pratt McDermott, warn against giving easy and erroneous interpretations of Lincoln’s vision of racial equality, noting that the above sentences are typical manifestations of the psychology of anyone at that time: no one is free from the spirit of the time, so recent cultural acquisitions cannot be used to judge men of the nineteenth century,  McDermott writes. Otherwise, if an anti-slaver like Lincoln were equated with a slaver like Stephen A. Douglas, it would be the end of history in a confusing and uniform world.

Gettysburg Speech

“[Democracy is the] government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
A. Lincoln, from the speech for the inauguration of the National Military Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863

With the great victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 and the defeat of the Copperheads in the Ohio election in the fall, Lincoln maintained a solid base of popular support and thus remained in a strong position to redefine the war effort, despite the New York riots of July 13–16, which broke out in protest against conscription. In this situation, on November 19, 1863, he gave a speech at Gettysburg Cemetery for the dedication of the cemetery to Union soldiers who died in the battle.

In defiance of his own prediction that “the world will notice little, nor will it long remember, what we say here today,” the speech would become the most quoted speech in all of U.S. political history. While the majority of speakers (such as Edward Everett) spoke at length, some for hours, the few words chosen by the president resonated across the country. While there are very few documents left relating to the other speeches delivered that day, Lincoln’s is believed to be one of the greatest ever.

In 272 words and three minutes Lincoln stated that the nation was born not in 1789, but in 1776, “conceived in Liberty and devoted to the proposition that all men are created equal”; He defined war as an effort dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality for all. Slave emancipation was now part of the national war effort. He declared that the death of so many brave soldiers would not be in vain, that slavery would end because of them and that the future of democracy in the world would be assured, that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, will never perish in this land.” The president concluded that the Civil War had a profound objective: a new birth of Liberty in the nation.

Grant arrives

The war was a source of constant frustration for the president and occupied almost all his time. After repeated disappointments with General George McClellan and other unsuccessful general commanders, Lincoln finally made the courageous decision to appoint an energetic, resolute, combative military man with a turbulent past and a career of success but also some failure: General Ulysses S. Grant.

George G. Meade’s inability to encircle Robert Edward Lee’s army as he withdrew from Gettysburg and the continued passivity of the Army of the Potomac persuaded the president that a change of leadership was necessary. Grant’s victories at the Battle of Shiloh and the Vicksburg Campaign impressed Lincoln and made him a strong candidate for the leadership of the Union Army as commanding general of the U.S. Army.

Responding to criticism of Grant after heavy losses at Shiloh, Hardin County, Lincoln declared, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!” With Grant in command, the president felt that the Union Army could carry out a series of coordinated offensives on multiple fronts, including using black troops.

Lincoln was concerned, however, that the general might consider running for president in 1864, as McClellan was already doing. Lincoln found an intermediary to investigate Grant’s political ambitions and, having obtained certainty that he had none, presented his promotion to the Senate. He obtained congressional consent to appoint Grant to the rank of lieutenant general, which no officer had held since George Washington.

Grant was thus able to undertake the bloody overland campaign in 1864, characterized as a “war of attrition” due to the Union’s high losses in various engagements, such as the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Cold Harbor. Although Confederate forces had the advantage of fighting on the defensive, they suffered “an almost as high percentage of casualties as Union forces”; these figures, however, alarmed the North. The general had lost at least a third of his army and the president, after asking him what plans he had, was told: “I propose to fight on this line even if it will take all summer”.

The Confederacy began to lack supplies and reinforcements, and Lee’s army retreated steadily after each battle with heavy casualties. Grant’s army moved south, crossed the James River, forcing opponents into siege and trench warfare just outside Petersburg. Lincoln then made an extended visit to Grant’s headquarters in City Point, occupied Virginia.

This allowed the president to confer in person with the commander and William Tecumseh Sherman, who was accidentally paying a quick visit to Grant from his post in North Carolina. Lincoln and the entire apparatus of the Republican Party mobilized to support the effort of the project of reconquest throughout the North, so that in a short time it was possible to replace almost completely the losses of the Union. The president authorized Grant to strike at Confederate infrastructure—plantations, railroads, and bridges—in hopes of destroying the South’s morale and weakening its economic ability to continue fighting. The general’s arrival at Petersburg had allowed the blockade of three railroad lines connecting Richmond with the rest of the Confederate States of America. This strategy allowed Generals Sherman and Philip Henry Sheridan to destroy plantations and entire population centers in the Shenandoah Valley.

Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia in 1864 merely caused damage in a 60-mile (97 km) strip. Neither Lincoln nor his commanders ever saw destruction as a major objective, but rather the defeat of the Confederate armies. Historian Mark E. Neely Jr. has argued that there was never an attempt to engage in “all-out war” against civilians, as would have been the case during World War II, even though the “scorched earth” tactic was used.

Confederate General Jubal Anderson Early then began a series of assaults in the North, which threatened the capital Washington. During the Battle of Fort Stevens, which took place in the northwest quadrant of Washington, the president happened to observe the fighting from a position too exposed, so much so that the young captain Oliver Wendell Holmes had to shout at him: “Get out of there immediately, you damn fool, before they shoot you! ” After repeated requests to Grant to defend the capital, Sheridan arrived with his troops and the threat was averted.

As Grant continued to wear down Lee’s remaining forces, attempts to begin peace negotiations began. Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens led a representation to meet with Lincoln, William H. Seward, and others at the Hampton Roads conference. The president, however, refused to allow any “negotiations between equals”; His only goal was an agreement to end the fighting, and the fights yielded no results.

On April 1, 1865, Grant successfully overcame Lee’s forces at the Battle of Five Forks and came to surround Petersburg almost entirely; the Confederate government evacuated Richmond. A few days later, when that city also fell, Lincoln visited the vanquished capital; He went there to make a public gesture, sitting at Jefferson Davis’ desk and symbolically telling the nation that the President of the United States again had authority over the whole territory. As he walked through the city, the white Southerners remained motionless, but the freedmen welcomed him, surrounded him, and hailed him as a true hero; their feelings were summed up by the phrase of an admirer: “I know that I am free because I have seen the face of Father Abraham and I have heard him.” On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House; The war was over.

Re-elected in 1864

In the presidential election of 1864, the nation faced one of the few campaigns in its entire history held during a war. Lincoln showed the political ability both to bring together all the major factions of the Republican Party and to bring to his side the pro-war Democrats such as Edwin McMasters Stanton and Andrew Johnson.

The president spent many hours a week talking to politicians across the country and used his funding powers to hold together the various currents of his party and reject the Radicals’ efforts to replace him. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee was chosen as the vice presidential candidate at the convention. To expand the coalition to include both the War Democrats and the Republicans, Lincoln came under the label of a new formation, called the “Union Party”.

When Ulysses S. Grant’s campaigns turned into bloody stalemates in the spring and Union casualties soared, the lack of outright military success seemed for some time to weigh on the president’s re-election prospects, and many commentators feared that Lincoln might even be defeated. Sharing this fear, Lincoln privately expressed his pledge that if he lost the election, he would still do anything to beat the Confederacy before handover to his successor:

“Even this morning, as has happened for a few past days, it seems extremely likely that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my main duty to cooperate with the President-elect to save the Union between the elections and the inauguration; for he will have won his election on grounds which he cannot ignore later.”

Lincoln did not show the contents of the written commitment to his ministers but asked all of them to sign over the sealed envelope.

The Democrats’ political program followed the party’s “peace wing” and defined the war as a complete “failure”; however, their candidate, General George McClellan, continued to advocate the continuation of the conflict to its natural end and dissociated himself from the program. Lincoln rescued Grant with more troops and with the support of the Republican Party apparatus.

William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta campaign beginning in May, the Battle of Atlanta in July, the subsequent fall of Atlanta in September, and David G. Farragut’s capture of Mobile Bay following the Battle of Mobile Bay put an end to the nervousness.

The Democrats were deeply divided, with some leaders and most soldiers openly supportive of Lincoln. On the contrary, the “National Union Party” found itself united by the president’s action in favor of emancipation. Republicans pointed out the duplicity of the Copperheads.

On November 8, Lincoln was re-elected with an overwhelming majority, winning in all but three states and receiving 78% of the soldiers’ vote at the front.

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address to history; in it he expressed the conviction that the high losses of both sides were due to God’s will. Historian Mark Noll places the discourse in the small handful of almost sacred texts through which Americans conceive their place in the world. Lincoln said:

“We sincerely hope – and pray with the utmost fervor – that this powerful scourge of war may quickly disappear. Yet, if God wants it to continue, until all the wealth accumulated by exploiting the 250 years of the unpaid labor of man in chains has not disappeared and until every drop of blood removed with the whip is repaid by another removed with the sword, as it was said 3,000 years ago so once again it must be said that “the judgments of the Lord are always true and righteous in everything”.

With malice and resentment towards no one; with charity for all; firmly in the right, as God makes us recognize what is right, let us give ourselves the impetus to finish the work in which we are; to dress the wounds of the nation; to care for him who has endured the battle and his widow and orphan – to do all that can be achieved and nurtured a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all the other nations of this vast world.”


President Abraham Lincoln in February 1865
President Abraham Lincoln in February 1865

Reconstruction began during the war, as Lincoln and his associates anticipated questions about how to reintegrate the recaptured southern United States and how to determine the fate of Confederate leaders and freed slaves. Shortly after Robert Edward Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, a general had asked Lincoln how defeated Confederates should be treated; Lincoln replied, “Leaving them alone.” In line with this sentiment, the president was the reference of the moderates, in contrast to the Radical Republicans led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senators Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade, his allies on other issues.

Determined to find an acceptable way to reunite the nation and not alienate the South, Lincoln urged elections to be held in the short term, in a manner not too severe. His proclamation of amnesty on December 8, 1863, offered pardon to all those who had not held public office in the Confederate States, had not mistreated Union prisoners, and were willing to take an oath of allegiance to the Union.

As the states of the Deep South were conquered, their new leaders had to be appointed while their administrations were restored; of particular importance were Tennessee and Arkansas, where Lincoln appointed Generals Andrew Johnson and Frederick Steele as military governors, respectively. In Louisiana, he ordered Nathaniel Banks to promote a plan to restore state autonomy when 10% of voters agreed to their state prohibiting slavery.

Democratic opponents accused the president of using the military to further his and Republicans’ political aspirations; on the other hand, radical Republicans denounced his move as too lenient and passed the Wade-Davis Bill in 1864. When Lincoln vetoed the bill, the initiators retaliated by preventing elected representatives from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee from taking office.

The presidential measures sought to hold moderate Republicans and radicals together; To replace the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the choice fell on the radical exponent Salmon Portland Chase, whom Lincoln hoped would support his emancipation and paper money printing measures.

After implementing the Emancipation Proclamation, which did not apply to every state anyway, the president pressured Congress to outlaw slavery nationwide with a constitutional amendment. Lincoln declared that it would “settle the whole thing.” In December 1863, a proposal outlawing slavery was brought before Congress; however, it failed to exceed the two-thirds majority required during the June 15, 1864 vote in the House of Representatives. The passage of the proposed amendment became part of the Republican/Unionist political program in the 1864 presidential election. After a long and bitter debate in Congress, it came to approval at the second attempt, on January 31, 1865, and was sent to state legislatures for ratification; after that, it officially became the Thirteenth Amendment, on December 6, 1865, after Lincoln’s death.

As the war drew to a close, Presidential Reconstruction for the South was nearing completion; Lincoln thought the federal government had limited responsibilities to the millions of freedmen. He countersigned Senator Charles Senner’s bill, which established a temporary federal agency designed to meet the immediate material needs of former slaves: the Freedmen’s Bureau. The law also made available to freedmen the cultivation of vacant land, upon payment of a three-year rent and with an option to purchase.

Lincoln declared that his “10% plan” for Louisiana did not automatically apply to all occupied Confederate states; shortly before his assassination, he announced that he had a new plan in mind for the Reconstruction of the South. Discussions with his government revealed that Lincoln thought military control over the former rebel states should be short-term, before their readmission to Southern Union control. Historians agree that it is impossible to predict exactly what the president would have done if he had survived, but they make projections based on his known political positions and the acumen he recognizes. Biographers James Garfield Randall and Richard Nelson Current, according to David Lincove, argue that:

“It is probable that if he had lived, Lincoln would have followed a policy similar to Johnson’s, that he would then clash with the radicals in Congress, that he would have produced a better outcome for the freedmen than actually happened, and finally that his political skills would have helped him avoid Johnson’s mistakes.”

Eric Foner states that:

Unlike Sumner and other radicals, Lincoln did not see Reconstruction as an opportunity to implement a political and social revolution beyond emancipation, he had long since made clear his opposition to the confiscation and redistribution of land. He believed, as did most Republicans as late as April 1865, that voting requirements should be set by states. He thought political control in the South would pass to white Unionists, reluctant secessionists, and redeemed former Confederates; but over and over again during the war, after the initial opposition, he had come to accept some of the positions of the abolitionists and radical Republicans…

Lincoln would no doubt have listened carefully to requests for further protection from former slaves… It is entirely plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing on a Reconstruction policy that included federal protection for basic civil rights and limited suffrage to be granted to African Americans, along the lines proposed by Lincoln himself shortly before his death.

Redefinition of the Republic and Republicanism

The successful reunification of the Southern and Northern states had a consequence for the name of the nation itself. The term “United States” was in fact used previously, sometimes in the plural (“United States are”) and other times in the singular (“United States is”), without any grammatical consistency. The Civil War was a significant stimulus to the predominance of the singular at least from the end of the nineteenth century.

In recent decades, historians such as Harry Victor Jaffa, Herman Belz, John Patrich Diggins, Vernon Burton and Eric Foner have emphasized the president’s redefinition of Republican values. Already during the 1850s, when most political rhetoric focused on the “sacredness” of the U.S. Constitution, Lincoln reversed the idea, instead emphasizing the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of U.S. political values (what he called the “fundamental piece” of Republicanism).

The emphasis placed on the concepts of freedom and social equality for all, in clear contrast to the tolerance expressed until then by the Constitution itself towards slavery, radically shifted the point of approach to the debate. As Diggins states with regard to Cooper Union’s speech of the first half of 1860 and which proved very influential in the continuation of the campaign for the presidential election of 1860, “Lincoln presented to Americans a conception of the history of the United States that will make a valuable contribution to the theory and future of Republicanism itself”.

His position gradually gained strength as it highlighted the moral basis inherent in the great ideal of democracy, rather than its legal mechanisms. Only a year later, however, he will justify the conflict properly in terms of legality (the Constitution was a contract and for one side to leave it all the others had to agree) and national obligation to guarantee the republican form of government in each individual State of the Union. Burton (2008), finally, argues that Lincoln’s republicanism was welcomed with open arms by former slaves, as emancipated and now free.

In March 1861, during his first inaugural address, he explored the nature of democracy; He denounced secession as anarchy and explained that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restrictions. He said: “A majority held in check by constitutional checks and limitations – and always changing easily as a result of deliberate changes in popular opinion and sentiment – is the only true ruler of a genuinely free people!”

Other provisions

Lincoln adhered to the theory of the Whig Party, which gave Congress primary responsibility for writing laws, while the Executive had to implement them; vetoed only four bills; the only major one was Bill Wade-Davis with his tough Reconstruction program. He countersigned the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act in 1862, which provided government grants to state agricultural education facilities; the Homestead Act of that year made millions of acres of government-held land available for purchase at very low cost. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 secured federal support for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. The passage of these last two laws was made possible by the absence of Southern deputies and senators, who had opposed similar measures in the 1850s during the presidency of Zachary Taylor and the presidency of Millard Fillmore.

Two important measures concerned government revenues: the establishment of tariffs (a measure with a long history) and a new federal income tax. In 1861 he signed the second and third Morrill Tariffs; the first had been promulgated during the presidency of James Buchanan. Also, in 1861, the president signed the Revenue Act, creating the first income tax in the United States, with a single rate of 3% on incomes above $800 ($21,300 in current terms), which was later amended by the Revenue Act of 1862 with progressive rates.

Lincoln was also involved in expanding the economic influence of the federal government in several other areas; the creation of the system of national banks by the National Banking Act (1863-64), provided the country with a solid financial network; established a national currency; in 1862 the Department of Agriculture was created.

In 1862, the president sent General John Pope to suppress a Native American revolt, called the Little Crow War, in present-day Minnesota; When presented with 303 execution warrants for the Sioux (Santee Dakota) accused of killing innocent peasants, Lincoln conducted a personal examination of each of them, eventually approving 39 sentences to hang (one was later revoked). He had finally planned to reform the entire federal policy towards the Native Americans of the United States of America.

After Grant’s heavy losses in his campaign against Lee, he considered an executive order for conscription, but it was never issued; In response to numerous rumors circulating about it, the editors of the New York World and the Journal of Commerce published a false draft proclamation, which caused volatility in the gold market, which benefited the publishers and other employees of the newspapers. The president reacted harshly and ordered a military seizure of the two newspapers for two days.

Lincoln is largely responsible for establishing the holiday called Thanksgiving; Before his presidency, in fact, “Thanksgiving” (for the first harvest obtained on American soil by the Pilgrim Fathers), a local holiday in New England since the seventeenth century, had been proclaimed by the federal government only sporadically and on irregular dates. The last such announcement had been made during the presidency of James Madison fifty years earlier. In 1863, Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November of that year would be a “Thanksgiving Day.”

The following June, he approved Yosemite funding, which provided unprecedented federal funding for the area known today as Yosemite National Park.

Appointments of judges

Lincoln’s stated philosophy about appointing judges was that we can’t ask a man what he’s going to do, and if we ask and he answers, we should despise him for it, so we have to take a man whose views are already known; he appointed five justices to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

  • Noah Haynes Swayne, chosen on 21 January 1862 and appointed on 24 January 1862; an anti-slavery lawyer engaged in the Union.
  • Samuel Freeman Miller, chosen and appointed on July 16, 1862; he had supported Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860 and was an avowed abolitionist.
  • David Davis, one of the promoters of the Republican election campaign in 1860, chosen on December 1, 1862, and appointed on the following 8; he had also been a judge in the Illinois district where the future president was a lawyer.
  • Stephen Johnson Field, former justice of the California Supreme Court, chosen on March 6, 1863, and appointed on the following 10; provided both geographical and political balance to the Court, as a Democrat.
  • Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, chosen as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appointed on the same day, December 6, 1864. Lincoln believed that Chase was an accomplished jurist who would support Reconstruction laws and that his election would unite the Republican Party.

New States admitted to the Union

West Virginia, admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863, included the northwestern counties of Virginia that had seceded when Virginia declared secession. As a precondition, the Constitution of the new federal state was required to provide for the gradual abolition of slavery.

Nevada, which became the third largest of the Pacific states, was admitted as a free entity on October 31, 1864.

Murder of Abraham Lincoln and State funeral

The presidential box at the Ford Theater
The presidential box at the Ford Theater

Shortly before the end of the war, Lincoln had met frequently with General Grant. The two men planned the reconstruction of the country and their mutual esteem was known to all. During their last meeting, on April 14, 1865 (Good Friday), Lincoln had invited General Grant to a social event for that evening, but Grant declined. Without the company of the general and without his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln and his family went to Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, where Our American Cousin, a musical comedy by the British writer Tom Taylor (1817-1880), was on the program.

The instant Lincoln took his seat on the presidential box, John Wilkes Booth, a Virginia actor sympathetic to the South, entered the stage and fired a .44-caliber pistol shot at the president’s head, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis! ” (Latin: “So be it always to tyrants!” – motto of the State of Virginia and phrase historically pronounced by Brutus in killing Caesar). According to some testimonies, he then added: “The South is avenged”, subsequently jumping off the stage and consequently breaking his leg. The conspirators had planned to assassinate other government officials at the same time, but Lincoln was the only victim. Booth dragged himself to his horse and managed to escape, while the president was taken to a house across the street, now called Petersen House, where he lay in a coma for a few hours before he died.

He was officially pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Booth was discovered hiding in a barn and killed; Several other conspirators were later captured and hanged or imprisoned. Four people were tried by a military tribunal and hanged for complicity in the assassination: David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne) and Mary Surratt (the first woman to be executed in the United States). Three people were sentenced to life imprisonment (Michael O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, and Samuel Mudd), while Edman Spangler was sentenced to six years in prison. John Surratt, later tried by a civil court, was acquitted. The fairness of the convictions, particularly that of Mary Surratt, has been questioned, and doubts exist as to the degree of her involvement in the conspiracy.

In the United States, the “legend about the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences” has entered folklore, concerning the alleged concomitance between the deaths of the two presidents.

Lincoln’s body was brought back to Illinois by train, with a grand funeral procession that crossed several states. The entire nation mourned the man whom many considered the savior of the United States, protector and defender of what Lincoln himself called “the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Exhumation of the body

Lincoln was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, where in 1874 construction of a 54-meter-high granite tomb was completed, topped with several bronze statues. His wife and three of his four children are also buried there (Robert is buried in Arlington National Cemetery). In the years following his death, there were attempts to steal Lincoln’s body for ransom.

Around 1900 Robert Todd Lincoln decided that, to prevent the theft of the body, it was necessary to build a permanent crypt for his father. Lincoln’s coffin was enclosed by thick concrete walls, surrounded by a cage, and buried under a stone slab. On September 26, 1901, Lincoln’s body was exhumed so that he could be reburied in the new crypt. Those present (23 people including Robert Lincoln), fearing that the body could have been stolen in the intervening years, decided to open the coffin to check: when they opened it, they were amazed by the state of preservation of the body, which had been embalmed. He was in fact perfectly recognizable, more than thirty years after his death.

On his chest were found the remains of the United States flag (small red, white and blue shreds) with which he had been buried and which had now crumbled. All the people who saw Lincoln’s remains are long gone: the last of these was Fleetwood Lindley, who died on February 1, 1963. Three days before he died, Lindley was interviewed. He said, “Yes, his face was as white as chalk. His damp clothes. I was allowed to hold one of the leather strips when we lowered the coffin to pour the cement. I wasn’t scared at the time, but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.”

Personal life of Lincoln

Bless you

Claims abound that Lincoln’s health was deteriorating just before the assassination; however, these are often based only on photographs that seem to show weight loss and muscle atrophy.

It was also hypothesized that he suffered from a rare genetic disease, MEN2b (Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2b) which manifests itself with medullary thyroid carcinoma and mucosal neuromas. Others simply claim that he suffered from Marfan syndrome (stretching of the lower body, very long feet, hands and legs and a characteristically elongated head), based on his height, thin fingers and association with possible aortic insufficiency; it can cause the rocking of the head – the “sign of Alfred De Musset” – based on the alleged evidence given by the clouding of Lincoln’s head present in the photographs, which then needed a long time of preparation and exposure. In 2009, DNA analysis was rejected by the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Philadelphia.

Religious vision

As with Thomas Jefferson’s deism, Lincoln’s religious view has also been much debated. Publicly he was a Protestant Christian, but his inner beliefs are still debated. As a young man, Lincoln was clearly a skeptic or, in the words of a biographer, even an iconoclast.

Later in life, Lincoln’s frequent use of religious language and imagery in speeches could be seen as a revision of his personal beliefs or a device to appeal to his audience, mostly composed of evangelicals. He never joined any church, although he often attended religious services with his wife; however, he often quoted the Bible and was deeply familiar with it.

In 1840 Lincoln adhered to the “doctrine of necessity,” a fatalistic belief that the human mind was controlled by a higher force. In 1850, he recognized the existence of a “providence” in a general way, but rarely used the language or images of evangelicals. He regarded the republicanism of the Founding Fathers with an almost religious reverence. When he suffered the death of his son Edward, Lincoln more frequently recognized his need to depend on God.

The death of another son, Willie, in February 1862, may have prompted Lincoln to turn to religion for answers and comfort. After Willie’s death, Lincoln questioned the divine necessity of the gravity of war. He wrote in those moments that God “could decide to save or destroy the Union, without human conflict. Since the conflict has begun, He could give victory to one side in a single day, yet the conflict continues.” It is said that, on the day of the assassination at the Ford Theatre, he told his wife Mary that he wanted to visit the Holy Land.


Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality has been a topic of debate among some scholars. The president was married to Mary Todd Lincoln from November 4, 1842, until her death and had four children with her; His bond with his wife was always very strong and intimate. However, the issue came to public attention because of a posthumous book by psychologist Clarence Arthur Tripp (collaborator of Alfred Kinsey) published in 2005 and entitled The Intimate World by Abraham Lincoln, which described him as allegedly detached towards women, in contrast to the relationships of extreme closeness he had with male friends,  with whom he would also share the bed.

According to the book Lincoln the Unknown by Dale Carnegie and dated 1932, the president chose to spend several months of the year in his legal practice living separately from his wife. In 1928 an author had already indicated a close male friend of the young Lincoln as a possible lover, but this was dismissed as absurd at the time.

Comments on Lincoln’s sexuality ran since the early twentieth century; Attention grew proportionally to the growth of the homosexual liberation movement of the second half of the 1900s. In his 1926 biography, Carl Sandburg alluded to the early reports of Lincoln and his friend Joshua Fry Speed as having “a strip of lavender, and weak spots like May violets”; “Lavender strip” was a slang term of the period to indicate a man characterized by effeminacy, later associated with homosexuality. Sandburg did not elaborate further on the subject.

In 1999, playwright and activist Larry Kramer claimed to have discovered previously hidden documents while researching his “work-in-progress” The American People: A History, including some allegedly found between the floorboards of the store over which Lincoln and Joshua Speed shared a room. The texts reportedly provide explicit details about a relationship between the two and are currently being held in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa. Their authenticity, however, has been questioned by historians such as Gabor S. Boritt who wrote: “It is almost certainly a fabrication.” C. A. Tripp also expressed his skepticism about Kramer’s alleged discovery, stating: “Seeing is believing, if and when that diary will appear. When excerpts from it appeared, they did not have at all the lyrical inspiration typical of Lincoln.”

Lincoln’s case returned to the spotlight in 2005 with the posthumous publication of C. A. Tripp’s book; he was a sexology researcher, a disciple of Alfred Kinsey and gay. He began writing the book with freelance journalist Philip Nobile, but later disagreements. Nobile then accused Tripp’s work of being very fraudulent and distorted. TIME magazine covered the book as part of a cover article by Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Shenk rejected Tripp’s conclusions, stating that the arguments for Lincoln’s homosexuality were “based on a distorted reading of the conventional nineteenth-century provisions which quietly provided that men could also sleep together”.

However, historian Michael B. Chesson welcomed the historical significance of Tripp’s work and commented that, while not conclusive, “any open-minded reader who has reached this point might have a reasonable doubt about the nature of Lincoln’s sexuality.” In contrast, historian and biographer of President Michael Burlingame has stated that it is “possible but highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was predominantly homosexual.”

Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, commented that he “never had much interest in girls.” However, some contemporary accounts report a strong, but controlled, passion for women. The young Lincoln was devastated following the death in 1835 of twenty-two-year-old Ann Rutledge, his first great love. While some have questioned whether he ever had a romantic relationship with her, historian John Y. Simon reviewed the subject’s historiography and concluded that “the available evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Lincoln loved Ann so much that her death plunged him into a severe form of depression. A century and a half after his death, when significant new evidence cannot be expected, this simple fact should now take its rightful place in presidential biography as well.”

Leading critics of the hypothesis that Lincoln was homosexual or at least bisexual point to the fact that he married and had four children; The thesis is therefore rejected by many historians, especially from the conservative area. Scholar Douglas Wilson argues that Lincoln, as a young man, exhibited strongly heterosexual behavior, including telling stories to his friends about his interactions with women.

Lincoln also wrote a poem describing a relationship similar to a marriage between two men, which included the lines: “For Reuben and Charles have married two girls/ But Billy has married a boy / The girls he had tried on every side / But none he could get to agree / All was in vain, he went home again / And since that he’s married to Natty”.

This poem was included in the first edition of Lincoln’s 1889 biography by his friend and colleague William Herndon; however, it was purged from subsequent editions until 1942, when the publisher Paul Angle re-established it. This is an example of what psychoanalyst Mark J. Blechner calls “the closure of history” in which evidence suggesting a degree of homosexuality or bisexuality in a great historical figure is suppressed or hidden.

Joshua Fry Speed

Lincoln first met young Joshua Fry Speed in Springfield in 1837 when he was a successful lawyer and former member of the Illinois legislature. They lived together for four years, during which they occupied the same bed at night (some sources specify a large double bed) and developed a friendship that would continue until the president’s death. According to some sources, William Herndon and a fourth man will also sleep in the same room. Historians such as Donald point out that it was not at all unusual at that time for two men to share even a small bed due to financial or other circumstances, without anything sexual being implied, for a night or two when there was no other possible accommodation.

But for a financially autonomous man, sharing a single bed with the same man for a long period of time would demonstrate a lasting relationship. A list of historical sources shows that Lincoln, during his youth and early adulthood, slept in the same bed with at least eleven boys and men. It was never a secret. There are no known cases in which Lincoln tried to conceal knowledge of the fact or discussion of such events and, in some conversations, raised the subject himself by speaking openly about it. Tripp talks at length about three men and possible lasting relationships: Joshua Speed, William Greene and Charles Derickson.

However, in nineteenth-century America, it was not necessarily uncommon for men to care for other men; for example, lawyers in Illinois’ Eighth District, where Lincoln operated, regularly traveled using the same room for the night, two for each bed and eight in one room. William H. Herndon recalls, for example, “I slept with twenty men in the same room.” But a private and lasting relationship with a single individual would have been something else. At that time most men were probably not even aware of the erotic significance of sharing the bed, as it remained a public fact. Speed’s immediate and random offer and subsequent report suggest that publicly proposing bedside sharing between males was almost never explicitly interpreted as an invitation to prohibited sexual experiments.

Some correspondence from the period, such as that between Confederate politician Thomas Jefferson Withers and Judge James Henry Hammond, may provide evidence of a sexual dimension to some secret same-sex bed sharing. The very fact that Lincoln was open about the issue with Speed is considered by some historians to be an indication that their relationship was not romantic; none of Lincoln’s enemies ever hinted at any homosexual implication.

Joshua Speed married Fanny Hennings on February 15, 1842. He and Lincoln seemed to consult each other about married life; despite having some political differences from slavery, they maintained a close correspondence for the rest of their lives, and Lincoln appointed Joshua’s brother, James Speed, to his cabinet as attorney general.

David Derickson

Captain David Derickson was Lincoln’s bodyguard and accompanied him on his travels between September 1862 and April 1863. They shared the bed during the absences of the president’s wife until he was promoted to the rank. Derickson was married twice and was the father of ten children. Tripp says that regardless of the level of intimacy of the relationship, it was the subject of gossip.

Elizabeth Woodbury Fox, the wife of Lincoln’s naval assistant, wrote in her diary on November 16, 1862, “Tish says, ‘Oh, there’s a Bucktail soldier who is very devoted to the president, he’s always standing by him, and when Mrs. L. isn’t at home she sleeps together.’ What stuff!” This practice was also observed by a fellow officer of Derickson’s regiment, Thomas Chamberlin, in the book History of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Second Regiment, Bucktail Brigade.

Historian Martin P. Johnson notes that the strong similarity between style and content of the Fox and Chamberlin accounts suggests that, rather than being two independent narratives of the same events, both were based on a single source. David Donald and Johnson both dispute Tripp’s interpretation of Fox’s comment by saying that the exclamation “What stuff!” was at the time an exclamation in the face of nonsense rather than gossip value.

Lincoln historical reputation

In surveys of U.S. scholars evaluating presidents since the 1940s in the historical ranking of presidents of the United States of America, Lincoln is consistently ranked in the top three, often as the number one overall (in at least 9 out of 17 researches). A 2004 study showed that scholars in the fields of history and politics rank him first, while legal scholars rank him second just behind George Washington.

In the opinion poll conducted since 1948, Lincoln was ranked at the top in most of the results. In general, the first three presidents are Lincoln; Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although sometimes Washington comes in front of Lincoln and sometimes behind Roosevelt.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln greatly increased his status almost to the point of making him a national martyr; he was seen by proponents of abolitionism as a “champion of human freedom.” The Republicans linked his name to the founding events of their Party’s history. Many, though not all, in the South, considered Lincoln a man of exceptional ability.

Historians have claimed that he was “a champion of classical liberalism” in the nineteenth-century sense. Allen C. Guelzo states that Lincoln was a “classical liberal democrat, an enemy of the artificial hierarchy, a friend of commerce and business as ennobling and enabling”, and an American counterpart of John Stuart Mill, Richard Cobden and the leader of the Liberal Party (United Kingdom) John Bright (whose portrait had been hung by Lincoln himself in his office at the White House). It ended up becoming one of the main examples for liberal intellectuals in many parts of the European continent, Latin America and even Asia.

Schwartz argues that the president’s American reputation grew slowly in the late nineteenth century until the progressive era (1900-1920) when he emerged as one of the most revered heroes in U.S. history, on which even white Southerners agreed. The culminating point came in 1922 with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

In the era of the New Deal, liberals honored Lincoln not so much as the self-made man or the great war president, but as the defender of the common man they believed would support the welfare state. In the years of the Cold War the image of Lincoln was modified and emphasized the symbol of freedom that brought hope to all oppressed by communist regimes.

By the 1970s, he had become a hero to conservatives of the United States for his patriotism, business support, his determination to stop the spread of slavery, his principled action by John Locke and Edmund Burke in the name of both liberty and tradition and his devotion to the principles of the founding fathers of the United States.

As an activist of the Whig Party, Lincoln had been a spokesman for business interests, being in favor of high tariffs, banking, domestic infrastructure, and railroads in opposition to the eminently agrarian Democrats of Jacksonian democracy. William C. Harris found that “reverence for the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the laws placed under it, the defense of the Republic and its institutions placed him among the leading leaders of conservatism.”

James G. Randall emphasizes his tolerance and especially his moderation “in his preference for orderly progress, his distrust of dangerous social unrest, and his reluctance toward poorly digested reform schemes.” Randall concludes that “he was conservative because of his remoteness from the kind of so-called ‘radicalism’ that involved oppression of the South, hatred of the slaveholder, thirst for revenge, partisanship, and the severe demands of the Reconstruction Era that the institutions of the South would turn overnight into foreign bodies of the homeland.”

In the late 1960s, some African-American intellectuals led by Lerone Bennett Jr. rejected Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator”; he gained great attention when in 1968 he even called Lincoln a white supremacist. He noticed that he often used defamation and stereotypes about African Americans and told jokes that ridiculed the “nigger”; He also argued that Lincoln opposed social equality and proposed with the American Colonization Society to send freed slaves to another country (Liberia).

Defenders, such as authors Dirck and Cashin, countered that he was not so bad compared to most politicians of his day and that he represented the figure of a “moral visionary” who skillfully advanced the abolitionist cause, as quickly as possible given the political context. The emphasis then shifted from “Lincoln the Emancipator” to a thesis that blacks had freed themselves from slavery, or at least were responsible for pressuring the government for emancipation.

Historian Barry Schwartz wrote in 2009 that the image of Lincoln in the late 20th century underwent “an erosion, a certain fading of prestige until it was reduced to a man as benevolent as it was ridiculous.” On the other hand, Donald opined in his 1996 biography that Lincoln was distinctly endowed with that personality trait characterized as “negative capability” as defined by the romantic poet John Keats and attributed to charismatic and extraordinary leaders who were “content in the midst of uncertainties and doubts and not tied to fact or reason.”

In the twenty-first century, President Barack Obama defined him as his favorite president by insisting on using the Lincoln Bible during the inauguration ceremony for both times he took office.

Lincoln has often been a character in Hollywood films, almost always in a very flattering light.

Union patriotism, as Lincoln intended, “helped lead America to the patriotism of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.”


Lincoln was remembered in many ways. Several U.S. cities bear his name, most notably Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is named after him and is depicted on the $5 bill, the Lincoln cent, and the Mount Rushmore monument. Lincoln’s grave and Lincoln’s home in Springfield, New Salem (a reconstruction of the town where he lived in early adulthood), Ford’s Theater, and Petersen House are all preserved as museums.

In 1892, February 12, Lincoln’s birthday, was declared a United States federal holiday, although it was later combined with George Washington’s birthday on President’s Day (they are still celebrated separately in Illinois). The submarine Abraham  Lincoln (SSBN-602) and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) were named in his honor.

The great magician Harry Houdini created with his illusionistic techniques a retouched photograph that portrayed him together with the “ghost” of Lincoln, this to reveal the tricks of spirit photographs, widespread in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of them, later believed to be false, portrayed Lincoln after his death, together with his wife still alive (the latter had become a follower of spiritualism, in the meantime).

Arts and culture

Immediately after the death of the president, the poet Walt Whitman (author of Leaves of Grass) wrote, in his honor, the famous poem O Captain! My captain!  (brought to the big screen scenes by The Fleeting Moment).

The bard of the American nation will always be particularly fascinated by Lincoln so much so that he also wrote other poems in his honor (When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day and This Dust Was Once the Man).  It seems that the president loved his poetry even before the outbreak of the civil war.

Lincoln himself wrote poetry and at least one piece of literature, based on one of the murder cases he had faced as a young defense attorney. In April 1846, The Quincy Whig published his short story as A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder. The story was republished in March 1952 by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and titled The Trailor Murder Mystery.  Lincoln refers to his unnamed character as “the defense” and “the writer of this text.”

References (sources)