Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

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The presidency of Abraham Lincoln began on March 4, 1861, when he was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States, and ended upon his assassination and death on April 15, 1865, 42 days into his second term. Lincoln was the first member of the recently-established Republican Party elected to the presidency. He was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson.

Lincoln took office following the 1860 presidential election, in which he won a majority of Electoral College votes (180 of 303), and a 39.8 percent plurality of the popular vote in a four-candidate field (despite not being on the ballot in any southern slave state), that consisted of Lincoln, Unionist John Bell, and Democrats John C. Breckinridge and Stephen A. Douglas.[1] A former Whig politician, Lincoln ran on a political platform opposing the policies of the Pierce and Buchanan administrations that would have preserved slavery for the foreseeable future. His election served as the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the American Civil War. During the 16 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day, seven slave states declared their secession from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. After being sworn in as president, Lincoln refused to accept any resolution that would result in Southern secession from the Union.

Despite having limited military experience, Lincoln was first and foremost a war president, as the Civil War began just weeks into his presidency and lasted until after his death. Lincoln was called on to handle both the political and military aspects of the war, facing challenges in both spheres. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln declared martial law in all states and ordered the suspension of the constitutionally-protected right to habeas corpus in the state of Maryland and parts of the Midwestern states. Lincoln also became the first president to institute a military draft. Lincoln cycled through several military commanders during the war, finally settling on General Ulysses S. Grant, who would essentially end the war by defeating the Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee. Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed about 3 million slaves in Confederate-held territory. In 1865, Lincoln was instrumental in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery unconstitutional. Lincoln also presided over the passage of important domestic legislation, including the first of the Homestead Acts, the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, and the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. He ran for re-election in 1864 on the National Union ticket, which was supported by War Democrats and Border State Unionists in addition to Republicans. Though Lincoln feared he might lose the contest, he defeated his former subordinate, General George B. McClellan of the Democratic Party, in a landslide.

Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, five days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, left the final challenge of reconstructing the nation to others. Political historians have long held Lincoln in high regard for his accomplishments and personal characteristics. Alongside George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he has been consistently ranked both by scholars and the public as one of the top three greatest presidents, often as the single greatest president in United States history.

Election of 1860[edit]

Lincoln being carried by two men on a long board.
"The Rail Candidate"—Lincoln's 1860 candidacy is depicted as held up by the slavery issue—a slave on the left and party organization on the right.

On May 9–10, 1860, the Illinois Republican State Convention was held in Decatur.[2] Lincoln's supporters organized a campaign team led by David Davis, Norman Judd, Leonard Swett, and Jesse DuBois, and Lincoln received his first endorsement to run for the presidency.[3] Exploiting the embellished legend of his frontier days with his father (clearing the land and splitting fence rails with an ax), supporters adopted the label of "The Rail Candidate".[4]

The 1860 Republican National Convention was held May 16 to 18, 1860. Two weeks earlier, the Democrats had been forced to adjourn their convention; delegates from eight slave-holding states had walked out when a plank favoring a federal slave code for the territories was defeated, and, after 57 ballots, no one had won the two-thirds majority vote required to win the nomination. With the Democrats in disarray, a sweep of the Northern states in the November election and victory had become possible, which filled Republicans with confidence going into their convention in Chicago. William H. Seward from New York was considered the front runner, followed by Lincoln, Salmon P. Chase from Ohio, and Missouri’s Edward Bates. Ignoring Lincoln's strong dictate to "Make no contracts that bind me",[5] his managers at the convention promised and maneuvered and won the nomination on the third ballot. Delegates then nominated Senator Hannibal Hamlin from Maine for vice president. The party platform opposed the institutionalization of slavery in the territories; but pledged not to interfere with it in the states. It also denounced John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and the border ruffians of Missouri, endorsed a protective tariff and internal improvements such as a transcontinental railroad, and promised to settlers a free quarter-section of public land.[6][7]

When the Democratic convention reconvened in June the North—South sectional battle flared up as well. Slave state delegates pushed the slave code plank once again. Once again it was defeated, which prompted furious southern delegates to once again walked out of the convention. Afterward, Stephen A. Douglas was finally able to secure the presidential nomination. The bolters held a rival convention, at which they adopted an extremist pro-slavery platform, and nominated John C. Breckinridge for the presidency.[6][8]

The newly formed Constitutional Union Party also held a convention in May. Delegates selected John Bell as their presidential candidate. Believing that sectional hostilities would dissolve if the issue of slavery were just set aside and ignored, the party took no position on it or any other issue. Instead, they pledged to defend "no political principle other than the Constitution of the country, the Union of the states, and the Enforcement of the Law".[9]

1860 electoral vote results.

Although the candidates themselves, except for Douglas, did little or no active campaigning, each party sent surrogates out to deliver stump speeches.[10] Pro-slavery Fire-Eater William Yancey, who had led the Democratic convention walk outs, provoked northern audiences with his dire warning that secession would follow anything other than a Breckinridge election.[11] Bell rallies featured the ringing of bells.[6]

The Republican Party produced an abundance of campaign posters, leaflets, and newspaper editorials. There were also thousands of speakers who focused first on the party platform, and second on Lincoln's life story, emphasizing his childhood poverty, in order to demonstrate the superior power of "free labor", whereby a common farm boy could work his way to the top by his own efforts.[12] The Republican Party's production of campaign literature dwarfed the combined opposition; a Chicago Tribune writer produced a pamphlet that detailed Lincoln's life, and sold 100,000 to 200,000 copies.[13]

Prior to the Republican convention, the Lincoln campaign began cultivating a nationwide teen and young adult organization, the Wide Awakes, which it used to generate popular support for Lincoln throughout the country, and to spearhead large voter registration drives, knowing that new voters and young voters tend to embrace new and young parties.[14]

On Election Day, Lincoln carried all but one Northern state to win an electoral college majority with 180 votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas. Lincoln won a popular plurality of about 40 percent, garnering 1,766,452 votes to 1,376,957 for Douglas, 849,781 for Breckinridge, and 588,879 for Bell.[15] Lincoln won the election without carrying a single Southern state, the limited support he received in Virginia coming almost exclusively in the Northern panhandle. Just a few weeks after Lincoln's election, Southern states began withdrawing from the Union.[16]

Transition period[edit]

Secession crisis[edit]

In the weeks following his election victory, Lincoln was barraged with questions and comments from people across the nation about events in the South. Many expected Lincoln to somehow provide reassurances to the South that their interests were not being threatened.[17] In a response to an inquiry from the editor of the Democratic newspaper, the Missouri Republican, Lincoln stated why he was reluctant to speak out:

The Republican newspapers now, and for some time past, are and have been republishing copious extracts from my many published speeches, which would at once reach the whole public if your class of papers would also publish them. I am not at liberty to shift my ground -- that is out of the question. If I thought a repetition would do any good I would make it. But my judgment is it would do positive harm. The secessionists, per se believing they had alarmed me, would clamor all the louder.[18]

Realizing that on one hand soothing words on the rights of slaveholders would alienate the Republican base, while taking a strong stand on the indestructibility of the Union could further inflame southerners, Lincoln chose a policy of silence. He believed that, given enough time without any overt acts or threats to the South, southern unionists would carry the day and bring their states back into the Union.[19]

At the suggestion of a southern merchant who contacted him, Lincoln did make an indirect appeal to the South by providing material for his friend U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull to insert into his own public address. These words from Lincoln included, "I have labored in, and for, the Republican organization with entire confidence that whenever it shall be in power, each and all of the States will be left in as complete control of their own affairs respectively, and at as perfect liberty to choose, and employ, their own means of protecting property, and preserving peace and order within their respective limits, as they have ever been under any administration."[20] Lincoln was identified by the press as the author of these words. Republicans praised it, Democrats assailed it, and the South largely ignored it.[21]

Initial post-election efforts to compromise with, or appease, the South came from the Northern business community. Republican newspaper editors in New York, including Henry J. Raymond, James Webb, and Thurlow Weed, proposed a variety of measures, such as compensation for fugitive slaves, the repeal of personal liberty laws, and restoration of the Missouri Compromise line. Lincoln's reaction was astonishment at the fact that "any Republican think, for a moment, of abandoning in the hour of victory, though in the face of danger, every point involved in the recent contest."[22] Journalist Henry Villard dismissed the editors' reaction as merely "certain pangs of contrition" being felt by Wall Street as markets reacted negatively to Southern secession.[23]

In December both the U.S. House and Senate formed special committees to address the unfolding crisis. Lincoln communicated with various Congressmen that there was room for negotiation on issues such as fugitive slaves, slavery in the District of Columbia, and the domestic slave trade. However he made it clear that he was unalterably opposed to anything which would allow the expansion of slavery into any new states or territories.[24] On December 6, Lincoln wrote to Congressman Kellogg, on the House committee, that he should: "entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over. Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring in his 'Pop. Sov.' Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later."[25] On December 10 he wrote to Senator Trumbull in virtually identical terms.[26] Later that month, in a letter to former Congressman and shortly to become Confederate States vice president) Alexander Stephens, Lincoln summarized the cause of the crisis this way:

You think slavery is right and should be extended; while we think slavery is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.[27]

In mid-December, Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, the chairman of the Senate committee, proposed a package of six constitutional amendments, known as the Crittenden Compromise. The compromise would protect slavery in federal territories South of the 36°30′ parallel and prohibit it in territories north of that latitude, with newly admitted states deciding on the status of slavery within their borders. Congress would be forbidden from abolishing slavery in any state (or the District of Columbia) or interfering with the domestic slave trade. When Seward and Weed tried to pressure Lincoln into supporting the compromise, he resisted.[28] Lincoln refused to bow to the threat of Southern secession, at his direction, a majority of the Republicans on the committee voted against the Compromise, and it was defeated.

In February 1861, after seven states in the Deep South had already committed to secession, two final political efforts were made to preserve the Union. The first was made by a group of 131 delegates (including: six former cabinet members; 19 ex-governors; 14 former senators; 50 former representatives; 12 state supreme court justices; and one former president, John Tyler, who presided) sent by 21 states to a Peace Conference, held at the Willard's Hotel in the nation's capital.[29] The convention adopted, and submitted to Congress, a seven-point constitutional amendment proposal similar in content to the earlier Crittenden Compromise. The proposal was rejected by the Senate and never considered by the House.[30][31] The second effort was a "never-never" constitutional amendment on slavery, that would shield domestic institutions of the states from Congressional interference and from future constitutional amendments. Commonly known as the Corwin Amendment, the measure was approved by Congress and sent to the state legislatures for ratification.[30] While only ratified by a few states, Congress did not set a time limit for its ratification, thus the amendment is still technically pending.[32][33]

Travel to Washington[edit]

On February 11, 1861, Lincoln boarded a special train that over the course of the next two weeks would take him to the nation's capital. Speaking to the crowd at the Springfield station, Lincoln bid farewell to his friends and supporters.

My friends -- No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young man to an old man. ...I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. ... Trusting in Him ... let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.[34]

Lincoln spoke several times each day during the train trip. All of the major cities on the route scheduled receptions and formal public appearances. While his speeches were mostly extemporaneous, his message was consistent: he had no hostile intentions towards the South, disunion was not acceptable, and he intended to enforce the laws and protect property.[35] In an address to the New Jersey legislature, where he discussed George Washington and the legacy of the Revolution, Lincoln said:

I remember all the accounts there [in Weem's "Life of Washington"] given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New-Jersey. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.[36]

Baltimore Plot[edit]

Further information: Baltimore Plot

Rumors abounded during the course of the trip of various plots to kill Lincoln. Samuel Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, hired detective Allan Pinkerton to investigate reports that secessionists might try to sabotage the railroad along the route. In conducting his investigation Pinkerton obtained information that indicated to him that an attempt on Lincoln's life would be made in Baltimore. According to his sources, when Lincoln arrived in the city a gang of armed men would stage a diversion to distract the city police, giving designated assassins an opportunity to kill Lincoln.[37] The president-elect was made aware of this possible threat on February 21.[38] A separate investigation initiated by General Scott had produced corroborating evidence of a specific threat to Lincoln in Baltimore. The detectives that conducted this investigation wrote that "there is serious danger of violence to and the assassination of Mr. Lincoln in his passage through that city [Baltimore] should the time of passage be known."[39]

As a result of the threat, the travel schedule was altered, tracks were closed to other traffic, and the telegraph wires even cut to heighten security. Lincoln, dressed in an overcoat, muffler, and soft wool hat, and his entourage passed through Baltimore's waterfront at around 3 o'clock in the early morning of February 23, and arrived safely in the nation's capital a few hours later. The unannounced departure from the published schedule as well as the unconventional (for Lincoln) dress led to critics and cartoonists accusing him of sneaking into Washington in disguise (such as wearing a plaid Scotch cap and shawl). The later public controversy and supposed humiliation was embarrassing both to Lincoln and to his supporters.[40]

First inauguration[edit]

Photograph showing the March 4, 1861, inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in front of U.S. Capitol Building

Lincoln, aware that his inaugural address would be delivered in an atmosphere filled with fear and anxiety, and amid an unstable political landscape, sought guidance from colleagues and friends as he prepared it. Among those whose counsel Lincoln sought was Orville Browning, who advised Lincoln to omit the overly aggressive phrase "to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen". He also asked his former rival (and Secretary of State-designate) William Seward to review it. Seward exercised his due diligence by presenting Lincoln with a six-page analysis of the speech in which he offered some 49 suggested changes; of which the president-elect incorporated 27 into the final draft.[41]

There was heavy security for the March 4, 1861 presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol. Two thousand volunteer soldiers organized by Colonel Charles P. Stone, 653 regular troops, and marines were on duty supplemented by local police, cavalry patrolling the streets, and sharpshooters located on the tops of buildings. Plain clothes detectives moved through the crowd that had started assembling at dawn; by midday there were around 40,000 people on the Capitol grounds.[42]

Lincoln's first presidential inauguration occurred on March 4, 1861 on the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Roger Tanney administered the oath of office.[43]

Prior to taking the oath, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address. He opened by attempting to reassure the South that he had no intention or constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in states where it already existed. He promised to enforce the fugitive slave laws and spoke favorably about a pending constitutional amendment that would preserve slavery in the states where it currently existed. He also assured the states that had already succeeded that the federal government would not "assail" (violently attack) them.[44][45]

After these assurances, however, Lincoln declared that secession was "the essence of anarchy" and it was his duty to "hold, occupy, and possess the property belonging to the government".[46] Focusing on those within the South who were still on the fence regarding secession, Lincoln contrasted "persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union as it exists" versus "those, however, who really love the Union."[47] In his closing remarks Lincoln spoke directly to the secessionists, he asserted that no state could secede from the Union "upon its own mere motion" and emphasized the moral commitment that he was undertaking to "preserve, protect, and defend" the laws of the land.[48] He then concluded the address with a firm but conciliatory message:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[49]



William Henry Seward - edited.jpg Gideon Welles cph.3b20114.jpg
William Seward (left) and Gideon Wells (right)
served in Lincoln's cabinet throughout his presidency.
The Lincoln Cabinet[50]
Office Name Term
President Abraham Lincoln 1861–1865
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin 1861–1865
Andrew Johnson 1865
Secretary of State William H. Seward 1861–1865
Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase 1861–1864
William P. Fessenden 1864–1865
Hugh McCulloch 1865
Secretary of War Simon Cameron 1861–1862
Edwin M. Stanton 1862–1865
Attorney General Edward Bates 1861–1864
James Speed 1864–1865
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair 1861–1864
William Dennison Jr. 1864–1865
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles 1861–1865
Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith 1861–1862
John Palmer Usher 1863–1865

Lincoln began the process of constructing his cabinet on election night.[51] As he did, Lincoln attempted to reach out to every faction of his party with a special emphasis on balancing anti-slavery former Whigs with former free-soil Democrats, in an effort to create a cabinet that would unite the Republican Party.[52] Lincoln's eventual cabinet would include all of his main rivals for the Republican nomination. He did not shy away from surrounding himself with strong-minded men, even those whose credentials for office appeared to be much more impressive than his own.[53] In late November, he met with Vice President-elect Hannibal Hamlin, Senator Trumbull, and Donn Piatt, an Ohio editor and politician, to discuss cabinet selections.[54]

The first cabinet position filled was that of Secretary of State. It was tradition for the president-elect to offer this, the most senior cabinet post, to the leading (best-known and most popular) person of his political party. William Seward, was that man and in mid-December 1860, Hamlin, acting on Lincoln's behalf, offered the position to him. He was slow to formally accept, doing so two weeks later.[55] He would remain as Secretary of State throughout Lincoln's presidency and continue in that position under Andrew Johnson after Lincoln's death.[56]

Lincoln's choice for Secretary of the Treasury was Salmon P. Chase, Seward's chief political rival.[57] Seward, among others, opposed the selection of Chase because of both his strong antislavery record and his opposition to any type of settlement with the South that could be considered appeasement for slaveholders. They would lobby against Chase right up to Lincoln's inauguration.[58] Chase would repeatedly threaten to resign to serve his own ends and finally Lincoln surprised him by accepting in 1864.[59] He would be replaced by William P. Fessenden. When he reluctantly took office, the economy was in dire straits. After a remarkable turn-around, Fesserden resigned only eight months later.[60] He was in turn replaced by Hugh McCulloch.[60]

The most problematic selection made by Lincoln was that of Simon Cameron as the Secretary of War. Cameron was one of the most influential public leaders in the crucial political state of Pennsylvania, but he was also alleged to be one of the most corrupt.[61] He was opposed within his own state by the faction led by Republican Governor-elect Andrew G. Curtin and Republican party chairman A. K. McClure, who sent a long letter to Lincoln protesting his consideration of Cameron and, at Lincoln's invitation, met with the president-elect in Springfield on January 3, 1861. Nonetheless, by Inauguration Day the competing factions realized that it was important to business interests that at least some Pennsylvanian be in Lincoln's cabinet. Cameron was then finally made Secretary of War.[62] Historian William Gienapp believed that the final selection of Cameron for this soon-to-be-critical position was a clear indicator that Lincoln did not anticipate a civil war.[63] Cameron would resign early the next year in 1862, amid corruption allegations.[64] He was replaced by Edwin Stanton.[65]

Lincoln had discussed with Weed the possibility of nominating a southerner to the cabinet.[55] In December 1860, he meet with Edward Bates of Missouri. Bates, a former conservative Whig, had been one of Lincoln's rivals for the presidential nomination. He accepted Lincoln's offer of Attorney-General. Bates said that he had declined a similar offer from Millard Fillmore in 1850, but the gravity of present events mandated that he accept.[66] Bates would resign in 1864 after several disagreements with Lincoln, culminating in his resentment at not being nominated to the Supreme Court.[67] He was replaced by James Speed.[68]

Lincoln proposed Montgomery Blair of Maryland for the position of Postmaster-General. Blair came from a prominent political family. His father, Francis P. Blair, was a close and influential adviser to President Andrew Jackson.[69] Lincoln felt the addition of Blair from the border state of Maryland would help to keep the Border States and Upper South from seceding.[70] Blair was asked to resign in 1864[71] and replaced by William Dennison.[72]

Lincoln tasked Vice President-elect Hamlin with finding a someone from a New England state for the cabinet. Hamlin recommended Gideon Welles of Connecticut, a former Jacksonian Democrat who had served in the Navy Department under President James K. Polk. Other influential Republicans concurred, and Wells became Secretary of the Navy|Secretary of the Navy.[73] He would serve the entire duration of Lincoln's presidency, and continue in that position under Andrew Johnson.[74]

Caleb Blood Smith of Indiana was a former Whig representing the same type of midwestern constituency as Lincoln. His critics faulted him for some of his railroad ventures, accused him of being a Doughface, and questioned his intellectual capacity for a high government position. Among those who did support Smith were Seward and close Lincoln adviser David Davis. In the end, Smith's selection for Secretary of the Interior had much to do with his campaign efforts on behalf of Lincoln and their friendship.[75] Smith would serve less than two years before resigning due to poor health.[76] He was replaced by John Palmer Usher.[76]

Judicial appointments[edit]

Lincoln's declared philosophy on court nominations was that "we cannot ask a man what he will do, and if we should, and he should answer us, we should despise him for it. Therefore we must take a man whose opinions are known."[77] He made five appointments to the United States Supreme Court while president:[78]

Lincoln also appointed 27 judges to the United States district courts during his time in office. He appointed none to the United States circuit courts.[79][80]

New federal agencies[edit]

Among the federal agencies established or that began operations during Lincoln's presidency were:

American Civil War[edit]

Fort Sumter[edit]

Main article: Battle of Fort Sumter
1861 Map of U.S. states and territories showing two phases of secession.
1861 United States Secession Crisis map.
   States that seceded before April 15, 1861
   States that seceded after April 15, 1861
   States that permitted slavery, but did not secede
   States of the Union where slavery was banned
   U.S. territories, under Union Army control

Shortly before the November election, the general-in-chief of the army, Winfield Scott, had prepared a memorandum for President Buchanan (which was subsequently shared with Lincoln) in which he warned that there was a danger of "the seizure of a number of federal forts on the Mississippi River and on the Eastern coast, including the vulnerable installations at Charleston harbor". Scott recommended that "all those works should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise or coup de main ridiculous".[81] Buchanan dismissed Scott's suggestions as provocative to the South.[82]

As the secession crisis deepened, Lincoln, along with much of the North, became concerned as southern state governments seized federal property. On December 21, through Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, he asked Scott "to be as well prepared as he can to either hold, or retake, the forts, as the case may require, at, and after the inauguration".[83] President Buchanan declared that secession was illegal while denying that the government had any power to resist it. Lincoln would have no official ability to act until his scheduled inauguration on March 4, 1861.[84] By the time Lincoln assumed office seven states had declared their secession and had seized all federal property within their bounds, except for: Fort Sumter near Charleston, Fort Pickens near Pensacola, and a couple of small forts in the Florida Keys.

Any hope Lincoln might have had about using time to his advantage in addressing the crisis was shattered on his first full day in office, when he read a letter from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter, stating that his troops would run out of provisions within four to six weeks.[85] On March 3 General Scott had written to Seward suggesting that Fort Sumter be abandoned. Scott saw four options for the administration—a full-scale military operation to subdue the South, endorsement of the Crittenden Compromise to win back the seceded states, the closure of southern ports and the collection of duties from ships stationed outside the harbors, or directing the seven southern states that had declared secession to "depart in peace".[86]

Lincoln concentrated on the most immediate question of whether to maintain or abandon Fort Sumter. At a meeting on March 7, Scott and John G. Totten, the army's chief engineer, said that simply reinforcing the fort was not possible, although Welles and his top assistant Silas Stringham disagreed. Scott advised Lincoln that it would take a large fleet, 25,000 troops, and several months of training in order to defend the fort. On March 13 Montgomery Blair, the strongest proponent in the cabinet for standing firm at Fort Sumter, introduced Lincoln to his brother-in-law, Gustavus V. Fox. Fox presented a plan for a naval resupply and reinforcement of the fort. The plan had been approved by Scott during the last month of the previous administration, but Buchanan had rejected it. Scott had earlier advised Lincoln that it was too late for the plan to be successful, but the President was receptive to the proposed mission.[87]

Gustavus Fox, a U.S. Navy veteran, became a key figure in the Navy Department after his role in the Fort Sumter crisis.[88]

The Fox proposal was discussed at a cabinet meeting, and Lincoln followed up on March 15 by asking each cabinet member to provide a written answer to the question, "Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter [sic], under all circumstances, is it wise to attempt it?" Only Blair gave his unconditional approval to the plan. No decision was reached, although Lincoln told at least one congressman that if he were forced to surrender Sumter, holding Fort Pickens would still make a symbolic point. In the meantime Lincoln personally dispatched Fox to Charleston to talk to Anderson and independently assess the situation. Lincoln also sent Illinois friends Stephen A. Hurlbut and Ward Lamon to the city on a separate intelligence-gathering mission. The recommendations that came back were that reinforcement was both necessary, since secessionist feeling ran high and threatened the fort, and feasible, despite Anderson's misgivings.[89]

On March 28, however, Scott recommended that both Pickens and Sumter be abandoned, basing his decision more on political than military grounds. The next day a deeply agitated Lincoln presented Scott's proposal to the cabinet. Blair was now joined by Welles and Chase in supporting reinforcement. Bates was non-committal, Cameron was not in attendance, and Seward and Smith opposed resupply. Later that day Lincoln gave Fox the order to begin assembling a squadron to reinforce Fort Sumter.[90]

The actual dispatch of the squadron was complicated by the failure of Lincoln, Welles, Seward, and the men on the ground preparing the expedition to communicate effectively. Assets needed for the Fort Sumter expedition were mistakenly directed to a separate mission to Fort Pickens, a mission that was plagued by faulty communication between Washington and the forces already in Florida.[91] On April 6, with the Sumter mission ready to go, Lincoln sent State Department clerk Robert S. Chew to see South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens and read the following statement:

I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.[92]

The message was delivered to Pickens on April 8.[93] The information was telegraphed that night to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond. The Confederate cabinet was already meeting to discuss the Sumter crisis, and on April 10 Davis decided to demand the surrender of the fort and bombard it if the demand was refused.[94] The attack on the fort was initiated on April 12, and the fort surrendered the next day. The relief expedition sent by the Union arrived too late to intervene.

Immediate presidential response[edit]

After the Battle of Fort Sumter, Lincoln realized the importance of taking immediate executive control of the war and making an overall strategy to put down the rebellion. Lincoln encountered an unprecedented political and military crisis, and he responded as commander-in-chief, using unprecedented powers. He expanded his war powers, and imposed a blockade on all the Confederate shipping ports, disbursed funds before appropriation by Congress, and after suspending habeas corpus, arrested and imprisoned thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers. Lincoln was supported by Congress and the northern public for these actions. In addition, Lincoln had to contend with reinforcing strong Union sympathies in the border slave states and keeping the war from becoming an international conflict.[95]

A group of men sitting at a table as another man creates money on a wooden machine.
"Running the 'Machine' ": An 1864 political cartoon takes a swing at Lincoln's administration—featuring William Fessenden, Edwin Stanton, William Seward, Gideon Welles, Lincoln and others.

The war effort was the source of continued disparagement of Lincoln, and dominated his time and attention. From the start, it was clear that bipartisan support would be essential to success in the war effort, and any manner of compromise alienated factions on both sides of the aisle, such as the appointment of Republicans and Democrats to command positions in the Union Army. Copperheads criticized Lincoln for refusing to compromise on the slavery issue. Conversely, the Radical Republicans criticized him for moving too slowly in abolishing slavery.[96] On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act of 1861 that authorized court proceedings to confiscate the slaves of anyone who participated in or aided the Confederate war effort. the act however, did not specify whether the slaves were free.[97] As a result of this ambiguity, slaves confiscated under this act were considered "contraband," a term emphasizing their status as captured enemy property, and became wards of the federal government.

As Union troops moved into Confederate-held territory during the first year of the War, more and more slaves came under the care of the Union Army. Some commanders put them to work digging entrenchments, building fortifications, and performing other camp work. Others, returned the slaves to their owners. In response, on March 13, 1862, Congress passed an act prohibiting the return of escaped slaves back into slavery.

In late August 1861, General John C. Frémont issued, without consulting his superiors in Washington, a proclamation of martial law in Missouri. He declared that any citizen found bearing arms could be court-martialed and shot, and that slaves of persons aiding the rebellion would be freed. Frémont was already under a cloud with charges of negligence in his command of the Department of the West compounded with allegations of fraud and corruption. Lincoln overruled Frémont's proclamation. Lincoln believed that Fremont's emancipation was political; neither militarily necessary nor legal.[98] After Lincoln acted, Union enlistments from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri increased by over 40,000 troops.[99]

Similarly, General David Hunter, the Union Army military commander of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, issued General Order No. 11 on May 9, 1862 freeing all slaves in areas under his command. Upon hearing of Hunter's action one week later, Lincoln immediately countermanded the order, thus returning the slaves to their former status as property in the care of the federal government.[100]

Lincoln painstakingly monitored the telegraphic reports coming into the War Department headquarters. He kept close tabs on all phases of the military effort, consulted with governors, and selected generals based on their past success (as well as their state and party). In January 1862, after many complaints of inefficiency and profiteering in the War Department, Lincoln replaced Simon Cameron with Edwin Stanton as War Secretary. Stanton was a staunchly Unionist pro-business conservative Democrat who moved toward the Radical Republican faction. Nevertheless, he worked more often and more closely with Lincoln than any other senior official. "Stanton and Lincoln virtually conducted the war together," say Thomas and Hyman.[101]

In terms of war strategy, Lincoln articulated two priorities: to ensure that Washington was well-defended, and to conduct an aggressive war effort that would satisfy the demand in the North for prompt, decisive victory; major Northern newspaper editors expected victory within 90 days.[102] Twice a week, Lincoln would meet with his cabinet in the afternoon, and occasionally Mary Lincoln would force him to take a carriage ride because she was concerned he was working too hard.[103] Lincoln learned from reading the theoretical book of his chief of staff General Henry Halleck, a disciple of the European strategist Jomini; he began to appreciate the critical need to control strategic points, such as the Mississippi River;.[104] Lincoln saw the importance of Vicksburg and understood the necessity of defeating the enemy's army, rather than simply capturing territory.[105]

General McClellan[edit]

After the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run and the retirement of the aged Winfield Scott in late 1861, Lincoln appointed Major General George B. McClellan general-in-chief of all the Union armies.[106] McClellan, a young West Point graduate, railroad executive, and Pennsylvania Democrat, took several months to plan and attempt his Peninsula Campaign, longer than Lincoln wanted. The campaign's objective was to capture Richmond by moving the Army of the Potomac by boat to the peninsula and then overland to the Confederate capital. McClellan's repeated delays frustrated Lincoln and Congress, as did his position that no troops were needed to defend Washington. Lincoln insisted on holding some of McClellan's troops in defense of the capital; McClellan, who consistently overestimated the strength of Confederate troops, blamed this decision for the ultimate failure of the Peninsula Campaign.[107]

Photograph of Lincoln and McClellan sitting at a table in a field tent
Lincoln and George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

Lincoln removed McClellan as general-in-chief in March 1862, after McClellan's "Harrison's Landing Letter", in which he offered unsolicited political advice to Lincoln urging caution in the war effort.[108] The office remained empty until July, when Henry Halleck was selected for it.[109] McClellan's letter incensed Radical Republicans, who successfully pressured Lincoln to appoint John Pope, a Republican, as head of the new Army of Virginia. Pope complied with Lincoln's strategic desire to move toward Richmond from the north, thus protecting the capital from attack.[110]

However, lacking requested reinforcements from McClellan, now commanding the Army of the Potomac, Pope was soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862, forcing the Army of the Potomac to defend Washington for a second time.[110] The war also expanded with naval operations in 1862 when the CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack, damaged or destroyed three Union vessels in Norfolk, Virginia, before being engaged and damaged by the USS Monitor. Lincoln closely reviewed the dispatches and interrogated naval officers during their clash in the Battle of Hampton Roads.[111]

Despite his dissatisfaction with McClellan's failure to reinforce Pope, Lincoln was desperate, and restored him to command of all forces around Washington, to the dismay of all in his cabinet but Seward.[112] Two days after McClellan's return to command, General Robert E. Lee's forces crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, leading to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.[113] The ensuing Union victory was among the bloodiest in American history, but it enabled Lincoln to announce that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation in January. Having composed the Proclamation some time earlier, Lincoln had waited for a military victory to publish it to avoid it being perceived as the product of desperation.[114]

McClellan then resisted the President's demand that he pursue Lee's retreating and exposed army, while his counterpart General Don Carlos Buell likewise refused orders to move the Army of the Ohio against rebel forces in eastern Tennessee. As a result, Lincoln replaced Buell with William Rosecrans; and, after the 1862 midterm elections, he replaced McClellan with Republican Ambrose Burnside. Both of these replacements were political moderates and prospectively more supportive of the Commander-in-Chief.[115]

Union soldiers before Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, just prior to the battle of May 3, 1863.

Burnside, against the advice of the president, prematurely launched an offensive across the Rappahannock River and was stunningly defeated by Lee at Fredericksburg in December. Not only had Burnside been defeated on the battlefield, but his soldiers were disgruntled and undisciplined. Desertions during 1863 were in the thousands and they increased after Fredericksburg.[116] Lincoln brought in Joseph Hooker, despite his record of loose talk about the need for a military dictatorship.[117]

The mid-term elections in 1862 brought the Republicans severe losses due to sharp disfavor with the administration over its failure to deliver a speedy end to the war, as well as rising inflation, new high taxes, rumors of corruption, the suspension of habeas corpus, the military draft law, and fears that freed slaves would undermine the labor market. The Emancipation Proclamation announced in September gained votes for the Republicans in the rural areas of New England and the upper Midwest, but it lost votes in the cities and the lower Midwest.[118]

While Republicans were discouraged, Democrats were energized and did especially well in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and New York. The Republicans did maintain their majorities in Congress and in the major states, except New York. The Cincinnati Gazette contended that the voters were "depressed by the interminable nature of this war, as so far conducted, and by the rapid exhaustion of the national resources without progress".[118]

In the spring of 1863, Lincoln was optimistic about upcoming military campaigns to the point of thinking the end of the war could be near if a string of victories could be put together; these plans included Hooker's attack on Lee north of Richmond, Rosecrans' on Chattanooga, Grant's on Vicksburg, and a naval assault on Charleston.[119]

Hooker was routed by Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May,[120] but continued to command his troops for some weeks. He ignored Lincoln's order to divide his troops, and possibly force Lee to do the same in Harper's Ferry, and tendered his resignation, which Lincoln accepted. He was replaced by George Meade, who followed Lee into Pennsylvania for the Gettysburg Campaign, which was a victory for the Union, though Lee's army avoided capture. At the same time, after initial setbacks, Grant laid siege to Vicksburg and the Union navy attained some success in Charleston harbor.[121] After the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln clearly understood that his military decisions would be more effectively carried out by conveying his orders through his War Secretary or his general-in-chief on to his generals, who resented his civilian interference with their own plans. Even so, he often continued to give detailed directions to his generals as Commander-in-Chief.[122]

Emancipation Proclamation[edit]

Lincoln met with his Cabinet for the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation draft on July 22, 1862. L-R: Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Welles, Caleb Smith, William H. Seward, Montgomery Blair and Edward Bates

Congress, in July 1862, took an pivotal step toward making "freeing the slaves" a paramount war objective by passing the Confiscation Act of 1862. Confederate official, military or civilian, who did not surrender within 60 days of the act's passage would have their slaves freed in criminal proceedings. The act would be applicable to all Confederate territory as it came under Union control. the act specified that slaves who came under the care of the army were free. It also formed the legal basis for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Throughout the first year and a half of his presidency, Lincoln made it clear that the North was fighting the war to preserve the Union. However, as events unfolded, freeing the slaves soon became an important wartime measure for weakening the rebellion by destroying the economic base of its leadership class. Abolitionists criticized Lincoln for his slowness in moving from his initial position of non-interference with slavery to one of emancipation. In an August 22, 1862, letter to Horace Greeley he explained:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was". ... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.[123]

The Emancipation Proclamation, announced on September 22 and put in effect January 1, 1863, applied in the eleven states that were still in rebellion in 1863, and thus did not cover the nearly 500,000 slaves in the slave-holding border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland or Delaware) which were Union states. Those slaves were freed by later separate state and federal actions. The state of Tennessee had already mostly returned to Union control, under a recognized Union government, so it was not named and was exempted. Virginia was named, but exemptions were specified for the 48 counties then in the process of forming the new state of West Virginia, and seven additional counties and two cities in the Union-controlled Tidewater region.[124] Also specifically exempted were New Orleans and 13 named parishes of Louisiana, which were mostly under federal control at the time of the Proclamation. These exemptions left unemancipated an additional 300,000 slaves.[125]

Gettysburg Address[edit]

Main article: Gettysburg Address

The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles of the War, ending with almost 50,000 casualties. Abraham Lincoln was invited to come to Gettysburg to dedicate the first national cemetery and honor the soldiers who had fallen. His Gettysburg address became a core statement of American political values. Lincoln's carefully crafted address, secondary to other presentations that day, was one of the greatest and most influential statements of national purpose. In just over two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union with "a new birth of freedom"[126] that would bring true equality to all of its people. Winning the war, he said, was essential to prove to the world that democracy was a viable form of government. Repeatedly he mentioned the themes of death for a great cause, the memory of the dead, and the rebirth of a new nation based on freedom.

The Gettysburg address is one of the most important speeches in American History. In it Lincoln redefined the national purpose in terms of unity, democracy and equality.

General Grant[edit]

Painting of four men conferring in a ship's cabin, entitled "The Peacemakers".
President Lincoln (center right) with, from left, Generals Sherman and Grant and Admiral Porter1868 painting of events aboard the River Queen in March 1865

Meade's failure to capture Lee's army as it retreated from Gettysburg, and the continued passivity of the Army of the Potomac, persuaded Lincoln that a change in command was needed. General Ulysses S. Grant's victories at the Battle of Shiloh and in the Vicksburg campaign impressed Lincoln and made Grant a strong candidate to head the Union Army. Responding to criticism of Grant after Shiloh, Lincoln had said, "I can't spare this man. He fights."[127] With Grant in command, Lincoln felt the Union Army could relentlessly pursue a series of coordinated offensives in multiple theaters, and have a top commander who agreed on the use of black troops.[128]

Nevertheless, Lincoln was concerned that Grant might be considering a candidacy for President in 1864, as McClellan was. Lincoln arranged for an intermediary to make inquiry into Grant's political intentions, and being assured that he had none, submitted to the Senate Grant's promotion to commander of the Union Army. He obtained Congress's consent to reinstate for Grant the rank of Lieutenant General, which no officer had held since George Washington.[129]

Grant, two months after being promoted to General-in-Chief in March 1864, embarked upon his bloody Overland Campaign. This is often characterized as a war of attrition, given high Union losses at battles such as the Battle of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Even though they had the advantage of fighting on the defensive, the Confederate forces had "almost as high a percentage of casualties as the Union forces".[130] The high casualty figures of the Union alarmed the North; Grant had lost a third of his army, and Lincoln asked what Grant's plans were, to which the general replied, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."[131]

The Confederacy lacked reinforcements, so Lee's army shrank with every costly battle. Grant's army moved south, crossed the James River, forcing a siege and trench warfare outside Petersburg, Virginia. Lincoln then made an extended visit to Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia. This allowed the president to confer in person with Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman about the hostilities, as Sherman coincidentally managed a hasty visit to Grant from his position in North Carolina.[132] Lincoln and the Republican Party mobilized support for the draft throughout the North, and replaced the Union losses.[133]

Lincoln authorized Grant to target the Confederate infrastructure—such as plantations, railroads, and bridges—hoping to shatter the South's morale and weaken its economic ability to continue fighting. Grant's move to Petersburg resulted in the obstruction of three railroads between Richmond and the South. This "scorched earth" strategy allowed Generals Sherman and Philip Sheridan to destroy plantations and towns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Sherman employed it during his November–December 1864 March to the sea, from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, during which he left a 60-mile (97 km) swath of destruction. Although his forces destroyed both civilian property and military targets, neither Lincoln nor his commanders saw destruction as the main goal, but rather defeat of the Confederate armies.

During the Valley Campaigns of 1864 Confederate general Jubal Early crossed the Potomac River, and advanced into Maryland. On July 11, two days after defeating Union forces under Maj. General Lew Wallace in the Battle of Monocacy, he attacked Fort Stevens, an outpost on the defensive perimeter of Washington. Lincoln was watching the combat from an exposed position; at one point during the skirmish Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes shouted at him, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!"[134] Afterward, Grant created the Army of the Shenandoah and put Sheridan in command; his orders were to repel Early, and to deal with Confederate guerrillas in the Shenandoah Valley; which he quickly did.[135]

As Grant continued to wear down Lee's forces, efforts to discuss peace began. After Lincoln won reelection in November 1864, Francis Preston Blair, a personal friend of both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, unsuccessfully encouraged Lincoln to make a diplomatic visit to Richmond.[136] Blair had advocated to Lincoln that the war could be brought to a close by having the two opposing sections of the nation stand down in their conflict, and reunite on grounds of the Monroe Doctrine in attacking the French-installed Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.[137] Then, on February 3, 1865, Lincoln and Seward held a conference at Hampton Roads with three representatives of the Confederate government—Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Robert M. T. Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell—to discuss terms to end the American Civil War. Lincoln refused to allow any negotiation with the Confederacy as a coequal; his sole objective was an agreement to end the fighting and the meetings produced no results.[138]

On April 1, 1865, Grant successfully outflanked Lee's forces in the Battle of Five Forks and nearly encircled Petersburg, and the Confederate government evacuated Richmond. Union troops entered the city on April 3, and two days later, Lincoln visited the vanquished Confederate capital. As he walked through the city, white Southerners were stone-faced, but freedmen greeted him as a hero, with one admirer remarking, "I know I am free for I have seen the face of Father Abraham and have felt him".[139] On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox and the war was effectively over.[140] Following Lee's surrender, other rebel armies soon did as well, and there was no subsequent guerrilla warfare as had been feared.

Domestic policy[edit]

While Lincoln is usually portrayed bearded, he first grew a beard in 1860 at the suggestion of 11-year-old Grace Bedell (Lincoln as a symbol of his opposition to war, never grew a mustache.)

Lincoln adhered to the Whig theory of the presidency, which gave Congress primary responsibility for writing the laws while the Executive enforced them. Lincoln vetoed only four bills passed by Congress; the only important one was the Wade-Davis Bill with its harsh program of Reconstruction.[141] He signed the Homestead Act in 1862, making millions of acres of government-held land in the West available for purchase at very low cost. The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, also signed in 1862, provided government grants for agricultural colleges in each state. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 granted federal support for the construction of the United States' First Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869.[142] The passage of the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Acts was made possible by the absence of Southern congressmen and senators who had opposed the measures in the 1850s.[143]

Other important legislation involved two measures to raise revenues for the Federal government: tariffs (a policy with long precedent), and a new Federal income tax. In 1861, Lincoln signed the second and third Morrill Tariff, the first having become law under James Buchanan. Also in 1861, Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1861, creating the first U.S. income tax.[144] This created a flat tax of 3 percent on incomes above $800 ($21,300 in current dollar terms), which was later changed by the Revenue Act of 1862 to a progressive rate structure.[145]

Lincoln also presided over the expansion of the federal government's economic influence in several other areas. The creation of the system of national banks by the National Banking Act provided a strong financial network in the country. It also established a national currency. In 1862, Congress created, with Lincoln's approval, the Department of Agriculture.[146] In 1862, Lincoln sent a senior general, John Pope, to put down the "Sioux Uprising" in Minnesota. Presented with 303 execution warrants for convicted Santee Dakota who were accused of killing innocent farmers, Lincoln conducted his own personal review of each of these warrants, eventually approving 39 for execution (one was later reprieved).[147] In his final two annual messages to Congress Lincoln called for reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal Indian policy. However, as the war to preserve the Union was Lincoln's primary concern, he simply allowed the system to function unchanged for the balance of his presidency.[148]

In the wake of Grant's casualties in his campaign against Lee, Lincoln had considered yet another executive call for a military draft, but it was never issued. In response to rumors of one, however, the editors of the New York World and the Journal of Commerce published a false draft proclamation which created an opportunity for the editors and others employed at the publications to corner the gold market. Lincoln's reaction was to send the strongest of messages to the media about such behavior; he ordered the military to seize the two papers. The seizure lasted for two days.[149]

Lincoln is largely responsible for the institution of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.[77] Before Lincoln's presidency, Thanksgiving, while a regional holiday in New England since the 17th century, had been proclaimed by the federal government only sporadically and on irregular dates. The last such proclamation had been during James Madison's presidency 50 years before. In 1863, Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November of that year to be a day of Thanksgiving.[77] In June 1864, Lincoln approved the Yosemite Grant enacted by Congress, which provided unprecedented federal protection for the area now known as Yosemite National Park.[150]

During the Civil War, Lincoln appropriated powers no previous President had wielded: he used his war powers to proclaim a blockade, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, spent money without congressional authorization, and imprisoned 18,000 suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial. Nearly all of his actions, although vehemently denounced by the Copperheads, were subsequently upheld by Congress and the Courts.

Foreign policy[edit]

Every nation was officially neutral throughout the American Civil War, and none recognized the Confederacy. That marked a major diplomatic achievement for Secretary Seward and the Lincoln Administration. France, under Napoleon III, had invaded Mexico and installed a puppet regime; it hoped to negate American influence. France therefore encouraged Britain in a policy of mediation suggesting that both would recognize the Confederacy.[151] Washington repeatedly warned that meant war. The British textile industry depended on cotton from the South, but it had stocks to keep the mills operating for a year and in any case the industrialists and workers carried little weight in British politics. Knowing a war would cut off vital shipments of American food, wreak havoc on the British merchant fleet, and cause the immediate loss of Canada, Britain, with its powerful Royal Navy, refused to go along.[152]

Lincoln's foreign policy was deficient in 1861 in terms of appealing to European public opinion. Diplomats had to explain that United States was not committed to the ending of slavery, but instead they repeated legalistic arguments about the unconstitutionality of secession. Confederate spokesman, on the other hand, were much more successful by ignoring slavery and instead focusing on their struggle for liberty, their commitment to free trade, and the essential role of cotton in the European economy. In addition, the European aristocracy (the dominant factor in every major country) was "absolutely gleeful in pronouncing the and American debacle as proof that the entire experiment in popular government had failed. European government leaders welcomed the fragmentation of the ascendant American Republic."[153]

Elite opinion in Britain tended to favor the Confederacy, while public opinion tended to favor the United States. Large scale trade continued in both directions with the United States, with the Americans shipping grain to Britain while Britain sent manufactured items and munitions. Immigration continued into the United States. British trade with the Confederacy was limited, with a trickle of cotton going to Britain and some munitions slipped in by numerous small blockade runners. The Confederate strategy for securing independence was largely based on the hope of military intervention by Britain and France, but Confederate diplomacy proved inept. With the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, it became a war against slavery that most British supported.[154]

A serious diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain arose late in 1861. The Union Navy intercepted a British mail ship, the Trent, on the high seas and seized two Confederate envoys en route to Europe. The incident aroused public outrage in Britain; the government of Lord Palmerston protested vehemently, while the American public cheered. Lincoln ended the crisis, known as the Trent Affair, by releasing the two diplomats, who had been seized illegally.[155] Concerning Lincoln's negotiating techniques during the Trent affair, biographer James G. Randall has written:

His restraint, his avoidance of any outward expression of truculence, his early softening of State Department's attitude toward Britain, his deference toward Seward and Sumner, his withholding of his own paper prepared for the occasion, his readiness to arbitrate, his golden silence in addressing Congress, his shrewdness in recognizing that war must be averted, and his clear perception that a point could be clinched for America's true position at the same time that full satisfaction was given to a friendly country.[156]

British financiers built and operated most of the blockade runners, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on them; but that was legal and not the cause of serious tension. They were staffed by sailors and officers on leave from the Royal Navy. When the U.S. Navy captured one of the fast blockade runners, it sold the ship and cargo as prize money for the American sailors, then released the crew.

A long-term issue was the British shipyard (John Laird and Sons) building two warships for the Confederacy, including the CSS Alabama,over vehement protests from the United States. The controversy was resolved after the Civil War in the form of the Alabama Claims, in which the United States finally was given $15.5 million in arbitration by an international tribunal for damages caused by British-built warships.[157]

In the end, these instances of British involvement neither shifted the outcome of the war nor provoked the United States into declaring war against Britain. The U.S. diplomatic mission headed by Minister Charles Francis Adams, Sr. proved much more successful than the Confederate missions, which were never officially recognized.[158]

Election of 1864[edit]

Lincoln and Johnson campaign poster

After a string of Union successes in 1863, victory over the Confederacy seemed at hand. Those hopes all but evaporated when the 1864 spring campaigns all turned into bloody stalemates, with alarmingly high Union casualty figures. When radical Republicans attempted to push Secretary of State Seward out of office and then held a dissident convention just prior to the June Republican Convention, Lincoln responded by quietly reaching out to War Democrats. He easily won renomination on the first ballot, and selected Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union Democrat from Tennessee as his running mate. They ran on the new Union Party ticket.[1][159]

The Democratic Party selected General George McClellan as its presidential nominee, and adopted a platform, written primarily by the peace wing of the party, declaring the war a "failure", and calling for an immediate ceasefire and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. That summer, as the number of Union casualties in Grant’s war of attrition against the Confederacy continued to mount (some 48,000 killed and wounded in May and June 1864), public sentiment for ending the bloodletting grew.[159]

By August, Republicans across the country were experiencing feelings of extreme anxiety, fearing that Lincoln would be defeated. The outlook was so grim that Thurlow Weed told the president directly that his "re-election was an impossibility." Acknowledging this, Lincoln wrote and signed a pledge that, if he should lose the election, he would nonetheless defeat the Confederacy by an all-out military effort before turning over the White House:[160]

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.[161]

Lincoln did not show the pledge to his cabinet, but asked them to sign the sealed envelope. (After winning in November, Lincoln revealed to his cabinet.) The president also requested Frederick Douglass to develop a plan for as helping as many slaves as possible to escape from the South before his term expired.[162][163]

1864 Electoral College vote results

Lincoln’s re-election prospects grew brighter after the Union Navy, under Admiral David Farragut seized Mobile Bay in late August, and General Sherman captured Atlanta a few weeks later.[159] These victories relieved Republicans' defeatist anxieties, energized the Union-Republican alliance, and helped to restore popular support for the administration’s war strategy. With these victories, the underlying disarray within the Democratic Party came to the surface. While the party platform condemned the Union war effort and called for rapprochement with the South, their candidate, McClellan, supported the war and repudiated the platform. Likewise, while the platform was developed the more extreme wing of the party that degtested Lincoln and his administration's war policies, a great many Northern Democrats viewed Lincoln as the best hope of keeping the Union together.[1]

On November 8, 1864, 55 percent of American voters signaled that they wanted the war to end the war with a Union victory rather than an untenable draw, as Lincoln was easily re-elected in a landslide. He won all but three states, capturing 212 of 233 electoral votes.

Second inauguration[edit]

Photograph showing Abraham Lincoln delivering his speech at his second presidential inauguration, March 4, 1865

Lincoln was inaugurated for a second term as president on March 4, 1865 on the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase administered the oath of office. African Americans participated in the inaugural parade for the first time afterward.[164]

In his inaugural address, Lincoln was looking both at the past and toward the future, casting a vision for healing a "house divided" by bloody conflict.

Fellow–Countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. . . .

Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. . . .

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[165]

While Lincoln did not believe his address was particularly well received at the time, it is now generally considered one of the finest speeches in American history. Historian Mark Noll has deemed it "among the handful of semisacred texts by which Americans conceive their place in the world."[166] The address is inscribed on the north chamber wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.[167]


During the summer of 1863, Lincoln and his Cabinet began to ponder the questions of how to reintegrate the rebellious states back into the Union, and what to do with Confederate leaders and with the freed slaves. By the end of that year, the Union Army had pushed Confederate forces out of several regions of the South]], and some states were ready to have their governments reconstituted. On December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction that established a process through this postwar reconstruction could come about.[168] One component of the proclamation, commonly known as the ten percent plan, decreed that a state in rebellion could be reintegrated into the Union when 10% of the 1860 vote count from that state had taken an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and pledged to abide by Emancipation. Voters could then elect delegates to draft revised state constitutions and establish new state governments. By 1864, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas had established fully functioning unionist governments.

Radical Republicans thought that policy was too lenient. They proposed an "ironclad oath" that would have prevented anyone who supported the Confederacy from voting in Southern elections, and passed their own plan, the Wade-Davis Bill, in 1864. Lincoln vetoed Wade-Davis, and the Radicals retaliated by refusing to seat representatives elected from the three states with reconstituted governments.[169]

Lincoln was determined to find a course of action that would reunite the nation as soon as possible and not permanently alienate the Southerners. When Lincoln went to Richmond, Virginia on April 5 to survey the fallen capital of the Confederacy for himself, he was asked by General Godfrey Weitzel how the defeated Confederates should be treated; Lincoln replied, "Let 'em up easy."[170] Historian Eric Foner notes that no one knows what Lincoln would have done about Reconstruction, and asserts that "Lincoln's ideas would undoubtedly have continued to evolve."[171] However, Foner also asserts that,

Unlike Sumner and other Radicals, Lincoln did not see Reconstruction as an opportunity for a sweeping political and social revolution beyond emancipation. He had long made clear his opposition to the confiscation and redistribution of land. He believed, as most Republicans did in April 1865, that the voting requirements should be determined by the states. He assumed that political control in the South would pass to white Unionists, reluctant secessionists, and forward-looking former Confederates. But time and again during the war, Lincoln, after initial opposition, and come to embrace positions first advanced by abolitionists and Radical Republicans..... Lincoln undoubtedly would have listened carefully to the outcry for further protection for the former slaves.... It is entirely plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing on a Reconstruction policy that encompassed federal protection for basic civil rights plus limited black suffrage, along the lines Lincoln proposed just before his death." [171]

Lincoln biographers James G. Randall and Richard Current, according to David Lincove, argue that:

It is likely that had he lived, Lincoln would have followed a policy similar to Johnson's, that he would have clashed with congressional radicals, that he would have produced a better result for the freedmen than occurred, and that his political skills would have helped him avoid Johnson's mistakes.[172]

Constitutional amendments[edit]

States admitted to the Union[edit]

Two new states were admitted to the Union while Lincoln was in office:

  • West Virginia – June 20, 1863[174]
    West Virginia is one of 3 states that were set off from already existing states (Kentucky and Maine are the others). On May 13, 1862, the General Assembly of the Restored Government of Virginia passed an act granting permission for creation of West Virginia.[175] Later, by its ruling in Virginia v. West Virginia (1871), the Supreme Court implicitly affirmed that the breakaway Virginia counties did have the proper consents necessary to become a separate state.[176]
  • Nevada – October 31, 1864[177]
    Enabling acts for three territories, Colorado, Nebraska and Nevada, were passed by Congress in March 1864. Nebraska’s constitutional convention voted against statehood, while voters in Colorado did not approve the proposed state constitution.[178][179]


The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel, 1868.

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre with his wife and two guests. Lincoln was shot in the back of his head by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The Mortally wounded president was immediately examined by a doctor in the audience and then carried across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House where he died At 7:22 a.m. the following morning.[180]

Booth had also plotted with fellow conspirators, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt to also kill Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson. They hoped to revive the Confederate cause by creating chaos through destabilizing the federal government. Although Booth succeeded in killing Lincoln, the larger plot failed. Seward was attacked, but recovered from his wounds, and Johnson's would-be assassin fled Washington upon losing his nerve.

Lincoln's body lay in state in the East Room of the White House and then in the Capitol Rotunda through April 21, when his coffin was taken to the B&O Station.[181] Funeral services were held in Washington, D.C., and then at additional locations as the funeral train retraced, with a few alterations, Lincoln's 1,654 miles (2,662 km) 1861 journey as president-elect.[182] He was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield on May 4.

Historical reputation[edit]

Lincoln's image is carved into the stone of Mount Rushmore.

In surveys of U.S. scholars ranking presidents conducted since the 1940s, Lincoln is consistently ranked in the top three, often as number one.[183][184] A 2004 study found that scholars in the fields of history and politics ranked Lincoln number one, while legal scholars placed him second after Washington.[185] In presidential ranking polls conducted in the United States since 1948, Lincoln has been rated at the very top in the majority of polls: Schlesinger 1948, Schlesinger 1962, 1982 Murray Blessing Survey, Chicago Tribune 1982 poll, Schlesinger 1996, C-SPAN 1996, Ridings-McIver 1996, Time 2008, C-SPAN 2009 and C-SPAN 2017. Generally, the top three presidents are rated as 1. Lincoln; 2. George Washington; and 3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, although Lincoln and Washington, and Washington and Roosevelt, are occasionally reversed.[186]

President Lincoln's assassination increased his status to the point of making him a national martyr. Lincoln was viewed by abolitionists as a champion for human liberty. Republicans linked Lincoln's name to their party. Many, though not all, in the South considered Lincoln as a man of outstanding ability.[187]

Schwartz argues that Lincoln's reputation grew slowly in the late 19th century until the Progressive Era (1900–1920s) when he emerged as one of the most venerated heroes in American history, with even white Southerners in agreement. The high point came in 1922 with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[188] In the New Deal era liberals honored Lincoln not so much as the self-made man or the great war president, but as the advocate of the common man who they believe would have supported the welfare state. In the Cold War years, Lincoln's image shifted to emphasize the symbol of freedom who brought hope to those oppressed by communist regimes.[189]

By the 1970s Lincoln had become a hero to political conservatives[190] for his intense nationalism, support for business, his insistence on stopping the spread of human bondage, his acting in terms of Lockean and Burkean principles on behalf of both liberty and tradition, and his devotion to the principles of the Founding Fathers.[191][192][193] As a Whig activist, Lincoln was a spokesman for business interests, favoring high tariffs, banks, internal improvements, and railroads in opposition to the agrarian Democrats.[194] William C. Harris found that Lincoln's "reverence for the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the laws under it, and the preservation of the Republic and its institutions undergirded and strengthened his conservatism".[195] James G. Randall emphasizes his tolerance and especially his moderation "in his preference for orderly progress, his distrust of dangerous agitation, and his reluctance toward ill digested schemes of reform". Randall concludes that, "he was conservative in his complete avoidance of that type of so-called 'radicalism' which involved abuse of the South, hatred for the slaveholder, thirst for vengeance, partisan plotting, and ungenerous demands that Southern institutions be transformed overnight by outsiders."[196]

By the late 1960s, liberals, such as historian Lerone Bennett, were having second thoughts, especially regarding Lincoln's views on racial issues.[197][198] Bennett won wide attention when he called Lincoln a white supremacist in 1968.[199] He noted that Lincoln used ethnic slurs, told jokes that ridiculed blacks, insisted he opposed social equality, and proposed sending freed slaves to another country. Defenders, such as authors Dirck and Cashin, retorted that he was not as bad as most politicians of his day;[200] and that he was a "moral visionary" who deftly advanced the abolitionist cause, as fast as politically possible.[201] The emphasis shifted away from Lincoln-the-emancipator to an argument that blacks had freed themselves from slavery, or at least were responsible for pressuring the government on emancipation.[202][203] Historian Barry Schwartz wrote in 2009 that Lincoln's image suffered "erosion, fading prestige, benign ridicule" in the late 20th century.[204] On the other hand, Donald opined in his 1996 biography that Lincoln was distinctly endowed with the personality trait of negative capability, defined by the poet John Keats and attributed to extraordinary leaders who were "content in the midst of uncertainties and doubts, and not compelled toward fact or reason".[205]


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Works Cited

Klein, Maury (1997). Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-44747-4. 

Primary and contemporary sources[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
Lincoln Presidency
Succeeded by
A. Johnson