Abraham Lincoln is one of our former presidents whose legacy has taken on a life of its own. He is remembered for a great many things. A log cabin, being honest, a rail splitter, a lawyer, a great orator, a former president, a great emancipator. In all of those descriptions, much of Abraham Lincoln is lost. He wasn’t always a supporter of emancipation; those views would evolve over the course of his lifetime. His views on racial equality are not what most people would expect them to be. In this podcast, I hope to shed some light on who Lincoln was and what shaped the tall unassuming man who became a historical legend for many.
Many Presidents before him attempted to come across as having come from humble beginnings, but there was no marketing campaign necessary to paint that picture of Lincoln. He was born on February 12, 1809 and lived in a one room log cabin with his family in Kentucky. When he was 7, his family moved to Indiana, where he helped his father build another log cabin for his family to live in. At the age of 9, Abraham Lincoln’s mother died. His father Thomas remarried and his stepmother had a strong influence on him. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying that she was his best friend. I always find it interesting how a person’s early years help to shape the people they turn out to be. Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and farmer. His religious beliefs were similar to those of Calvinists. He was descendants of Puritans and Quakers. Thomas Lincoln believed slavery to be wrong. A belief Abraham Lincoln shared. In 1830, the Lincoln family moved to Illinois. The father/son relationship was strained as a result of Thomas’ strict nature and often demanded his son complete laborious chores for him and for others in return for money. His father was uneducated and Abraham Lincoln’s love of learning came from both of his mothers who had tutored him themselves. His stepmother enrolled him in school. When it came to his education he had very little formal education. He spent a very short amount of time attending formal schools. Unlike previous presidents who had college degrees from prestigious universities and colleges, Lincoln was mostly self-taught. He was an avid reader. There are stories of his fellow Congressmen in the House of Representatives noting how he spent as much time as he could be reading over the books held in The Library of Congress. To appreciate the full extent of his intellect, one only has to look at his speeches. His use of language and choice of words. His love of Shakespeare and poetry are evident. You can see just how intelligent, well read and analytical it was. He was concise with his wording – he could say in a paragraph what others would take multiple pages to.
Born of humble means with very little opportunities presented to him, Abraham Lincoln had to make his own way in the world. He held a variety of jobs before becoming a lawyer and entering politics. He ferried people across the Ohio River, He was a rail splitter, making fences, he worked in a general store. All the while reading and studying grammar and history. He enlisted in the US military and served in the Black Hawk War. It was a very brief conflict – only lasting a few months over a group of Native Americans attempting to move back to their ancestral lands in 1832. You will note this is during The Presidency of Andrew Jackson and in the thick of Indian Removal treaties. Lincoln never saw actual combat but he was selected by his peers to serve as Captain. He was appointed to be the Postmaster General of New Salem Illinois and would deliver letters held under his signature top hat. In 1834, he was elected to the Illinois state legislature. It was then that he began to study law. Reading law books given to him by fellow State Congressmen. He was admitted to the Illinois State Bar and worked as a lawyer for 23 years. He built a very successful law practice in Illinois, all while serving 4 terms in the State Legislature and the one term that he served in US House of Representatives. He had made a name for himself campaigning on behalf of Whig Candidates such as Henry Clay and Zachary Taylor. He briefly left the world of politics and returned with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln to Illinois and continued to practice Law.
Abraham Lincoln met Mary Todd and they were married in 1842. Mary Lincoln was from a prominent and wealthy Kentucky family. She had relatives who helped to found the city of Lexington. Her family were slave owners and on her mother side, she was related to John Brown, whose failed raid at Harper’s Ferry was considered one of the causes of the Civil War. They had 4 sons, but only 1 Robert Lincoln, would survive until adulthood. Their son, Willie Lincoln died of fever during Lincoln’s Presidency.
Lincoln made two failed attempts to run for a US Senate seat in Illinois. In 1858, when he received his party’s nomination for a US Senate seat in Illinois, he gave his famous A House Divided cannot stand speech. It is considered today to be one of the most important speeches in US History. In it, he stated
"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.”
In 1858, he ran against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas traveled throughout the state of Illinois partaking in a series of 7 three hour long debates. People traveled great distances to hear the two men debate and the transcripts were often reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. The main topic of the debates was slavery. The 7 cities the debates were held in represented 7 of the 9 congressional districts in the state. These debates were really the first of its kind. Stephen A. Douglas was very well known politically. So this Senate race was watched very closely. Attending speeches was considered entertainment. Thousands of people traveled to watch these 3 hour long debates. New technologies like railroad and telegraphs made it possible for the candidates’ words to be reprinted in newspapers the next day. While US Senators were not directly elected yet, but chosen by state legislatures, there was great interest on the part of the American public. Lincoln lost that election in 1858, but it set the stage for victory in 1860. He became very well known throughout the Northern States and he helped to campaign for other Republican candidates. People knew the name Abraham Lincoln. They could use his previous debates to see where he stood on the issues.
When it comes to Lincoln’s views on slavery and race it’s important to understand a number of things.
While he considered slavery to be immoral and was against the spread of slavery into the territories, it is important to understand that Lincoln was not a supporter of Equality. If you read any of the wide variety of books and Biographies on Lincoln (There are MANY) a number of historians all come to the same conclusion. Lincoln’s views on slavery and race evolve over the course of his life. The bulk of that evolution occurring during his presidency. Even the Civil War began as a political war – a war to preserve the union. It would eventually become a Moral War – a war to end slavery – but that came later.
Lincoln, for a time, advocated (as many people did at the time) to move blacks to a colony in Africa. This was not an uncommon position. Many former Presidents like Jefferson and Monroe (for whom the capital of Liberia is named after) felt that Blacks and Whites couldn’t coexist peacefully together in the same society. In his home state of Illinois, freed blacks didn’t have the right to vote, hold elected office, there were a variety of black codes passed in the state. One of those codes prevented black persons from entering the state and staying longer than 10 days. It was illegal for black persons to gather in groups of more than 3 just to give you an idea of how restrictive they were. Abraham Lincoln holds political office representing Illinois on both a state and federal level. There is no proof of him speaking out against these laws. Even within the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858 that we discussed earlier. His stance is very clear. Stop slavery from spreading into the territories.
Lincoln’s cooper union address – along with the Lincoln – Douglas debates of 1858, give him the name recognition and support he needs to secure his party’s nomination and win the presidency. In the speech, Lincoln addresses the question of whether or not the federal government has the right to control slavery in the territories. His well thought out response to that question shows his great knowledge of history, his deep understanding of the law and his reverence and respect for the law and most importantly, the constitution. In that speech, Lincoln points to thing like the Northwest Ordinance, The Louisiana Purchase and then individual states willingly ceding territories to form new states. Each pointing to the original framers of the constitution who were present for each respective example and how the republican platform on preventing slavery in the territories was not a new radical idea, but one that has been present in American democratic beliefs since our country’s inception. Towards the end of the speech, he addresses the south directly. He asks them to take a long hard look at how they view republicans and republican ideals. That their opinions of republicans are misguided and to bring forth proof to back up their opinions.
The election of 1860 very much mirrored the division within the country. We discussed the election in a previous podcast at length, but I just want to briefly review. The democrats who were deeply divided, put up two candidates Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge who was Buchanan’s VP and represented Southern Democrats. A third candidate put up by the short lived Constitutional Party, John Bell and the Republicans of course put up Abraham Lincoln. Stephen A. Douglas was the only candidate that actively campaigned on his own behalf. It simply was just not the custom to do that. Instead, party representatives would travel and speak on the candidate’s behalf. Lincoln won the election with just under 40 % of the popular vote. The very thing southerners had feared throughout the campaign, had just happened. Lincoln had attempted to ease the worry of southerners during the campaign. They were not persuaded. Southerners took the overwhelming Northern vote for Lincoln as a clear message that the North didn’t care if the South remained in the Union. Lincoln wanted to ensure that the Union would be preserved. In addition to being the first Republican President, Lincoln was also the first to not be a member of a particular church. Like every President before him, he took the oath of office with his hand placed over a bible. He never voiced strong Christian convictions. He was quoted as saying that he believed the scriptures to be true but never went deeper than that. The famous Lincoln Bible that is held in the Library of Congress and our passed two Presidents (Barack Obama and Donald Trump famously used at their inaugurations didn’t belong to him until he arrived for his own inauguration. His family Bible was still in route to Washington DC.
By the time of Lincoln’s Inauguration, 7 states had already seceded from the Union starting with South Carolina in Dec. of 1860. Mindful of not to cause further secession, Lincoln addressed southern fears directly in his inaugural address. In it he stated:
“In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it… We are not enemies, but friends.”
Lincoln was clear that he believed secession to be illegal and had every intention of enforcing federal law throughout the entire United States, including areas that had seceded.
Lincoln quickly set out to work. His cabinet consisted of men who represented a variety of regions and were well known and seasoned politicians. Even former political rivals like William H. Seward who lost the republican presidential nomination to Lincoln was his secretary of State. He met with them regularly and even personally went to the Secretary of war department sometimes twice a day to get the most up to date information. If you are looking for more specific information on what the white house was like during his presidency, whitehousehistory.org has a great deal of information. His Vice President was Hannibal Hamlin, a former lawyer and senator from Maine. Like the Vice President’s before him, Hannibal Hamlin didn’t have much of a role in the executive branch. The Vice President was the President of the senate and supported the president’s agenda there.
Abraham Lincoln was elected to two terms as President but would only serve a little over a month into his second term. His Presidency was consumed with the Civil War. A war he hoped could be avoided but came on April 12, 1861 with the confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Union officers surrendered after 33 hours. Each side thought the war would last just a few months but couldn’t have been more wrong. The Civil War would go on to become the bloodiest war in American History and lasted from 1861-1865. We will go into specifics on the Civil War and The confederacy in our next podcast. In this podcast, we are going to do a brief overview. Lincoln was willing to do whatever it took to win the war. If that meant keeping slavery, so be it, if it meant abolishing slavery, he was willing to do that too. It is important to note that the Civil War began as a political war. A war to preserve the union. Lincoln’s own feelings on abolition and race relations would evolve during the course of his presidency just as the purpose of the war would change. A few Days after the capture of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for Volunteers from state Militias to fight in the war. 4 more southern states voted for secession bringing the total number of confederate states to 11. The Confederate capital was in Richmond Virginia under 100 miles away from Washington DC. With the secession of Virgina, keeping
the border states became critical for the Union. During the Civil War, Washington D.C. was heavily fortified. Thousands of volunteers joined state militias. Many troops were housed within the Capital building which was under construction. A new fireproof dome was being constructed. Many felt construction should be delayed, but Lincoln felt it was important symbolically to continue on. His body would lie in state under that completed dome just a few years later. The Lincoln’s entertained in the white house frequently but the strain of the civil war and the death of their young song Willy to typhoid fever cast a dark shadow on their white house years.
Domestically, he is of course dealing with the civil war and preserving the Union. In addition to that we also see a number of important Acts passed. As we know, Lincoln started out as a farmer before he got into politics and became a lawyer. He understands the plight of farmers. The US is still predominantly an Agrarian society at this point. So we see things like the Morrill Act of 1862 which allowed for the sale of federal lands to build universities in western states and territories that focused on Agriculture and mechanical arts. There were other Morrill Acts passed in later years. Some of the schools created by this just to give you an idea, Iowa state university, Auburn University, Texas A&M & Cornell University.
The Homestead Act of 1862 which we will talk more about in a future podcast on Westward Expansion. This act helped to encourage westward settlement by offering 160 acres of land for free as long as they settled the land and lived there for 5 years.
Lincoln also created the Department of Agriculture. He called it “the people’s department” At its creation, the majority of Americans still lived on farms. Today, it’s around 2% but the work the USDA does is very important. The USDA deals with issues concerning farming, forestry, ranching, food quality and nutrition.
When it came to the Civil War, Lincoln proved to be an able leader. The conflict consumed his presidency. He often went to the office of the Sec of War to get consistent updates of the battles instead of requesting that Sec of war Stanton come to him.
His first choice for a General, Robert E. Lee turned him down, choosing to side with the Confederacy after his beloved Virginia left the Union. Lincoln went through a number of Generals, but it wasn’t until towards the end of the war in 1864, with Ulysses S Grant, that Lincoln had a general with the will needed to go after the enemy and end the war. During the war, Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus. This allowed the Union to arrest and detain anyone “engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States” Sec. of War Stanton. No longer would they have the right to go before a judge and have them determine the legality of the detainment.
They say hindsight is 20/20 but Lincoln had no way of knowing how the war would end. The many early Confederate successes, the looming fear over whether or not Great Britain would recognize the Confederacy all took its toll. By 1862, Lincoln believed Emancipation was necessary. He had to be mindful of how and when he made this public. He couldn’t afford to anger the Border States, especially Maryland, if Maryland seceded, the capital of the union would be in the Confederacy. With emancipation would come a renewed sense of WHY we were fighting this war and a steady new supply of men who had been more than willing to fight, but had turned away because of the color of their skin. At the start of the war, Lincoln’s request for volunteers provided a steady supply of men to fight for the union, but as casualties continued to climb, conscription or a draft became necessary. The 1863 act required men between the ages of 20-45 to serve in the military. There were some loopholes one could use to avoid service. Men with wealth could avoid the draft by purchasing exemptions for $300 or by getting a substitute to fight in their place. These policies are why the civil war is often referred to as a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. It wasn’t until the 2nd battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln had the military successes he needed to gain support for the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the summer of 1862, Lincoln invited a number of well-known leaders of the Black community to the White House to discuss ideas of what a post emancipation America would look like. Frederick Douglas was a critic of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s views on colonization and the in ability of whites and blacks to coexist peacefully was a common theory of the time period. One held by former Presidents as well. Frederick Douglas would go on to become an advisor to President Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The Emancipation Proclamation was written by Lincoln at the cottage he spent the summer months in with his family. Soldier’s House just north of Washington DC served as the backdrop of the evolution of Lincoln’s views on Emancipation. The Emancipation proclamation was issued in Sept. of 1862. The act gave southern confederate states in rebellion 100 days to rejoin the union. If they didn’t, as of January 1, 1863, their slaves would be freed. Now, from the southern perspective, it was an outrageous claim and had no legal bearing. BUT AS the Union army liberated areas from Confederate control, more and more people would be freed. The Proclamation didn’t free enslaved people in the territories or border states. Only states in open rebellion. The Proclamation also allowed Black Americans to serve in the war. Many of whom had tried when the war began. Now, they could help fight the war that wouldn’t just preserve the union, but a war that would bring an end to slavery. With one stroke of a pen, Lincoln changed the purpose of the war. Frederick Douglass worked to help enlist Black Americans into the Army and visited Lincoln at the White a number of times.
The Battle of Gettysburg took place over 3 days in July of 1863. It was the second time Gen. Lee invaded the North. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and ended in Union Victory. Months later in November of 1863, the battle field at Gettysburg was dedicated as a National Cemetery. Lincoln was invited to speak as an afterthought. The first speaker, a well-known orator at the time spoke for over 2 hours. Lincoln spoke for just over 2 minutes. His Gettysburg Address, short, to the point and hit the nail right on the head. In that 272-word speech, Lincoln used the ideals in the Declaration of Independence that this country was created on the notion that all men are created equal. That the war that they were fighting was a test to see if this unique nation can survive. While many had grown weary of war and the loss of lives, that we owed it to those men who gave their lives to finish what we started. To this is day, it is considered one of the most important speeches in American History.
The success at Gettysburg was followed by a number of losses for the union. The odds were stacked against Lincoln winning reelection in 1864, the war had dragged on longer than expected, the death toll was so high, and the Union had suffered a number of significant losses. Some wanted Lincoln to delay the election, thinking if they could hold it off for a few months he would have a better chance of winning. It had never been done and Lincoln disagreed with postponement.
Lincoln’s Democratic opponent was General George McClellan. Lincoln had relieved him from command of the union army. He considered him unfit to lead the army and even more unfit to lead the union. The Democratic Platform of 1864 was end the civil war through an armistice. Where the Republicans sought to abolish slavery, the democrats were not tied to it. They tried to paint Lincoln as a tyrant whose actions were unconstitutional. He did after all suspend a writ of habeas corpus and declare martial law in certain areas. He had also refused to adhere to a Supreme Court ruling.
Lincoln’s Plan for Reconstruction, known as the 10 % plan was seen as too sympathetic towards the south. Many Radical Republicans disliked Lincoln’s plan which they wanted to have replaced with their own which required 50% of southern population to sign a loyalty oath compared to Lincoln’s 10%. Lincoln wanted the former Confederate states back in the union as quickly as possible. The Radical Republicans wanted them punished. To balance the ticket and to extend an olive branch towards the south, Lincoln’s running mate was changed. Andrew Johnson, a southern democrat, former supporter of slavery was added to the ticket. The message was clear; the union would once again work with the south. No one had that crystal ball, and no way of knowing that in just a few weeks, Lincoln would be gone and a southern democrat would be leading the union. Union victories towards the end of 1864 and Lincoln’s campaign slogan of “Don’t change a horse midstream” helped to put him over the top.
Lincoln won 212 electoral college votes to McClellan’s 21.
At his inauguration in March of 1865, Lincoln gave a beautiful speech at the end he stated “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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
In late 1864, Sherman’s march to the sea was different from other Civil War Campaigns. His plan was to have soldiers live off of the land and inflict as much destruction as possible. Anything that could be used by Confederate soldiers was burned. Burned buildings leaving nothing but chimneys behind them, Looted Homes, destroyed railroad lines, cotton crops. The damage totaled 100 million dollars. The very victory that had helped Lincoln win reelection. He then moved on to South Carolina where the Civil War began, the destruction Sherman’s Army left in his path in Ga paled in comparison to what they did in the Carolinas.
The Confederacy was barely holding on. High inflation, very little supplies or food.
After the Fall of Richmond in April of 1865, Jefferson Davis fled south and ordered the Confederate army to continue to fight. The Confederates burned most of Richmond before they left. Lincoln traveled to Richmond after its capture. He went to the Confederate White House and sat at Davis’ desk. In just a few days Lee would surrender and a few days after that Lincoln would be assassinated.
Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox
April 9, 1865
After days of continued battles and his army steadily losing men, no supplies, significantly outnumbered, Lee was left with no choice but to surrender. He stated he would rather die a thousand deaths than surrender.
Lee Surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. There were more generals that would surrender after that and more battles that would continue to be fought, but the Civil War was at an end.
Lincoln wanted the southerners when the war was over to be welcomed back to the United States. He had a plan, but he would not live to see it put in motion. The reins of power would be placed in the hands of other men.
Lincoln’s assassination was actually a much larger plot.
John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s inauguration in 1865. Booth was a supporter of slavery, while he briefly enlisted in the Virginia militia so that he could watch the hanging of John Brown, never fought for the Confederacy in The Civil War.
Originally John Wilkes Booth had planned to kidnap President Lincoln in exchange for confederate prisoners of war. When Lincoln changed his plans, their plot was foiled. Upon hearing that the President and General Grant were set to attend the play “Our American cousin” at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth conspired with others to not only kill Lincoln and Grant, but to also kill VP Andrew Johnson and Sec of State William H. Seward. Louis Paine, whose real name was Louis Powell, forced his way into the home of Sec of State Seward and stabbed him multiple times in the face and neck, Paine fled the scene and Seward recovered from the attack. The man who was supposed to kill Andrew Johnson chickened out and never followed through with the plan. Booth however was a man on a mission. He hated Lincoln and wanted him dead.
April 14, 1865
President Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln were originally supposed to attend with Gen. Grant and his wife. Mrs. Grant didn’t like Mary Lincoln, they didn’t attend. The President was not protected like he is today. Booth was able to get to the box where the President was seated and shot him, jumped off the balcony onto the stage, breaking his leg. Booth had escaped but was captured 12 days later. He was killed after he refused to surrender. His diary outlined his feelings on Lincoln’s assassination.
“ After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat.” – John Wilkes Booth
His diary and the death clothes of Abraham Lincoln are on display at Ford’s Theater.
Lincoln who was shot in the back of the head but was still alive. He was brought to a boarding house across the street where he died the next day. Lincoln lied in state in both the White House and in the capital building. Under the very same dome he had insisted be finished during the Civil War. His body was taken by train to Illinois, making several stops along the way for citizens to pay their respects to the fallen president. The casket of his son, Willie who had died during his Presidency was, moved to Springfield to be buried alongside his father. Few items hold the same interest as the Black Brooks Brother’s Jacket Lincoln wore the night he died, maybe the pink suit Mrs. Kennedy wore the day President Kennedy was assassinated. His clothes and John Wilkes Booth’s diary are on display at Ford’s it is the same jacket he wore for his second inauguration. The words One country, one destiny embroidered on the inside of the coat. He would not live to see what the destiny would be of the country he fought so hard to preserve.