Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Two hundred years after his birth, Abraham Lincoln's historical importance endures. A man of his time - humbly born, self-taught, and ambitious - he seized the opportunities of an expansive society to rise to the country's highest office. A man for all times, Lincoln's strong principles, timeless rhetoric, and resolute leadership have contributed to his status as a globally-recognized figure.

Young Lincoln
Lincoln's experiences as a young man nurtured his belief in the merits of hard work. He developed a deep commitment to self-improvement, a yearning to escape the drudgery of the land, and an ambition to make his mark.

On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky. From an early age, Lincoln knew hardship. His mother and sister died when he was young, and he had little formal education.

As a young man, Lincoln read widely. When he was nineteen, he traveled down the Mississippi River and saw the horrors of slavery firsthand. He witnessed a slave auction and was affected by the separation of families.

Lincoln's lifelong opposition to slavery was deeply rooted in his experiences, as well as his understanding of the Declaration of Independence, which outlines the inalienable rights of Americans: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Lincoln always hated slavery and wished it eliminated. He feared for the fate of the American republic if slavery continued. Lincoln had both personal prejudice and political reticence to overcome on the issue of race, the greatest test of his presidential and moral leadership.

In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd, the daughter of a prosperous Kentucky businessman. She reportedly said of her husband, "He is to be President of the United States some day. If I had not thought so I would never have married him, for you can see he is not pretty."

Lincoln was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846. His term was marked by opposition to the Mexican American War and his support of a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC.

While in Washington, Lincoln also argued a case before the Supreme Court and applied for and later received a patent for a device to lift boats over shallow waters, making him the only president to hold a patent.

The Path to the Presidency
Lincoln's vision rested on a belief that all individuals, through their industry, enterprise, and self-discipline, to rise in an increasingly fluid and market-oriented society. He vigorously opposed the exclusion of anyone - based on race, religion, or national origins - from this right. 

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened slavery to western territories once deemed forever free, inspired Lincoln to join the new antislavery Republican Party. He had never doubted that slavery was wrong, but until this point Lincoln had thought that the institution would gradually die.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, a provision the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later ignited a firestorm. In Kansas, pro-slavery settlers from Missouri fought free-soil settlers and abolitionists. Violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas left more than 50 dead in 1856.

"Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men...ours began, by affirming those rights...We proposed to give all a chance." -Notes by Abraham Lincoln, c. 1858.

Lincoln's Opposition to Slavery

In 1858, Lincoln campaigned against Stephen Douglas to represent Illinois in the US Senate. Although Lincoln lost, his powerful oratory during debates with Douglas brought him national attention.

Lincoln's notes for his speech accepting the Republican nomination for the US Senate in 1858 reveal that he identified slavery as an institution that would determine the future of the nation. In these notes he states, "A house divided against itself can not stand."

Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech

Lincoln's remarkable speech at Cooper Union in 1860 enhanced his standing as a moderate but inflexible Republican in opposing slavery's spread. He won his party's presidential nomination on the third ballot while the Democrats squabbled and split.

"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." -Abraham Lincoln's address at Cooper Institute, February 27, 1860

The Republican Party emphasized Lincoln's character, capitalizing on his nickname "Honest Abe" and his background as a self-educated frontier rail-splitter. He ran on the platform, "Free soil, free labor, free men."

The results of the election of 1860 reflected regional divisions in the nation. Lincoln won every northern state but New Jersey, gaining a majority of electoral votes even though he had less than 40% of the popular votes.

The election of Lincoln convinced southern states that the federal government would initiate judicial and legal action against slavery. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to repeal the Constitution and seceded from the Union.

Civil War President
Within weeks of taking office, Lincoln was faced with the imminent secession of states in the lower South. His strategic tasks involved keeping the northernmost tier of slave states from seceding, preventing foreign intervention, and maintaining a broad coalition of support.

Lincoln prosecuted the war through a combination of coercion and persuasion. He called for a military strategy that exploited the Union's superior resources by menacing the enemy, "at different points, at the same time," and by making the enemy's army, not its Capital, the key target.

Lincoln later suspended the writ of habeas corpus and endorsed military arrests, even in areas where civilian courts were able to operate. At the same time, he used his remarkable command of language to inspire and persuade supporters of the Union.

In February 1861, the states of the lower South established a new government, the Confederate States of America. They drafted a constitution and elected a president: Jefferson Davis, a former US Senator and Secretary of War.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, was the site of the opening shots of the American Civil War. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire after learning of Lincoln's decision to peacefully re-supply the fort.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war in our nation's history. In a country of 32 million people, more than 620,000 died, and an equal number were wounded.

Acknowledging his limited military training, Lincoln became a "self-taught military expert." This telegram suggests the active role that Lincoln, as Commander in Chief, played in monitoring the day-to-day events and formulating a military strategy for the Union army.

Lincoln's Telegram to Foote

Lincoln's presidency was bounded by the Civil War. As a wartime president, he closed newspapers, jailed editors, and used military tribunals to try civilians. In the face of critics who decried his violations of civil liberties, Lincoln argued that such acts were necessary when the nation's survival was at stake.

Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln dedicated a cemetery for the Union dead. His address, less than 275 words long, defined the meaning of the Civil War. Drawing on biblical concepts of suffering, consecration, and resurrection, he described the war as a momentous chapter in the global struggle for self-government and equality.

Gettysburg Address
Slavery and Emancipation
Although he believed slavery to be a great wrong, at the outset of the war Lincoln believed his first duty was to preserve the Union. In the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln decided on the necessity of emancipation.

African Americans were well aware that the "war to save the Union" was also a war that would determine their future. As the war moved south, enslaved people fled to Union lines seeking freedom, refuge, work, and a chance to serve the Union cause.

"No More Auction Block for Me"

At first, Lincoln promoted "gradual emancipation," with compensation for slave owners and the consent of the voters.

Lincoln knew that, as president, he had no legal authority to abolish slavery. Using his war powers as commander in chief, he could declare an end to slavery in the regions in a state of war with the federal government.

The Emancipation Proclamation did just that. Issued in September 1862 and put into effect on January 1, 1863, it remained a temporary wartime measure. The Emancipation Proclamation was a courageous statement that transformed the war into a fight to end slavery.

Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation allowed African Americans to enlist. Frederick Douglass and other leading African Americans urged black men to volunteer for service.

Men of Color, To Arms! To Arms!

186,000 black soldiers served in the Union army and another 29,000 served in the navy, accounting for nearly 10% of all Union forces. African Americans were essential to the Union's victory.

In July 1863, the newly formed 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment led a bloody and unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, losing their commander and 272 of 650 men. Their valor did much to overcome public doubts about the ability of black troops.

William Woodlin enlisted in the Colored 8th Regiment Infantry in October 1863. Woodlin describes the bravery of black troops in the siege of Petersburg, reporting that "the johnnies made furious attack on the 30th three times but were repulsed with great loss by the Colored troops of the 10th and 18th Corps...there was a tremendous fire of shells, grape and canister and the like."

Excerpt of William Woodlin's Diary

African Americans were relegated to separate regiments commanded by white officers and received less pay than white soldiers.

Nonetheless, Frederick Douglass predicted that the black soldier would be respected once he had "an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and the star spangled banner over his head."

The Union Preserved; The President Assassinated
In the summer of 1864, the fate of the Union and Lincoln's re-election were by no means certain. However, the fall of Atlanta in late summer transformed the Union's fortunes. Re-elected that November and confident of final victory, Lincoln began to prepare for peace.

Lincoln's remarkable Second Inaugural Address reflects on God's purposes in punishing the whole nation for the sin of slavery. It also called for reconciliation and charity toward the ravaged South.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

In April 1864, the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the US. The measure initially did not receive enough votes in the House of Representatives, but after some political maneuvering and pressure from Lincoln they eventually voted to pass the amendment in January 1865.

On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in central Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee's decision to surrender helped to prevent large-scale guerrilla warfare.

On April 14, 1865, while attending the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, Lincoln was shot by famous actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The President died of his wounds the next morning.

Lincoln's assassination sent shockwaves through the nation and set off one of the greatest manhunts in American history. Booth died days later, in a shootout with Union soldiers. Four other conspirators were later hanged.

The nation mourned Abraham Lincoln. A train carrying Lincoln’s body traveled through 180 cities and seven states on its way to Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. He was buried in Springfield, Illinois, on May 4.

Lincoln was revered as a champion of emancipation. Frederick Douglass remembered him to Mary Todd, thanking her for the gift of Lincoln's walking stick and noting that the stick was not merely a memento but an "inclination of humane interest" in the "welfare of my whole race."

Read the letter at the Gilder Lehrman website.

Douglass Consoles Mrs. Lincoln

On the centennial of Lincoln's birth, Booker T. Washington wrote, "My first recollection of Abraham Lincoln was on this wise...as I lay wrapped in a bundle of rags on the dirt floor of our slave cabin by the prayers of my mother, just before leaving for the day's work, as she was kneeling over my body earnestly praying that Abraham Lincoln might succeed and that one day she and her boy might be free."

Booker T. Washington on Lincoln

The Lincoln Memorial has been a crucial symbol in America's struggle for civil rights. It was here in 1939 that 75,000 people watched Marian Anderson sing, and in 1963 that 200,000 saw Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.

A man for all times, Lincoln has become a global figure. His principles, words, and resolute leadership live on.

"He belongs to the ages..." -Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Credits: Story

Developed by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History from the Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times traveling exhibition.

Special thanks to Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, and Richard Carwardine, President of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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