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