When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, the United States faced the severe challenges of slavery and a possible civil war. Many doubted that American democracy would survive. What did Lincoln believe about these complex, thought-provoking challenges?
Abraham Lincoln barely had a year of formal schooling (A,B,C School), but he educated himself by reading books. He read histories, biographies, the Bible, Shakespeare, English legal classics, and literally any book he got his hand on. He primarily studied collections of speeches by masterful orators like Henry Clay.
Like Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers, Lincoln believed in the power of human reason to advance society. Although he attended some religious services and referenced the Bible in his speeches, Lincoln never joined a church.
Lincoln left behind many of his frontier roots and embraced science, technology, and progress. He was enthusiastic about Charles Darwin's new theory of human evolution. So far, Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to hold a patent on an invention (a device to lift boats off sandbars). Nevertheless, he accepted the prevailing theory that inherent differences separated the races.
Lincoln's political hero was Henry Clay. Clay was a Kentucky enslaver and member of Congress who ran for president three times but never won. As the leader of the Whig Party, Clay, was most famous as "The Great Compromiser," referring to Clay's role in forging the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. These compromises produced an uneasy balance between the Northern and Southern states that put off the war between these sections over slavery.
Even before he entered politics, Lincoln wholeheartedly supported Clay's "American System," which included building a national transportation system and placing high tariffs on imports to protect young industries. Lincoln also agreed with Clay that slavery, if confined to the Southern states, would eventually disappear as the national economy changed.
Lincoln's Early Views on Slavery
Lincoln believed that American democracy meant equal rights and equality of opportunity. However, he drew a line between fundamental natural rights such as freedom from slavery and political and civil rights like voting. He believed it was up to the states to decide who should exercise these rights. Before the Civil War, Northern and Southern states commonly barred women and free black persons from voting, serving on juries, and enjoying other such rights.
Lincoln strongly believed slavery was "a great evil." He did not join with the small minority of Northern abolitionists who wanted to outlaw slavery immediately. Lincoln preferred to emancipate the slaves gradually by compensating their owners with federal funds.
Lincoln also supported the idea of providing government aid to the freed slaves, enabling them to establish colonies abroad. Lincoln thought they would finally enjoy equal political and civil rights in their black nations.
In 1832, when Lincoln began his political career in Illinois, he joined Henry Clay's Whig Party. Although Illinois voters elected Lincoln to the state legislature and a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he made little impression.
Lincoln decided not to run for re-election to Congress after his term ended in 1848. He then started a prosperous law firm in Springfield, Illinois. In 1854, however, the explosive issue of expanding slavery into the Western territories drew him back into politics and ultimately to the presidency.
Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech
Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery in any future territories carved out of the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1854, U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, led Congress in passing a law that would open the possibility of expanding slavery into this area.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act left it up to the Kansas and Nebraska territories' voters to decide the legal status of slavery. Douglas called this "popular sovereignty." This law enraged many Northerners because it repealed a vital provision of the Missouri Compromise and opened the way for organizing future slave states in the West. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also led to the formation of the Republican Party.
Those who joined the new political party included abolitionists and a much larger number of "Free-Soilers" who wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. Many Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, switched to the Republican Party.
Sometime between the late 1860s and 1936, the Democratic party of small government became the party of big government, and the Republican party of big government became rhetorically committed to curbing federal power. [read more]
In 1855, Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln for a seat in the U.S. Senate. State legislatures elected senators, and Lincoln lost the contest in the Illinois state legislature. Nevertheless, he was back in 1858 to challenge one of the most influential political leaders in the nation, Stephen A. Douglas.
On June 16, 1858, Lincoln spoke before the Illinois Republican Party Convention to accept the nomination for U.S. senator. Lincoln focused his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the recent Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. In that case, most justices had further undermined the Missouri Compromise by ruling that a slave taken by his master into a free territory or state remained enslaved.
In his acceptance speech, Lincoln summarized his position on the expansion of slavery by quoting the words of Jesus: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (Matthew 12:25). "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free," Lincoln declared.
Lincoln argued that slavery in the United States would eventually have to end everywhere or become legal everywhere in order for the nation to survive:
Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
Lincoln then attacked his opponent, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the chief author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln charged, "he cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up" in Kansas and Nebraska. Douglas' "care not" policy, Lincoln asserted, merely invited slave owners to "fill up the territories with slaves."
Lincoln's First Inaugural Address
Lincoln went on to debate Douglas on the "popular sovereignty" controversy. Although Lincoln lost his second attempt to win a Senate seat, his "House Divided" speech and debates with Douglas made Lincoln a national political figure.
In February 1860, Lincoln stunned a gathering of Eastern Republicans considering several presidential candidates. The strange-looking "rail splitter" from the West delivered a carefully researched speech that demolished the arguments of the Southerners who claimed the expansion of slavery was constitutional. A few months later, the Republicans made Lincoln their presidential nominee.
Lincoln won the bitter presidential election of 1860 against three opponents, including Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln swept the electoral votes of the Northern states but only won 39 percent of the popular vote. Even before his inauguration, some Southern states seceded from the Union.
Lincoln had two purposes in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861. First, in a final attempt to avoid war, he tried to reassure Southerners that he had no desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed. He even quoted a provision of the Constitution requiring that anyone who committed a crime and fled to another state "shall be delivered up." He pointed out that this provision applied to slaves who ran away to free states.
Lincoln's second purpose was to contend that no state had a constitutional right to secede. He warned that the Constitution required him to ensure "the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States."
Lincoln cautioned Southerners to think carefully about secession, which he said would only lead to anarchy or dictatorship. "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war," he declared. A little over a month later, Confederate cannons fired on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Furthermore, the Civil War began.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Some Union commanders and Congress tried a few times to free slaves in the early years of the Civil War, but Lincoln overrode these efforts. He still held out for gradual compensated emancipation followed by the creation of colonies of the formerly enslaved in Africa or other areas outside the United States.
Lincoln met with black leaders for the first time in August 1862 and lectured them about his colonization plan. They were not enthusiastic. It never occurred to Lincoln (or to most other white Americans at the time) that black people had much stronger ties of history, language, and religion with the United States than with Africa.
In the end, military necessity drove Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. A few days after the Union victory at Antietam on September 17, 1862, Lincoln issued an ultimatum to the Confederacy. He threatened that he would declare all slaves in the areas of rebellion "forever free" unless the Confederacy surrendered within 100 days.
When Lincoln's deadline passed, he remarked, "The promise must now be kept." On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation "as a fit and necessary war measure" for suppressing the rebellion. Using his powers as commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, Lincoln proclaimed that all slaves within the rebellious states and areas "are, and henceforward shall be free."
In his proclamation, Lincoln also called on the freed slaves to "abstain from violence" and "labor faithfully for reasonable wages." Finally, he shocked the South by welcoming ex-slaves "into the armed service of the United States" (free African Americans were already serving). Lincoln said to those present, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, that I do in signing this paper."
Lincoln realized that slavery could not return after the war and agreed that his "war measure" would have to be made permanent for the entire country by a constitutional amendment. Therefore, he quickly supported action in Congress that led to the 13th Amendment.
Thus, Lincoln changed both the goals of the war and his mind about slavery in the United States. The 13th Amendment called for the abolition of slavery immediately in all states and territories without compensation to slave owners.
The question about the future of the freed slaves still bothered Lincoln. In August 1863, he met for the first time with Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist. Douglass pressed Lincoln to end the Union policy of paying black soldiers only half the rate of white soldiers. Douglass insisted on equal rights for all Americans, white and black, men and women.
Following the horrific battle at Gettysburg in July 1863, the committee in charge of organizing the dedication of the battlefield cemetery invited Lincoln to make "a few appropriate remarks." Lincoln put considerable thought into writing his speech before he arrived at Gettysburg for the ceremonies on November 19, 1863.
Edward Everett, a former president of Harvard, U.S. senator, and governor of Massachusetts, delivered the main oration that took two hours. Lincoln spoke for two minutes. "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Lincoln began by dating the origin of American democracy, something unique to the world, with the Declaration of Independence.
He observed that "a great civil war" tested whether the United States or any democracy "can long endure." After honoring those who fought and died at Gettysburg, Lincoln said it was for the living to finish "the great task before us." This was nothing less than making sure democracy itself would survive on American soil:
". . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
In 1864, Lincoln faced re-election. Some proposed that Lincoln suspend the presidential election while the war still raged. Lincoln dismissed this idea:
We cannot have free governments without elections. If the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might reasonably claim to have already conquered and ruined us.
In the Election of 1864, the Democrats pushed for an armistice with the Confederacy to stop the unrelenting bloodshed. Lincoln, however, stood firm for ending the war only on his terms: the reunification of the nation without slavery. The voters agreed with Lincoln.
As the Union military victory neared in the spring of 1865, many called for vengeance against the South. There was great anticipation about what Lincoln would say about this at his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. Among the 30,000 people who gathered before the steps of the Capitol to hear Lincoln speak were many black Union soldiers.
It may have been Lincoln's most religious speech. "Woe unto the world because of offenses" that God "wills to remove," he said. Lincoln believed that 250 years of slavery was one of these offenses for which both the North and South were responsible. He declared that this "terrible war" was the cost of removing it. God may require the war to continue, and Lincoln warned, "until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."
Lincoln ended with a plea to heal the nation: "With malice toward none; with charity for all." He called for all Americans to "bind up the nation's wounds" and "do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
About a month later, on April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. A few days later, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. When Lincoln died the next day, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton remarked, "Now he belongs to the ages."
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Constitutional Rights Foundation, Contributor.