Sixteenth President, 1861–1865
By the spring of 1860, Lincoln was running against a deeply divided Democratic Party, positioning the nation on the brink of fundamental change. A Republican win would end the South’s political dominance of the Union. Ultimately, Lincoln carried all northern states but New Jersey. Lincoln’s win in the heavily populated North achieved victory in the Electoral College. Four years later, in 1864—in the midst of civil war—the United States held another presidential election, a feat that no other democratic nation had ever accomplished. Even when Lincoln felt he had no hope to win, he never seriously considered postponing the election. Despite his doubts, Lincoln accomplished a huge Electoral College victory, with a considerable margin of 55 percent of the popular vote as well. Thousands of Lincoln votes by soldier-citizens were one key to his victory.
When Lincoln left Illinois and headed east for his inauguration, he told the crowd at the Springfield railroad station that he confronted challenges equal only to those that had faced the nation’s first president: Washington had had to create a nation; Lincoln now had to preserve it. Lincoln’s election was itself evidence of the sectional discord that had ripped the United States apart during the 1850s, as slavery became a critical political and a moral issue. As Lincoln had remarked, “A house divided against itself [over slavery] cannot stand.” This proved prophetic with the collapse of the national party systems (the Whigs disappeared altogether) as North and South evolved into separate societies—one based on free labor, the other on slavery. The election of Lincoln prompted the South to begin to withdraw, or secede, from the Union. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln delivered a final plea to the South to remain, but to no avail. War broke out in April 1861 with the attempt by the Federal government to resupply South Carolina’s Fort Sumter. Despite the optimism of partisans on both sides that the war would be over quickly, it became a long, desperate, and exceptionally bloody conflict that would fundamentally reshape the nation.
The poet Steve Scafidi has characterized the challenges that faced Lincoln as like those confronted by a doctor trying to perform brain surgery while a dog gnaws at his leg. Lincoln’s tasks were staggering, both in detail and scope. Politically, he had to navigate between the many demanding factions and interests of the North. He also had the unprecedented task of organizing and prosecuting what would become the first industrial war, a conflict that ranged across the whole country, involved all of its resources, and was fought by an army not always up to the task. Finally, constitutionally and politically, Lincoln had to grapple with the evolving meaning of the Civil War. Initially, Lincoln espoused only the cause of Unionism. But as the war continued, he saw that saving the Union was inseparable from the cause of African-American freedom. In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, he argued that the war must lead to “a new birth of freedom” or it would have been fought in vain.
In practical terms, the achievements of Abraham Lincoln are mammoth, yet simple to describe: he confronted the secession of the South and the dissolution of the Union with all the political and practical tools at his command to defeat the Confederacy and restore the United States. His skills as a practical politician were extraordinary as he juggled the contending interests of his constituencies, which included the army, Congress, foreign countries, and the ordinary Americans he was conscious of representing. It must be remembered that Lincoln was, above all, an extremely skillful politician, one frequently underestimated by both friends and foes. His use of the levers of power in pursuing his evolving war aims greatly expanded the power of the executive in American politics, setting a precedent that later presidents would build on. His suspension of habeas corpus was controversial both then and now; the military draft caused violent riots; and through government contracting and the expansion of state activity, such as the approval of a transcontinental railway and the Morrill Act to settle western lands, he laid the foundations of the modern state.
Lincoln’s legacy is based on his momentous achievements: he successfully waged a political struggle and civil war that preserved the Union, ended slavery, and created the possibility of civil and social freedom for African-Americans. However, his assassination prevented him from overseeing the reconstruction of the Union he had helped save. The assassination also had the effect of turning Lincoln into a martyr of almost mythological dimensions. As Edwin Stanton remarked when Lincoln died, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and Lincoln has not lacked for idolaters who view him as an almost supernatural representation of American genius. It is much more realistic to see Lincoln as a practical genius. Temperamentally, he was humane, tolerant, and patient. But he also had an extraordinary ability see events clearly and adapt to them, responding decisively when necessary. Above all, there is his evolution on civil rights. He began the Civil War with thoughts only of restoring the Union, but ended up committing the nation to freedom for African-Americans. One of the great unanswerable questions in American history centers on how our nation’s social trajectory might have changed had Lincoln lived to serve out his second term.