Gabor S Boritt & Matthew Pinsker. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
The date was 11 February 1861. One day short of his fifty-second birthday, Abraham Lincoln, president-elect of the United States, was saying his farewell to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois:
My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
Lincoln’s heart was heavy. His old life was behind him. History tells us that he had very good reason to wonder “when, or whether ever” he would see his home again. The burdens upon him crushed him to the ground.
Humbly he gave credit to his hometown and to his neighbors for all that he was, for all that he had attained. He said, and he knew, that he, by himself, was nothing. But bowed down to the ground though he was, he still could not but fix his eyes on heights heretofore unscaled by any American. He had always looked up thus. Before him he now saw a task greater than Washington’s—greater than the founding of the nation. The arrogance of such a view (however obscured by sincere humility), as well as the historical accuracy of it, is striking. Leaving the safe haven of his little western town, Lincoln sensed that if he should succeed at his task, his achievement and, one would suppose, his fame would surpass that of Washington.
The man from Illinois was fit for the task before him. Utter humility and strength rarely matched were his to the full. It is not surprising that he, a product of the Bible more than any American president before him or since, is so well summed up by an old Hasidic saying: “Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left, ‘I am dust and ashes.’“
Lincoln was born on the Kentucky frontier in 1809, at the dawn of the Republic, to the nearly illiterate Thomas Lincoln and the probably illegitimate Nancy Hanks Lincoln. He was thus southern born, as were his parents, though his ancestry reached back to Pennsylvania and New England. In 1816 his family moved to the new state of Indiana and, as he reached adulthood, to Illinois. Raised to farm work in “a wild region,” he found around him absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. “Of course when I came of age,” he recounted in his brief autobiography, “I did not know much.”
The Bible he did know and in a way and to an extent that are almost unknown to our times. It left deep marks on both his language and his morality. So too, but to a lesser degree, did Shakespeare, some history, poetry, and, as the years went on, Blackstone, Euclid, and liberal texts on economics. Because his reading was so limited and his mind so excellent, he dug very deeply into what he did study. Moreover, what he did study deserved to be studied. Thus it is not romantic to suggest that, his protestations notwithstanding, in fundamental ways Lincoln’s education was fortunate.
Lincoln’s mother died when her son was nine years old. No small part of the tenderness of both Lincoln’s public and private self can be tied to the young boy’s loss. Indeed, the “riddle of mortality,” to quote the historian Robert Bruce, became his intimate companion throughout life.
His first exposure to the wider world came when, in 1828 and 1831, Lincoln traveled in a flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Thereafter, for many years, he found central Illinois to be good enough to stay in, first in the pioneer village of New Salem and then in Springfield. He volunteered to fight Indians as a citizen soldier, but saw no action. He started studying law. Later, he made fun of his military experience, removing it as far as possible from a real war experience, speaking of it as consisting of “bloody struggles with musquitos” and “charges upon wild onions.” Being elected captain of volunteers did give him his first important indication of his gift for leading men—”a success,” he wrote in 1859, “which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”
Early Political Career
After an initial defeat, in 1832, Lincoln was elected two years later to the Illinois House of Representatives. He succeeded to leadership rapidly, earning a local reputation as a follower of Henry Clay and as a capable politician in his own right. For a young man who would rise in life, the Whig party provided a hospitable political home. Indeed, into the 1850s, Lincoln’s main political task remained advocating his own brand of an economic vision that called for the development of the United States through the nurturing of banking, commerce, industry, and transportation, and through the movement from a poor sort of farming toward intensive, scientific agriculture. Westward expansion held little appeal for him, westerner though he was, a product of his people’s westerning experience.
Like other Whigs, he countered the Jacksonian manifest destiny for America with a call for the internal improvement of the nation. At the heart of his persuasion was an intense and continually developing commitment to the ideal that all men should receive a full, good, and ever-increasing reward for their labors so that they might have the opportunity to rise in life. Lincoln’s political emphases would not change until the mid-1850s when, at last, he permitted himself to fully face the fact that slavery subverted the “American dream.”
In 1842, after a tumultuous courtship, he married Mary Todd, the lovely, cultured daughter of a Kentucky banker. By then he had transformed himself from the barefoot penniless boy into a lawyer-politician in a frockcoat and, in the eyes of some, into “the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction.” The couple had four children, all boys, only one of whom lived to manhood. The family had a satisfying domestic life until the presidency, the war, and the death of a child destroyed a crucial part of their tranquillity. But love never deserted the Lincolns.
In 1847 the couple moved to Washington, D.C. Lincoln served a single term in the United States House of Representatives supporting governmental aid for the economic development of the country and opposing the Mexican War. He represented his constituency well, but he failed to distinguish himself, became frustrated by tensions within the Whig party, and so began to lose interest in politics. Law became ever more attractive to him; it provided a good middle-class living for his family and, quite important to Lincoln, also “a superior opportunity” for “being a good man.”
Then the 1850s brought a revolution to American politics, making slavery the issue of the times. Lawyering again faded into the background as Lincoln seized the opportunity to reenter the political arena and reinvigorate the Democratic opposition in Illinois. He left the old Whig party to help form the new Republican movement. He won election once again to the Illinois House of Representatives but resigned before serving to pursue a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1855. Although Lincoln lost a close contest, he improved his standing as a leader for the new politicial alignment and emerged in 1856 as a prominent contender for the Republican party’s first vice presidential nomination. Two years later, Lincoln ran for the Senate as the endorsed nominee of the Illinois Republicans against the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. It was the Lincoln-Douglas debates during their senatorial campaign that made Lincoln a nationally known figure and popularized his views.
The language he spoke and the moral convictions he championed were memorable:
The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged.
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.
Free labor has the inspiration of hope, pure slavery has not hope.
At rare moments Lincoln proclaimed the full implication of his views:
I want every man to have a chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition—when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him!
Free men had to oppose slavery because it subverted the American dream in myriad ways but, perhaps most important, because by denying blacks the right to rise, slavery endangered that right for all. Though Lincoln did not call for the political or social equality of black people, the issue he and the Republicans presented to the America of the 1850s was huge enough: “’Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?’ The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.”
Lincoln himself gave one answer when he accepted the nomination for senator: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But Lincoln and the nation were quite unprepared for the violence that came with the answer. Indeed, to fight the political war against slavery, he turned a blind eye toward the probability of a bloody war that would be the price of freedom. He was a pacific man, and as a mature adult he denounced war and military glory as an “attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.” Looking at the future he confused prognosis and preference. Then at age fifty-two he found himself the leader of a nation at war with itself.
Election of 1860
Lincoln’s election to the presidency gave him anything but a solid mandate to lead. In 1860 the Democratic party split into northern and southern branches. Douglas of Illinois ran on the northern ticket, and, though the only candidate to win substantial numbers of votes in all the states, he carried only Missouri. John C. Breckinridge, later a Confederate general, carried the southern Democratic banner and won all the slave states except a few on the border. Some former Whigs and Know-Nothings formed the Constitutional Union party, nominated John Bell, and carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Republicans’ Lincoln took every free state except New Jersey, where he received four of seven electoral votes. His honest rail-splitter image, with its connotation of the right to rise blending into his stand opposing slave labor, was enough to give him the electoral college. There being almost no Republican votes in the southern states, his popular vote (1.9 million) was not quite 40 percent of the total. (He received 180, or 59.41 percent, of the electoral vote.) A shift of 25,000 votes, out of a total of 675,000 in New York, an area with a high concentration of swing voters, would have thrown the election into Congress, where his chances would have been very slim. Thirty-nine thousand voters merely staying away from the polls in four smaller strategic states would have done the same.
The votes were barely counted when, in December 1860, South Carolina declared its secession from the Union. It was followed early in 1861 by all the states of the Deep South: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In February these seven states formed the Confederate States of America and adopted a constitution much like that of the United States. They elected Jefferson Davis president, and Alexander H. Stephens, Lincoln’s friend from his first stay in Washington, vice president.
The First Term
In his inaugural address, early in March, the president of the United States tried to be conciliatory without giving ground on the Republican principle of opposition to the further growth of slavery. He deprecated war, but war came when Lincoln refused to give up Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the rebels fired upon it on 12 April. Four more states, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina, seceded quickly to join the Confederacy. Its capital was moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia.
Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months—he still did not understand the magnitude of the struggle he was to lead. Nonetheless, following and enlarging the path of strong presidents like George Washington and Andrew Jackson, Lincoln acted with great vigor. He commenced his “reign,” as opponents would quickly label it, by refusing to call Congress into session in the face of an unprecedented emergency. He proceeded then to double the size of the army and navy; institute an economic blockade of the South on land, as well as at sea; spend treasury funds without appropriations; and suspend both the writ of habeas corpus (where he saw fit) and the freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Lincoln was going to save the Union and, more important, as he understood it, the principles it stood for.
His vigorous and seemingly arbitrary actions immediately called into question among many of his contemporaries the character of his presidency. Criticism grew as the years went by, for he added to his list of unprecedented policies presidential conscription, presidential reconstruction, and presidential emancipation until “this most abused of presidents,” to quote historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, “suffered his worst abuse as the alleged assassin of his country’s freedom.”
In a famous episode in the spring of 1861, John Merryman of Maryland, a leading secessionist, was arrested while the allegiance of the state to the Union hung in the balance. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus and, when it was ignored by military authorities, called upon Lincoln to do his duty. For good measure, in a written opinion Taney declared the presidential suspension of habeas corpus, under article I, section 2 of the Constitution, as well as military arrests to be unconstitutional.
Lincoln ignored Ex parte Merryman. In doing so, he did less than defy the Court, because the Merryman opinion was solely Taney’s. Indeed, the full Court wisely refused to hear a similar case on technical grounds. Over the years Lincoln defended often, in his homely fashion, his stance on civil liberties and their relationship to the Constitution: “Often limb must be amputated to save a life; but life is never given to save a limb.” By examining literally thousands of less-publicized cases, historian Mark Neely has shown how Lincoln tried repeatedly to achieve that precarious balance between order and liberty during wartime. Eventually both the Congress and the Court approved the emergency measures. When the war was over, however, Lincoln’s good friend David Davis spoke for the Supreme Court in Ex parte Milligan (1866), ruling that military trials of civilians while regular courts were functioning were unconstitutional.
In the Merryman case, symbolic of the issue of civil liberties in general, historians tend to defend both Lincoln and Taney because, on the one hand, the Civil War demanded strong practical action to save the Union and, on the other, the affirmation of the fundamental rights of freemen was equally indispensable. Justice Robert H. Jackson summed up matters felicitously in 1955: “Had Mr. Lincoln scrupulously observed the Taney policy I do not know whether we would have had any liberty, and had the Chief Justice adopted Mr. Lincoln’s philosophy as the philosophy of the law, I again do not know whether we would have had any liberty.”
Though Lincoln is generally seen as a model of the strong president who stood up to Confederates, Peace Democrats (“Copperheads”), Radical Republicans, and a southern-minded chief justice, it is important to clarify that paradoxically he was also a “Whig in the White House,” as historian David Herbert Donald has noted. The Whigs, building on the colonial tradition of enmity toward executive usurpations, took their name from the English foes of large royal powers. In the 1830s the American Whigs united against “King Andrew I” (Jackson), and in time Lincoln accepted this central tenet of his party’s ideology.
Accordingly, though a Republican by then, President Lincoln made a sharp distinction between executive and legislative powers. In ordinary matters of government, he rarely interfered with the work of Congress; for example, he used the veto sparingly. In matters of patronage, he deferred to the legislators or cabinet officers. On policy matters, too, he gave much leeway to the members of his cabinet, whom he appointed from among the ablest leaders of his party, men like William H. Seward at the State Department, Salmon P. Chase at the Treasury Department, and Edwin M. Stanton in the War Department. Of course, more than theory had guided Lincoln, and he also saw practical short-term benefits to his stance. But over the long run, Lincoln’s adherence to the Whig view substantially weakened the powers of the presidency and paved the way for post-war congressional dominance.
Strong president or weak president, despot or Whig—which one was the real Lincoln? It might be said that only the Civil War called forth and justified the despot. The war was the supreme emergency of American history, and, presumably, more ordinary times would have produced a much tamer president. The professions, as well as the record, of the Whig in the White House buttress such a conclusion. The professions and record, however, may mislead. It is tempting and almost inevitable to go beyond them and postulate that Lincoln thrived on the wise but broad use of power that the war had “compelled.”
The Civil War
The war started badly for the Union. In the first major battle, at Bull Run on 21 July 1861, the inexperienced army of Irvin McDowell was routed by the equally inexperienced Confederates of P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. The slogan “On to Richmond” was shelved, and Lincoln put George B. McClellan in command. But while the general in chief settled down to training the Army of the Potomac, on the diplomatic front danger threatened.
In foreign policy the chief task before the Lincoln administration was to minimize aid from abroad to the Confederacy, especially from Britain and France. Lincoln left much of the task to Secretary of State Seward, though early in his administration it was necessary for him to take charge directly in some crucial cases. At the height of the Sumter crisis, Seward presented Lincoln with a memorandum that not only indicated the desirability of Seward’s assumption of the presidential duty but also proposed to avert civil war by resorting to foreign war. Seward wanted to “seek” explanations from Great Britain and Russia, “demand” explanations from Spain and France, “categorically, at once”—because of those nations’ supposed violations of the Monroe Doctrine. Presumably war with one or more foreign powers would follow and southerners would join northerners to defend their common country. Though Lincoln had little understanding of diplomacy, his common sense told him to play down the document and give Seward time to calm down. Seward’s position was thus saved and he would yet become a great secretary of state.
Indeed, later in 1861, Seward played the pivotal role in defusing the Trent affair. By then Britain had granted “belligerent rights” to the South, but not recognition as an independent nation. The American effort to keep Europe out of the war was succeeding at the diplomatic table, but not on the high seas. In early November, a hotheaded captain of the United States Navy, Charles Wilkes, removed from the British steamer Trent the Confederate emissaries to Britain and France, James M. Mason and John Slidell. As the North, much in need of victories, celebrated, London spoke of war. Then, after a decent interval had passed, Lincoln ordered the release of the southerners. There was to be only one war at a time.
In 1862 and again in 1863 the British and the French pushed mediation attempts that in effect would have meant the recognition of Confederate independence. In the end, the South not only failed to obtain European recognition but was unable to get any truly substantial help. Six raiders were built in British and French shipyards, the most famous of which, the Alabama, caused millions of dollars worth of damage to northern shipping before it was sunk in 1864. Yet northern diplomats, most notably Charles Francis Adams, were competent. Northern grain was important to a Europe that suffered crop failures. Southern cotton in turn was increasingly replaced by the cotton of India and Egypt. The Old World was also beset with uprisings, wars, and threats to the balance of power. By 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation appealing to Europeans with antislavery sentiments, it was Adams, the American minister to the Court of St. James’s, who spoke of Anglo-American war unless the British put an end to the aid trickling to the Confederacy. Ultimately, success on the diplomatic front depended on the outcome on the battlefield.
In 1862 a string of Confederate victories in the East dazzled the world. The navy remained the one bright spot for Lincoln. Indeed, on 9 March, after the iron-sheathed wooden Virginia (the rechristened Union Merrimack, salvaged by the Confederates) threatened Washington, putting fear into president, cabinet, and the city, it was stopped by the ironclad Monitor. Naval warfare was being revolutionized, and the Union continued its domination of the seas.
On land the picture was different. The Army of Northern Virginia was led by the finest southern generals, Robert E. Lee (who took command in mid-1862), Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson, and James E. Longstreet. They faced the generally larger Army of the Potomac, led by a succession of second-rate generals. Under McClellan, this army tried to come back from the Bull Run defeat in an elaborate campaign on the Virginia Peninsula but failed. In the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson seemed to play with his opponents, albeit bloodily. At Bull Run again, in late August, the Union troops, under John Pope, repeated their fiasco of the previous year. When Lee invaded Maryland, McClellan, fully in command once more, stopped him at Antietam (17 September 1862) in the single bloodiest day of the war. This, however, was a far cry from victory, though Lincoln chose to treat it as such and issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in its wake (22 September). The year ended with the Army of the Potomac, now under Ambrose Burnside, suffering a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg (13-15 December).
The year 1863 promised more of the same as “Fighting Joe” Hooker, his army outnumbering Lee’s more than two to one, was beaten back at Chancellorsville, Virginia, on 1-4 May. Not until Lee ventured north again to Gettysburg did the tide appear to turn. There, during the first three days of July, in a bitter encounter, the Army of the Potomac under its newest commander, George G. Meade, decisively defeated the Confederates of invincible repute. Thereafter to the end of 1863 and beyond, the Union side in the East seemed to be satisfied to rest on its Gettysburg laurels, Lincoln’s passionate efforts to the contrary notwithstanding.
In the West, by contrast, the finest northern generals, the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George H. Thomas, faced weak Confederate generals. Though here, too, the war had its shifting tides, on the whole federal arms proved victorious. In February 1862, Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson with substantial naval support, only to be stopped at Shiloh, Tennessee, in a very bloody draw (6-7 April). On 1 May the Union navy took New Orleans, and five days later the Mississippi River fleet took Memphis. Indeed, throughout the war the Union navy was largely successful. A high point of the western campaigns, as well as of army-navy cooperation, came with the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and its surrender to Grant on 4 July 1863, the day after the battle of Gettysburg. “The signs look better,” Lincoln wrote in a public letter in August. “Peace does not appear so distant as it did.”
In its broadest terms, the goal of the war had always been clear to the president (though in its many significant details, change was continuous). In his war message in 1861 he had already explained:
This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.
In the fall of 1863, Lincoln went to the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to help dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. He gave a two-minute address there to America, the world, and to history:
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—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 understood that one of his chief tasks as president was to keep alive the northern will to fight. The challenge of the task was all the greater because the North had the wherewithal to win the war. Lincoln believed not only that right was on the side of the Union but knew that might was too. Might certainly could be more readily measured.
In his war message in 1861, Lincoln had pointed to the material superiority of the North. More than three years later, in his last annual message, he would emphasize that the North was actually “gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely … The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible.” The North had to bring this superiority to bear on the battlefield. Though Lincoln’s conduct of the war had many facets—he even considered taking command in the field—his principal military duty was to rally the people.
At the start of the war the North had perhaps 22 million people against the South’s 5 million to 6 million whites and 3.5 million blacks. The North’s railroad mileage was twice that of the South’s; the cash value of its farms two and a half times greater; and the cash value of its manufactured products about ten times greater. More than 25 percent of the population of the free states was urbanized, as against 10 percent of the slave states. Forty percent of the Union population was engaged in agriculture, compared to 84 percent of the Confederate population. The value of northern farmland was two and a half times the value of land in the slave states, and its agriculture was much more mechanized. Twice as many of the free states’ school-age children attended school—not counting the slave population of the South, which was not only unschooled but almost wholly illiterate.
Not surprisingly for one who spent the bulk of his public career in Illinois dealing with matters economic, Lincoln’s military direction from the White House always carried a large economic ingredient. One of his earliest moves of the war had been the establishment of the blockade of the southern ports, which, by the close of the war, grew to be deadly effective. He insisted that his military make good use of the railroads. He advocated, from late 1862, the use of black troops, in part because the step not only added to northern military strength but also because it weakened southern economic strength. He emphasized the significance of the Mississippi Valley, new weapons, and even the use of reconnaissance balloons.
More subtle links also existed between Lincoln’s progressive economic persuasion and his innovative strategic notions, which some historians speak of as his “military genius.” Thus, the man who in the 1840s demanded from Congress a centralized and coordinated plan of national improvements in the 1860s made like demands upon his generals for centralization of authority and coordination of plans. And so the Union’s unified command system and its central, overall plan of strategy were born. Similarly, Lincoln’s decisive championship of cordon offense (advancing on the enemy on every front, thus pitting all the northern resources against all the southern ones) stemmed primarily from his conviction that economic might, more than anything else except morale, would determine the outcome of the war. This oft-attested conviction was fundamental to his recognition that the objective of the Union forces should be not the conquest of territories but the destruction of opposing armies, the destruction of “the most important branch of . . . resources”—men.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Lincoln’s military policy was the drastic rate at which federal commanders were replaced. In the East, for example, in a period of two years he removed the general in charge seven times. He was criticized harshly then, and since, for failing to support his commanders in defeat. Yet Lincoln’s actions reflected a core aspect of his outlook, which under the pressure of war became extreme: he conducted a ruthless campaign of pushing the successful to the fore. His view that in the Civil War one side stood for the “open field” for all, while the other side was against it, thus received more than symbolic corroboration. In the Confederacy the men who held the chief commands early in the war would, with the exception of those who had been killed, be there at war’s end. In contrast, there would not be a single general commanding a main army in the Union service of 1865 who had held high command at the beginning of the struggle. In this respect, Lincoln’s American dream had triumphed on the battlefield too.
If the president’s outlook ever wavered, the booming prosperity of the wartime North helped strengthen it. Government purchases for military needs stimulated various sectors of industry and much of farming. Expanding industries included transportation, iron and steel, woolen clothing, shoes, munitions, and coal. Farmers increased production greatly. Even though one-third of farm-workers went into the army, exports of wheat, corn, pork, and beef to Europe doubled. Farms and factories made the first widespread use of laborsaving machines such as the reaper and the sewing machine. The war forced the economy into an early form of mass production, and the nation expanded as settlers moved westward.
Though war brought prosperity to the North, financing the war was a most difficult undertaking. Taxes and money borrowed from the people in the form of war bonds became the major sources of northern finance, though paper money and consequent inflation played their part too.
The laboring people’s wages did not keep up with inflation through much of the war, and there were strikes. Predictably, Lincoln took the side of the laborers. Almost invariably strikers had “just cause” for their action, he explained, and even as employers were denouncing the supposed illegal nature of unions, Lincoln received union members in the White House. Repeatedly he warned against “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above labor.” When he sent his ideas to Congress, warning that if working people surrendered their political power “it would be used to close the door of advancement” against them, it grew painfully clear that in these matters the president was not in step with much of the leadership of his country. The House of Representatives, laying the groundwork not only for the modern American economy but also for the abuses of the Gilded Age, snubbed the president’s message. Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens explained the tabling of Lincoln’s message by saying that there was “no appropriate committee on metaphysics in the House.” Copperhead Clement Vallandigham agreed: “I presume it will go to the Committee of Unfinished Business.” And as one historian added, “Unfinished business it remained for the rest of the century.”
Some of the victorious troops fresh from Gettysburg were sent to New York City to put down anti-draft riots. Conscription had been employed first in 1862, and more freely in 1863, to stimulate volunteering for the Union army (the same was the case in the Confederacy), and in New York resistance degenerated into the worst riot of American history up to that time. For Lincoln the “most notable feature” of the riots was “the hanging of some working people by other working people.” “It should never be so,” he stated. “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” The words might have come from one of his European admirers, Karl Marx, indicating the idea’s international currency, though Lincoln had something quite American in mind. The workingmen hanged were blacks. The riots of 1863 may have been less a protest against the draft, or class distinctions, than against Lincoln’s policy toward black people.
Lincoln had always been egalitarian to the bone and opposed to slavery. As a young politician, he had found the courage to denounce slavery in the Illinois House of Representatives. By the 1850s his sentiments had become the centerpiece of his politics, but as president, his job was to reforge a nation the southern part of which was slave owning. He had to do this by rallying the northern, mostly free part of the nation, which included not only the crucial border states that saw slavery as sacred but also huge numbers of negrophobes in such places as the northwestern heartland of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois and the city of New York.
Accordingly, the president moved with great caution toward emancipation, starting in late 1861. When, about the same time, his impetuous commander of the western department, John Charles Frémont, declared the slaves of the Missouri rebels summarily freed, Lincoln said no. He requested the repeal of the order, and when he failed to obtain compliance, he fired the general. In April and May of 1862 when General David Hunter issued similar proclamations of emancipation in the southern department the president once again countermanded the orders. Over the years he would often state his determination “not to go forward fast enough to wreck the country’s cause.”
Exquisite timing and knowing the limits of the possible were key elements in Lincoln’s success as a leader. At first, he hoped to bring the great change to America as gently “as the dews of heaven.” His desire for gradualism was supplemented with promises of compensation, for the slave owners stood to lose billions of dollars worth of “property.” He hoped thus to induce voluntary action on the part of individual states. And he knew, too, that the slaves would need substantial help to enjoy their newfound freedom. Into his hopes Lincoln put his whole “soul,” to borrow the word used independently by two of his confidants, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Supreme Court Justice David Davis. Toward the end of 1862, too late, he still gave beautiful and oft-quoted expression to these hopes:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present … As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew … Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history … In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.
He had worked with representatives of border slave states, with congressmen, with the general public, but the fact was that the gentle road to drastic change, ever difficult, in a time of civil war and revolution was quite unrealistic. It was bound to fail.
Congress moved ahead, too, with the two separate Confiscation Acts that authorized seizing the private property of Confederate military personnel and civilians. But it was the White House that led the way to African-American freedom. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided in favor of immediate abolition of slavery. From then on, he concentrated formidable political powers on bringing as much of the country behind this revolutionary policy as possible.
In August an attack on him by the influential editor of the New York Tribune helped his cause. In “The Prayer of Twenty Million,” Horace Greeley accused the president of moving too slowly, deferring too much “to Rebel Slavery.” Lincoln replied with a thunderous no and an oath of allegiance to the Union:
If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Lincoln had thus seemingly rebuffed the abolitionist left, though in fact he was about to take their side. His intended audience was that large conservative segment of the electorate that opposed the freeing of the slaves—some at any cost, except the cost of the Union. The Union was the common cause on which nearly all northerners could agree, and there Lincoln took his stand. When he would make his decision for emancipation public, he would thus do so on conservative grounds.
A second way to make emancipation acceptable to a reluctant northern public was through the advocacy of black colonization outside the United States, most probably in Central America or Africa. Many northerners feared that the end of slavery in the South would inundate the North with blacks. They would accept emancipation only if it were accompanied by the removal of blacks from America. It was therefore good politics for the president to advocate colonization. He managed to follow this political road in part because he himself still had fears about how successfully the two races could break out of their old relationship. Though at some level of consciousness Lincoln understood the impossibility of the colonization idea, for a time in late 1862, he made much of the policy.
Thus, on the surface it was an uncomplicated Unionist and colonizationist who issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September 1862—after Lee’s armies were repelled in the battle of Antietam. But in a deeper sense Lincoln was more of an emancipator than a Unionist. And even as he issued the Final Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, freeing the slaves in the areas still in rebellion, he forgot, almost with indecent haste, about colonization. He had spent none of the paltry sum Congress had appropriated for the purpose. Instead, he focused increasing attention on reconstructing a nation of blacks and whites.
Emancipation itself was a central step in reconstructing the United States. The war had begun with the announced goal of restoring the Union as it was in 1860. In 1861, surely by 1862, the goal had shifted toward Reconstruction, the reshaping of the Union without slavery. As the war continued and then veered toward a close, a further shift occurred, expanding the goal of the struggle to include union, emancipation, and movement toward civil rights for the freedman. The interplays between the North and the South, between factions in both, and between Congress and the executive in Washington were complex, but the central issue remained the role of African Americans in American society. Lincoln moved behind a radical vanguard but ahead of northern opinion, not to mention white American opinion in general and at times ahead of the consensus of his Republican party as well. The question to him was not “’Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’“ With this clear, pragmatic motto before him, he led Americans toward acceptance of ever greater black freedom.
The president consistently refused to recognize the validity of secession ordinances and, in legal terms, looked upon the Union as an unbroken and unbreakable unit. The war constituted a set of problems that he, as commander in chief, had to deal with, and Reconstruction measures fell into this category of problems. At the same time, he was ready to allow Congress a substantial and constitutionally legitimate role in the Reconstruction process.
In the middle of 1863, as parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and all of Tennessee came under the control of federal arms, Lincoln brought into being local military governments. Their chief task was to rally southern Unionists, subdue and keep away rebels and their sympathizers, and bring about a new day for blacks.
At the end of 1863 the president proposed his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. It included the “10 Percent Plan”—well received in Congress—which called for the formation of civilian governments when one-tenth of the voting population of 1860 took the oath of allegiance to the United States. Emancipation was not to be open for discussion in these states. Many citizens were proscribed from participation in the political process either as voters or officeholders: individuals who had held diplomatic or civil posts in the Confederacy, Confederate officers above the rank of colonel, those who had resigned from the armed forces of the United States or from any branches of the government, and those who had mistreated federal prisoners of war. His proposal notwithstanding, Lincoln insisted that flexibility should be the key to Reconstruction and that different plans might be needed in different times and places.
Louisiana became Lincoln’s test case. Initially he had overestimated southern unionism there, as elsewhere in the South. When satisfactory Reconstruction failed to materialize, he increasingly involved himself in personally directing the Louisiana experiment. His style combined daring, strength, and coercion with caution, conciliation, and ambiguity. It demanded movement, but only step by step, and entailed the use of patronage, the military, and other tools of presidential power. It included a precise, lawyerly command of the language, a unique eloquence, and a genius for ambiguity. This last quality, though needed, helped confuse many Radicals in Congress (and later historians as well).
The president created a government, under General Nathaniel P. Banks, that struck down slavery, provided for public schools for blacks and whites, and empowered the state legislature to enfranchise blacks. As white Louisiana Unionists faced the hostile pro-Confederate majority, Lincoln labored with finesse to keep the former united—hence, much of his ambiguity. Yet, as early as August 1863, Lincoln was ready to have the color line on the franchise breached. In March 1864 he wrote his famous letter to Governor Michael Hahn calling for voting rights for “very intelligent” blacks and black veterans because “they could probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” Rather than being a mere suggestion for “private consideration,” this was a “directive,” as historian LaWanda Cox has shown, and was understood as such by Louisiana leaders. In short, Lincoln led the Unionists toward black suffrage while pretending to stay in the background.
Ironically, the Radicals in Washington tried to strike down the Louisiana free-state movement in the name of black suffrage and Lincoln’s abuse of military power. The conflict that then developed between the executive and the legislature sometimes overshadowed the cooperation between the two, not merely in various areas of governmental work but specifically on Reconstruction. Lincoln had, after all, worked well with Congress to abolish slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia; to admit West Virginia, split off from Virginia, as a new free state; and to smooth out disagreements over the 1862 Confiscation Act. And they would later work together in establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau to help care for the freed slaves and, most momentously, in pushing through Congress the Thirteenth Amendment, thereby abolishing slavery under the Constitution.
Nonetheless, early in 1864, Lincoln provoked a split with the Radicals. Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland and Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio produced a somewhat muddled bill in favor of congressional Reconstruction. Though the bill did not call for black suffrage, it had the aura of Radicalism about it. Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill—the only important veto of his presidency—much less because of the larger issues of Reconstruction than because of the upcoming presidential election. While the Wade-Davis bill had wound its way through Congress, the president had remained silent. Then, to the surprise of many, including his friends in Congress, he declined to sign the measure. Probably many of his friends would have refused to support the Wade-Davis bill if they had known his position. As correspondent Noah Brooks summed it up in Washington in Lincoln’s Time (1895), it was only when the executive acted that “for the first time men who had not seriously opposed the passage of the . . . bill began to wish that it had never gone to the President.”
It seems that Lincoln wanted the opportunity to veto the bill and draw a sharp line between himself and the Radicals. A few days earlier, equally surprisingly but to the same effect, he accepted the resignation of Chase, the resident Radical of the cabinet. But then, elections are usually won at the center, and Lincoln did win. Soon after he was quite ready to accept more than the Wade-Davis policy for Reconstruction and appoint Chase chief justice of the United States.
Although the Wade-Davis veto soured Lincoln’s relations with an important element of his party, its wider political benefits were much needed. After the military successes of 1863, above all at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the year 1864 brought reversals, with the end of the war appearing no closer than before. In the western theater Nathaniel Banks led an expedition into the Red River region of Texas and into dismal failure. Sherman, who had succeeded Grant in the western command that spring, commenced to move from Chattanooga against Atlanta, but the able General Joseph Johnston managed to slow his progress significantly. In the East, progress seemed even slower and was extremely costly. Grant, recently appointed general in chief by Lincoln, promptly took up headquarters with the Army of the Potomac to lead it in person. In the Wilderness region of Virginia (5-7 May), around Spotsylvania Courthouse (8-21 May), and at Cold Harbor (3 June), the new general in chief suffered such heavy casualties that some in the North called him “Butcher Grant.”
The North could celebrate the death of J. E. B. Stuart, if the death of a gallant foe is a suitable occasion for celebration. But that the Confederates remained very much alive was quickly demonstrated when Jubal Early moved up the Shenandoah Valley toward Washington. At the very time the North had expected the fall of Richmond, Washington was being threatened instead (11 July). Lincoln, as well as assorted cooks and clerks quickly pressed into defensive service, came under fire. To top it all, the Union soldiers, bogged down to a siege at Petersburg, tunneled under the Confederate lines and exploded a section thereof with a mine only to fail in exploiting the advantage. The fiasco was made spectacular by its very novelty.
The president at times despaired of reelection. His own party put up challengers from its Radical wing, first Chase and then Frémont, but Lincoln parried them with relative ease. His aim was to attract the center of the electorate, which would decide the election. The Democrats—themselves divided into various factions, notably for and against war—moved in the same direction and nominated a war Democrat, General George McClellan, as Lincoln’s opponent. However, to the Republicans’ advantage, the Democrats did so on a peace platform.
The president and his party used their power and considerable political skills to great advantage. They changed the party name from Republican to Union to enlarge its appeal. The vice presidential nomination was taken from the colorless incumbent, Hannibal Hamlin, and given to a loud southern Unionist, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a “self-made man” like Lincoln. Nevada was rushed into the Union to gain additional Republican votes. Also, large efforts were made to garner the military vote.
All the same, the president knew that ultimately it was upon the fortunes of war that all else depended and the northern forces began to prevail late in 1864. In August, Tennessee-born Admiral David Farragut, famous for his victory at New Orleans and his pithy “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead,” won the battle of Mobile Bay; in September, Sherman took Atlanta, and Sheridan purged the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
In November, Lincoln won reelection with 2.2 million votes, giving him a convincing majority of 400,000. (The electoral vote was 212-21.) McClellan carried only Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. The war was going to be finished. There were minor irregularities in the election but they were overshadowed, as Lincoln understood, by the stupendous fact that in the midst of a great civil war, elections were held at all. “It shows,” he told a group of serenaders, “how sound, and howstrong we still are.” Lincoln’s understanding of history was as fine as was his leadership.
Yet the war was taking its toll on him. The vigorous middle-aged man who had taken office in 1861 had become the almost old man who appears in his last photograph. Mary Todd, his lovely bride, had grown old too, and after the loss of their twelve-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, she began to lose her grip on reality. Lincoln’s heart grew heavy. He said there was a tired spot inside him that nothing could touch. Around him there were death and devastation. The casualties of the war—both North and South—continued to mount, by the end reaching 1.5 million men, including about 620,000 dead—this in a nation of 31.5 million.
Reelected to the presidency, Lincoln said, “I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one.” He added soon after, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”
On 15 November, Sherman left Atlanta, beginning the march to the sea. From Atlanta east, the troops lived off the country and destroyed what they could not take. Sherman believed that the Confederacy should not be allowed to live from the southern harvest or have a happy, secure backcountry. Savannah fell before Christmas. Lincoln frankly admitted that he had doubts about Sherman’s march and gave all the credit for success to the general. In the new year, Sherman started his march northward through the Carolinas. The war fought there was a newer and uglier kind of war. Columbia, South Carolina, went up in flames—at whose hands, historians still debate.
Sheridan had followed like tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. He seemed ready to use any means to prevent the valley from provisioning Lee’s armies or any other army that might try to attack Washington via that route. Bushwhacking southern guerrillas ensured the campaign’s deterioration into scorched-earth tactics. The rich, beautiful Shenandoah Valley fell victim to total war. It was a blessing when, at last, Grant broke the grip of Lee, who on 2 April abandoned Richmond. Seven days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Plans for Reconstruction
Lincoln was intent on seeing his Louisiana experiment through but also hoped to work with the Radicals. He had played a crucial role in the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment by a somewhat reluctant House of Representatives. In his last public address, on 11 April, before the White House, he pleaded for saving the Louisiana government that congressional Radicals opposed: “Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.”
What the fowl was to look like he indicated by expressing his personal preference for giving the franchise to blacks who were educated, or propertied, or were Union veterans. How far he was to go beyond that, or with what speed, we do not know, but his course would have depended in no small part on what he judged to be attainable. The direction he took was clear, and though he knew each state to be unique, in his last address he also explained that “what has been said of Louisiana will apply to other states.”
Lincoln knew and prized the achievement of black soldiers against heavy odds, which he could not always readily lighten. As early as 1863, he had spoken glowingly of the black man who “with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, … helped mankind” to the great consummation of freedom. Blacks had fought in more than 190 battles, and about 68,000 black soldiers and sailors had been killed or wounded. Twenty-one blacks won the Congressional Medal of Honor. A black regiment was the first to march into Richmond when the Confederate capital fell, and Lincoln toured the city escorted by black cavalry. No one could misunderstand the significance of his escort. For the postwar era Lincoln was determined to bring both political and economic advancement to blacks. His commitment to black freedom fit into a larger commitment to a democratic, capitalist America. And so his postwar response to black needs would have also depended in no small part on his response to the coming Gilded Age.
Reconstruction for Lincoln meant more than providing a place for blacks in “a new birth of freedom,” central though that issue was. He was also concerned with southern whites, even the former slaveholder, and as late as 1865, he gave serious attention to compensating slaveholders. During the war years his numerous peace feelers and reconstruction schemes included strong appeals to the economic interests of the Confederates. He assumed, somewhat naively for a time of bitter war, that materialist enticements could seduce the South into peace. This assumption largely explains the absurdly vast amount of time he devoted to the problems of trading with the Confederacy (the corruption it bred notwithstanding), especially in cotton. The same was true of his secret feelers about the federal takeover of the Confederate war debt (obliquely attacked in the Wade-Davis Manifesto), his persistent offers for large-scale compensation for slaves, his lack of enthusiasm for congressional laws of confiscation, and perhaps even the unrealistic presidential request that the Pacific Railroad be built on the five-foot gauge used primarily in the South.
After the war ended, such economic incentives were likely to have more substantial effects. The blueprint that Congress created during the war for a modern nation was also a blueprint for the new, reconstructed America. Lincoln not only tried to help set the tone for it—though unsuccessfully in the field of labor relations—but in crucial instances he made vital contributions to the revolution that changed the government’s role in the American economy. He Whiggishly stayed in the background as a rule, letting Congress shape legislation, but when he was needed, as in the case of the establishment of the national banking system and of the Department of Agriculture, he brought the full weight of the presidency to bear. He also encouraged movement toward graduated income taxes (though such taxes were later declared unconstitutional); uniform paper currency (the greenbacks); higher tariff protection for American industry; internal improvements, notably the Pacific Railroad; immigration; the Land Grant College (or Morrill) Act (1862); and the Homestead Act (1862), which provided free homesteads of 160 acres for those who would work the land in the West for five years. The net result, as the president reported while calling for the support of immigration, was that the nation “was beginning a new life.”
Nowhere would this new life be more beneficial than in the war-ravaged South. There, Lincoln knew, more than in the rest of the country, the interests of blacks and whites were intertwined, and he had come to nurture a faith that the two races would learn to cooperate. Emancipation, Lincoln believed, did not merely liberate the blacks but also the whites. It made the American dream also a southern dream, with a resultant prosperity for all. In the midst of the hatreds of war, he took pleasure, in private, in creating a “word painting of what the South would be when the war was over, slavery destroyed, and she had an opportunity to develop her resources.” Long after one of Lincoln’s treasury officials had heard him dream thus, the official found himself listening to a new breed of southerner advocating economic development and a “New South.” The official experienced a flash of memory that came with “the vividness of an electric light,” as he “recognized the word-picture of Mr. Lincoln…”
The war had been won, the Union saved. But the Union to Lincoln had not been an end but a means. It had to be upheld, as he had explained in 1861, as it held “that thing for which the Union itself was made.” The Union was a ship, and its cargo “the prosperity and the liberties of the people. … So long as the ship can be saved, with the cargo, it should never be abandoned.”
The idea of a Union is essentially national; that of democracy, the American Dream, the right to rise in the world, is universal. One historical view prizes the Civil War as a “war for nationality” and makes Lincoln into the “Great Nationalist” of the modern historians, a man who had a religious faith in the Union. Another view cherishes him as an American Moses or Christ, one who spoke to mankind.
The first view denies the uniqueness of the United States and sees Lincoln as a New World counterpart of those Europeans whose highest goal was the building of a nation—almost as an end in itself. In contrast, Lincoln’s dream helped lead America to the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In March 1865, at his second inaugural, Lincoln delivered another speech that might be described as one of the finest in the English language. He again looked ahead:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away….
With malice toward none, with charity for all, … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Six weeks later, on the night of 14 April 1865, Good Friday, the president was shot while attending a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington. He died nine hours later. He thus did not live to see how difficult it would be to create a “new life,” a “new birth of freedom,” in a new America.