History Shorts: Mail-In Voting for Honest Abe

History Shorts: Mail-In Voting for Honest Abe

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The 10 Most Common Misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most published figures in history. Hundreds of books have been written regarding his most important legacies on the United States. With all of that publishing there are still many misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln that are taught today in schools and in popular culture. Some misconceptions are obviously inaccurate, while others can be intelligently argued in several directions. Here are the debates around ten of the most common ‘misconceptions’ about Abraham Lincoln as shared by Scott M. Hopkins.

A close-up of the official White House portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln the Rail Splitter

Most students of history today are confused when they hear the term rail splitter. It had nothing to do with creating railroad tracks, but actually building rail fences. The task was difficult in the 19th century without the use of modern equipment. It was immensely important in keeping livestock managed and property lines separated. Lincoln excelled at the task as a youth and retained the skill as an adult. The chore lent itself to Lincoln’s peculiar physical attributes tall and lanky, skinny legs, with robust arms, and mammoth hands.

What many people do not realize is that Lincoln actually hated his backwoods upbringing. Even as president he would outperform his own Union Soldiers in exercises of physical endurance, many half his age. Still his preference was for being indoors and reading. In fact he often did extra manual labor to be paid in borrowed books, then subsequently more labor in order to pay them off when he accidently destroyed the treasured texts he had borrowed. Even during the election, Republicans desperately sold the idea of Lincoln as the backwoods hero. City slickers loved the rail splitter image. Lincoln hated it.

Abraham Lincoln the Atheist

Like many Americans before and after him, Lincoln struggled with his religious faith. The traditional frontier Baptist tradition he was raised with left him with many more questions than answers. His uncertainty should not be confused with Atheism though. As a child Lincoln made great efforts to memorize passages of scripture and to orate them to his siblings and mother.

Following the demoralizing death of his mother Nancy Lincoln in 1818 to milk poisoning, Lincoln denounced Jesus as the Christ repeatedly in public settings. It was further worsened when his first love, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835. He fell into a melancholy state many today might term depression. Some even worried about him taking his own life. William Herndon, a close friend and the earliest biographer maintained Lincoln was not a Christian, though many more biographies have surfaced challenging that. However, towards the end of his life he made several public announcements for the praise of a higher power. He even attempted to contact the spirit of his dead son, Willie, in séance rituals.

Abraham Lincoln Started the Civil War

This topic is contentious in the southern half of the United States as it is commonly understood there that Lincoln was an aggressor to a peaceful separatist movement, known as the Confederate States of America. It does not help that the majority of battles took place in the South, Reconstruction was a failure, and that much of the wealth of the South was invested in slavery, which immediately put businesses, industries, and families out of business at the end of the war. At the height of the Lost Cause movement Lincoln blaming was beginning to receive immense respect among historians.

States’ rights are usually cited as one of the main reasons that Lincoln can be blamed for starting what is still sometimes known as The War of Northern Aggression. Just as states had the right to vote for or against slavery, there is the belief that they could vote to leave the Union. Lincoln held that the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860 - before he would take over the White House - was firmly illegal and pledged not to start the war, but do everything to prepare for it. Imagine today if Donald Trump were elected president. Should states have the right to leave the Union because a majority of people disagree with the candidate who won?

Ironically, Abraham Lincoln advocated for minimal punishment for the Confederacy at the conclusion of the war. His desire to return to investing in infrastructure and creating jobs in the South cannot be measured as he was assassinated before his ideas could become reality.

Abraham Lincoln: The Classic Rags to Riches Story

It is true that Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky (it’s where we get Lincoln Logs from) and that his father barely completed enough labor to provide for the sustenance of his family, let alone save much money. He also spent much of his youth in the frontier of Indiana in another log cabin.

As a teenager though he learned the importance of entrepreneurship after taking a raft to New Orleans and earning a two fifty cent silver coins from two merchants that he assisted with travel of their cargo. He applied himself to his work thereafter, managing a shop, delivering mail, surveying, and even leading a militia in the Black Hawk War of 1832. None of this gave him wealth, nor did his hard work at teaching himself law pay the dividends it does today. Wealth only came to Lincoln through chance that his wife, Nancy Todd Lincoln, came from a prominent Kentucky plantation family with money invested in land and slaves. Even so, Lincoln himself never lived lavishly.

Abraham Lincoln owned Slaves

According to historian and East Carolina University Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz in Did Lincoln Own Slaves And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln it is one of the most commonly asked questions by all age groups, races, and creeds regarding the fourteenth president. It’s puzzling to consider why someone would have had such an inclination. It is well documented that Lincoln often supported the end to slavery, but only when he supported an end to rebellion and a return to the Constitution. Nevertheless, he never harbored any desire in owning slaves, despite his wife’s immediate family background.

The case that is sometimes made to argue that Lincoln owned slaves is that during a White House function, short on labor, the Lincolns hired a group of ex-slaves to assist with serving guests. The history suggests that they may not have been ex-slaves as the White House thought, nor were they compensated financially, leading to a slavery connotation. The hiring was handled by the White House staff and not Lincoln, and nor were his staff aware of the workers’ situation.

Lincoln detested slavery and wanted its demise ever since he experienced the sight of it on one of his riverboat trips as a teenager to New Orleans. He never owned a plantation property to necessitate slaves and preferred to do the majority of manual labor himself, even while at The White House.

Abraham Lincoln Would Vote for My Party Today

One of the most politically charged assertions is when non-historians attempt to pigeonhole Lincoln into their political party today. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, right at the time of the founding of the party and was the first Republican President of the United States. Initially Lincoln was a Whig, though the party dissolved prior to the 1861 election over the issue of slavery. The formation of the Republican Party was almost exclusively made up of abolitionist former Whigs, hell-bent on ending the spread of slavery into new states and territories.

Still many of his efforts can be argued to be more in line with today’s Democratic Party. Most notably Lincoln introduced the country’s first income tax, spent lavishly on infrastructure and public assistance, and promoted social justice initiatives like attempting to buy all slaves and then relocate them to Liberia for freedom’s sake. Interestingly much of Lincoln’s support in the election of 1861 is today firmly Democrat, while the South, who failed to put him even on the ballot, is firmly Republican.

Lincoln would not fit conveniently into either party today as his political views were often changing as the Civil War changed. He made decisions that he knew were best for the country and its future. Although he filled his cabinet with Republicans, they were all his most fierce competitors and differed from him in many ways, as evidenced in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s essential Lincoln text, Team of Rivals. Lincoln viewed each competitor as the best at what they did and took advantage of their skills, regardless of personal relationship, social, or political persuasion. In fact, his class of politicising is rarely seen today amongst the careerists and party loyal.

Abraham Lincoln the Abolitionist

We cannot take away the magnitude of what Abraham Lincoln did to end the Civil War and end slavery. His disgust at slavery was apparent and those closest to him knew he waited for each opportunity to rid the United States of it. Ambitious steps like the Emancipation Proclamation – which didn’t actually free slaves – are not the same as the Abolitionist Movement. Abolitionists were on the front lines and often had no support or funding.

Founded in the Atlantic States, the Abolitionist Movement advocated an end to slavery and largely equal rights for black men and women of the United States. It had its roots in Evangelical churches. It was a tireless and often dangerous commitment. Not only was it unpopular prior to 1861, helping slaves through the Underground Railroad was illegal - often leading to business and political suicide. Well-off business owners, church preachers, and hardworking mothers risked everything and often lost everything hiding slaves and defending the equality of others. Many eventually made their way to Canada where slavery was expressly illegal.

Abraham Lincoln Was a Racist

Those that understand Lincoln know that he was not an Abolitionist and certainly did cooperate with slavery until he could remove it. Children of several different generations learned of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator in school. That title is largely dismissed as inaccurate today. Many in the 1960s - namely prominent black journalist Lerone Bennet Jr. - have labelled him nothing more than a typical racist of the time. That was in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.

The claim set off a firestorm of controversy as several prominent historians arguing both sides began to take shape. Besides the political and war reasons for withholding the end of slavery, Lincoln made a number of outright racist comments during the Douglas Debates in rural Illinois. Comments like: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” He went on to deny the possibility for intermarriage, blacks to public office, and suggested separation was the best possible outcome.

Today the belief by most historians is that Lincoln was a realist. Many of his decisions while President were motivated by aiding the Union war effort and reuniting the country as whole. They see him shaped and melded by the Radical Republicans of his party. And they recognize that many of his efforts to end slavery and granted citizenship to blacks were revolutionary and hardly necessary for the president.

Abraham Lincoln was Homosexual

One of the most important jobs for historians is to teach subsequent generations of what life was like before them. As we are further removed from that time it becomes more difficult. In Lincoln’s time, men slept with other grown men when it was feasible. Beds were expensive and it was impractical for Lincoln to have attempted to rent his own room and own bed in rural Illinois in the 1840s.

So when Joshua Speed offered Lincoln a room to rent it was Joshua’s room that they shared. On the lawyer’s circuit, the traveling band along with the judges shared a room and bed because they could rarely find an establishment in backwoods Illinois equipped like a hotel is today. It took time for many of these communities to populate themselves and commerce was slow to adjust. Fortunately for the judge, he was so large and overweight, he had his own bed.

Besides sleeping together, those who believe Lincoln was homosexual, cite the many ‘love letters’ exchanged between Lincoln and Speed as evidence of an erotic relationship. In Lincoln’s age it was not uncommon for two men to have shared such an intimate relationship that was not based on eroticism or sexual attraction. Writing to each other in eloquence, respect, and a desire to see a friend again were quite common. Expressing it through letters was nothing to be ashamed of.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed all Slaves

The accuracy to which Lincoln’s achievements are taught in primary and secondary schools is haphazard, with this topic perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly taught. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Confederacy to be free. It did not actually make them free. That required a slave owner to acknowledge the proclamation as law. Border States such as Lincoln’s home state of Kentucky were not necessarily required to follow the new Proclamation, nor were Union states and territories like Maryland or Washington, D.C.

The Proclamation set a precedent though. Lincoln took a gamble in making it public after months of drafts and consultation with his cabinet. He wanted to only release it upon high Union morale and only when he could sell it both as the right thing to do, but also as a way to help win the war. It nullified the Fugitive Slave Act which required northerners to return runaway slaves to their masters and allowed the Union to prevent slaves from assisting the Confederacy on the battlefield with supplies and chores vital to their efforts.

Even more important to teach was that not all of America rejoiced at The Emancipation Proclamation. One more egregious error taught in our schools is that all of the North was in unison in opposition to slavery. After Lincoln’s announcement many families began to question what their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting for. Certainly they would not fight for African Americans, who experienced segregation and black codes – prohibitive living and working laws – in big cities across the North.

Scott M. Hopkins is a personal property appraiser focusing on numismatics. Do you have a rare coin at home that you believe might make you rich? Send Scott a message on his website. He will give you a thorough understanding of what to do with your rare coins.


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No biographer was more guilty of this historical mischief than Josiah Holland, the deeply pious editor of the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts, who paid Herndon a visit in May 1865. Holland portrayed Lincoln as an “eminently Christian president”—the “basis of an ideal man.” Relying on the stilted memories of Newton Bateman, a state official who occupied the office next door to Lincoln and Nicolay during the fall campaign in 1860, the author introduced Lincoln as a Bible-quoting evangelical whose hatred of slavery flowed from an eschatological belief that “the day of wrath was at hand.” “I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it and Christ is God,” he imaginatively quoted the future president. Here was the model of a righteous man. Repudiating the late president’s reputation for unlearned, rustic charm, Holland deemed it a “great misfortune … that he was introduced to the nation as pre-eminently a rail-splitter.” “It took years for the country to learn that Mr. Lincoln was not a boor.” The book was mostly nonsense, but it sold 100,000 copies.

Other contributors to the Lincoln-as-God theme included New York Times editor Henry Raymond ( The Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln), portrait artist Francis Carpenter ( Six Months at the White House), the congressman Isaac Arnold ( The History of Abraham Lincoln, and the Overthrow of Slavery).

Herndon was deeply disturbed by the trend and complained that “the stories we hear floating around are more or less untrue in part or as a whole.” Lincoln “was not God—was man,” he insisted. “He was not perfect—had some defects & a few positive faults: [but] he was a good man—an honest man.”

In the late spring of 1865, just weeks after the assassination, Herndon traveled to Petersburg, Illinois, the county seat of Menard that housed many former residents of New Salem, the by then-defunct river town where Abraham Lincoln first struck out on his own in the early 1830s. There, he was astonished to encounter dozens of gray-haired old-timers who had known the future president when he was but an awkward, gangly young man dressed in trousers that barely reached his ankles and crude, homespun shirt and shoes. Uncle Jimmie Short. Hardin Bale. N. W. Branson. Elizabeth Abell. Mentor Graham. All were still alive and eager to share their reminiscences of young Abraham Lincoln. “I have been with the people,” Herndon reported excitedly, “ate with them—slept with them, & thought with them—cried with them too. From such an investigation—from records—from friends—old deeds & surveys &c. &c. I am satisfied, in Connection with my own knowled[ge] of Mr. L … that Mr. L’s whole early life remains to be written.”

Herndon was right. Most of the familiar personalities and episodes that comprise our understanding of Lincoln’s formative years were still unknown: The pioneer boy who learned to write and cipher on the back of a shovel. The teenager who first encountered the barbarism of slavery while driving a barge full of goods down the Mississippi River. The New Salem postmaster who franked his neighbors’ letters. The assistant Sangamon County surveyor who mapped out his neighbors’ farms. The storekeeper who walked miles to deliver money to a customer whom he accidentally shortchanged. The wrestling match with the Clary’s Grove boys. The Black Hawk War. The first run for political office.

All of these stories, and more, came from Herndon’s interviews. Over the following two years, he devoted himself with laser focus to the Lincoln enterprise. He tracked down Lincoln’s cousins and interviewed them. He placed newspaper ads throughout Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois and initiated correspondence with dozens of informants who responded to his requests for intelligence on the slain president’s formative years. He even visited Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, and recorded her teary-eyed reminiscences of Abe, “the best boy I ever saw.” “I did not want Abe … elected,” she mournfully told Herndon, “—felt in my heart that something would happen [to] him.”

The entire undertaking demanded tremendous patience. Some interviewees, like George Spears, honestly confessed that “at that time I had no idea of his ever being President therefore I did not notice his course as close as I should have.” Others, in an attempt to aggrandize their own role in history, made stories up out of whole cloth. It was left to Herndon to separate fact from fiction.

The Lincoln family took a wary view of Herndon’s efforts. Robert, whose relationship with his father had been distant and strained, held Herndon in poor regard—he remembered the many times that Herndon, who struggled with alcoholism, had fallen off the wagon—and refused his requests for information. Mary had long despised her late husband’s partner. The two antagonists first met in Springfield in1837, when both were young and single. At a party thrown by Colonel Robert Allen, Herndon asked Mary to dance. As they locked arms, he offered the somewhat awkward compliment that she “seemed to glide through the waltz with the ease of a serpent.” Mary took umbrage at being likened to a snake, and so began an antipathy never subsided.

The feeling was mutual. In all his years of personal and professional association with Lincoln, Herndon had never once been invited to dinner or to pay a social call. But he had witnessed—or claimed to have witnessed—ample evidence of Mary’s wrath. “Jesus, what a home Lincoln’s was!” Herndon told a friend roughly two decades after the president’s death. “What a wife!” In Herndon’s mind, Mary was an insufferable shrew who had nearly driven her kindly husband to desperation and Bob, who pointedly refused him access to Lincoln’s papers, was (in Herndon’s view) deeply complicit in whitewashing his father’s true history.

Though she despised him, Mary understood that Herndon could not easily be ignored. Between the fall of 1865 and the winter of 1866, he delivered several well-received lectures on Lincoln that garnered admiring reviews in the national press. Papers as far and wide as the Chicago Tribune, the Missouri Democrat, the New York Times and the Washington Chronicle reprinted excerpts of his addresses and labeled Herndon as the nation’s foremost authority on Lincoln. Some of what he told audiences struck a raw nerve with the family. Lincoln, he argued, “was an exceedingly ambitious man—a man totally swallowed up in his ambitions.” He also claimed that “Mr. Lincoln read less … than any man in America” but “thought more than any man in America.”

Hoping to manage Herndon’s storytelling, on September 4, 1866, Mary sat down with her ancient enemy at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Springfield to be interviewed herself. It was a decision that she would live to regret.

What Mary didn’t know at the time was that Herndon was preparing a lecture that concerned Lincolns’ marriage. While interviewing former residents of New Salem the year before, he heard several of them recount the tale of Ann Rutledge, the young, auburn-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the local tavern keeper. One of his informants described Ann as “a woman of exquisite beauty, but her intellect was quick—sharp—deep & philosophic as well as brilliant.”

Lincoln probably first met Ann when he boarded at the Rutledge Inn in 1831. She was 18 years old, and he was 22. According to the old-timers, Lincoln fell in love with Ann some time around 1833 or 1834. In a plot worthy of the Shakespearean tragedies that Lincoln loved, Ann reciprocated his feelings but was already engaged to John McNeil, a local merchant with a suspect personal history. In 1832, while Lincoln was away serving in the Black Hawk War, McNeil confided to Ann that his real name was McNamar. He claimed that his family was deeply in debt and that he had changed his surname to make a clean break of things. Now that he had amassed a small fortune, he planned to return east and settle his family’s accounts. Upon his return, he and Ann would marry. As weeks turned into months, and months into years, McNamar’s letters grew less frequent. According to Herndon’s informants, Lincoln began courting the young woman around 1834, and by the following year they decided to marry—but only after she could break off her engagement to McNamar in person.

Decades later, Ann’s cousin told Herndon of a conversation he had in early 1835 while walking back from a Christian camp meeting nearby. Ann told him that “engagements made too far a hed sometimes failed, that one had failed, Ann gave me to understand, that as soon as certain studies were completed she and Lincoln would be married.” Then a freshman legislator, Lincoln was attending session at the old state capitol at Vandalia when Ann suddenly contracted typhoid fever and died at the age of 22. “Mr. Lincolns friends after the sudden death of one whom his soul & heart dearly … loved were compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr. Lincoln,” a former neighbor told Herndon, “he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms—fogs—damp gloomy weather Mr. Lincoln for fear of an accident. He said, ‘I can never be reconcile[d] to have the snow—rains & storms to beat on her grave.’”

The story fascinated Herndon, who had no idea that the citizens of Petersburg—the closest town to the former New Salem—had been telling it for many years to their children and grandchildren. A year after his first visit, he returned to Menard County and tracked down none other than John McNamar, by then an old man living on the outskirts of what had once been New Salem. “Did you know Miss Rutledge,” Herndon asked. “If so, where did she die?” The old man pointed his finger and, choking back tears, replied, “There, by that—there, by that currant bush, she died.” McNamar told Herndon that he had bought the desolate farm “in part, if not solely, because of the sad memories that cluster over and around it.” (That part wasn’t exactly true. McNamar owned the land before Ann died and, as a skeptical historian later noted, “had since buried one wife and married another near that same currant bush.”)

Nevertheless, Herndon was convinced that he had unlocked the mystery of Lincoln’s deep gloom—a subject that has fascinated historians for over a century. At McNamar’s suggestion, he wandered to the barren cemetery where Ann was buried, on a bluff overlooking the ruins of New Salem. There, “in the presence of Ann Rutledge, remembering the good spirit of Abraham,” he described the intense rush of emotion that overcame him as he stood in the “presence of the ashes of … the beautiful and tender dead.”

On November 16, 1866, Herndon delivered his much-anticipated lecture, cryptically entitled “A. Lincoln—Miss Ann Rutledge, New Salem—Pioneering, and the Poem Called Immortality—or, ‘Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud.’” Herndon laid out for his Springfield audience and the national newspapers the tragic story of Ann Rutledge, “the beautiful, amiable, and lovely girl of 19.” “Abraham Lincoln loved Miss Ann Rutledge with all his soul, mind and strength,” he continued. When she died, Abe “slept not … ate not … joyed not.” For the rest of his years, the future president would bear the weight of an inconsolable sadness. He “never addressed another woman … ‘yours affectionately’ and … abstained from the use of the word ‘love’ … He never ended his letters with ‘yours affectionately,’ but signed his name, ‘your friend, A. Lincoln.’” The subtext of Herndon’s argument, which he would later place in much sharper relief, time and again, was impossible to mistake: Lincoln had loved only one woman (Ann Rutledge), and his grief for her was so profound that he never loved another woman, most notably his wife.

Mary was enraged. “This is the return for all my husband’s kindness to this miserable man!” she fumed. “Out of pity he took him into his office, when he was almost a hopeless inebriate and although he was only a drudge, in the place—he is very forgetful of his position and assumes a confidential capacity toward Mr. Lincoln.” Robert was equally incensed, but also concerned. “Mr. Wm. H. Herndon is making an ass of himself,” he told a close family friend. Because Herndon “speaks with a certain amount of authority from having known my father for so long,” his story, “even if it were … all true,” would do great injury to the Lincoln family’s reputation.

In early December 1866, Robert traveled to Springfield to manage Herndon. The meeting did no good. With rumors flying of a new lecture in the works, he took a soft approach. “I have never had any doubt of your general good intentions,” he wrote to Herndon after their meeting, “but inasmuch as the construction put upon your language by everyone who has mentioned the subject to me was entirely different from your own, I felt justified to change your expression.” Robert conceded that he had no “right” to censure Herndon’s speeches and offered that “your opinion may not agree with mine but that is my affair. … All I ask is that nothing may be published by you, which after careful consideration will seem apt to cause pain to my father’s family, which I am sure you do not wish to do.”

On Christmas Eve, Robert sent another pleading letter, asking if it were true that he intended “to make some considerable mention of my mother in your work—I say I hope it is not so, because in the first place it would not be pleasant for her or for any woman to be made public property of in that way—With a man it is very different, for he lives out in the world and is used to being talked of.” Robert readily agreed that men like his father could be fairly “exposed to the public gaze,” but he saw “no reason why his wife and children should be included—especially while they are alive. … I hope you will consider this matter carefully, my dear Mr. Herndon, for once done there is no undoing.”

It was all to no avail. For the next 20 years, Herndon devoted himself single-mindedly to the project of remembering Abraham Lincoln to the nation. The narrative that Herndon pedaled—which he later allowed former Lincoln colleague Ward Lamon to publish in a formal biography—was more damning than anything included in his original lectures. Over the next decade, Americans learned (incorrectly) that Abraham Lincoln’s mother was a “bastard” and that she, like her own mother, had cuckolded her husband. The 16th president’s father was not Thomas Lincoln but one Abraham Enlow, a man of greater station. (How else to explain the achievements of one born so low? The claim was later refuted, but only decades later.)

Herndon also insisted that his former partner was an atheist or deist and not a “technical Christian,” quoting Mary out of context from the interview that she had provided in Springfield. She hadn’t intended to paint her husband as a nonbeliever but rather to suggest that his decision not to join or regularly attend a church belied his more complicated Christian spirituality. Worse still, Herndon doubled down time and again on the Ann Rutledge narrative. Writing to a friend, he insisted that “Mrs. Lincoln’s domestic quarrels … sprang from a woman’s revenge which she was not strong enough to resist. Poor woman!”

For Herndon, what began as devotion to “truth” morphed steadily into an obsessive campaign to make his subject seem a common and flawed man. “Would you have Mr. Lincoln a sham, a reality or what, a symbol of an unreality?” he asked a correspondent. “Would you cheat mankind into a belief of a falsehood by defrauding their judgments? Mr. Lincoln must stand on truth or not stand at all.” Herndon didn’t believe that he was maligning his late partner. On the contrary, he insisted, “Mr. Lincoln was my good friend, well tried and true. I was and am his friend. While this is true, I was under an obligation to be true to the world of readers—living and to live during all coming time—as long as Lincoln’s memory lived in this world.” Unsurprisingly, the Lincoln family took a different view.

Had Herndon’s mischief been the only threat to Lincoln’s legacy, perhaps the family could have left well enough alone. But by the mid-1870s, many of the gatekeepers of national memory began reassessing the late president’s legacy in even less flattering terms. Lincoln never succeeded in translating his growing popularity with the Northern voting public into an equivalent level of esteem by the influential men who governed the country and guarded its official history. To many of these men, he remained in death what he was in life: the rail-splitter and country lawyer—good, decent and ill-fitted to the immense responsibilities that befell him. Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of presidents—and a former minister to Great Britain under Lincoln—spoke for elite opinion when he wrote, “I must affirm, without hesitation that in the history of our government, down to this hour, no experiment so rash has ever been made as that of elevating to the head of affairs a man with so little previous preparation for the task as Mr. Lincoln.” Only by good grace and luck did Lincoln possess the wisdom to appoint as his Secretary of State William H. Seward, the “master mind” of the government and savior of the Union.

Determined to salvage his father’s legacy, Robert turned to the two men whom Lincoln, as president, had trusted the most: John Hay and John G. Nicolay, the two presidential “secretaries” who had performed the modern-day functions of chief-of-staff, press secretary, body man and political director. They had long contemplated writing their own Lincoln biography, and now they had the family’s official blessing. (“It is absolutely horrible to think of such men as Herndon and Lamon being considered in the light that they claim,” Robert complained bitterly to Hay.)

Enjoying exclusive access to the late president’s papers, which would remain closed to the public until 1947—long after all of the principal actors had passed away—Hay and Nicolay labored for 15 years to write a 10-volume, one-million-word manuscript that they hoped would form the definitive history of their slain leader.

Hay and Nicolay’s life of Lincoln was serialized for five years by the Century, then the widest-circulation magazine in the country. Drawing on Lincoln’s papers, as well as thousands of contemporary sources including War Department telegrams, newspapers, manuscript collections, diaries and letters, they created a lasting image of Lincoln as a sage and knowing leader.

Most of the narrative elements we know today about the Lincoln White House come from Hay and Nicolay. Many of the common themes that historians still rehearse and debate—Lincoln as the master of a fractious cabinet Lincoln as the president who out-generaled his generals Lincoln as the keen political chess player—also come from their volumes. Though Lincoln historiography is ever-evolving, the Hay-Nicolay thesis has held up surprisingly well through time.

Shortly after the final magazine installment appeared, Robert told Hay, “I shall never cease to be glad that the places you & Nicolay held near him & in his confidence were filled by you & not by others.” By closing off access to his father’s papers, Robert hoped to make the Hay-Nicolay volumes the definitive and enduring portrait of the 16th president.

In many respects, it worked. Without the ability to examine the records of the Lincoln administration, for the next half-century, most historians focused on Lincoln’s early life. In this endeavor, they had to rely heavily on Herndon’s interviews, though other sleuths, notably the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, managed to turn up reams of heretofore unknown sources documenting the president’s formative years.

By the early 20th century, the national fascination with all things Lincoln-related took strange twists and turns. Collectors scoured the countryside for rails that Lincoln might or might not have split furniture that once resided in his law office and Springfield residence his family Bible the rocking chair he sat in at Ford’s Theatre on the night of his murder his autograph book his checkbook his stovepipe hat. Under pressure to indulge the public interest, and increasingly disconnected from his birthplace, Robert donated the family house in Springfield to the State of Illinois, where Osborn Oldroyd, one of the premier collectors of Lincolniana, had established an exhaustive display of personal effects. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of visitors gazed at a special installation of Lincoln materials. No item was too small to mesmerize. Or too sacred. In 1890, enthusiasts raised money to have Ann Rutledge’s body exhumed and reinterred in a nearby cemetery overlooking the Sangamon River. In place of a simple stone marker, they raised an imposing granite monument, later inscribed with the poet Edgar Lee Masters’s verse in her honor.

On July 25, 1947, several dozen Lincoln scholars and Civil War era progeny converged on the Library of Congress for a dinner. The poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg was there, as were James G. Randall and Paul Angle, two leading Lincoln historians. “Not since that morning in the Petersen House have so many men who loved Lincoln been gathered together in one room,” observed one of the attendees.

Shortly before midnight, the party took leave of the banquet and walked across the street to the annex. There, on the third floor, they waited for the clock to strike twelve, signaling the 21st anniversary of Robert Todd Lincoln’s death. It had been over 80 years since Lincoln’s death, but in the absence of wider access to his manuscript collection, the narrative around his presidency had remained remarkably fixed in time.

Several hundred onlookers, as well as a crew from CBS Radio News, were on hand to observe as the library staff unlocked the vaulted doors that guarded the Lincoln collection. Overpowered by the grandeur of the moment, Randall felt as though he were “living with Lincoln, handling the very papers he handled, sharing his deep concern over events and issues, noting his patience when complaints poured in, hearing a Lincolnian laugh.”

Of course, by then, nobody who had heard Lincoln’s laugh was alive to tell the tale. John Hay and John Nicolay were long gone. Robert was dead. And so was Billy Herndon, whose complicated relationship with the Lincoln family set off historical wars that continue today, 150 years after the end of the Civil War itself.

Parts of this article were adapted from Zeitz's book Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image .


Early life

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, the second child of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in a log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky. [2] He was a descendant of Samuel Lincoln, an Englishman who migrated from Hingham, Norfolk, to its namesake, Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1638. The family then migrated west, passing through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. [3] Lincoln's paternal grandparents, his namesake Captain Abraham Lincoln and wife Bathsheba (née Herring), moved the family from Virginia to Jefferson County, Kentucky. The captain was killed in an Indian raid in 1786. [4] His children, including eight-year-old Thomas, Abraham's father, witnessed the attack. [5] [b] Thomas then worked at odd jobs in Kentucky and Tennessee before the family settled in Hardin County, Kentucky, in the early 1800s. [5]

The heritage of Lincoln's mother Nancy remains unclear, but it is widely assumed that she was the daughter of Lucy Hanks. [7] Thomas and Nancy married on June 12, 1806, in Washington County, and moved to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. [8] They had three children: Sarah, Abraham, and Thomas, who died an infant. [9]

Thomas Lincoln bought or leased farms in Kentucky before losing all but 200 acres (81 ha) of his land in court disputes over property titles. [10] In 1816, the family moved to Indiana where the land surveys and titles were more reliable. [11] Indiana was a "free" (non-slaveholding) territory, and they settled in an "unbroken forest" [12] in Hurricane Township, Perry County, Indiana. [13] [c] In 1860, Lincoln noted that the family's move to Indiana was "partly on account of slavery", but mainly due to land title difficulties. [15]

In Kentucky and Indiana, Thomas worked as a farmer, cabinetmaker, and carpenter. [16] At various times, he owned farms, livestock and town lots, paid taxes, sat on juries, appraised estates, and served on county patrols. Thomas and Nancy were members of a Separate Baptists church, which forbade alcohol, dancing, and slavery. [17]

Overcoming financial challenges, Thomas in 1827 obtained clear title to 80 acres (32 ha) in Indiana, an area which became the Little Pigeon Creek Community. [18]

Mother's death

On October 5, 1818, Nancy Lincoln succumbed to milk sickness, leaving 11-year-old Sarah in charge of a household including her father, 9-year-old Abraham, and Nancy's 19-year-old orphan cousin, Dennis Hanks. [19] Ten years later, on January 20, 1828, Sarah died while giving birth to a stillborn son, devastating Lincoln. [20]

On December 2, 1819, Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, with three children of her own. [21] Abraham became close to his stepmother, and called her "Mother". [22] Lincoln disliked the hard labor associated with farm life. His family even said he was lazy, for all his "reading, scribbling, writing, ciphering, writing Poetry, etc". [23] His stepmother acknowledged he did not enjoy "physical labor", but loved to read. [24]

Education and move to Illinois

Lincoln was largely self-educated. [25] His formal schooling was from itinerant teachers. It included two short stints in Kentucky, where he learned to read but probably not to write, at age seven, [26] and in Indiana, where he went to school sporadically due to farm chores, for a total of less than 12 months in aggregate by the age of 15. [27] He persisted as an avid reader and retained a lifelong interest in learning. [28] Family, neighbors, and schoolmates recalled that his reading included the King James Bible, Aesop's Fables, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. [29]

As a teen, Lincoln took responsibility for chores, and customarily gave his father all earnings from work outside the home until he was 21. [30] Lincoln was tall, strong, and athletic, and became adept at using an ax. [31] He was an active wrestler during his youth and trained in the rough catch-as-catch-can style (also known as catch wrestling). He became county wrestling champion at the age of 21. [32] He gained a reputation for strength and audacity after winning a wrestling match with the renowned leader of ruffians known as "the Clary's Grove Boys". [33]

In March 1830, fearing another milk sickness outbreak, several members of the extended Lincoln family, including Abraham, moved west to Illinois, a free state, and settled in Macon County. [34] [d] Abraham then became increasingly distant from Thomas, in part due to his father's lack of education. [36] In 1831, as Thomas and other family prepared to move to a new homestead in Coles County, Illinois, Abraham struck out on his own. [37] He made his home in New Salem, Illinois, for six years. [38] Lincoln and some friends took goods by flatboat to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was first exposed to slavery. [39]

In 1865, Lincoln was asked how he came to acquire his rhetorical skills. He answered that in the practice of law he frequently came across the word "demonstrate" but had insufficient understanding of the term. So, he left Springfield for his father's home to study until he "could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid [here, referencing Euclid's Elements] at sight." [40]

Marriage and children

Lincoln's first romantic interest was Ann Rutledge, whom he met when he moved to New Salem. By 1835, they were in a relationship but not formally engaged. [41] She died on August 25, 1835, most likely of typhoid fever. [42] In the early 1830s, he met Mary Owens from Kentucky. [43]

Late in 1836, Lincoln agreed to a match with Owens if she returned to New Salem. Owens arrived that November and he courted her for a time however, they both had second thoughts. On August 16, 1837, he wrote Owens a letter saying he would not blame her if she ended the relationship, and she never replied. [44]

In 1839, Lincoln met Mary Todd in Springfield, Illinois, and the following year they became engaged. [45] She was the daughter of Robert Smith Todd, a wealthy lawyer and businessman in Lexington, Kentucky. [46] A wedding set for January 1, 1841 was canceled at Lincoln's request, but they reconciled and married on November 4, 1842, in the Springfield mansion of Mary's sister. [47] While anxiously preparing for the nuptials, he was asked where he was going and replied, "To hell, I suppose." [48] In 1844, the couple bought a house in Springfield near his law office. Mary kept house with the help of a hired servant and a relative. [49]

Lincoln was an affectionate husband and father of four sons, though his work regularly kept him away from home. The oldest, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born in 1843 and was the only child to live to maturity. Edward Baker Lincoln (Eddie), born in 1846, died February 1, 1850, probably of tuberculosis. Lincoln's third son, "Willie" Lincoln was born on December 21, 1850, and died of a fever at the White House on February 20, 1862. The youngest, Thomas "Tad" Lincoln, was born on April 4, 1853, and survived his father but died of heart failure at age 18 on July 16, 1871. [50] [e] Lincoln "was remarkably fond of children" [52] and the Lincolns were not considered to be strict with their own. [53] In fact, Lincoln's law partner William H. Herndon would grow irritated when Lincoln would bring his children to the law office. Their father, it seemed, was often too absorbed in his work to notice his children's behavior. Herndon recounted, "I have felt many and many a time that I wanted to wring their little necks, and yet out of respect for Lincoln I kept my mouth shut. Lincoln did not note what his children were doing or had done." [54]

The deaths of their sons, Eddie and Willie, had profound effects on both parents. Lincoln suffered from "melancholy", a condition now thought to be clinical depression. [55] Later in life, Mary struggled with the stresses of losing her husband and sons, and Robert committed her for a time to an asylum in 1875. [56]

In 1832, Lincoln joined with a partner, Denton Offutt, in the purchase of a general store on credit in New Salem. [57] Although the economy was booming, the business struggled and Lincoln eventually sold his share. That March he entered politics, running for the Illinois General Assembly, advocating navigational improvements on the Sangamon River. He could draw crowds as a raconteur, but he lacked the requisite formal education, powerful friends, and money, and lost the election. [58]

Lincoln briefly interrupted his campaign to serve as a captain in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War. [59] In his first campaign speech after returning, he observed a supporter in the crowd under attack, grabbed the assailant by his "neck and the seat of his trousers", and tossed him. [34] Lincoln finished eighth out of 13 candidates (the top four were elected), though he received 277 of the 300 votes cast in the New Salem precinct. [60]

Lincoln served as New Salem's postmaster and later as county surveyor, but continued his voracious reading, and decided to become a lawyer. [61] Rather than studying in the office of an established attorney, as was the custom, Lincoln borrowed legal texts from attorneys John Todd Stuart and Thomas Drummond, purchased books including Blackstone's Commentaries and Chitty's Pleadings, and read law on his own. [61] He later said of his legal education that "I studied with nobody." [62]

Lincoln's second state house campaign in 1834, this time as a Whig, was a success over a powerful Whig opponent. [63] Then followed his four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives for Sangamon County. [64] He championed construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and later was a Canal Commissioner. [65] He voted to expand suffrage beyond white landowners to all white males, but adopted a "free soil" stance opposing both slavery and abolition. [66] In 1837 he declared, "[The] Institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy, but the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils." [67] He echoed Henry Clay's support for the American Colonization Society which advocated a program of abolition in conjunction with settling freed slaves in Liberia. [68]

Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836, [69] he moved to Springfield and began to practice law under John T. Stuart, Mary Todd's cousin. [70] Lincoln emerged as a formidable trial combatant during cross-examinations and closing arguments. He partnered several years with Stephen T. Logan, and in 1844 began his practice with William Herndon, "a studious young man". [71]

True to his record, Lincoln professed to friends in 1861 to be "an old line Whig, a disciple of Henry Clay". [72] Their party favored economic modernization in banking, tariffs to fund internal improvements including railroads, and urbanization. [73]

In 1843, Lincoln sought the Whig nomination for Illinois' 7th district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives he was defeated by John J. Hardin though he prevailed with the party in limiting Hardin to one term. Lincoln not only pulled off his strategy of gaining the nomination in 1846, but also won election. He was the only Whig in the Illinois delegation, but as dutiful as any, participated in almost all votes and made speeches that toed the party line. [74] He was assigned to the Committee on Post Office and Post Roads and the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department. [75] Lincoln teamed with Joshua R. Giddings on a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia with compensation for the owners, enforcement to capture fugitive slaves, and a popular vote on the matter. He dropped the bill when it eluded Whig support. [76]

Political views

On foreign and military policy, Lincoln spoke against the Mexican–American War, which he imputed to President James K. Polk's desire for "military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood". [77] He supported the Wilmot Proviso, a failed proposal to ban slavery in any U.S. territory won from Mexico. [78]

Lincoln emphasized his opposition to Polk by drafting and introducing his Spot Resolutions. The war had begun with a Mexican slaughter of American soldiers in territory disputed by Mexico, and Polk insisted that Mexican soldiers had "invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil". [79] Lincoln demanded that Polk show Congress the exact spot on which blood had been shed and prove that the spot was on American soil. [80] The resolution was ignored in both Congress and the national papers, and it cost Lincoln political support in his district. One Illinois newspaper derisively nicknamed him "spotty Lincoln". [81] Lincoln later regretted some of his statements, especially his attack on presidential war-making powers. [82]

Lincoln had pledged in 1846 to serve only one term in the House. Realizing Clay was unlikely to win the presidency, he supported General Zachary Taylor for the Whig nomination in the 1848 presidential election. [83] Taylor won and Lincoln hoped in vain to be appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office. [84] The administration offered to appoint him secretary or governor of the Oregon Territory as consolation. [85] This distant territory was a Democratic stronghold, and acceptance of the post would have disrupted his legal and political career in Illinois, so he declined and resumed his law practice. [86]

In his Springfield practice Lincoln handled "every kind of business that could come before a prairie lawyer". [87] Twice a year he appeared for 10 consecutive weeks in county seats in the midstate county courts this continued for 16 years. [88] Lincoln handled transportation cases in the midst of the nation's western expansion, particularly river barge conflicts under the many new railroad bridges. As a riverboat man, Lincoln initially favored those interests, but ultimately represented whoever hired him. [89] He later represented a bridge company against a riverboat company in Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company, a landmark case involving a canal boat that sank after hitting a bridge. [90] In 1849, he received a patent for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow water. The idea was never commercialized, but it made Lincoln the only president to hold a patent. [91]

Lincoln appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court in 175 cases he was sole counsel in 51 cases, of which 31 were decided in his favor. [92] From 1853 to 1860, one of his largest clients was the Illinois Central Railroad. [93] His legal reputation gave rise to the nickname "Honest Abe". [94]

Lincoln argued in an 1858 criminal trial, defending William "Duff" Armstrong, who was on trial for the murder of James Preston Metzker. [95] The case is famous for Lincoln's use of a fact established by judicial notice to challenge the credibility of an eyewitness. After an opposing witness testified to seeing the crime in the moonlight, Lincoln produced a Farmers' Almanac showing the moon was at a low angle, drastically reducing visibility. Armstrong was acquitted. [95]

Leading up to his presidential campaign, Lincoln elevated his profile in an 1859 murder case, with his defense of Simeon Quinn "Peachy" Harrison who was a third cousin Harrison was also the grandson of Lincoln's political opponent, Rev. Peter Cartwright. [96] Harrison was charged with the murder of Greek Crafton who, as he lay dying of his wounds, confessed to Cartwright that he had provoked Harrison. [97] Lincoln angrily protested the judge's initial decision to exclude Cartwright's testimony about the confession as inadmissible hearsay. Lincoln argued that the testimony involved a dying declaration and was not subject to the hearsay rule. Instead of holding Lincoln in contempt of court as expected, the judge, a Democrat, reversed his ruling and admitted the testimony into evidence, resulting in Harrison's acquittal. [95]

Emergence as Republican leader

The debate over the status of slavery in the territories failed to alleviate tensions between the slave-holding South and the free North, with the failure of the Compromise of 1850, a legislative package designed to address the issue. [98] In his 1852 eulogy for Clay, Lincoln highlighted the latter's support for gradual emancipation and opposition to "both extremes" on the slavery issue. [99] As the slavery debate in the Nebraska and Kansas territories became particularly acrimonious, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed popular sovereignty as a compromise the measure would allow the electorate of each territory to decide the status of slavery. The legislation alarmed many Northerners, who sought to prevent the resulting spread of slavery, but Douglas's Kansas–Nebraska Act narrowly passed Congress in May 1854. [100]

Lincoln did not comment on the act until months later in his "Peoria Speech" in October 1854. Lincoln then declared his opposition to slavery which he repeated en route to the presidency. [101] He said the Kansas Act had a "declared indifference, but as I must think, a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery. I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world . " [102] Lincoln's attacks on the Kansas–Nebraska Act marked his return to political life. [103]

Nationally, the Whigs were irreparably split by the Kansas–Nebraska Act and other efforts to compromise on the slavery issue. Reflecting on the demise of his party, Lincoln wrote in 1855, "I think I am a Whig, but others say there are no Whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. I do no more than oppose the extension of slavery." [104] The new Republican Party was formed as a northern party dedicated to antislavery, drawing from the antislavery wing of the Whig Party, and combining Free Soil, Liberty, and antislavery Democratic Party members, [105] Lincoln resisted early Republican entreaties, fearing that the new party would become a platform for extreme abolitionists. [106] Lincoln held out hope for rejuvenating the Whigs, though he lamented his party's growing closeness with the nativist Know Nothing movement. [107]

In 1854 Lincoln was elected to the Illinois legislature but declined to take his seat. The year's elections showed the strong opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, and in the aftermath, Lincoln sought election to the United States Senate. [103] At that time, senators were elected by the state legislature. [108] After leading in the first six rounds of voting, he was unable to obtain a majority. Lincoln instructed his backers to vote for Lyman Trumbull. Trumbull was an antislavery Democrat, and had received few votes in the earlier ballots his supporters, also antislavery Democrats, had vowed not to support any Whig. Lincoln's decision to withdraw enabled his Whig supporters and Trumbull's antislavery Democrats to combine and defeat the mainstream Democratic candidate, Joel Aldrich Matteson. [109]

1856 campaign

Violent political confrontations in Kansas continued, and opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act remained strong throughout the North. As the 1856 elections approached, Lincoln joined the Republicans and attended the Bloomington Convention, which formally established the Illinois Republican Party. The convention platform endorsed Congress's right to regulate slavery in the territories and backed the admission of Kansas as a free state. Lincoln gave the final speech of the convention supporting the party platform and called for the preservation of the Union. [110] At the June 1856 Republican National Convention, though Lincoln received support to run as vice president, John C. Frémont and William Dayton comprised the ticket, which Lincoln supported throughout Illinois. The Democrats nominated former Secretary of State James Buchanan and the Know-Nothings nominated former Whig President Millard Fillmore. [111] Buchanan prevailed, while Republican William Henry Bissell won election as Governor of Illinois, and Lincoln became a leading Republican in Illinois. [112] [f]

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott was a slave whose master took him from a slave state to a free territory under the Missouri Compromise. After Scott was returned to the slave state he petitioned a federal court for his freedom. His petition was denied in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). [g] Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the decision wrote that blacks were not citizens and derived no rights from the Constitution. While many Democrats hoped that Dred Scott would end the dispute over slavery in the territories, the decision sparked further outrage in the North. [115] Lincoln denounced it as the product of a conspiracy of Democrats to support the Slave Power. [116] He argued the decision was at variance with the Declaration of Independence he said that while the founding fathers did not believe all men equal in every respect, they believed all men were equal "in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". [117]

Lincoln–Douglas debates and Cooper Union speech

In 1858 Douglas was up for re-election in the U.S. Senate, and Lincoln hoped to defeat him. Many in the party felt that a former Whig should be nominated in 1858, and Lincoln's 1856 campaigning and support of Trumbull had earned him a favor. [118] Some eastern Republicans supported Douglas from his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution and admission of Kansas as a slave state. [119] Many Illinois Republicans resented this eastern interference. For the first time, Illinois Republicans held a convention to agree upon a Senate candidate, and Lincoln won the nomination with little opposition. [120]

Lincoln accepted the nomination with great enthusiasm and zeal. After his nomination he delivered his House Divided Speech, with the biblical reference Mark 3:25, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other." [121] The speech created a stark image of the danger of disunion. [122] The stage was then set for the election of the Illinois legislature which would, in turn, select Lincoln or Douglas. [123] When informed of Lincoln's nomination, Douglas stated, "[Lincoln] is the strong man of the party . and if I beat him, my victory will be hardly won." [124]

The Senate campaign featured seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas. These were the most famous political debates in American history they had an atmosphere akin to a prizefight and drew crowds in the thousands. [125] The principals stood in stark contrast both physically and politically. Lincoln warned that Douglas’ "Slave Power" was threatening the values of republicanism, and accused Douglas of distorting the Founding Fathers' premise that all men are created equal. Douglas emphasized his Freeport Doctrine, that local settlers were free to choose whether to allow slavery, and accused Lincoln of having joined the abolitionists. [126] Lincoln's argument assumed a moral tone, as he claimed Douglas represented a conspiracy to promote slavery. Douglas's argument was more legal, claiming that Lincoln was defying the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision. [127]

Though the Republican legislative candidates won more popular votes, the Democrats won more seats, and the legislature re-elected Douglas. Lincoln's articulation of the issues gave him a national political presence. [128] In May 1859, Lincoln purchased the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, a German-language newspaper that was consistently supportive most of the state's 130,000 German Americans voted Democratic but the German-language paper mobilized Republican support. [129] In the aftermath of the 1858 election, newspapers frequently mentioned Lincoln as a potential Republican presidential candidate, rivaled by William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Simon Cameron. While Lincoln was popular in the Midwest, he lacked support in the Northeast, and was unsure whether to seek the office. [130] In January 1860, Lincoln told a group of political allies that he would accept the nomination if offered, and in the following months several local papers endorsed his candidacy. [131]

Traveling untiringly Lincoln made about fifty speeches. By their quality and simplicity he quickly became the champion of the Republican party. However, unlike his overwhelming support in the Midwestern United States his support in the east was not as great, where he sometimes encountered a lack of appreciation and in some quarters was met with much indifference. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, at that time wrote up an unflattering account of Lincoln's compromising position on slavery and his reluctance to challenge the court's Dred-Scott ruling, which was promptly used against him by his political rivals. [132] [133]

On February 27, 1860, powerful New York Republicans invited Lincoln to give a speech at Cooper Union, in which he argued that the Founding Fathers of the United States had little use for popular sovereignty and had repeatedly sought to restrict slavery. He insisted that morality required opposition to slavery, and rejected any "groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong". [134] Many in the audience thought he appeared awkward and even ugly. [135] But Lincoln demonstrated intellectual leadership that brought him into contention. Journalist Noah Brooks reported, "No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience." [136]

Historian David Herbert Donald described the speech as a "superb political move for an unannounced candidate, to appear in one rival's (Seward) own state at an event sponsored by the second rival's (Chase) loyalists, while not mentioning either by name during its delivery". [137] In response to an inquiry about his ambitions, Lincoln said, "The taste is in my mouth a little." [138]

1860 presidential election

On May 9–10, 1860, the Illinois Republican State Convention was held in Decatur. [139] Lincoln's followers organized a campaign team led by David Davis, Norman Judd, Leonard Swett, and Jesse DuBois, and Lincoln received his first endorsement. [140] Exploiting his embellished frontier legend (clearing land and splitting fence rails), Lincoln's supporters adopted the label of "The Rail Candidate". [141] In 1860, Lincoln described himself: "I am in height, six feet, four inches, nearly lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and gray eyes." [142] Michael Martinez wrote about the effective imaging of Lincoln by his campaign. At times he was presented as the plain-talking "Rail Splitter" and at other times he was "Honest Abe", unpolished but trustworthy. [143]

On May 18, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot, beating candidates such as Seward and Chase. A former Democrat, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, was nominated for vice president to balance the ticket. Lincoln's success depended on his campaign team, his reputation as a moderate on the slavery issue, and his strong support for internal improvements and the tariff. [144] Pennsylvania put him over the top, led by the state's iron interests who were reassured by his tariff support. [145] Lincoln's managers had focused on this delegation while honoring Lincoln's dictate to "Make no contracts that will bind me". [146]

As the Slave Power tightened its grip on the national government, most Republicans agreed with Lincoln that the North was the aggrieved party. Throughout the 1850s, Lincoln had doubted the prospects of civil war, and his supporters rejected claims that his election would incite secession. [147] When Douglas was selected as the candidate of the Northern Democrats, delegates from eleven slave states walked out of the Democratic convention they opposed Douglas's position on popular sovereignty, and selected incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge as their candidate. [148] A group of former Whigs and Know Nothings formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee. Lincoln and Douglas competed for votes in the North, while Bell and Breckinridge primarily found support in the South. [118]

Prior to the Republican convention, the Lincoln campaign began cultivating a nationwide youth organization, the Wide Awakes, which it used to generate popular support throughout the country to spearhead voter registration drives, thinking that new voters and young voters tended to embrace new parties. [149] People of the Northern states knew the Southern states would vote against Lincoln and rallied supporters for Lincoln. [150]

As Douglas and the other candidates campaigned, Lincoln gave no speeches, relying on the enthusiasm of the Republican Party. The party did the leg work that produced majorities across the North, and produced an abundance of campaign posters, leaflets, and newspaper editorials. Republican speakers focused first on the party platform, and second on Lincoln's life story, emphasizing his childhood poverty. The goal was to demonstrate the power of "free labor", which allowed a common farm boy to work his way to the top by his own efforts. [151] The Republican Party's production of campaign literature dwarfed the combined opposition a Chicago Tribune writer produced a pamphlet that detailed Lincoln's life, and sold 100,000–200,000 copies. [152] Though he did not give public appearances, many sought to visit him and write him. In the runup to the election he took an office in the Illinois state capitol to deal with the influx of attention. He also hired John George Nicolay as his personal secretary, who would remain in that role during the presidency. [153]

On November 6, 1860, Lincoln was elected the 16th president. He was the first Republican president and his victory was entirely due to his support in the North and West. No ballots were cast for him in 10 of the 15 Southern slave states, and he won only two of 996 counties in all the Southern states, an omen of the impending Civil War. [154] [155] Lincoln received 1,866,452 votes, or 39.8% of the total in a four-way race, carrying the free Northern states, as well as California and Oregon. [156] His victory in the electoral college was decisive: Lincoln had 180 votes to 123 for his opponents. [157]

Secession and inauguration

The South was outraged by Lincoln's election, and in response secessionists implemented plans to leave the Union before he took office in March 1861. [159] On December 20, 1860, South Carolina took the lead by adopting an ordinance of secession by February 1, 1861, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed. [160] Six of these states declared themselves to be a sovereign nation, the Confederate States of America, and adopted a constitution. [161] The upper South and border states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas) initially rejected the secessionist appeal. [162] President Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln refused to recognize the Confederacy, declaring secession illegal. [163] The Confederacy selected Jefferson Davis as its provisional president on February 9, 1861. [164]

Attempts at compromise followed but Lincoln and the Republicans rejected the proposed Crittenden Compromise as contrary to the Party's platform of free-soil in the territories. [165] Lincoln said, "I will suffer death before I consent . to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege to take possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right." [166]

Lincoln tacitly supported the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which passed Congress and was awaiting ratification by the states when Lincoln took office. That doomed amendment would have protected slavery in states where it already existed. [167] A few weeks before the war, Lincoln sent a letter to every governor informing them Congress had passed a joint resolution to amend the Constitution. [168]

En route to his inauguration, Lincoln addressed crowds and legislatures across the North. [169] He gave a particularly emotional farewell address upon leaving Springfield he would never again return to Springfield alive. [170] [171] The president-elect evaded suspected assassins in Baltimore. On February 23, 1861, he arrived in disguise in Washington, D.C., which was placed under substantial military guard. [172] Lincoln directed his inaugural address to the South, proclaiming once again that he had no inclination to abolish slavery in the Southern states:

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Lincoln cited his plans for banning the expansion of slavery as the key source of conflict between North and South, stating "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute." The president ended his address with an appeal to the people of the South: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies . The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." [174] The failure of the Peace Conference of 1861 signaled that legislative compromise was impossible. By March 1861, no leaders of the insurrection had proposed rejoining the Union on any terms. Meanwhile, Lincoln and the Republican leadership agreed that the dismantling of the Union could not be tolerated. [175] In his second inaugural address, Lincoln looked back on the situation at the time and said: "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

Civil War

Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Union's Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a request for provisions to Washington, and Lincoln's order to meet that request was seen by the secessionists as an act of war. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter and began the fight. Historian Allan Nevins argued that the newly inaugurated Lincoln made three miscalculations: underestimating the gravity of the crisis, exaggerating the strength of Unionist sentiment in the South, and overlooking Southern Unionist opposition to an invasion. [176]

William Tecumseh Sherman talked to Lincoln during inauguration week and was "sadly disappointed" at his failure to realize that "the country was sleeping on a volcano" and that the South was preparing for war. [177] Donald concludes that, "His repeated efforts to avoid collision in the months between inauguration and the firing on Ft. Sumter showed he adhered to his vow not to be the first to shed fraternal blood. But he also vowed not to surrender the forts. The only resolution of these contradictory positions was for the confederates to fire the first shot they did just that." [178]

On April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send a total of 75,000 volunteer troops to recapture forts, protect Washington, and "preserve the Union", which, in his view, remained intact despite the seceding states. This call forced states to choose sides. Virginia seceded and was rewarded with the designation of Richmond as the Confederate capital, despite its exposure to Union lines. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas followed over the following two months. Secession sentiment was strong in Missouri and Maryland, but did not prevail Kentucky remained neutral. [179] The Fort Sumter attack rallied Americans north of the Mason-Dixon line to defend the nation.

As States sent Union regiments south, on April 19, Baltimore mobs in control of the rail links attacked Union troops who were changing trains. Local leaders' groups later burned critical rail bridges to the capital and the Army responded by arresting local Maryland officials. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus where needed for the security of troops trying to reach Washington. [180] John Merryman, one Maryland official hindering the U.S. troop movements, petitioned Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to issue a writ of habeas corpus. In June Taney, ruling only for the lower circuit court in ex parte Merryman, issued the writ which he felt could only be suspended by Congress. Lincoln persisted with the policy of suspension in select areas. [181] [182]

Union military strategy

Lincoln took executive control of the war and shaped the Union military strategy. He responded to the unprecedented political and military crisis as commander-in-chief by exercising unprecedented authority. He expanded his war powers, imposed a blockade on Confederate ports, disbursed funds before appropriation by Congress, suspended habeas corpus, and arrested and imprisoned thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers. Lincoln gained the support of Congress and the northern public for these actions. Lincoln also had to reinforce Union sympathies in the border slave states and keep the war from becoming an international conflict. [183]

It was clear from the outset that bipartisan support was essential to success, and that any compromise alienated factions on both sides of the aisle, such as the appointment of Republicans and Democrats to command positions. Copperheads criticized Lincoln for refusing to compromise on slavery. The Radical Republicans criticized him for moving too slowly in abolishing slavery. [184] On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act that authorized judicial proceedings to confiscate and free slaves who were used to support the Confederates. The law had little practical effect, but it signaled political support for abolishing slavery. [185]

In August 1861, General John C. Frémont, the 1856 Republican presidential nominee, without consulting Washington, issued a martial edict freeing slaves of the rebels. Lincoln canceled the illegal proclamation as politically motivated and lacking military necessity. [186] As a result, Union enlistments from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri increased by over 40,000. [187]

Internationally, Lincoln wanted to forestall foreign military aid to the Confederacy. [188] He relied on his combative Secretary of State William Seward while working closely with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Sumner. [189] In the 1861 Trent Affair which threatened war with Great Britain, the U.S. Navy illegally intercepted a British mail ship, the Trent, on the high seas and seized two Confederate envoys Britain protested vehemently while the U.S. cheered. Lincoln ended the crisis by releasing the two diplomats. Biographer James G. Randall dissected Lincoln's successful techniques: [190]

his restraint, his avoidance of any outward expression of truculence, his early softening of State Department's attitude toward Britain, his deference toward Seward and Sumner, his withholding of his paper prepared for the occasion, his readiness to arbitrate, his golden silence in addressing Congress, his shrewdness in recognizing that war must be averted, and his clear perception that a point could be clinched for America's true position at the same time that satisfaction was given to a friendly country.

Lincoln painstakingly monitored the telegraph reports coming into the War Department. He tracked all phases of the effort, consulting with governors, and selecting generals based on their success, their state, and their party. In January 1862, after complaints of inefficiency and profiteering in the War Department, Lincoln replaced War Secretary Simon Cameron with Edwin Stanton. Stanton centralized the War Department's activities, auditing and canceling contracts, saving the federal government $17,000,000. [191] Stanton was a staunch Unionist, pro-business, conservative Democrat who gravitated toward the Radical Republican faction. He worked more often and more closely with Lincoln than any other senior official. "Stanton and Lincoln virtually conducted the war together", say Thomas and Hyman. [192]

Lincoln's war strategy embraced two priorities: ensuring that Washington was well-defended and conducting an aggressive war effort for a prompt, decisive victory. [h] Twice a week, Lincoln met with his cabinet in the afternoon. Occasionally Mary prevailed on him to take a carriage ride, concerned that he was working too hard. [194] For his edification Lincoln relied upon a book by his chief of staff General Henry Halleck entitled Elements of Military Art and Science Halleck was a disciple of the European strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini. Lincoln began to appreciate the critical need to control strategic points, such as the Mississippi River. [195] Lincoln saw the importance of Vicksburg and understood the necessity of defeating the enemy's army, rather than simply capturing territory. [196]

General McClellan

After the Union rout at Bull Run and Winfield Scott's retirement, Lincoln appointed Major General George B. McClellan general-in-chief. [197] McClellan then took months to plan his Virginia Peninsula Campaign. McClellan's slow progress frustrated Lincoln, as did his position that no troops were needed to defend Washington. McClellan, in turn, blamed the failure of the campaign on Lincoln's reservation of troops for the capitol. [198]

In 1862 Lincoln removed McClellan for the general's continued inaction. He elevated Henry Halleck in July and appointed John Pope as head of the new Army of Virginia. [199] Pope satisfied Lincoln's desire to advance on Richmond from the north, thus protecting Washington from counterattack. [200] But Pope was then soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862, forcing the Army of the Potomac back to defend Washington. [201]

Despite his dissatisfaction with McClellan's failure to reinforce Pope, Lincoln restored him to command of all forces around Washington. [202] Two days after McClellan's return to command, General Robert E. Lee's forces crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, leading to the Battle of Antietam. [203] That battle, a Union victory, was among the bloodiest in American history it facilitated Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in January. [204]

McClellan then resisted the president's demand that he pursue Lee's withdrawing army, while General Don Carlos Buell likewise refused orders to move the Army of the Ohio against rebel forces in eastern Tennessee. Lincoln replaced Buell with William Rosecrans and after the 1862 midterm elections he replaced McClellan with Ambrose Burnside. The appointments were both politically neutral and adroit on Lincoln's part. [205]

Burnside, against presidential advice, launched an offensive across the Rappahannock River and was defeated by Lee at Fredericksburg in December. Desertions during 1863 came in the thousands and only increased after Fredericksburg, so Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker. [206]

In the 1862 midterm elections the Republicans suffered severe losses due to rising inflation, high taxes, rumors of corruption, suspension of habeas corpus, military draft law, and fears that freed slaves would come North and undermine the labor market. The Emancipation Proclamation gained votes for Republicans in rural New England and the upper Midwest, but cost votes in the Irish and German strongholds and in the lower Midwest, where many Southerners had lived for generations. [207]

In the spring of 1863 Lincoln was sufficiently optimistic about upcoming military campaigns to think the end of the war could be near the plans included attacks by Hooker on Lee north of Richmond, Rosecrans on Chattanooga, Grant on Vicksburg, and a naval assault on Charleston. [208]

Hooker was routed by Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, then resigned and was replaced by George Meade. [209] Meade followed Lee north into Pennsylvania and beat him in the Gettysburg Campaign, but then failed to follow up despite Lincoln's demands. At the same time, Grant captured Vicksburg and gained control of the Mississippi River, splitting the far western rebel states. [210]

Emancipation Proclamation

The Federal government's power to end slavery was limited by the Constitution, which before 1865 delegated the issue to the individual states. Lincoln argued that slavery would be rendered obsolete if its expansion into new territories were prevented. He sought to persuade the states to agree to compensation for emancipating their slaves in return for their acceptance of abolition. [211] Lincoln rejected Fremont's two emancipation attempts in August 1861, as well as one by Major General David Hunter in May 1862, on the grounds that it was not within their power, and would upset loyal border states. [212]

In June 1862, Congress passed an act banning slavery on all federal territory, which Lincoln signed. In July, the Confiscation Act of 1862 was enacted, providing court procedures to free the slaves of those convicted of aiding the rebellion Lincoln approved the bill despite his belief that it was unconstitutional. He felt such action could be taken only within the war powers of the commander-in-chief, which he planned to exercise. Lincoln at this time reviewed a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation with his cabinet. [213]

Privately, Lincoln concluded that the Confederacy's slave base had to be eliminated. Copperheads argued that emancipation was a stumbling block to peace and reunification Republican editor Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune agreed. [214] In a letter of August 22, 1862, Lincoln said that while he personally wished all men could be free, regardless of that, his first obligation as president was to preserve the Union: [215]

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union . [¶] I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free. [216]

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, and effective January 1, 1863, affirmed the freedom of slaves in 10 states not then under Union control, with exemptions specified for areas under such control. [217] Lincoln's comment on signing the Proclamation was: "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper." [218] He spent the next 100 days preparing the army and the nation for emancipation, while Democrats rallied their voters by warning of the threat that freed slaves posed to northern whites. [219]

With the abolition of slavery in the rebel states now a military objective, Union armies advancing south liberated three million slaves.

Enlisting former slaves became official policy. By the spring of 1863, Lincoln was ready to recruit black troops in more than token numbers. In a letter to Tennessee military governor Andrew Johnson encouraging him to lead the way in raising black troops, Lincoln wrote, "The bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once". [220] By the end of 1863, at Lincoln's direction, General Lorenzo Thomas had recruited 20 regiments of blacks from the Mississippi Valley. [221]

The Proclamation included Lincoln's earlier plans for colonies for newly freed slaves, though that undertaking ultimately failed. [222]

Gettysburg Address (1863)

Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery on November 19, 1863. [223] In 272 words, and three minutes, Lincoln asserted that the nation was born not in 1789, but in 1776, "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". He defined the war as dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality for all. He declared that the deaths of so many brave soldiers would not be in vain, that slavery would end, and the future of democracy would be assured, that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". [224]

Defying his prediction that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here", the Address became the most quoted speech in American history. [225]

General Grant

Grant's victories at the Battle of Shiloh and in the Vicksburg campaign impressed Lincoln. Responding to criticism of Grant after Shiloh, Lincoln had said, "I can't spare this man. He fights." [226] With Grant in command, Lincoln felt the Union Army could advance in multiple theaters, while also including black troops. Meade's failure to capture Lee's army after Gettysburg and the continued passivity of the Army of the Potomac persuaded Lincoln to promote Grant to supreme commander. Grant then assumed command of Meade's army. [227]

Lincoln was concerned that Grant might be considering a presidential candidacy in 1864. He arranged for an intermediary to inquire into Grant's political intentions, and once assured that he had none, Lincoln promoted Grant to the newly revived rank of Lieutenant General, a rank which had been unoccupied since George Washington. [228] Authorization for such a promotion "with the advice and consent of the Senate" was provided by a new bill which Lincoln signed the same day he submitted Grant's name to the Senate. His nomination was confirmed by the Senate on March 2, 1864. [229]

Grant in 1864 waged the bloody Overland Campaign, which exacted heavy losses on both sides. [230] When Lincoln asked what Grant's plans were, the persistent general replied, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." [231] Grant's army moved steadily south. Lincoln traveled to Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia, to confer with Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. [232] Lincoln reacted to Union losses by mobilizing support throughout the North. [233] Lincoln authorized Grant to target infrastructure—plantations, railroads, and bridges—hoping to weaken the South's morale and fighting ability. He emphasized defeat of the Confederate armies over destruction (which was considerable) for its own sake. [234] Lincoln's engagement became distinctly personal on one occasion in 1864 when Confederate general Jubal Early raided Washington, D.C.. Legend has it that while Lincoln watched from an exposed position, Union Captain (and future Supreme Court Justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. shouted at him, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!" [235]

As Grant continued to weaken Lee's forces, efforts to discuss peace began. Confederate Vice President Stephens led a group meeting with Lincoln, Seward, and others at Hampton Roads. Lincoln refused to negotiate with the Confederacy as a coequal his objective to end the fighting was not realized. [236] On April 1, 1865, Grant nearly encircled Petersburg in a siege. The Confederate government evacuated Richmond and Lincoln visited the conquered capital. On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, officially ending the war. [237]


Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, while uniting the main Republican factions, along with War Democrats Edwin M. Stanton and Andrew Johnson. Lincoln used conversation and his patronage powers—greatly expanded from peacetime—to build support and fend off the Radicals' efforts to replace him. [238] At its convention, the Republicans selected Johnson as his running mate. To broaden his coalition to include War Democrats as well as Republicans, Lincoln ran under the label of the new Union Party. [239]

Grant's bloody stalemates damaged Lincoln's re-election prospects, and many Republicans feared defeat. Lincoln confidentially pledged in writing that if he should lose the election, he would still defeat the Confederacy before turning over the White House [240] Lincoln did not show the pledge to his cabinet, but asked them to sign the sealed envelope. The pledge read as follows:

"This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward." [241]

The Democratic platform followed the "Peace wing" of the party and called the war a "failure" but their candidate, McClellan, supported the war and repudiated the platform. Meanwhile, Lincoln emboldened Grant with more troops and Republican party support. Sherman's capture of Atlanta in September and David Farragut's capture of Mobile ended defeatism. [242] The Democratic Party was deeply split, with some leaders and most soldiers openly for Lincoln. The National Union Party was united by Lincoln's support for emancipation. State Republican parties stressed the perfidy of the Copperheads. [243] On November 8, Lincoln carried all but three states, including 78 percent of Union soldiers. [244]

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. In it, he deemed the war casualties to be God's will. Historian Mark Noll places the speech "among the small handful of semi-sacred texts by which Americans conceive their place in the world" it is inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial. [245] Lincoln said:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether". With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations. [246]


Reconstruction preceded the war's end, as Lincoln and his associates considered the reintegration of the nation, and the fates of Confederate leaders and freed slaves. When a general asked Lincoln how the defeated Confederates were to be treated, Lincoln replied, "Let 'em up easy." [247] Lincoln was determined to find meaning in the war in its aftermath, and did not want to continue to outcast the southern states. His main goal was to keep the union together, so he proceeded by focusing not on whom to blame, but on how to rebuild the nation as one. [248] Lincoln led the moderates in Reconstruction policy and was opposed by the Radicals, under Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Sen. Charles Sumner and Sen. Benjamin Wade, who otherwise remained Lincoln's allies. Determined to reunite the nation and not alienate the South, Lincoln urged that speedy elections under generous terms be held. His Amnesty Proclamation of December 8, 1863, offered pardons to those who had not held a Confederate civil office and had not mistreated Union prisoners, if they were willing to sign an oath of allegiance. [249]

As Southern states fell, they needed leaders while their administrations were restored. In Tennessee and Arkansas, Lincoln respectively appointed Johnson and Frederick Steele as military governors. In Louisiana, Lincoln ordered General Nathaniel P. Banks to promote a plan that would reestablish statehood when 10 percent of the voters agreed, and only if the reconstructed states abolished slavery. Democratic opponents accused Lincoln of using the military to ensure his and the Republicans' political aspirations. The Radicals denounced his policy as too lenient, and passed their own plan, the 1864 Wade–Davis Bill, which Lincoln vetoed. The Radicals retaliated by refusing to seat elected representatives from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. [250]

Lincoln's appointments were designed to harness both moderates and Radicals. To fill Chief Justice Taney's seat on the Supreme Court, he named the Radicals' choice, Salmon P. Chase, who Lincoln believed would uphold his emancipation and paper money policies. [251]

After implementing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln increased pressure on Congress to outlaw slavery throughout the nation with a constitutional amendment. He declared that such an amendment would "clinch the whole matter" and by December 1863 an amendment was brought to Congress. [252] This first attempt fell short of the required two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. Passage became part of the Republican/Unionist platform, and after a House debate the second attempt passed on January 31, 1865. [253] With ratification, it became the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 6, 1865. [254]

Lincoln believed the federal government had limited responsibility to the millions of freedmen. He signed Senator Charles Sumner's Freedmen's Bureau bill that set up a temporary federal agency designed to meet the immediate needs of former slaves. The law opened land for a lease of three years with the ability to purchase title for the freedmen. Lincoln announced a Reconstruction plan that involved short-term military control, pending readmission under the control of southern Unionists. [255]

Historians agree that it is impossible to predict exactly how Reconstruction would have proceeded had Lincoln lived. Biographers James G. Randall and Richard Current, according to David Lincove, argue that: [256]

It is likely that had he lived, Lincoln would have followed a policy similar to Johnson's, that he would have clashed with congressional Radicals, that he would have produced a better result for the freedmen than occurred, and that his political skills would have helped him avoid Johnson's mistakes.

Unlike Sumner and other Radicals, Lincoln did not see Reconstruction as an opportunity for a sweeping political and social revolution beyond emancipation. He had long made clear his opposition to the confiscation and redistribution of land. He believed, as most Republicans did in April 1865, that the voting requirements should be determined by the states. He assumed that political control in the South would pass to white Unionists, reluctant secessionists, and forward-looking former Confederates. But time and again during the war, Lincoln, after initial opposition, had come to embrace positions first advanced by abolitionists and Radical Republicans. . Lincoln undoubtedly would have listened carefully to the outcry for further protection for the former slaves . It is entirely plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing on a Reconstruction policy that encompassed federal protection for basic civil rights plus limited black suffrage, along the lines Lincoln proposed just before his death.

Native American policy

Lincoln's experience with Indians followed the death of his grandfather Abraham at their hands, in the presence of his father and uncles. Lincoln claimed Indians were antagonistic toward his father, Thomas Lincoln, and his young family. Although Lincoln was a veteran of the Black Hawk War, which was fought in Wisconsin and Illinois in 1832, he saw no significant action. [258] During his presidency, Lincoln's policy toward Indians was driven by politics. [258] He used the Indian Bureau as a source of patronage, making appointments to his loyal followers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. [259] He faced difficulties guarding Western settlers, railroads, and telegraphs, from Indian attacks. [259]

On August 17, 1862, the Dakota uprising in Minnesota, supported by the Yankton Indians, killed hundreds of white settlers, forced 30,000 from their homes, and deeply alarmed the Lincoln administration. [260] Some believed it was a conspiracy by the Confederacy to launch a war on the Northwestern front. [261] Lincoln sent General John Pope, the former head of the Army of Virginia, to Minnesota as commander of the new Department of the Northwest. [262] Lincoln ordered thousands of Confederate prisoners of war sent by railroad to put down the Dakota Uprising. [263] When the Confederates protested forcing Confederate prisoners to fight Indians, Lincoln revoked the policy. [264] Pope fought against the Indians mercilessly, even advocating their extinction. He ordered Indian farms and food supplies be destroyed, and Indian warriors be killed. [262] Aiding Pope, Minnesota Congressman Col. Henry H. Sibley led militiamen and regular troops to defeat the Dakota at Wood Lake. [264] By October 9, Pope considered the uprising to be ended hostilities ceased on December 26. [265] An unusual military court was set up to prosecute captured natives, with Lincoln effectively acting as the route of appeal. [266]

Lincoln personally reviewed each of 303 execution warrants for Santee Dakota convicted of killing innocent farmers he commuted the sentences of all but 39 (one was later reprieved). [267] [266] Lincoln sought to be lenient, but still send a message. He also faced significant public pressure, including threats of mob justice should any of the Dakota be spared. [266] Former Governor of Minnesota Alexander Ramsey told Lincoln, in 1864, that he would have gotten more presidential election support had he executed all 303 of the Indians. Lincoln responded, "I could not afford to hang men for votes." [268]

Other enactments

In the selection and use of his cabinet, Lincoln employed the strengths of his opponents in a manner that emboldened his presidency. Lincoln commented on his thought process, "We need the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services." [269] Goodwin described the group in her biography as a Team of Rivals. [270]

Lincoln adhered to the Whig theory of a presidency focused on executing laws while deferring to Congress' responsibility for legislating. Lincoln vetoed only four bills, particularly the Wade-Davis Bill with its harsh Reconstruction program. [271] The 1862 Homestead Act made millions of acres of Western government-held land available for purchase at low cost. The 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act provided government grants for agricultural colleges in each state. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 granted federal support for the construction of the United States' First Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869. [272] The passage of the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Acts was enabled by the absence of Southern congressmen and senators who had opposed the measures in the 1850s. [273]

The Lincoln Cabinet [274]
PresidentAbraham Lincoln1861–1865
Vice PresidentHannibal Hamlin1861–1865
Andrew Johnson1865
Secretary of StateWilliam H. Seward1861–1865
Secretary of the TreasurySalmon P. Chase1861–1864
William P. Fessenden1864–1865
Hugh McCulloch1865
Secretary of WarSimon Cameron1861–1862
Edwin M. Stanton1862–1865
Attorney GeneralEdward Bates1861–1864
James Speed1864–1865
Postmaster GeneralMontgomery Blair1861–1864
William Dennison Jr.1864–1865
Secretary of the NavyGideon Welles1861–1865
Secretary of the InteriorCaleb Blood Smith1861–1862
John Palmer Usher1863–1865

There were two measures passed to raise revenues for the Federal government: tariffs (a policy with long precedent), and a Federal income tax. In 1861, Lincoln signed the second and third Morrill Tariffs, following the first enacted by Buchanan. He also signed the Revenue Act of 1861, creating the first U.S. income tax—a flat tax of 3 percent on incomes above $800 ($23,000 in current dollar terms). [275] The Revenue Act of 1862 adopted rates that increased with income. [276]

Lincoln presided over the expansion of the federal government's economic influence in other areas. The National Banking Act created the system of national banks. The US issued paper currency for the first time, known as greenbacks—printed in green on the reverse side. [277] In 1862, Congress created the Department of Agriculture. [275]

In response to rumors of a renewed draft, the editors of the New York World and the Journal of Commerce published a false draft proclamation that created an opportunity for the editors and others to corner the gold market. Lincoln attacked the media for such behavior, and ordered a military seizure of the two papers which lasted for two days. [278]

Lincoln is largely responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday. [279] Thanksgiving had become a regional holiday in New England in the 17th century. It had been sporadically proclaimed by the federal government on irregular dates. The prior proclamation had been during James Madison's presidency 50 years earlier. In 1863, Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November of that year to be a day of Thanksgiving. [279]

In June 1864, Lincoln approved the Yosemite Grant enacted by Congress, which provided unprecedented federal protection for the area now known as Yosemite National Park. [280]

Judicial appointments

Supreme Court appointments

Supreme Court Justices
Justice Nominated Appointed
Noah Haynes Swayne January 21, 1862 January 24, 1862
Samuel Freeman Miller July 16, 1862 July 16, 1862
David Davis December 1, 1862 December 8, 1862
Stephen Johnson Field March 6, 1863 March 10, 1863
Salmon Portland Chase (Chief Justice) December 6, 1864 December 6, 1864

Lincoln's philosophy on court nominations was that "we cannot ask a man what he will do, and if we should, and he should answer us, we should despise him for it. Therefore we must take a man whose opinions are known." [279] Lincoln made five appointments to the Supreme Court. Noah Haynes Swayne was an anti-slavery lawyer who was committed to the Union. Samuel Freeman Miller supported Lincoln in the 1860 election and was an avowed abolitionist. David Davis was Lincoln's campaign manager in 1860 and had served as a judge in the Illinois court circuit where Lincoln practiced. Democrat Stephen Johnson Field, a previous California Supreme Court justice, provided geographic and political balance. Finally, Lincoln's Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase, became Chief Justice. Lincoln believed Chase was an able jurist, would support Reconstruction legislation, and that his appointment united the Republican Party. [281]

Other judicial appointments

Lincoln appointed 27 judges to the United States district courts but no judges to the United States circuit courts during his time in office. [282] [283]

States admitted to the Union

West Virginia was admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863. Nevada, which became the third state in the far-west of the continent, was admitted as a free state on October 31, 1864. [284]


John Wilkes Booth was a well-known actor and a Confederate spy from Maryland though he never joined the Confederate army, he had contacts with the Confederate secret service. [285] After attending an April 11, 1865 speech in which Lincoln promoted voting rights for blacks, Booth hatched a plot to assassinate the President. [286] When Booth learned of the Lincolns' intent to attend a play with General Grant, he planned to assassinate Lincoln and Grant at Ford's Theatre. Lincoln and his wife attended the play Our American Cousin on the evening of April 14, just five days after the Union victory at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. At the last minute, Grant decided to go to New Jersey to visit his children instead of attending the play. [287]

At 10:15 pm, Booth entered the back of Lincoln's theater box, crept up from behind, and fired at the back of Lincoln's head, mortally wounding him. Lincoln's guest Major Henry Rathbone momentarily grappled with Booth, but Booth stabbed him and escaped. [288] After being attended by Doctor Charles Leale and two other doctors, Lincoln was taken across the street to Petersen House. After remaining in a coma for eight hours, Lincoln died at 7:22 am on April 15. [289] [i] Stanton saluted and said, "Now he belongs to the ages." [294] [j] Lincoln's body was placed in a flag-wrapped coffin, which was loaded into a hearse and escorted to the White House by Union soldiers. [295] President Johnson was sworn in the next morning. [296]

Two weeks later, Booth was tracked to a farm in Virginia, and refusing to surrender, he was mortally shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett and died on April 26. Secretary of War Stanton had issued orders that Booth be taken alive, so Corbett was initially arrested for court martial. After a brief interview, Stanton declared him a patriot and dismissed the charge. [297]

Funeral and burial

The late President lay in state, first in the East Room of the White House, and then in the Capitol Rotunda from April 19 through April 21. The caskets containing Lincoln's body and the body of his son Willie traveled for three weeks on the Lincoln Special funeral train. [298] The train followed a circuitous route from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, stopping at many cities for memorials attended by hundreds of thousands. Many others gathered along the tracks as the train passed with bands, bonfires, and hymn singing [299] or in silent grief. Poet Walt Whitman composed "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" to eulogize him, one of four poems he wrote about Lincoln. [300] African Americans were especially moved they had lost 'their Moses'. [301] In a larger sense, the reaction was in response to the deaths of so many men in the war. [302] Historians emphasized the widespread shock and sorrow, but noted that some Lincoln haters celebrated his death. [303]

As a young man, Lincoln was a religious skeptic. [304] He was deeply familiar with the Bible, quoting and praising it. [305] He was private about his position on organized religion and respected the beliefs of others. [306] He never made a clear profession of Christian beliefs. [307] Through his entire public career, Lincoln had a proneness for quoting Scripture. [308] His three most famous speeches—the House Divided Speech, the Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural—each contain direct allusions to Providence and quotes from Scripture.

In the 1840s, Lincoln subscribed to the Doctrine of Necessity, a belief that the human mind was controlled by a higher power. [309] With the death of his son Edward in 1850 he more frequently expressed a dependence on God. [310] He never joined a church, although he frequently attended First Presbyterian Church with his wife beginning in 1852. [311] [k]

In the 1850s, Lincoln asserted his belief in "providence" in a general way, and rarely used the language or imagery of the evangelicals he regarded the republicanism of the Founding Fathers with an almost religious reverence. [312] The death of son Willie in February 1862 may have caused him to look toward religion for solace. [313] After Willie's death, he questioned the divine necessity of the war's severity. He wrote at this time that God "could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun, He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds." [314]

Lincoln did believe in an all-powerful God that shaped events and by 1865 was expressing those beliefs in major speeches. [307] By the end of the war, he increasingly appealed to the Almighty for solace and to explain events, writing on April 4, 1864, to a newspaper editor in Kentucky:

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God. [315]

This spirituality can best be seen in his second inaugural address, considered by some scholars [316] as the greatest such address in American history, and by Lincoln himself as his own greatest speech, or one of them at the very least. [l] [317] Lincoln explains therein the cause, purpose, and result of the war was God's will. [318] Later in life, Lincoln's frequent use of religious imagery and language might have reflected his own personal beliefs and might have been a device to reach his audiences, who were mostly evangelical Protestants. [319] On the day Lincoln was assassinated, he reportedly told his wife he desired to visit the Holy Land. [320]

Lincoln is believed to have had depression, smallpox, and malaria. [321] He took blue mass pills, which contained mercury, to treat constipation. [322] It is unknown to what extent he may have suffered from mercury poisoning. [323]

Several claims have been made that Lincoln's health was declining before the assassination. These are often based on photographs of Lincoln appearing to show weight loss and muscle wasting. [324] It is also suspected that he might have had a rare genetic disease such as Marfan syndrome or multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B. [324]

Republican values

Lincoln's redefinition of republican values has been stressed by historians such as John Patrick Diggins, Harry V. Jaffa, Vernon Burton, Eric Foner, and Herman J. Belz. [325] Lincoln called the Declaration of Independence—which emphasized freedom and equality for all—the "sheet anchor" of republicanism beginning in the 1850s. He did this at a time when the Constitution, which "tolerated slavery", was the focus of most political discourse. [326] Diggins notes, "Lincoln presented Americans a theory of history that offers a profound contribution to the theory and destiny of republicanism itself" in the 1860 Cooper Union speech. [327] Instead of focusing on the legality of an argument, he focused on the moral basis of republicanism. [328]

His position on war was founded on a legal argument regarding the Constitution as essentially a contract among the states, and all parties must agree to pull out of the contract. Furthermore, it was a national duty to ensure the republic stands in every state. [329] Many soldiers and religious leaders from the north, though, felt the fight for liberty and freedom of slaves was ordained by their moral and religious beliefs. [330]

As a Whig activist, Lincoln was a spokesman for business interests, favoring high tariffs, banks, infrastructure improvements, and railroads, in opposition to Jacksonian democrats. [331] William C. Harris found that Lincoln's "reverence for the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the laws under it, and the preservation of the Republic and its institutions strengthened his conservatism." [332] James G. Randall emphasizes his tolerance and moderation "in his preference for orderly progress, his distrust of dangerous agitation, and his reluctance toward ill digested schemes of reform." Randall concludes that "he was conservative in his complete avoidance of that type of so-called 'radicalism' which involved abuse of the South, hatred for the slaveholder, thirst for vengeance, partisan plotting, and ungenerous demands that Southern institutions be transformed overnight by outsiders." [333]

Reunification of the states

In Lincoln's first inaugural address, he explored the nature of democracy. He denounced secession as anarchy, and explained that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints. He said "A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people." [334]

The successful reunification of the states had consequences for how people viewed the country. The term "the United States" has historically been used, sometimes in the plural ("these United States"), and other times in the singular. The Civil War was a significant force in the eventual dominance of the singular usage by the end of the 19th century. [335]

Historical reputation

In his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color. [336]

In surveys of U.S. scholars ranking presidents conducted since 1948, the top three presidents are Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although the order varies. [337] [m] Between 1999 and 2011, Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan have been the top-ranked presidents in eight surveys, according to Gallup. [339] A 2004 study found that scholars in the fields of history and politics ranked Lincoln number one, while legal scholars placed him second after George Washington. [340]

Lincoln's assassination left him a national martyr. He was viewed by abolitionists as a champion of human liberty. Republicans linked Lincoln's name to their party. Many, though not all, in the South considered Lincoln as a man of outstanding ability. [341] Historians have said he was "a classical liberal" in the 19th-century sense. Allen C. Guelzo states that Lincoln was a "classical liberal democrat—an enemy of artificial hierarchy, a friend to trade and business as ennobling and enabling, and an American counterpart to Mill, Cobden, and Bright", whose portrait Lincoln hung in his White House office. [342] [343]

Schwartz argues that Lincoln's American reputation grew slowly from the late 19th century until the Progressive Era (1900–1920s), when he emerged as one of America's most venerated heroes, even among white Southerners. The high point came in 1922 with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. [344]

Union nationalism, as envisioned by Lincoln, "helped lead America to the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt." [345] In the New Deal era, liberals honored Lincoln not so much as the self-made man or the great war president, but as the advocate of the common man who they claimed would have supported the welfare state. [346]

Sociologist Barry Schwartz argues that in the 1930s and 1940s the memory of Abraham Lincoln was practically sacred and provided the nation with "a moral symbol inspiring and guiding American life." During the Great Depression, he argues, Lincoln served "as a means for seeing the world's disappointments, for making its sufferings not so much explicable as meaningful". Franklin D. Roosevelt, preparing America for war, used the words of the Civil War president to clarify the threat posed by Germany and Japan. Americans asked, "What would Lincoln do?" [347] However, Schwartz also finds that since World War II Lincoln's symbolic power has lost relevance, and this "fading hero is symptomatic of fading confidence in national greatness." He suggested that postmodernism and multiculturalism have diluted greatness as a concept. [348]

In the Cold War years, Lincoln's image shifted to a symbol of freedom who brought hope to those oppressed by Communist regimes. [346] By the late 1960s, some African-American intellectuals, led by Lerone Bennett Jr., rejected Lincoln's role as the Great Emancipator. [349] [350] Bennett won wide attention when he called Lincoln a white supremacist in 1968. [351] He noted that Lincoln used ethnic slurs and told jokes that ridiculed blacks. Bennett argued that Lincoln opposed social equality, and proposed sending freed slaves to another country. Defenders, such as authors Dirck and Cashin, retorted that he was not as bad as most politicians of his day [352] and that he was a "moral visionary" who deftly advanced the abolitionist cause, as fast as politically possible. [353] The emphasis shifted away from Lincoln the emancipator to an argument that blacks had freed themselves from slavery, or at least were responsible for pressuring the government on emancipation. [354]

By the 1970s, Lincoln had become a hero to political conservatives, [355] apart from neo-Confederates such as Mel Bradford who denounced his treatment of the white South, for his intense nationalism, support for business, his insistence on stopping the spread of human bondage, his acting in terms of Lockean and Burkean principles on behalf of both liberty and tradition, and his devotion to the principles of the Founding Fathers. [356] Lincoln became a favorite exemplar for liberal intellectuals across the world. [357]

Historian Barry Schwartz wrote in 2009 that Lincoln's image suffered "erosion, fading prestige, benign ridicule" in the late 20th century. [358] On the other hand, Donald opined in his 1996 biography that Lincoln was distinctly endowed with the personality trait of negative capability, defined by the poet John Keats and attributed to extraordinary leaders who were "content in the midst of uncertainties and doubts, and not compelled toward fact or reason". [359]

In the 21st century, President Barack Obama named Lincoln his favorite president and insisted on using the Lincoln Bible for his inaugural ceremonies. [360] [361] [362] Lincoln has often been portrayed by Hollywood, almost always in a flattering light. [363] [364]

Memory and memorials

Lincoln's portrait appears on two denominations of United States currency, the penny and the $5 bill. His likeness also appears on many postage stamps. [365] While he is usually portrayed bearded, he didn't grow a beard until 1860 at the suggestion of 11-year-old Grace Bedell. He was the first of 16 presidents to do so. [366]

He has been memorialized in many town, city, and county names, [367] including the capital of Nebraska. [368] The United States Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) is named after Lincoln, the second Navy ship to bear his name. [369]

Lincoln Memorial is one of the most visited monuments in the nation's capital, [370] and is one of the top five visited National Park Service sites in the country. [371] Ford's Theatre, among the top sites in Washington, D.C., [371] is across the street from Petersen House (where he died). [372] Memorials in Springfield, Illinois include Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Lincoln's home, as well as his tomb. [373] A portrait carving of Lincoln appears with those of three other presidents on Mount Rushmore, which receives about 3 million visitors a year. [374]

Lincoln's image carved into the stone of Mount Rushmore

Abraham Lincoln, a 1909 bronze statue by Adolph Weinman, sits before a historic church in Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Stories and Anecdotes About Abraham Lincoln

"'Honest Abe' Taking Them on the Half-Shell" was one of the cartoons published in 1860 by one of the illustrated periodicals. As may be seen, it represents Lincoln in a "Political Oyster House," preparing to swallow two of his Democratic opponents for the Presidency--Douglas and Breckinridge. He performed the feat at the November election. The Democratic party was hopelessly split in 1860 The Northern wing nominated Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, as their candidate, the Southern wing naming John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky the Constitutional Unionists (the old American of Know-Nothing party) placed John Bell, of Tennessee, in the field, and against these was put Abraham Lincoln, who received the support of the Abolitionists.

Lincoln made short work of his antagonists when the election came around. He received a large majority in the Electoral College, while nearly every Northern State voted majorities for him at the polls. Douglas had but twelve votes in the Electoral College, while Bell had thirty-nine. The votes of the Southern States, then preparing to secede, were, for the most part, thrown for Breckinridge. The popular vote was: Lincoln, 1,857,610 Douglas, 1,365,976 Breckinridge, 847,953 Bell, 590,631 total vote, 4,662,170. In the Electoral College Lincoln received 180 Douglas, 12 Breckinridge, 72 Bell, 39 Lincoln's majority over all, 57.

The Story of Honest Abe’s Family Tree

A year after Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith&rsquos death in 1985, a 17-year-old boy appeared in court to accept a million-dollar settlement from the Lincoln estate. Beckwith was the last of the 16th president&rsquos three great-grandchildren to pass away. None of the three were believed to have produced any kids. So who was this kid, and why did Lincoln&rsquos estate pay him?

At the time of Abraham Lincoln&rsquos assassination, his family tree had a single living shoot: Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the president&rsquos four children (all sons) to survive to adulthood. Robert Lincoln not only survived, he thrived, perhaps driven by a compulsion to prove he was more than just Abe Lincoln&rsquos son. &ldquoNo one wanted me,&rdquo he once said. &ldquoThey wanted Abraham Lincoln&rsquos son.&rdquo What they got was a Harvard-educated lawyer, banker, and corporate executive who also served as U.S. Secretary of War under President James Garfield. But he was not &ldquoa man of the people&rdquo like his father. In fact, he was said to have an almost &ldquomorbid repugnance&rdquo for public life.


Nevertheless, Robert Todd Lincoln did become president &hellipof the Pullman Railroad Company. (Ironically, he&rsquod been dubbed &ldquothe Prince of Rails&rdquo during the 1860 presidential campaign because of his presidential father&rsquos reputation as a &ldquorail-splitter.&rdquo)

As a railroad tycoon, Robert made enough money to leave his father&rsquos humble beginnings behind. In 1902, he acquired a 412-acre property in Vermont, where he built a luxurious 24-room mansion. He called the estate &ldquoHildene.&rdquo Inside the mansion was an impressive library decorated in the style of a first-class Pullman coach and an entry hall that boasted a thousand-pipe electromagnetic organ. The organ was installed in 1908 at a cost of $11,000 -about $282,000 in today&rsquos dollars.

By 1909, the family had moved so far from Abe Lincoln&rsquos log-cabin roots that when President Theodore Roosevelt presided over a ceremony designating Lincoln&rsquos birthplace in Kentucky a &ldquonational historic site,&rdquo not a single Lincoln descendent showed up. Historians say that the president&rsquos son was ashamed of the modest cabin in which his father grew up and had already started referring to Hildene as his &ldquoancestral home.&rdquo


Robert and his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, had three children. Their only son -Abraham Lincoln II, called &ldquoJack&rdquo-was a brilliant young man and was ready to follow in his father&rsquos footsteps at Harvard. But first he was sent off to Versailles, France, to prepare for his entrance exams. There, the 16-year-old heir to one of the most revered names in American history discovered a carbuncle -a boil-like abscess- in his armpit. A French surgeon decided to lance it. Bad idea: Carbuncles are typically infected with staphylococcus, a particularly nasty strain of bacteria. Lancing the carbuncle sent the staph infection into Jack&rsquos lymph and vascular systems, and within a few months Honest Abe&rsquos namesake was dead.

That left Jack&rsquos two younger sisters -Jessie and Mary- to carry on the line. Mary was nicknamed &ldquoMamie&rdquo to distinguish her from her mother (Mary Harlan) and her grandmother (Mary Todd). In 1891, the year after her brother&rsquos death, 22-year-old Mamie married Charles Bradford Isham, her father&rsquos secretary. The following year, her only child, Lincoln Isham, was born.


Mamie&rsquos sister, Jessie, got to keep her name, but she rebelled anyway. Against her parents&rsquo wishes, she married a college football star named Warren Wallace Beckwith in 1897. Beckwith claimed that his mother-in-law meddled in his marriage from the start. She&rsquod never stopped mourning Jack and could not bear to be parted from her daughter.

Despite her mother&rsquos meddling, the couple managed to produce two children -yet another Mary and another Robert. Mary Lincoln Beckwith was born in 1898 and called &ldquoPeggy&rdquo to set her apart from the other Marys. Her brother, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, was born in 1904. After the children were born, Mary Harlan Lincoln tried to control them, too. In 1905, she moved Jessie and both children to Europe, leaving Warren behind. Fed up, Warren Beckwith filed for a divorce, which was eventually granted. He never saw his children again.


Robert Todd Lincoln died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Hildene on June 26, 1926. He&rsquod lived to the ripe age of 82. Instead of burying him in the Lincoln family plot back in Illinois, his wife, Mary Harlan, had him buried at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. &ldquoHe made his own history, independently of his great father,&rdquo Mary later wrote, &ldquoand should have his own place in the sun.&rdquo (She felt so strongly about keeping Robert separate from his father in people&rsquos memories that she underlined the word &ldquoindependently&rdquo five times.)

When Mary Harlan Lincoln died in 1937, she left a trust worth more than $3 million (about $48 million today). Its beneficiaries were Peggy Beckwith, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, and Lincoln Isham. According to historian Harold Holzer, Robert Todd Lincoln&rsquos heirs lived &ldquoin the luxurious grandeur of Gilded Age nobility.&rdquo Apparently, none of Abe Lincoln&rsquos surviving grandchildren held a job after receiving their inheritance (or before the inheritance, for that matter).

Peggy Beckwith moved to Hildene after her mother&rsquos death and stayed there for the rest of her life. She spent her days golfing, dabbling in oil painting, sculpting, and photography, and chain-smoking cigars. Because she tended to dress in knickers and men&rsquos shirts, rumors spread about Peggy&rsquos sexual orientation. No one knows for certain whether the rumors were true, but it is certain that growing the Lincoln family tree was not in her plans. She never married and never had children.

Housekeeping wasn&rsquot in her plans, either. When she died in 1975, the mansion was in disrepair and was overrun with animals, including raccoons. &ldquoShe&rsquos an odd one,&rdquo said Lincoln scholar Ralph G. Newman at the time. &ldquoI would call her an eccentric recluse. She doesn&rsquot give a damn about Abraham Lincoln, and she&rsquos rebuffed any attempts by historians to interview her or look for family papers on the farm.&rdquo

Peggy&rsquos cousin Lincoln Isham lived the high life in a &ldquoswank&rdquo apartment in Manhattan&rsquos Carlyle Hotel. He spent his time playing guitar and mandolin and writing songs. Despite catchy titles such as &ldquoBaghdad Billy,&rdquo &ldquoCongo Las Vegas,&rdquo and &ldquoMadam Bombay,&rdquo no one came forward to publish Linc Isham&rsquos music. During the Roaring Twenties, he bought a tavern near Hildene, played a lot of golf, and became a fixture at a speakeasy called the Stork Club on New York&rsquos 51st Street, known at the time as the &ldquowettest&rdquo street in the country. He boozed it up with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, J. Edgar Hoover, and Al Jolson.

Isham was married to a New York society girl named Leahalma Correa, but the marriage produced no children. As for his devotion to the Lincoln legacy, he once phoned a judge about paying a visit to discuss an estate matter. &ldquoBetter come Wednesday,&rdquo the judge told him. &ldquoWe&rsquore closed for the holiday on Thursday.&rdquo &ldquoWhat holiday?&rdquo Isham asked. The judge paused, and then responded: &ldquoLincoln&rsquos birthday.&rdquo

The third heir, Peggy&rsquos brother, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, lived the life of the idle rich on another inherited property in Virginia. He described himself as &ldquoa gentleman farmer of independent means.&rdquo He was a short, bald stutterer, but viewed himself as a playboy, boasting that he loved sailing, fast cars, and beautiful women. &ldquoI&rsquom a spoiled brat,&rdquo he once told a reporter.

Beckwith&rsquos personal lawyer, Elizabeth Young, said that in the 50 years she knew him, he never discussed his ancestry and seemed to have little interest in it. &ldquoHe lived off his wealth,&rdquo Young said after Beckwith&rsquos death. &ldquoAs far as I know, all the money came from the Lincoln family.&rdquo


Beckwith married three times. He married the second of the three at age 63 -a 27-year-old German native named Annemarie Hoffman. Six months later, she became pregnant. According to one of his lawyers, Beckwith seemed quite impressed with himself for being able to father a child at such an advanced age. The feat was even more impressive given the fact that Beckwith had undergone a vasectomy six years earlier. Can vasectomies fail? Sure. But tests confirmed that Beckwith was &ldquocompletely sterile.&rdquo

Beckwith&rsquos attorney prepared an agreement whereby Annemarie would list the child&rsquos father as &ldquoJohn Doe&rdquo or &ldquoFather Unknown&rdquo on the birth certificate and would make no claims against the Lincoln/Beckwith estate. In exchange, Beckwith agreed to pay her hospitalization costs plus $7,500. But Annemarie had the last word: She listed Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith as the father anyway, and named her son Timothy Lincoln Beckwith.


According to the terms of the Mary Harlan Lincoln Testamentary Trust, if the three surviving grandchildren of Mary Harlan Lincoln and Robert Todd Lincoln had no heirs, the trust&rsquos holdings would eventually be divided by three nonprofit institutions chosen by Mary Harlan Lincoln -the American Red Cross, Iowa Wesleyan College, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist. But if they did? Those institutions could have a fight on their hands.

After Timothy&rsquos birth in 1968, attorneys at the Washington law firm Frost & Towers, which had handled the Lincoln family&rsquos affairs since the 1920s, took immediate steps to protect the trust. The firm filed a lawsuit seeking a blood test to establish that Timothy Lincoln Beckwith was not Beckwith&rsquos son. But before the tests could be done, Annemarie fled with the baby to West Germany.

Beckwith filed for divorce on grounds of adultery Annemarie countersued on similar grounds. It took seven years before the proceedings reached court. The doctor who had done Beckwith&rsquos vasectomy testified that recent tests showed Beckwith was &ldquosterilized in 1962 and has been sterile since that time.&rdquo The judge ordered blood tests for Annemarie and her seven-year-old son. Again, no tests were performed.

The judge granted Beckwith&rsquos divorce petition, noting in his ruling that Timothy Lincoln Beckwith had been fathered during an &ldquoadulterous relationship.&rdquo Annemarie&rsquos law team appealed, but lost. The appeals court did rule, however, that the divorce decree didn&rsquot prohibit the boy from making a claim to the inheritance in a separate action.


On Christmas Eve, 1985, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, the &ldquognarled, scraggly bearded, 81-year-old great-grandson of America&rsquos most revered president,&rdquo died in a nursing home in Virginia. The Red Cross, Iowa Wesleyan, and the Christian Science Church were poised to inherit the proceeds of the Lincoln trust, which was worth about $6 million (about $13 million today). Enter: Timothy Lincoln Beckwith, age 17, living in the United States with his mother, Annemarie, who had remarried.

The three charities were so sure Timothy would come after the trust that they opened negotiations with the 17-year-old. After several months of haggling, Timothy&rsquos lawyers and the three nonprofit institutions reached an agreement. In return for about $1 million, Timothy renounced all future claims to the trust. The settlement, according to Attorney John Beck, was in the best interests of the trust, particularly since Beckwith and Annemarie had been married at the time she became pregnant and no blood tests had ever been performed. So the answer to the question, &ldquoDid Abraham Lincoln&rsquos family tree wither and die?&rdquo is a resounding &ldquoWho knows?&rdquo What we do know: Timothy Lincoln Beckwith grew up to become a prosecutor with the Florida state attorney&rsquos office. Seems lawyering is in his blood after all.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John&rsquos Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John&rsquos wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI&rsquos patented mix of fun and information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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Remove Trump? Let’s Ask Honest Abe

William A. Galston

Whenever I am perplexed about an important political issue, I turn for guidance to the greatest statesman in American history. “In this and like communities,” Abraham Lincoln said during a debate with Stephen Douglas, “public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail without it nothing can succeed.”

Judged against this standard, can impeaching President Trump and removing him from office succeed? A Quinnipiac University survey released on Monday suggests that it cannot.

Yes, 52% of Americans favor removing President Trump from office, compared with 45% who oppose it. But the partisan divisions are deep. While 89% of Democrats support this course, 87% of Republicans oppose it, and independents are split.

Underlying this stark divide are radically divergent interpretations of the November presidential election and its aftermath. Some 73% of Republicans believe that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Only 5% of Democrats do.

These dueling beliefs have consequences. Seventy-three percent of Republicans think that Mr. Trump’s actions since the election have aimed at protecting democracy 95% of Democrats think that he has been undermining democracy.

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In Land of Lincoln, what’s wrong with statues of Honest Abe? And should Ulysses S. Grant be taken off his high horse?

In the Land of Lincoln, it might be hard for some to imagine what could tarnish the legacy of “Honest Abe,” the nation’s 16th president, who led the country through perhaps its most challenging moral and political crisis. Or that of Ulysses S. Grant, who helped win the Civil War and whose monument towers above, yes, Lincoln Park.

Yet five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as the one of Grant, were among 41 “problematic” monuments flagged by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration as part of a review following last year’s late-night removal of Christopher Columbus statues from two city parks.

The committee leading the Chicago review deliberated in private, and in its initial Feb. 17 report said only that the monuments had been “identified for public discussion” and that there were no immediate plans to remove any of them.

But as the nation continues to face a racial reckoning sparked by protests that began with last year’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many long-revered figures of American history, and the monuments honoring them, have come under fresh scrutiny. Lincoln is no exception.

“Lincoln is without a doubt … the most famous Illinoisan. He is a president from Illinois who helped preserve the union. His importance to the state of Illinois is undeniable,” said Jacob Friefeld, a historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. “Each community, though, has to decide if Lincoln is the person they want representing their community.”

Lincoln is revered for abolishing slavery in the South, but his policies that harmed Native Americans are a primary concern for his legacy, said Adam Green, a member of the Chicago Monuments Project advisory committee and professor of American history at the University of Chicago.

“Lincoln is, both as a citizen and as a president, a complicated figure,” Green said. “At the same time that Lincoln was engaged in the policies that he followed as president in relation to the institution of slavery and its eventual impact on African Americans, Lincoln was also someone who was very committed to the policy of Indian removal.”

While waging war and working to end slavery, Lincoln also sought to build a more powerful nation and government through expansion.

“Many of those positions precisely required his commitment to a policy of active, aggressive, and at times violent Indian removal” in order to distribute land to white settlers, Green said.

In a particularly egregious case, 38 men of the Dakota tribe were hanged as a result of actions they were accused of during the Dakota War of 1862. Though Lincoln reduced the death toll by commuting over 200 sentences, his enforcement of capital punishment resulted in the largest mass execution in American history.

“He still presided over the execution of Native Americans who by and large, were trying to enforce observance of treaties and trying to retain a hold on land that they believed they had title to as original and Indigenous inhabitants of that land,” Green said.

In another instance, U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children, most of them unarmed, in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Green said the tragedy in part reflected the president’s policies.

Lincoln’s record on Black Americans is also not without blemishes. Green noted Lincoln’s prejudices “were reflective of the general character of most white people” in the 19th century, which cast doubt on whether Black and white people could truly live as equals.

This notion took shape most notably in Lincoln’s support for the idea of relocating Black people to other countries upon emancipation, a position that was met with widespread opposition from Black leaders.

The darker aspects of Lincoln’s marks on history accompany his unquestionably central role in the history of the country and of Illinois, adding up to what Green summed up to be “a very complicated picture.”

“There’s no one way to understand these issues. Historians are still arguing about this,” Friefeld said.

Friefeld added he thinks it’s healthy for communities to revisit monuments, grapple with complex histories and make decisions about who they want commemorated in their neighborhoods.

The Chicago Monuments Project identified 41 statues, plaques and other commemorative structures for review. In addition to statues of Grant, Lincoln and Presidents William McKinley and George Washington, the list includes several monuments and statues depicting Native Americans and conflicts with white settlers.

Grant, who lived for a time in Galena, Illinois, is renowned for his role as commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War and for his support of civil rights for Black people. But his legacy includes policies that “were well intentioned, but ultimately disastrous” for Native Americans, according to the monument project website.

Kate Masur, a historian and professor at Northwestern University who is not on the monument committee, said Grant sought to create a more humane policy toward Native Americans, appointing the first Native American commissioner of Indian Affairs, a Seneca man named Ely Parker.

However, Grant’s policy proposals faced a lot of opposition.

“Eventually during Grant’s two terms (as president), instead of a more humane policy toward Native Americans emerging, the government fought brutal repeated wars against Native people and continued the process of pushing them off their land,” she said.

“That reality (is that) the same U.S. American national leaders who pursued emancipation, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, also bought into and executed a policy that was totally damaging and horrendous to Native people — that’s the crux of what we’re grappling with here,” Masur said.

The monument of McKinley that is included on the city’s list, created in 1904, was made from a melted-down sculpture of Christopher Columbus.

Kristin Hoganson, a historian and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she thinks a likely reason McKinley’s statue was added to the list is his imperialist policies. Like Masur, she is not on the city’s advisory committee.

McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War, which spun into the Philippine-American War that in turn led to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Filipino civilians from violence, famine and disease.

“I think of him as an avid imperialist, which is probably why he got flagged,” Hoganson said. “It was a long and bloody guerrilla war and occupation of the Philippines.”

As for George Washington, his ownership of enslaved people raises questions about his legacy, Hoganson said

“My sense is they’re all complicated humans, none of them perfect, all of them flawed in ways that hopefully people will grapple with as the process continues,” Hoganson said.

At a news conference last week, Mayor Lightfoot was asked about the notion that the statues of Lincoln and Washington might be “problematic.”

“What the monuments and murals committee did was identify those statues and murals and other historical markers that are worthy of conversation, and I think they are worthy of conversation,” Lightfoot said. “But let’s be clear, we’re in the Land of Lincoln, and that’s not going to change.”

The city has asked the public “to review the artworks that have been identified, suggest others, and to share your opinions on the role of monuments in Chicago’s public spaces.” The deadline is April 1.

The advisory committee will review the public’s feedback and create a report with recommendations for policy changes, new work and treatment of the monuments, said Bonnie McDonald, a committee co-chair and the president of Landmarks Illinois. The recommendations will then go to the city, including Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools.

The choices for the monuments is not limited to leaving them as they are or taking them down. A third option is to provide context through additional plaques, parallel installations or other avenues.

Green compared the monuments to the U.S. Constitution in that they offer values from the past, “but you don’t simply inherit those values in order to pass them on without any alteration, without any comments.”

“If it can happen with the Constitution of the United States, it can certainly happen in relation to any given monument, even if it’s of somebody of incredible prominence and historical value,” he said.

Books Offer Insight Into Abraham Lincoln

Politicians love to invoke Honest Abe Lincoln, often while twisting his legacy to fit their own purposes. But who was the man, really? Steve Inskeep talks to three Lincoln historians — Andy Ferguson, of the Weekly Standard, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and Eric Foner — about the books they think best capture the former president's character. (This piece initially aired April 10, 2012 on Morning Edition.)

No matter how you scan the early voting numbers, no matter how often you check Twitter or stare at the TV, you will hear no election results before this evening.

While you wait, we can at least recommend some good political books. Earlier this year, we had a series of talks about books on American history history that comes up in the campaign, including a talk we're about to hear again - about Abraham Lincoln.

MONTAGNE: President Obama often cites Lincoln, in his speeches. Mitt Romney's website quotes the first Republican president's reference to the U.S. as the, quote, "last best hope of Earth." The use of the 16th president comes as no surprise to historian Eric Foner.

ERIC FONER HISTORIAN: There's every possible way to interpret him. Every Lincoln you might want, is out there in the literature. And every political movement, and every political group, has claimed Lincoln as their own - from communists to conservatives, from segregationists to civil rights activists. Everybody wants to get Lincoln on their side.

MONTAGNE: Lincoln is, in fact, the subject of more than 15,000 books.

INSKEEP: We've brought in authors of books about Lincoln. Eric Foner, of Columbia University, wrote "The Fiery Trial." Andy Ferguson, of the Weekly Standard, wrote "Land of Lincoln." Doris Kearns Goodwin is author of "Team of Rivals." And we started with this book: David Herbert Donald wrote what maybe is the standard biography of Lincoln, just called "Lincoln," a couple of decades ago. What approach does he take?

HISTORIAN: Well, if I can start - Eric Foner. You know, it's funny. I think it is the best one-volume biography of Lincoln. Oddly enough, I personally don't agree with this interpretation and many people don't. He sort of sees Lincoln as a person without any deep convictions.You know, everyone who writes about Lincoln has one eye on the present. And I think Donald wrote this - in the mid-'90s - sort of under the influence of Clinton. I think, you know, he sort of saw Lincoln as a Clinton figure buffeted by events, not clear what he stood for.

I don't think that's a very persuasive picture of Lincoln but nonetheless, Donald was a great historian. And I think he told the story of Lincoln's life in a way that avoided the two pitfalls that so many people fall into. One is just hagiography - you know, he was born with a pen in his hand, ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. And the other is the opposite, of course - you know, just a racist, or didn't really care about slavery at all. And Donald sort of navigates between them. So it's well worth reading, and I think it is still the best one-volume biography.

ANDREW FERGUSON: Well, that's right. And I think that Donald came up with this idea of Lincoln as sort of a passive character.

FERGUSON: Really, really, yes - and kind of scheming and manipulative, but not particularly effective and tossed and turned by events. But it's interesting: As you read through the book, even by the end, Donald loses faith in his own thesis, I think. The power of the Lincoln facts are so strong, that you have to concede that he was a giant in being able to manipulate events.

INSKEEP: Doris Kearns Goodwin, when we asked our panel here for recommendations of Lincoln books, you sent us one that is about more than that one man, "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson, which is a history of the Civil War.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the reason that that one meant so much to me, was that he is such a narrative genius - McPherson. And somehow, when you read "Battle Cry of Freedom," what he's done is to mix together the battles, Lincoln's leadership, the home front, the finances, the Cabinet - all together. But it drives forward as a story, and you don't know until finally, perhaps, Atlanta, whether the North is really going to win this war. And that's the way the people who lived in it felt it at the time.

INSKEEP: And I guess that's a good thing to think about if we think about Abraham Lincoln. All of his decisions that seem so brilliant now, could not be known as brilliant at the time.

GOODWIN: Absolutely. It took a while for the country itself to understand him. We know the ending. We know that he was martyred. We know that the war was won. But the people living then certainly didn't know that. And I think that's what McPherson's pace allows us to see.

INSKEEP: Let's get in one more book here, which Andy Ferguson has sent us. The name: "In the Footsteps of the Lincolns." Hard one to find, but a famous name behind this, Ida Tarbell, the famous muckraking journalist from the late 19th, early 20th century.

FERGUSON: Yes. She was, first and foremost, a journalist. But she, all along, carried this obsession with Lincoln. After World War I, she went and sort of fulfilled a kind of part of her obsession that she'd always wanted to, which was to retrace Lincoln's movements with his family since he was a little boy - from Kentucky to Indiana and into Illinois. And as she did this, there were still people alive who knew the Lincolns. It's a part of time that we can't really get access to any other way.

INSKEEP: Although Tarbell's journey across Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois does underline something that's worth remembering about Lincoln, one of the reasons that he's so well-remembered today: He came from this frontier culture. This was a - these were very remote areas that were struggling to develop in the time he was.

FERGUSON: It was just a couple of steps up from the Bronze Age, really.

HISTORIAN: You know, Lincoln as the frontiersman, in a sense, is part of the sort of imagery that we remember about him. But it's very interesting how Lincoln kind of separates himself in so many ways from the - what you call frontier culture. You know, he doesn't like hunting.

He's not a violent person. He doesn't hate Indians. He doesn't drink, you know, which is pretty prominent out there. And he understands, very early - and where this comes from, who knows - that the way to get ahead is through your mind, not through just, you know, hard, physical labor, which is what his father does. He gets as far away from the frontier as he can, pretty early.

INSKEEP: If it were up to you, each of you, if you were presidential speechwriters, how would you want candidates to think of Lincoln, deploy Lincoln when they're talking about him today?

HISTORIAN: You know, I would love to see a candidate - I don't care which party we're talking about - forthrightly say: I have changed my mind about this. That's what Lincoln did during the Civil War.

He changed his mind over and over again. He didn't change his core beliefs. Lincoln was a flip-flopper, if you want to use the terminology of modern politics. But we don't seem to allow our politicians to do that anymore.

INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson, you're smiling.

FERGUSON: Well, it's partly because politicians won't let their speechwriters talk that way. I don't think that Dr. Foner should wait for a phone call from any political campaign because.

HISTORIAN: I'm not holding my breath.

FERGUSON: Yeah. Having actually done a little bit of that, I can tell you that the last thing a professional politician ever wants to do is admit that he either made a mistake, or that he's changed his mind.

INSKEEP: And if you do change your mind, the task of the speechwriter is to find a way to say that you actually did not change your mind, even as you did change your mind.

FERGUSON: It requires a great deal of ingenuity. Of course, Lincoln had the greatest speechwriter who ever lived.

GOODWIN: But I think, just to follow on that, the one thing I wish politicians had today - more than anything - that Lincoln had, is a sense of humor. I mean, his ability to laugh at himself when he was said to be - you are two-faced, Mr. Lincoln. And he said: If I had two faces, do you think I'd be wearing this face?

That ability to laugh at yourself, to look at yourself from the outside in, means a certain kind of confidence, means taking your - you know, the world seriously, but not taking yourself so seriously at every moment. It is in such short supply in our campaigns.

INSKEEP: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eric Foner, Andy Ferguson. And since our talk, by the way, I've dug into another good book: "A. Lincoln" by Ronald C. White. On Election Day it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renée Montagne.

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