Lincoln, Abraham

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Lincoln, Abraham

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, serving from 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. Lincoln and his supporters preserved the Union by defeating the South in the Civil War.

Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. In 1816 his family moved to a farm in Indiana, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He attended school for less than a year and gained most of his education by reading books. In 1828 and 1831, he made flat-boat trips down the Mississippi River to take produce to New Orleans. On these trips he was first exposed to the institution of Slavery.

In 1830 his family moved to Decatur, Illinois. He left his family in 1831 and moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked at various jobs and continued his self-education. He began to study law, then was sidetracked by political ambitions.

In 1832 he ran for the state legislature as a member of the Whig Party. He aligned himself with the views of Whig party leader Henry Clay, who served as a U.S. senator from Kentucky. Like Clay, Lincoln promised to use the power of the government to improve the life of the people he represented. During the 1832 campaign, the Black Hawk War erupted in southern Illinois. Lincoln enlisted in the local militia and was elected captain. Though he served for eighty days, he never saw battle. His service in the military distracted him from his campaign for the legislature, and he lost his first election.

In 1834 he was elected to the state legislature. He was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840. John T. Stuart, a fellow legislator and also a lawyer, was impressed with Lincoln's intellectual and oratorical abilities and encouraged him to practice law. In the fall of 1836, Lincoln was admitted to the Illinois bar, and in 1837 he became Stuart's law partner in Springfield, Illinois. In 1841 the pair dissolved their partnership and Lincoln began a new partnership with Stephen T. Logan. By 1844 that arrangement had dissolved and Lincoln took William H. Herndon as a partner. Lincoln was a hardworking attorney who over the years represented railroad companies and other business entities. By the 1850s he had argued many times before the Illinois Supreme Court and various federal courts.

However, his interest in politics continued. In 1847 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party. His one brief term in this office was detrimental to his career, for his opposition to the Mexican War and his stand on several other issues were received unfavorably by his constituents.

He did not seek reelection in 1848, choosing instead to work on the presidential campaign of Zachary Taylor. After Taylor's victory Lincoln was severely disappointed when he failed to receive a prominent presidential appointment. He abandoned politics and devoted his energies to his law practice in Springfield.

Events involving slavery soon drew Lincoln back into the political arena. The passage in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act infuriated Lincoln. Senator stephen a. douglas, of Illinois, a Democrat and rival of Lincoln's, had drafted this legislation, which revoked the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The repeal meant that the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska could allow slavery to exist if they so wished. This was intolerable to Lincoln and many antislavery Whigs and Democrats. Lincoln took to the political stump again, railing against slavery and the congressional actions that had placed the issue at the forefront of national policy.

The Whig party fell apart over the slavery question. In 1856 Lincoln joined others opposed to slavery from both the Whig and Democrat "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."
—Abraham Lincoln

parties, in the newly formed Republican Party. He quickly rose to prominence. The Republicans chose him as their candidate in the 1858 senatorial race against Douglas. The campaign was marked by a series of seven brilliant debates between the two contenders. Lincoln advocated loyalty to the Union, regarded slavery as unjust, and was opposed to any further expansion of slavery. He opened his campaign by declaring, "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." Lincoln lost the election owing to an unfavorable Apportionment of legislative seats in Illinois. (At that time U.S. senators were elected by a vote of the state legislature.) Though Republicans garnered larger numbers of votes, Douglas was reelected. Despite the Senate loss, Lincoln's national reputation was enhanced by his firm antislavery position. He was urged to run for president in 1860. At the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May 1860, Lincoln defeated William H. Seward for the nomination. A split in the Democratic Party led to the fielding of two Democratic candidates, John C. Breckenridge and Douglas. This split enabled Lincoln easily to defeat his rivals, including John Bell, head of the Constitutional Union party. He would be easily reelected in 1864.

By the time Lincoln took his oath of office in March 1861, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union and had established the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was elected president of the new government. Lincoln wished to find a solution short of war that would preserve the Union, but there were few options. When Lincoln allowed supplies to be sent to Fort Sumter, a Union base on an island outside Charleston, South Carolina, the new Confederate government seized the opportunity to interpret this as an act of war. On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces, and the Civil War began.

Lincoln's initial actions against this act of aggression included drafting men for military service, approving a blockade of the Southern states, and suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus. His troop request led to the secession of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Suspending habeas corpus effectively curtailed civil liberties, as persons who were suspected of being Southern sympathizers could be held in custody indefinitely. All these actions were taken by Executive Order, in Lincoln's capacity as commander in chief, because Congress was not in session at the time.

The Lincoln Assassination: Conspiracy or a Lone Man's Act?

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Five days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops. John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, Confederate sympathizer, and spy, has gone down in history as the lone assailant of Lincoln. However, Booth was killed by federal soldiers before he could be brought to trial. Eyewitnesses at Ford's Theater identified Booth as the man who shot the president at point-blank range with a single bullet to the back of the head. But Booth's exact motive in the killing was never established. In the wake of the first assassination of a U.S. president, eight of Booth's associates were charged as conspirators. All eight were convicted. However, since then, some modern theories have downplayed the roles of Southern radicals in the conspiracy. Some historians have even pointed fingers at the Republicans, Lincoln's own party.

Shortly before his death, Lincoln announced his Reconstruction policy for restoring the United States. He advocated "malice toward none, charity for all." However, more than a handful of Confederates distrusted Yankee politics. Confederate plots to kill the president or kidnap him had certainly existed long before April 1865. Lincoln appeared unconcerned about the threats, however, and refused to heed the advice of his advisers to take fewer risks in his public appearances. "What does anybody want to assassinate me for?" Lincoln once asked. "If anyone wants to do so, he can do it any day or night, if he is ready to give his life for mine. It is nonsense."

Booth fled Ford's Theater immediately after killing Lincoln and headed for refuge in the South. The Union cavalry, after a massive manhunt (announced throughout the nation), cornered Booth at the Garrett farm, his hiding spot in Virginia. Soldiers shot him through the neck leaving him partially paralyzed. Booth somehow managed to exit the barn when it was set on fire. He died at the feet of federal officers on the morning of April 26.

In somewhat mysterious fashion, Booth's "diary" (actually an 1864 date-book), was recovered from the site of his death. Booth wrote a running commentary, in scattered detail, on his plans before he shot Lincoln, and the developments of his final days. He wrote: "For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause, being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done. But it's failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heat. I struck boldly and not as the papers say."

Booth even described himself as a savior, claiming, "Our country owed all her trouble to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment." Booth's diary would not be used directly as evidence in the trial of others with whom he had allegedly conspired. Instead, it is a primary piece of evidence to support the argument that Booth acted alone.

Booth's quick death with no trial left many in the nation questioning the circumstances surrounding the murder of the North's beloved leader. Federal investigators subsequently singled out eight Southern civilians who had, by varying accounts, associated with Booth at a boarding house in Maryland. The eight were held as prisoners, accused of assisting in the crime of the century. David Herold, Lewis Payne, George Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edward Spangler, and Mary E. Surratt were charged as traitors and conspirators in a plot to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward and General ulysses s. grant.

Lincoln's secretary of war, edwin m. stanton, had conducted most of the criminal investigation. Based on the charges he developed, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was directly implicated, but not tried, in the assassination plot. Stanton and Attorney General James Speed subsequently put together a nine man military commission of seven generals and two colonels from the Union Army to sit in judgment. All nine of the appointed officers were staunch Republicans.

In the trial of the suspects, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of one individual in particular, Louis Weichmann. Weichmann had been closely acquainted with most of the conspirators and had first learned of their plot, according to his testimony, at a Maryland boarding house run by Mary Surratt. The accounts Weichmann gave primarily implicated Surratt and a country doctor, Samuel Mudd. The defense noted that Weichmann had not reported any of the alleged activity at the boarding house until after the assassination. However, the evidence to which Weichmann led investigators, particularly a boot of Booth's with the inscription "J. Wilkes," found at the home of Dr. Mudd, appeared to seal the fate of the eight defendants.

On June 29 the commission met behind closed doors to consider the evidence. They deliberated for two days and then sentenced four prisoners to death and four to imprisonment and hard labor. On July 7 Surratt was the first to be led to the gallows. Atzerodt, Herold, and Payne also received the death penalty.

Though four people were sent to their deaths, and four to prison, for the crime, historians continue to debate the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. One book that stirred much discussion on the subject was Otto Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, published in 1937. Eisenschiml postulated that Stanton and a group of Northern industrialists plotted the death of Lincoln to secure the interests of radical Republicans who were bent on the takeover of the newly restored Union. That theory, however, has been largely rebutted by other historians.

Further readings

Coyle, Marcia. 2002. "History with a Sept. 11 Twist; Heirs Attack Action by Army Tribunal in Lincoln's Killing." The National Law Journal 24 (April 29): A1.

Guttridge, Leonard F., and Ray A. Neff. 2003. Dark Union: The Secret Web of the Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators that Led to Lincoln's Death. New York: Wiley.

Johnson, James H. 2001. "The Trial of the 19th Century: Vengeance Trumped the Rule of Law in the Lincoln Conspiracy Case." Legal Times 24 (June 3): 28.

During the early stages of the war, the North suffered great losses, particularly at Bull Run. A succession of Union generals failed to achieve military success. Not until General ulysses s. grant emerged in 1863 as a strong and successful military leader did the Union army begin to achieve substantial victories. In 1864 Lincoln named Grant the commander of the Union army. In April 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, signaling the end of the war.

Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, he had been elected on a platform that pledged to allow slavery to remain where it already existed. However, wartime pressures drove Lincoln toward emancipation of the slaves. Military leaders argued that an enslaved labor force in the South allowed the Confederate states to place more soldiers on the front lines. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had prepared an Emancipation Proclamation, but he did not want to issue it until the Union army had better fortune on the battlefield. Otherwise the proclamation might be seen as a sign of weakness.

The Union army's victory at Antietam encouraged the president to issue on September 22, 1862, a preliminary proclamation that slavery was to be abolished in areas occupied by the Confederacy effective January 1, 1863. The wording of the Emancipation Proclamation on that date made clear that slavery was still to be tolerated in the border states and areas occupied by Union troops, so as not to jeopardize the war effort. Lincoln was uncertain that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of his action, so he lobbied Congress to adopt the Thirteenth Amendment, which totally abolished slavery.

Lincoln's writing and speaking skills played a vital part in maintaining the resolve of the Northern states during the war and in preparing the nation for the aftermath of the war. In 1863, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln delivered his poignant Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a national cemetery for soldiers who had died at the bloody battleground. The speech summarized the tragic and human aspects of Gettysburg and distilled Lincoln's resolve to protect the Union. At his second inauguration, in March 1865, Lincoln reached out to the South as the end of the war approached. He proclaimed, "With malice toward none; with charity for all."

Even before the war ended, Lincoln began to formulate a plan for Reconstruction, which included the restoration of Southern state governments and the Amnesty of Confederate officials who vowed loyalty to the Union. These proposals met fierce opposition in Congress, as the Radical Republicans sought harsher treatment for the South and its supporters.

The war ended on April 9, 1865, but Lincoln did not have a chance to fight for his Reconstruction proposals. He was shot in the head on April 14 by John Wilkes Booth during the performance of a play at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C. He died the next day. After lying in state in the Capitol, his body was returned to Springfield for burial.

Further readings

Amar, Akhil Reed. 2001. "Abraham Lincoln and the American Union." University of Illinois Law Review. (October): 1109–33.

Cottrell, John. 1966. Anatomy of an Assassination. London: Muller.

Eisenschiml, Otto. 1937. Why Was Lincoln Murdered? New York: Crosset and Dunlap.

Good, Timothy S., ed. 1995. We Saw Lincoln Shot. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi.

Keneally, Thomas. 2003. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Lipper/Viking.

Pinsker, Matthew. 2002. Abraham Lincoln. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Pitman, Benn. 1954. The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. New York: Funk & Wagnall's.

Roscoe, Theodore. 1959. The Web of Conspiracy: The Complete Story of the Men Who Murdered Abraham Lincoln. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Stephens, Otis H., Jr., and John M. Scheb II. 2003. American Constitutional Law. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Stone, Geoffrey R. 2003. "Abraham Lincoln's First Amendment." New York University Law Review 78 (April): 1–29.

Tidwell, William A. 1995. Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War, April '65. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.

Weichmann, Louis J. 1975. A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Conspiracy of 1865. New York: Knopf.

Zane, John Maxcy. 2002. Lincoln, the Constitutional Lawyer. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.


"Emancipation Proclamation," "Gettysburg Address," "House Divided Speech," and "Second Inaugural Address" (Appendix, Primary Documents).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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