This week, 209 years ago, Abraham Lincoln—who would arguably go on to become the nation’s most revered president of all time—was born on Feb. 12, 1809. The world Lincoln grew up in was quite different from our 21st century society. In 1809, the United States, as a sovereign nation distinct from Great Britain, was a mere 33 years old. America was a budding democracy, a far cry from the super power it would eventually become.
During Lincoln’s early childhood, America continued to struggle against Great Britain. The War of 1812 (which actually lasted from 1812 to 1814) saw the British set fire to the White House. The war also prompted Francis Scott Key to pen his poem, “Defense of Fort McKinley”, which would later be re-named “The Star Spangled Banner”.
Lincoln, whose likeness adorns the penny as well as the $5 bill, became a lawyer as a young man, before deciding to get involved in politics. Compared to the charisma expected of contemporary politicians, Lincoln was a plainspoken man, not attracting people through his looks or mesmerizing rhetoric. He famously had a self-deprecating sense of humor. In a debate with Stephen Douglass, Lincoln was once accused of being “two-faced”, to which he replied, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one in public?”
Lincoln and the Civil War
By the time Lincoln took office as president, America’s woes with England were long gone. The biggest threat was internal. Lincoln was elected in November 1860 and by the time he was inaugurated in March of 1861, seven southern states had withdrawn, or “seceded” from the Union, starting with South Carolina in December, thus forming the Confederate States of America. In the process of seceding, many southern states took possession of Federal properties within their boundaries (buildings, arsenals, forts, etc.). President James Buchanan didn’t like what was happening, but feared that if he took any action the remaining slave states that had not seceded (“border states”) would leave the Union, making matters worse.
This was the quagmire Lincoln inherited when he took the oath of office as the 16th president. The following month, the Battle of Fort Sumter was fought in South Carolina, thus beginning the “War Between the States”, and, just as Buchanan had feared, the Union’s military action quickly prompted four additional slave states to withdraw and join the Confederacy. The situation seemed very bleak.
Of course, one of the states to secede and join the Confederacy was Mississippi. During the early 1860s, Mississippi acknowledged Jefferson Davis, not Abe Lincoln, as their president. Though 21st century Mississippians can certainly appreciate Lincoln and his legacy, it is safe to say that during Lincoln’s lifetime he was not a hero to many Mississippians.
Lincoln and slavery
A fact that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when discussing Civil War history is that Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Union Army was not General U.S. Grant. It was actually Robert E. Lee, a Virginian who was no fan of slavery himself. In the end, Lee decided, out of loyalty to his home state, to stick with the Confederacy. By the time he began leading the Confederate Army, he had already freed all of his slaves.
Was there a connection between Lincoln being elected and southern states seceding? Many southern states feared that Lincoln would seek to restrict or abolish slavery, and therefore his election frightened them. Mississippi, for example, in its official secession document spells out very clearly that the state chose to secede primarily to safeguard the institution of slavery. Lincoln had gone on record disapproving of slavery. He famously said, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”
Lincoln’s great aim, though, in the Civil War was not first and foremost to abolish slavery, but rather to preserve the Union. Lincoln famously said that if he could preserve the Union by freeing no slaves, he would do that, and if he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do that. Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until halfway through his first term as president. It appeared, at first, as if his moral stance on slavery was shaped more by political pragmatism than by deep conviction.
As the war progressed, Lincoln’s anti-slavery rhetoric intensified. In his second inaugural address, delivered shortly before his death in 1865, he speculated that the bloody war might be God’s judgment on the nation. Perhaps the blood being shed on the battlefield was God’s justice against all the blood of innocent slaves that had been shed over the years.
Regardless of whether Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance was more pragmatism than principled, when he died Lincoln was remembered as the “Great Emancipator”. He had done what no president before him had had the courage to do. At his death, Thomas Jefferson had freed some of his slaves in his will. At his death, George Washington freed all of his slaves in his will. Lincoln, on the other hand, had freed all the slaves in the nation.
Lincoln a man ahead of his time, as well as a man of his times
Lincoln was, in many ways, “ahead of his time”, but in fairness he was also in some ways a man of his times. Lincoln’s opposition to slavery resulted first in the Emancipation Proclamation, and then later helped bring about Congress passing the 13th Amendment. However, as committed as Lincoln was to the emancipation of slaves, his stance on whether black people were equal or whether freed slaves should gain full rights as citizens was, at best, ambiguous. As former slave and abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass said: “President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race.”
Of course, Lincoln died before Congress officially recognized the citizenship rights of freed slaves. Had he lived long enough to see that issue get debated in Congress, and had he withheld his support from the amendment, history might likely remember Lincoln far less fondly.
His bold stand for justice and his compassion for the oppressed have made Lincoln a larger-than-life legend among U.S. presidents. For many people, pre-Lincoln America is one defined by hypocrisy—a nation that claimed to believe the motto “all men are created equal”, but in practice treated black people as chattel. Lincoln serves as the turning point in the nation, the time when the nation, however imperfectly, began to live out the real meaning of that motto.
Lincoln was the first commander-in-chief to be assassinated in U.S. history. Three more would follow—James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy—but it’s safe to say that none of the other assassinations have cast quite the same spell over the imagination of the American people as that of Lincoln’s.