Abraham Lincoln Summary
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States of America, the leader who successfully prosecuted the Civil War to preserve the nation. He played in key role in passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in America. As the war was ending, Lincoln became the first U.S. president to be assassinated. Prior to his election as president in 1860, he had successful careers as a lawyer and politician in Illinois, serving several terms in the state legislature and one in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also holds the distinction of being the only U.S. president to receive a patent; in 1849, he designed a system for lifting riverboats off sandbars.
Abraham Lincoln’s Life: Youth
Abraham Lincoln was born on Sinking Springs Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809, to Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and named for his paternal grandfather. His birthplace is believed to have been a 16′ x 18′ log cabin, which no longer exists. Lincoln had a sister, Sarah, who was two years and two days older than he was. A younger brother, Thomas, died in infancy.
When Abraham was two, the family moved to nearby Knob Creek Farm. Five years later, the family moved again, to the wilderness on Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana. On October 5, 1818, his mother died, reportedly of “milk sickness,” caused by drinking milk from cows that have eaten a poisonous, blossoming plant called snakeroot. Thomas Lincoln remarried a year later, to Sarah Bush Johnston, a woman of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, whom he had known for many years. She had three children by a previous marriage, Elizabeth, Matilda, and John. Although Abraham and his father were never close, Sarah and nine-year-old Abraham formed a loving relationship that continued throughout their lives. She encouraged him in his attempts to educate himself, which he did by borrowing and studying books.
Lincoln Moves To Illinois
In 1830, when Abraham was 21, the family moved to Illinois. He performed odd jobs and took a flatboat of goods to New Orleans. At New Salem he was a partner in a store at that failed and would be many years paying off the last of the store’s creditors, an obligation he referred to as “the National Debt.” Elected captain of a militia unit during the 1832 Blackhawk War—an election he later would say pleased him more than any other—he saw no combat, but he met the man who would change his life in many ways: John Todd Stuart.
Lincoln Becomes A Lawyer
Stuart and Lincoln both ran for the Illinois General Assembly that year; Stuart won, Lincoln didn’t. Two years later, however, both men won election. The more experienced Stuart, known as “Jerry Sly” for his skills at management and intrigue, showed Lincoln the ropes and loaned him law books, that he might study to become an attorney. In 1836, Lincoln received a license to practice law. He would go on to establish a respectable record as an attorney and was often hired by the Illinois Central Railroad.
Lincoln won reelection to the General Assembly in 1836, 1838, and 1840; among his accomplishments was a major role in getting the state capital moved to Springfield. He did not actively seek the post again after 1840, but won the popular vote in 1854; however, he resigned so he would be eligible for election to the U.S. Senate.
Lincoln Goes To Congress
In 1846, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he gave the infamous “Spot” speech about the war that had begun with Mexico. He demanded President James K. Polk reveal the exact spot on which American blood had been shed, starting the war, and whether that spot was on American or Mexican soil.
The speech may have been a reflection of words his “beau ideal” statesman, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, had uttered in a speech Lincoln heard while visiting Lexington, Kentucky, on the way to Washington. Or it may have been a partisan maneuver—Lincoln was a Whig, Polk a Democrat—to ingratiate himself with the older Whigs in Washington. Popular opinion in most of the country supported the war, and newspapers around the country ridiculed him as “Spotty Lincoln.” He did not run for reelection to Congress in 1848, but for the first time in its history, his home district elected a Democrat instead of a Whig. He spent the next several years focusing on his law practice to support his growing family.
In the Illinois legislature, he’d served with Ninian Wirt Edwards of Springfield, the son of a former governor of Illinois. Edwards’ wife was the former Elizabeth Todd of Lexington, Kentucky. When her younger sister, Mary, came from Lexington Lincoln became smitten; as Ninian observed, “Mary could make a bishop forget his prayers.” Although facts are unclear, an understanding apparently developed between Lincoln and Mary, but they parted ways in December of 1840 or January of 1841. Over a year later, a friend brought them back together, and they wed November 4, 1842.
There have long been stories—begun by Lincoln’s long-time law partner, William Herndon—that Lincoln had previously been engaged to Ann Rutledge in New Salem and had nearly lost his mind when she died. However, she was betrothed to another and there is no verifiable evidence of any romantic relationship or understanding between her and Lincoln. Neighbors’ stories indicate Lincoln did take her death hard. He was always prone to fits of “melancholia”—depression—and one state legislator claimed Lincoln told him he wouldn’t carry a pocket knife for fear he’d use it to harm himself.
Family Life With Mary Todd Lincoln
Abraham and Mary Lincoln would produce four children: Robert Todd, named for Mary’s father; Edward (Eddie) Baker, named for a close friend; William (Willie) Wallace, named for Dr. William Wallace, who had married Francis, another Todd sister, and had become close friends with Lincoln; and Thomas (Tad), named for Lincoln’s father who had died two years earlier. Eddie died in 1850, Willie in 1862, and Tad in 1871. Only Robert lived to adulthood; the last of his descendants would die in 1985, ending the Abraham Lincoln family line.
(Learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln)
Although Lincoln did not seek office himself during these years, he remained active in the Whig Party, counseling candidates who sought his advice and occasionally responding to speaking requests. In 1854, he essentially was campaign manager for Richard Yates, who was running for the General Assembly. Lincoln did not want to be elected to that body again himself because he knew the legislature would be electing a new U.S. Senator during its coming term, to fill the position of James Shields, who had moved to the Minnesota Territory. (At that time, nearly 60 years before the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided for direct election of senators by the voters, they were chosen by each state’s legislature.) By Illinois law, sitting state legislators could not be elected to the U.S. Congress—and Lincoln desperately wanted to become the new senator, a position he said he would prefer over being president. Regardless, eventually he reluctantly agreed to run . He won more votes than any other candidate but resigned in order to keep his senatorial chances open.
His hopes were dashed again when the vote for senator was taken in 1857. Despite a strong start, he saw that a Democrat would be elected unless the Whigs united, so he threw his supporters’ votes to another candidate.
Since the early 1830s, abolitionists—those who adamantly favored abolishing slavery everywhere in the United States—had become increasingly strident. Even many people like Lincoln who did not approve of slavery also did not approve of the sectional divisiveness engendered by the abolitionists. Slaveholding states—virtually all of which were in the South—in responding to abolitionists’ attacks defended the “peculiar institution” of slavery more vociferously, and sectional tensions grew.
A Nation Dividing
In 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowed residents of any new states admitted to the Union to decide for themselves whether or not the state would be free or slaveholding. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision the Supreme Court ruled that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the rights guaranteed by the Constitution applied to Negroes and never had. As a result of these events, many who had disassociated themselves with abolitionists’ agitation began drifting into their camp, and the abolitionists movement intensified.
Like his father, Lincoln opposed slavery; however, he also deplored abolitionists’ activities because they threatened to cause a schism in the nation. In regard to “slavery agitation” he said, “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’”
Notes for a speech he delivered in Ohio clearly articulate his opinions on the slavery issue in the 1850s:
“We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists, because the Constitution, and the peace of the country both forbid us – We must not withhold an efficient fugitive slave law, for the constitution demands it – But we must, by a national policy, prevent the spread of slavery into new territories, or free states, because the constitution does not forbid us, and the general welfare does demand such prevention.” (Abraham Lincoln, (September 16–17, 1859), Notes for Speech in Kansas and Ohio)
The Whig Party to which he had always been dedicated was dying. By 1854, a new party, the Republicans, was taking its place. Comprised of old Whigs, disaffected Democrats and members of the Native American Party (“Know-Nothings”), its unifying theme was opposition to the institution of slavery. In 1856, Lincoln joined the new party.
The Lincoln Douglas Debates
In 1858, he engaged in a legendary series of debates across Illinois with the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Sen. Stephen Douglas. The five-foot, four-inch Douglas—”the Little Giant”—and the lanky, six-foot-four Lincoln faced off over the issue of expanding slavery beyond the states where it currently existed. Lincoln carefully made a distinction between slavery where it existed and its expansion into new territories and states. The debates grew national attention, and Lincoln was invited to speak in other states.
(Read more about the Lincoln Douglas Debates)
The national attention he received resulted in the Republican Party making him its presidential candidate in the 1860 election. On the divisive matter of slavery, the Republican platform supported prohibiting slavery in the territories but opposed interfering with it in the states where it already existed.
The Democratic Party split, producing two candidates, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. An independent Constitutional Union Party ran John Bell of Tennessee as its candidate. Two other independent parties formed but failed to carry a single state in the fall elections. Breckinridge carried the Deep South and two slave-holding East Coast states, Maryland and Delaware; Bell won Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia; Douglas only carried Missouri. Lincoln won every Northern state, California and Oregon; although he failed to win a majority of the popular vote in this drawn-and-quartered election, he won enough electoral votes—180 compared to 123 for all his opponents combined—to become the 16th president.
President Abraham Lincoln
On December 20, nearly three months before Lincoln would take office (presidential inaugurations occurred in March at that time), South Carolina officially seceded from the Union. It was soon joined by all states of the Deep South. They feared the rise of this new, sectional party that opposed expansion of slavery. If the peculiar institution was not allowed to spread, slaveholding states would be outnumbered, and they feared losing the political power that protected slavery.
For weeks, president-elect Lincoln said nothing as state after state renounced its compact with the United States, though it is questionable whether anything he said would have halted the secession movement. Previous presidents under whom secession was threatened—Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor—had both said they would send troops to force states to remain in the Union but never had to take that action. Lincoln, faced with the reality of losing a section of the country, felt he did have to after Confederate guns fired during the Battle of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.
The Civil War Begins
He called for 75,000 troops to suppress the Southern rebellion. Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee then seceded, refusing to fight their fellow Southerners and claiming Lincoln had overreached his authority because Congress was not in session and therefore could not authorize a war.
The new president knew little of military affairs, but just as he had educated himself as a youth, he began a self-education in the art of war, checking books of military history out of the Library of Congress. From this reading, and perhaps from an innate sense of what needed to be done, he at times seemed to understand better than some of his generals that destroying the enemy’s armies was more important than capturing the Confederate capital.
He endured outright insubordination from one commander, Major General George B. McClellan, in charge of the largest Union army. Lincoln said he’d hold McClellan’s horse if it would help to win the war, but once he determined “Little Mac” was too cautious to win much of anything, he removed him. Not until March of 1864, when he placed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all Union armies, did Lincoln find a general in whom he had trust. Grant had previously won major victories at the Siege of Fort Donelson, Battle of Vicksburg, and Battle of Chattanooga.
Lincoln, in choosing his cabinet, had selected those men he felt most capable of handling the duties of the posts he asked them to fill. Some of them had hoped during the last election that they would be filling the chair of the presidency. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called the Lincoln Cabinet “A Team of Rivals.” His willingness to work with men, some of whom he knew had a low opinion of him—at least initially—says much about Lincoln’s character and his determination to do whatever it took to preserve the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation
In the autumn of 1862, following the Battle of Antietam, he announced his Emancipation Proclamation. It granted freedom to slaves—but only to those in the areas still in rebellion, which didn’t recognize his authority. It was a war measure, meant to prevent European recognition of the slaveholding Confederacy, and it shifted the war from one to preserve the Union to one that would both preserve the Union and end slavery.
Other controversial war measures taken by Lincoln and his administration included infringing on some Constitutional rights, including suspending habeas corpus and shutting down newspapers that opposed the war. He signed the bill admitting West Virginia as a state of the Union, although it had been formed from Virginia without the permission of the state’s government at Richmond, which many, including half of his cabinet members, believed was a violation of Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. Nevada was admitted at least in part to provide another pro-Union state.
Lincoln Reelected In 1864
In presidential elections of 1864, Lincoln believed he would not be reelected. The war had dragged on for over three years, draining the treasury. Major battles, like the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle Gettysburg, and the Battle of Chickamauga, had each produced over 10,000 casualties, far beyond anything the nation had experienced in previous wars. Grant’s current campaign in Virginia had already suffered nearly 50,000 losses. Radical abolitionists in the North were upset with him for not pressing harder on the slavery issue.
The Democratic Party, banking on war weariness, was running George McClellan, the former general, as their candidate, under the slogan, “The Union as it was, and the Constitution as it is,” and pledging a truce with the Confederacy. Indeed, Lincoln might have lost his bid for re-election, and with it the war, had Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman not captured Atlantain early September, giving the Union a major victory. Other contributing factors included Lincoln allowing soldiers in the armies to vote in their camps, something that had never been done before. The Democrats themselves made several missteps that hurt their chances. Lincoln won reelection and in his second inaugural address called for, “malice toward none, with charity for all,” attempting to set the stage for a reconciliation with the South.
He had personally experienced the “divided house” he’d once warned of. All but one of his wife’s half-siblings fought for the Confederacy or married men who did, and one of her full brothers became a Confederate surgeon. Only three of her sisters in Illinois and their husbands remained firmly with the Union.
The End Of The Civil War
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the largest Confederate army to Grant following the Appomattox Campaign and the Appomattox Courthouse, virtually ending the war. Lincoln, asked what should be done with the citizens of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, responded, “I’d let ‘em up easy, let ‘em up easy.”
Abraham Lincoln Assassinated
With the light of victory clearly breaking over the horizon, Lincoln and Mary went to Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14 to see the comedy, Our American Cousin. During the performance, an actor and staunch Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth slipped into the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the head. The president died the following morning. Within 24 hours, not a shred of black crepe was to be had in the nation’s capitol as homes, stores and government buildings were draped in mourning. Even some Southern newspapers condemned the assassination.
Lincoln was laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois. In 1876, a counterfeiting gang attempted to steal his body, to exchange it for their master engraver, who had been imprisoned. The plan was thwarted, and when the president’s body was placed in a new tomb in 1901, some 4,000 pounds of cement were poured on top of his coffin to prevent any future attempts.
The popular image of Lincoln has changed many times. He is beloved as the Great Emancipator and the Savior of the Union, but many people, particularly in the South, regard him as a tyrant and a dictator. He has been accused of being racist, though his views were in keeping with those of most Americans of his times. During his presidency, association with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass seem to have made his racial views more enlightened than those of most mid-19th-century Americans.
His primary focus as president always was on restoring the United States as a single nation under the Constitution; ending slavery was secondary to that goal. However, the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery throughout the United States, was passed only after Lincoln pulled political strings and granted favors in return for “Aye” votes. It had already failed once in the House, prior to Lincoln’s backroom negotiations. In the words of Thaddeus Stevens, “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Lincoln’s service as president is also notable for the day of thanksgiving he proclaimed on the last Thursday of November 1864. America’s modern Thanksgiving holiday dates from that first national observation.
For 110 years, the numbers stood as gospel: 618,222 men died in the Civil War, 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — by far the greatest toll of any war in American history.
But new research shows that the numbers were far too low.
By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000.
The new figure is already winning acceptance from scholars. Civil War History, the journal that published Dr. Hacker’s paper, called it “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” in its pages. And a pre-eminent authority on the era, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, said:
“It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”
The old figure dates back well over a century, the work of two Union Army veterans who were passionate amateur historians: William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore.
Fox, who had fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, knew well the horrors of the Civil War. He did his research the hard way, reading every muster list, battlefield report and pension record he could find.
In his 1889 treatise “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865,” Fox presented an immense mass of information. Besides the aggregate death count, researchers could learn that the Fifth New Hampshire lost more soldiers (295 killed) than any other Union regiment; that Gettysburg and Waterloo were almost equivalent battles, with each of the four combatant armies suffering about 23,000 casualties; that the Union Army had 166 regiments of black troops; and that the average Union soldier was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall and weighed 143 1/2 pounds.
Fox’s estimate of Confederate battlefield deaths was much rougher, however: a “round number” of 94,000, a figure compiled from after-action reports. In 1900, Livermore set out to make a more complete count. In his book, “Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-65,” he reasoned that if the Confederates had lost proportionally the same number of soldiers to disease as the Union had, the actual number of Confederate dead should rise to 258,000.
And that was that. The Fox-Livermore numbers continued to be cited well into the 21st century, even though few historians were satisfied with them. Among many others, James M. McPherson used them without citing the source in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his Pulitzer-winning 1988 history of the war.
Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.
Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.
“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.
As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.
Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.
The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.
Another hurdle was what Dr. Hacker called the “dreadful” 1870 census, a badly handled undercount taken when the ashes of the war were still warm. But he reasoned a way around that problem.
Because the census takers would quite likely have missed as many women as men, he decided to look at the ratio of male to female deaths in 1870. Next, he examined mortality figures from the decades on either side of the war — the 1850s and 1870s — so that he could get an idea of the “normal” ratio of male to female deaths for a given decade. When he compared those ratios to that of 1860-70, he reasoned, he would see a dramatic spike in male mortality. And he did. Subtracting normal attrition from the male side of the equation left him with a rough estimate of war dead.
It was a better estimate than Fox and Livermore had produced, but Dr. Hacker made it clear that his was not the final answer. He had made several assumptions, each of which stole accuracy from the final result. Among them: that there were no war-related deaths of white women; that the expected normal mortality rate in the 1860s would be the average of the rates in the 1850s and 1870s; that foreign soldiers died at the same rate as native-born soldiers; and that the War Department figure of 36,000 black war dead had to be accepted as accurate because black women suffered so terribly both during and after the war that they could not be used as a control for male mortality.
The study had two significant shortcomings. Dr. Hacker could make no estimate of civilian deaths, an enduring question among historians, “because the overall number is too small relative to the overall number of soldiers killed.” And he could not tell how many of the battlefield dead belonged to each side.
“You could assume that everyone born in the Deep South fought for the Confederacy and everyone born in the North fought for the Union,” he said. “But the border states were a nightmare, and my confidence in the results broke down quickly.”
With all the uncertainties, Dr. Hacker said, the data suggested that 650,000 to 850,000 men died as a result of the war; he chose the midpoint as his estimate.
He emphasized that his methodology was far from perfect. “Part of me thinks it is just a curiosity,” he said of the new estimate.
“But wars have profound economic, demographic and social costs,” he went on. “We’re seeing at least 37,000 more widows here, and 90,000 more orphans. That’s a profound social impact, and it’s our duty to get it right.”
Guy Gugliotta is the author of the new book “Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War.”
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