I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States and is regarded as one of America’s greatest heroes due to his role as savior of the Union and emancipator of slaves. His eloquent support of democracy and insistence that the Union was worth saving embody the ideals of self-government that all nations strive to achieve. Lincoln’s distinctively humane personality and incredible impact on the nation have endowed him with an enduring legacy.
As a member of the Illinois state legislature in 1834, Lincoln supported the Whig politics of government-sponsored infrastructure and protective tariffs. This political understanding led him to formulate his early views on slavery, not so much as a moral wrong, but as an impediment to economic development.
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, allowing individual states and territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. The law provoked violent opposition in Kansas and Illinois, and it gave rise to the Republican Party. This awakened Lincoln’s political zeal once again, and his views on slavery moved more toward moral indignation. Lincoln joined the Republican Party in 1856. In 1857, the Supreme Court issued its controversial Dred Scott decision, declaring African Americans were not citizens and had no inherent rights. Though Lincoln felt African Americans were not equal to whites, he believed America’s founders intended that all men were created with certain inalienable rights.
During Lincoln’s 1858 U.S. Senate campaign against Douglas, he participated in seven debates held in different cities across Illinois. The two candidates didn’t disappoint the public, giving stirring debates on issues ranging from states’ rights to western expansion, but the central issue was slavery. Newspapers intensely covered the debates, often times with partisan commentary. In the end, the state legislature elected Douglas, but the exposure vaulted Lincoln into national politics. With his newly enhanced political profile, in 1860, political operatives in Illinois organized a campaign to support Lincoln for the presidency. Lincoln’s nomination was due in part to his moderate views on slavery, his support for improving the national infrastructure, and the protective tariff. In the general election, Lincoln faced his friend and rival, Stephen Douglas, this time besting him in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of the Northern Democrats and John Bell of the Constitution Party. Lincoln received not quite 40 percent of the popular vote, but carried 180 of 303 Electoral College votes, thus winning the U.S. presidency.
Following his election to the presidency in 1860, Lincoln selected a strong cabinet composed of many of his political rivals, including William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates and Edwin Stanton. Formed out the adage “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer,” Lincoln’s Cabinet became one of his strongest assets in his first term in office, and he would need them as the clouds of war gathered over the nation the following year.
Before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and by April the U.S. military installation Fort Sumter was under siege in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, the guns stationed to protect the harbor blazed toward the fort signaling the start of the U.S. Civil War, America’s costliest and bloodiest war.
Lincoln responded to the crisis wielding powers as no other president before him: He distributed $2 million from the Treasury for war material without an appropriation from Congress; he called for 75,000 volunteers into military service without a declaration of war; and he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, arresting and imprisoning suspected Confederate States sympathizers without a warrant. Crushing the rebellion would be difficult under any circumstances, but the Civil War, after decades of white-hot partisan politics, was especially onerous. From all directions, Lincoln faced disparagement and defiance. He was often at odds with his generals, his Cabinet, his party and a majority of the American people. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, reshaping the cause of the Civil War from saving the Union to abolishing slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation stated that all individuals who were held as slaves in rebellious states “henceforward shall be free.” The action was more symbolic than effective because the North didn’t control any states in rebellion and the proclamation didn’t apply to Border States, Tennessee or some Louisiana parishes. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered what would become his most famous speech and one of the most important speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address.
By 1864, the Confederate armies had eluded major defeat and Lincoln was convinced he’d be a one-term president. His nemesis, George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, challenged him for the presidency, but the contest wasn’t even close. Lincoln received 55 percent of the popular vote and 212 of 243 Electoral votes. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Virginia, surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War was for all intents and purposes over. Reconstruction has already began during the Civil War as early as 1863 in areas firmly under Union military control, and Lincoln favored a policy of quick reunification with a minimum of retribution.
In 1982, forty-nine historians and political scientists were asked by the Chicago Tribune to rate all the Presidents through Jimmy Carter in five categories: leadership qualities, accomplishments/crisis management, political skills, appointments, and character/integrity. At the top of the list stood Abraham Lincoln. It is the general opinion of pollsters, moreover, that the average American would probably put Lincoln at the top as well. In other words, the judgment of historians and the public tells us that Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s greatest President by every measure applied. Interestingly, had the average Union citizen been asked the same question in the spring of 1863, there can be no doubt but that Lincoln would have fared poorly. Not much more could have been said for him even a year later, when Lincoln thought that he would lose his bid for reelection. It would take Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and his own death a week later to propel Lincoln into the pantheon of presidential greatness.
Historians, mindful of Lincoln’s mythic place in American popular culture, accord him similar praise for what he accomplished and for how he did it. Because he was committed to preserving the Union and thus vindicating democracy no matter what the consequences to himself, the Union was indeed saved. Because he understood that ending slavery required patience, careful timing, shrewd calculations, and an iron resolve, slavery was indeed killed. Lincoln managed in the process of saving the Union and killing slavery to define the creation of a more perfect Union in terms of liberty and economic equality that rallied the citizenry behind him. Because he understood that victory in both great causes depended upon purposeful and visionary presidential leadership as well as the exercise of politically acceptable means, he left as his legacy a United States that was both whole and free. For Lincoln, it made no sense “to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution.” Following a strategy of “unilateral action,” Lincoln justified his powers as an emergency authority granted to him by the people.
Lincoln maintained that the President was one of three “coordinate” departments of government, not in any way subordinate to Congress or the courts. Moreover, he demonstrated that the President had a special duty that went beyond the duty of Congress and the courts, a duty that required constant executive action in times of crisis. While the other branches of government are required to support the Constitution, Lincoln’s actions pointed to the notion that the President alone is sworn to preserve, protect, and defend it. In times of war, this power makes the President literally responsible for the well-being and survival of the nation.
Lincoln is frequently cited by historians and average citizens alike as America’s greatest president. An aggressively activist commander-in-chief, Lincoln used every power at his disposal to assure victory in the Civil War and end slavery in the United States. Some scholars doubt that the Union would have been preserved had another person of lesser character been in the White House. According to historian Michael Burlingame, “No president in American history ever faced a greater crisis and no president ever accomplished as much.” Lincoln’s philosophy was perhaps best summed up in this Second Inaugural Address, when he stated, “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.”
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Sources: millercenter.org, “Abraham Lincoln: Impact and Legacy,” By Michael Burlingame; biography.com, Abraham Lincoln Biography, By Biography.com Editors