» Abraham Lincoln Bust

“… that government of the people, by the people, for the people,
shall not perish from the earth.”

- Abraham Lincoln

Critical Essay by
Dr. Kyle Longley
Director of the War and Society Program, Professor of History 
Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
View Bio

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809-April 14, 1865)

Abraham Lincoln remains one of the most respected presidents in the history of the Republic.  His rise to power remains a classic American story.  Born into a poor family in Kentucky (who later migrated to Indiana), Lincoln lacked formal education, but early on yearned for more than a life as a farmer. Ultimately, his strong work ethic, voracious love of learning, and perseverance allowed him to become a lawyer in Illinois.  

Early on, he became active in local Whig Party politics. After a failed attempt for office as he fought in Black Hawk War, Lincoln won a place in the Illinois state house in 1834. There he stood alongside other Whigs in opposing slavery, denouncing it for undermining principles of American justice.  While not embracing abolition and instead “free soil” (which called for preventing the expansion of slavery into new territories), Lincoln also supported Whig leaders including Henry Clay, in calling for the resettlement of freed slaves in Africa. His position on slavery, however, evolved over the following twenty years.

While in office, Lincoln found time to create a flourishing law office in Springfield, the state capitol of Illinois.  In 1842, he married Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky businessman.  They had four sons: Robert (1843), Eddie (1846), Willie (1850), and Tad (1853).  Lincoln was a doting husband and permissive father, although tragedy struck in 1850 when Eddie died. The bustling home as well as his office became well known for many in the city.

Eventually, Lincoln won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Once in office, he introduced a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Colombia.  Most important, he strongly opposed Democratic President James K. Polk’s desire to expand American lands westward.  In May 1846, the president announced the Mexicans had killed U.S. troops on American soil.  Lincoln demanded Polk submit evidence on exactly where Mexicans spilt American blood, questioning his explanation.  Not long after, he and other members of the House passed an amendment emphasizing Polk started an “unnecessarily and unconstitutional” war.  Lincoln’s stance proved unpopular, some constituents referring to him as “the Benedict Arnold of our district.”  Nonetheless, the war went well for the United States, and it added a large quantity of new territory.  In 1849, Lincoln honored his pledge to only serve one term, and he returned home to Illinois.

Lincoln had opposed a war that ensured heightened debates over whether to extend slavery into the new territories.  While Lincoln expanded his law practice, he remained active in politics.  He supported his role model, Henry Clay, in the Compromise of 1850 that banned slavery in territory north of the latitude 36°30’ and allowed in California in as a free state.  In 1854, he narrowly missed winning a U.S. Senate seat as he became more vocal in his anti-slavery views, heartily denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed for the expansion of slavery that Illinois senator Stephen Douglas promoted. In one speech, he emphasized:  “I cannot but hate it.  I hate it because of monstrous injustice of slavery itself.  I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.” As a result, he joined the newly formed Republican Party, supporting its anti-slavery platform and actively campaigning in 1856 for its unsuccessful presidential nominee, John C. Fremont.

Events unfolding in the country pushed Lincoln deeper into politics. Angered by the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision in 1858 that denied blacks, even freed ones, rights under the Constitution, Lincoln once more sought a Senate seat.  He lined up against Senator Douglas who commented about Lincoln: “He is a strong man of his party . . . full of wit, facts, dates . . . and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West.  He is as honest as he is shrewd.”  Lincoln won his party’s nomination and immediately delivered the blistering “House Divided” Speech.  In it, he emphasized: “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” adding, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”  While acknowledging his belief the house would not fall, he stressed: “It will become all one thing, or all the other.”  In a series of heavily publicized debates, Lincoln attacked Douglas for supporting slavery that undermined republicanism and ignoring the concept of all men had been created equal.  While gaining national attention, Lincoln lost the election as the Democrat dominated Illinois legislature selected Douglas.

Though defeated, Lincoln’s stance on slavery pushed him to the forefront of Republican leadership before the 1860 presidential election.  In February 1860, he visited Harriett Beecher Stowe’s church in Brooklyn.  There he delivered his harshest condemnation of slavery to date, giving the audience a history lesson on the founding fathers and their understanding that the federal government retained the right to regulate slavery as well as the opposition of many to the monstrous institution.  The blistering broadside won great praise and propelled him into the presidential primary in 1860. 

Ultimately, Lincoln took the Republican nomination, running as the homespun, honest, self-made man who supported the party on issues including tariffs and government infrastructure but most importantly, slavery.  Once more, Lincoln faced his nemesis, Stephen Douglas, but this time with a different outcome.  With strong support in the North and West (his name did not appear on the ballot in some southern states), he won the presidency.  As he planned to take office, angry southerners prepared articles of secession which sitting president James Buchanan and Lincoln denounced.  In fact, he barely escaped assassination even while formulating a compromise. In his inaugural address, he promised not to seize property.  Such efforts failed when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and ignited a civil war.

The war challenged the nation unlike anything since the American Revolution.  While hoping to prevent the spilling of American blood, once the southerners attacked, Lincoln responded quickly and forcefully by calling up troops to protect the union.  Immediately, controversy ensued when southern sympathizers blocked trains in Baltimore transporting troops.  In response, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in several areas.  Some Democrats accused him of tyranny and ultimately the Supreme Court said only Congress could suspend those rights, but Lincoln persisted.  He increased calls of tyranny for supporting the Confiscation Act that allowed for judges to free slave if used to support the Confederacy.

But, throughout Lincoln worked hard to hold together the Union and quell the insurrection. He even found time to sign important legislation including the Homestead Act and Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act (both signed in 1862).  He recruited good people to help the war effort including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  When the Union lost some early battles in northern Virginia, Lincoln found better commanders including George McClellan who defeated of the Confederates at the Battle of Antietam.  The victory allowed Lincoln to issue an executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, in September 1862 announcing that effective January 1, 1863 that all slaves in areas in open rebellion against the United States “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”  The proclamation gave the Union war effort a morale boost and further enhanced the crusade again slavery.

As the bloodshed continued, Lincoln proved himself a good wartime president.  His appointments of generals such as Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman paid dividends with military victories, albeit at a high cost.  His strong oratory of remembrance and sacrifice represented in the October 1863 “Gettysburg Address,” cemented his position as leader, both for the time and future.  In 1864, the people of the Union validated his efforts in a presidential election.  Lincoln crushed McClellan who ran as the Democratic nominee, winning 55% of the vote and a resounding 71% of the electoral college.  In his famous Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln magnanimously announced: “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 do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”

As the war ended, Lincoln and many others moved forward to ensure the rights of the newly freed slaves.  Through cajoling as well as backroom deals, Lincoln helped push through legislation establishing the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.  It was a major first step in Lincoln’s plan to prepare the South for Reconstruction. 

Five days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Lincoln attended a play at the Ford’s Theatre.  An assassin, John Wilkes Booth, shot Lincoln in the head, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus always to tyrants) as he escaped.  The president died shortly after, sparking a national outpouring of sorrow and rage.  The country mourned including Walt Whitman who penned his famous “O Captain! My Captain!” and other poems honoring the fallen president.  Hundreds of thousands of people lined the tracks to honor the president as the train carrying Lincoln’s body back to Springfield moved across the country.  

With the Union victory, the demise of slavery, and his martyrdom, Lincoln became firmly cemented in the pantheon of American greatest presidents.  There have been many efforts to honor him including the Lincoln Memorial that emphasized bold letters behind his statue: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Many Americans recite his greatest speeches, and historians consistently rank him as one of the top three presidents in American history alongside George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt.    While not without some controversy over wartime actions and political machinations, Lincoln’s life and presidency remain a model for many Americans and their leaders.  

 Suggested Readings

  • David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1996)
  • Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2009)
  • Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006)
  • James McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2009)
  • David S. Reynolds, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (2020)
  • John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas & Abraham Lincoln (2008)
  • Robert C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (2010)

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Abraham Lincoln bust

February 2, 2000

Designation Name
The Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Law

Fowler School of Law

Miriam Baker

Campus Location
Sodaro Promenade, Orange Campus