Abraham Lincoln

Whenever political scientists attempt a ranking of US Presidents, comparing them based on their success and the lasting impact of their policies, then Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, is always listed among the top three and more often than not in first place. Lincoln is credited with forming the nation to the unit it is today and with avoiding the definite and irreversible secession of the Southern states. The end of slavery in the USA and the corresponding amendment to the Constitution fall into his presidency. Up until today, neither Democrats nor Republicans would argue over Abraham Lincolns merits for his country and this may be one of the reasons that the Lincoln Memorial with his oversized portrait ciseled in stone is one of the most popular sights in Washington DC.

Abraham Lincoln was born the second child of a farmer’s family on 12th February 1809 in Kentucky. Only a few years later, the family moved to Indiana. There, Lincoln’s mother died when the boy was only nine years old. The father then married a young widow with three children, Sarah Bush Johnston, to whom Lincoln had a very good and affectionate relationship for all of his life. When the family encountered economic problems in 1830, they moved to Illinois. Young Abraham had at that time already grown to be a very tall and intellectual young man who enjoyed reading Shakespeare, book son history and biographies despite having only spent a total of eighteen months at school. 

Lincoln’s political career started when he was 23 with his failed attempt to get elected to the Illinois general assembly. Following that, he worked as postmaster and managed a small general store, before he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives for the first of four terms in 1834. At the same time, he discovered his interest in law, a topic he educated himself in by reading countless books. Within only three years, he passed the bar exam and started a successful career in this field. As a representative and lawyer, he moved to Springfield, the Illinois capital. There, he married Mary Todd in 1842, the daughter of a wealthy, slave-owning family from Kentucky. The couple had four sons, two of whom died when they were children and a third died at the age of 18.

In 1846, Abraham Lincoln switched to the federal level when he was elected to the Congress. In Washington, he went in large parts unnoticed, but his commitment against the Mexican-American War brought some bad publicity for him back home in Illinois, because people there supported that war in great numbers. Finally, the atmosphere had turned so bad that Lincoln did not run for re-election, but chose to turn his back on politics for a while after completion of his term and focused on his work as lawyer, a profession in which he was very successful.

Lincoln’s return to politics was triggered by the Kansas-Nebraska-Act, a federal law which left it up to the people in the newly founded states of Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether their state would allow owning slaves or not. In public speeches, Lincoln spoke vehemently against this law, which had been authored by Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic Senator from Illinois. The protests against this act led to the founding of the Republican Party in 1854. In the Senate election of 1858, the party’s co-founder Abraham Lincoln became its candidate against Douglas. The differing opinions on the issue of slavery divided the whole nation and they found their outlet in the campaigns of Douglas and Lincoln, which was covered in the entire country. Lincoln lost the 1858 election but he had gained nationwide popularity and ran on the Republican ticket for President in 1860. Although the Republican campaign almost exclusively focused on the Northern US states, Lincoln was elected President on 06th November 1860.

Even before Lincoln was elected, seven states in Deep South, led by South Carolina, had realized what future lay ahead and had seceded from the Union. These seven former US states made up the new Confederate States of America. Lincolns inauguration in March 1861 were subject to strict security measures due to the explosive political atmosphere in the country. In his inaugural speech as well as in the first weeks and months of his presidency, Lincoln took position against slavery and against a recognition of the Confederation, but he also spoke against military action against the South as long as the North was not attacked from there. He still believed in a continuation of the Union and many historians state that he underestimated the crisis. On April 12, 1861 the final Union-held fort in the South, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, was attacked by Confederate troops. Lincoln reacted by sending 75,000 soldiers into the Southern states. As a consequence, the border states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas also declared their separation from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Now the country was irrevocably split and found itself in a Civil War. Lincoln’s primary goal in this war was to reunite the Union. It was for this reason that he issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 which declared all slaves to be free; mostly, this was a measure to weaken the enemy. Only the further progress of the Union’s troops and the successful liberation of slaves, the end of slavery was declared a military objective.

The military successes in Civil War, which were determined by tactical decisions of the President, brought Lincoln a re-election in 1864 that was never in danger. After a few commanders did not live up to Lincoln’s expectations, he had become more and more involved in war tactics and finally found in Ulysees S. Grant the General who would follow his plans the closest. These plans called for a strong-arm approach also against the civilian population and the South’s infrastructure. This became especially obvious in the ruthless actions executed by the troops of General Sherman who dealt out a lot of destruction in Georgia. Finally, in the spring of 1865, Grant conquered Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and thus in effect brought the war to an end. The preparation for the reconstruction of the Union and the re-integration of the Southern states had already begun in the final months of the war. Lincoln campaigned for an indulgent treatment of the representatives of the Southern states and granted amnesty for all those who did not have influential positions in the Confederate States, did not mistreat Union soldiers and who signed a declaration of loyalty to the Union. In the difficult times after the war Lincoln could rely, like so often before, on his outstanding rhetorical talents which helped him reunite the country by putting special emphasis on common values such as the Declaration of Independence and its libertarian principles.

While the two terms of the 16th US Presiden were deeply impacted by the Civil War and the nation’s division, Abraham Lincoln also set priorities in other fields with significance for the time after his Presidency. Among these was the Legal Tender Act of 1862 which allowed for the issua of the first paper money in the USA, the creation of lawful preconditions to enable the extension of the transcontinental railroad - which in turn enabled the exploration of the West -and the Homestead Act of 1862, which made it possible for settlers to purchase land in the West at low prices.

However, Lincoln’s stance on the issue of slavery remained the defining element of his presidency in the public view. There were many fanatics who saw in him a tyrant whon had given the proud South into the hands of the slaves. One of these fanatics was John Wilkes Booth, an actor from Maryland, who shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865 during a stage play at Fordīs Theatre in Washington, DC. The President died from his severe head shot wounds the next day at the age of 56. He lay in state for several days in the White House, before his body was brought to Illinois through several states by train and was buried in Springfield. Abraham Lincoln today is probably the President with the most dedications - counties in 19 US states, the capital of Nebraska, Navy ships and many institutions and organizations are named in his honor. His birthday  is celebrated as Presidents Day in America and most Americans encounter Lincoln daily by virtue of his portrait on the Five-Dollar bill.



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