Sixteenth U.S. president
Abraham Lincoln, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, is universally regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents and one of its most effective commanders-in-chief. But unlike Roosevelt, Lincoln is also one of the most mythic figures in American history, a fact which helps to explain his standing as its quintessential war president.
Born in rural Kentucky on February 12, 1809, Lincoln grew up in Indiana and reached manhood in Illinois, the state in which he made his career. Starting out as a small-time store clerk, he soon strove to become a public figure within his community and as part of that effort, served in the militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Lincoln saw no combat and afterward made light of his military experience, but the record suggests that it meant more to him that he would later admit. He enlisted for three successive 30-day terms of service—in his own words, “went the whole campaign”—and was elected captain of a militia company. This achievement gave him lifelong satisfaction. Even after the war’s conclusion, Lincoln volunteered for yet a fourth term of service. Plainly something in military life appealed to him.
A member of the Whig Party who served several terms in the Illinois legislature, by the 1850s Lincoln was also a prosperous lawyer of wide reputation. He was married to Mary Todd Lincoln; they raised a family of four sons, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Elected to Congress in 1846, he served a single term from 1847 to 1849. His time in Washington coincided with the Mexican War, a conflict whose wisdom and justice he openly questioned.
Like most Whigs he was careful to vote in favor of the military appropriations required to sustain the armies in the field. Nevertheless he forcefully criticized their commander-in-chief, Democratic president James K. Polk, averring in one an address before Congress that that Polk must feel “the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, crying from the ground against him.” The conflict itself he considered a shameless attempt to distract public opinion, comparing it to “that rainbow that rises in showers of blood, that serpent’s eye that charms but to destroy.”
As the slavery controversy intensified in the 1850s, Lincoln joined the fledgling Republican Party, which was committed to excluding slavery from the western territories. In 1858 he ran for the U.S. Senate. He lost, but his debates with opponent Stephen A. Douglas gave him national stature and paved the way for a presidential run in 1860. Although he received less than 40 percent of the popular vote, he won a resounding victory in the electoral college and became president-elect. Viewing a Republican president as illegitimate and unacceptable, the state of South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and by the time Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, seven states in the Lower South had left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.
Lincoln supported peace talks with the seceded states but refused to permit discussion of terms that ran counter to his party’s opposition to slavery in the territories. He refused to evacuate the garrison of Fort Sumter, which controlled the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Unwilling to endure a "foreign" military installation at the door of one of its most important ports, the Confederate government ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12. Lincoln promptly summoned 75,000 troops to quell the rebellion, a move which led four states in the Upper South to join the Confederacy as well.
Although many considered him a political lightweight with neither the experience nor judgment to deal with this civil war, Lincoln unhesitatingly—-and extralegally—-raised additional troops (Congress retroactively endorsed his action), and suspended habeas corpus in the border state of Maryland (the Supreme Court eventually condemned this measure, but only after the war). He overruled his general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, and insisted on an immediate offensive to end the rebellion quickly.
As Scott feared, the premature offensive resulted in defeat. Lincoln simply replaced Scott a few months later and quietly insisted that Scott’s successor, George B. McClellan, undertake another offensive as quickly as possible. In June 1862 McClellan came close to capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. When a sudden Confederate counterattack forced him to withdraw, McClellan, not wholly without reason, excoriated Lincoln for failing to support him properly. McClellan also divined, correctly, that Lincoln was edging toward making the destruction of slavery a Union war aim. He warned Lincoln, again correctly, that this would only stiffen Confederate resistance. Lincoln did it anyway.
Lincoln also pressed for the first conscription act in U.S. history, for the enlistment of African American troops on a massive scale, and for unprecedented fiscal and taxation measures to prosecute the war. Two years before Sherman marched to the sea, he issued a presidential directive urging Union forces to seize or destroy civilian property whenever it aided the military effort. He unhesitatingly interfered with field operations—including those of his last and greatest general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant.
All the while claiming that circumstances controlled him, not the reverse, and always maintaining the air of a gentle, long-suffering man, he was in fact one of the most remorseless chief executives in American history. Political opponents saw him as a tyrant who trampled on the Constitution. They exaggerated, but most historians agree that he firmly, fiercely expanded the meaning of that Constitution. He assuredly squeezed every drop of power from his Constitutional prerogatives as commander-in-chief.
Lincoln often defied the Radical Republicans within his own party, although this defiance usually took the form of moving a bit more slowly than they wished toward adoption of the policy measures they favored. But in 1864 he rejected their program for Reconstruction, fended off several attempts to dump him in favor of an alternative Republican presidential candidate, survived a frightening period in which the Union war effort seemed stalled, and handily won reelection against a formidable challenge from his former subordinate, George McClellan, the Democratic nominee. He cannily blocked a number of efforts to negotiate an end to the war, without really seeming to block them; heard news in April 1865 that Richmond had at last fallen; visited the city and toured the residence of his counterpart, Jefferson Davis; and returned to Washington--only to be assassinated on April 14, Good Friday. He died the following morning.
Lincoln was the only U.S. chief executive whose administration took place entirely during wartime—and also the only one to come under enemy fire. His Gettysburg Address is by far the greatest American oration commemorating the nation’s military dead. He was the first president to fully exploit the vast war powers of his office, and wartime presidents have looked to him ever since as a model and inspiration. Harry S Truman, for example, explicitly likened his travails with Douglas MacArthur to Lincoln’s strained relationship with McClellan. Lincoln’s eventual removal of McClellan became Truman’s model of how to resolve those travails.
The inscription on the Lincoln Memorial reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The national myth maintains that Lincoln was the only man who could have saved the Union. In this instance, the national myth is not far wrong.
Donald, David. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Paludan, Philip S. The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Neely, Jr., Mark E. The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.
Boritt, Gabor S., ed. Lincoln, the War President. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Randall, J. G. Lincoln the President. 4 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946-55.
Civil War, 1861-65; Davis, Jefferson; Grant, Ulysses S.; Lee, Robert E.; MacArthur, Douglas; Mexican War, 1846-48; Polk, James K; Reconstruction, 1862-77); Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Scott, Winfield, Sherman, William T.; Truman, Harry S
Notwithstanding the finished appearance, this is still a rough draft. After writing it I checked the word count and was surprised to find I was still well within the 1,500-word count. I'll have to decide whether I want to use the 175 words yet available to me to flesh out the existing issues a bit, or to add something new. I'll also have to decide if I want to stick with such an uncompromising portrayal of Lincoln as the American equivalent of Otto von Bismarck.
I'm far from the first historian to see him in these terms. In fact I'd say that most of his modern biographers portray him this way, though some do it more extensively than others. The average American may still imagine Old Abe as Carl Sandburg portrayed him in Lincoln: The Prairie Years (2 vols.; 1926) and Lincoln: The War Years (4 vols., 1939). I doubt if any present-day historian does--though a surprising number not only embrace him as a personal hero but actively bridle at any significant criticism of the man.
For me the work that best captures him is not a biography but a novel: Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1984). Having read some of Vidal's earlier works, I was slightly horrified when I learned he was writing a novel about the sixteenth president. Vidal's style is sleek and catty, his world view sly and cynical. But when I read the book I was amazed. Vidal is still sleek, catty, sly and cynical in his portrayal of nearly everyone around Lincoln, but he is utterly respectful of Lincoln himself.
Vidal never tries to get inside Lincoln's head. Instead the novel is told from the perspective of a number of people who were close to Lincoln; e.g., Secretary of State William Seward and personal secretary John Hay. They start by doubting Lincoln--he seems out of his depth, too plain, too soft, too unsophisticated--but by the middle of the novel have come to see that Lincoln is the most devious, most determined, and, in a sense, most dangerous man in America.
Here is the novel's final scene. It takes place in Paris on New Year's Day, 1867, nearly two years after Lincoln's assassination. John Hay is attending a reception given by Napoleon III and empress Eugenie for the diplomatic corps. He encounters an American expatriate writer, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler (one of the few purely fictional characters in the book). They have a conversation about the dead president.
"Where," asked Mr. Schuyler, "would you place Mr. Lincoln amongst the presidents of our country?"
"Oh, I would place him first."
"Above Washington?" Mr. Schuyler looked startled.
"Yes," said Hay, who had thought a good deal about the Tycoon's place in history. "Mr. Lincoln had a far greater and more difficult task than Washington's. You see, the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said, no. Lincoln said, this Union can never be broken. Now that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image."
"You astonish me," said Mr. Schuyler.
"Mr. Lincoln astonished us all."
"I rather think," said Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler to his daughter," that we should take a look at this new country, which plainly bears no resemblance to the one I left, in the quiet days of Martin Van Buren."
"Well, come soon," said Hay. "Because no one knows what may happen next?"
"I have been writing, lately, about the German first minister." Mr. Schuyler was thoughtful. "In fact, I met him at Biarritz last summer when he came to see the emperor. Curiously enough, he has now done the same thing to Germany that you tell us Mr. Lincoln did to our country. Bismarck has made a single, centralized nation out of all the other German states."
Hay nodded; he, too, had noted the resemblance. "Bismarck would also give the vote to people who have never had it before."
"I think," said Mr. Schuyler to the princess, "we have here a subject--Lincoln and Bismarck, and new centuries for old."
"It will be interesting to see how Herr Bismarck ends his career," said Hay, who was now more than ever convinced that Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.