Without question, Abraham Lincoln is one of the most celebrated figures in American history. Like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before him, Lincoln is almost universally revered today as a man of rare ability and character who shaped the United States in his image, to the lasting benefit of all Americans who followed in his wake.
Because of Lincoln's firm place in the echelon of national heroes, he is often portrayed in a sanctified light, as though he worked according to a grand design in which he was incapable of doing wrong. History, in providing a narrative to events past, makes the world seem as though they it could not have happened otherwise. But the living, breathing reality of a life is always far more contingent, and often downright arbitrary.
Lincoln was well aware of his shortcomings as a leader, perched as he was upon the precarious position that his fortune—and indeed the nation's fortunes—rested. In discussing his role as commander-in-chief during the closing months of the Civil War, Lincoln was quite able to "plainly confess that events have controlled me more than I have controlled them."
Over time, in the droves and droves of words that have been written about him, Lincoln the legend has grown into a giant of unparalleled proportions. Lincoln the man, meanwhile, stood six feet, four inches—a large man in any case, but more to human scale than is generally assumed.
A voracious reader, Lincoln himself recognized the power of the written word, and was highly wary of its tendency to distort. In an 1856 letter to his law partner, William H. Herndon, he remarked that "biographies as generally written are not only misleading, but false...in most instances they commemorate a lie, and cheat posterity out of the truth."
With many a Lincoln lie well into its second century of existence, some of the falsehoods that have been propagated about him may be ingrained beyond repair. Still, one would like to believe that even in the age of information, a carefully considered, critical biography is still possible. This author hopes that the following can in some small way begin to restore the true Lincoln to posterity, by giving him a fair and honest treatment, holding him liable where culpable, and finding him laudable where such praise is deserved.
When Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, the United States of America had just begun to emerge as a cohesive nation. The federal government as it is known today had been organized just over twenty years before. The country maintained the shape of its original thirteen colonies, with a sizable portion of territory yet to be settled. Lincoln's youth would coincide with rapid frontier movements and an overriding spirit of pioneer expansionism.
Such a young country was bound to experience growing pains. Having clearly established its independence, but still very much subjected to the influence of its parent country, the United States did much to solidify its autonomy with a victory over Britain in the War of 1812. On the strength of this success, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 asserted the American right to self- determination within its own hemisphere.
Domestically, the balance of power between federal and state governments continued to play a leading role in the national debate. After independence, the several states had been organized according to the Articles of Confederation. By this short-lived document, each individual state maintained considerable powers over its own internal affairs, and as such the centralized governmental apparatus was necessarily weaker. When this arrangement quickly proved impracticable and unsatisfactory, a stronger central infrastructure was established under the present Constitution, ratified by a majority of states in 1788.
The first political parties in the United States were established according to their support or opposition of a powerful federal system. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these two rival factions clashed over the balance of power between the federal and state branches. This conflict came to a head in 1833, when South Carolina threatened to secede after a series of high tariffs were passed by the federal government. Under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariff policy as inapplicable in its domain. President Andrew Jackson responded by signing the Force Act, authorizing federal military intervention in the face of a potential insurgency. South Carolina eventually backed down, but not before revealing the precarious balance between the federal government and several states.
In addition to federal and state tensions, regional divisions began to intensify during the early nineteenth century. As the northern states began to industrialize, the southern states became increasingly more dependent on agriculture, which in turn made slavery more integral to the prosperity of the south. As the nation began to expand westward, with several northern states having abolished slavery, the question of slavery policy in new territories became fraught with controversy.
As the representative of western interests, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky engineered two compromises to diffuse the tensions between the old north and south. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 created a line of demarcation between free and slave territory. This solved the problem for a generation, but with further westward expansion the question was opened to debate again. Clay's vague Compromise of 1850 provided for California to enter the Union as a free state in exchange for a stricter fugitive slave law.
Then, all compromise was thrown open to anarchy after Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854. This legislation, which essentially nullified Clay's earlier compromises, allowed for popular sovereignty. With the question of slavery in the territories thrown open to local sentiment, abolitionists and slavers rushed to populate various districts in the interest of advancing their cause. Internecine warfare ensued in Kansas, sparking a fierce national debate over slavery and sovereignty.
After the Supreme Court released its controversial Dred Scott decision in 1857, slaves were legally defined not as citizens but as property: property that no full-fledged citizen could be deprived of in any part of the United States without due process of the law. This decision not only opened the territories permanently to slavery, but also declared the abolition of slavery in free states to be unconstitutional.
Into this heated atmosphere, Abraham Lincoln, a former state legislator and congressman from Illinois, was elected as president in 1860 on the Republican ticket. The Republicans were a nascent party composed largely of abolitionists who took advantage of the regional discord that divided the more established Democratic party. With the weakest mandate ever enjoyed by an American president, Abraham Lincoln was faced with the daunting challenge to resolve the dual question of secession and slavery.
When South Carolina left the Union six weeks after Lincoln's election, and fired on federal forces at Fort Sumter four months later, the Civil War that had been so long in coming had finally arrived. Before the end of Lincoln's presidency, secession would be quelled and the institution of slavery crippled. But in the bargain, Lincoln would be deprived of his life, and the United States would be forever altered, strengthened just as it was devastated by the bloodiest war the nation has ever known.