Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the 16th President of the United States from 1861 to 1865, leader of the young republic during its most trying period, the Civil War. Three months after Lincoln’s election in 1860, southern states declared their secession from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America in response to the President’s stance on slavery, the lucrative base of their economy. The war that followed resulted in the freedom of four million slaves and the death of over 600,000 combatants – more than all of the United States’ major wars combined – including Lincoln himself, assassinated five days after the Confederacy’s surrender. Alongside his political leadership, Lincoln fundamentally transformed America through his writing. His “Emancipation Proclamation” shifted the Civil War towards antislavery ends, his “Second Inaugural Address” brooded on God’s will amidst terrible violence, and his “Gettysburg Address” imagined the bloodshed as a “new birth of freedom,” nothing less than a second American Revolution.
Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky and raised on the frontiers of Indiana and Illinois. Though “Abe Lincoln the Rail Splitter” acquired a reputation for western hardiness and advertised these humble origins in political campaigns, he much preferred reading and writing to the harsh demands of frontier life. Like many antebellum Americans, he was steeped from a young age in the King James Bible, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the poetry of Robert Burns, but he also loved Robinson Crusoe, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and many works of science and theology.
As a young adult in Illinois during the 1830s, Lincoln served as a Captain in the Black Hawk War, a state representative, and a successful lawyer in Springfield. A loyal member of the Whig party and an admirer of Senator Henry Clay, Lincoln served briefly in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847-1849. Lincoln reentered politics as national tensions around slavery reached an all-time high with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, spearheaded by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. When Douglas faced reelection in 1858, Lincoln won the nomination of the newly born Republican Party, declaring in his acceptance speech that “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free … It will become all one thing, or all the other.” This campaign culminated in seven “Lincoln-Douglas debates,” where Lincoln’s skilled denunciation of an expansionist “Slave Power” captured national attention. Though Lincoln lost the election, he faced Douglas again in 1860 when Republicans and northern Democrats, respectively, nominated them as their party’s presidential candidates. Increasingly sectionalized by slavery, Southerners also nominated two candidates, John C. Breckenridge and John Bell, leading to a four-way election. On November 1860, Lincoln was elected President of a deeply divided nation, soon split by a war between the Union and the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s finest writings grew out of the trials of war, unified by their effort to discern God’s mysterious will within history’s bloody unfolding. In his Inaugural Address, Lincoln proclaimed his faith that the American people, blessed by a God “who has never yet forsaken this favored land,” would overcome this trial. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone,” he concluded, “will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Here as elsewhere Lincoln proclaimed his faith in the Union with striking assonance, rhythm, and turns of phrase.
As the war stretched on, though, Lincoln became less confident. In a “Meditation on the Divine Will” from 1862, he reflected that “the will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.” This fragment reveals another side of Lincoln’s style – plainspoken clauses unfolded like a logician’s premise yet none adding up into a sound whole. In public, Lincoln assuaged this confusion by interpreting the war as divine punishment. Though unorthodox in religion, he drew from New England’s Puritan tradition by issuing several proclamations of national days of fasting, thanksgiving, and prayer, “to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements…to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation.”
Lincoln especially struggled to discern what role slavery and abolition played in this historic conflict. Though personally opposed to slavery, Lincoln initially viewed abolitionists as a threat to national unity and remained skeptical of their demands. “Negro equality! Fudge!!,” he wrote as late as 1859, rejecting the demand as a “piece of demagougeism.” In an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln clarified that “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.” But Lincoln grew increasingly influenced by abolitionists, especially convinced of the military necessity of freeing the slaves. He drafted an initial “Emancipation Proclamation” in July 1862 and released the final version on New Year’s 1863, proclaiming that “all persons held as slaves” in rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Abolitionists were ecstatic; in their eyes, the President had transformed a political war for national unity into a moral war for human freedom. Lincoln later admitted this abolitionist influence. “I have only been an instrument,” he noted, “the logic and moral power of [William Lloyd] Garrison, and the anti-slavery people of the country and the army have done it all.”
Yet with an uncanny ability to step back from human conflict and see its complex wholeness, Lincoln felt the staggering cost of Union victory and anticipated future trials for a wounded nation in his Second Inaugural Address, delivered after his reelection in 1865. Though Union victory seemed imminent, Lincoln chastened the triumphant mood: “the prayers of both [North and South] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” Gone was the optimism of the first Inaugural. “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” he concluded, “so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” Here Lincoln arrived at his clearest interpretation of the war: a sacrifice exacted by a righteous God for the sin of slavery. Lincoln urged the Union to “strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds” in a gracious spirit – “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” A month later, the Confederacy had surrendered and Lincoln was assassinated.
Before his death and the war’s end, Lincoln secured a more hopeful meaning for the conflict in the Gettysburg Address, America’s crowning work of political oratory. Four months after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg – the war’s turning-point and the bloodiest battle to date – famed orator Edward Everett dedicated the new national cemetery with a two-hour speech, florid and ornate. President Lincoln followed with a plain speech that lasted mere minutes, moving chronologically in three short sections from the nation’s founding ideals to the present crisis, ending on a vision for the future. His lack of words was purposeful. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” he said – “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” This unfinished work was not merely to ensure that the Union would emerge victorious, but “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” America’s second revolution was achieved in good part through Lincoln’s singular words. The world has long remembered them.
Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, W.W. Norton & Co, 2011.
Kaplan, Fred. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer. Harper Perennial, 2010
Lincoln, Abraham. Lincoln’s Selected Writings. ed. David S. Reynolds. W.W. Norton & Co., 2015.