On March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address focusing on supporting the North without further alienating the South, where he was almost universally hated or feared. “The presidential oath commits him who takes it to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. On taking the oath Lincoln explained what he understood by it. ‘The power confided in me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts’; for his pledge to protect the government was registered in heaven. In this way a line was drawn, a warning issued.” (Brognan 1999: pg 313) Lincoln made a promise that he would stand by the people, fight for their needs and protect their country under all circumstances.
President Lincoln led the United States during the Civil War between the northern and southern states. This was the most serious crisis in America at the time. “When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seven slave states left the Union to form the Confederate States of America, and four more joined when hostilities began between the North and South. A bloody civil war then engulfed the nation as Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union, enforce the laws of the United States, and end the secession. The war lasted for more than four years. Midway through the war, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves within the Confederacy and changed the war from a battle to preserve the Union into a battle for freedom.” (website: The American President)
President Lincoln helped end slavery in the nation, and he helped keep the American Union from splitting apart during the war. He insisted that slavery was primarily a moral issue and offered as his solution a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, which tolerated slavery where it existed but looked to its ultimate end by preventing its spread. “In 1863 Lincoln declared that all slaves residing in Confederate States or areas still under active rebellion would be ‘thenceforward and forever free.’” (Tindall/Shi 2000: pg 569) This Emancipation Proclamation actually freed few people. It did not apply to slaves in border states fighting on the Union side; nor did it affect slaves in southern areas already under Union control. But the proclamation did show Americans, and the world, that the civil war was now being fought to end slavery. Lincoln was reluctant to take this position, as a believer in white supremacy, he initially viewed the war in terms of preserving the Union. As pressure for abolition mounted in Congress and the country, Lincoln became more sympathetic to the idea. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in America, it did make that accomplishment a basic war goal and a virtual certainty.
He was the first Republican president, and the Union ended the claim that state sovereignty superseded federal authority forever. “In pursuing victory, Lincoln assumed extra-legal powers over the press, virtually ignored the Supreme Court, declared martial law in areas where no military action justified it, quelled draft riots with armed soldiers, and drafted soldiers to fight for the Union cause. No president in history had ever exerted so much executive authority, but he did so not for personal power but in order to preserve the Union.” (website: The American President) President Lincoln believed that he proved to the world that democracy could be a lasting form of government. Lincoln was perhaps the most esteemed and criticized of the American presidents. “Of all the American presidents, Lincoln is probably the one about whom the most has been written. Many critical evaluations of his life have been published, but they have not diminished his stature, and he remains one of the foremost products of American democracy and an eloquent spokesman for its ideals.” (website: Lifestyle) Although his reputation has fluctuated with changing times, he was clearly a great man and a great president. He firmly and fairly guided the nation through its most perilous period and made a lasting impact in shaping the office of chief executive.
Lincoln was a president for all, regardless of their position. His domestic policies included support for the Homestead Act of 1862. This act allowed poor people in the East to obtain land in the West. The Homestead Act declared that any citizen or future citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. It was agreed that any citizen claiming the land must improve the area with a house and plot. After five years, if the original owner was still on the land, it was his property, free and clear. “A homesteader had to be the head of a household and at least 21 years of age to claim the land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of "proving up" and keeping this "free land". A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers.” (website: Homestead National Monument of America)
In 1863, President Lincoln gave what became his most famous speech. Union armies of the north had won two great victories that year. They defeated the Confederate armies of the south at Vicksburg, Mississippi and at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Ceremonies were held to honor the dead soldiers at a burial place on the Gettysburg battlefield. “In 1863 Lincoln not only proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the South he gave his famous Gettysburg Address recalling the principles of equality established by America's founding fathers. A superb politician, he persuaded the people with reasoned word and thoughtful deed to look to him for leadership.” (website: Lifestyle) President Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg for only about two minutes. But his speech has never been forgotten. His speech defined Americans as a people who believed in freedom, democracy and equality. Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, is everlasting in the memory of his countrymen, for on the battleground at Gettysburg Lincoln promised that the government would always stand by its people, this is just a fraction of what he said:
"That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion: that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; and that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth." (website: Gettysburg address)
John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer, assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14 1865. In the eyes of the people Abraham Lincoln was a person that represented the chance of peace and possible equality. When he died any hope of this died with him. “Some such outcome may never have occurred even if Lincoln had lived; he never pretended to be a miracle worker; but his prestige, his wisdom, his political guile, would surely have shortened America’s racial agony and mitigated its intensity.” (Brogan 1999: pg 347)
Abraham Lincoln is remembered for his vital role as the leader that preserved the Union during the Civil War, and began the process that led to the end of slavery in the United States. “Accomplishments achieved by acting "with malice towards none" in the pursuit of a "more perfect and equal union.” (website: The American President) He is also remembered for his character, his speeches and letters, and as a man of humble origins whose determination and perseverance led him to the nation's highest office. “Lincoln was one of the truly great leaders in American history, he was a humane, far-sighted statesman. So much was the respect accorded to him and his career; he was elevated to the status of a legend and a folk hero after his death.” (website: Lifestyle) Abraham Lincoln wrote some of the most memorable words in American history, he may have died in 1865, yet his words live on. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” (website: brainyquote) Abraham Lincoln was not only one of the greatest of American Presidents, he was also a man with character.
H. Brognan The Penguin History of the USA (Penguin Books: London, 1999)
M.A Jones The Limits of Liberty American History 1607 – 1992 (Oxford University Press: New York, 1995)
Tindall/Shi America (W.W Norton & Company: New York, 2000)
The American President
Homestead National Monument of America