Abraham Lincoln Essay, Research Paper
When people are asked to identify which president they feel had the greatest impact on our history, Lincoln’s name consistently comes up. But why? Lincoln had little formal education and did not serve in public office but for brief periods prior to becoming president. In short, based on his background, Lincoln would not seem to be someone likely to succeed as President. Yet his innate wisdom and humanity made him one of the greatest of the nation’s Chief Executives. He was an exceptional administrator, and an admirable commander in chief who did a masterful job of articulating the moral goals of the war for he strongly believed in the preservation of one nation indivisible. (The Civil War, pgs. 14-16)
Lincoln’s primary concern was for the preservation of the union.
Abraham Lincoln, “Honest Abe” came to Washington as a newly elected President early in 1861. In an attempt to allay southern fears that his accession to office signaled a Republican determination to abolish slavery, he quoted from a previous speech he had made: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He then warned that he did not recognize the secession from the union of the southern states: “…no State, upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the union…resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void…acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary….I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself….In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority….In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war….We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection….” (The American Presidents, pg. 137-138)
In his famous “House Divided” speech, which launched his campaign for the Senate in 1858, Abraham Lincoln declared that “…a house divided against itself cannot stand….I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” (Images of the Civil War, pg 18) In his inaugural address Abraham Lincoln also spoke of peace and appealed to the American nationalism of Southerners. Lincoln’s insistence on maintaining the Union was as firm as Davis’s insistence on separation. “The central idea pervading this struggle,” said Lincoln in 1861, “is the necessity is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.” (Images of the Civil War, pg 25) Lincoln regarded the fate of the world democracy as the central issue of the Civil War.
Lincoln, a self-educated man, displayed the courage and strength to take charge
Lincoln came to power at a unique time, with a unique opportunity to decide the fate of the nation–and take charge he did. He took the oath of office swearing to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”. Unfortunately at that time, the Southern states were seceeding from the Union. Lincoln understood, if he allowed the Southern states to seceed, there would be no Constitution to uphold.
Outgoing President Buchanan thought not only secession was illegal, but also the use of force to prevent it. Lincoln was an exceptional administrator because he had the foresight to not only access the situation of the war but also to take the actions he felt necessary to help bring things under control. The Civil War was bursting forth, so Lincoln took the steps he felt necessary without waiting for Congress to be called to session. Lincoln suspended the privilege of Habeas Corpus (a court order directing that anyone arrested be brought before the court to justify their being held for trial); proclaimed a blockade of key Southern ports; increased the size of the United States Army; and ordered the United States Treasury to advance $2 million to three private agents for military purposes. Lincoln believed all these actions to be within the war powers granted the President by the Constitution. He finally called Congress into extraordinary session after the war had begun. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had attacked Lincoln bitterly for suspending habeas corpus. These were grave irregularities that went against the Constitution. Lincoln delivered a message to Congress in which he posed this difficult question: “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?” (President Saints and Sinners, pg. 87) His actions were later upheld by the Supreme Court.
Aside from his innate wisdom, it was Lincoln’s leadership style which made him such an exceptional administrator and admirable commander. His leadership style was one of encouragement and empowerment for his subordinates. As Commander in Chief, Lincoln felt that the ultimate responsibility of what did not go right, was his alone to bear. To the extent possible, Lincoln preferred to be involved in the war effort by offering suggestions and recommendations to his generals in developing strategies to bring the war to an end. Below are some examples:
To McClellan (10-13-63): “…This letter is in no sense an order.”
To Halleck (9-19-63): “I hope you will consider it…”
To Burnside (9-27-63): “It was suggested to you, not ordered…” (Lincoln On Leadership, pg.43)
To Ulysses Grant after Grants’ success at Vicksburg: “I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done for the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg…I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I that the expedition could succeed….I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.” (Lincoln On Leadership, pg.104)
Lincoln devised an ingenious plan to put the burden of the decision for war or peace on Jefferson Davis’s shoulders. In April 1861, the garrison at Fort Sumter was about to run out of provisions. Giving advance notice of his intentions, Lincoln sent a fleet toward Charleston with supplies and reinforcements. If the Confederates allowed the unarmed boats to bring in food for the hungry men, the warships would stand off and the reinforcements would return North. But if they fired on the fleet, the ships and the fort would fire back. In other words, if the Confederate guns fired first, the South would stand convicted of starting a war. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, the Confederate artillery started the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter. The Civil War was by far the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Six hundred and twenty thousand soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War. “If the same proportion of Americans to the total population were to be killed in a war fought today, the number of American war dead would be five million.” (Images of the Civil War, Introduction)
Abraham Lincoln displayed leadership through his decisions and embraced the people through his eloquent speeches–which remain some of the most moving and memorable words in American History
Hundreds of thousands of volunteers answered Lincoln’s call to arms. Northerners were optimistic and hoped for an early end to the struggle. The Battle of Bull Run in July extinguished that optimism. Since the begining of the war, slaves living near Union lines had been escaping to Northern army camps. The slaves were declared to be “contraband of war”. The Union army put many of them to work for wages. As an individual, Lincoln thought slavery to be socially, politically, and morally evil. However, as president, he was concerned about holding together a fragile coalition in support of the war effort. Lincoln considered it absolutely necessary to keep the three border slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri from seceding. Premature action against slavery could drive them into the arms of the Confederacy. Such a move could also drive the Northern Democratic party into opposition to the war. On July 22,1862, the cabinet had endorsed the idea of an emancipation proclamation. But Lincoln accepted Secretary of State William H. Seward’s advice to delay issuing it until the Union army won a significant victory that could give it credibility and force. It wasn’t until New Year’s Day of 1863 the famous Emanicipation Proclamation was signed. What this meant was the North now fought for freedom as well as union. If the North won the war, slavery would die.
The Lincoln administration committed itself to the enlistment of freed slaves in the Union army. Like emancipation, this policy encountered initial skepticism and opposition. Lincoln set the tone for this party’s commitment to freedom and black soldiers. President Lincoln was invited to deliver a few appropriate remarks at the dedication of the new National cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln believed his brief comments at Gettysburg had been a failure. History has proved them the most powerful and persuasive words he ever spoke–The Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln was re-elected with a huge majority, unlike his first election. In his second inaugural address Lincoln again spoke with unforgettable eloquence, this time on the theme of reconciliation: “…With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.” (The American Presidents, pg.140)
Final victory came when Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Eight years after Appomattox, Mark Twain assessed the impact of the Civil War: It had “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” (Images of the Civil War, pg. 172) With Lincoln’s stong, moralistic leadership, the North went to war to preserve the Union; it ended by preserving and strengthening a nation.