Abraham Lincoln warned the South in his Inaugural Address, "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. . . . You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect and defend' it."
Lincoln thought secession illegal, and was willing to use force to defend federal law and the Union. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender, he called on the states for 75,000 volunteers. Four more slave states joined the Confederacy but four remained within the Union. The Civil War had begun.
The son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln had to struggle for a living and for learning. Five months before receiving his party's nomination for president, he sketched his life:
"I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families, second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks. . . . My father . . . removed from Kentucky to . . . Indiana, in my eighth year. . . . It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. . . . Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher . . . but that was all."
Lincoln made extraordinary efforts to attain knowledge while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois. He was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest." He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of whom lived to maturity.
In 1858, Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas, he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for president in 1860.
As president, Lincoln built the Republican Party into a strong national organization and rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.
Lincoln would not let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, 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."
Lincoln won reelection in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the president was flexible and generous, encouraging southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion.
The spirit that guided him was clear in his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: "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. . . ."
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping his beloved South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln's death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.
You Might Also Like
Collection All Hallows' Eve Haunts & Traditions
Today, the celebration of Halloween conjures images of costumed trick-or-treaters, sweets, and jack-o'-lanterns; but there was a time when All...
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Collection The 2016 White House Christmas Ornament
Every year since 1981, the White House Historical Association has had the privilege of designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament....
Collection Presidents & Baseball
No sport is more closely tied to the American presidency than baseball. One of Washington’s first baseball fields was lo...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Presidential Retreats
Presidents have found different ways to escape the pressures and politics of the position. For early leaders, it was a...
Collection Giving Thanks at the White House
Thanksgiving is a relatively quiet and personal holiday at the White House, as it precedes a very busy season of...
Collection White House Easter Egg Roll
Since 1878, American presidents and their families have celebrated Easter Monday by hosting an "egg roll" party. Held on the South...
Collection The President's Neighborhood
Since the White House was first occupied by President John Adams in 1800, influential people and organizations—or those who hoped to...
Collection The Working White House
For more than two centuries, the White House has been the home of American presidents. A powerful symbol of the...
Collection Presidential Inaugurations
In April 1789, George Washington took the oath of office in New York City. Constitutional guidelines for inaugurations are sparse, offering...