Commander in Chief & Great Emancipator

In June 1856, the Republican Party held its first nominating convention, selecting the noted explorer John C. Frémont as its standard-bearer (Frémont would lose the election to Democrat James Buchanan).  Abraham Lincoln came in second in the balloting for the vice-presidential nomination. Read more...

Lincoln’s political stature had grown enormously by the time the Republicans met four years later in Chicago, due to his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas and his many well-received speeches, most notably the Cooper Union address, on behalf of the Republican cause. Yet it was New York senator and former governor William H. Seward, not Lincoln, who was considered the favorite to win the party’s nomination in 1860.  With Seward’s views on slavery perceived as too radical for many Northern voters, however, Lincoln’s convention managers employed a deft strategy of positioning their candidate as a safe second choice for the New Yorker’s opponents.  Moreover, having secured Chicago as the host city, Lincoln’s managers were able to place key state delegations in strategic locations that were advantageous to Lincoln and pack the hall with local supporters.  Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot.

Lincoln entered the 1860 presidential campaign in a strong position against a divided Democratic Party.  In one of his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln had forced his rival to take a controversial stand on the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which ruled that slavery in the territories was a property right guaranteed by the Constitution and thus beyond congressional jurisdiction.  Douglas, defending his theory of “popular sovereignty” in the territories as outlined in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, conceded that residents of the territories had the option to regulate against slavery.  Douglas’s response alienated Southern Democrats as well as the nation’s leading Democrat, President James Buchanan, who avidly supported the Dred Scott decision.  Divided along sectional lines, the Democratic Party fielded two candidates—Douglas, representing the Northern faction, and Vice President John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, representing the Southern wing.  A fourth candidate, John Bell, of Tennessee, was nominated by the new Constitutional Union Party, a fusion of conservative Whigs and Know-Nothings who abhorred sectional policies espoused by the two major parties.

The election, held on 6 November 1860, drew almost five million voters to the polls (over 80 percent of eligible voters) and exposed the country’s deep sectional differences.  Lincoln won the election with no Southern support; he carried every free state except New Jersey, which he split with Douglas, and secured 180 (more than the 152 required to be elected) out of 303 electoral votes. Lincoln won 54 percent of the popular vote in the North but only 39 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Many Southern leaders, especially from the Deep South, refused to accept Lincoln’s election and threatened secession from the Union.  Although there were several attempts by conservative Northern and moderate Southern politicians to reach a compromise, Lincoln rejected any proposals that would allow the extension of slavery beyond states where it already existed.  During the four months between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration seven Southern states seceded from the Union, with South Carolina leading the way, and elected Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, as president. Eventually, eleven Southern states would secede and join the Confederate States of America.  

On 11 February 1861 President-elect Lincoln departed from Springfield to begin his inaugural journey to Washington, D. C.  With Southern states seceding and President Buchanan refusing to act, Lincoln traveled to the nation’s capital facing a crisis that no president-elect before or since has ever had to address.  During his journey through numerous cities and towns in seven states, Lincoln, in an attempt to reassure anxious Southerners and limit secession, avoided partisan rhetoric and provided few details on how he would deal with the unfolding crisis.  Reports of a possible assassination attempt in Baltimore forced Lincoln’s train to arrive in Washington under a shroud of secrecy in the early morning hours of 23 February 1861.

Amid the upheaval and uncertainty caused by secession, Lincoln chose his cabinet and put the finishing touches on his inaugural address.  His cabinet choices included several of his fellow contenders for the Republican presidential nomination: William H. Seward (Secretary of State), Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio (Treasury Secretary), Edward Bates, of Missouri (Attorney General), and Simon Cameron, of Pennsylvania (Secretary of War).  Lincoln’s inaugural address, delivered on 4 March 1861, was conciliatory in tone, assuring Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it existed.  He also affirmed that the government would enforce the fugitive slave law.  On the other hand, Lincoln refused to recognize secession, arguing that it was lawfully impossible under the Constitution. He declared his intention “to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government” within the states that had seceded. Lincoln’s address failed to stop the secession movement in the South.

Lincoln’s first two years in office were marked by military defeats, political controversy, and personal tragedy.  On 13 April 1861, a little more than a month after Lincoln’s inauguration, the Civil War began when South Carolina troops bombarded and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In response to the Fort Sumter attack, President Lincoln asked the states for 75,000 militia troops to support federal armies, blockaded Southern ports, and called a special session of Congress on 4 July.  On 27 April the president suspended habeas corpus along the lines of troop movement from Philadelphia to Washington, a measure that drew harsh criticism from Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and deeply troubled some of Lincoln’s own supporters.  The first major conflict of the war occurred in mid-July at Bull Run Creek, near Manassas in northern Virginia.  Expecting a decisive victory, Northerners were shocked when Union troops were soundly defeated.  The stunning outcome of Bull Run foreshadowed the long and bloody war that was to come.  Union victories in the Western theater under General Ulysses S. Grant were tempered by defeats and inaction in the East.  On 27 July 1861 Lincoln placed General George B. McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac.  Although McClellan was popular with his troops and proved to be an efficient administrator, his overly cautious approach to engaging the enemy frustrated Lincoln, sapped the morale of the Northern public, and produced military stalemate.  Lincoln had to contend not only with mounting casualties and defeats on the battlefield, but he had to deal with growing criticism of Mary Lincoln’s lavish spending on White House refurbishing and with the death of his second son Willie on 20 February 1862, probably due to typhoid fever.

Abraham Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, but unlike abolitionists who called for immediate emancipation of slaves he believed that the president and Congress were prevented by the Constitution from interfering with the institution in states where it already existed.  It was Lincoln’s view that if slavery could be contained and not allowed to expand into the territories, it would eventually die out.  When the Civil War began, Lincoln, in an effort to hold border states within the Union and to support Unionist sentiment on the South, maintained that restoration of the Union, not emancipation of slaves, was the sole aim of the conflict.  His approach to emancipation was gradual, and was linked with compensation to slaveholders and colonization of freed slaves outside the borders of the United States. His moderate approach to emancipation disappointed abolitionists and those in the Republican Party who agreed with them. But by the second year of the war Lincoln’s views on slavery and racial equality were rapidly changing. Profoundly affected by the mounting death toll, Lincoln began to view the conflict’s purpose as something higher than simply reuniting a divided country.  With rising casualties, McClellan’s Virginia offensive stalled, enthusiasm for the war waning, and the need for recruits ever constant, Lincoln decided to emancipate slaves using his war powers as commander in chief (seizing what the enemy considered “property”), thus alleviating his constitutional concerns, and abandoned colonization and compensation.  On 22 September 1862, several days following the bloody Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln announced that, effective 1 January 1863, slaves in Confederate-controlled areas would be free. The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln on 1 January, transformed the war from a conflict that was fought solely to restore the Union to one that would restore the founding principles of American republicanism and represent a new birth of freedom.  Lincoln was reported to have said when he signed the proclamation, “[I]f my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act.”  The Emancipation Proclamation authorized the enrollment of black soldiers in the Union Army, which resulted in 180,000 black troops playing a vital role in the North’s victory over the Confederacy.  Though it is unclear how many slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation (since the federal government had no control over the areas affected), the measure proved Lincoln right, for it is considered his greatest achievement as president and one hailed by generations of Americans.

In this section

Photograph Broughton’s Monthly Planet Reader and Astrological Journal. Vol. 1, no. 6, September 1860. Philadelphia: L. D. Broughton, 1860. Enoch Lewis. Extra schedule for special train, for the accommodation of the President-Elect, to be run from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, on Friday, February 22d, 1861. Photograph
Photograph Charleston Mercury Extra...The Union is Dissolved! Charleston: Charleston Mercury, 1860. Broadside.

The "Wigwam" Grand March, dedicated to the Republican presidential candidate, Hon. Abrm. Lincoln. Boston: Oliver Ditson and Co., 1860. Photograph
Photograph Alexander Gardner. Abraham Lincoln. New York: E. Anthony, 1861. Carte de visite.

Abraham Lincoln. [First inaugural address]. [Springfield, Illinois: Privately printed, January-February, 1861]. Photograph
Photograph A Dispatch from Little Mack. "Still waiting for more reinforcements!!!" [1862]. Pencil and wash on paper. Alexander Gardner. President Lincoln at Antietam Battlefield. 1862. Photograph.

Photograph Abraham Lincoln. A proclamation. Washington, D.C., 1862.

Abraham Lincoln. The proclamation of emancipation, by the President of the United States, to take effect January 1st, 1863. Photograph
Photograph Boston Music Hall. Grand Jubilee Concert…in honor of the day! The proclamation! The emancipation of the slave! Boston, [1862?].

Abraham Africanus I. His secret life, as revealed under mesmeric influence. Mysteries of the White House. New York: J. F. Feeks, 1864. Photograph
Photograph Adalbert Johann Volck. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Baltimore, [ca. 1864]. Etching on china paper. President Lincoln at home, reading the scriptures to his wife and son. New York: Currier and Ives, 1865. Photograph
Photograph Robert Todd Lincoln and the Smokers Club at Harvard. [1860-1864]. Photograph.