The Jack Miller Center has allowed the republication of its recent historical series, which examines Abraham Lincoln's wisdom in the midst of national calamity. Please read the letter below from Jack Miller that captures the essence of the series:
Thank you for coming along with us on this Lincoln Series. I’ve become very interested in Lincoln lately and how his wisdom can guide us today. One hundred fifty-eight years ago, Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address: “ Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That beginning is as relevant today as it was then. Lincoln said the Civil War tested whether our nation, “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” After the Civil War, the nation eventually came together again as one. But, today, we are experiencing a great division. As divided as we are now, can we as a nation long endure, particularly in a world as challenging as ours is today? Lincoln’s closing remarks should guide us toward our salvation: “ . . . this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Our founders gave us a great vision that all men are created equal and are therefore endowed with equal rights. Our progress toward achieving that vision has been ongoing, but too slow. The push for progress is necessary and legitimate. The process, however, should not be tied to an agenda that forgets who we are. We are a country whose very founding ideals aim to uphold freedom and opportunity for all people to pursue their dreams.
Lincoln was right. We must make sure that, “it shall not perish from the earth.”
With best wishes,
Acouple weeks ago, we examined the infamous legacy of Lincoln’s predecessor, President James Buchanan. Often remembered for his weak attempts to pacify the nation and avoid war, his inaction only strengthened slavery’s foothold and inflamed divisions further.
But what was Lincoln’s role? Did Lincoln push the nation to war, as some at the time suggested? Or was it an unavoidable consequence of persistent southern defiance and the deepening threat of the Union dissolving?
A House Sharply Divided
Decades of American disagreement erupted in the election of 1860. Four candidates squared off: Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge, John Bell, and Abraham Lincoln.
Each candidate had very different opinions on how to preserve the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a significant point of contention.
Spearheaded by Stephen Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act fueled national tensions by effectively nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30′ parallel (with the exception of Missouri). Under the principle of popular sovereignty, the Act allowed the introduction of slavery on the other side of the line and set a dangerous precedent for future territories.
Lincoln’s Polarizing Arguments
Lincoln’s objections to slavery scared slaveholders. During his first debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln rose to national attention largely for arguing that the popular sovereignty claim politicians were using really only meant protecting slavery for people who wanted it. People against slavery had no legal avenue to prohibit it.
Lincoln also made known his moral opposition to slavery.
In his September 1859 speech at Cincinnati, he proclaimed, “I think slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.”
In spite of his personal objections to slavery, his First Inaugural Address attempted to reassure slaveholding states that he did not wish to interfere. Lincoln’s primary concern was to preserve the Union and uphold his constitutional oath.
Secession and Civil War
The South already considered Lincoln to be an emboldened abolitionist. After he won the election, South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Six additional states followed suit before Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861.
Tensions finally erupted when the Confederacy attacked the federal base at Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina as the federal government attempted to resupply the base. Lincoln, identifying no remaining options toward reconciliation. made the difficult decision to declare war on the South.
We know now that the long and arduous path through the Civil War would ultimately lead the nation to its first major step in realizing our founding principles of freedom and equality. For Lincoln, however, the struggle was just beginning.
Fighting to Realize Our Founding Principles: The Emancipation Proclamation and the Start of Slavery’s End
We often associate the Civil War with the end of slavery – and for good reason.
But Lincoln’s primary goal in going to war was to save the Union, slavery or not. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the equation.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861. Though Lincoln morally opposed slavery, he avoided any public comments connecting the war and the rights of slaves. He was concerned more with acting constitutionally and a swift victory to prevent the Union from dissolving.
Once the war began, northern armies refused the service of black men, in spite of a rush to enlist. The South, on the other hand, took full advantage of slave labor in factories, military hospitals, and other Confederate war efforts.
An Executive Decision
The war raged on with heavy loss of life. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln considered an emancipation proclamation as a consequence of the actions of rebel states. He had other strategic advantages in mind as well:
- African-Americans (including former slaves) would be allowed to enlist and fight the Confederacy
- The war would gain moral weight, making the stakes more meaningful.
- Europe (in particular anti-slavery England and France) would be dissuaded from supporting the South in such a battle over slavery.
Lincoln first announced the proclamation in September 1862 as a warning to the South, should they not surrender and stop the expansion of slavery.
The South continued to rebel, and Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
The Critical Turning Point
While the proclamation freed some slaves, it did not free slaves in the South, and it did not apply to ALL slaves. Allied border states (crucially needed by the North to win the war) were not included as part of the order.
And yet, the Proclamation was a critical turning point for the meaning of the war. The North was no longer merely fighting to regain the South, but also for freedom itself. Frederick Douglass described the Proclamation as a “moral bombshell.”
A large number of southern slaves fled to the North when they heard of the proclamation, and many took up arms against their former masters. The South suffered as it lost its workforce and southerners scrambled to hide their slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation’s Legacy
While the bloody Civil War was far from over, the Emancipation Proclamation was the first step toward the 13th Amendment (ratified in December 1865), which finally freed all slaves.
I know very well that the name which is connected with this act will never be forgotten…It is my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war. It is, in fact, the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.
The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Legacy, and the Pursuit of Liberty and Equality
In the small battle-torn town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, Lincoln uttered 266 words that would be remembered as one of the greatest American speeches of all time. In a time of mourning for the many who died, his Gettysburg Address proclaimed our national purpose and served as a rallying cry to defend it – the carnage of the war should not be in vain.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – 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 – 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 urged his audience to fulfill the mission that Union soldiers had fought and died for: the realization of liberty and equality for all – ideals in our Declaration of Independence. The short, impactful address connected the current struggle over slavery with those ideals. He reinvigorated the principles behind the American founding – that our form of government is maintained by the people.
The War and Lincoln’s Reelection in Question
As the 1864 presidential election loomed and the war raged on, Lincoln did not expect to win reelection. Anti-Lincoln sentiments had grown, not just in the South, but in the North as well.
He was so pessimistic about his chances, in fact, that he asked his cabinet to sign a letter pledging themselves to save the Union, no matter who became president. He prepared for this possibility too, by writing to Frederick Douglass with plans to help as many slaves escape the South as possible before the November election.
Despite Lincoln’s fears and political enemies, the Union gave him a landslide win. In the months leading up to Election Day, Union troops had gained several military victories over the Confederacy. The war (and the confidence of the American people) were looking up.
Hope for a New Tomorrow
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he laid out his vision of how to mend the country, was delivered a mere month before the South’s surrender. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army at Appomattox Courthouse.
Less than a week later, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre, and died the following morning, April 15. The nation’s leader through the war would not live to see his vision of healing come to fruition. His closing remarks continue to provide guidance today:
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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Without Lincoln at the helm, the Reconstruction era proved especially difficult. The period was marked by hateful division, a shattered economy in the South, and the obstruction of legal rights to former slaves.
A Legacy of Liberty and Equality
We can only speculate about what Reconstruction would have looked like under Lincoln’s presidency, but his vision had a lasting impact on postwar America.
After signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln moved to make the abolishment of slavery permanent and wide-ranging. His 1864 election platform included the Thirteenth Amendment, and, before his death, he signed off on it and took an active role in its passage through Congress.
On June 19, 1865, known as Juneteenth, Union soldiers arrived to Galveston, Texas to liberate the last remaining slaves that had been ordered free by the Emancipation Proclamation, 2 1/2 years earlier. And the Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified December 6, 1865, eight months after Lincoln was assassinated, freeing all slaves in the U.S. and constitutionally banning slavery here forever.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln mused that, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” On this count, he was only half right.
Today, we revisit the Civil War soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice as well as Lincoln’s words that stress why they gave their lives. We remember that the soldiers’ work – the defense and preservation of liberty and equality – remains unfinished, and is up to us. Lincoln’s guidance towards and dedication to true liberty and equality still inspire us today.
The Jack Miller Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to reinvigorating education in America’s founding principles and history, an education vital to thoughtful and engaged citizenship.