HistoryWired About the Program Help Comments Smithsonian Institution
back
Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President, 1861-1865

Abraham Lincoln was well known for his opposition to the expansion of slavery, and his election as president in 1860 triggered the secession of 11 southern states from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln viewed the Southern action as unconstitutional, and he was well aware that a civil war would be a very likely result of any attempt to reunite the country. When Confederate soldiers fired on Fort Sumner in April of 1861, war did break out, resulting in the four bloodiest years the United States has ever seen. In the second year of the raging war, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. Later that year, Lincoln gave his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, on the site of the most pitiless battle of the war.

In 1865, with Confederate resources dwindling and ever more soldiers deserting, the Union army was able to force a surrender at Appommatox court house in Virginia on April 9. Just five days later, Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC. The president died the following morning, throwing the nation into intense mourning. Lincoln had plans for bringing the country back together again, but without his leadership, the country was plunged into confusion that would take many years to resolve.

 


Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-77)

The Civil War (1861-1865) was perhaps the most momentous event in American history. The survival of the United States as one nation was at risk, and on the outcome of the war depended on the nation's ability to bring to reality the ideals of liberty, equality, human dignity, and justice.

Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 brought to a climax the long-festering debate about the relative powers of the federal and the state governments. By the time of his inauguration, six southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, soon to be followed by five more. The war that followed between North and South put constitutional government to its severest test. After four bloody years of war, the Union was preserved, four million African American slaves were freed, and an entire nation was released from the oppressive weight of slavery. The war can be viewed in several different ways: as the final, violent phase in a conflict of two regional subcultures; as the breakdown of a democratic political system; as the climax of several decades of social reform; or as a pivotal chapter in American racial history. However interpreted, the Civil War stands as a story of great heroism, sacrifice, triumph, and tragedy.

As important as the war itself was the tangled problem of how to reconstruct the defeated South. Encouraged by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, African Americans at last nourished hopes for full equality. Their hopes were to be dashed. By 1877, Southern white resistance and the withdrawal of federal supervision brought about the "redemption" of the South and African Americans were disenfranchised. The redemption measures enforced greater racial separation and increased white intimidation and violence.

 


Abolition

In 1619, a year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, African slaves were first brought to Virginia. Negro slavery was gradually institutionalized on a legal basis by the end of the 17th century; black skin color and slave status were virtually synonymous.

Moral opposition to slavery stirred slowly, beginning with New England diarist Samuel Sewall's tract, "The Selling of Joseph," in the 1730s. Later in the century Quakers openly encouraged abolition, and in Philadelphia they organized the first American antislavery society in 1775.

Despite language of freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution safeguarded slavery as a compromise with southern states to secure their entry into the union. Slavery had become the basis of the agrarian economy of the South. Thus, with the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of "cotton culture," slavery became more entrenched than ever. Of little economic reward in the North, slavery was gradually abolished there.

In the 1830s, a general reform movement gave great impetus to the crusade for abolition. Free blacks joined white abolitionists in writing, preaching, lecturing, organizing, and deluging Congress with petitions against slavery. Abolition overshadowed all other reform movements of the early 1800s. Whether the Negro should be slave or free became the central issue of American life, an issue that finally erupted into the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the Civil War in 1863, had been proclaimed as a military measure affecting only the slaves in those portions of the country then in rebellion. Because the Constitution had guaranteed the status of the institution of slavery, a constitutional amendment was needed to abolish it. On January 31, 1865, an amendment to accomplish that purpose was passed by the House of Representatives. It was ratified during the year by the required number of states and on December 18, 1865, was proclaimed in effect. The 13th Amendment forever abolished slavery everywhere in the United States.

From "We the People: The American People and Their Government" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975) 63.

 


Secession

Long-standing economic, social, and political issues divided North and South. The North's economy was merchant and manufacturing, based on free labor; the South's was agrarian, based on slavery. The cotton gin and the emergence of cotton culture made the South still more dependent on the low-cost labor of slaves; the South also needed low-cost manufactured imports to maintain profits. The North generally favored strong central government; the South championed the supremacy of states' rights.

These differences were checked by equal distribution of power in Congress between northern and southern states, but the admission of new states threatened to upset the free-slave state balance. In 1820, conflict was avoided by Clay's Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as slave and Maine as free. In 1832, South Carolina declared a national tariff "null and void" and threatened secession because it eliminated her access to cheap foreign manufactured goods and harmed her economy. The tariff was later reduced, but Congress authorized President Jackson to use the army to put down resistance if necessary.

Expansion of slavery continued to embitter both sections. The Compromise of 1850, admitting California as free, angered the South, and provision for a stringent fugitive slave law inflamed the North. Lincoln's election was seen as the ultimate threat to southern interests. During the five months between Lincoln's election and inauguration, southern states called a convention in Montgomery, AL; set up a separate government of the Confederate States of America; wrote their own constitution; and elected Jefferson Davis President. When Lincoln sought to resupply a federal garrison at Fort Sumter, SC, Confederate forces fired on the fort, beginning the Civil War.

From "We the People: The American People and Their Government" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975) 65.

 


"Abe Lincoln"

"Abe Lincoln" from the recording entitled Ballads of the Civil War 1831-1865, Folkways F 5004, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1954 Used by permission.

Partial Lyrics:
"…Old Jeff Davis tore down the government,
Tore down the government, tore down the government.
Old Jeff Davis tore down the government
Many long years ago.

But Old Able Lincoln built up a better one,
Built up a better one, built up a better one.
Old Abe Lincoln built up a better one,
Many Long years ago.

Many Long years ago.
(Many Long years ago)

Old Abe Lincoln built up a better one,
Many Long years ago."

 

Related Images

Abraham Lincoln's top hat
Enlarge
Abraham Lincoln's top hat
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Enlarge
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Enlarge
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)


Start HistoryWired | About the Program | Help | Comments

Smithsonian Institution | Terms of Use | Privacy