Quick Bio – The 16th President, 1861-1865. He had previously served in the Illinois State House and one term as a U.S. Congressman from Illinois. Twice he ran against his political nemesis Stephen A. Douglas: first for the Senate (Lincoln lost), then for the Presidency (Lincoln won). Lincoln took the 1860 election with just 39.8% of the vote.
Like almost half of all U.S. Presidents, he began as a lawyer. Lincoln was the first President from the modern Republican Party, although his second term came under the National Union banner, a coalition party of Republicans and loyalist Democrats. Lincoln was the only President to deal with a sustained internal insurrection (The Civil War, also 1861-65), and he was the wartime President with the shortest official “peacetime” (just six weeks).
While not the first President to have his picture taken, Lincoln was enamored with photography and often sat for photos, leaving us with hundreds of images. These pictures help us make a connection to the very human figure of Abraham Lincoln. The pic with this post is President Lincoln with his son Tad. The Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, et al.) exist only in painted portraits, bronze statues, actor portrayals, or green engravings seen on money. The same measure of distance can be said of all the larger-than-life but so-long-ago figures: Joan of Arc, Richard III, Genghis Khan, Cleopatra, Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Imhotep - we’ve never seen any of them. Thanks to photography, we can see Lincoln. Lincoln is embraced more warmly because we know he was real. We’ve seen his face, his beard, his eyes.
Lincoln courted three women in his youth, marrying the third: Mary Todd of Kentucky. She came, ironically, from a slave-owning family. (Lincoln’s second Vice President, Andrew Johnson, had also owned slaves, but there was nothing ironic about that, as detailed below.) Abraham and Mary had four sons, only one of whom (Robert) lived past age 18. Robert Lincoln had children, and those kids had kids ... but the line ended in 1985, and there are no living descendants of Lincoln left.
A certain fringe conspiracy mill has tried to paint Abe as a closet homosexual, based on hints and implications. A similar fringe effort often implies that Lincoln was less religious than modern-day right-wingers portray him as being; and while Lincoln was skeptical toward God as a youth and never officially joined a church, his writings and speeches are clearly those of a religious man who believed what he was saying.
After all, his name *was* Abraham.
Accomplishments as President: Let’s start with the things Lincoln did that have nothing to do with the Civil War, shall we?
- Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862, a passion project of then-Senator (and future Vice President) Andrew Johnson. (Like I said, more on him later.) This bill created a way for any citizen to claim, run a farm on, and later own a 160-acre lot of federal land west of the Mississippi. The cost to the claimant was nothing. That’s right, free land. This encouraged folks to not only move out west, but to stay there and create families and homes, strengthening the new states. A certain element took advantage of the measure, but by and large it was a great success and lasted well into the 1900s, with the last free parcel given out in Alaska in 1986.
- He signed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, helping create dozens of the “state” universities that we probably attended – Penn State, Ohio State, Rutgers, University of California, and so on. MIT, Cornell, Purdue, Auburn, and Virginia Tech are also on that list, as are many of the historically black colleges like Lincoln, Howard, Morehouse, and Southern. Land-grant schools were mandated to offer programs in agriculture (the primary focus in those days) and military science (since, of course, there was a war on).
- Lincoln signed two bills in 1862 and 1864 to help fund and acquire land for the first railway to the Pacific. It was completed in 1869 – that’s right, 150 years ago, with much more primitive equipment, men completed a 1,776-mile railway in about the same amount of time it’s taking those fat lazy motherfuckers to finish the 11-mile Route 202 bypass.
- He created a national banking system. Three of the four Presidents I’ve featured in this series created a national bank. At least five Presidents I didn’t feature made it their goal to destroy the extant national bank. Anytime we didn’t have one, the economy suffered and banking as a whole was on shaky ground. (Funny, that.)
Okay, the learned amongst you might be crying foul – all the above measures sprung from minds other than Lincoln’s, and all of them were already on the table when Lincoln got to the White House, and none of them had originally passed Congress because those damn slave-owning Southern Democrats blocked them all, and once they shoved off to create the confederacy, there was no opposition to their passing.
Fair enough. So, let’s look what those slave-owning Southern Democrats got up to which Lincoln actually needed to deal with:
- He won the Civil War. Really, that’s all you need to know about Lincoln. He did not lose the war, turning us into the Confederate States of America; the rebels didn’t get their own, separate, co-existing country; and the Union didn’t fall apart in our effort to stop it all. Nor did we win the war in spite of Lincoln’s incompetence, or because the South was inept, or because Sherman or Grant were field-geniuses who did all the work while Honest Abe took all the credit.
Nope, Lincoln won the war.
It started the day after the 1860 election results were announced with the first secession (South Carolina). Shots were first fired six weeks after Lincoln put his hand on the Bible and was sworn in. Four years of battles ensued. It was quite clear the war would end in the Union’s favor when Booth shot Lincoln, and it officially ended about a month after Lincoln was dead.
Lincoln was there from day one of the worst fighting ever on American soil – fighting which left 212,938 men dead on the battlefield, a further 412,000 or so men dead from disease, plus 50,000 men, women, and children dead as civilian collateral. And despite all that, Lincoln executed a winning strategy, and the USA is still here.
Lincoln replaced generals who weren’t getting shit done (in particular, George McClellan) and drafted strategy with the ones who did (like Ulysses S. Grant). He got loyalists from the South to join. He got Southerners, like Andrew Johnson, to act as military governors for reclaimed (or partially-reclaimed) states. Johnson was so popular with loyalists – being a Southern, former-slave-owning Democrat who was above all else a patriot - that, with Lincoln’s blessing, Johnson replaced Lincoln’s first VP, Hannibal Hamlin, on the reelection ticket, thereby ensuring a second electoral victory and allowing Lincoln to finish the job of winning the war.
Lincoln also suspended basic human rights in war-zone areas and allowed free black men to carry arms in service of their country, which would’ve been inconceivable (even to abolitionists) only five years earlier.
Ken Burns didn’t make up 10 hours of this shit when he made that PBS documentary. It really happened. Lincoln won, and we won – the United States of America is still here, and it includes all the states that seceded, and because they lost, we don’t have slavery anymore.
- Oh yeah, one more accomplishment, the single greatest thing a President of the United States has done: Lincoln ended slavery. According to the 1860 Census, there were 31,443,321 Americans; about eight of nine were citizens, and the remaining one of nine was property. In 1865, no one was property.
It took 16 Presidents until one finally said, “Balls on that - people aren’t supposed to own other people.” Granted, Lincoln was probably able to pass his Emancipation Proclamation (and the subsequent Constitutional Amendment) only because those states who were so vehemently opposed to it no longer had a say in the matter, them having seceded and all. But still, Lincoln did it.
The slave-owning Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, van Buren, W.H. Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor didn’t end slavery. The abolitionist or indifferent J. Adams, J.Q. Adams, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan didn’t end slavery.
Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.
Americans used to be allowed to own other people. We could give our slaves just two set of clothes a year, and feed them basic grain bread and unsold produce, and house them in unheated shacks or mud huts, and work them 14 hours a day, six days a week, making them do whatever tasks we saw fit to hand out, and we could prevent them from learning to read and leaving our real estate, and we could separate them from their families, taking their kids and wives and fathers and selling them whenever we felt like it, and we could will them to our kids in the event of our deaths, and we could sexually abuse or rape the women or girls whenever the urge took us, and we could treat any resultant children with those slave women as property too, selling them off if we so chose because having slave children is embarrassing, and we could punish them for whatever reason we wanted to, using any methods we wanted to, up to and including killing them.
Americans are no longer allowed to do this. Abraham Lincoln is the reason why. Name me one accomplishment greater than that, by any President. Go on, I’m listening.