The story of Abraham Lincoln reverberates throughout the world as one of the most popular, most celebrated, and most admired leaders in history. He was born on 12th February 1809 and was assassinated on April 15 1865 becoming the first president of the United States of America to meet his death through assassination. He led the United States through its most turbulent times because of the American civil war. Apart from being the first president of the United States to be assassinated, Abraham Lincoln scored many firsts, including being the first Republican presidential candidate to take the helm of power. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer by profession and twice ran for the United States Senate without success. (Kunhardt 1992) His popularity today stems from the fact that he was very vocal and also decisive on the issue of slavery in America, a practice he vehemently opposed. He successfully competed for the Republican Party nomination and was voted in 1860. President Abraham Lincoln was the son of two farmers from the state of Kentucky. To add to his firsts, he was the first president of the United States to have his origins outside the initial thirteen colonies. These were the original colonies, also referred to as British America that rebelled against the British Empire rule. (Kunhardt 1992) His formal education lasted for about one and a half years but he embarked on self-education a great deal. His co-curricular activities included wrestling and working out with an ax. It is somehow ironic that President Abraham Lincoln got married to Mary Todd, an offspring of a well-known slave-owning family from his home state. The man to later become president started his political career at the mere age of twenty-three. This was in 1832 when he fruitlessly sought to become a member of the Whig Party, a political party seen to oppose the autocratic rule. (Kunhardt 1992)
Lincoln’s presidency and the politics surrounding it
Abraham Lincoln was catapulted to national popularity by the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, several debates mainly focusing on slavery between him and the then Illinois senator and chairman of the committee on territories Stephen A. Douglas. These were heated debates that sought to campaign for their parties to cease control of the Illinois legislature. (Kunhardt 1992) Gifted political speakers have their way of making an indelible mark in history, just like the incumbent president of the United States Barrack Obama; Abraham Lincoln was a brilliant political speaker, a trait that helped him a great deal in nurturing his political career. Abraham Lincoln gained the Republican Party nomination on the platform of being seen as the more moderate on the issue of slavery compared to his rivals Salmon Chase and William Seward. Lincoln’s Western orientations also played a role in attracting voters from the new states. Despite failing miserably and even missing in most ballot papers of the south, Abraham Lincoln clinched the seat of the presidency in November 1860. (Kunhardt 1992)
The American Civil War
President Abraham Lincoln was to be in the office to oversee the United States of America’s biggest internal crisis. During the years preceding Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the issue of slavery became a thorny one and was to shape the nature of politics in America in the subsequent years. The nation was divided into two; the south was strongly pro-slavery while the north was generally anti-slavery. Other issues that fuelled the American civil war included economics, sectionalism, and expansionism. The southern part of America’s economic system was based on plantations and slavery was the main if not the only source of labor. (Linden 2001) The northern side economy on the other hand was largely based on mining, industry, transportation, and commerce and did not need the services of slaves that much as the southern region did. There were significantly few black people in the northern region with British, Irish, and Germans dominating the area. The election of Abraham Lincoln led to the secession of many states in the south. Those states that seceded formed what was then known as the Confederate States of America. In April 1861 the seceded states forces launched an attack on United States military installations. (Linden 2001) This was in South Carolina and thereafter the president called for people to volunteer for the army. This is how the American civil war began. The industrial advancement of the north and its population too was a major contributing factor to its victory over the Confederates States of America. The southerners fought mainly not to win but somehow show the north that it was not very easy for them to become victorious whereas the north fought with the motive of winning and rejoining the United States of America. President Abraham Lincoln and his side finally almost won the war in 1865. (Linden 2001)
Slavery in the United States
Since the legacy of Abraham Lincoln revolves around the issue of slavery and how he managed to abolish it, this paper must give a brief account of slavery and the status quo during those years. (McPherson 1988) Slavery remained a legal institution since the British colonists occupied America until the moment president Abraham managed to abolish it in 1865. Slavery was a dominant feature in the south compared to the north. Black people shipped from Africa became the source of free and forced labor in plantations all across the south and in significantly lesser numbers in the south. In the south, there were around four million slaves in 1860, a significant proportion of the population since this was roughly a third of the total south population. The slaves were subject to forced labor and inhuman treatment leading to calls for the abolition of the slavery institution. Slaves were treated as property, leading to the making of legal entrenchments otherwise known as slave codes. (McPherson 1988)
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is considered to be among the major culminating events of the civil war in the United States in the 1860s. He met his death while attending a play at a theatre. Accompanying him were his wife and two other guests. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, an actor present during the performance who had also planned to kill the Secretary of State and the Vice President but failed when he was attacked. The Confederate sympathizer had planned to create chaos by killing the three gentlemen and consequently overthrow the government of President Abraham Lincoln. The assassin only succeeded in killing the president but his plan of killing the other two leaders failed. The Secretary of State then was William H. Seward and the vice president was Andrew Johnson. The assassin had recruited the help of two other men, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt. They were to kill the Secretary of State and the Vice President respectively. Many alleged conspirators were apprehended and jailed including Louis Weichmann, John T. Ford, James Pumphrey, and Samuel Cox.
There are several reasons why the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is considered to be a tragedy:
- The death itself of President Abraham Lincoln was a great tragedy and loss especially to the people of the northern region. There was a long period of mourning throughout the nation because of his death.
- Widespread attacks throughout the cities were done directed at those who supported the assassin.
- The Vice President who assumed the presidency after President Lincoln’s assassination became very unpopular not only with the American citizens but also with the politicians as well. (VandeCeek)
- President Andrew Johnson was impeached though he did not step down since the Senate was not successful in convicting him by a single vote.
- President Johnson was sympathetic to white supremacists from the south and this outraged his party.
- The southerners restructured their governments and managed to bring to power prominent ex confederates to take up roles in the congress and other state offices. The southerners did not accept to reject secession ordinances. They also refused to pay war debts.
- The southerners also enacted an improvement of slave codes, known as black codes. This restricted the black people to enjoy the civil rights enjoyed by other Americans. (VandeCeek)
- The issues following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the southerners’ actions divided the Republican Party.
- President Andrew Johnson vetoed bills seeking to give black people their civil rights and also empower them. Due to his action, President Johnson fell out with his party. (VandeCeek)
- A bill seeking to make black people citizens of the United States was rejected by the southerners on the advice of President Johnson.
- A republican congress charged with the reconstruction work faced severe opposition from the president, therefore, derailing reconstruction work.
- Radical republicans to push for black freedmen to acquire land especially in the south. The system adopted of taking a share of the crop harvest yielded seemed another form of slavery. (VandeCeek)
The combination of President Andrew Johnson and the ex-confederate politicians in many ways played a role in delaying the progress started by President Abraham Lincoln. He accepted the governments whose agenda was to continue oppressing the black people bypassing the black codes. These codes recognized the black people or the freedmen as second-class citizens. He had strong sentiments on the supremacy of white men and vowed not to allow people of African descent to be recognized as having the same status as white Americans. Although he was a Republican, he fell out with his party and was supported by the Democrats, a party calling itself the party of white men. When elections were held in 1866, the Republicans recorded astounding victory throughout the nation and ceased control of Reconstruction. President Andrew Johnson from then on remained an almost powerless leader. Attempts to impeach President Lyndon Johnson were made on two occasions but were not successful though they were close. The president also recorded a low mark when he approved unconditional amnesty to confederates shortly after the election of Grant to succeed him. (VandeCeek)
Following Republican ideals at the time, it is confusing why Andrew Johnson was a Republican to start with. One may wonder why and how he became to be Abraham Lincoln’s number two and how their relations were. President Abraham Lincoln came to be known as a champion of black freedom and his legacy is based on that whereas his number two and successor came to be labeled as a white supremacist. When he appointed governments with black codes, he subjected black people to a long road of struggle and suffering in an attempt to be given their rights as Americans. They needed to be recognized as rightful citizens of the United States of America and be given the right to vote. The deeds of President Andrew Johnson and his Democratic Confederates friends paved way for a long period of segregation and discrimination against the black people. Black civil rights activists and their crowds were brutalized and in some instances killed. Their dreams were to be realized many decades after Johnson’s tenure after a consistent struggle. Many leaps have been made since then and many Americans feel proud that the incumbent president is an African American. One wonders if these civil rights would have come earlier had President Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated, maybe during his tenure.
Drew VandeCeek Ph.D. War’s Aftermath. Web.
James M. McPherson (1988). Battle cry of freedom: the civil war era. US: Oxford University Press. p. 115-120.
Glenn M. Linden (2001). Voices from the Gathering Storm: The Coming of the American Civil War. United States: Rowman & Littlefield. Pp 236-237.
Kunhardt Jr., Phillip B., Kunhardt III, Phillip. (1992) Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography. Gramercy Books, New York.