Abraham Lincoln has long been considered one of the best presidents in American history. His legacy includes the abolishment of slavery and reuniting the country following the devastating impact of the Civil War, and his brilliant speeches and legislative victories were among the most notable features of his presidency. This paper will discuss Lincoln’s background, his presidency, and an evaluation of some of the most significant features of his term in office.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Kentucky; his parents were farmers, both illiterate, who moved to Indiana when Lincoln was five years old. He was born in a log cabin, and grew up in sparse circumstances, although he was able to take advantage of limited opportunities for education . His parents had been members of a Baptist congregation that had detached itself from another church because it opposed slavery. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died when he was nine, and his father remarried the next year. As Lincoln grew, he was extremely fond of reading and learning in general, rather than farming, an issue that created tremendous tension between him and his father.
The Lincolns eventually moved to Illinois, and when Abraham Lincoln became an adult, he worked at several different jobs including running a store, being a surveyor, and acting as a postmaster. He developed a reputation as someone of strong character, and eventually was referred to as “Honest Abe.” He tried to begin a political career when he ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois legislature in 1932, but he ran again four times over the next eight years and won each time. After serving in the Legislature, Lincoln established a successful law practice and married Mary Todd Lincoln; the quality of their marriage has been much debated, but what is undisputed is that Mary Todd Lincoln had mental health issues, had four sons and lost two of them in childhood, and was extremely different from her husband in regards to personality traits and temperament [1.]
While serving in the state legislature, Lincoln had begun developing his strong anti-slavery views, calling the institution a “monstrous injustice.” Ultimately, he ran for and served in Congress, and helped to found the Republican Party in the state of Illinois. Soon afterwards, when he ran for president against Stephen Douglas, his skills as an orator became famous, especially during the debates held during the campaign. When Lincoln won the presidential election, the nation was extremely divided on the issue of slavery, and soon afterwards, the Civil War began as a result of the secession of the South and the determination of Lincoln and his party to reunite the nation and an slavery once and for all.
During his presidency, Lincoln was ideally situated to be in the leader’s role in an extremely partisan atmosphere because he had had a great deal of experience dealing with the egos of political bosses and was expert at building coalitions [2.] His mastery of language and ability to invoke eloquent phraseology helped him to successfully maneuver cooperation between warring factions in the political system. One of his most significant accomplishments during his presidency was his decision to hold the presidential election in 1864, during the Civil War. He knew that he was taking risks because if he lost the election, the chances of the nation becoming whole again were virtually nonexistent; in addition, the institution of slavery would be destined to last indefinitely if not permanently. Lincoln was the leader of his party during extremely divisive times, and yet he was able to use his tremendous political skills to achieve victory as well as to forge working coalitions between people who could barely speak to each other [2.] Lincoln was committed to making sure that the union and democracy were preserved despite the outcome for himself. He knew that abolishing slavery once and for all would require patience, careful timing, strategy, and an iron resolve [3.] He also knew that prevailing over the conflict would depend on deliberate and visionary leadership in combination with deft political skills, and because he had all of these qualities, his most enduring legacy to the United States was keeping the country whole as well as free.
Lincoln has been criticized by some because of his tremendous expansion of executive power, making his role supreme over that of Congress as well as the courts. He began doing this as soon as the War began, by using state militias, expanding the Army and the Navy, spending $2 million without congressional approval, closing post offices to “treasonable correspondence,” suspending habeas corpus in several locations, ordering the detention of suspected traitors, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 [3.] All of these activities required breaking a variety of laws as well as ignoring many constitutional provisions. He went to war without declaring war, and did not involve Congress in the decision. His justification was that he needed to act in certain ways because of emergency authority that was granted to him by the people.
It is easy to understand why Abraham Lincoln is on every list of the greatest American presidents. His mastery of language made him famous as a young man, his political skills were brilliant, and his heart was in the right place so that this combination of brilliant talents were destined to make him an outstanding figure in American history. It is difficult to enumerate all of his greatest accomplishments, but certainly the two most important were the abolishment of slavery and his keeping the nation as one. In addition, he was a model of the rags to riches story in US history, being raised by illiterate parents and becoming one of the most brilliant speakers in history. The more troubling aspects of his legacy involve his trampling on civil liberties during the Civil War; these violations can be compared in modern times with the activities of the George W. Bush administration and their own suspension of civil liberties under the guise of national security. In Lincoln’s times and then again in modern times, this caused serious skepticism about the expansion of presidential powers, and raised the question of whether or not the ends always justify the means when it comes to individual freedoms. In Lincoln’s case, however, these difficulties do not overshadow his magnificent achievements, but they do represent a footnote in the history of his legacy.