An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States – Abraham Lincoln

Feb 21, 2013 by

Abe_Lincoln_youngMichael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

While the origins of certain presidents were embellished, Abraham Lincoln really was born in a log cabin in present-day Larue County, Kentucky, on February 12, 1809. Contrary to the conclusion that many might draw regarding his humble birth, Lincoln’s father was actually a prosperous individual. Indeed, Thomas Lincoln owned two 600-acre farms. Unfortunately, land titles at that time in Kentucky were often suspect, and in 1816 Thomas Lincoln lost both of these properties. Primarily for this reason, the elder Lincoln chose to move his family to Indiana. One of the factors that influenced Thomas Lincoln to relocate there was the fact that he opposed slavery, and Indiana was a free state. Initially the Lincolns prospered in Indiana, but sadly Abraham Lincoln’s mother died two years later. Thomas Lincoln soon remarried, however, and his new wife proved to be an inspiration and champion for Abraham.

For example, when Abraham seemed to be shirking his responsibilities on the Lincoln farm by spending time reading, his step-mother defended him to his father and the neighbors. Lincoln needed this time to read, because he probably only received a year’s worth of schooling during his lifetime. This self-acquired education would prove extremely useful to Lincoln as he grew into manhood, as the move of the Lincoln family to Illinois in 1830 offered him an opportunity to strike out on his own. Abraham Lincoln opened a business in New Salem, Illinois, and decided to run for the Illinois state legislature in 1832. Before the election took place, Lincoln volunteered for military service when the US government conducted a campaign (known as the Black Hawk War) to oust Native Americans from Illinois.

After his service in the Illinois militia ended, Lincoln resumed his political campaign, but he was defeated in that fall’s election. Two years later Lincoln ran again, and was elected to the Illinois state legislature. At the same time, Lincoln began to study law, and in 1836 he was admitted to the state bar. He began to practice law with John Stuart in Springfield, Illinois, and soon became a prominent lawyer. Lincoln served four terms in the Illinois state legislature, but chose not to run in 1842. In 1846 he ran for the US House of Representatives, and won election. He took a stance on the Mexican War that proved unpopular with his constituents, however, and chose not to seek re-election. He returned to the practice of law in Springfield, but returned to politics in 1854 after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He became one of the founding members of the Republican Party in Illinois, and in 1858 became the party’s candidate for the US Senate.

His opponent was the incumbent, Stephen Douglas, and the two engaged in a series of memorable debates during the campaign. The Democrats retained control of the Illinois state legislature in the election, and as a consequence Douglas was returned to the US Senate. Lincoln did, however, gain national prominence through the campaign. This fame helped him gain the Republican nomination for president in 1860, where he ran against three other candidates. Ironically, one of them was his old rival Stephen Douglas. Although Lincoln received only 40% of the popular vote, he won 180 of the 303 electoral votes, and became the president of the United States.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Lincoln is known for two things as president. Only weeks after becoming president, Confederate forces fired on the US garrison guarding Ft. Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. This act precipitated the American Civil War, perhaps the most critical moment in our nation’s history. Lincoln demonstrated admirable leadership qualities in guiding the Union to victory in this conflict, thus saving the nation from a potentially disastrous division. Second, Lincoln is also known for striking a blow to the institution of slavery.

In September of 1862, he issued an executive order that has come down through history as the Emancipation Proclamation because it announced that after January 1, 1863, slaves held in territory controlled by the Confederacy would be free. While there is no guarantee that this act was constitutional, most historians are convinced that this paved the way for the decision of Congress in 1865 to send out to the states a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Either one of these two achievements would rank among the greatest accomplishments ever in the history of the American presidency.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Lincoln clearly possessed attributes that a great American president must possess. First and foremost, despite his lack of formal education, Lincoln was extremely intelligent. He was a shrewd judge of character, and had tremendous communication skills (both verbal and written). He was humble and patient. All in all, he had the total package a president needs.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

To be sure, Lincoln made mistakes as president. For example, after the firing on Ft. Sumter, he declared a blockade of southern ports. This is an action you only take against a nation you are at war with, not something you do when you are suppressing a rebellion. But for the most part, Lincoln’s faults were very minor.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Lincoln’s presidency clearly altered world history. It is hard to imagine a divided United States playing as decisive a role in world affairs as our nation has since the end of the Civil War, and the whole history of slavery could have been vastly different if the United States had not prevailed. Inarguably, Lincoln made the world a better place.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

While George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt could conceivably receive some consideration for the appellation as our greatest president, most historians are convinced that Abraham Lincoln was the man who was our best chief executive.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Our view of Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment has changed over time. For a number of reasons, after the Civil War, many Americans chose to remember him almost exclusively for restoring the Union. With the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, however, more attention began to be paid to his efforts to bring about an end to slavery. Today we seem to have achieved a balanced appraisal where both accomplishments are recognized and celebrated.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our sixteenth President?

When Lincoln died, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said “now he belongs to the ages.” This seems to be as fitting an epitaph for Abraham Lincoln as could possibly ever be said.

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