Rise to National Prominence
Law and politics dominated Abraham Lincoln’s public life. Though he made his living practicing law, politics was his love. He had little interest in the technical aspects of the law; his talent lay in a superior power of reason. His quick mind enabled him to get to the heart of most issues quickly, and he was able to frame his arguments in language frontier jurors could understand.
If Lincoln had not been drawn out of a self-imposed retirement from politics following his single, disappointing term in the House of Representatives, he would only be remembered, if at all, as a good trial lawyer from the state of Illinois. Lincoln’s career path changed in 1854 with the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for the expansion of slavery. When Lincoln transferred his mental dexterity and persuasive ability, combined with a deeply felt moral cause, to the political arena, the results were startling. Abolitionists, liberal Whigs, Know Nothings, Free-Soilers, and Republicans, fractured politically, found someone around whom they all could unite, and they lifted a little-known prairie lawyer to heights he could not have imagined.
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The New Lincoln
If there was ever a single-issue candidate for high office, it was Abraham Lincoln. In 1854, slavery, specifically the threatened spread of slavery into the Western territories, dominated his thoughts, and the issue set him afire. His voice took on new urgency, his message greater clarity, and he would entertain no compromise. Lincoln considered Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s concept of “popular sovereignty”—allowing the territories to determine their own policy on slavery—a denial of the responsibility of the Congress to uphold the United States Constitution. Lincoln’s guiding beacon was the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” By upholding that principle, with all of its implications, Abraham Lincoln set the course for his own destiny and that of the United States. Read more about The New Lincoln »
The passage of this Act in 1854 negated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and made it possible for voters in Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether or not slavery would exist in their respective territories. Opponents of slavery were outraged. Abraham Lincoln clearly saw the threat that such legislation presented to a government founded on the ideals and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. In a brilliant speech at Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, he laid out his objections to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The speech revived his political career. Read more about Kansas/Nebraska Act »
Finding His Voice
Compelled by conscience to attack both the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its principal author and defender, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln found his true voice. In Peoria, he spoke immediately after Douglas, who was touring Illinois to defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act. From that moment on, abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and members of the new Republican Party began to think of Lincoln as their spokesman. Drafted in 1855 to run for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln began with a majority vote in the legislature in a very complicated contest, but could not reach the necessary number of votes to secure his election. Read more about Finding His Voice »
The Run for President
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the least known of all of the contenders for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Heading the list was former New York Governor William H. Seward, with the politically awkward Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio a distant second. Conservative Edward Bates of Missouri was considered too old, and many Republicans seemed uncomfortable with the popular but unpredictable Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune.
To overcome his disadvantage, Lincoln adopted an unobtrusive publicity campaign. The timely release of his published debates with Stephen A. Douglas and brief autobiographies and a carefully orchestrated speaking campaign in New York and parts of New England all worked to Lincoln’s advantage. The nomination and the subsequent campaign were left largely to trusted handlers, but even after his election was secure, Lincoln maintained a dogged silence on national issues prior to his inauguration. Read more about The Run for President »
Road to the Nomination
Lincoln’s remarkable performance in a series of seven debates with Senator Douglas drew the attention of Republican Party leaders in New York and New England. Invited East to speak, Lincoln delivered one of the best speeches of his career at Manhattan’s famous Cooper Union. Horace Greeley immediately reproduced the speech in his widely read New York Tribune, and Lincoln began to be thought of as a potential presidential candidate. With the help of able advisors, Lincoln orchestrated a successful campaign for the 1860 Republican nomination for president. Read more about Road to the Nomination »
Front Porch Campaign
In the early- and mid-nineteenth century, tradition dictated that presidential candidates maintain a dignified silence in national elections because they supposedly were above the rough and tumble world of politics. Republican Party supporters delivered Lincoln’s message to the voters, and that message was to stop the spread of slavery in the Western territories. Great emphasis was also placed on Lincoln’s frontier experience, which showed that even the poorest citizen could work his way to the top. Republican Party offices throughout the North distributed thousands of campaign posters, leaflets, and newspaper editorials. They did virtually no campaigning in the South, where Lincoln’s name did not even appear on a majority of the ballots. Read more about Front Porch Campaign »
Election: Celebration and Trepidation
Lincoln’s 1860 election victory was marred by the quick secession of seven Southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—which, in February 1861, declared themselves to be a new nation, the Confederate States of America. Although urged to address the growing crisis of Union, Lincoln declined, explaining that he had written and spoken often on the subject, and that further explanation of his position on slavery would only be misconstrued. He hoped that Southern Unionists would prevail as they had done in past crises and restore their states to the Union. However, with a few notable exceptions, Southerners united behind secession. Read more about Election: Celebration and Trepidation »
Journey to Washington
Abraham Lincoln was indisputably a minority president, having received less than forty percent of the popular vote. Hence, his nearly 2,000-mile train trip from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., was designed in part to promote national unity. However, during dozens of stops where Lincoln made nearly as many speeches, the journey quickly assumed the aura of a prolonged victory celebration. The route wound through seven states, stopping in major cities such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Albany, New York, and Philadelphia where the celebratory noise was deafening. Choirs sang, cannons roared, and thousands cheered. Lincoln rose to the occasion, joking with the crowd one minute and promising to maintain the Union the next. Lincoln’s message encouraged hope, but it was a false hope because he continued to treat secession as an artificial crisis manufactured by designing Southern politicians. The seriousness of the situation must have dawned upon Lincoln after he was presented with evidence of a plot against his life. At that point, the president-elect agreed to complete the last two-hundred miles of his journey to the White House incognito. Read more about Journey to Washington »