History remembers him as Honest Abe. But did you know that few world leaders navigated the most treacherous political rapids as skillfully as Abraham Lincoln?
Just weeks after his inauguration as the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln confronted a crisis that would result in war but also change the course of history. The Great Civil War was a test of values. When it ended, over 600,000 people were dead, but so was his country's reliance on the institutional enslavement of blacks for economic benefit.
We, therefore, kick off a month of posts focused on Black History by honoring the man many believe to be the greatest US president who ever lived.
It was April 1861. Abe had been in the White House for only 30 days and seven US southern states had seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy, a renegade government determined to shed blood to preserve the right to enslave and own African-Americans. Seven other states were poised to follow. Meanwhile, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, 85 Union soldiers were under siege by 5,000 Confederate conscripts ready to pick a fight.
It was heretofore the greatest calamity in the history of the United States. But before we finish that story, let's look back...
Born in 1809, Abe had begun life as a farm boy in Kentucky until his family relocated to Indiana to avoid living in a slave state. As a young man, he managed a general store and studied the law. After losing his first bid at elected office, Abe joined the Illinois House of Representatives at the age of 35, launching his political career. He would serve there for eight years.
In 1858, he lost a US Senate race against the pro-slavery Democrat Stephen Douglas but made a name for himself in a series of debates during the campaign that made history for their ferocity and clarity. While Douglas argued that slavery was an issue of state's rights, Lincoln insisted that human bondage corrupted the Declaration of Independence, which declared that all men were created equal.
Lincoln's fiery arguments gained him the attention of the then newly founded anti-slavery Republican Party* and two years later he emerged as their presidential candidate. The Republicans swept the North to win the election, but Southerners revolted out of fear that Lincoln and his allies might abolish slavery. Even before he was inaugurated, most of the South had seceded from the United States.
With only a few days of experience, the new president faced a seemingly impossible situation. If he chose to rescue by force the Union soldiers stranded at Sumter, who were fast running out of food and supplies, he would be seen as the aggressor. That risked driving more states into the hands of the pro-slavery Confederates. "I hope to have God on my side," Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said early in the war, "but I must have Kentucky."
If he did nothing, however, the succeeded states would have successfully broken away and become their own independent, pro-slavery nation. There seemed to be no way out of the predicament.
His solution was a stroke of genius: Lincoln ordered a fleet to sail to Fort Sumter loaded with supplies. But the fleet was unarmed. If the Confederates fired on it, they would be the ones to start a war. If they relented, Sumter would be saved. Faced with a conundrum, the Confederate government opened fire on Sumter before the relief expedition had a chance to arrive. When the nation learned of the Confederate attack, tens of thousands rushed to enlist in the Union army headed by the US Commander-in-Chief, President Lincoln.
The border states that had considered joining the Confederacy recoiled and stayed in the Union. With that single brilliant decision, Lincoln had outmaneuvered his enemies and passed the most difficult trial ever faced by a president. It would point the country toward a future that required it first to dismantle the past.
The next five years of Civil War brought disruption, turmoil, and renewed trials and crises. It was a very dark chapter in US History, But on January 1, 1863, justice prevailed when Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery throughout the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation. It was sealed into law in January 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Three months later, a Confederate sympathizer shot Lincoln dead while he was taking in a show at Washington's Ford Theatre. But in vain, for by then, Lincoln had permanently unraveled the system of slavery that had dominated America's economy and kept black people in bondage for 200 years.
Lincoln's insistence that the United States, as a nation, hew to the values on which it was founded, sadly did not wipe out racism. That is still alive and well. But Lincoln's every decision, as difficult as the outcomes may have been, did honestly uphold the democratic ideal that all humans are created equal and therefore deserve equal treatment in society and under the law. We are grateful to James Coffroth and Stephanie Towle, both of the southern US State of Tennessee, and Abe Lincoln Eustice of London and San Francisco, for nominating him as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
HAPPY BLACK HISTORY MONTH EVERYONE!
*EDITOR'S NOTE: It's important to point out that the Republican party of Lincoln's day was ideologically far removed from the party of Donald Trump. Ironically, the values shift in today's Republican party came over civil rights. During the 1960s and 70s movement that sought equal rights for African-Americans, southern voters -- or dixiecrats -- fled the party that embraced justice and led the charge: the Democratic Party. Now the former Confederacy, the South, is a virtual one-party region, i.e., Republican.