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Lincoln’s Legacy

May 2024
2min read

As we approach the bicentennial of his birth, leading historians look at the man and his achievements

During the campaign of 1860, and throughout what Henry Adams would justly call the “Great Secession Winter” that fell like a shadow after that year’s momentous presidential election, a convincing case could be made that Abraham Lincoln was totally unprepared to assume the nation—s highest office, particularly at the hour of its gravest domestic crisis.

At best a dark horse, Lincoln had won his party’s nomination only when more seasoned stalwarts such as William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase faltered at the raucous convention. Not only was Lincoln the least experienced candidate that year of any political origin, but as the Republican presidential candidate he also represented the youngest and least tested political organization in the country.

Though largely unknown outside his home state, Lincoln nonetheless refused to barnstorm on his own behalf during the six long months between his designation and Election Day. Insisting that he had said all he needed to say on doctrinal issues, and proclaiming only that he stood by the Republican Party platform affirming opposition to the spread of slavery by any means into new national territories, he remained calmly ensconced in Springfield as the opposition splintered. His few private letters show astounding poise and confidence—or was it "the valor of ignorance"?—as he presciently estimated votes.

Though his formidable foes included a thrice-elected member of the U.S. Senate, the nation’s sitting vice president, and a former senator and cabinet secretary, Lincoln—merely a one-term ex-congressman who had failed in every election since his service in the House a decade earlier—handily prevailed.

Even so, his victory—in which he amassed less than 40 percent of the popular vote, the smallest total ever to go to an outright winner—did little to reassure Northerners, particularly Democrats. And it did nothing to placate Southern fears that he would use his slim margin to destroy the slave power. The stock market plummeted, the timid demanded concessions, and several Deep South states proclaimed that they would secede from the Union. If ever an orderly transfer of power to a new president seemed open to question, it was then. Adams had grounds to lament the nation’s failure to select a more seasoned statesman to face such troubling times.

As we know now, young Adams—and nearly everyone else in the nation—wholly underestimated Abraham Lincoln. During the four-month interregnum before his inauguration, he continued pursuing a remarkably confident, if politically counterintuitive, course of inaction. Anyone searching for clues to Lincoln’s future greatness need only consult the dangerous few months that he navigated so skillfully. Under unprecedented pressure but understanding that he lacked constitutional authority, he somehow managed to ensure that the government would be passed lawfully to his hands.

The articles in this special Lincoln Bicentennial issue of American Heritage convincingly remind us of his astounding growth. This quintessential civilian fortuitously morphed into one of the savviest commanders in chief in history. The lifelong landlubber developed a brilliant appreciation of naval warfare. The onetime Senate candidate who had pledged himself to white supremacy forever came to regard the African American leader Frederick Douglass with enormous respect and color-blind collegiality. And the once pugnacious, highly partisan stump speaker matured into an impassioned and literate exponent of democratic ideals. Once elected, the former political provocateur evolved into nothing less than an apostle for the sanctity of Union, the ethic of majority rule, and the dreams of freedom and equality of opportunity. Who could have so predicted when Lincoln had seemed the least qualified candidate for the presidency?

On George Washington’s birthday in 1861 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Lincoln articulated the determination that would mark his presidency and characterize his place in history: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.” The contributors to this issue make clear—to quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—how and why he ultimately gave his life "that that nation might live.”

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