In 1846, when he was thirty-seven years old, Abraham ran for Congress against Peter Cartwright, who was a well-known evangelist. Although Lincoln knew his Bible as well as anyone else and often quoted from it, Cartwright made this a major issue of his campaign, labeling Lincoln as an "infidel" and accusing him of not being a Christian because he did not belong to any particular church. However, Lincoln did have a strong belief in God but because of this withering attack on his Christian character, Lincoln became very quiet and private about his religious convictions. His unwillingness to discuss his beliefs in God has led some historians to conclude that Lincoln was not a very religious man but such was not the case.
At this time Kentucky was a slave state, meaning that slavery was openly practiced and approved of. In fact, one of Abraham's uncles owned a slave and an uncle of Thomas Lincoln, named Isaac, owned forty slaves. As a young boy, Abraham had seen the slave markets and was well accustomed to the practice by the time he reached manhood. The fact that religion played a large part in the customs of that time shows that slavery was accepted by those who believed in the Bible.
However, after seeing slaves in chains, Abraham never felt comfortable with the practice. At the age of twenty-eight he remarked that "slavery was founded on both injustice and bad policy." This was yet another reason why he shunned organized religion because the beliefs of many of the churches he had attended contradicted his own conscience.
In his early adulthood, Lincoln was a practicing lawyer and in 1841 he represented a black woman and her children who were accused of running away from a slave owner. The woman denied the allegation, claiming she had been freed and Lincoln successfully defended her. In 1845 Marvin Pond was accused of harboring a runaway slave and again Lincoln won the case.
From 1846 to 1848 Lincoln served as an Illinois Congressman and voted for the Wilmot Proviso which was a bill that would ban slavery in any territory won from Mexico. At this time, as new territories were opening up and later, as those territories became states, there was a heated debate over whether they should be allow to practice slavery or not.
Back on July 13, 1787 the United States government had acquired land that was "south of the Great Lakes, North and West of the Ohio River, and East of the Mississippi River." The law that made this tract of land part of the United States was called the Northwest Ordinance and it stipulated that there would be no slavery in this area. In 1820 Congress passed the Missouri Compromise Act which prohibited slavery in the western territories above the 36 degree parallel, with the exception of the state of Missouri.
However, by 1848 there were those in Congress from the Southern slave owning states who were talking about doing away with this provision in the Missouri Compromise so as to allow slavery to exist north of the 36th parallel. They argued that if this provision was not over turned, there would be more non-slave States represented in Congress than slave holding states, which they argued would upset the balance of power in Congress against them.
In January 1854 Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced a bill in Congress establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his proposal would make these territories slave holding states. At this time Lincoln had retired from politics but the introduction of this bill caused him to reenter. He told his law partner, "The day of compromise has passed. These two great ideas have been kept apart only by the most artful means. They are like two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and held apart. Some day these deadly antagonists will open or the other break their bonds, and then the question will be settled."
In a letter Lincoln wrote on July 1, 1854, he made the following argument: "If [person] A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave [person] B. -- why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?--
"You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
"You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
"But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you."
At this time Lincoln belonged to the Whig Party, which had lost much of its ability to influence legislation in Congress, mostly because of political infighting amongst themselves. Seeing that the Whig Party was not able to stop the spread of slavery into the newly created territories, a group of Whigs, along with some Northern Democrats formed their own party and called it the Republican Party. Lincoln was one of the Whigs who switched his loyalties to the new, anti-slavery Party.
In 1858 Stephen Douglas was up for reelection as the Senator from Illinois and Abraham Lincoln ran against him as a Republican. As part of this campaign, both Douglas and Lincoln agreed to engage in a series of seven debates, which have become known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, that were mostly centered on the issue of slavery. It was at this time that Lincoln began to become nationally recognized for his stance against slavery.
Douglas accused Lincoln of being an abolitionist, meaning that he wanted to abolish slavery altogether, including in those state who were already engaged in this practiced, but Lincoln denied the claim. He explained that he was only against the spread of slavery into the newly created territories but he was willing to let the states who already allowed this practiced to remain as they were.
The reason for this stance was that Lincoln believed that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to interfere in the rights of states. Since the Southern States had laws allowing slavery, he felt that Congress did not have the authority to overturn a state law. But, it was Congress who established new territories and states and therefore it did have the right to determine whether or not they could allow slavery.
In June 1858, Lincoln said, "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free ... It will become all one thing or the other." However, although Lincoln was opposed to the practice of slavery, he felt that the best way to eliminate it was to phase it out gradually rather than outlaw it in one sweeping action. He reasoned that as new states joined the Union, there would be more anti-slavery Congressmen than pro-slavery Congressmen and eventually the practice of slavery would die a slow but natural death.
But this was exactly what the Southern States feared and began threatening to secede from the Union if such a plan were to be adopted. Again, they argued that there had to be equal representation in Congress of pro-slavery and anti-slavery Congressmen but the Southern states undercut their own argument when they pushed to have every new state allow slavery. This would tip the balance of power in Congress in favor of pro-slavery but the Southern States didn't seem to object to that possibility.
Lincoln lost in his effort to defeat Douglas'reelection to the Senate in Washington but in the presidential election of 1860, Lincoln ran against Douglas again. However, Douglas was not running as a Southern Democrat. They had expelled him from their party over differences on the issue of slavery and the Democrat Party nominated John C. Breckingridge as their candidate. Douglas then formed his own party and ran as a Democrat from Illinois.
The election for the 19th President of the United States was held on November 6, 1860 and it was because the Democrats had split their votes between Douglas and Breckingridge, that Lincoln was able to become the next President of the United States with less than 40% of the electoral votes.
However, the new president would not assume the office until March, 5, 1861. In the meantime, many of the Southern States were openly grumbling about the election of a President who was against the practice of slavery and, by December 1860, one Southern State after another began to declare their independence from the United States. By the time Lincoln was sworn in as the new President, eleven states had seceded from the Union.
Lincoln did not agree with the practice of slavery but he strongly believed in the Constitution and used it to guide him in all of his political decisions. In addition to this he placed great value in what the signers of the Constitution had to say concerning that document. He reasoned that since the signers of the Constitution had allowed slavery to exist in certain states, Lincoln decided that he would follow their example. He stated that as much as he hated slavery, he would agree to see it flourish than to see the Union break apart, "just as I would consent to any great evil to avoid a greater one."
He felt that, as President, his greatest responsibility was to preserve the Union because that was the intent of those who had created the Constitution. That document, which was the supreme law of the land, was written expressly to join all thirteen original but independent states into one cohesive nation. He felt that to allow that nation to split apart would be to undo all that the signers of the Constitution had worked so hard to accomplish. Therefore, he had resolved that he would do all in his power to bring the eleven seceding states back into the Union in as peaceful a manner as he could through reason and dialogue.
However, the Southern States had no intention of returning to the Union unless Lincoln fully supported the expansion of slavery. But, before Lincoln could even begin to heal the strained relationships, North Carolina declared that Fort Sumter, which was federal property, belonged to them because it was located in their state. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops opened fire on the fort and, after shelling it for thirty-four straight hours, succeeded in taking the fort by force.
Lincoln was now faced with a dilemma. Federal property has just been seized and if he did nothing, it would only embolden the other states to likewise seize federal installations along with its weapons, ammunitions and soldiers. Yet, if he sent troops to retake the fort, it would spark a war, which Lincoln was desperate to avoid.
As always, Lincoln turned to the Constitution for guidance. In Article 1, section 8 it states that Congress shall "provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions." In Article II, section 2 it reads that "The president shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States." If the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the states had seceded from the Union in violation of the terms of the Constitution, then Lincoln felt the states were perpetrating an insurrection against the United States. Therefore, he had the right, through Congress, to call forth the militia to insure that those in rebellion were brought to obey the supreme law of the land.
But Congress was not in session at this time and would not reconvene until July and Lincoln had to take action long before then so, as Commander in Chief, he ordered up the militia to take back Fort Sumter. Upon seeing the government take hostile action against North Carolina, Virginia seceded from the Union. After Congress did convene, on July 4, 1861 Lincoln sent a formal letter to them asking for a declaration of war. In his letter he recognized that the states have certain rights and powers but only within the limits of their borders but that no one state had the right or authority to make a decision that impacted the entire nation. To secede from the Union without going through he required congressional process he said was inconsistent with the Constitution and was detrimental to the Union.
He also argued that federal forts were federal property that had been paid with money collected from all the states. Therefore, for one state to claim something that had been bought and paid for by other states was an act of thievery. Congress agreed and issued a declaration of war.
The Southern states has seceded precisely on the issue of slavery therefore, abolitionists and many Northern newspapers, as well as many visitors to the White House wanted Lincoln to make this war about freeing the slaves but Lincoln rejected those calls for two reasons. The first, and most important, was that the Constitution didn't give him that authority. What it did give him was the right to use the militia to put down an insurrection and force compliance with the supreme law of the land but there was nothing in the Constitution that gave the President the power to outlaw slavery. Only Congress could do that but nearly half of the representatives of all the states no longer met together in Congress so they had no authority to mandate a law on states who had no representation.
The second reason was that there were four slave holding states who did not join the confederacy of seceded states but who would if the war was about freeing slaves. Virginia, which boarded Washington D.C. had already joined the confederacy thereby posing a military threat to the nation's capital. Lincoln didn't want to take any action that would further divide the union, so he refused to make the war about slavery.
In the beginning of the conflict, both sides felt that the war would be over within weeks and certainly not longer than a few months but the war continued to rage on much longer than anyone had expected and as it did the casualties on both sides rose to horrifyingly high numbers. Worse yet, with each passing day it became apparent that there was no end in sight to the fighting.
Lincoln had wanted to bring the Union together but, instead, it was becoming more and more divided. The bitterness of the South over the issue of slavery was now becoming a matter of honor for them. They now felt they had to win in order to keep from being disgraced and humiliated. The North likewise felt it was a matter of principle that they had to win to preserve the Union and show the South that they couldn't bully their ideas onto others. And so the fighting on both sides became more intense and more personal.
As the war dragged on, Lincoln became more despondent and depressed. Despite his best efforts, events were taking him further from his dream of a united nation. During this time, the President and his wife attended church at the New York Avenue Presbyterian church. Lincoln believed in God, even though he didn't believe in any one particular faith, so he went to church, looking for answers to solve the country's problems.
Then, on February 20, 1862 Lincoln's eleven year old son Willie died in the White House. This devastated the President and, after the funeral, even though Lincoln returned to his office, he couldn't concentrate on his duties. A week later, Lincoln closed the door to his office and refused to see anyone. It was reported that he wept all that day.
To make matters worse, the war was going badly for the North. They were suffering one defeat after another which brought with it an ever increasing number of battlefield deaths. To add insult to injury, the public began to turn against Lincoln. He was pilloried in the press and they labeled the war as "the president's war." Without public support Lincoln knew that he could not win on the battlefield and if he couldn't do that then the Union would remain split apart forever.
From later statements by Lincoln and others, it appears that at this time Lincoln often went to God in prayer. After the second battle of Bull Run where the Union troops had suffered a devastating defeat, Lincoln remarked, "I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." His personal faith told him that God had a reason for why everything happened therefore the question that was consuming his thoughts was, what did God want him to do in order to stop the war?
He knew slavery was wrong. He had been against it all of his life and there had been many people demanding that he free all the slaves but he didn't have the Constitutional authority to do that. And even if he somehow could find a way to free them, it would only inflame the war and make things worse. Yet, despite all of these objections, he knew that slavery was at the heart of the conflict and that until the issue of slavery was resolved the conflict would continue.
But if, somehow, he could free the slaves, then what? They were despised by people from the South and there were too many of them to be absorbed into the North without it having an adverse effect on the economy. Cities in the North would suddenly become overcrowded and there weren't enough jobs to keep everyone productively employed. And without jobs, poverty would suddenly explode among the whites as well as the negros, not to mention all of its attending evils such as crime, disease, and starvation. The problems facing Lincoln seemed almost insurmountable.
After many months of prayerful consideration, Lincoln discussed his solution with his cabinet in July of 1862. As President he didn't have the Constitutional authority to free all of the slaves but as Commander in Chief during wartime he did have the authority to issue military orders. Therefore, he proposed to set free only the slaves in those states that were in rebellion against the Union. Although this would be a presidential proclamation with the force of law, it was a military order designed to cripple the fighting force of the enemy. This gave Lincoln the legal authority he needed to set salves free but it was limited in scope. It could not have any force on states who were still loyal to the Union, which included the five slave holding states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
As Lincoln discussed this proposal with his cabinet their reaction was favorable except they feared that because the war was going badly for the North, the proclamation, if issued then, would look like a desperate military move and make the effort to free the slaves appear to be motivated more by politics than a sincere desire to end slavery. Therefore, it was decided that the proclamation should be issued only when the Union was winning rather than losing the war.
But, as they waited for the right moment to arrive, the war continued to go bad for the Union. Worse yet, with the Confederacy gaining ground, England and France were seriously considering acknowledging the Southern States as a free and independent nation. This recognition would allow the South to received needed arms and support to further prevail over the Union army. Everything seemed to be conspiring against Lincoln to thwart his efforts to bring an end to the war.
Then, on September 17, 1862 Union and Confederate troops clashed in the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland near the border of Pennsylvania where the fighting produced the greatest number of casualties of the Civil War. This became known as the battle of Antietam and, although General Lee's push into Northern territory had been stopped and his army had retreated back into Virginia, the North did not gain a clear victory because Lee's army had escaped to fight another day. Yet the battle was nonetheless seen as victory by the North who was desperate for news of any kind of military success.
This was the event Lincoln had been waiting for since July. On September 22, he met with his cabinet and said, "I think the time has come." As everyone in the room quietly but intently listened, Lincoln continued, saying that he had decided to "issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone but I made a promise to myself and to my Maker. The Rebel Army is now driven out and I am going to fulfill that promise."
Somewhat surprised by what he heard, Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury wanted to know if he had heard the president correctly. Did he say he had made a promise to God? Lincoln answered, "I have made a solemn vow before God that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves."
Later, in his own private notes, Gideon Wells, who was the Secretary of the Navy, wrote that the president "remarked that he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us victory in the approaching battle he would considerate it an indication of Divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation." Wells then wrote that Lincoln stated, "God has decided this question in favor of the slaves."
Lincoln then made public his Proclamation of Emancipation which stated that 'all persons held in any state still in rebellion against the Union would be then, thenceforth and forever free." But Lincoln, still wanting to avert war and bring about a reconciliation of the Union, placed in the proclamation a one hundred day grace period that allowed those states who wished to join the Union to be exempted from the new order, but when that grace period ended, any state still in rebellion against the Union, would be subject to having all of their salves declared free.
A hundred days later, on January 1, 1863 there were still ten states that remained in rebellion. They were Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. President Lincoln signed the order and it became the law of the land.
Suddenly, the war was no longer seen as saving the Union but freeing the slaves. However, not everyone in the Union agreed with the change. There were some Union soldiers who had no problem dying for their country but were not willing to shed their blood to free negros. As a result, some Union soldiers threatened to mutiny and others left the battlefield and went home. But there were other army units who were inspired by the news and adopted as their slogan: "For Union and Liberty."
A group of Union Democrats, known as the Copperheads, were outraged by the proclamation and strongly denounced Lincoln for it, claiming he was violating the Constitution and acting as a tyrant while, at the same time, abolitionists were hailing the decision with celebrations. Now, even the North was becoming torn apart over the issue of slavery. Yet Lincoln had made a vow to God that he would do what he could to free the slaves and, after having fulfilled that promise, he stood firmly by his decision.
Although many of the slaves in the South were technically free, only a small percentage of them were able to make it to freedom but still, Lincoln now had to face the problem of what to do with the large number of free slaves who were coming into the North. Given the hostilities that existed between blacks and whites in many parts of the Union, Lincoln felt that racial harmony between the two races would not be possible so he proposed relocating the negros to a land outside of the United States.
In Lincoln's mind, this colonization plan would allow negros a place where they could live in peace among themselves without the threat of white bigotry and have the added benefit of living in a land they could call their own. Yet, even though participation in this relocation proposal was completely voluntary, from the very beginning the plan faced one disaster after another until eventually the entire idea was discontinued.
Although he didn't know with certainty who would win the war, Lincoln trusted in God's Divine providence that the North would be victorious. In July 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg General Lee's army was decisively defeated and it became a turning point in the war. From that time on the Union army began to experience more successes than it did defeats. Where "luck" had seemed to elude the North, now it began to elude the South. In recognition of God's hand in blessing their efforts to preserve the Union, in November 1863 President Lincoln signed another proclamation declaring that the last Thursday in November was to be observed as a national day of thanksgiving to God. Today we know this proclamation as Thanksgiving Day.
One day, during the war, a minister remarked to Lincoln, "I hope the Lord is on our side," to which Lincoln replied, "I am not at all concerned about thatů. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation be on the Lord's side." In December of 1863 Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, made the decision to engrave on all U.S. coins the motto, "In God we trust," presumably because of Lincoln's trust in God.