Abraham Lincoln was born two hundred years ago today, on February 12, 1809.
Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States on November 6, 1860. His opponents in the race were Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat, and John Bell, of the Constitutional Union Party. He won despite not even being on the ballot in nine southern states.
Abraham Lincoln is the only person whose rise to the presidency was met with violence and civil unrest. As it became clear that Abraham Lincoln would be elected president, several southern states announced their intention to leave the Union. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina declared its secession. By February 1, 1861, six other states had followed, proclaiming themselves a new nation: the Confederate States of America. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1861 (the date of the inauguration was not changed to January 20 until the time of Franklin Roosevelt when the twentieth amendment to the constitution was ratified on January 23, 1933.) In April 1861, after American troops were fired upon at Fort Sumter and force to surrender, President Lincoln called upon the governors of every state to send detachments to recapture the forts, protect the capital, and to “preserve the Union.” North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas then seceded, along with most of Virginia (a few counties refused to join the rest of the state in seceding and became the new state of West Virginia in 1863).
Abraham Lincoln’s time as President was consumed by defeating the secessionist Confederate States during the Civil War, the greatest crisis that the United States has ever faced. During the course of the war he introduced measures that resulted in the abolition of slavery. In 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed the slaves in all the territories of the United States that were not, at that time, under Union control. It thus made the abolition of slavery in the rebellious states an official goal of the war. Lincoln then promoted the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery altogether. It was ratified shortly after his assassination in 1865.
Lincoln’s rhetoric both before and during the Civil War resulted in a shift in American values. Before him, most politicians had stressed the sanctity of the Constitution. Lincoln shifted the emphasis to the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of American political values: an emphasis on freedom and equality for all, in contrast to the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery. His position gained strength over time, because it highlighted the moral basis of the American conception of government in distinction to the legalisms of the Constitution. He argued in his Gettysburg address that the United States was born, not in 1789 when the Constitution was ratified, but rather in 1776 when the United States declared its independence.
Lincoln did more during his administration to centralize the American government than any president before him. In writings before his administration, it was common to hear the phrase, “The United States are...” After his administration, it has always been, “The United States is...” During the Civil War he proclaimed a blockade, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and he spent money without congressional authorization. He also imprisoned eighteen thousand suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial. Lincoln was vilified by his political opponents as a despot.
Prior to Lincoln’s presidency, the Thanksgiving holiday had been but a regional celebration in New England. In 1863 Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November to be a day of Thanksgiving and the holiday has been celebrated every year since then.
It was during Lincoln’s administration, in 1864, that the phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on an American coin: specifically, the two cent piece. It appeared but intermittently on U.S. coins after that until 1938 when that the phrase became a legal requirement on all coins. “In God We Trust” first appeared on paper money in 1957.
Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a well-known actor. He was also a spy for the Confederacy. He had originally intended to kidnap Lincoln and hold him in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners. But when he heard President Lincoln promote voting rights for the freed slaves, Booth decided to assassinate him instead. Booth shot Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865 while Lincoln watched a production of the play, Our American Cousin. Lincoln was in a coma for nine hours after being shot and never regained consciousness. He died at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865.