Time marches on: honoring ‘Honest Abe’

President Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation to members of his cabinet as portrayed by artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Though it was not the end of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation marked the beginning of the end. | Wikimedia Commons

President Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation to members of his cabinet as portrayed by artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Though it was not the end of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation marked the beginning of the end. | Wikimedia Commons

He is considered by many to be one of the greatest presidents in American history and arguably the most influential president. This week in history, former President Abraham Lincoln is born in Hardin County, Ky., on Feb. 12, 1809.

At 22, Lincoln struck out on his own as a manual laborer; a few years later, in 1834, he was elected to the Illinois State Legislature as a member of the Whig Party. Lincoln started practicing law in 1837. In 1846, he was elected to a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and during the 1850s, he was a lobbyist for the railroad industry.

In 1858, Lincoln challenged Democrat incumbent Stephen Douglas for his seat in U.S. Senate.

“I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects — certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” — Abraham Lincoln, from the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate.

Though Lincoln lost, his progressive stance on slavery and the way he carried himself in the debates vaulted him into the national spotlight.

Two years later, political organizers in Illinois recruited Lincoln to seek the Republican presidential nomination, and after securing the nomination, defeated his rival, Douglas, as well as two other challengers, for the presidency.

What might surprise some about Lincoln is that while he was appalled by the idea of slavery, he was not seeking total abolition. On March 1, 1859, while delivering a speech in Chicago, he laid down a concept of containment for the end of slavery.

“I do not wish to be misunderstood upon this subject of slavery in this country,” Lincoln said. “I suppose it may long exist, and perhaps the best way for it to come to an end peaceably is for it to exist for a length of time. But I say that the spread and strengthening and perpetuation of it is an entirely different proposition. There we should in every way resist it as a wrong, treating it as a wrong, with the fixed idea that it must and will come to an end.”

Even that compromise was too much for the South.

Lincoln’s election set off a political cataclysm. Fearing his election would bring about the end of slavery, the South started a fast withdrawal from the Union, starting with the resignation of South Carolina Sen. James Chesnut on Nov. 10, 1860. The entire state of South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, and before Lincoln took the oath of office, six states would join: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Lincoln’s paramount goal during the early years of his presidency and the war was the preservation of the Union. In August 1862, Horace Greely, founder and editor of The New York Tribune, criticized Lincoln for not making slavery the dominant issue of the war and setting aside his moral principles for political goals. Lincoln was quick to respond.

“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them,” Lincoln said. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

One month later, the Union victory at Antietam changed everything, including the focus of the war, to the abolition of slavery. On Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most important proclamations in U.S. History: the Emancipation Proclamation.

“All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

While the document did not end slavery completely as it was allowed to continue in border states loyal to the Union, it serves as the symbol of the endgame. The proclamation also allowed African-Americans to volunteer for military service to the Union; almost 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union armed forces by the end of the war.

In the end, Lincoln laid down his life to save the Union and to bring about a United States that lived up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal.” Though the nation did not give Lincoln the peace he desired “with malice toward none; with charity for all,” the legacy he left behind bore fruit, and today, evidence of which holds the same office as he once held.

Today, when you look at a penny or a $5 bill, think of the man who saved the Republic and ended slavery.

Aaron Manuel is a print journalism senior and may be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment