When Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States in 1860, the American population included about four million slaves, and the issue of slavery was literally tearing the country apart. Slavery had been outlawed throughout the industrial North, but the economy of the South depended on cotton grown by slaves on large plantations. Many Southerners hoped to continue to expand cotton production on lands in the American West. So after the new Republican Party adopted a platform of opposing any further expansion of slavery, Southern editorialists and politicians began calling for secession from the Union if its candidate—Lincoln—were elected. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven states had made good on those threats and withdrawn from the United States to form the Confederate States of America.
Lincoln himself hated the idea of slavery. But since the U.S. Constitution allowed it, he could see no legal way to abolish it. A constitutional amendment would require ratification by three-fourths of the states, which was practically impossible because almost half the states at the time allowed slavery.
As a rising politician, Lincoln had said repeatedly that he wanted only to prevent the further spread of slavery. And as the new president, he had a higher priority: trying to preserve the Union. In his inaugural address, he argued that secession was illegal and pleaded with Southerners to peacefully rejoin the Union, reiterating again that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where it existed. In response to the talk of war in the air, he promised that there would be no Northern invasion of the South—but also that if federal installations in the South were attacked, he would do what was necessary to protect them. He closed the speech with an eloquent hope that Americans, North and South, would remember the ties that bound them and be governed by “the better angels of our nature” in finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
That hope was dashed just over a month later. On April 12, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The cannon shots were the opening fire of the Civil War, and four more Southern states soon joined the Confederacy.
At the war’s beginning, many on both sides assumed it would be over quickly. Instead, it would last for four years; claim about 750,000 casualties, or two percent of the U.S. population; and physically devastate the South, where most of the fighting took place. As the war dragged on and its terrible costs mounted, Lincoln came to believe that suppressing the rebellion while leaving the underlying issue of slavery unresolved would be unconscionable. The change in his thinking was helped along by the fiery writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass, a former slave who was one of the era’s foremost abolitionists and orators. Before the war, Douglass was an outspoken critic of the Republicans’ “preserve the status quo” position, arguing that it was actually pro-slavery. He attacked Lincoln as indecisive and railed against his support for “colonization” schemes designed to remove freed blacks from America. But as the two reflected on each other’s speeches and directly exchanged letters, they gradually developed a mutual respect and understanding. They finally met in 1863, when Lincoln issued an invitation that made Douglass the first African-American man invited to meet with a sitting president at the White House.
By the summer of 1862, Lincoln was drafting an executive order freeing slaves in areas that were in rebellion against the United States. Avoiding the constitutional question for the moment, he argued that it was a military necessity, since slaves grew food, built fortifications, and performed other services that aided the rebellion. But the formal issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 also changed the terms of the war, making ending slavery one of its official aims.
As eventual Union victory grew more likely, Lincoln followed up on the Emancipation Proclamation by working behind the scenes in Congress for the passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery throughout the country. That amendment, the 13th, was ratified in December 1865.
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