The union started ‘parting bonds’ before Lincoln was elected

But the former president momentously transcended the nation’s embittered sectional breach during the duration of the protracted hostilities.

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Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln, upon gaining the American presidency in 1860, eventually convinced himself that he would not get a second term.

It was a time of embittered and protracted sectional rivalries that eventually took form as the Civil War. Reminiscent of our present-day circumstances, ongoing controversies during the 1850s included virulent anti-immigrant sentiments in the guise of the so-called Know-Nothing Party; the controversial opinion rendered by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case known as Dred Scott having to do with Scott’s status as slave or freedman; John Brown’s murderous raid at Harper’s Ferry in the name of abolition; and the fact that no American president had attained re-election since Andrew Jackson (1836).

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Then in 1859 the House of Representatives found itself deadlocked with an unprecedented 44 roll calls for more than two months before finally electing its speaker. This episode, mostly obscured from our contemporary vantage point, foreshadowed the nation’s imminent sectional breach, preceding the secession of Southern states and culminating in the onset of the Civil War. “Nothing yet,” explains historian James McPherson,” had so dramatized the parting bonds of union as this struggle in the House.”

Now — with absence of Southern representation in Congress — President Abraham Lincoln promoted consequential domestic legislation. Exemplars included: the Homestead Act; formation of land-grant colleges; creation of the National Academy of Sciences; and momentous enabling legislation authorizing construction of the transcontinental railway stretching across the Mississippi River, which connected Chicago to the Pacific coast while exerting momentous inter-regional commercial transactions bolstering the nation’s economy. These overall legislative enactments, some momentous and enduring, transcended the protracted burdens of wartime.

Such milestones underscored the political acumen of President Lincoln vis-à-vis his relationship with Congress. All the while, of course, he endured the moment-to-moment burdens of wartime at the helm of the divided republic. Routinely he instinctively stirred in the first hours of the morning, making his way into the map room of the White House to examine telegraphed dispatches from distant fields of battle. In much of this the achievements of Lincoln, in spite of the unrelenting burdens weighing upon him, momentously transcended the nation’s embittered sectional breach during the duration of the protracted hostilities. 

Here we turn to President Lincoln’s apprehensions. He had envisioned suffering ignominious defeat at the ballot box upon standing for reelection in 1864. Nonetheless amid the confounding circumstances burdening him the American electorate knew otherwise upon extending his term of office for his ill-fated second term. Epic battlefield successes of the Union Army — especially Atlanta as well as Gettysburg – would alter the political landscape in spite of Lincoln’s understandable foreboding about his future prospects.

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Lincoln’s domestic achievements, of course, assumed unparalleled and enduring form upon affixing his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863. Itself a source of partisan controversy; he returned to it vis-à-vis his epoch address on the battlefield in Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863 (“ ... whether this nation might endure”).

On a joyless note on April 15, 1865, President Lincoln briefly encountered Schuyler Colfax, speaker of the House of Representatives and a future vice-president of the nation. Colfax explained that he would commence traveling later in the day to California. Lincoln famously exclaimed: “How I would rejoice to make that trip.” Alas the pathos of that fleeting moment had occurred on the very day of the assassination of the president.

Michael H. Ebner is James D. Vail III professor of American history, emeritus, at Lake Forest College.

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