Monday, February 8, 2010

Celebrating Lincoln's Birthday: Civil War era primary sources

Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States in 1860. A moderate on slavery, his election nonetheless incited the southern states to secede from the Union because he was the Republican candidate, and the newborn Republican party was determined to break the back of Slave Power (the enormously rich and powerful lobby of the Southern cotton aristocracy.) His term in office was entirely occupied by the war to defeat the Confederate States of America and bring them back as docile members of the Union. As part of his larger strategy to weaken the South, he declared the slaves in the Confederate States free. Lincoln was re-elected for a second term after narrowly defeating the Confederacy, but was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth before he could take charge of Reconstruction.

Lincoln's presidency had a transformative impact on American history. The most significant and laudable was freeing the slaves in the rebellious states, which quickly led to slavery ending in the Union states that still practiced it. Lincoln also began the historical trend of increasing power of the federal government and the "imperial executive." No one is sure what shape Reconstruction would have taken with Lincoln in charge of it, but after he was assassinated, the process of subduing the Southern states and the half-measures taken to enfranchise the former slaves resulted in going on two centuries of racial and regional tension.

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