Magazine article American Heritage

Special Section: Lincoln's Legacy: As We Approach the Bicentennial of His Birth, Leading Historians Look at the Man and His Achievements

Magazine article American Heritage

Special Section: Lincoln's Legacy: As We Approach the Bicentennial of His Birth, Leading Historians Look at the Man and His Achievements

Article excerpt

During the campaign of 1860, and throughout what Henry Adams would justly call the "Great Secession Winter" that fell like a shadow after that year's momentous presidential election, a convincing case could be made that Abraham Lincoln was totally unprepared to assume the nation's highest office, particularly at the hour of its gravest domestic crisis.

At best a dark horse, Lincoln had won his party's nomination only when more seasoned stalwarts such as William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase faltered at the raucous convention. Not only was Lincoln the least experienced candidate that year of any political origin, but as the Republican presidential candidate he also represented the youngest and least tested political organization in the country.

Though largely unknown outside his home state, Lincoln nonetheless refused to barnstorm on his own behalf during the six long months between his designation and Election Day. Insisting that he had said all he needed to say on doctrinal issues, and proclaiming only that he stood by the Republican Party platform affirming opposition to the spread of slavery by any means into new national territories, he remained calmly ensconced in Springfield as the opposition splintered. His few private letters show astounding poise and confidence--or was it "the valor of ignorance"?--as he presciently estimated votes.

Though his formidable foes included a thrice-elected member of the U.S. Senate, the nation's sitting vice president, and a former senator and cabinet secretary, Lincoln--merely a one-term ex-congressman who had failed in every election since his service in the House a decade earlier--handily prevailed.

Even so, his victory--in which he amassed less than 40 percent of the popular vote, the smallest total ever to go to an outright winner--did little to reassure Northerners, particularly Democrats. And it did nothing to placate Southern fears that he would use his slim margin to destroy the slave power. The stock market plummeted, the timid demanded concessions, and several Deep South states proclaimed that they would secede from the Union. If ever an orderly transfer of power to a new president seemed open to question, it was then. …

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