How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Abraham Lincoln?

History Q & A

Mr. Pinsker is a senior associate with JackBurden.com, an on-line "portal to power" service. He graduated from Harvard and received a doctoral degree from Oxford.

There is a widespread impression that Abraham Lincoln entered the White House with practically no experience. Almost everybody has heard stories about how the small-town prairie lawyer served only a single term in Congress and did not hold public office for over a decade prior to his inauguration. Many people even believe that he had been something of a failure in the years before his presidency.

His story has provided one of the nation's more enduring variations on the classic outsider myth - and also one of the more misleading. The truth is that Lincoln became a great president because he was so thoroughly prepared for the demands of the job. During an era of intense partisanship and shifting political alignments, he was arguably the most seasoned candidate and party leader ever to occupy the White House. If this presumably straightforward conclusion has been somewhat lost in the historical shuffle, it is because political virtues are among the least appreciated within an American culture that traditionally bemoans the failures of its"system."


First, there is the often misunderstood matter of Lincoln's track record as a candidate for public office. He lost a popular vote only once, in his very first race for state representative, when he was just twenty-three years old, effectively unemployed and recently arrived in a new town. During a thirty-two year career in electoral politics that spanned from 1832 until 1864, Lincoln (or electors representing him) appeared as a candidate on nine general election ballots. He ran for Illinois state representative six times (1832, 1834, 1836, 1838, 1840, 1854), for U.S. representative once (1846) and for president twice (1860, 1864). His career record of 8-1 compares favorably to presidents or politicians from any period in American history.

Admittedly, this information has been long overshadowed by the ostensible setback he suffered in his famous 1858 campaign to unseat U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas. But that's misleading. During those years state legislatures, not the general public, selected U.S. senators. In fact, Illinois legislators passed over Lincoln twice, in 1855 (for Lyman Trumbull) and in 1859 (for Douglas). Yet those"defeats" should more properly be seen as organizational tests, not personal repudiations. Clearly, political contemporaries viewed them as such, otherwise it is difficult to explain why Republicans kept pushing Lincoln for higher office - not only for senator and president, but also nearly for vice president in 1856. Ultimately, the most relevant testimony on this point might come from the candidate himself. In an autobiographical account prepared for the 1860 campaign, he explained away his rookie defeat in 1832 as"the only time I have been beaten by the people." For a man who usually exuded so much humility, this was an uncharacteristic and revealing outburst of pride.


Today, Lincoln is best known for saving the Union and freeing the slaves, but even without those accomplishments, he would be remembered by at least a few political historians as an important antebellum party organizer. Lincoln entered public life as mass political parties were first forming across the nation, both for and against the administration of President Andrew Jackson. Lincoln opposed most Jacksonian policies and soon migrated toward the opposition Whig Party, which came together in Illinois during the late 1830s. The reputation Lincoln earned as a strong candidate helped propel him almost immediately into the role of party leader. Twice, the Whigs in the Illinois General Assembly nominated the young Lincoln as their candidate for House speaker. He was an early advocate for partisan organization, serving as both de facto floor leader in the House and campaign coordinator in the state's various electoral contests.

But perhaps Lincoln's greatest achievement as a party leader came during the political upheaval of the 1850s when sectional issues broke apart the old Jacksonian-era alignments. A new free soil or Republican coalition emerged across the North that joined together a disparate group of former political rivals bound mostly by their common opposition to the extension of slavery. In Illinois, nobody proved more adept at unifying these various factions than Lincoln.

In 1854, he spoke in most of the congressional districts in Illinois (often as part of"debates" with Stephen Douglas) despite being officially nothing more than a candidate for state representative, rallying both cautious Whigs and fiery abolitionists against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The subsequent legislative contest for U.S. senator initially pitted Lincoln and his faction against several others within the emerging Republican movement until he graciously and shrewdly negotiated the election of a former Democrat into the seat. During the 1856 general election, his principal job was to persuade nativists or Know Nothings (who considered him an ally) to abandon the sinking American Party. Almost alone among prominent Republican figures from the period, he kept political friends in every faction. There were several secrets to his success, but the most important was simply hard work. For example, when a small group of party activists first met in Decatur, Illinois during a snowstorm to formally organize the state's Republican Party, Lincoln was the only politician who bothered to attend.


Even if Lincoln was a successful politician on the state level, however, that doesn't necessarily mean he was well equipped for partisan combat in the nation's capital. Yet in many ways, there was no better training ground for a civil war president than antebellum Illinois. To begin with, the state offered a microcosm of the divided union, stretching from the latitudes of Maine to those of Kentucky and attracting settlers from both North and South. Springfield, the state capital and Lincoln's adopted hometown, rested firmly in the center. Although Illinois had been a free state since its admission to the Union in 1818, several of the town's prominent citizens, including Mary Todd Lincoln's brother-in-law, managed to keep slaves in their homes through the 1840s. And despite homespun images of its prairie life, Illinois was a politically important and sophisticated place. During the 1850s, it was on its way toward becoming the fourth most populated state and was already home to the nation's best-known antebellum political figure, Senator Stephen Douglas. Moreover, in modern political parlance it was a"swing" state, capable of supporting either party in a presidential election and thereby guaranteed serious attention from political organizations and the press.


To fully understand the value of this accumulation of big league political experiences requires some consideration of how much politics mattered in mid-nineteenth-century America. There were federal or statewide elections across the North during 24 out of the 48 months that the rebellion endured. Even more amazing, turnout in the presidential contests generally exceeded 80 percent of the registered voters (albeit under a regime that limited suffrage to adult white males). Practically every major institution in the nation was politicized. The federal government operated almost entirely under the principles of the spoils system. Following his inauguration, Lincoln directed, in many cases personally, the replacement of nearly all federal bureaucrats with supporters from his own party. Within the military on both sides, soldiers generally elected their own company officers, and a majority of generals came from civilian life, including a significant number who, unfortunately for their own troops, earned their appointments through regular party patronage. The Union's most popular general, George B. McClellan, was a Democrat who resisted oversight from Republican politicians and eventually ran for president himself against Lincoln in 1864. Almost all the major newspapers were openly and sometimes fiercely partisan. Henry Raymond, the editor of the New York Times, actually served as the official chairman of Lincoln's 1864 reelection effort.

No wonder a successful candidate and experienced party leader like Lincoln appeared perfectly at home in this charged partisan atmosphere. His early mastery of border state strategy reflected those finely tuned political judgments. His patience with insubordinate generals suggested a wealth of experience dealing with the egos of local political bosses. His ability to defuse potential explosions within his cabinet or Congress showed the value of his years spent building coalitions. His exquisite sense of timing on the evolution of the nation's Emancipation policy recalled the delicate balancing act he had once performed in organizing the young Republican Party. Nothing can fully explain Lincoln's mastery of language and facility for elegant phrases, but clearly his years of honing political messages on the campaign trail contributed mightily to his abilities as a communicator.

Yet out of all of Lincoln's presidential accomplishments, arguably the most courageous was the decision to hold the election of 1864 in the midst of the Civil War and against political opponents who were willing to challenge the very rationale for the conflict. Defeat at the polls would have surely meant the permanent division of the Union and the perpetuation of slavery. The stakes don't get much higher. If Lincoln and his peers had been less confident of his abilities as a candidate, there would have been immense pressure to cancel the elections. Certainly, the president had already demonstrated a willingness to suspend some civil liberties, having allowed his administration to arrest nearly 15,000 political prisoners during the course of the fighting. Fortunately, however, his unshakeable determination that"we can not have free government without elections" helped reinvigorate the Union cause and establish a noble precedent in American history.

Nobody would claim that political experience necessarily equates into presidential success, but it is true that when considering qualifications for the nation's highest office, there is a pronounced tendency to underestimate the value of political, and especially partisan, skills. Lincoln was the only president who was a party leader during not one, but two, periods of partisan realignment. He was a candidate of extraordinary public appeal who took his role as candidate seriously, engaging in extended debates over fundamental issues for years before he became president. During this period of political preparation, he learned how to exercise power in the face of hostile enemies and without the benefit of strong institutions. He became adept at holding together unlikely coalitions and communicating with people. His record clearly demonstrates that running for office can actually help prepare leaders to hold office. In a remarkable way, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated that the"system," so easily maligned then and now, often works with stunning efficiency.

Courtesey of TomPaine.com

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Mary - 10/15/2002

I really love Abraham Lincoln and I like the article that you have on him. He was one of the best presidents of the United States and I really admire him a lot. I think your website should just have a little more details on him! Thanks for your time!