The Complex Story of Abraham Lincoln and How He Saved the Union

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we remember President Abraham Lincoln. This Thursday is the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.


Abraham Lincoln is the only president in American history to lead a nation divided by civil war.

At the heart of the issues that divided the South from the North was slavery. Southern states withdrew from the Union because they saw a threat to their way of life. Their agricultural economy depended on the labor of slaves originally brought from Africa. The states thought the federal government would free the slaves.

South Carolina was the first to leave. It did so shortly after Lincoln's election in November of eighteen sixty. Six other states followed by the time he took office in March of eighteen sixty-one. In his inaugural speech, Lincoln begged southern states not to leave the Union.


We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

Abraham Lincoln did not receive a majority of the popular vote in the eighteen sixty election. But he won enough electoral votes to become president.

Lincoln fought to keep the Union together. He led a civil war in which more than six hundred thousand Americans were killed. And, in leading that war, he took the first steps that would destroy the institution of slavery.

(MUSIC: "Battle Hymn of the Republic")

Most whites did not consider blacks -- or negroes, as they called them -- to be their equal. Lincoln was no different. But he believed that slavery was wrong.

Yet he thought that slavery would die out naturally over time -- and that outsiders should not force southerners to end slavery. He explained his position many times in speeches, debates and letters, including this one written in eighteen fifty-eight:


I have made it equally plain that I think the negro is included in the word "men" used in the Declaration of Independence.

I believe the declaration that "all men are created equal" is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that negro slavery is violative of that principle; but that, by our frame of government, that principle has not been made one of legal obligation; that by our frame of government, the states which have slavery are to retain it, or surrender it at their own pleasure; and that all others — individuals, free states and national government — are constitutionally bound to leave them alone about it.

But Lincoln changed his mind. Some historians think the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie had an influence. The president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, had four children, all sons. Three got sick and died. Only one lived past the age of eighteen.

Tom Schwartz is the Illinois state historian and an expert on Abraham Lincoln. He says the president began to think seriously about the meaning of life after Willie died in eighteen sixty-two. Lincoln never joined a church, but he believed in a supreme being who created every person with a purpose in life.

After his son's death, Lincoln decided that one of his purposes was to be an emancipator -- to begin the process of freeing the slaves. A few months later, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

Many people think the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. It did not. It only declared slaves in the Confederacy to be free. In other words, only slaves in the southern states that did not recognize Lincoln as president.

Lincoln read the first draft of the document to his cabinet in July of eighteen sixty-two, five months after Willie's death.

A new stage play has been written about those five months in Lincoln's life. "The Heavens Are Hung In Black" by James Still is the first play being presented in the newly redecorated Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. That is the same theater where President Lincoln was shot in eighteen sixty-five.

Historians say that by writing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln established a moral purpose for the war. No longer was the purpose simply to bring the southern states back into the Union. Now his declaration made freeing the slaves a long-term goal of the conflict.

It put the Confederate states in the position of fighting for slavery -- even though most of the soldiers were too poor to own slaves. And it increased the military strength of the Union by making it possible for free blacks to serve in the northern army.

Political opponents and the press criticized actions taken by President Lincoln.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees free speech and a free press. Yet Lincoln briefly closed some newspapers.

Another action that he took was to suspend the right of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a legal term for the right to have a judge decide if a person is being detained lawfully. The request is made to the court in a written document called a writ.

The Constitution, in setting limits on Congress, says in Article One: "The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Suspending habeas corpus means that a prisoner can be held without trial for as long as the government wants.

Abraham Lincoln or his cabinet officers suspended that right several times. They believed they were acting within the Constitution.

President Lincoln knew that he would be criticized for issuing such orders without waiting for congressional approval. Yet he himself was not sure what powers he had in many situations. American history could offer no guide. After all, the country had never before had a civil war.

Lincoln made his orders temporary. And he made sure the country held its next presidential election as planned in eighteen sixty-four, when he was re-elected.


Abraham Lincoln was born into a poor family in Kentucky. He grew up in Indiana and later moved to Illinois. He loved to learn. He was a self-taught lawyer who served for eight years as an Illinois state representative.

But he also suffered from depression all his life. Doctors at that time called it melancholia. He wrote letters about killing himself and saying that he was the "most miserable man alive."

Lincoln was a tall man with a long face, long arms and large hands. Political opponents called him names like "gorilla." Many said he was unqualified to be president because of his limited experience in national government. Lincoln had served only two years in Congress before his election to the White House.

Yet Abraham Lincoln is often called America's greatest president. He is remembered as the man who saved the Union and re-invented it at the same time.

By including blacks, Lincoln expanded "the borders of freedom," says historian Tom Schwartz. Lincoln himself said his purpose was to provide "an open field and a fair chance in life." He succeeded in beginning that process, though black Americans did not gain full civil rights until the nineteen sixties.

Abraham Lincoln was the first presidential candidate of the modern Republican Party. He included political opponents in his cabinet, which is unusual. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this in her two thousand five book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

But some historians suggest that the inclusion of opponents may not have been as smart an idea as Lincoln had hoped. In fact, they say that in some cases it may have created more problems than it solved.

But Lincoln was the leading force behind the Thirteenth Amendment which officially ended slavery in the United States. It became law in December of eighteen sixty-five.

By then, Lincoln was dead. On April fourteenth, eighty sixty-five, Southern sympathizer and actor John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford's Theatre. It happened five days after the South surrendered and the Civil War ended.

Not surprisingly, America's sixteenth president is a hero of another former Illinois lawmaker. Barack Obama has spoken repeatedly of Lincoln's influence in making it possible for the country to have its first African-American president.

President Obama will return to Illinois to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's two hundredth birthday at a big dinner in Springfield this Thursday.


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. Doug Johnson was our reader. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.