Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1861 until his death on April 15, 1865. Lincoln successfully led the nation through its greatest constitutional, military, domestic and moral crisis – the Civil War, which resulted in his goal of preserving the Union.
Lincoln was raised in a poor family on the western frontier and was mostly self-educated. He became a country lawyer, a Whig Party leader, an Illinois state legislator during the 1830s, and a one-term member of the United States House of Representatives during the 1840s. After a series of debates in 1858 that gave him a national profile and brought his opposition to the expansion of slavery to prominence, Lincoln lost a Senate race to his opponent Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln, a moderate from what was then a swing state, secured the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1860. With almost no support in the South, Lincoln swept the North and was elected president in 1860, with less than 40% of the popular vote. His election was the signal for seven southern slave states to declare their secession from the Union and form the Confederacy. The departure of the Southerners gave Lincoln's party firm control of Congress, but no formula for compromise or reconciliation with the south was found. When the North rallied behind the national flag after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Lincoln concentrated on the military and political dimensions of the war effort. His goal was to reunite the nation. As the South was in a state of insurrection, Lincoln exercised his authority to suspend habeas corpus, arresting and temporarily detaining thousands of suspected secessionists without trial.
Lincoln's efforts toward the abolition of slavery include issuing his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, encouraging the border states to outlaw slavery (mostly as a war policy). This led to Congress passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which finally freed all the slaves nationwide in December 1865. Lincoln closely supervised the war effort, especially the selection of top generals, including his commanding general Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln brought leaders of the major factions of his party into his cabinet (forging what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin would term a "team of rivals") and got them to cooperate. Under Lincoln's leadership, the Union set up a naval blockade that shut down the South's normal trade, took control of the border slave states at the start of the war, gained control of communications with gunboats on the southern river systems, and tried repeatedly to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Each time a general failed, Lincoln substituted another until finally Grant succeeded in 1865.
An exceptionally astute politician, Lincoln reached out to War Democrats and managed his own re-election in the 1864 presidential election under the banner of the coalition "National Union" Party. As the leader of the moderate faction of the Republican party, Lincoln found his policies and personality were attached from all sides: Radical Republicans demanded harsher treatment of the South, War Democrats desired more compromise, Copperheads (northerners wanting a negotiated peace) despised him, and irreconcilable secessionists plotted his death. Politically, Lincoln fought back with patronage, by pitting his opponents against each other, and by appealing to the American people with his powers of oratory. His Gettysburg Address of 1863 became the most quoted speech in American history. At the close of the war, Lincoln held a moderate view of Reconstruction, seeking to reunite the nation speedily through a policy of generous reconciliation in the face of lingering and bitter divisiveness.
Six days after the surrender of Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee, Lincoln was assassinated by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln's death was the first assassination of a U.S. president and it sent the nation into mourning. Lincoln has been consistently ranked by scholars and the public as one of the three greatest U.S. presidents. For many he was the greatest of all.
Throughout the destruction and carnage of the war, Lincoln maintained his compassion, his humanity and his love of the common man. He was not vindictive and approved generous terms of peace when the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia was imminent. It is Lincoln's magnanimity, his compassion and his empathy that are very relevant today and sorely needed. His demonstration of these qualities in the most difficult of times make Lincoln relevant today.
Throughout what was likely the worst period in his nation's history, Lincoln maintained his humor and his his kindness. He took his job very seriously, but he did not take himself seriously. These are qualities that are crucial to strong leadership because they put the people ahead of ego and personal prosperity. They are needed now perhaps more than ever. It is Lincoln's humility and his his humanity that provide an outstanding example of what true leadership is and continue to make him very relevant today.