Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
opponents and the press criticized actions taken by President Lincoln.
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.
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."
habeas corpus means that a prisoner can be held without trial for as long as
the government wants.
Lincoln or his cabinet officers suspended that right several times. They
believed they were acting within the Constitution.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
I'm Barbara Klein. Doug Johnson was our reader. Join us again next week for
THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.