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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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- Lydia Maria
- William & Ellen Craft
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- Abraham Lincoln
- Sorrow Songs
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Authors: Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

A harvest of Death
[3228] Timothy O'Sullivan, Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July, 1863, courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-B8184-7964-A DLC].

Abraham Lincoln Activities
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Born to impoverished parents in backwoods Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln rose to become the sixteenth president of the United States. His remarkable story of success, his achievements in guiding the country through the Civil War, and his tragic death have afforded him iconic stature within the annals of American history and made him a hero to many. Lincoln had little formal schooling and was mostly self-educated, eventually training himself in the law. After setting up a successful legal practice in Illinois, he became interested in politics and was elected first to the state legislature and later to the U.S. Congress in 1846.

Lincoln's election to the presidency was the result of the complicated American political situation of the 1840s and 1850s, centered on the divisive issue of slavery. While Lincoln is often celebrated for his decision to free the slaves, he in fact came to his commitment to total emancipation only by degrees. Never an actual supporter of slavery, he was still somewhat ambivalent about its place within the country through much of his career: he fought to ban it from the western territories and new states but was reluctant to advocate abolition within the South itself. Lincoln's primary commitment was always to the preservation of the Union, and he was willing to reject abolitionist measures if they seemed to threaten that goal. Despite his attempts to seem flexible and moderate on the issue of slavery, however, his election to the presidency in 1860 polarized the nation. Seven southern states immediately seceded to form the Confederacy. Within a month of Lincoln's inauguration, the Civil War had begun. By 1863, Lincoln was ready to adopt a more radical position and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, finally committing the Union to the total abolition of slavery.

Lincoln's extraordinary skills as a writer and orator were crucial to his political successes and his ability to lead the country effectively through the war. In the early speeches of his career, he worked to connect with the "common man" in the audience, employing a clear, almost legalistic, logic and a satirical sense of humor. As he grew in confidence as a statesman, his speeches retained their clarity but became more powerful and resonant, often drawing upon biblical references and even the cadences of biblical prose. By turning to Christian rhetoric, Lincoln tried to unite the bitterly divided American populace and to garner popular support for a war that turned out to be longer and bloodier than anyone had anticipated. Since Lincoln's tragic assassination one month into his second term in office in 1865, his speeches have come to be revered as enduring expressions of formative American cultural ideals.

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