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Abraham Lincoln and the Beginnings of Reconstructi
Abraham Lincoln and the Beginnings of Reconstructi

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Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rapidly growing white population and the equally increasing
slave population had been heightening the conflict between slave-free Northern states and the slave-holding cotton belt
South. Hopelessly divided over the issue of slavery, thirty-one million American citizens were in 1860 called upon to
elect the sixteenth President of the United States of America. When the anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln was
elected on November 6, 1860, no fellow American could have even imagined what great burden would lay upon the
highest office in the years to come.[1] Lincoln’s election was the ultimate trigger for eleven Southern states to withdraw
from the Union and begin a desperate civil war that lasted for four years. Once it became clear the South could not win
the war, the president was confronted with the question of Reconstruction, that is, to restore Federal authority and
establish loyal free state governments in the occupied areas of the rebellious South. In the early phase of the war,
Lincoln had favored a simple and rapid restoration of all areas conquered by Union armies. However, when Lincoln
failed to restore the states’ old allegiances, he shifted his plan towards a much more radical proposal. By 1864, after the
bloody campaigns of Gettysburg and Vicksburg have sacrificed the lives of tens of thousands men, Lincoln resolved
that he would only allow slave states to reenter the Union if they supported both the abolishment of slavery and the
establishment of black suffrage.

In the months following Lincoln’s election, the country fell to pieces, beginning with South Carolina in
December, 1860. Within four months, the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas,
North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee had all seceded and formed the new Confederated State of America.[2]

Was the secession of these states legal? Even more, was their secession constitutional? While the
secessionists thought themselves to be fully within their constitutional rights, Lincoln persistently believed that “the
Union of these States is perpetual” and “no State, upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union”.
Convinced that the “Union is much older than the Constitution”, Lincoln argued that this document was written
“’to form a more perfect Union.’ … In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-country-men, and not in mine, in the
momentous issue of civil war.”[3] Lincoln’s warnings came too late. Thinking war better than Reconstruction, the
Confederacy started the bloodiest war in American history.

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