“Lincoln: The Uncertain President”

By Avery Lentz ’14

Many historians who study the United States share a passion for studying Abraham Lincoln’s intricacies and complexities. One of those historians is none other than Dr. Allen Guelzo. Dr. Guelzo has given many lectures on Lincoln, the most noteworthy of which is his four-part lecture series on the President’s life. On January 28, 2014, Dr. Guelzo presented a lecture in Gettysburg College’s Kline Theatre called “Lincoln: The Uncertain President”. The lecture was primarily focused on Lincoln’s rise to power, starting with his debates with Stephen Douglas to the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. Guelzo’s main theme throughout the lecture was showing how Lincoln, during the early years of the Civil War, was confronted with a situation that no president had ever dealt with before. Lincoln was new to the presidency and a war of secession was new to the country.


Dr. Guelzo began with stating that Lincoln became famous from his debates with Stephen Douglas. When the debates took place in 1858, many people believed that Douglas would easily oust Lincoln with his oratorical performance, but were surprised when it was the other way around. Douglas expressed his belief that the country could go on half free, half enslaved and Lincoln argued fervently against it, causing many people to rally behind Lincoln. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Times published accounts of Lincoln’s success during the debates, prompting influential politicians from the Cooper Institute to suggest that Abraham Lincoln run as a presidential candidate for the Republican Party. When Lincoln acquired the Republican nomination, the Southern dominated Democratic Party reacted with concern because of Lincoln’s stance on slavery’s expansion into the western territories.

An event that further made the South uneasy was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Dr. Guelzo pointed out that this event terrified the South and made them believe that it was the North’s attempt to attack slavery since John Brown was backed by New England money. In response, the South put pressure on the Democratic party and nominated John Breckenridge over Stephen Douglas, which caused a split in the party. By 1860, the Democratic Party had split and the South concluded that Abraham Lincoln was just another John Brown. They feared that if he was elected, he would place police forces in the South who “dragged their feet” on reinforcing slave laws, or cause abolitionist literature to spread through the region. Lincoln responded by claiming he was only against the expansion of slavery into the west and not opposed the institution as a whole. Even so, the South didn’t even put his name on the ballot when the election came and when Abraham Lincoln won, secession began.

South Carolina was the first state to leave the Union in December of 1860. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed by March of 1861. President Lincoln did his best to reconcile with the seceded states and promised he would not limit slavery in the South, but when the new states of the Confederacy opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas followed in secession soon afterwards. President Lincoln had no choice but to call for an army to suppress the Confederacy. He called for 75,000 volunteers for ninety days of service, and had his dreams of reconciliation shattered when the Army of the Potomac was defeated by the Army of Northern Virginia at Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Major events followed the Army of the Potomac’s defeat that Lincoln had to address as a new president: Hiring George B. McClellan to train the army and lead them into battle, the death of his son Willie, and the string of Union victories in the West and the Union defeats in the East at the hands of Robert E. Lee. Dr. Guelzo concluded his lecture with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the events leading to Gettysburg. Whether it was finding the Union general that could take on General Lee or issuing a controversial proclamation that no president before him had dared, Abraham Lincoln may have been uncertain in many of these important issues he faced in the early years of his presidency, but he did so because the nation needed him. And in the end, Lincoln would overcome these obstacles to bring the nation back together.


“Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, taken in Pittsfield, Illinois, two weeks before the final Lincoln-Douglas debate in Lincoln’s unsuccessful bid for the Senate, October 1, 1858.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Online. Digital ID: cph 3a18600. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-16377.

Leave a Reply