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SMITH: Lincoln’s major debut
Question of the Day
The war ended in April 1865 and a new America was about to be born. President Lincoln, who had visited the captured capital of Richmond (not to punish but to pardon) on April 4-5, would return to Washington where he - as the “savior” of the country - would be assassinated on Good Friday and die the following day.
Immediately after the conclusion of the Civil War, three new amendments - within only five years - were added to the Constitution specifically for the protection and promotion of the welfare of blacks. The 13th Amendment of 1865 abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment of 1868 awarded blacks the rights of citizenship (reversing the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott ruling), and the 15th Amendment of 1870 provided black males the right to vote. The last time the Constitution had been amended was in 1804, and it would not be amended again until 1913.
The purpose of all this is to underscore the simple fact that had Lincoln won the Lincoln-Douglas Debates he would have been sworn into office in 1859, the year of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and its immediate aftermath, which included Brown’s arrest, trial and subsequent execution.
Therefore, it is impossible to imagine Lincoln leaving the Senate (an institution distinguished by such pre-Civil War notables as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster - all of whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) to run for the presidency in 1860.
So the making of a new America - severed entirely from slavery - was largely made possible because Lincoln’s loss to Stephen Douglas left him available to run for the nation’s highest elective office, which he secured and used to achieve victory over national division and social injustice.
Edward C. Smith is a professor and the co-director of the Civil War Institute at American University.
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