Abe Lincoln in Real Time: How The Atlantic Covered the 16th President

On what would have been Honest Abe's 205th birthday, a look back at what this magazine had to say about him during his term and beyond
Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

On this day in 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln's second child was born. In the years since Abraham Lincoln's death, the nation's admiration for him has never dimmed—and as we mark his 205th birthday, amid Civil War sesquicentennial celebrations and with a celebrated biopic still in recent memory, his stature may be near its peak. Yet the passage of time makes it harder to imagine and understand Lincoln as he was, rather than as a quasi-mythical figure carved in stone, looming over the National Mall or the South Dakota hills.

This is why it's so important and worthwhile to consider contemporary recollections and to read accounts from the years since, to see how our understanding of who Lincoln was, what he wanted to achieve, and his role the nation's history has changed over time. The archives of The Atlantic, stretching back to 1857 when Lincoln was just an Illinois lawyer and failed congressman—before his famous debates with Stephen Douglas—provide a tour. As a magazine founded on abolitionism, The Atlantic had common cause with Lincoln and supported his campaign for president; and as a magazine founded on abolitionism, it sometimes grew exasperated at the pace with which Lincoln pursued the end of slavery and the methods he used. Here's a brief tour through of Lincoln's life and legacy as viewed through the ages at The Atlantic.

October 1860: Vote for Lincoln

Though the magazine's stance was officially nonpartisan, editor James Russell Lowell decided the stakes were so high as to demand an endorsement in the 1860 presidential election. Lincoln himself is almost a fleeting presence in Lowell's stemwinder of a polemic. The editor voices skepticism that Lincoln will abolish slavery; in fact, he writes, the Republican is likely to govern as a conservative:

We are persuaded that the election of Mr. Lincoln will do more than anything else to appease the excitement of the country. He has proved both his ability and his integrity; he has had experience enough in public affairs to make him a statesman, and not enough to make him a politician. That he has not had more will be no objection to him in the eyes of those who have seen the administration of the experienced public functionary whose term of office is just drawing to a close. He represents a party who know that true policy is gradual in its advances, that it is conditional and not absolute, that it must deal with fact and not with sentiments, but who know also that it is wiser to stamp out evil in the spark than to wait till there is no help but in fighting fire with fire. They are the only conservative party, because they are the only one based on an enduring principle, the only one that is not willing to pawn tomorrow for the means to gamble with today. They have no hostility to the South, but a determined one to doctrines of whose ruinous tendency every day more and more convinces them.

April 1862: Emerson: Mr. President, Free These Men

Lowell's assurances aside, Ralph Waldo Emerson—one of the magazine's founders—was calling on Lincoln to adopt emancipation within two years. After a lengthy plea in that direction, Emerson closed with a paragraph displaying the cheerful improvisation of a writer who didn't have the time or will to completely rework an essay when late news broke. Lincoln had not gone as far as Emerson would have liked, perhaps, but he was happy to enthusiastically celebrate what progress there was:

Since the above pages were written, President Lincoln has proposed to Congress that the Government shall cooperate with any State that shall enact a gradual abolishment of Slavery. In the recent series of national successes, this Message is the best. It marks the happiest day in the political year. The American Executive ranges itself for the first time on the side of freedom. If Congress has been backward, the President has advanced. This state-paper is the more interesting that it appears to be the President's individual act, done under a strong sense of duty. He speaks his own thought in his own style. All thanks and honor to the Head of the State! The Message has been received throughout the country with praise, and, we doubt not, with more pleasure than has been spoken. If Congress accords with the President, it is not yet too late to begin the emancipation; but we think it will always be too late to make it gradual. All experience agrees that it should be immediate. More and better than the President has spoken shall, perhaps, the effect of this Message be,—but, we are sure, not more or better than he hoped in his heart, when, thoughtful of all the complexities of his position, he penned these cautious words.

November 1862: Celebrating Emancipation

Emerson had more to celebrate later that year. In the November 1862 issue of the magazine, the Sage of Concord wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation:

A day which most of us dared not hope to see, an event worth the dreadful war, worth its costs and uncertainties, seems now to be close before us. October, November, December will have passed over beating hearts and plotting brains: then the hour will strike, and all men of African descent who have faculty enough to find their way to our lines are assured of the protection of American law ....

We confide that Mr. Lincoln is in earnest, and, as he has been slow in making up his mind, has resisted the importunacy of parties and of events to the latest moment, he will be as absolute in his adhesion.

June 1865: Lincoln Among the Freedmen

By the time the June 1865 issue arrived, the president would be dead, one of the last casualties of the war. But a dispatch—presumably sent to the printer before his assassination—from the vanquished Confederate capital captured the brief euphoria between the moment when the war was nearing its close and before Lincoln's death. Charles Carleton Coffin's almost minstrel-show depiction of the demeanor and language of the freed slaves who greeted Lincoln is jarring and uncomfortable to modern ears, but the image of the president's arrival remains powerful:

There was no committee of reception, no guard of honor, no grand display of troops, no assembling of an eager multitude to welcome him ....

There were forty or fifty freedmen, who had been sole possessors of themselves for twenty-four hours, at work on the bank of the canal, securing some floating timber, under the direction of a Lieutenant. Somehow they obtained the information that the man who was head and shoulders taller than all others around him, with features large and irregular, with a mild eye and pleasant countenance, was President Lincoln.

"God bless you, Sah!" said one, taking off his cap and bowing very low.

"Hurrah! hurrah! President Linkum hab come!" was the shout which rang through the street.

The Lieutenant found himself without a command. What cared those freedmen, fresh from the house of bondage, for floating timber or military commands? Their deliverer had come,—he who, next to the Lord Jesus, was their best friend! It was not an hurrah that they gave, but a wild, jubilant cry of inexpressible joy.

They gathered round the President, ran ahead, hovered upon the flanks of the little company, and hung like a dark cloud upon the rear. Men, women, and children joined the constantly increasing throng. They came from all the by-streets, running in breathless haste, shouting and hallooing and dancing with delight. The men threw up their hats, the women waved their bonnets and handkerchiefs, clapped their hands, and sang, "Glory to God! glory! glory! glory! "—rendering all the praise to God, who had heard their wailings in the past, their moanings for wives, husbands, children, and friends sold out of their sight, had given them freedom, and, after long years of waiting, had permitted them thus unexpectedly to behold the face of their great benefactor.

July 1865: Mourning Lincoln

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Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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