Abraham Lincoln, 1860 (printed c. 1881)

George B. Ayres, after Alexander Hesler
Platinum print

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of David A. Morse

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“The restless engine of his ambition”


Lincoln was continually underestimated by his opponents, and even his friends. Because he had not served long in national politics—only one term in the House of Representatives—he was seen as a nonentity; the smart money certainly did not consider him to be of presidential timber.


Quietly ambitious, Lincoln launched himself as a major figure in the Republican Party, promoting northern unionism in his senatorial campaign against Democrat Stephen Douglas in 1858. Moreover, Lincoln created a focused campaign organization that won him the Republican presidential nomination.


By 1860, with the national political parties splintered, Lincoln ran against three opponents, the most prominent of whom was Douglas. After a hard campaign, in which the South ratcheted up the secession rhetoric, Lincoln won with a plurality of the popular vote and an overwhelming Electoral College advantage. With “Black Republicanism” triumphant, South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20.

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