What If Lincoln Lived?

Today is the unfortunate anniversary of the shooting of Abraham Lincoln at the hands of assassin John Wilkes Booth.  Other than Washington, no President stands on anyone’s “Greatest Presidents” list more than Lincoln.  A few short days after Lee surrendered, Lincoln was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

There is usually conjecture on what a second Lincoln term would have meant had events not turned out so tragically.  Having just fought a costly Civil War in terms of money and over 600,000 lives lost in some of the most brutal combat of the 19th century, Lincoln left this world and the Nation in the hands of his Vice President, Andrew Johnson.  Most historians agree that Johnson was ill-equipped for the challenges of the post-war era in that he lacked Lincoln’s political skills in building coalitions.

Still, was Lincoln prepared for the challenges in the aftermath of the war?  He never laid out any specific plan for reconstruction.  But some of his comments, writings and actions during his first term indicate where he may have gone.  The first is suffrage for the newly freed slaves.  He wrote that he would likely be forced to exact universal suffrage for blacks from the former Confederate states, or at the very least, “suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.”  Lincoln seems to be giving a nod here to the notion of literacy testing for voting.  However, he also realized that the voting power of newly freed slaves would have to be necessary to offset the voting power of Southerners who, although they lost the war, many did not lose their racist attitudes.

In 1860, Lincoln offered the proposition that every man- including blacks- should be given the opportunity to improve their condition in life.  In the world of the 1860’s, that meant land ownership.  The Freedman’s Bureau was set up to reward newly freed slaves with “forty acres and a mule” towards those ends.  But, unlike the Radical Republicans in Congress who sought to punish the South, Lincoln’s plan was more conciliatory.  It was to be land abandoned by plantation owners, or those who failed to pay their taxes.

Further, Lincoln was aware that although slavery always lingered in the background, it was the country’s Western expansion, or Manifest Destiny, that precipitated the Civil War.  Newly gained lands and territories and whether slavery existed in them dominated political discourse since the end of the Mexican War.  During his administration, Lincoln signed homestead acts to settle the west and opened huge tracts of public land to private ownership.  On this very day, he promised Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax he would point the newly freed slaves to the gold and silver of the west.  This would accomplish the same goals as the Freedman’s Bureau.

Most importantly, Lincoln likely would have been more conciliatory towards the former Confederacy and he meant the motto: “Malice towards none and charity for all.”  Lincoln was moved by images of the ravages of war whether at Gettysburg, or after Richmond fell.  There was no wish to hunt down Confederate Generals and officials.  By the same token, he was not averse to scaring them off.  This would clear the way for a coalition of white Unionists and newly freed slaves which would establish a “practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation.”

In his 1863 address to Congress, Lincoln suggested that if 10% of voters in the Confederacy swore an oath to the Union, they could then form a new state government and be welcomed back.  Some called this an “inverted pyramid” of democracy, considering the 10% threshold too low.  Louisiana had been Union-occupied since 1862 and by 1864 their pro-Union Governor, Michael Hahn, produced a state constitution that abolished slavery well before the 13th Amendment.  Further, Lincoln had refused to sign the Wade-Davis bill which established a more stringent set of requirements for establishing governments in the South.

Had Lincoln’s 10% solution been the preferred policy, it likely would have encouraged more Southern states to “secede” from the Confederacy sooner.  In Tennessee as military Governor, Andrew Johnson imposed more stringent requirements that exceeded the policies of Lincoln.

Before the war, Lincoln was not a Radical Republican.  Unlike others, such as Thaddeus Stevens, he never called for the confiscation of white person’s land in the South and redistributing it among newly freed slaves.  Lincoln also never really supported unlimited voting rights for newly freed slaves, nor did he see reconstruction as an opportunity to enforce sweeping social change on the South.

Perhaps he thought that the former Whigs- reluctant secessionists- would pick up the slack, treat the former slaves fairly, and draw them and the Whigs into the Republican Party.  Shortly before his death, he suggested to Governor Hahn of Louisiana limited voting rights for blacks.

Whereas Lincoln was open-minded and more accepting of opposing opinions and criticism, he was likewise attune to political opinion in the North.  He was able to get along with other factions of his party.  Johnson lacked these qualities and he faced a hostile Congress that eventually impeached him.  Because of Johnson, the Radical Republicans had out-sized influence in Congress.  It should be noted that the Radicals at no time held a majority in Congress, yet they dictated policy under the Johnson Administration.  Johnson’s intransigence forced the Republican moderates into the arms of the Radicals.

Most likely, the slow arduous journey for newly freed slaves towards universal suffrage and enhanced civil rights would have taken longer under a President Lincoln, but there may have been less animosity and reluctance in the South than experienced under a President Johnson.  The vast majority of white Southerners after the war were against equal rights for the newly freed slaves and that opposition found a home in the Democratic Party.  Johnson more or less through a wink and a nod encouraged this resistance to change and he helped set up the atmosphere that created a range of organizations- most notably, the Ku Klux Klan- to oppose Reconstruction.

Perhaps, if confronted with a united rather than fractured Republican Party, the Nation may have been spared a period of segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence which defined the Reconstruction Era and its aftermath.