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If Lincoln Hadn’t Died...
Would the disastrous Reconstruction era have taken a different course?
Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
What would have happened had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated? Every time I lecture on Lincoln, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, someone in the audience is sure to pose this question—one, of course, perfectly natural to ask but equally impossible to answer. This has not, however, deterred historians from speculating about this “counterfactual” problem.
The answer to the question depends in part on one's opinion of Reconstruction, which for many decades historians viewed as the lowest point in the saga of American democracy— a “tragic era” of corruption and misgovernment brought about by the decision of the victorious North to give the right to vote to the South's freed black men, who were allegedly unfit to exercise it properly. In this interpretation, Lincoln, before his death, had envisioned a quick and lenient reuniting of the nation, centered on forgiving most Confederates and quickly bringing their states back to full participation in the Union. His successor, Andrew Johnson, supposedly sought to implement Lincoln's plan but was eventually thwarted by the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress. Motivated by a thirst for vengeance upon the defeated South or, in some accounts, the object of placing the South under the heel of northern capitalism, the Radicals swept aside Johnson's plan and turned southern government over to incompetent former slaves and their nefarious allies: unscrupulous carpetbaggers from the North and traitorous scalawags (white southerners who cooperated with the Republican Party). Eventually, "patriotic" groups like the Ku Klux Klan overthrew this misgovernment and restored "home rule" (or what we would call white supremacy) to the South.
Ironically, in this account, Lincoln's assassination actually made little difference to the course of Reconstruction. Lincoln, these historians believed, had long been at odds with the Radical Republicans, who would have treated him much as they did Andrew Johnson had Lincoln refused to go along with their plans. They would have forced their own plan of Reconstruction through Congress, overridden any vetoes, and tried to remove Lincoln from office through impeachment, just as they attempted with Johnson in 1868.
This traditional view of Reconstruction has long since been abandoned by historians (although it retains a remarkable hold on popular understanding of the era). Today historians emphatically reject the racist underpinnings of the old interpretation, viewing the Reconstruction as a noble if flawed experiment, the first attempt to introduce a genuine inter-racial democracy in the United States. The tragedy was not that Reconstruction was attempted, but that it failed, leaving the problem of racial justice to future generations. In the modern view, blacks were active agents in shaping the era’s history, not simply the victims of manipulation by others.
Andrew Johnson was a stubborn, racist politician, whose policies alienated not only Radicals (who never controlled Congress) but the vast majority of Republicans.
Where does this new interpretation leave Lincoln? First of all, it is wrong to think that, during the Civil War, Lincoln embraced a single “plan” of Reconstruction. To be sure, in his annual message to Congress of December 1863 he advocated a body of measure by which loyal governments could be established in Confederate states, offering pardons to most southern whites if they swore an oath to support the Union and accept the end of slavery. When 10 percent of the voters of 1860 (all whites, of course) had subscribed to such an oath, they could elect a new state government. Lincoln was particularly interested in creating a loyal government in Louisiana, part of which had been occupied by Union forces since mid-1862. With his encouragement, a pro-Union governor, Michael Hahn, was elected, and a constitutional convention gathered in 1864 that abolished slavery. Lincoln also refused to sign the Wade-Davis Bill, enacted by Congress in the summer of 1864, which established a more stringent set of requirements for the creation of new governments in the South.
It would be wrong, however, to see Lincoln's actions relating to Reconstruction as a fully worked-out post war blueprint. Lincoln viewed wartime Reconstruction primarily as a means of winning the war and ending slavery. Governments resting on the consent of 10 percent of the white population could hardly be considered models of democracy. (Inverted pyramids, one critic called them.) But for even that number to form a government and “secede” from the Confederacy would certainly have been a major victory for the North. In addition, Lincoln allowed other modes of Reconstruction to operate in other states. In Tennessee Andrew Johnson, as military governor, imposed much more demanding requirements on white southerners before they could vote than had been envisioned in Lincoln's 1863 plan. In Arkansas a military-dominated Unionist government functioned during the latter part of the Civil War. Both these states abolished slavery before peace arrived.
Lincoln was not a Radical Republican. Before the Civil War, he had never supported voting rights for free blacks, and he did not see Reconstruction as an opportunity for a sweeping social revolution in the South (apart from emancipation itself)—unlike such Radicals as Thaddeus Stevens, who called for dividing the planters' lands among the former slaves. When he did think about the postwar South, he seems to have envisioned control passing to former Whigs who had been reluctant secessionists. He assumed that this group would treat the former slaves fairly and be attracted to the Republican Party, which before the war had had no presence in the southern states. Universal black male suffrage, already being demanded by Radicals as the war came to an end, was the furthest thing from his mind.