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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
Nonetheless, the hallmarks of Lincoln's greatness were his ability to grow and his willingness to change his mind. During the war, he had come to embrace the Radical position on immediate emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers (both policies he had initially opposed). In 1864 he privately suggested to Governor Hahn that Louisiana allow some blacks to vote under its new constitution, singling out the educated, propertied free blacks of New Orleans and those who had served in the Union army. In April 1865, shortly before his death, Lincoln for the first time publicly stated his support for this kind of limited black suffrage.
Andrew Johnson lacked Lincoln's qualities of greatness. While Lincoln had been open-minded, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and able to get along with all elements of his party, Johnson was stubborn, deeply racist, and insensitive to the opinions of others. If anyone was responsible for the wreck of his presidency, it was Johnson himself, first by establishing new governments in the South in which blacks had no voice whatsoever, and then refusing, when these governments sought to reduce freedpeople to a situation akin to slavery through the Black Codes, to heed the rising tide of northern concern. As congressional opposition mounted, Johnson refused to budge. As a result, Congress swept aside Johnson's Reconstruction plan, enacting a series of measures pivotal in the rightful enlargement of American citizenship and freedom: the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which accorded blacks equality before the law; the Fourteenth Amendment, which put the idea of equality unbounded by race into the Constitution; and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868, which mandated the establishment of new governments in the South, enabling black men to vote for the first time in U.S. history. Despite the Constitution's injunction that the president enforce the laws, Johnson did everything in his power to obstruct the implementation of these measures. In 1868, fed up with his intransigence and incompetence, the House impeached Johnson; after a trial in the Senate, he came within one vote of conviction.
It is impossible to imagine Lincoln, had he lived, becoming so alienated from Congress, the Republican Party, and the northern public as to be impeached and almost removed from office. Nor does it seem likely that he would have enunciated a policy and then stuck to it in the face of self-evident failure. Lincoln had grown enormously during the Civil War, and his ideas would undoubtedly have continued to evolve during Reconstruction. Even if, like Johnson, he had set in motion the establishment of all- the South in 1865, he undoubtedly would have listened carefully to complaints about the Black Codes and been willing to heed the outcry in the North for further guarantees of the rights of former slaves.
Lincoln had always been willing to work closely with all factions of his party, including the Radicals on numerous occasions. I think it is quite plausible to imagine Lincoln and Congress agreeing to a Reconstruction policy encompassing basic civil rights for blacks (as was enacted in 1866) plus limited black suffrage, along the lines he proposed just before his death. The Radicals would have demanded more, but moderates, not Radicals, dominated Congress. Ironically, it was Johnson's intransigence that pushed moderates toward the Radical position, resulting in the Reconstruction Acts. Had Lincoln and Congress reached an agreement in 1866, universal black male suffrage would not have followed, at least not immediately.
Would a more moderate Reconstruction, backed by a united Republican Party and overseen by Lincoln, have sunk deeper, more permanent roots than the more radical plan eventually implemented? No one, of course, can say. The vast majority of white southerners, supported vociferously by the Democratic Party of the North, were deeply opposed to any equality for the former slaves. Johnson encouraged them to resist the implementation of congressional measures, helping to set the stage for the wave of terror by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups that did much to undermine Reconstruction.
Perhaps, confronted by a united Republican Party and a president willing to enforce the law, white southerners would have accepted the basic rights of the former slaves. In that case, the nation might have been spared the long nightmare of disenfranchisement, segregation, and racial violence that followed the end of Reconstruction. Or perhaps even a more moderate Reconstruction would have aroused violent opposition, and Lincoln would have faced the alternative that in fact eventually faced Congress—moving forward to full black suffrage and a federal commitment to protect blacks' rights as citizens, or relegating the freed people to quasi citizenship under the domination of their former masters. It is impossible to say what choice Lincoln would have made under those circumstances. All we do know is that his assassination brought to the White House a man unable to rise to the demands of one of the most challenging moments in our nation's history.