Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction

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Whether Lincoln, if he had lived, would have done as Johnson did, is hard to say. Certainly Lincoln would not have hounded Jefferson Davis or other Confederate officials (but, then, the presupposition here is that there would have been no assassination to seem to justify it). To his Cabinet in April he had indicated his hope that there would be no persecution, no bloody work, with respect to any of the late enemy. “None need expect he would take any part in hanging or killing those men, even the worst of them,” Welles paraphrased him. “Frighten them out of the country, open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off, said he, throwing up his hands as if scaring sheep.”

As for the restoration of state governments, it is impossible to guess confidently what Lincoln would have done or tried to do, since the very essence of his planning was to have no fixed and uniform plan, and since he appeared to be changing his mind on some points shortly before he died. In the states already being reconstructed under his program of December, 1863, he doubtless would have continued to support that program, as he did to the last. In other states he might have tried other expedients.

Whether, if Lincoln had lived and had proceeded along Johnson’s lines, he would have succeeded any better that Johnson, is another “iffy” question, impossible to answer. It seems likely that, with his superior talent for political management, Lincoln would have avoided the worst of Johnson’s clashes with Congress. Yet he could scarcely have escaped the conflict itself, unless he had conceded much more to the Radicals than Johnson did.

Another poser is the question whether Lincoln’s approach to peace, if he had lived and had carried it through, would have advanced the Negro toward equal citizenship more surely than did the Radical program, which degenerated into a rather cynical use of the Negro for party advantage. One is entitled to believe that Lincoln’s policy would have been better in the long run for Negroes as well as for Southern whites and for the nation as a whole.