Today is the anniversary of the worst day in American history.
Yes, I know that it’s the traditional income tax due day, although that has been moved this year to April 18, because of a Civil War-related holiday: Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia. Traditionally that’s celebrated on April 16, but since that falls on a Saturday this year, DC employees have Friday off, which in turn moves tax day to the following Monday. And yes, the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg late the previous night. That tragic event led in turn to an equally tragic movie starring that kid from Growing Pains. Historical note: Henry Adams, the American historian who accompanied his father to London in 1861, had booked return passage on the ill-fated vessel.
Moreover, good things have happened on April 15. Today Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day.
Oh, I’m sure some people will point to what happened 150 years ago today, when Abraham Lincoln made his initial call for troops to quell a certain rebellion. But we all know that mobilizing state militia for ninety days was not going to be enough, although the call did have ramifications down the line as the clock was ticking on the expiration of this call as opposing forces converged at Bull Run.
And no, sad as it may have been, April 15 is not the worst day in American history because it’s the day that Lincoln died. Yes, that was a tragedy, at least to many people, although apparently not to all, then and now.
No, April 15 is the worst day in American history because it is the day Andrew Johnson became the seventeenth president of the United States as a result of Lincoln’s death. To the degree that any single person can be deemed responsible for the outcome of Reconstruction, that person is Andrew Johnson. A southerner, an intense racist, and a man who really had no sympathy with the hopes and dreams of the emancipated or with the need to balance reconciliation with the need to secure the fruits of Union victory. Johnson’s impact on the course of American history as president was largely detrimental. His obstructionist attitude and his tolerance of southern violence and racism did much to shape how Congressional Republicans wrestled with Reconstruction.
Usually presidential ranking systems rank certain presidents as “bad” due to ineptitude, stupidity, or corruption. Johnson most richly deserves his lowly ranking because he was a malevolent force as president. Oh, celebrate what he did before the war and in Tennessee during the war, but that does not excuse what he did in the White House. And for those white southerners who look to Reconstruction as a time of resisting Yankee imperialism, it is well to remember that Congress did not convene until December 1865, and that the president in charge of the process for the first four years after Appomattox was one of their own (that white southerners tend to forget that Lincoln, too, was a native born southerner is also worth contemplating).
And so, the answer to the question “What would have happened had Lincoln lived?” is “Americans would have been spared Andrew Johnson as president.”