The Worst Day in American History

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.”

12 thoughts on “The Worst Day in American History

  1. Allen Gathman April 15, 2011 / 10:29 am

    Great post. There is so much interest in the history of the Civil War that Reconstruction tends to be overlooked, and Johnson’s role in it was disgraceful.

  2. Ric Ben-Safed April 15, 2011 / 3:28 pm

    “What would have happened had Lincoln lived?” is “Americans would have been spared Andrew Johnson as president.” I’ve always wondered what the deeper reasons that Lincoln chose Johnson as his running mate. And I mean pass the usual stuff about the need for a fusion ticket under a new party name. What were Lincoln’s own thinking about it. Its often said that he didn’t expect to ‘win’ a second term. I wonder if they talked with one another in private before the nomination. And just how did the Republican party nominated the Union Party Ticket ? Just curious!

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 15, 2011 / 9:10 pm

      At the time of Johnson’s selection (June 1864), Lincoln was more confident of reelection than he would be in August. The two men did not discuss the selection in correspondence, and they did not meet. The Republicans simply restyled themselves in name, but, really, no one was fooled.

  3. Ray O'Hara April 15, 2011 / 6:07 pm

    I’s imagine the usual “balanced” ticket played the main role.
    Johnson had clout with people they wanted to appeal to, loyal Southerners.
    VPs as a rule don’t become president, most who have were filling an unfinished so they probably never expected he’d be able to move up and be a danger.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 15, 2011 / 9:08 pm

      The problem is that the southern states were not part of the process in 1864. One tends to balance tickets to get votes. Even states with Lincoln governments were hard-pressed to hold elections (Louisiana and Tennessee). Johnson’s Democratic roots would have been more telling in terms of balancing the ticket.

      1865 marked the third time in twenty-four years that a vice president became president upon the death of the incumbent. That’s fairly frequent. Moreover, as Lincoln had been the target of assassination plots, the likelihood of an assassination was somewhat greater.

      • Ray O'Hara April 16, 2011 / 11:27 am

        The 3rd, yes, but all by the death of the President and by then the Union was starting to look good for victory. a nod to the South was not unreasonable.
        as for assassination. I don’t think they took that possibility seriously enough.

        • Brooks D. Simpson April 16, 2011 / 1:03 pm

          Stanton certainly took the possibility of assassination seriously, as did Ward Hill Lamon.

          Johnson was not beloved by many white southerners, especially supporters of secession. That came later.

      • Ned Baldwin April 16, 2011 / 7:07 pm

        I find it fascinating that while southern states were not part of the election in 1864, some of them were part of the Republican convention. Arkansas, for example, had as many voting delegates as Vermont.

  4. Charles Lovejoy April 16, 2011 / 7:11 am

    I think not just southerners forget Lincoln was a native born southerner but just about everybody seems to forget it. I always thought it interesting both presidents , Davis and Lincoln were born in Kentucky. I have at times wondered how differently things would have turned out if Lincoln’s family had moved to Mississippi and not Illinois, or Davis’s family had moved to a northern state and not Mississippi?

  5. Michael in SC April 16, 2011 / 8:30 pm

    I put forward 5 dates as possibilities for the worst day in American history: the days that Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR were born.

  6. Bob Huddleston April 15, 2013 / 11:00 am

    I wonder: without Lincoln’s death and Johnson’s presidency, would the 14th and 15th Amendments have been proposed, let alone passed? Without them, citizenship and voting rights would have remained the prerogative of the individual states. Without them the marriages of Barack Obama’s parents (to say nothing of Clarence Thomas marriage) would be illegal. Without them there would be no Constitutional justification for the various mid-20th Century Civil Rights Acts. Indeed, without the 14th and 15th, Barack Obama’s name would not have even been on the ballot in a quarter or a third of the states. Hopefully the most obstinate conservative would not applaud denying the right of an African-American to run for president. Without the 14th, it would be easy for states to deny American citizenship to children born in the US of parents from other countries. Perhaps Johnson as president led to long term positive things,

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