What if Lincoln Had Lived?

Let me begin by saying that the title of this post is one of the most-asked questions about the Civil War/Reconstruction era.  Let me add that the answers usually tell me far more about the perspectives and opinions of the person asking the question than about Lincoln.

First, having stipulated that the real answer is “We don’t know,” let’s set that aside.  Instead, let’s recall that Lincoln himself wasn’t sure.  He said as much during his last cabinet meeting, in which he recognized that with the war coming to an end (like others, he saw Lee’s surrender to Grant as marking that transition), the policies he had framed in response to wartime priorities might no longer be best suited to coming circumstances.  Thus it would be a mistake to project wartime policies on the postwar situation, because Lincoln recognized the need for change.

Moreover, usually the question of “what if Lincoln had lived?” becomes “how would Lincoln have worked with the (supposedly radical-controlled) Congress?”   This discussion quickly becomes problematic.  First, scholars have shown that the radicals did not have the upper hand, period.  They viewed what emerged in 1866 and 1867 as a set of compromises and concessions.  Second, even those policies were in large part a response to the events of 1865 and 1866, including black codes, race riots, white southern intransigence, and so on … all which in real life was largely condoned by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.   So, if Lincoln lives, the more historically accurate question would be how he would have dealt with the behavior of former Confederates in 1865 and 1866.  I don’t see Lincoln putting up with such recalcitrance, and he certainly would not have condoned what happened at Memphis or New Orleans, and he certainly would not have tolerated the KKK … all of which happened prior to the framing, let alone passage, of the Reconstruction Acts.  What apologists for southern white supremacist terrorism claim was a reaction to the policies of congressional Republicans in fact preceded those measures.

When it came to African Americans, indeed, by 1865 Lincoln was in a different place than he had been in 1862 (recent claims to the contrary notwithstanding).  Lincoln had been looking for a limited place for blacks in the postwar political order privately in 1864 and publicly in 1865.  Whatever remained of any sentiment for colonization was at best an effort to offer freedpeople an option, not a mandate or preferred policy.  African Americans would be part of the postwar polity, and Lincoln knew it, even embraced it.  The presence of blacks in Union ranks had helped move him in that direction; part of the result was his willingness to sign the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill on March 3, 1865, just twenty-four hours before he spoke of “malice toward none (including black people) and charity for all (including black people).”  That’s right, “none” and “all” are not simply former Confederates–that’s an implication made by others who believe that Lincoln would have been so in favor of reconciliation that he would have resembled a kinder, gentler Andrew Johnson.

I doubt Lincoln would have followed that path.  Only a year before he had spoken about retribution for what had happened at Fort Pillow, although he abandoned it as impolitic.  The idea that he would have signed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and then attempted to destroy the bureau, as Johnson tried to do, is ludicrous.  The idea that he would have tolerated white supremacist violence is equally ridiculous.  With Congress not in session until December, maybe the real question is what would the white South have done had Lincoln lived … and what would Lincoln have done had the white South behaved as it did with Andrew Johnson as president.  For, had white southerners acted differently in 1865 and 1866, congressional Republicans would have faced a different political terrain as they embarked upon proposing legislation.  Everything else changes.

It always astonishes me that so many people deprive white southerners of historical agency in 1865-66.   Yet their actions in 1865 and 1866 (as well as the behavior of Andrew Johnson) did much to shape what was to follow.  To assume that Abraham Lincoln would have tolerates white southern behavior as Andrew Johnson did does such violence to the historical record as to render serious discussion moot.

29 thoughts on “What if Lincoln Had Lived?

  1. Lyle Smith May 18, 2011 / 4:37 pm

    To tolerate and to control are two different things, I think. Lincoln would have needed to have been very rough with the South. Would he have been rough enough? Tougher than Johnson probably, but tough enough? We’ll never know.

    My guess is ultimately things wouldn’t have gone much different than the way they ultimately turned out. America just wasn’t black friendly yet. I mean southern ballplayers didn’t keep blacks out of major league baseball in the coming years… northern ballplayers did. What’s that tell us about race relations in late 19th century America, especially when native-Americans and white Latin-Americans were allowed to play?

    … and then Plessy vs. Ferguson came from a majority non-Southern court. Which I guess was a product of nationwide Democrat politics, i.e. white non-southern Democrats working in partnership with white southern Democrats. White supremacy, from sea to shining sea.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 19, 2011 / 12:29 am

      I don’t think I’d equate segregation in baseball (or anywhere else) with terrorism/murder. Saying racism was national is one thing: equating segregation with terrorism is another.

      • Lyle Smith May 19, 2011 / 6:39 am

        Oh, I don’t mean to equate segregation to white supremacist terrorism by mentioning the coming segregation in baseball. It wasn’t the same thing. The white southerners who perpetuated violence against blacks and whites to maintain white supremacy had complete agency in their actions. It’s the same with violent Islamism today… radicalized Muslim men have complete agency in their terrorist actions.

        My point is not to deny white southern terrorism, but to point (I think we agree) to white America as a whole having problems with black people and others racial minorities postbellum; especially blacks though, which contributed to bringing segregation to fruition a generation after the war.

        White southern terrorism, at least in the years immediately following the Civil War, (to me) was just an extension of how the white South had dealt with slaves in the antebellum South. It’s how they understood their world and it was their culture. Breaking this culture wasn’t going to happen over night… and it apparently took about a century (some might say longer) to die out. So I do have my doubts about what Lincoln could have actually accomplished in regards to changing white America’s views on black Americans… and of course controlling the white South long enough politically to allow black Americans equality under the law.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 19, 2011 / 9:27 am

          I think Lincoln was realistic about white racism nationally, but I don’t think he foresaw its manifestation in the Reconstruction South. It astonished Grant.

          • Ray O'Hara May 19, 2011 / 10:49 am

            the big difference between Lincoln and Grant was Abe was a consummate politician who knew how to make deals and out maneuver his opponents and Grant was a poor politician who didn’t know how to “horse trade”.Where Licoln could dominate Grant couldn’t do the same.

    • Ray O'Hara May 19, 2011 / 7:24 am

      How do you know it was Northern Whites that kept Blacks out and not just all whites in general?
      the worst, most evil, most corrupt, most racist player to ever play Baseball was Ty Cobb, he wasn’t called the Georgia Peach because he was from Brooklyn.

      the last MLB team to have a Black player was the Boston Red Sox who were owned by Tom Yawkey a South Carolinian who lived in S.C.

      • Lyle Smith May 19, 2011 / 9:11 am

        Because southern white ballplayers weren’t playing in major league baseball in the 1870s and 1880s.

        Specifically, it was the ballplayer Cap Anson and his cohorts (born in Iowa and playing in Chicago) who got blacks banished from major league baseball. It all started when Anson and other white players refused to play against a team that fielded a black player. This was in 1883. Ty Cobb and southern ballplayers didn’t make it into the league until later on… Cobb’s career started in 1905 to be precise. The first Texan to play in the majors, Chief Wilson, didn’t play until 1908 (I think he was the first, but I’m not sure and need to check).

        Major league baseball was also a northern only professional sporting enterprise (the modern game being mostly invented in and around New York city), unless you count Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and St. Louis as “the South”.

        The bottom line is that Cap Anson and his Chicago team of white supremacists were not southern, and the leagues that came to support Anson’s segregationist views were not located in the South.

        • Lyle Smith May 19, 2011 / 9:50 am

          Okay, using Baseball Reference (sorting by birthplace) there are more than several native Texans who made it to the majors prior to or with Chief Wilson, the earliest being Dan McFarlan in 1895.

          Only 3 Texans debuted in the Major Leagues before 1900.

          South Carolina only had 3 players debut before 1900 as well. The earliest being in 1890. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the eighth South Carolinian to play major league baseball and he debuted in 1908.

          Ty Cobb’s Georgia had 7 players debut in MLB prior to 1900. The earliest being Bill White in 1879 (so this guy was around at the time – went to Brown University in Rhode Island). The Georgia Peach was the tenth to play, debuting in 1905.

          Bottom line, these leagues didn’t have a whole lot of crackers playing in them at the time. 🙂 Prior to 1883 there were probably as many blacks as white southerners playing in these leagues, i.e. just a handful; maybe even a few more blacks than white southerners (if they even thought of themselves as such).

          • Lyle Smith May 19, 2011 / 11:02 am

            … and actually black ballplayers were playing until the late 1880s (George Stovey, a black pitcher, got pushed out of the league in 1887). 1883 was just the first time Anson and others refused to play against a black ballplayer (Fleet Walker) in a major league baseball game. Anson apparently participated in keeping Stovey out of major league baseball though, along with others.


  2. Matt McKeon May 18, 2011 / 6:07 pm

    Would white America, north and south, made the social, political and psychologically adjustment to create a biracial society in 1865? Did the moral commitment exist? Would the federal government make the kind of commitment it did in the 1950s and 60s during the civil rights movement? Or was Reconstruction a doomed effort because of the shared racist assumptions of white America in the 1860s.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 19, 2011 / 12:26 am

      One can certainly argue that American racism helped lead to Reconstruction’s outcome, but it seems to me that white southerners were far more intent on securing white supremacy through violent repression and terrorism while many northerners were apathetic about the whole business and lacked the will (or stomach) to deal with southern atrocities. In both cases racism’s important, but equating the two sections in this regard tends to give short shrift to southern actions as opposed to northern inaction.

      • Ray O'Hara May 19, 2011 / 7:26 am

        It’s the old Souhern lament “It’s the Yankees fault because they didn’t stop us”

      • Michael William Stone June 16, 2015 / 9:29 am

        Basically, Southern Whited felt more strongly about the issue than did most Northern ones. So the former needed only to go on resisting until the latter lost interest – a situation little affected by who is POTUS in 1865-9.

        I’ve nothing against Lincoln who was unquestionably a great man. But he couldn’t square circles, and even if the first four years after Appomattox are different from what we remember, I don’t really see what is changed a decade or so down the line..

        For Reconstruction to “work” requires white Southerners to behave as if there are still tens of thousands of Union troops are in occupation when, in reality, well over 90% of them have gone away. Not very likely, regardless of who is President.

  3. Matt McKeon May 18, 2011 / 6:07 pm

    “make” not “made”

  4. Sherree May 19, 2011 / 5:50 am

    “The idea that he would have tolerated white supremacist violence is equally ridiculous.”

    Hi Brooks,

    Agreed when it comes to the Freedman’s Bureau and the protection of African American men and women. How about when it comes to Indigenous men and women and westward expansion? White supremacist violence was definitely involved in US relations with the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Apache and other Native nations in the West, as it was in the East. Had Lincoln lived, he may have been somewhat kinder and gentler in dealing with Indigenous men and women than those presidents who actually presided over the conquering of the West, but I doubt that he would have done anything substantial to stop it–another legacy of our shared racist past that we have yet to overcome,as recently evidenced by the use of Geronimo as codename for our nation’s most wanted terrorist, now deceased. That was a real slap in the face for many Indigenous men and women, especially for veterans, and quite indicative of the need to “Indigenize” not only the academy, but the nation.

    I enjoy your posts, but am not quite certain how to address you following your recent coronation as “blog deity”. 🙂 Thanks for shunning the “ivory tower” mentality and for engaging the “public” (whatever that means)in dialogue. Sherree

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 19, 2011 / 8:59 am

      I do not think Lincoln would have been as understanding of the claims of indigenous people as he was of the freedpeople.

  5. Chuck Brown May 19, 2011 / 7:35 am

    I agree that Northern racism, apathy, and lack of will were not equivalent to southern whites’ determination to maintain white supremacy in any form they could.

    Prior to the war southern whites believed that abolition would lead to racial equality, race mixing, and race war. It is naive to believe that these fears subsided when the war ended. Look at some of the arguments and concerns expressed by the descendants of this generation in their opposition to civil rights almost a century later.

    Lincoln’s views on race changed dramatically during the course of the war. Lincoln would not have followed the path of the white supremacist Johnson. His comments related to voting rights for black veterans and literate black men on April 11, 1865, would have gotten him killed on the spot if Booth had had his way.

    Lincoln was a friend to the South only to the degree that the South followed the law and did not maintain the status quo in the form of some disguised servitude.

  6. Mosby May 19, 2011 / 8:21 am

    President Lincoln’s veto of the Wade-Davis Bill (which easily obtained a majority of Republicans) and its bitter aftermath of fallout with Ben Wade and H.W. Davis practically guarantees there would have been some sort of continued strife with the radicals. And it shows the radicals had enough numbers to make Lincoln’s life difficult, even if they didn’t win every single vote.

    Also Lincoln’s statements to General Butler in 1865 suggest that colonization was NOT just a fleeting option for the slaves who wanted it after the war. He wanted to ship conceivably tens of thousands of them to Panama to dig the canal. That’s a mass scale migration.

    And keep in mind that the 1865 Freedmen Bureau Act only set up a skeleton of the agency it would become. It didn’t do much else than formalize and consolodate things that the War Dept. and other agencies were already doing, like providing food for the refugees. It wasn’t really until the Radicals were battling with Johnson that it was organized enough to become something more.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 19, 2011 / 8:58 am

      Exactly where would Lincoln and the radicals have differed in the spring of 1865? Perhaps over the treatment of former Confederate leaders. Where else? Perhaps confiscation and redistribution. But that’s about it.

      I think you need to reread the Butler account to make sure you know what Lincoln said as opposed to what Butler proposed. Butler did most of the talking and all of the recollecting.

      I also think you had better reread the history of the Freedmen’s Bureau, including its legislative history. The original bureau’s scope was cut down by presidential action; Congress’s effort to reestablish that broader scope was vetoed by Johnson, and did not pass, while the bill that passed in July 1866 was more limited in scope.

  7. Charles Lovejoy May 19, 2011 / 9:13 am

    It is very possible Lincoln might of not been very different from Grant’s administration. As Grant , I’m sure Lincoln would have seen the limitations of what the people of the US would and wouldn’t accept. Far as post war radical southerners and indifferent northerners , Lincoln being a much stronger and respected leader than Johnson, I don’t think conditions would have gotten out of control to the extent they did under Johnson. I think we sometimes forget Grant had to clean up the mess Johnson left. With a stronger leader like Lincoln post war would radicals in the south of pushed as they did? Maybe they would have known their limitations under a leader like Lincoln. I see the Johnson presidency as a ‘teacher has left to class room for the day’ type situation.

    IMO Reconstruction was only part of post Civil War America. Railroads needed to be built,coal needed to be mined the western territories needed to be conquered. There was a empire to expand and be built. Its possible any leader would have taken the path of least resistance in order to handle the much other business at hand.

  8. Noma May 19, 2011 / 3:19 pm

    “So, if Lincoln lives, the more historically accurate question would be how he would have dealt with the behavior of former Confederates in 1865 and 1866. I don’t see Lincoln putting up with such recalcitrance, and he certainly would not have condoned what happened at Memphis or New Orleans, and he certainly would not have tolerated the KKK … all of which happened prior to the framing, let alone passage, of the Reconstruction Acts.”

    I’m guessing that we mean, what if Lincoln lived in good health and completed the rest of his term. I know some have argued otherwise, but his last photos don’t make it look like he was going to live much longer, at least not in good health. I think Reconstruction, or Civil War Part II, might have demanded more stamina than he had left. But let’s assume his health would be excellent.

    I think the best thing about Lincoln living was that things would not have gotten off on completely the wrong foot, as they did with Johnson. Also, Grant’s energies would have been better spent. Instead of having his energy diverted into trying to keep the President from undoing the results of the Civil War, he would have been able to devote much more attention to helping Lincoln put the South back together. They would have continued the teamwork they already had started.

    I think one of the biggest contributing factors to the failure of Reconstruction was simply that the majority of people in the North lacked the will and the financial determination to make it work. And that would be a problem that Lincoln would have to face, just as Grant soon had to.

    I don’t think this was going to be like our recent experience in Serbia, where the place was saturated with UN soldiers to keep former enemies from killing each other.

    I think it was going to be more like Iraq, where we had overthrown the top guys, but there were still plenty of scores to be settled, and plenty of people, especially in the formerly powerful class, who wanted to make sure things came out their way. And there were not enough peace-enforcing soldiers to make sure that “democracy did not get messy” to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld.

    At least from one perspective of practicality, the Confederates were right when they claimed that the North was invading their territory. As sometimes happens in the course of history, one power conquers another, but then finds that it does not have adequate military and political power to maintain their dominance over the conquered territory.

    I don’t think that the North’s lack of commitment to maintaining and building the peace in the South came so much from racism (which existed all over, in varying degrees) as from sheer exhaustion from the war.

    We criticize the North for giving too much power to the former elites of the South, and that is probably right. But there were former social relationships which prompted that, and in at least some cases, there were examples of leading Southerners who were ready to defend the rights of the freedmen. George Thomas (a leading Union General) and James Longstreet (a leading Confederate General) were examples that it was possible for leading Southerners to protect the rights of freedmen. Unfortunately, they were too rare, and were quickly regarded as pariahs in the South.

    All in all, I think that if Andrew Johnson had never become president, Reconstruction would have gone much better than it did. But it still would have been a great challenge, even for Lincoln, because the North did not have the stamina to invest sufficient troops or money into the process.

    • TF Smith May 22, 2011 / 7:55 am

      I think your final paragraph nails it; the political and economic calculus is at the root.

      There’s an old saying that the Second World War – certainly in contrast to the First – was the first tme the US waged a “hit and stay” war against a peer competitor since the Revolution; as vast as the US victory was in 1865, I think there is something to the idea that this pattern was the same in the 1870s as it was in the 1920s.


  9. WPH (aka "Mosby") May 19, 2011 / 6:33 pm

    “‘General Butler,’ he said, ‘I am troubled about the
    negroes. We are soon to have peace. We have got some
    one hundred and odd thousand negroes who have been
    trained to arms. When peace shall come I fear lest these coloured men shall organize themselves in the South, especially in the States where the negroes are in preponderance in numbers, into guerilla parties, and we shall have down there a warfare between the whites and the negroes. In the course of the reconstruction of the Government it will become a question of how the negro is to be disposed of.
    Would it not be possible to export them to some place, say Liberia, or South America, and organize them into communities to support themselves? Now, General, I wish you would examine the practicability of such exportation.” – Benjamin Franklin Butler

    He definitely attributes that part of the colonization plan to Lincoln. And the numbers are in the hundred thousands.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 19, 2011 / 10:25 pm

      And so you would think we’d have something other than Butler’s word on this, right? And we might even expect Butler to mention it to Andrew Johnson (Butler had advice to give on other matters at the time; his falling-out with Johnson would not be until later).

      And yet this is all we have. And here’s Butler claiming that Lincoln’s saying this at the same time that Lincoln in public is suggesting that black veterans be enfranchised.

      Interesting that on this one matter that people have decided that Ben Butler was an upstanding and truthful man. Would you apply that notion across the board when it comes to Butler?

      I’ve read the back-and-forth between scholars on whether there was a Lincoln-Butler meeting. That really says nothing about content and agenda. It seems to me that if Lincoln was thinking this way, we’d have some more evidence on the matter. As it is, it all rests on a recollection that is inconsistent with public statements made at the same time.

    • Ray O'Hara May 19, 2011 / 10:26 pm

      As was pointed out we only have “Spoons” account and he is not someonme I’d hang my hat on.

      • Michael William Stone June 19, 2015 / 12:15 am

        And even by Butler’s account, Lincoln made only a passing reference to the idea of exporting the entire Black population. He merely asked whether Butler thought the Navy could handle such an operation (was he smiling when he said this?). Butler of course said no, and Lincoln thereafter never mentioned it again, discussing only the future of the Negro soldiers, who were of course only a fraction of the total number of Blacks.

  10. Michael William Stone June 21, 2015 / 12:42 am

    “For, had white southerners acted differently in 1865 and 1866, congressional Republicans would have faced a different political terrain as they embarked upon proposing legislation. Everything else changes.”

    Not just 1865-66 either.

    One oft-overlooked point is that Radical Reconstruction only got as far as it did because many Southern whites, egged on by Andrew Johnson, boycotted the elections held in 1868 under the Reconstruction Acts, thus allowing Republicans to win by default. In most states, the Republicans’ winning margin exceeded the number of ex-Rebs disfranchised. It was the ones swho disfranchised themselves who allowed the Republicans to win.

    With Lincoln still alive, they might well have realised that such abstention would be fruitless, and grudgingly turned out. In this case (which iirc is pretty much what actually happened in Virginia) most of the Stae governments emerging from these elections would have been a good deal more conservative in character, and Reconstruction would have been even less “radical” than it in fact was.

    I think a lot of people see Andrew Johnson only as an obstacle to Reconstruction, and rather overlook the part he played, however unintentionally, in promoting it.

  11. Robert P. Dean July 11, 2018 / 3:17 pm

    Was the level of violence demonstrated in the Civil War that much of an aberration in US history?
    Was Presidential assassination unusual for that time?
    How much of the robbery, murder and arson that swept over the US was due to the fact that violence was rationalized as the best way to vindicate personal trauma?
    There is not very much evidence that adherence to constitutional law and order, and respect for the rights of minorities was the national norm after the Civil War. Thus if Lincoln had lived he may have given up on two party politics and created a political plan to make the Republicans permanently dominant in enough states to hold the Presidency permanently.
    The unusual thing about the Civil War in the US was that despite the very high level of political violence and unexplained city fires, the Republicans gradually released political power. An economic oligarchy may have evolved, but not a political autocracy.
    Lincoln was not going to suddenly eliminate the readiness of many people in the US to resort to violence to influence politics. A war like the US Civil war has no sharp beginning nor clean end.

  12. Robert P. Dean July 11, 2018 / 3:20 pm

    If President Lincoln had lived longer, and Sec’y Seward had not been severely injured and his family damaged by successive tragedies, the situation would have been markedly different.
    Perhaps Grant would not have felt compelled to run for President. If those two things happen, circumstances change so much the results are unpredictable.

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