(This post first appeared at Civil Warriors on March 12, 2009.)
Last February 12, several historians chatted about aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s public life in front of an attentive audience. I happened to be one of those four historians, along with Jennifer Weber, Bruce Levine, and Vernon Burton. During a question and answer session, someone asked the simple question, “What was Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake?” Several of the people on the panel muttered something about George McClellan. My answer, which I have given before, was simple and direct: allowing Andrew Johnson to run as his vice presidential running mate in 1864.
In the last month since I gave that answer, two other blogs have raised this issue as well. Brian Dirck classifies this as Lincoln’s “worst flub”; Kevin Levin raises some questions about this, offering as a counterfactual “who should Lincoln have chosen?”
It might be a good idea to keep the following considerations in mind in discussing this issue:
1. It’s open to debate as to whether Lincoln actually chose Johnson as his running mate. I tend to believe that Lincoln had no objection to Johnson and saw him an an acceptable option, although in the 19th century presidential nominees rarely “named” their running mates as they do today. Nor was it all that unusual to change vice presidential nominees: for example, Ulysses S. Grant ran with two vice presidential running mates (Schuyler Colfax in 1868, Henry Wilson in 1872). But it is plain that Lincoln expressed neither objection nor surprise, and he did nothing to retain Hannibal Hamlin.
2. By 1864 Lincoln was well aware that his life was in danger. Indeed, just over a month after Johnson’s nomination, Lincoln placed his life in danger at Fort Stevens. So the president was well aware of the possibility that his vice president might become president through the act of an assassin.
3. It would have been difficult for anyone to imagine the sort of presidency that Johnson actually conducted, but Lincoln knew Johnson, and was well aware that when it came to issues of race and slavery, Johnson did not share his views (and Lincoln had honored Johnson’s request to omit Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation). Lincoln also knew that Johnson was a fierce southern Unionist (a rare commodity outside of the ranks of the military), so much so that he was not as lenient as Lincoln … or so it seemed at the time.
4. There were alternative candidates, including Benjamin F. Butler and Daniel S. Dickinson. I’m amused to hear from the comments in Kevin’s blog that William H. Seward was a Radical Republican … he was Johnson’s supporter during Johnson’s presidency. Seward may have played a role in Johnson’s getting the nod. Then again, I’m amused whenever I hear about the Radicals getting their way during Reconstruction, for it would have come as a surprise to the Radicals themselves. I think the myths of Reconstruction are in their way more damaging than many of the myths and memories of the American Civil War.
5. Kevin remarks that he thinks it’s proper “to ask whether another choice within the political parameters governing such a choice would have made much of a difference.” My answer: hell, yes. Andrew Johnson was a particularly destructive force in the White House, unless you like white supremacy enforced through terrorist violence. As controversial as Butler might have been, blacks would have done much better under a Butler presidency. One can, I think, argue that there was no way Lincoln could have foreseen the course of action Johnson took, but he did not exercise due diligence in the way he did, for example, with Salmon P. Chase when it came to black rights. That Reconstruction became as “radical” as it became can be explained in part by the Republican reaction to Johnson’s policies … presidential policies which sanctioned much of which was worst in the reaction of white southerners to defeat and emancipation.
I happen to think that one can’t determine what the Civil War did and did not accomplish without considering Reconstruction as part of the process. Not to do so is akin to assessing the Iraq War as ending in 2003. It really is time for people who claim an interest in the American Civil War to give Reconstruction the same attention that they give to the war of 1861-65.