Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: Abraham Lincoln’s Biggest Mistake

(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.


11 thoughts on “Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: Abraham Lincoln’s Biggest Mistake

  1. centerforhistorystudies June 13, 2014 / 11:18 am

    Re-enactors enjoy pretending to shoot each other but no one is interested in pretending to lynch someone. Although Hollywood has devised a way to make it appear real without hurting the lynchee, there’s no romance in it. The history of Reconstruction makes it clear that the Civil War WAS about slavery. I think many people are uncomfortable with Reconstruction because not all of its issues have been left in the past. I believe Reconstruction was at least as much about race relations as about federal interference in the states. Reconstruction lacks the “glory” and the romance of men showing what they’re made of on the field of battle. One reason that blacks were not welcome in the army by many white soldiers is that if blacks could fight as well as whites, then maybe combat does not define manliness. Could adult black males actually be MEN?

  2. Mark June 13, 2014 / 4:52 pm

    >> 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.

    I agree. Because it was bound to be messy, difficult, and unsatisfying doesn’t mean that what happened was no more than that. It was worse, and I don’t think it had to go as badly as it did under Johnson, and was poisoned during his term.

  3. Joe wurzer June 13, 2014 / 7:29 pm

    Pre War he failed as he could have stopped the war. How? Federalisem. We will allow slavery if chosen and will defend it where it is.

    Lincoln was a woffker and did not say I am status quo! If he was anti status quo 1-60 dead a Holicaust not needed!

    Pre election he was GOP red meat to win. He boxed himself in and refused to be a statesmen.

    His shield BUCHANAN’S NEAR TRESON!!!!!!!

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 13, 2014 / 8:22 pm

      I think your comment speaks for itself … after a great deal of interpretation.

      • John Foskett June 14, 2014 / 8:34 am

        What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

  4. Susan June 14, 2014 / 1:03 am

    Was the compromise of 1877 somehow avoidable?

  5. Patrick Young June 14, 2014 / 3:08 am

    Civil wars are political wars. The Confederates never surrendered, only their armies did.

  6. Thomas Maes June 15, 2014 / 6:23 am

    And he be would thrilled too know that every year American`s celebrate his B-Day with a mattress sale!

  7. Abraham July 6, 2014 / 5:20 am

    Abraham Lincoln and his companion’s story in holy Quran since 1400 years with accurate dates and coordinates

  8. Shoshana Bee August 17, 2016 / 11:05 pm

    One of the few beneficial side effects of this election season is a renewed interest in Johnson by historians. In turn, more references than usual have been made about Johnson, and to my personal benefit: I actually sat down and read about the “Swing Around the Circle” speeches. The content is very revealing regarding how little things have changed over the last 150 years. Another surprise is the similarity in the views on riots involving the slaughter of African Americans between a particular individual who blogs that the Memphis riots were “encouraged” by the North (by lack of intervention), and Johnson’s claims of “incitement” of black violence by the “Radical Congress”. I guess that some things never really change.

    28 August is fast approaching. Perhaps we shall experience another self-destructive “swing” and the election nightmare will finally end with a the revelation of what we already know to be true: We have a potential second Johnson in the making.

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