Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What If Abraham Lincoln Had Not Been Assassinated?

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of the most shocking moments in American history. It has been seared into the collective consciousness of the country in the same way that unexpected news of the death of parent is seared into a mind of an individual. We can all see ourselves in Ford's Theater, as Our American Cousin is being acted out on the stage, the President enjoying the production in his box seat above and to the right. We can almost hear the shocking sound of the gunshot, sense the confusion of the crowd as John Wilkes Booth leaps from the stages and shouts something before running away, and then feel the terror as Mary Todd Lincoln's piercing scream echoes throughout the theater. In that awful moment, Abraham Lincoln became the Christ-figure of the American civil religion, the man who had to die to exorcise the sin of slavery from the country.

It also created one of the most intriguing alternate history questions of all: what if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated?

There is no need for any elaborate "point of divergence" in this scenario. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were accompanied to the play by Major Henry Rathbone and his wife. Historically, Rathbone did not hear Booth as the assassin entered the box. The first inkling he had that something was amiss was when Booth fired the fatal bullet into Lincoln's head. He attempted to grab Booth and apparently struggled with him for a few moments. Booth seriously wounded Rathbone with a knife and leapt from the box onto the stage. For the rest of his life, Rathbone was torn by guilt over his failure to prevent the assassination. He eventually succumbed to complete mental instability and murdered his wife in a fit of rage, spending his remaining years in an asylum for the criminally insane.

What if Rathbone had heard the door open behind him and seen the shadowy figure of Booth approaching the President from behind? One can imagine the major, who was an experienced soldier, reacting quickly and accosting Booth before he had a chance to fire his gun. The President, no weak man even at the age of 56, would have reacted as any man reacts when his wife is threatened and jumped up to help Rathbone restrain the assassin. In all likelihood, Booth would have been pinned to the ground and President Lincoln would have ended the evening wiping a bit of sweat from his forehead and making a wry joke about Booth overplaying the role he had recently performed in Julius Caesar.

So what would have been the ramifications of Lincoln surviving the assassination attempt? To answer that question, we need to look at what the situation was on April 14, 1865. By that date, the American Civil War was effectively over. Robert E. Lee's vaunted Army of Northern Virginia had been forced to surrender at Appomattox. Joseph Johnston and the remnants of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina were about to follow suit and the few remaining Confederate forces, scattered across the South, were either about to give up or simply falling apart. Attention was rapidly shifting from winning the war to securing the peace.

The Republican Party was of two minds regarding how to manage Reconstruction. Radical Republicans, led by men such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner (the latter will be a major character in my upcoming novel House of the Proud) were not interested in reconciliation. They believed that the South needed to be punished for secession, for bringing on the war, and for practicing slavery in the first place. They wanted to remold Southern society into something completely different from what had existed before. Lincoln disagreed, wanting Reconstruction to be as painless as possible and for normalcy to be restored as quickly as it could. His main goal was not revenge, but reconciliation between the North and South.

Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction had been articulated as early as 1863, after large portions of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana had come back under Union control. It was called the Ten Percent Plan. As soon as ten percent of a Southern state's voting population had sworn loyalty to the Union, those people could reform a loyal government and the state would be readmitted to the Union, provided that they accepted the abolition of slavery. Moreover, aside from a few high-level Confederate military officers and government officials, full pardons would be extended to those who had taken up arms against the Union. In Lincoln's vision, as the war was won, each rebellious state would come back into the Union as its territory fell under federal control. Once the Confederate armies disintegrated or were forced to surrender, it would a fairly straightforward matter for the states to be restored to the Union. The war would be won, slavery would be ended, and the Union would be restored.

The Radicals strongly disagreed with Lincoln's plan. Their view of Reconstruction was articulated most clearly in the Wade-Davis Bill, named for Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Davis of Maryland. The bill required a majority of a state's voting voting population to take an "ironclad oath" that they had never supported the Confederacy before the state could be readmitted to the Union. This was clearly not going to happen, since the vast majority of the South's white population had supported the Confederacy. It would require a generation to pass before a majority of a state's voters could take such an oath and during all that time the conquered South would have essentially been subject to the rule of the Congress in the same way that the territories in the West remained subject to Congress until they became states themselves. In 1864, Lincoln pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, preventing it from becoming law and infuriating the Radicals.

So there were two competing Republicans visions of Reconstruction, those of the Moderates led by Lincoln, whose views were summed up in the Ten Percent Plan, and those of the Radicals led by Sumner and Stevens, whose views were summed up by the Wade-Davis Bill. The views of the Democrats, largely marginalized by the events of the war, were scarcely considered. The defeated Southerners, needless to say, could only wait and see what their Northern conquerors were going to do.

Historically, Reconstruction was essentially a failure. Andrew Johnson, the uncouth drunk who became President upon Lincoln's death, pursued the lightest possible Reconstruction policy. Former Confederates very quickly were returned to positions of authority in the Southern states, passing legislation known as "black codes" to prevent the newly freed slaves from exercising any real freedom. President Johnson actively opposed granting blacks the right to vote, utterly enraging the Radical Republicans. Aside from the bare fact that slavery was abolished and blacks were no longer the legal property of white people, it was almost as if nothing had changed since before the war.

Johnson's policies were so wildly unpopular that the Radical Republicans soon realized that they had sufficient strength in Congress to override the President's vetoes of their legislation and that they could pass anything they wanted. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 outlawed such state practices at the black codes, undermining the legitimacy of Johnson's Reconstruction policies. Not long after that, Congress attempted to throw Johnston out of office via impeachment. Though they failed by a single vote in the Senate, Johnson was so humiliated that whatever political power he retained was swept away. He remained an inert nonentity until replaced in the White House by Ulysses Grant in 1869.

Radical Reconstruction now began. The South was subjected to martial law by the occupying Union Army, which protected blacks from revenge attacks and ensured their ability to vote. Republicans gained control of the Southern state government via the electoral coalition of freed slaves, scalawags, and carpetbaggers. Former Confederates were largely disenfranchised. The 14th and 15th Amendments, ensuring equal rights to all citizens and guaranteeing that the right to vote would not be denied on account of race, were pushed through the ratification process.

Many of these efforts, such as the protection of the freed slaves and the passage of the constitutional amendments, greatly benefited the nation. Yet in treating the ex-Confederates as the people of a conquered province, rather than as wayward friends the way Lincoln had desired, the Radical Republicans were throwing kindling onto a dangerous fire. A ferocious anger and bitterness was instilled in the hearts of the proud Southern people, ensuring that they would take revenge as soon as Reconstruction ended.

And that's what happened. Reconstruction wasn't going to last forever, as the Radical Republicans should have realized. After the 1876 election, President Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal to break the impasse of his questionable election that removed the army of occupation from the South. Like bowling pins, the Republican state governments in the South were knocked over and replaced with Democratic governments dominated by former Confederates. Voting rights for the blacks were ruthlessly stripped away through such means as literacy tests and poll taxes, 15th Amendment be damned, The age of Jim Crow had dawned, which would last for nearly a century, until the age of Martin Luther King.

In my opinion, for Reconstruction to have been a real success would have required the voting rights of both the ex-Confederates and the freed slaves to somehow be protected. In this way, whites and blacks in the South would have had to learn to live with one another a century before than the civil rights movement. The ex-Confederates would not have been able to sweep their black neighbors under the political rug, but neither would they have been embittered by having their own rights stripped away from them by the Radical Republicans. If anything like a fair and stable society, on the road to equality for all people, could have emerged from the fires of the Civil War, something like this would have had to happen.

What if Lincoln had not been shot that awful night in April of 1865? What if he had served a full second term, only leaving office after the 1868 election?

Lincoln was perhaps the greatest political genius America has ever produced. He had a sense of perspective and a vision that no one else in American history has come close to matching. If anyone could have somehow created a political framework in which the voting rights of both blacks and the ex-Confederates were protected, it was Lincoln. Only he could possibly have navigated the minefield of Radical Republicans, ex-Confederates, Democrats, freed slaves, and all the other interest groups.

If Lincoln had survived and remained committed to his Ten Percent Plan, subsequent American history would have been radically different and, I believe, much more pleasant for all concerned. We should not think that the South would have been transformed into some sort of post-racial utopia in such a scenario, but it is at least possible that a surviving Abraham Lincoln would have been able to forge a political solution that would avoid the racial darkness of the Jim Crow era and set America on a more proper course.

In the meantime, with the war over, Lincoln could have pursued the goals of expansion and modernization that were his dream. It's often forgotten that more took place during Lincoln's presidency than the Civil War. The Homestead Act was passed, opening vast tracts of western land for settlement, and promoting the building of railroads to link the eastern and western sections of the nation together. He brought the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Agriculture into being. His vision of a united America, in which distinctions of North and South were entirely secondary, was as clear as a shining star.

In firing the deadly bullet, John Wilkes Booth did more than just manifest his own hatred and bigotry. Booth crippled the United States of America for decades, perhaps a century. For that reason, his memory should be damned forever.

1 comment:

  1. There's actually a short novel called "Binding Wounds" by Talmadge Walker, which deals with how Lincoln survives his assassination attempt and works toward a better Reconstruction, with help from such figures as Frederick Douglass, Wade Hampton, Robert Smalls and John Mosby. Its speculative and shorter than I would've liked, but was interesting and entertaining. You might want to give it a look.