What if Abe Lincoln Lived?

, Spencer Irvine, 2 Comments

Would the Civil Rights movement have taken place if Abraham Lincoln survived the assassin’s bullet delivered by John Wilkes Booth? Allen Guelzo, a civil war era professor at Gettysburg College, posed this question in a recent lecture at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center.

abraham lincoln

Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, failed to bring the Union together after the end of the Civil War and “barely survived impeachment” from his own Republican Party. Guelzo wondered, “Could Lincoln have found…some practical system” to reconcile the South and North when the war ended. Lincoln had already tried at least one Reconstruction proposal in 1863, which was “bitterly criticized” by Congress for executive overreach. Lincoln’s proposal was to “reconstruct the Union” while integrating universal suffrage (i.e. voting rights) for freed slaves. Congress proposed a different framework for the unified country, which Lincoln vetoed.

As Guelzo noted, Lincoln saw “Reconstruction as a process of subduing the South and returning its states” to the Union and the control of the federal government. He had already begun the Reconstruction process in Southern territories seized by the Union army, such as in Tennessee and pockets in Louisiana. There, Union loyalists began “temporary military government” with state conventions, but the loyalist governments did not follow Lincoln’s instructions to push for universal suffrage. This, in Lincoln’s view, “would be as though the Union had never been disrupted.” Again, Congress “balked” at this move and went on to reject universal suffrage as well.

But, we may never know what Lincoln’s post-war plans were for the Union. In an 1865 address, Lincoln “had some new announcement” regarding the South, but had “nothing more specific to offer” at that time to avoid blowback that transpired from his previous proposals. As one of Lincoln’s judges (who he later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court) David Davis said, “[Lincoln] was the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw.” Guelzo felt that Lincoln aimed to give freed slaves, many of whom served in Union armies, a reward of “full civil liberties, voting rights, especially.” Also, it could have had large sweeping implications for politics, as it would have changed the existing three-fifths rule, where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. With universal suffrage, that requirement would have been eliminated and could have led to a “long term Republican hegemony” in the South.