Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Assassination of Lincoln

150 years ago today, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the third act of The American Cousin at the Ford Theater... (I pick on the lede - but it's actually a pretty sharp piece of reporting - with the writer also turning over the assassin's gun to the authorities.) Coming 5 days after Lee's surrender, this was a horrible shock to the country - his funeral would be the occasion of intense mourning.

It was a terrible event - and in retrospect, it becomes even more appalling. The Vice President was Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, who had been placed on the ticket as a symbol of unity with the south, and who was already something of a problem. He was given to intemperate remarks - he was considered more vindictive than Lincoln. He'd also made a fool of himself at his inauguration, getting good and plastered and giving a drunken blur of a speech - since then, he'd stayed out of sight and hoped everyone would forget about him. And now he was president. And as president, he set about trying to reconstruct the Union, in a way that brought the old southern slaveholders back to power, let them pass laws that virtually reinstated slavery under new names... The Republicans in congress were having none of this, and passed their own laws, and when he vetoed them, they overrode his vetoes, and when things went far enough, they impeached him.

It was a disaster, the United States government breaking down at a time when it needed to be very sharp, to deal with reintegrating an unrepentant south into the country without surrendering the freedom won by the war. The radicals in congress eventually were able to implement their policies - but only for a few years, and with much of the gains of the war undone at the end of Reconstructions. Could Lincoln have done better? His stated policy toward the south was probably closer to Johnson's than to the radical Republicans - but he was also a better politician, and had a better sense of doing what needed to be done. It seems likely he would have done far more to protect the rights of Blacks after the war - his policies had evolved steadily toward more radical positions toward slavery and race, and it's reasonable to expect that would have continued. But saying that - it is also possible that he would have been hung up on the same issues that destroyed Johnson. It wasn't just Johnson's policies that undid him - it was the villainy of the south, who did everything they could to undo the end of slavery. Johnson's problem, and Lincoln's if he lived, was not so much the radical Republicans as it was the former confederates - Johnson was willing to work with the confederates; would Lincoln have been? would he have been able to get them to accept free Blacks, Black voting, and so on? He might have - but it's no guarantee. And if they didn't cooperate, they were going to come into conflict with the congressional Republicans, the Thaddeus Stevens, Ben Wade, Charles Sumner types - they had won the war, and were not about to give in now. It is possible, in the end, that had Lincoln lived, the next couple years would have undone a lot of his legacy - maybe not likely, but possible.

But none of that happened. Lincoln died, and history went where it did (and where it went ended up being mostly bad - 100 years wasted, basically). And Lincoln's life itself remains as one of the greatest in this countries history. He did win the Civil War - more than any other president won any of our other wars. He was, fairly early in the war, the sharpest strategist - understanding the need to use the Union's advantages in number and material to crush the Confederacy, understanding the need for action and aggression. And as a politician, he kept a very fragile and contentious country together - kept it committed to a bloody and destructive war, until it won. And finally, he freed the slaves - he recognized the reasons for the war, and accepted them, and imagined, during the war, the opportunities it afforded, of making the United States worthy of its imagined view of itself. We were not, before 1863, or 1865, a very admirable country - we were not free, however much we wanted to say we were. Slavery poisoned us, almost incurably - and Lincoln saw that, and moved to change it, and to reinvent the country as what it should have been. That matters. Even if Reconstruction failed, the war, and Lincoln, remained as a reminder of what we were trying to become. We have a model of what the country should be, what it can be, something we can live up to. Abraham Lincoln works pretty well for that.

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