The Reconstruction that Might Have Been

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and Booth.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and Booth.

Lincoln died 150 years ago today. Some time ago, I visited a jeweler’s shop in Northern Virginia and noticed that all the wall clocks were set at 7:22. The shopkeeper had done this because that was the time of the morning on April 15, 1865 when Lincoln expired.

People honored, and honor, his memory for having saved the Union but also for what he might have done to bind up the nation’s wounds after the war was over. For during the war Lincoln had developed an approach that had the best chance of meeting the challenge of Reconstruction, what he called “the most difficult question of practical statesmanship.”

The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said on hearing of Lincoln’s death, “The South has lost its best friend.” He had reason to say so. Two months before, Stephens had been one of the three Confederate peace commissioners at Hampton Roads conferring with President Lincoln and Secretary Seward. There, Stephens had heard the President say “he would be willing to be taxed to remunerate the Southern people for their slaves,” because “he believed the people of the North were as responsible for slavery as the people of the South.” Lincoln repeatedly spoke of the need to compensate the Southern states for their bondmen. His approach to Reconstruction would likewise incorporate incentives for Southern whites to cooperate.

The President’s sense of joint responsibility for the existence of slavery ruled out the North’s acting vengefully toward the South, as if all justice was on the former’s side. There was to be no compromise on slavery itself, nor would any arrangement inconsistent with the ultimate freedom of the black man be tolerated; but his objective for reconstructing the South was reconciling Southern whites to a new birth of freedom.

Rather than coercion, Lincoln’s idea was to rely on incentives to bring a significant number of Southerners around to the new order—particularly for them to accept the freedman as a fellow citizen. This required establishing a political framework conducive to such an outcome. The framework had to be one under which “the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new.”

The opportunity to put these principles into operation in converting a Confederate into a free state came early in the war, when New Orleans and surrounding parishes fell to Union forces on May 1, 1862. There, the President actually managed the establishment of a free state government. Since it was wartime, he had to rely on a small group of Union loyalists brave enough to restore their state to the Union while surrounded by the enemy. He set the number low for establishing a free state government that he could recognize, at 10 percent of the number of those who had voted in the 1860 presidential election.

Political life in the new order had to rise above the issue of race. That meant cultivating a middle ground. On the one hand, the Radical Republicans, while they may have had their hearts in the right place, should not dominate because their aggressive demands for universal suffrage would antagonize native white Louisianans. On the other hand, neither could the conservative Unionists dominate because they wanted to preserve slavery. So Lincoln found men who shared his view of Reconstruction, officials who would act on his “suggestions”—the military commander of the Department of the Gulf, General Nathaniel P. Banks, and later, the elected Governor, Michael Hahn.

Through the efforts of these men, a state constitutional convention composed of delegates that would adhere to the middle road was convened, and a constitution produced, which was later ratified, setting in place the basis for freedom in the Bayou State. The delegates represented a constituency of 12,000 Louisianans.

Banks and Hahn were only able to convince the delegates to authorize the state legislature at some future date to enfranchise qualified Black men, these being men who “by military service, by taxation to support the government, or by intellectual fitness, may be entitled thereto.” Though Lincoln wanted these Blacks enfranchised by the new constitution, he had to accept the delay. In fact, the restriction accorded with his preference for limited or qualified suffrage for Black men because universal suffrage might have been “objectionable to some.” After the war, such important Southerners as General Robert E. Lee and Alexander Stephens also accepted qualified suffrage for Black men.

With this framework secured and an elected government in place, the challenge was to persuade the U.S. Congress to restore Louisiana to the Union by seating its congressional delegation. Although a majority of Republicans in Congress favored recognition, a handful of Radical Republicans who objected to the role of the military and the lack of majority support for the new government filibustered the bill in late February 1865.

In his last public address, April 11, 1865, in which he argued for Congress to recognize Louisiana, Lincoln laid out in compact form the elements of Reconstruction statesmanship. It entailed putting in place laws that would, over time, change the hearts and minds of many white Louisianans to rise above divisions of race. He conceded that 12,000 was not a large constituency with which to found a postwar Louisiana, but stressed that this group needed to be energized by the blessings that Congress could bestow. By recognizing the value of their support for the Union, he said, Congress would

encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success.

And the more the new laws gained adherents, the greater the momentum for building a postwar social compact that served the people well—not one party, but all the people, Black as well as White, Unionist as well as former rebel. The state would be well positioned to begin tackling problems that concerned Louisianans generally, such as the federal cotton tax, tariffs on imported manufactured goods, greater economic diversification, internal improvements, economic growth, and financial and currency stability.

Once such a regime was established, the race issue could be addressed. “The colored man,” said Lincoln, “in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end,” that is, in making the new state of Louisiana last. “All united for him”? Yes, the original 12,000 were in great need of good men to “keep the jewel of liberty in the family of freedom.” They needed the support of qualified Black men, those who were literate, or had fought for the Union. These Blacks would see that by pitching in to help, they too would benefit. They would gain valuable White allies. By such cooperative effort, they would advance a regime in which there was the best chance of their rights being protected.

It was in such an identity of interest with their fellow Louisianans—the Black founders, as it were, with the White founders—that lay the best hope for the Black man. Blacks’ wellbeing would depend upon this identity. This is exactly what happened in the state of Florida under the one Governor of all, Ossian Bingley Hart, who most closely followed Lincoln’s statesmanship in reconstructing his state.

Assuming that the government passed good laws, Louisianans who opposed the Lincoln-Banks-Hahn government would appear as spoilers, acting against a government that benefited their fellow Whites. They would be exposed as saboteurs, seeking to play the race card to undermine the progress brought by the new regime. Such an arrangement of political forces was the best practical means of eroding race prejudice, of placing it in the ultimate course of extinction.

Such a government would have the best defense politically to ward off the angry scheming of those disloyal persons denied the vote or the right to hold public office. Lincoln, for example, had excepted from pardon and amnesty Confederate civil or military officers, or those who had abandoned civil or military positions in the employ of the United States to join the rebellion. In the extreme case where the disloyal attempted to overthrow a loyal government, the President’s answer was to use the authority provided in the U.S. Constitution to protect state governments from subversion.

Thus, Lincoln’s Reconstruction statesmanship envisaged a free state government that avoided political extremes, rose above the racial divide, included qualified Blacks in the work of governing, and put race prejudice on the defensive.

After Lincoln passed from the scene, most of the policies followed partook little of his approach to Reconstruction and failed in every one of the former rebel states. Because the state governments established were rarely good ones, they did not attract the necessary popular support. Worse, beginning in 1867, the Congressional Reconstruction Act led to polarization in these states between political extremes and the collapse of Republican rule everywhere in the South.

Whether Lincoln actually would have been able to carry out his approach throughout the South is impossible to say. However, if he had, American history would have been very different. There are good reasons for agreeing with historian LaWanda Cox’s belief that if anyone could have succeeded in this work of Reconstruction, it would have been Abraham Lincoln.