Susannah Colt: If Lincoln had lived

  • A photograph made four days before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. AP

  • A scene in front of the Capitol during Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865, just six weeks before his assassination. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/13/2020 7:30:10 AM

Abraham Lincoln has been on the minds of many people lately in the midst of the racial justice movement that is catalyzing the nation. After all, he was the president that steered this country through the Civil War and freed 4 million slaves.

Our current president reveres Lincoln and rightfully so, but his attempt at modesty in comparing himself to Lincoln is laughable. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, he stated: “I say very modestly that I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president.”

I can think of several presidents who did much more for African Americans than Trump, like Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, to name a few.

But instead of pointing out Trump’s hubris and his actual record regarding what he’s done for African Americans, I’m going to go down a different path.

I’ve been wondering what would have happened if Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term. So, bear with me as I go down the rabbit hole and imagine a world where Honest Abe, who had political skills like no one else, wasn’t assassinated at Ford’s Theater.

First, let me set the scene with some facts. Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 by a sound majority, winning all but three states, with an overwhelming mandate to end slavery and reunite America. The name of his party during this election was the National Union Party, which included members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. They won a majority in Congress, state governorships, and legislatures in sweeping fashion.

Lincoln’s top general was Ulysses S. Grant, who shared all of Lincoln’s philosophies as if the two men were cut from the same cloth. They were even on the same page as far as securing the peace. When Grant was negotiating the end of the war with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, he was stern and kind at the same time. Surrender had to be unconditional but if the Confederates agreed, the soldiers could return home immediately with their sidearms (minus the ammunition), horses, and honor intact. The deal was signed and Gen. Grant returned to Washington a hero.

Herein starts the alternate reality:

On April 14, instead of declining Mary Lincoln’s invitation to attend a show at Ford’s Theatre, Gen. Grant and his wife, Julia, joined Abe and Mary Lincoln in their box at the theatre. Grant, with his instinct at detecting a threat, thwarted John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt. The president was forever grateful to Grant for saving his life.

Andrew Johnson, the Democratic vice president from Tennessee, never ascended to the presidency, a task for which he was ill-suited because of his sympathies toward the South and away from protecting the civil and voting rights of the freed slaves. As a consequence he would not be the first president to be impeached.

Instead, the Freedman’s Bureau, which Lincoln created after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed on Jan. 31, 1864 (and ratified on December 6, 1986), was fully funded by Congress to help provision the 4 million freed slaves with food, clothing, housing, and fuel. One of the major provisions was authorizing 40-acre plots to landless ex-slaves and that would have proceeded without a hitch. Education was also a key component of the law.

At the same time, Congress would appropriate funds to be paid to Southern landowners who lost their free labor when slavery was abolished. Assuming they met certain conditions, grants would be awarded to them to help them hire paid labor to work the crops. It would be a stimulus package that would deal with the deep poverty suffered throughout the South after the war and would go a long way toward the healing process.

Because the citizens of the South were so beleaguered by the ravages of war, they were much more amenable to accepting whatever conditions Lincoln imposed because they would ultimately receive the rewards of being readmitted into the Union sooner rather than later. So the South would be broken into districts right after the war ended and military governors appointed to oversee the creation of governments that promised to accept emancipation and enfranchisement of the Black population. The 14th and 15th Amendments would not have been necessary because Congress and the executive branch were of similar minds and laws would be created to safeguard civil rights and the right to vote for the freedmen.

Under the military government, the federal government supplemented the state militias with federal troops to tamp down the white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or the White League who had started to murder and threaten Southern Blacks and white Republicans. Gen. Grant was the head of the War Department and he was charged with keeping the peace. As a result, the terrorists would never gain a foothold under Lincoln’s presidency.

Public education would have been funded under Lincoln because that was a huge priority for him. He knew that a democracy could be built only upon the adequate education of its citizens. He understood that the freed slaves needed an extra boost because during their enslavement it was illegal to teach a slave how to read and write. They would quickly catch up with their white counterparts and the colleges would eventually be filled with a diverse student body.

By the end of Lincoln’s second term, all the Southern states would have been readmitted into the Union, having adopted state constitutions that protected all citizens from discrimination, regardless of race, creed, or color. Elections would be held free from any barriers like poll taxes, or literacy and property requirements. Black people would be elected to Congress in large numbers and would be appointed to high positions in government during Lincoln’s second term. Frederick Douglass would become the head of the Freedman’s Bureau and that law would be reauthorized year after year until it was no longer needed. Jim Crow would never rear its ugly head.

When it came time for the 1868 election, the Union Party would try to convince Lincoln to accept the nomination for a third term, but he would decline. His chosen successor, Gen. Grant, would be elected and would also serve two terms, building on the achievements of the great reconciler. Abe and Mary Lincoln would travel around the world and return to Springfield, Illinois, for a much-earned retirement and live long lives happily ever after.

There would never be a need for a president to boast about being the best president for the African American community because systemic racism, police brutality, disparate impact of diseases, income inequality, and redlining would never have taken a foothold.

I hope you have enjoyed this journey to my utopian otherworld. The sad reality is Lincoln probably would have encountered the same problems Grant encountered during his presidency because white supremacy was something people could espouse to openly and without reprisal. It is too bad Lincoln never got the opportunity to earn the moniker of reconciler in chief.

(Susannah Colt lives in Whitefield. She can be reached at susannahbcolt@gmail.com.)




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