The Fog Of History: The Lincoln What If


One my favorite history geek parlor games is playing what if. Changes in the historical time line could have either good or dire consequences,which is why the Federation of Planets had that whole prime directive thing.  In Stephen King’s fine novel 11/23/63, the protagonist stopped the Kennedy assassination but things went to hell in a handbasket in the what if scenario. On the other hand, if there had been no Great War, the chances of a Nazi takeover in Germany would have been dramatically reduced and Hitler may have stayed a bad and deservedly starving artist. You never know, but it’s fascinating to speculate. Ruh roh, I’m sounding like Mark Halperin right now. Nah, he passes off his speculation as fact.

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln regicide at the hands of a ham actor and assorted motley minions and miscreants. It was a national tragedy on so many levels, and it made one of our ten worst Presidents, Andrew Johnson the accidental Oval One. I keep meaning to rate the Presidents but falter because of LBJ who could rate anywhere from 4th to 20th.

Back to the Other Johnson. He was a maladroit, unscrupulous drunk with a nasty disposition and an armoire full of prejudices and hatreds. On the plus side, he hated the Southern planter class and refused to secede with his state. On the negative side, he hated black folks even more than their former owners. Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction was a disaster: he ended up caving to the planters and gave a green light to the Southern black codes, which sought to effectively re-enslave the freedmen. That, in turn, led to military occupation of the South and Radical Reconstruction, which came to an ignominious end in 1877 after the Tilden-Hayes election stalemate.

It remains unclear what would have happened if Lincoln had survived BUT his guile and people skills would have come in handy. He was committed to something between Presidential and Radical reconstruction and his prestige *might* have carried the day.

Another disastrous consequence of the Booth conspiracy was the sidelining of Secretary of State William Seward. He understood Lincoln’s intentions, and had people skills almost equal to the President’s. Both men had deep, personal ties to leaders of the Radical faction in their party. Johnson was like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Plus he took an exuberant dump on the national rug and impeachment was essentially Congress’ attempt to rub the bastard’s nose in it. In short, Andrew Johnson was a redneck and a particularly nasty one at that.

An excerpt from Jules Witcover’s book on the Vice Presidency got me thinking about an alternative what if  scenario. What if Lincoln hadn’t dumped Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket in 1864?

How did Lincoln pick a running mate so primed to undermine some of his most hard-fought objectives when the opportunity arose?

The simple answer is politics. Without advising his first vice president, Lincoln just prior to the 1864 National Union Convention passed the word to party leaders that he wanted Johnson, a pro-Union Southerner, and they generally accepted the political rationale for abandoning Hamlin, who was from a safe Republican state. From the start, Johnson vowed that his prime concern was opposing the secession of the Southern states, including his own. Indeed, in 1860, when Southern Democrats had broken away and had chosen John Breckinridge of Kentucky as their presidential nominee, Johnson had declared: “The blood of secession … is not on my head.” Predicting Lincoln’s election that year, he proclaimed, “When the crisis comes, I will be found standing by the Union.”

But Johnson had a political dark side, one Lincoln knew well: The senator did not share Hamlin’s zeal for an end to slavery. For political purposes, Johnson sometimes spoke in conciliatory terms of treatment toward indentured blacks, but he was far from an abolitionist. Explaining how a son of the South could accept emancipation of the slaves, he argued that more whites than blacks were being freed, because blacks were being given the opportunity to find their way in what he vowed was still “a white man’s government.”

As it turned out, the divide between Johnson and Hamlin could not have been starker. In 1854, when popular sovereignty champion Stephen A. Douglas had proposed splitting the Missouri Territory into the states of free Nebraska and slave Kansas, Hamlin was one of only four Democrats voting against it. “Where will this end?” he asked. “Shall we repel freedom and make slavery? It comes to that.” As a New Englander and Republican convert in 1860, Hamlin brought geographical balance to the Lincoln ticket. Almost at once, some southern Democrats alleged that the swarthy-complexioned Hamlin was actually a black man. “Hamlin is what we call a mulatto,” a South Carolina editor wrote. “He has black blood in him.” A Tennessean at a rally observed that Hamlin looked, acted and thought so much like a black man that if he dressed as a field hand, he could be sold in the South.

Hamlin was known as a calm, temperate man with lines of communication to all factions in Congress from Copperheads to Radicals. I doubt that he could have handled the situation better than Lincoln BUT almost anyone would have handled it better than Andrew Johnson. It’s one of history’s most unfortunate accidents that an insecure, angry and bitter man occupied the Presidency at such a crucial moment. Andrew Johnson was Richard Nixon without *any* redeeming characteristics. He bears some similarities to his fellow anti-secessionist Tennessean Andrew Jackson, but the latter was a secure, angry and bitter man.

Historical parlor games are fun but we will never know what would have happened if either Lincoln or Hamlin had been President from 1865-69. It certainly couldn’t have been worse than the death dance between the Johnson administration and Congressional Radicals. My sympathies are with the latter but a middle course *might* have made Reconstruction more successful. In the end, I think Confederate/Southern white irrendentism would have still won the day despite the best efforts of Lincoln and/or Hamlin.

I’ll give Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and The Band the last word or is that last waltz?