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Misunderstanding Lincoln: The Art of Wishful Thinking about Great Leaders

James West Davidson—

We expect too much of our presidents. Especially at this season, when we honor the two chiefs universally acknowledged as our finest. That Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays should fall within days of each other suggests the mysterious workings of divine providence. Or at least, if the Almighty is not the “Supreme Architect of the Universe” (Washington’s preferred formulation), the divine yoking of birthdays shows Him to be an uncommonly fine Brand Manager.

Still, the celebrations tempt us to overestimate the powers of our heroes, particularly those of Lincoln. We embrace all too easily the conviction advanced by Thomas Carlyle in 1840, that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Great men and women there have been; and surely Lincoln stands among them. But he understood all too well the limits of “our poor powers to add or detract,” to borrow a phrase from the fields of Gettysburg. For that reason a certain modesty about his achievements should be our humility as well as his. And perhaps also, our chastened inspiration.

Lincoln, of course, was struck down in the midst of his work, leaving those who followed him to ponder what might have happened had he lived. The magnitude of his loss was heightened because Reconstruction proved so contentious. Then too, if anyone was in need of a Brand Manager, it was Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. A career Tennessee politician and a Democrat, Johnson nonetheless had opposed secession when war broke out and then served as military governor of Tennessee once Union forces retook it. Lincoln allowed the Republican convention of 1864 to nominate Johnson to be his vice president, in the belief that a southern Democrat was needed to balance the “National Union” ticket the Republicans ran. Unfortunately Johnson possessed a short fuse in debate and, when called out, a intemperate tongue all too ready to sass right back. Unlike Lincoln, he was deeply racist and disliked African Americans as much as he distrusted the “stuck-up” planters who had so long been their masters. When Johnson clashed with Radical Republicans in Congress over their determination to make over the South, they impeached him. The ensuing trial missed conviction by a single vote.

So it would be hard to argue that Lincoln, blessed with political savvy and a great deal more empathy toward both white Southerners and African Americans, could not have charted a saner course through the process of reunion. The president “had as deep an understanding of the South as of the North,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has argued. “You can see it back even in the 1850s when he would give anti-slavery speeches and, unlike other anti-slavery orators who regularly castigated Southerners as evil and un-Christian, he would say that they are what we would be in their situation.” Indeed, when Lincoln was asked only a few days before his death how the conquered South should be treated, he replied, “I’d let ’em up easy. Let ’em up easy.” Author Jay Winik suggested that for “the master politician…flexibility was the watchword”—a flexibility, Winik argued, that might have gained African Americans “a much healthier degree of civil liberties, long before LBJ,” while the South “would have much earlier shed the unhealthy stench of racism.”

But these arguments contain a contradiction. Somehow things would go better, we are asked to believe, if Lincoln eased up on white Southerners, convincing them to come along, rather than taking the more unyielding course followed by the Radicals. But letting ’em up easy, in effect, was precisely what Andrew Johnson did. Though personally tactless, he signed over 13,000 personal pardons for Confederate leaders and planters, whereas the Radicals stepped in to insist on greater freedom and stronger legal protections for African Americans. The idea that Lincoln’s honeyed words and homespun charm could have transformed the political atmosphere ignores how deeply slavery had entrenched itself in American life. To focus on the day-to-day politics in Washington ignores the immensely difficult situation on the ground.

Lincoln was indeed a pragmatist who had regularly sought compromise. As president-elect in 1860, he pledged to enforce the Fugitive Slave law and even offered to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that slavery would never be abolished in those states where it already existed. When the fighting began, he supported General George McClellan’s determination to conduct a limited war that did not plunder Southern farms to feed Union troops, nor free Southern planters’ slaves. He famously told Horace Greeley that his primary goal was to save the Union, whether it took freeing the slaves to do so or keeping them in bondage. Before he announced his intention to issue an emancipation proclamation, he met twice with representatives of the border states, hoping to persuade them to pass laws freeing their slaves gradually, over the coming thirty years. Congress, he pointed out, was even offering financial aid to planters who took that step.

Only when the border states rejected those proposals did Lincoln resolve that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” And he then he threw his firm support behind Grant and Sherman, remorseless generals who would no longer fight a limited war. Advance into “the enemy’s country as fast as you can,” Grant ordered Sherman, “inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” As Sherman marched through Georgia, the South fought on to the bitter end.

Reconstruction would have followed that same pattern, even under Lincoln, for the simple reason that reconstructing the nation involved so much more than encouraging old adversaries to reconcile. The institutional supports of slavery and racism were entrenched in Southern society (and in the North too, in different ways). Reconstruction had to take place not just in the halls of Congress but in an almost literal sense, in terms of the spaces in which people lived their lives.

To begin with, plantation housing had to be reconstructed, for freedpeople refused to live in the old slave quarters, shacks crowded together where they could be watched over by their masters. The new freedpeople needed to disperse, to have their own privacy. They desperately needed an economic leg up after years of exploitation. African American leaders pressed Congress to confiscate the lands of the most active rebels, distributing “forty acres and a mule” to each adult freedman. But that dream proved a reconstruction beyond contemplating, even for most Radical Republicans. Schools and churches needed to be made over—usually not so much reconstructed as constructed, in a society that had long outlawed literacy for African Americans or their own churches in which they might worship as they pleased. Then too, the most basic relations of work had to be reconstructed in a land which, for hundreds of years, had taken for granted that discipline could be enforced by the lash and labor could be tied to the land.

Even the simplest of spaces had to be reconstructed: public sidewalks. Southern whites considered them privileged ground, where blacks would have to jump into the muddy street if any white Southerner crossed their path. After the war black soldiers led the way in reclaiming this space. “They walked four and five abreast and made not the slightest effort to let white women pass,” a white Memphis resident reported in horror. A Charleston planter complained that his city was “so unlike anything we could imagine—Negroes shoving white persons off the walk.”

Were they actually “shoving”? It’s hard to tell. After the war many black veterans were indeed in no mood to give ground. At the same time, defeated Southerners regularly took offense when the traditional habits of deference were not punctiliously observed. “They perceive insolence in a tone, a glance, a gesture, or failure to yield enough by two or three inches in meeting on the sidewalk,” commented one Northern traveler. And if walking was tricky, talking was even more problematic, especially with the opposite sex. During an investigation of a lynching, one member of Congress asked a witness, “Let me understand the character of the allegation. You say that he made some insulting proposal to a white lady?” “O, no,” replied the witness. “He had just made some insulting remark. He remarked, ‘How d’ye, sis,’ or something of that kind, as the young lady passed down the road.”

Lincoln could not have miraculously reordered these social relations born of long habit, let alone have prevented the anti-black riots which flared in Norfolk, Charleston, Memphis and New Orleans in 1866. Hundreds of African American homes, schools and churches were burned down—unreconstructed, so to speak. And as historian Eric Foner has pointed out, “It is difficult to say which proved more threatening to local whites—the large number of impoverished rural freedmen who thronged the streets in search of employment, or the considerable group that managed to achieve modest economic success (many of the black victims were robbed of cash, watches, tools, and furniture).”

If Lincoln had lived, no doubt he would have continued to seek compromise and peaceful reconciliation. He would not have achieved it. His eight years in office might then have gone down in history as a procession of groping half-measures by a man who nearly lost the war if not for a few lucky breaks—and then, with the coming of peace, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by botching Reconstruction. The assessment may sound harsh, but remove Lincoln’s assassination, which produced an instant martyrdom, and the case is surprisingly plausible. Lacking military experience, Lincoln muddled along for the first two years of the war, picking one bad general after another and making scant progress. Even with Grant in command and Sherman at the doors of Atlanta, defeat in the election of 1864 seemed almost certain, for Northerners were weary of a war that seemed to be doing little more than devouring their sons in battle. “Lincoln is deader than dead,” gloated one Democratic newspaper. Many Republicans agreed, including Lincoln. “He cannot be elected,” Horace Greeley declared. Only after Sherman conquered Atlanta in early September did the president’s stock bounce back.

Paradoxically, the idea that Lincoln might have significantly altered the course of Reconstruction depends less on whether he might have urged reconciliation and more on whether he would have replicated the strategy he had used for the war: energetic efforts at compromise followed, once those failed, by a remorseless determination to save the Union—this time, by working to uproot the nation’s ingrained habits of inequality. Perhaps he would have helped the Radicals push through their reforms. Unlike Andrew Johnson, Lincoln possessed the principles and moral convictions that would have justified, in his mind, firmness once compromise had failed. When George McClellan ran against Lincoln in the election of 1864, he privately expressed a willingness to restore slavery in order to save the Union. For Lincoln in 1864, that had become a bridge too far. Nearly 130,000 African Americans were in uniform, fighting and dying for the United States. The president firmly believed that if he agreed to send once-freed slaves back into bondage, “I should be damned in time and in eternity for so doing.”

There is a middle course between enshrining Lincoln as a Great Man who could perform the impossible and sloughing him off as a failed compromiser. That middle way was Lincoln’s own view of the situation, expressed in his finest oration, delivered a month before his death. By the time of his second inauguration, the president had become almost fatalistic about the difficulties facing the nation. Everyone knew slavery was “somehow a cause of the war,” he declared; that slaves had become “a peculiar and powerful interest” in the life of the United States, though that interest was particularly “localized in the southern part of it.” Neither the North nor the South “expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained…Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

But no. Lincoln recognized that the Civil War had not been caused by bumbling politicians in the 1850s. It was not even a case of missed opportunities over the span of decades since the Republic’s founding. The insinuating interest of human bondage had grown up over centuries. “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”

Lincoln fervently prayed that the “mighty scourge of war” might “speedily pass away.” But he harbored no illusions. If “God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Even a talented two-term president could not have turned the course of history so sharply. A century and a half later we are still dealing with the aftershocks, from Ferguson to Baltimore, Chicago and beyond. But it would be wrong to take pessimism as the lesson of the day. Lincoln would have appreciated the words of another leader whose birthday fell a few weeks ago. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King, Jr. preached. But he placed the responsibility for the arc’s bending not on the republic’s great leaders but on its citizens. “Integration is not some lavish dish that the federal government will pass out on a silver platter. We must struggle for it. We must fight for it.” Great leaders and their followers are those who understand the world’s limits and nonetheless keep pushing, even when any curve in the arc seems difficult to discern.

James West Davidson is a historian and author of A Little History of the United States, published by Yale University Press.

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