As a theologian I do not usually engage in “what ifs,” because I believe in the sovereignty of God which not seem to comport with “what ifs.” However, as an historian, I allow myself, from time to time, to engage in a “what if” if that engagement brings a greater understanding of an historical event. And so, allow me to engage in such an exercise in order to gain a better grasp of what took place in African American history following the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln believed that he was going to lose the presidential election of 1864. He was running against his former commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired. The war was not going well; the Union casualties were mounting, the Confederate Army at one point had come within 5 miles of Washington, DC, and McClellan’s platform was for peace, even if it meant a continuation of slavery. Lincoln prepared for defeat and asked ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, to draft a plan to help as many slaves as possible escape the South before the November election.. Lincoln also made his cabinet sign a letter pledging their loyalty to the next administration.
Then, the tide of war suddenly turned just months before the election. General William T Sherman captured Atlanta and basically crippled the Confederate’s ability to wage war. In fact, Lincoln won the election by a landslide taking every state within the Union except for Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. He won 55% of the popular vote and 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. The majority of the Union Army (78%) even voted for him, in most cases by absentee ballots. Andrew Johnson was elected Lincoln’s VP. We could apply a “what if” here— what if Sherman did not capture Atlanta and Lincoln had lost the election, but let’s not go there.
Our main focus now is on what if Lincoln had a migraine and decided to be a no-show at Ford’s Theatre that fateful Good Friday evening on April 14, 1865? U.S. Grant and his wife declined going, because they decided to take an earlier train home to see their grandchildren. History tells us that there were 13 others in the Lincoln circle of friends who also declined the invitation. What if Abe and Mary had as well, thus escaping the assassin’s bullet and living out a second term overseeing reconstruction of the South. I believe that we would be in a very different place than we are today in terms of race relations in our country. This is my thesis and not one that I have read about from another source. We will never know but here is why I think it could have.
Immediately after the Civil War , the US had 4 million previously enslaved people who were now free. Slavery had been abolished in the Union through the Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863, but still remained institutionalized in the Confederacy until the end of the Civil War. The Appomattox Court House meeting when Lee surrendered to Grant took place on April 9, 1865, but technically the official end of the war did not come until May 9, 1865. (Even then there were pockets of resistance which remained until President Johnson’s proclamation of peace on Aug 20, 1866.)
It was the passage of the 13th amendment on December 6, 1865 that officially ended the institution of slavery (Lincoln signed it after it passed Congress just 5 days before his death, but it had to be ratified by the states.) Frederick Douglass had proclaimed in May 1865, “slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot,” bur it would not be until 1868 that the 14th amendment was ratified extending citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US (including former slaves) and guaranteeing them equal protection under the law. And it wouldn’t be until February 3, 1870 that the 15th amendment was ratified formally granting Black men the right to vote. (It is to be noted that they could vote before this, but for reasons soon to be discussed this amendment was still needed.)
Unfortunately (and here we are coming to the “what if”), Lincoln’s successor was Andrew Johnson from Tennessee. Although a southerner, he was on the Republican ticket because he wanted to preserve the Union—but he was not anti-slavery. In fact, he favored states-rights and although the Confederate states were forced to ratify the 13th and 14th amendments, it was with the agreement that Johnson would give each Southern state the liberty to carry out Reconstruction as they saw fit. Since racism continued to exist, many states developed very restrictive laws denying Blacks the right to vote as well as denying other rights. These laws were known as “Black Codes” and were in reality a new form of slavery created by old White slave owners: limiting ownership of property, taxation of salaries, unfair labor practices, etc., all designed to keep the Black citizen in check and use the money from their labor and taxes to pay back the debt the South owed the federal government for the war.
The Republican Congress finally took over Reconstruction in 1867 and forced the South to ratify the 14 amendment (and later the 15th) which President Johnson opposed. It was during this period of Congressional Reconstruction that African Americans in the South made significant strides economically and politically. PBS Pinchback, a freed slave, served for 43 days as Governor of Louisiana after its White governor was impeached. In South Carolina, there were 76 Black delegates out of 131 to the convention to re-write the state constitution. Both the speaker and assistant speaker of the SC House of Representatives were Black. John R Lynch became Mississippi’s first US Congressman. From 1870-1901, there were 22 African Americans in Congress (2 were Senators). Jemar Tisby adds, “During Reconstruction, 800 Black men took on roles in South Carolina government like postmasters, assessors, and custom officials.”
When Blacks were in the majority, they did not try to dominate or consolidate power, but sought for equal protection for all under the law. Most of them were Republicans and supported higher tariffs to protect American industry, federal aid to eduction, pensions for soldiers, and improving the infrastructure of the country. One Black Congressman from SC said, “I am being true to my own race…but at the same time, I would not have anything done which would harm the White race.”
Unfortunately, because compliance with Reconstruction was not federally enforced, by 1876 only 3 southern states had reconstruction governments: SC, Louisiana, and Florida. The other states had returned to their old ways and ordered redistributed lands the federal government had mandated for Black families to be returned to former slave owners, therefore, relegating African Americans to become share- croppers on those lands. Here is my point: There was a window of opportunity under Reconstruction for the nation to build a more perfect union and actually practice that “all men are created equal.” But that window was all but closed because of a racist president and the fear of southern Whites that power in the hands of former African American slaves would be used against them. So, here is the “what if”—what if Lincoln was not shot and was the president who directed the first 4 yrs of Reconstruction? Would it have made a difference to where our nation is today in terms of racial equality?
But God is still sovereign…
There are a few more questions that beg asking at this point: What did White backlash to Reconstruction look like and are there similarites to today? What happened to bring about the vote for Black (and White) women? (Did you know that women’s rights groups were originally opposed to the 15th amendment?) Why and when did the Democrats become the party of the South when it was the Republicans who stood for the end of slavery and who guided Reconstruction?