“What if” Abraham Lincoln were not shot…

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?

Learning about African American History… 4

This is the fourth in a series of blogs of what I have been learning about African American History that I never learned in school.


The period of 1820-1860 was one of great reform in the nation. Many White and Black philosophers, ministers, writers, orators, and editors spoke out for justice for the oppressed. It paralleled a world-wide interest in reform. It also coincided with the on-going (1820-1870) religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening which led to such social changes as asylum and penal reform, temperance, women’s rights, reforms in public education, and the abolitionist movement to end slavery.

From the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln made it clear that his main motive was to preserve the Union. Whatever he did against slavery and for Black people it was to preserve the United States. In 1862, he wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” And to prevent slavery from becoming an issue, the president ordered Union generals to turn away slaves coming to their lines for safety or to serve in the Army.

However, so many Black men, women, and children sought safety with the Northern troops that, unofficially, attitudes began to change. Slaves served as guerrillas fighting against the Confederates. They also passed valuable information on to the Union army. In May 1862, an African American boat pilot actually stole a Confederate gunboat with an all African American crew of slaves and surrendered it to Union fleet. The boat pilot, Robert Smalls, and his crew were recognized by Congress for their exploit, and Smalls was invited to Washington to meet with “Uncle Abe” as he was called by many Blacks. Thus before the year 1862 was half over and before the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan 1, 1863), Lincoln changed his tune and his policy. He told a member of his cabinet that the war was a military necessity and it was “absolutely necessary for the salvation of the nation, that he must free the slaves.

Before the end of the war, over 200,000 African American served in the Union army and navy. Black troops liberated Charleston, Petersburg, Richmond, and Wilmington, NC. Without these Black troops Lincoln said, “we would be compelled to abandon the war in three week.” The success of the African American soldier was all the more amazing considering they were usually placed under white officers who were often prejudice, they were sent into battle with less training and inferior weapons, and their medical facilities were worse and their doctors fewer. They also were paid half as much as White soldiers. In fact, many of them refused pay until it was made equal—they continued to fight anyway.

Black women along with White women served behind the lines in relief agencies and in medical facilities. A freed slave, Susie King, was one of many Black nurses who worked alongside Clara Barton tending the sick and wounded.

Col. Thomas Wentworth wrote about his experience as the commander of the first official regiment of ex-slaves: “They had more to fight for than the White soldiers. Besides the flag and the Union, they had home, wife, and children. They fought with ropes around their necks [metaphorically], and when orders were issued that the officers of colored troops should be put to death upon capture, they took a grim satisfaction. It helped their sprit de corps immensely.”

Thanks The war emboldened Black demands for equality in the North. Illinois and California dropped their “Black Laws” that denied equal rights. Congress voted to allow African Americans to testify in court and approved the hiring of Black mail carriers. But not everyone in the North was in favor of such equality. In New York City, many poor Whites (many of them recent Irish immigrants) blamed Blacks for the war and for taking all the available jobs. Roving bands of these poor Whites would attack and lynch African American men, women, and children (a Black orphanage was burned to the ground). This took place in the North, mind you. And to add insult to injury, when Abraham Lincoln’s funeral took place in Washington, African American troops were left out of vast array of White soldiers who followed the casket.

I close this brief lesson in learning things I did not know about African American history with the words of Ellen Watkins Harper, a widely known Black poet, who wrote a letter a few days after Lincoln’s assassination: “Oh what a terrible lesson does this event read to us . . . Well, it may be in the providence of God this blow was needed to intensify this nation’s hatred of slavery, to show the utter fallacy of basing national reconstruction upon the votes of returned rebels and rejecting loyal black men . . . . Mr. Lincoln has led us up to another Red Sea to the table-land of triumphant victory, and God has seen fit to summon for the new era another man. Let the whole nation resolve that the whole virus shall be eliminated from its body; that in the future slavery will only be remembered as a thing of the past that shall never have the faintest hope of resurrection.”

Coming soon, Church History 101: Take a journey with me through the first 500 years of the history of the Christian Church. More info to follow…

Learning about African American History… 3

The is the third in a series of blogs regarding what I am learning about African Americans in U.S. history that I never learned in school.


“King Cotton” began to rule in the South and slavery flourished instead of fading., as the founding fathers had expected. Between 1820-1850, the number of slaves in this country doubled to 3 million even though slavery had been officially banned since 1808. The increase was due to slaves being smuggled into the country and existing slaves having children.

In 1819, the Missouri Territory petitioned for statehood. At that time the nation had 11 free states and 11 slave states. Northern congressmen protested and moved to ban slavery from Missouri which elicited a great reaction from Southern congressmen. Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed that Missouri be allowed to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine, which had just broken away from Massachusetts, to enter as a free state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 also divided the newly purchased Louisiana Territory at 36.30 degrees, so that all territories north and west of the line would be free, the rest slave. Again, all of this after the Constitution banned slavery after 1808.

Elaborate theories were developed to justify the slave labor system. Alexander Stephens of Georgia said that “equality of the races is fundamentally wrong. . . . the great truth [is] that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to a superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” John C Calhoon of Soth Carolina claimed that slaveholders took “low, degraded, and savage” Africans and “civilized” and “improved” them. George Fitzhugh of Virginia said that slaves were “perhaps the happiest and freest people n the world.” The groundless and baseless theories were used to create the myth of superior and inferior people based upon race. Even though poor whites in the south were economically hurt by competition with slave labor, they believed this myth of superiority because of their white skin. Very few poor whites helped slaves escape north, but many were on the nightly slave patrols hunting runways slaves for rewards.

Speaking of elaborate theories that sinful people can create in order to justify their racist way of life, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans, a respected Southern medical doctor, was convinced that African Americans suffered from special diseases. He called on dysaethesia aethiopica and claimed that it caused Blacks to “break, waste, and destroy everything they handle.” His other discovery was “drapetomania, or the disease causing negroes to run away.” This “disease of the mind” was sometimes cured by “whipping the devil out of them.” These crazy scientific theories coincided with the other non-sensical myth that slavery was a naturally happy life.

A quarter of a million free people of color lived in the South by 1860. In spite of many restrictions that limited their advancement in society, several achieved outstanding success. Norbert Rillieux of New Orleans perfected a vacuum pan that revolutionized the sugar refining industry in Europe and America. Dr. Charles Brown, of the US Department of Agriculture, said “Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering…”

Daniel Payne, a free Black of Charleston, opened his first school in 1829. He taught 3 children during the day and 3 adult slaves at night. Each pupil paid 50 cents a month to attend. As his expenses mounted, he became discouraged and quit. Then a white man told him that the difference between a master and a slave was “nothing but superior knowledge.” Payne decided to reopen his school which increased in numbers to the extent that he had to move into a larger space. Payne became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and one of the founders of Wilberforce University in Ohio, becoming its president in 1863—the first African American college president in America.

There is a fascinating story about of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Henry “Box” Brown of Richmond, Virginia, (1849) had a white friend help “Fed-Ex” him in a wooden box to Philadelphia. The box was 3 ft 1 in long by 2 ft 6 deep by 2 ft wide; 3 small holes for air. It was nailed shut and tied with straps. Brown had a small flask of water and a few biscuits. His friend (Samuel Smith) delivered box to the express office and sent a telegraph to friends in Philadelphia who would retrieve it. Brown was transported to steamboat by train, often having to withstand being upside down even though the box had written upon it, “this side up with care.” He arrived in Washington where he thrown on a wagon, head down again, but when more mail was added to the wagon the box was bounced right side up. The whole trip took 27 hrs. His abolitionist friends received the box gladly. It is said that when the box was opened Brown exclaimed “How do you do, gentlemen!” and sang a song based upon Psalm 40, “I waited patiently on the Lord and he heard my prayer.” Apparently, Brown believed that freedom was worth the risk. He became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. He eventually moved to England where he became an actor, magician, and mesmerist. (I was unable to find out how tall Brown was, but I doubt he was the size of LeBron James.)

More to come…

Learning about African American History… 1

The recent racial unrest in our country has given me a deep desire to understand the enslavement of the African people in U.S. and, among other things, why African Americans have been almost completely left out of the history of our nation, except for slavery. Most of us raised studying American history have gained little knowledge of the contributions African Americans have made to our nation. Over my next several blogs I would like to share some of what I’ve been learning about African American history. My goal is not to be controversial but informative and to recognize the African American as playing a vital role in the development of our country .


Europeans did not introduce Christianity to Africa. Christianity came to Africa through Egypt and Ethiopia as early as the third and fourth centuries AD. And it was Africans such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Athanasius who clarified for us the very basics of our faith. They were theological “rockstars” in the development of our understanding of the dual-nature of Christ and of Trinitarian theology. (Africans not only had their tribal religions but were also exposed to Islam in the 5th century.)

Slavery, as it developed in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of S. America, was different than the system that developed in N. America. This was due primarily to the Roman Catholic Church, which protected slaves from abuse and preached their treatment as human beings thereby keeping slavery from being infected by racial prejudice. In countries such as Brazil and Cuba, slaves could actually purchase their own freedom.

In the early days of European slave-contact with N. America, a racial caste system had not yet been established. This has led many to the conclusion that race is a social construct—an intentional choice that a society makes that skin color determines who is free and who is a slave. (Jimar Tisby) When slaves first arrived in N. America in 1619, they were treated as indentured servants; workers bound to an employer until they could pay off their debt. They could marry, save money, and pay for their freedom. Some Europeans and Indigenous people also served as indentured servants along with Africans. The movement toward slavery of the Africans happened gradually due to a number of factors: the desire by Virginians to cash in on the lucrative European market for tobacco which demanded more workers, and a declining population of Indigenous people and Europeans willing to work as indentured servants in contrast to a steady supply of workers from Africa through the slave trade. By the mid-1660’s, each of the Southern Colonies had enacted slaves codes or laws that established the rules of human bondage.

As the colonies depended more and more on African slaves, the Virginia Assembly enacted a new law (mid-17th century) stating that if a slave became a Christian and was baptized, it did not include their freedom. It was at this point (it seems) that the religious establishment became a part of a system that encouraged the slave to be content with their spiritual liberation and compliant to their masters.

Slavery in the American Colonial period was marked by a more tolerant attitude towards people of color than the pre-Civil War period. Schools were opened by slave owners to teach slaves to read and write (1740). The farther north one went in the colonies, the smaller the slave population. New England slaves never reached more than 2% of the population (compare the 65% of South Carolina) and their labor tended to be of a domestic kind rather than working in the field. Puritan pastor Cotton Mather insisted that slave owners treat slaves as persons with souls and not as beasts of burdens. He told ministers to preach, “Thy Negro is thy neighbor.” All of this said, slavery still existed in the North and most ministers had one or two household slaves. This included Cotton Mather, who was given a slave by his church as part of his benefit package, and Jonathan Edwards, who questioned the slave trade but did not find the concept of slavery itself inconsistent with the Bible.

It was easier for a New England slave to improve his/her condition than those in the South. Slave soldiers received the same pay as whites. Some slaves successfully sued their owners for freedom. Newport Gardiner of Rhode Island opened a music school for Blacks and Whites. His slave owner took lessons from him. However, a growing discrimination against people of color prevented them from rising in society as far as they could have.

More to come…