Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part XLVI: Epilogue, Part 1 -- What If ...


"Buzzard's guts, man! I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power! You will procure me those votes." -- President Abraham Lincoln (as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis)

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater on April 15, 1865. And that's about all I have to say on that subject. A great deal has already been written about it, after all, and I don't think I have anything especially new or interesting to add to that conversation. Except ... for a curious observation.

Have you ever considered the fact that all of our Presidents who wielded sweeping wartime powers came to bad ends?

Abraham Lincoln basically invented the wartime Presidency.  Invented it out of whole cloth, if we're being truly honest about it. Certainly there's no explicit definition of the powers Lincoln wielded within the Constitution. There's a splendid scene in the recent movie Lincoln, where Daniel Day-Lewis waxes eloquent on his powers, and their somewhat dubious Constitutionality. I'm paraphrasing a little, but he says in effect, "I took an oath to protect the Constitution, so I decided that in order to uphold that oath, I needed to have these powers." And, for the most part, no one called him on it. No one called him on it, so it became precedent. In World War I, and again in World War II, Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, respectively, laid hold of those same powers.

And the record shows: Lincoln was assassinated, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and Roosevelt died scarcely a month before the victory in Europe.

It's almost enough to make you wonder if Someone didn't want them to last long enough to see peacetime...

And so we've never had the question answered: Can a President who's held so much untrammeled power come down the scale, and govern as a peacetime President?

It's probably just as well. The answer might have been "no." But let's assume the answer is "yes," at least in Lincoln's case, so we can move on to a very popular matter of speculation. To wit -- what would Lincoln's second term have actually looked like, were he not assassinated? Would Lincoln have fared better than Johnson?

The second question there is far easier to answer, so I'll answer it first with a confident and assured "yes." Lincoln was a damn sight better politician than Johnson, a better negotiator, and far more pragmatic. And more to the point, Lincoln, as the President who saved the Union, had an immense store of political capital upon which he could draw to get his way with Congress. The question that occupies us, and which brings us back to the first question above, is this -- on which issues would Lincoln spend that capital?

I have no real idea how to answer that question. I do know this, though; at least in its rough outlines, Presidential Reconstruction closely mirrored what Lincoln wanted. No harsh reprisals, and political re-integration into the Union as soon as practicable. He'd have run into Radical Republican opposition on this, just as Johnson did. But, Lincoln being Lincoln, he'd have done some horse-trading with them, giving them a little of what they wanted so he'd get most of what he wanted.

I think this is what Stephen Carter's book The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln gets a little bit wrong. I'm sure that Thaddeus Stevens would be angry enough at Lincoln to spit nails. But Lincoln is far too slippery, and far too pragmatic, to be caught so easily. Plus there's the aforementioned political capital, some of which he could spend defensively. He'd have a fractious relationship with the Radical wing of his party, but what else is new? Besides which, while the Republicans held a veto-proof majority in Congress, the Radicals didn't. Lincoln could play off the factions against one another long enough ... well, long enough. He only had to keep up the dance for four more years. Compared to the last four, it'd be a cake walk.

In this scenario, I think it's likely that Reconstruction wouldn't have been as extensive or as sweeping, but because Lincoln's reach didn't outrun his grasp, its effects may have lasted longer. I'm not sure exactly what form that would have taken. A better-funded Freedman's Bureau, perhaps, and/or a longer-lasting one. Smaller civil rights gains, but gains that actually bit and held, as opposed to being rapidly rolled back. Radicals chafed at Lincoln's "lack of vision", rather than seeing that Lincoln had little interest in that which could not be realistically achieved.

It would have been a contentious second term. Second terms almost always are. And Lincoln wouldn't have had any measurable appetite for a third one, so someone else takes over in 1868. Probably Grant, because he stood as high in everyone's esteem as anyone else did, and I don't see much of anything changing that.

But we'll never know. A disgruntled actor at Ford's Theater made sure of that. For good or ill, that's the world John Wilkes Booth left us. And so, we'll always wonder: What if...

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