Alternate history: what if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated?

The 16th President of the United States was fatally shot in 1865 – but what if he had survived, or not been shot at all? Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Adam IP Smith about how reconstruction of the war-torn United States may have had stronger foundations with Lincoln at the helm – but potentially at the cost of his legacy

A 19th-century painting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes asks Professor Adam IP Smith what if… Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been asssasinated

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On the evening of 14 April 1865, Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into US President Abraham Lincoln’s head and changed the course of history. Lincoln succumbed to his wounds just days after the American Civil War effectively ended – but had Wilkes Booth not killed him, the president would have seen out his second term rebuilding the nation.

Politically savvy, willing to compromise and evolving in his views – not to mention popular and respected – Lincoln was the right man to help steer the United States out of war and into the Reconstruction era: the process of readmitting the seceded states and finding a place for around four million former slaves. But after Lincoln’s assassination, this colossal undertaking fell instead to the Democrat vice- president, Andrew Johnson – a southern slave owner and an obstinate bigot.

“Johnson was an out-and-out white supremacist, whose political philosophy, like all Jacksonian Democrats, was absolutist in terms of natural equal rights for white people – essentially white men,” says Adam Smith, Edward Orsborn Professor of US Politics and Political History and director of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. “Lincoln, an old Whig, had a much more nuanced notion of gradations of rights.” So, claims Smith, while Lincoln was the great emancipator, he was no radical out to build a biracial democracy.

Lincoln may have supported Congress in pushing for limited extension of suffrage to “very intelligent” freedmen or those who had fought for the Union, and he undoubtedly would have supported the Freedmen’s Bureau in providing federal assistance. “But would the condition of African American people in the South have been substantially different? No,” says Smith. “The South would have ended up in the same state – with Jim Crow, segregation and disenfranchisement – which was solidified in the 1890s, not during Reconstruction. There was no way white southerners weren’t running the show.”

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_

Compromise or calamity

Taking advantage of Johnson’s leniency towards the South, Southern lawmakers introduced the Black Codes – laws abhorrently restricting the newly given freedoms of former enslaved people. There would probably still have been codes of a kind under Lincoln, but it’s likely that they would have been less aggressively enforced. is would have been a result of a far more cooperative relationship between president and Congress. Whereas Johnson’s conflicts with a powerful minority known as the Radical Republicans led to his impeachment and the Radicals imposing more extreme and punitive measures on the South, Lincoln tended to side with the Republican majority – and, if he hadn’t been shot, perhaps he could have prevented the alienation of the Radicals.

But, according to Smith, tensions would still have existed: “They still would have faced the same issues over whether to continue military occupation of the South, pressure over the disenfranchisement of former Confederate leaders, and the question of black enfranchisement. With Lincoln, though, they would have been better finessed.”

Smith argues: “Lincoln would have steered a middle path.” He wouldn’t have been temperamentally comfortable with a constitutional amendment federally mandating the extension of the franchise to African American people. However, Lincoln likely would have keenly supported former Confederate states being delayed readmission to the Union until they adhered to a basic programme of, at the very least, adopting the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) and other essential points, such as the redistribution of property to freed people. Lincoln would have looked to literally rebuild the nation, too, with a concerted push for infrastructure improvements.


Listen: Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch explore a little-known attempt to kill Abraham Lincoln in 1861


One concerning potential consequence of a Reconstruction with Lincoln as president is the possibility of alterations to the 14th Amendment. The absence of the Black Codes and Johnson’s tolerant treatment of the South would have meant that there was less of a backlash in the North, perhaps affecting the language of the amendment or even its very existence.

This could have been very serious indeed, as Smith views the 14th Amendment as “absolutely fundamental to American history; a reshaping of the constitutional landscape”. Notably, it defined citizenship for the first time, included African American people and guaranteed those citizens equal rights under the law.

Instead of being remembered as the president who saved the Union, freed enslaved people and became a martyr of liberty, he all too easily could have been blamed for any issues in the post-war years
Professor Adam Smith

The final clause then gives Congress the authority to enforce the amendment – a revolutionary move making citizenship a federal matter. is clause went on to form the basis of the Civil Rights legislation that was drawn up in the 1960s. So a more moderate approach spearheaded by Lincoln may have meant more moderate, less centralising language. According to Smith, this could have had a significant impact on future generations: “The Civil Rights Movement could have happened in a very different way, and without being able to invoke the constitutional agency of the federal government. Lincoln’s presidency may have unwittingly impeded the cause of equal rights in the long run.”

And what of Lincoln’s own reputation had he not been assassinated? Instead of being remembered as the president who saved the Union, freed enslaved people and became a martyr of liberty, he all too easily could have been blamed for any issues in the post-war years.

By opposing more radical positions, such as a federal guarantee of black voting rights, it’s possible that Lincoln may not have come to be so highly regarded by posterity. Smith concludes: “The fact he was martyred elevated him to a status, not just in the US but around the world, which he most likely wouldn’t have had if he had lived.”

In context: what happened after Lincoln’s assassination?

The American Civil War was all but over, with enslaved people emancipated and US President Abraham Lincoln looking towards Reconstruction. But his grand plans came undone on 14 April 1865, when Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth shot him, and Andrew Johnson became president. Wishing to readmit the seceded states into the Union quickly, Johnson offered pardons, returned property to southerners and gave them the power to form their own governments. The South ratified Black Codes to impose restrictions on freed people that were almost akin to slavery.

Johnson faced strong opposition in Congress from the Radical Republicans. They pushed through more extreme measures, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Acts – with the latter dividing the South into military districts – and the 14th Amendment. Johnson was impeached and came within one vote of conviction. There was also a violent backlash in the South, as white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan formed. The effects of Reconstruction have been felt in US race relations ever since.

Adam IP Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of US Politics and Political History and director of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. He is the also the author of Abraham Lincoln (The History Press, 2014)

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This content first appeared in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed

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