What Might Have Been

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One of the great tragedies of American history is that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could implement his post war reconstruction policy.  In a letter in January 1864 to Major General James Wadsworth, a wealthy New York politician and philanthropist who helped found the Free Soil Party, Lincoln set forth his basic policy:

You desire to know, in the event of our complete success in the field, the same being followed by a loyal and cheerful submission on the part of the South, if universal amnesty should not be accompanied with universal suffrage.

Now, since you know my private inclinations as to what terms should be granted to the South in the contingency mentioned, I will here add, that if our success should thus be realized, followed by such desired results, I cannot see, if universal amnesty is granted, how, under the circumstances, I can avoid exacting in return universal suffrage, or, at least, suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.

How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.The restoration of the Rebel States to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of the both races; and it must be sealed by general amnesty.

Neither Lincoln nor Wadsworth lived to see post-war Reconstruction, Wadsworth dying leading his division at the battle of the Wilderness.  Lincoln’s policy of having the South reintegrated as rapidly to the rest of the nation as possible, along with civil and political equality of whites and blacks, was a noble one.  Whether he could have implemented it is very much open to doubt.  His two goals were at cross purposes and it may have been beyond the ability of any president to carry them both out.  However, if anyone could have made this policy succeed, Abraham Lincoln could.  We are still suffering the consequences from the sad fact that he never had the opportunity to try.

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  1. He would presumably have also had to convince northern states to grant the franchise to blacks where that had not yet occurred. Ironically, Grant in 1868 probably won his narrow victory because of black votes in the south, while in NY he lost, but might have won if blacks in NY could have voted. The 15th Amendment would not be ratified until 1869, so where the south allowed blacks to vote under reconstruction, in some northern states, blacks could not vote until after the ratification of the 15th Amendment.

    If Lincoln had really given full amnesty and civil rights to former confederates, the reconstruction amendments would likely never have passed. Hard to see how those policies would have been implemented otherwise than they were, by disenfranchising vast swaths of the white southern population for a time, and by conditioning “re-admission” into the Union upon ratification (i.e., compelling votes under coercion).

  2. My statement was a bit too broad. *Some* blacks in NY could vote, but NY did effectually disenfranchise most blacks by specifically excluding them when the state constitution was amended in 1821 to remove freehold property ownership as a requirement for voting. In the north, NY, Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had such property requirements, and as NY’s constitutional amendment demonstrates, racial bias was a prime reason for them.

  3. It seems that Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire were the only antebellum states that did not restrict the franchise to whites. Rhode Island disenfranchised blacks by law in 1822 and then re-enfranchised them by the state’s new Constitution in 1842.

    In NY, in addition to what I mentioned above, black males were required to have paid taxes and lived in the state for three years, while white males could vote after one year of residence and the payment of taxes or the rendering of highway or military service.
    New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Lincoln’s own Illinois, and Indiana all placed some type of racial restriction on voting.

  4. All women were disenfranchised during this time. Period.

    Just thought I would point that out.

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