Lincoln and His Second Term


One hundred and fifty years ago Lincoln was at the high point of his Presidency.  The Civil War was coming to a victorious conclusion.  His popularity would zoom to heights not reached by any President since Washington when on April 14, 1865 he foiled the assassination plot of John Wilkes Booth by wrestling him to the floor of the theater box at Ford’s Theater.  (One wonders if Booth would have succeeded if Lincoln had not been standing and stretching, his face to the door of the theater box, when Booth burst through the door.)  Less than four years later, he left Washington, widely reviled North and South.  Although revisionist histories appear occasionally defending Lincoln, the consensus of his contemporaries still stands:  that Lincoln made an adequate wartime President, but an abysmal peacetime President.  I think this verdict is overblown, but one cannot argue that his second term after the War was anything but a disaster.  Let us look at the factors that led to this.


1.  Former Confederate States-Lincoln’s theory was that the former Confederates States had never been out of the Union.  So soon as ten percent of the voters based on 1860 totals had taken an oath of allegiance to the Union and organized a state government that abolished slavery, the new state government would be recognized by the federal government and members elected to Congress seated.  This was far too lenient for Radical Republicans who feared that these new state governments would simply be replicas of the state governments that existed in 1860 with a de facto abolition of slavery while de jure blacks would be fifth class citizens.  Their fears were soon realized with new state governments recognized by the Lincoln administration adopting Black Codes, laws that severely restricted the freedom the newly freed slaves.  This remained a bone of contention between Lincoln and the Congress controlled by the Radical Republicans from the beginning until the end of his second term.

2.  Rights of Blacks-That Lincoln was sincerely committed to the civil rights of former slaves cannot be doubted in good faith by anyone.  The ringing words of his 1865 Fourth of July “Life and Liberty” oration before the freedmen of Richmond should eliminate any doubt on that score.  Throughout his second term Lincoln used military force to enforce the rights of blacks that were routinely trampled upon by the new governments in the former Confederate states that he recognized.  He was instrumental in establishing the largely black states of Liberty, Emancipation and Freedom in the West that ensured black representation in Congress and a haven for blacks disenfranchised in the rest of the country.  However, the use of the military was met by a virtual guerilla warfare in the South led by the Ku Klux Klan, often receiving clandestine aid from the governments that Lincoln had helped install.  This was all very confusing for the war weary citizens of the North, and a common complaint of “What did we fight the War for?” became ever more common in the North as Lincoln’s second term went on.

3.  Mary Lincoln- The assassination attempt on Lincoln seemed to unhinge Mrs. Lincoln.  She would often shriek in public to strangers that she knew that they were out to murder her husband.  Lincoln perhaps had no choice in having her committed to an insane asylum, but that decision added to his unpopularity.

4.  Fissions in the Republican Party-With slavery ended, the Republican party fractured between radicals and conservatives, former Whigs and former Democrats, and a myriad of different state factions.  Much of Lincoln’s time was devoted to healing these fractures, with Lincoln often receiving strong criticism from all factions for his troubles as a would be peacemaker.

5.  Seward’s Folly- Throughout the second term Democrats often attacked Lincoln for having run up a huge national debt during the Civil War.  This charge received more ammunition when the US purchased Alaska for 7.2 million dollars, which Democrats painted as money wasted for a worthless icy wasteland.  When it got out that Lincoln was considering attempting to set up  more black states in Alaska, he was subject to laughter and ridicule, often accompanied by a quoted statement from a black that he did not want to go and freeze in Alaska.

6.  Man of the Past-Lincoln often seemed like a figure of the past by the end of his second term.  Secession and slavery, the two issues most associated with Lincoln, quickly became relics of the past to a nation, at least the white part of the nation, eager to turn the page.  Heroes who win often seem outdated as times rapidly change, and that fate befell Lincoln.

7.  Andrew Johnson– Johnson was put on the ticket because he was a War Democrat.  After the War he quickly became just a Democrat again and often embarrassed the administration with frequent public criticisms.

8.  Scandals-Although a man of total rectitude, some of Lincoln’s appointments were not, especially during the War, with vast sums flowing through the federal government.  In the post war era  Radical Republicans spearheaded endless Congressional investigations that tarred the Lincoln administration with an aura of corruption.

Small wonder that by 1868 the Republican party was repudiated at the polls with George McClellan having his long sought revenge by succeeding Lincoln at the White House.  In retirement Lincoln found himself in financial need as the years rolled by, his attempt to return to the practice of the law having proved a failure, the aging Lincoln lacking the mental agility of his younger days and his unpopularity driving away prospective clients.  His family fortunes were restored however with the commercial success of his 1875 memoir Of the People.  Grant, who had defeated McClellan for the Presidency in 1872, had ever remained a friend of Lincoln.  He purchased a  copy of Lincoln’s memoir and made it known that he would look upon it as a personal favor if every man who had worn the blue did likewise.  The response was overwhelming and ensured that Lincoln would have no financial worries, and a friendly reception at Grand Army of the Republic meeting halls, until his death in 1880.

More to explorer


  1. #2, of course, actually happened, although it was President Grant who used the Army to crush the KKK four years after this alternate Lincoln would have. And yes, after this success the Klan grew for a second time in Grant’s second term, and people of the North did then complain.

    The really interesting thing is to juxtapose #1 and #2. Reconstituted state governments led by ex-Confederates would have done everything to oppose the Army’s anti-Klan campaign, especially in Congress. For the Members of Congress it would have looked like the 1850’s all over again, but worse. This aspect alone would make a very interesting alternate history. One does wonder, however, how the canny Lincoln would not have foreseen this, or at least not listened to the Radical Republicans who did.

  2. “One does wonder, however, how the canny Lincoln would not have foreseen this, or at least not listened to the Radical Republicans who did.”

    Oh, he foresaw it in my alternate history and that is why he set up the three black states in the West. Lincoln, a fan of Euclid, had a mathematical mind. He would have realized that he wanted two irreconcilable things: rapid reintegration of the former Confederate states back into the Union and the protection of civil rights for black. Lincoln would try to do both, as impossible as that would likely be, while laying the foundation for a better future.

  3. Hmmm, “Oh, he [Lincoln] foresaw it in my alternate history and that is why he set up the three black states in the West”
    OK, that is a real complication. You have to come up with a reasonable set of politics that allows the country to support such a mass migration. You also need to explore the consequences: not all freed slaves would leave the South, so the perceived need by ex-Confederates for the Klan is lessened, but the effect of their depredations against the remaining ex-slaves is increased. So in the end you might have an ethnic cleansing. Also, how do the economies of these three states work? Like many attempts at redistribution, it could just produce poverty, and then alternate Lincoln becomes the father of a ghetto that someday might start its own secessionist movement. You’ve given yourself quite a task here Don. To be believable it must mirror real life: be subject to the conflicting ideals of real people (for example, Frederick Douglass would have opposed the idea, given his opposition to segregation and African resettlement), reflect politics compromise, and show both the glory and tragedy of American life.
    I wouldn’t mind peek before you publish.

  4. “You have to come up with a reasonable set of politics that allows the country to support such a mass migration.”

    There was plenty of empty territory out West in the 1860’s. The colored regiments could have served as a nucleus for the new states. Both North and South would have had plenty of support for seeing newly freed blacks heading West, at least initially.

    “Confederates for the Klan is lessened, but the effect of their depredations against the remaining ex-slaves is increased.”

    Not necessarily. With blacks having an alternative where to live, it might have caused an improvement in conditions to keep black labor in place in the South. Blacks were an important part of the economy in the South, especially before agricultural mechanization, and if any black could head west with a train ticket paid for by either the federal government or private groups, there would be an economic incentive to treat them better, at least when labor scarcity was a factor.

    As for the black states becoming ghettoes, I don’t think so due to capitalism and our federal system.

    I doubt if Douglass would have opposed the idea, especially since Lincoln likely would have made him the governor of one of the black states during its territorial phase. The black states are less outlandish that the Mormon state of Utah, which established that American history is often much wilder than any novel.

  5. “As for the black states becoming ghettoes, I don’t think so due to capitalism and our federal system.”
    Agreed, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. My point is that the western states developed economically due to the inward migration of people who were largely looking to better themselves economically. In your alt history we have people migrating to better themselves for largely non-economic reasons, and that makes a difference: freed slaves would have been tempted to overlook some initial deficiencies to avoid persecution. Yes, the Mormon experience points to a positive outcome, but there we are talking about a smaller number of people with a smaller footprint. I would think that the difference between success and failure in your alt history might hinge on the rate of migration. Also you need to look at the possibility of economic subversion of black states: a good place to look for inspiration might be the history of the Freedman’s Bank and the post-Reconstruction isolation of the anti-Confederates in Appalachia. Well, good luck, it sounds like fun.
    BTW, I disagree with you on Douglass: he would have insisted on a racially integrated migration in exchange for a governorship, if he supported the idea at all. Lincoln’s friends have to give him some heat in your history, don’t they? 😉

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