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.