The greatest mark of the Reconstruction Era is perhaps its failure to effectively unite and rebuild the United States after the Civil War. If President Abraham Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term as president, the Reconstruction Era would have been smoother in its goal of reintegrating the South back into the Union but would have been the same as that under Andrew Johnson in its failure to fully account for, reckon with, and make amends for the evils of the past. In this failure, it would have created a similar situation to that which did occur in which oppression and disenfranchisement followed slavery and in which the real work of achieving equality and justice for all was slowed and delayed until a much later date.
As historian Eric Foner points out, “Lincoln did not … believe that Reconstruction entailed social and political changes beyond the abolition of slavery.”1 In this belief, Lincoln failed miserably to understand human nature and societies or ignored reality in favor of his own hopes and ideals. Whatever the reason for his belief, such a course of action would have been a recipe for disaster. To simply end the war and to end slavery without simultaneously working to eliminate the root and underlying causes behind why a clearly unjust institution like slavery was able to flourish in the American South in the first place, to attempt to balance the injustice by providing some form of monetary compensation and/or education as well as full citizenship rights to those who had suffered such an injustice, and to institute the proper laws and organizations for preventing future injustice is a remarkably great oversight on the part of someone remembered for their wisdom and thoughtfulness.
Lincoln had begun his first term as president expressing a desire to maintain the Union in peace at nearly any coast. His approach throughout the Civil War had indicated “a desire to achieve peace as expeditiously as possible.”2 Similarly, his approach to Reconstruction was largely one without any “fixed plan” aside from reattaching the South to the United States as quickly and easily as possible. For the most part, this did not mean fighting to procure social justice for former slaves nor, for that matter, any significant change in Southern culture, in which a deeply-entrenched and violently hateful racism inhered.
This unwillingness by Lincoln to “rock the boat” is reflected in Lincoln’s views concerning black voting rights. In modern liberal democracies and republicans like the United States full citizenship is reflected in one’s right to participate in one’s government by voting and having the right to run for political office. If one cannot participate in government, one is not a full citizen, in any meaningful sense, of a democracy. Lincoln’s rejection, then, of full political enfranchisement for freed slaves was a rejection of their full citizenship and, by implication, of their full personhood.3
Although Lincoln is often hailed as hero for having ended slavery in the United States and this heroic image and reputation leads many to believe the post-war years would have seen greater achievements and improvements, the truth seems rather to be that Reconstruction would not have taken place much differently under Lincoln than under Johnson. Lincoln’s policies before and during the Civil War reflect first and foremost a desire to restore the Union. No doubt his post-war policies would have reflected the same desire. Reconstruction under Lincoln, then, might have seen a smoother transition of the South into the Union than occurred under Johnson but would have seen a similar, if not grater, intentional ignorance of justice for former slaves.
1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 36.
2 Ibid., 73-4.
3 Ibid., 74.