This is a big year for remembering the Civil War, because it was 150 years ago that the events sometimes called “the Second American Revolution” took place.
In the middle of the war, after the battle that was its turning point, President Abraham Lincoln delivered probably the best public speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address.
He spoke at the battlefield in November 1863, and the occasion has recently been marked by public events.
By that time, Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves who lived in areas still under Confederate control. He did not end slavery in the United States, which did not happen, formally at least, until after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
That Amendment, the subject of the recent hit movie “Lincoln,” was passed by Congress months before he was assassinated, but did not come into effect until after his death.
We can only speculate if the fate of African-Americans and, with it, the course of American history would have been different, if he had lived.
There is reason to believe that there might not have been a great deal of difference. Lincoln’s focus was not freeing the slaves, but saving the Union.
Even in his Second Inaugural Address, made after the events shown in the film and a month before his death, he reminded people that he had been willing to accept slavery in the South if that would have saved the country from the Civil War.
As for the post-war period, he foresaw a future “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” This could only be understood as meaning that there would be no harsh punishment for the rebel states.
That’s much the same sentiment as Nelson Mandela’s more recent “peace and reconciliation” with the former racist leaders of South Africa.
Perhaps Lincoln reflected the views of W.T. Sherman, one of his toughest generals, famous for his march across the South, who favored “a hard war, but a soft peace.” Contrary to modern myth, Sherman was welcomed in Atlanta after the war.
There is a tangible indication of what may have been Lincoln’s thinking in a political choice he made.
When first ran in 1860, he selected Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as his running mate. A U.S. senator, Hamlin had been a Democrat. To hold onto congressional control, northern Democrats supported the South on slavery.
But Hamlin could not go along and had switched to the new Republican Party. That was big national news. Maine mattered in electoral politics, and Lincoln of Illinois got a converted Democrat and regional balance on the ticket in one move.
Much has been written about Lincoln’s cabinet being composed of a “team of rivals,” his former competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. Hamlin, having little contact with Lincoln, was not a member of that “team.”
Lincoln saw his running mate as a person who could help him win election, but not as a partner in governing, unlike more recent vice presidents.
Not that Hamlin was idle. He aligned with a growing wing of his party – the Radicals – who not only favored emancipation, but who wanted to force the South, with more than a little “malice,” to provide the freed slaves with full equality.
When Lincoln faced reelection in 1864, he worried about losing. He had Republican support, but he needed some Democrats, even if they still leaned toward the South.
He picked Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson, the only southerner who had not bolted the U.S. Senate, when the South seceded. Johnson had no serious problem with slavery, but he opposed secession.
When Johnson succeeded the assassinated president, he faced a Congress dominated by Radical Republicans. He did all he could to block any move they made to bring the South into line.
If Hamlin had become president, the South might have been forced to accept “radical” change.
It’s likely that, had he lived, Lincoln would have been less conservative than Johnson and less radical than Hamlin.
Lincoln might have accepted many racist policies in the former Confederacy, so long as they allowed voting by a relative handful of African-Americans, the black soldiers who had fought in the Civil War.
What Lincoln would have done is mere speculation, but it leaves a question for today.
Republicans became the party of the conservative South, while northern Democrats are now more liberal, but a clear divide remains between the political views of northern and southern states that still plays a major role in national politics.
Had Lincoln remained president, would that be true?