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Lincoln and Johnson

June 15, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was antislavery.  Andrew Johnson was proslavery.  When Lincoln was ready to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor Johnson asked him to exempt Tennessee.  When the 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the United States, President Johnson became an enthusiastic supporter of abolition, but not because he cared about the blacks.  He had convinced himself that the former slaves and their former masters had once comprised a special interest against poor whites.  Therefore, the end of slavery was a new opportunity for underprivileged whites to compete against the formerly privileged blacks!  Since Johnson believed whites to be superior to blacks, he was confident a new day was dawning for the white race.  Therefore, Johnson had a view of Southern Reconstruction that differed greatly from that of the U.S. Congress.

If Lincoln had lived, he probably would have tangled with the Radical Republicans in Congress.  They wanted to severely punish the South for secession.  Lincoln wanted to rehabilitate the South.  He was not ready to put all freed slaves on an equal footing with Southern whites, but his ideas were progressive for the times.  Johnson did not care at all about elevating the former slaves.  Although he wanted to punish the main instigators of secession, he also wanted the South to elect white Congressmen and Senators.  Everything would then go back to the antebellum norm, except for slavery.

On Reconstruction, Lincoln represented the middle ground between his successor’s leniency and the Radical Republicans’ harshness.  Since two wrongs do not make a right, one would normally expect there to be equal criticism of both extremes.  However, the Radical Republicans damaged their legacy by passing the Tenure of Office Act over Andrew Johnson’s veto.  We will look at that story next time.

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