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What If Lincoln Had Lived?

Abraham Lincoln, history, slavery
Abraham Lincoln is universally regarded as one of the greatest men ever to occupy the presidency.
(Image: © Smithsonian)

As America remembers the events at Ford's Theater 150 years ago tonight, many are wondering how things might have been different had John Wilkes Booth missed his shot, or if President Lincoln had just stayed home instead of following his wife Mary's wishes for a night of entertainment.

Would Lincoln have been a successful second-term president? Would the reconstruction of the South been handled better with a strong and powerful leader such as Lincoln in charge? Would western cities like Denver or Phoenix have become home to free slaves and perhaps a new, more powerful black middle class? Or would Lincoln have become like Winston Churchill, a war hero who was later tossed out by voters when Great Britain's economy turned sour?

In the short term, historians say Lincoln would have better managed the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, a time when Confederate leaders were pardoned and remained in power, while slaves were free in name only. The botched Reconstruction of the South led to a century of bad feelings, racial tension and a region that lagged behind the rest of the United States in both economy and education.

Rarely Seen Faces of the Civil War

When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, he was a part of a larger conspiracy that aimed to decapitate the Union government. 

"It's hard to imagine being worse that it was under (President) Andrew Johnson," said Allen Guelzo, director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. "We might have avoided a lot of the icebergs in terms of Jim Crow, segregation and racial hostility."

Guelzo says Lincoln was at the height of his popularity and political power after being re-elected in 1864 with his Republican party firmly in control of both houses of Congress. He also had the grudging respect of many white southerners.

Lincoln would have pushed for full voting rights for freed blacks, according to Guelzo, by giving them financial help to settle new lands out West through the Freedmen's Bureau. Landowners were considered citizens with voting rights, even though southern legislators did their best to throw obstacles in their way, like literacy tests and poll taxes. Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson tried to veto the Freedmen's Bureau and it expired in 1872.

Guelzo believes Lincoln would have encouraged blacks to move out of the South into the vast expanses of the West where they could start anew as landowners, railroad workers and settlers.

"It would have been a perfectly logical conclusion to look to the West to give blacks a second chance without southern whites around," Guelzo said. "I could picture Lincoln at the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 in Utah, and two black laborers flanking him."

Western cities might have become home to significant black communities, like Chicago, Atlanta or Washington, D.C. today.

The South would also have been scrubbed of Confederate leaders who persisted in their belief of the "Lost Cause" of the Civil War. Under President Johnson, himself a former slaveowner and also a white southerner who was pro-Union, Confederate leaders were pardoned instead of tried.

"It would have been a kind of [post World War II] de-Nazification, minus the show trials," Guelzo said. "Lincoln didn't want trials or hangings. But he wanted them driven into exile. He would have been happy if Jefferson Davis and his company would go to Mexico or Brazil or Egypt. That would have decapitated the old southern leadership."

Did President Lincoln Believe in God?

A second-term President Lincoln would have also faced challenges, according to Joseph Glatthaar, history professor at the University of North Carolina, such as the beginning of wars between Native Americans and settlers on the new frontier, as well as a post-war depression.

"There would have been an economic downturn with a million men in uniform in the Union army," Glatthaar said. "Those guys are going to have to be demobilized and they needed jobs. Usually in aftermath of the war you have an economic downturn, that might have affected his reputation."

Instead of a lame duck Lincoln, the South and the North kept a fragile peace together under Andrew Johnson, who historians consider one of America's worst presidents. Lincoln consistently ranks as number one.

Originally published on Discovery News.