A shrewd politician, Lincoln successfully navigated the complicated political waters of Washington for more than four years, somehow cobbling together a coalition to maintain support for the war and a “team of rivals” to manage it. His passage of the 13th Amendment in late January 1865 best exemplifies how he could “play the game,” managing a host of competing interests to achieve the greatest good.
We have had other shrewd chief executives in our history—perhaps even some shrewd enough to handle the complexities Lincoln faced in the closing days of the Civil War—but Andrew Johnson wasn’t one of them.
Johnson’s ascension to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination shines the light on a flaw in our political process that continues to this day: the appointment of a running mate for so-called “balance” on the ticket rather than for political continuity. As a war Democrat from a seceded state who remained loyal to the Union, Johnson indeed looked like a shrewd choice for vice president—but it was a choice made under the assumption that Lincoln would serve out his term.
When Booth’s bullet soured the political mood from gracious victory to angry revenge, Ulysses S. Grant successfully shepherded subsequent surrender negotiations in accordance with the charitable vision Lincoln had laid out. But it was up to Johnson to officially pick up the baton and carry it forward. However, Johnson found himself thrust into a position well beyond his political capabilities. As a result, Reconstruction got off to a rocky start from which it never recovered as the president and the Congress squabbled, culminating in Johnson’s impeachment. By the time Grant rose to the presidency, the wheels were well off the wagon, and not even the man who won the war was able to win the peace.
What did Booth think would happen after he killed the president? In his blind hunger for revenge, had he given any thought to what a Johnson presidency would look like? As he yelled “Death to tyrants” to the audience at Ford’s Theater, did he have any idea how tyrannical the Radical Republican-controlled Congress would become?
Booth would not live to see the results of the tragedy he inflicted on the nation. His bullet killed not only Lincoln but, as it turned out, any hopes for peacefully assimilating the South back into the country. It also killed any chance for a national dialogue about race—a conversation we still struggle to have.
Only the keenest of minds and shrewdest of politicians could have navigated those postwar waters. It’s impossible to tell what results Lincoln would have met with, but he had at least proven himself up to the task of managing Washington during the war. I can’t help but miss his steady hand guiding the peace.