Opinion

What we can learn from Abraham Lincoln's greatest mistake

Bipartisanship is overrated

An ill-fated tilt toward bipartisanship was at the core of Abraham Lincoln's greatest mistake.

As the Civil War ground on through 1863 and the presidential election in 1864 approached, Republicans thought restoring the Union under terms of generous reconciliation was a high priority. Thus, Lincoln and the Republican Party nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson to be his running mate under a Union Party ticket, ditching previous running mate Hannibal Hamlin, a reliable anti-slavery Republican.

The idea, of course, was to lend some broad legitimacy to the postwar reconstruction process. But when Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate terrorist in 1865, that decision turned from dubious to an absolute catastrophe. We should remember Lincoln's mistake today, as centrists browbeat movements on both sides of the aisle for not seeking reconciliation. Sometimes, reaching for compromise is a terrible move.

Andrew Johnson was by a wide margin the worst president in American history. Instead of following Lincoln's ideas of generous but firm reconciliation, with slavery abolished and at least some political rights guaranteed for newly freed slaves, Johnson behaved essentially as a Confederate plant.

A barely-literate, bone-deep racist former slaveowner with a messianic complex, Johnson did all he could to restore the prewar status quo, especially focusing on stamping freed blacks under a white supremacist bootheel. He did nothing as southern states introduced "black codes," which basically enserfed freed blacks in a preview of Jim Crow. When Congress quashed these codes, he vetoed every attempt to achieve any modicum of rights for blacks and then refused to implement such laws when Congress repeatedly overrode him. He fired Republicans from the government on the slightest pretext and stacked the federal bureaucracy and the military with racist Democrats. He pardoned every Confederate soldier en masse. He pardoned three of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators.

All of this powerfully enabled a wave of organized white terrorism that swept the South after the end of the war. The newly created Freedmen's Bureau, together with blacks working on their own initiative, strained mightily to uplift and secure the rights of freed slaves. They built schools, churches, and houses; bought property; and organized political conferences across the nation. They were met with a systematic campaign of white terror, including assassination, arson, riots, fraud, and wanton murder, against both free blacks and their white Republican allies, about which Johnson did nothing.

About the only positive thing that can be said about Johnson's presidency is that he was such a stunningly horrible politician that an enraged Congress eventually confronted him head-on. Practically all his vetoes were overridden, and he was impeached when he removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (a committed abolitionist) in blatant violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which stipulated the Senate had to approve the removal of high-level executive branch officials.

But despite his impeachment, the vote in the Senate to remove him from office missed by one, and Johnson continued to use the considerable power of the presidency to harm blacks and the nation at large. Indeed, one could argue he was the only actual traitor who has ever been president of United States.

Now, it should be noted that Lincoln was consistently more moderate and conciliatory than true radicals like Thaddeus Stevens or Charles Sumner. But he also had a long history of increasingly enlightened views, and certainly would not have tolerated the campaign of terror mounted by ex-Confederates. Had Lincoln lived, serious scholars argue there would have been a decent chance that Jim Crow could have been headed off at the pass. Instead, in large part because Johnson was a despicable racist (the racism and apathy of northern whites being the other major reason), African-Americans were condemned to a century of slavery in all but name.

The grotesque Andrew Johnson presidency puts the lie to centrist pundit arguments that bipartisanship is the highest political virtue. Sometimes it works out, as when LBJ masterfully guided landmark civil rights legislation through Congress. But sometimes it leads to disaster.

So for today's organizers, politicians, and activists, don't fret if centrist scolds wring their handkerchiefs about a lack of bipartisan support for some policy or the other. Sometimes marshaling one's strength and steamrolling the opposition is the right way to go.

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