Abraham Lincoln Is Our Most Beloved President, But What If He Had Lived?

04/15/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- This Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln –- a somber moment marked by expressions of reverence for perhaps the nation’s most admired president.

For historians and political scientists, April 14 is also a time for playful speculation. What would have happened, the common question goes, if Lincoln had lived?

Certainly, history would have been demonstrably different in unknowable ways. But what about Lincoln’s reputation? Would it be so exalted? Or did some of his dignity come from his death? He was not, at the time he went to Ford’s Theater, universally venerated. The night he was killed, he had invited 14 separate people to attend "Our American Cousin" with him. All said no.

The Huffington Post asked three separate Lincoln historians to engage in the hypothetical -- to offer their takes on how things would have been different had he not been shot the fateful night. Here are their answers, edited only slightly.

Stephen Carter, author of The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln, on why Lincoln would have been a middle-of-the-road POTUS had he lived:

Presidents don't have to be assassinated to become iconic, but it probably helps. We remember Abraham Lincoln, as we should, as the Great Emancipator whose leadership and determination won the Civil War. But suppose he had survived Booth's bullet. Would he still rival George Washington in polls on the greatest American president? Or would he instead be remembered as a sort of 19th-century Lyndon Johnson, a deeply flawed president who accomplished certain great and important things but messed up others?

Let me suggest two reasons in support of the second view. First, even after the successful prosecution of the war, Lincoln had many powerful political enemies, including inside his own party. At the time of his death, he was battling with the Radical Republicans over the shape of Reconstruction. Many historians believe that Lincoln's political skill would have smoothed things out. I'm not so sure that's true. The differences in approach were quite stark, and the Radicals, following the rout of the South, were feeling their oats. They had already clashed with Lincoln many times over fundamental questions about the separation of powers. Lincoln won most (not all) of those fights -- but there's little reason to think the Radicals would have given up. Thus, a Lincoln not slain by Booth might well have gone down in history as a president who could win the war but not the peace.

Second, one has to recall the Panic of 1873, and the ensuing depression, which lasted for six years. Nobody today blames Lincoln for that, and I am not saying anyone should. But one can well imagine, had Lincoln survived, that the political search for scapegoats might have besmirched his memory. Sources from the time argue over the impact of the high tariff and the flood of Greenbacks, both of which are policies to which Lincoln, even several years out of office, might have been attached in the court of public opinion. That such a judgment would have been unfair does not mean that it would not have taken place.

I would like to believe that Lincoln's achievements would stand on their own, whether or not he had been assassinated. But history is fickle.

Professor Jay Winik, author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America, on why Lincoln would have remained among the greats:

[W]hat if he had lived, surviving the assassination attempt on April 14, 1865?

Reconstruction, by which the southern states would be reincorporated back into the union, as well as providing suffrage for the now freed blacks, would clearly have gone far more smoothly than it did under his successors. Lincoln had already called for the vote for "very intelligent Negroes" and black soldiers -- the first president ever to do so. But for Lincoln the master politician, Reconstruction was not so much a policy as a process (a lesson for today's politicians) -- flexibility was the watchword, and promises of amnesty, discussions of gradual emancipation, were all up for debate. The result? Blacks may have enjoyed a much healthier degree of civil liberties, long before LBJ, the Civil Rights Act and the much-needed strides made in the 1960s. And just as likely, the South, which struggled for decades after the war, would have much earlier shed the unhealthy stench of racism.

A final point. Beyond policy itself, how would we -- as well as presidents and world leaders who are inspired by him -- judge the Lincoln presidency that lasted a full two terms? In peacetime, he no doubt would have confronted considerable political obstacles; he surely would have stumbled a number of times; and in his second term, his reputation surely would have been bloodied. But would this change things in terms of how we assess him? Probably not. George Washington, the father of our country, had an extremely difficult second term, and was frequently reduced to invective against his political opponents, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. FDR, who gave us the New Deal and led us to victory in World War II, badly stumbled with such overreaching as when he tried to pack the Supreme Court; he was routinely called "a despot." Ronald Reagan presided over the end of the Cold War, then had the humiliation of the Iran Contra affair.

The lesson? Abraham Lincoln would still be at the top of our pantheon of presidents. As it should be.

Professor Richard Striner, author of Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, on Lincoln’s second-term agenda had he not been shot:

While it's obviously impossible to know what Lincoln would have done in a second term if he had lived, all the signs point toward a growing partnership between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans on behalf of black civil rights.

In his annual message to Congress on December 6, 1864, Lincoln warned that "more rigorous measures than heretofore" might have to be adopted in Reconstruction policy. In January 1865, Lincoln played a decisive role in persuading the lame-duck Congress to pass the new 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in all the states. When Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued "Special Field Order #15" transferring a vast tract of seized lands to freedmen on a "promissory" basis, Lincoln let the order stand. On February 5, Lincoln suggested to the Cabinet that Congress should actually pay the slave states $400 million on the condition that they ratify the 13th Amendment. On March 3, he signed the bill establishing the new Freedmen's Bureau, which was set up to give direct federal assistance to emancipated slaves and also to survey "abandoned" lands into 40-acre tracts to be preliminarily given to former slaves with the option to purchase after three years' time with "such title thereto as the United States can convey."

On April 11, from a White House balcony, he gave a speech on Reconstruction in which he announced that "it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South." He advocated extending voting rights to African Americans who had fought to save the Union. On the day after Lincoln gave the speech, Chief Justice Salmon Chase wrote Lincoln a letter expressing support for "universal suffrage" for blacks, and according to journalist Whitelaw Reid, Lincoln showed this letter to his cabinet on April 13.

Then Booth murdered him.

If Lincoln had lived, he would have had the remainder of a four-year term to work constructively with the Republican majorities that controlled both houses of Congress in creating the kinds of policies that would form the basis for consensus within the party. In my opinion, there was a very good chance that if Lincoln had lived, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s could have happened a hundred years earlier.

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