“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
The American Civil War had just ended. General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army had met with General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Although President Abraham Lincoln along with General Grant promised to allow the Confederates to surrender peacefully and without harsh punishment, in losing the war and secession the south had lost much, including 4 million slaves whom were the backbone of the southern economy. There was a lot of anger toward the president and congress, and a lot of hate toward the recently freed slaves. In a time when the nation needed a leader to stand steadfast with a solid, swift plan for reconstruction and reunification, it instead saw the first assassination of its president. Abraham Lincoln died from a gunshot wound to his head on April 15, not even a full week after the Civil War’s end. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was detrimental to reconstruction of America as his successor, Andrew Johnson, was a poor leader who did not have the same care and attention to detail, nor foresight that he himself possessed. Because of the inability to secure strong leadership immediately following the Confederate’s surrender, unification was difficult and handled in an ineffective way. The nation was further divided, and Washington chose to avert their eyes from the South’s racist and improper way of responding to the 13th, 14th, and 15thamendments which led to greater suffering for the African Americans and set the tone for racism in our country for decades to come.
While reconstruction needed to be a strict priority following the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln did not in fact have a strong plan in terms of freed slaves. He was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not even consider himself to be one until he abolished slavery and became one by default. In September of 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which essentially freed slaves in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and most of Louisiana and Virginia. Despite what most people believe, it was not a nationwide abolishment of slavery, and in fact was issued as a tool of war (Lemann 19). President Lincoln believed that by allowing slaves in these areas to be free, he created a strategy to weaken the Southern army while strengthening the army of the North, because he knew that many of the recently freed blacks would flee to the Union and commit service having no where else to go. In January of 1865, Lincoln’s 13th Amendment, which declared that slavery was outlawed, passed the House. In the question of what to do with all the freed slaves, Lincoln was known for preferring the theory of colonization which suggests sending the freed slaves out of the country, however he never felt that it should be a forced thing, but rather voluntary (Blair and Fisher 46). Although many impressive historical events occurred under President Lincoln’s time that led to the abolishment of slavery and led the way for the 14th and 15th Amendments, Lincoln himself didn’t seem to be the African-American defending president that most believe him to be. He was not a slave holder, and found it to be a moral atrocity, but it seems that his conviction stopped there. For the purpose of the war he viewed the freed slaves as tools to victory. After abolishment, he would have rather seen them all shipped away from America’s shores forever rather than deal with having to figure out how to give them a fair shot at life here.
In Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” there is grace extended to the rebellious states. But that grace hinges on the acceptance of the revised constitution, and utter devotion again to the country. It was likely difficult for most Southern governments to want to pledge allegiance to the country and president that they had fought for so long to secede from. There was a lot of bitterness in all that was lost. Not only the millions of slaves lost, but also the hundreds of thousands of people whom died fighting. Yet Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction in this proclamation lies around incorporating the southern states back into the union under an oath of allegiance that is as follows:
“I, , do solemnly swear, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder; and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all acts of congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves, so long and so far as not repealed, modified, or held void by congress, or by decision of the supreme court; and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion having reference to slaves, so long and so far as not modified or declared void by decision of the supreme court. So help me God,” (Lincoln).
Within five years following the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, congress passed the 14thamendment which provided citizenship and all its rights to freed slaves, and the 15th amendment which prohibited denying citizens the right to vote based on race. Despite these constitutional rights being passed, the south still went to great, violent lengths to discriminate, segregate, and terrorize the African-Americans. Congress did send federal troops into the south to protect them for a time, but it was a short time and other than that nothing was done to prohibit the horrible treatment (Lemann 18-9). Based on President Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction”, and his ability to pass the 13th Amendment, it seems that he demonstrated a strong ability to accomplish what he willed and then ensure its following. Therefore, if he had survived into the reconstruction period, perhaps these bills would have been passed sooner. Being so, he would have seen the South’s inability to honor the constitution, and it’s possible that Lincoln would have rescinded his grace on the rebellious states or at least taken action to ensure proper obedience of the laws. Had he been alive, the South would have gotten away with a lot less in the four remaining years of his presidency than they had under the eye of Andrew Johnson.
Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was an interesting character who seemed to carry strong passion and courage, yet great weakness as well. His weakness was to the detriment of reconstruction and race relations. President Johnson had three tasks that he needed to focus on upon entering the presidency. He needed to gain the Union’s support and strengthen its unity, he needed to decide how to deal with the Southern rebels, and he needed to find a solution for all the former slaves (Bergeron 68). Although Johnson had grown up in the south, he had been working for Lincoln and the Union during the war and he had never owned any slaves of his own (8). It is apparent that he was torn between his devotion to the constitution and his southern upbringing in many of the decisions that he made. One way this is apparent is that, as most historians point out, Johnson was a racist at least to some extent. He strongly believed in protecting the U.S. Constitution, which is what motivated him to join the Union. He also favored state’s rights to govern over federals (9). This explains why it was so easy for him to avert his eyes from the south’s mistreatment of African-Americans despite the passing of the 13th amendment. He may have been torn between wanting to protect the Constitution, while also wanting to allow the southern states some room to govern themselves as they saw fit. Congress and the president were often at odds as well (8). There was a power struggle at play all throughout his presidency which left little for him to accomplish.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln caused a different man to be president, Andrew Johnson, and he simply couldn’t play the same part. He lacked the relationships that Lincoln had had within his government, and he lacked the motivation and conviction to see reconstruction through as justly as possible. This tragic transition brought a lot of complex implications with it, and although within specific events it is possible to see how history has been formed, it is also apparent that there are many factors that contribute to racial divide today.
(A note from Rhiannon: My interest in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and African-American history started over 20 years ago when I first learned about these topics in my sixth-grade history class. I remember obsessing over the books, movies, and research I was exposed to. I took the memorization of the Gettysburg Address very seriously. That initial passion has only been strengthened since, and so I chose the assassination and reconstruction for my essay. It was also in the sixth grade that my mother took me on a trip to Washington D.C. Being in Ford’s theater and hearing the story about Lincoln’s assassination is what I remember most as well as seeing the Lincoln Memorial. When given the opportunity to pick any historical event to research and write about, it is obvious to me that I would have chosen something surrounding the Civil War.)
Bergeron, Paul H. Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. The University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville, 2011.
Blair, William Alan and Karen Fisher. Lincoln’s Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Lemann, Nicholas. “Deconstructing Reconstruction”. Washington Monthly, January 1, 2013, Vol. 45, Issue 1-2, pp.18-20.
Lincoln, Abraham. Emancipation Proclamation. September 22, 1862, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34&page=transcript
Lincoln, Abraham. Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. December 8, 1863, http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/procamn.htm