In 1867 cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed a former Confederate soldier
upset with having to allow voting rights for newly freed African American citizens.
I had another colleague, however, who contested my case with a more hard-nosed pragmatism. Daniel Singal, a historian who has written perceptively on Modernism, the South and William Faulkner, drew on his own personal experiences:
“I started out (as so many of us did in the 60s) believing that what happened at the grassroots was the determining factor, while leadership had its symbolic functions but was nowhere nearly as important as "the many." A half century of observing and participating in American politics, as well as institutional politics on the campus where I taught, has convinced me otherwise, to the point where I have come to believe that leadership makes all the difference.
“And in the case of Lincoln you had a leader with superb political skills—perhaps the best that has ever been seen. It is obviously impossible to know what Lincoln would have done had he lived, but the one certainty as I see it is that he could not have done much worse than Johnson. In effect (and as you know), there were two phases to Reconstruction—the first immediately after the war when Johnson was giving out pardons left and right to former Confederates and in essence signaling the South that all was forgiven and they didn't have to change whatsoever. Then the Radicals enter the picture and in short order totally reverse that, imposing military law and bringing about the ultimate nightmare for white southerners by giving blacks extensive access to the franchise and office-holding. Nothing could have frightened southern whites more at that moment than the prospect of a complete power swap in which they would find themselves in a society dominated by former slaves. That of course never happened—black access to power in actuality fell well below that threshold, but in the eyes of whites that seemed to be where they were headed.
“I doubt that Lincoln would have permitted either phase to happen (or at least he would have worked hard and effectively to prevent it). His initial proclamation did call for states to get back on their feet with 10% of white voters taking an oath to uphold the Constitution, but that was his starting gambit back in 1863 and, aware of the pressure from the likes of Davis and Stevens, he would surely have added further stipulations that anticipated some of the Radical demands. Above all, Lincoln's modus operandi was to create a cohort of moderates (as he had done in all the northern states at the beginning of the war) who would naturally fall in behind his policies. That was the meaning of the 10% requirement -- he envisioned them as a group of white southerners he could count on to guide events in those states (especially after he provided them with patronage jobs). He would also surely have reached out to former southern Whigs to be part of his coalition, cementing their loyalties through commercial benefits like subsidies for railroad lines. In effect, he would have tried in each former Rebel state to put together a nucleus of political leaders who he could use to achieve a meaningful reconstruction. No one, alas, did that after Lincoln's death, especially Johnson (who had no talent for building coalitions). And that was precisely what was missing once the process of rehabilitating the South got under way.
“Lincoln also would have had a cadre of moderate Republicans in the Congress who he could have counted on to keep the Radicals more or less in check. Those were his mainstays all through the war. But Johnson of course proceeded to alienate them with his vetoes and rhetoric to the point where they saw no choice but to go along with their Radical colleagues.
"In effect, when Lincoln died we lost the political center at a moment in our history when we most desperately needed it. That's the heart of my argument. Whether the center in the end would have held (to use the cliché) and made an appreciable difference is an open question, but my hunch is that it would have to a significant extent."
Could Lincoln have managed all of this in the space of the four years available to him in his second term? I don’t think so. But who knows for sure? Dan and I also discussed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s as a testing ground for examining the relative importance of political elites and people on the ground. To excerpt from my response:
“In some ways we’re not that far apart. I agree (as the essay stipulates) that Lincoln certainly would have done better than Johnson. You agree that it’s not clear in the end “whether the center would hold” despite Lincoln’s unquestioned skills.
"On civil rights, I certainly do agree that King was an effective leader, as were many of the younger crowd that challenged him. I guess the issue here is how one defines leaders and where they come from. My argument about Trump [whom I also discussed in the History News Network essay] is that we need action from the ground up and if enough people push for action, leaders will emerge. This is what happened with the civil rights movement, when none of the top-down established political leaders took the bit between their teeth. Historians recognize the hollowness of claiming that JFK’s bold “New Frontier” led the vanguard. Kennedy was begging King not to hold his march on Washington. King himself pointed this out in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The opinion leaders political elites are all out there saying, go slow, we’re with you but the time is not right. Even at the beginning, with the Montgomery bus boycott, when Rosa Parks got arrested it wasn’t King who mobilized, it was the women who ran ditto machines late at night to urge a boycott. King kinda walked in the next day at the meeting and they tapped him to lead, a bit to his discomfort, at first. Ezell Blair and those other students weren’t given marching orders to start the lunch counter sit ins at Greensboro. They did it on their own and then the sit-ins spread like wildfire. As I recall, somebody tried the same thing in Topeka in the early 1950s around the time Linda Brown's parents sued the school board…but nothing came of it. The conditions weren’t right and it wasn’t Eisenhower or Kennedy who stepped up to change things.
"On the other hand, in terms of effective elites, I agree that Obama was a leader who accomplished a great deal more than most people give him credit for. Dems have been trying to get health care legislation passed since FDR. The Clintons made it their number one priority and failed, and they didn’t have the headwinds Obama faced. So I don’t want to be too polemical. I guess my point in doing the essay was to say, even with a guy as great as Lincoln, the ground has to be prepared. Now that Trump is in office and we don’t have a leader like Obama, it may seem depressing, but we need to prepare that ground! Then the leaders will emerge, as King and others did."
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors