Channelling George Washington: What If ... Lincoln Lived Out His Presidency?


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“What if Lincoln decided to skip Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, 1865?”

“There’s a what if that can keep us talking all night.”

“I’ve discussed it with Abe up here in Elysium.  It’s a painful subject. It stirs a lot of uneasy thoughts.  He’s not at all sure that he would have had any better luck with the Radical Republicans, a.k.a. Abolitionists than his unlucky successor, Vice President Andy Johnson.”

“I’ve got more confidence in Lincoln than that.”’

“So have I.  That’s what I said to him.  He took a swallow of ambrosia and pondered for a moment.  “It’d be a different country today,” he said.

“What did he mean?”

“He started by admitting he didn’t have a clear idea how things would have gone.  But one thing was certain.  He NEVER would have tolerated those Reconstruction laws that the Radicals in Congress crammed down poor Johnson’s throat—turning the South into military districts, and ordering the Union Army to run things.”

“Was he in favor of giving the blacks the vote?”

“Here’s where Abe got really uneasy.  He said no—not right away.  It didn’t make sense to give the vote to people who were almost all illiterate.  But he recognized that there were many blacks with brains and talent—the real Uncle Toms I talked about a few nights ago.  They deserved some sort of recognition.  He thought maybe a literacy test would have been a good first step.”

“In places like New Orleans there were a lot of free blacks with educations.”

“He recognized that too.  He was eager to have them participate.  His main goal was to bring the Southern states back into the union with a minimum of blame.  He wanted to squelch the abolitionists talk of revenge.”

“Was he in favor of seizing the land of leading Confederates and distributing it to blacks?  A lot of Radical Republicans favored that.”

“Absolutely not.  Abe said that would have started a cycle of revenge and retaliation that would have lasted for decades.”

“What about the possibility that he would have tried to send the blacks back to Africa?”

“Abe said he thought about it, and discussed it with Grant and other people.  But by the time the war ended, it was impossible.  One hundred and sixty thousand blacks had fought in the Union Army.  It would have been an awful act of ingratitude to send them back to Africa.  But there was a need to get some of the blacks out of the South.  It was their sheer numbers—4 million—that terrified the whites.  This was what President Grant was thinking, when he tried to buy the Dominican Republic.  Maybe a million blacks—the poorest ones—might think it wasn’t a bad idea to go to another country.  But Congress wouldn’t put up the money.”

“It was probably just as well, wouldn’t you say?”

“You judge things differently when you can see them as they’re happening and a century later.  I’m not sure it would have worked.  But it wasn’t a totally bad idea, in my opinion.  Abe agreed with me.  Grant had gotten the idea from him, I’m pretty sure.”

“Why were the whites so spooked by the idea of free blacks?”

“That can be summed up in one word:  Haiti.  They had a savage civil war there in the early 1800s.  Napoleon sent an army to reconquer it and make it a French colony again.  They had declared their independence in the wake of the French Revolution.  The French won a lot of battles but their army collapsed from repeated outbreaks of yellow fever.”

“Did President Jefferson help the Haitians?”

“As little as possible.  He was in a bind.  He didn’t want an independent black Haiti but he was even more spooked by what the French were planning to do.  Haiti was step one in Napoleon’s plan to relaunch the French overseas empire.  He browbeat the Spanish into secretly giving the Louisiana territory back to France.  He planned to ship an even bigger army there and start making lots of trouble for us with the Indians in the Mississippi Valley.”

“All this must have been a shock to Mr. Jefferson.”

“To put it mildly.  He had spent the previous eight or nine years smearing me and President John Adams for not getting in bed with Revolutionary France.  Now Napoleon was running things, a guy who had no more use for Jeffersonian democracy than he did for British autocracy.  It gave me a few laughs up here during my lonely first few years, before Martha joined me.”

“Did you encourage the Haitians?”

“If by that you mean the Federalist Party, the answer is yes.  I never made a public statement.  But Alexander Hamilton had a close friend, Edmund Stevens, as our consul there.  We smuggled them guns and ammunition.  John Adams’ secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, did even more.  He thought maybe a free Haiti would accelerate the end of slavery in America.  But he was much too optimistic.  The French army took no prisoners.  The war became a savage business that sowed hatred on both sides.”

“What happened when the French pulled out?

“In 1804, Dessalines, the black general in command of the ex-slaves, declared Haiti was for blacks only.  He marched across the island and killed every single white person he found—men, women, children.  That really spooked Southerners.”

“Including President Jefferson?”

“He was more spooked than anyone else.  Pretty soon, his son-in-law Jack Eppes, a congressman from Virginia, introduced a resolution banning any and all American contacts with Haiti—until further notice.  It passed unanimously.  Everyone knew it was coming from the president.  That was one of Tom’s worst mistakes.  It left Haiti adrift for decades.”

“Let’s go back to Abe.  If he lived, do you think the Radicals would have tried to impeach him like Andy Johnson?”

“Not likely. Abe would have been the one man in the country who could say:  ‘I won the war.’  That would have made him ten feet tall.  I like to think he would have continued the tradition of the strong presidency.  We would have been spared forty years of Congress running the country.”
“What are some of the things Lincoln might have done?”

“A good example is the order Grant issued little more than a month after Lincoln was murdered.  He told Phil Sheridan to take 50,000 troops and march to the Rio Grande.  Do you know why?”

“There was an Austrian prince, Maximilian, running Mexico with French backing.  He’d named himself Emperor.”

“An American army on the border was our way of saying we didn’t like this violation of the Monroe Doctrine.  Abe had discussed this move with Grant before that nutcase Booth pulled his trigger.  Pretty soon Maximilian was in front of a Mexican firing squad.”

“What else might Abe have done?”

“Did you ever hear of the Fenians, the Irish independence movement?”

“All four of my grandparents were born in Ireland.”

“Then you know about Secretary of State Seward allowing the Fenians to organize an army here in America composed of Irish-American veterans from the North and South, to conquer Canada.”

“They won a big battle in 1866.  They chased the Canadian militia for ten miles.”

“But then the British twisted Andy Johnson’s arm—or maybe paid off his son, who didn’t have an honest bone in his body—and Johnson ordered gunboats into the Niagara River, cutting off all further supplies and ammo for the Fenian army in Canada.  They were forced to surrender a few days later.  Abe would never have folded like Johnson.  He would have told the Brits to take a long slow walk.  He agreed with Seward’s idea that we should become the United States of North America.”

“Abe had it in for the Brits?”

“He remembered the way they’d covertly backed the Confederacy and armed the Alabama and other Confederate raiders in their shipyards.  Those fellows wreaked havoc on American merchant ships during the war.”

“Does this mean what I think it means, Mr. President?

“Canada would have become part of the United States.  We wouldn’t have had to worry about buying places like the Dominican Republic.  There were millions of empty acres up there Abe would have bought for the ex-slaves.  Remember, in early 1864, he offered to pay the Southerners $200 million for their slaves if they came back into the Union.”

“Wild stuff, Mr. President. What about Ireland?”

“We might have let the Brits keep Newfoundland and the right to fish in Canadian waters—if they gave Ireland its independence.  If they said no, we would have offered every Irishman who wanted to come over a free passage and a hundred acres of Canadian land.  We would have depopulated the Emerald Isle in two years.”

“Now I know what Abe meant when he said it would have been a different country!”

“It would have been a great example of what a strong president could do.  All of which makes John Wilkes Booth’s itchy trigger finger one of the greatest tragedies in American history.”

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More Comments:

R.R. Hamilton - 9/12/2010

I see now that you meant NAPOLEON "browbeat Spain", and NOT Jefferson. Forget I said anything. :-)

R.R. Hamilton - 9/12/2010

The author, "channeling Pres. Washington", says:

"He (Jefferson) browbeat the Spanish into secretly giving the Louisiana territory back to France. He planned to ship an even bigger army there and start making lots of trouble for us with the Indians in the Mississippi Valley."

Two problems: First, Napoleanic France recovered Louisiana from Spain in 1800, BEFORE Jefferson was elected. Second, given the PARAMOUNT U.S. interest in free navigation on the Mississippi, why would Jefferson or ANY U.S. President want Louisiana (in particular, New Orleans) transferred from a weak power like Spain to a strong one like France?

You can do better, Mr. Fleming. Or at least, I hope you can.

bill farrell - 9/11/2010

This racist garbage should not have been printed. If the author intended it as a joke, he failed.

Walter D. Kamphoefner - 9/6/2010

This kind of essay could only be written by someone with a very superficial knowledge of the era. About the only thing Fleming got right in this whole sorry exercise is that Lincoln would likely not have been impeached if he had served out his term. Fleming never even addresses LaWanda Cox, Lincoln and Black Freedom (1981), which over three decades has never been seriously challenged, much less refuted. It is important to remember that Lincoln was both a statesman and a very savvy politician; both were essential to what he achieved during his presidency, and what more he could have achieved had he served out his second term. The imperialist fantasies that Fleming ghost-writes for Lincoln fly in the face of Congressman Lincoln’s record in the conflict with Mexico, as exemplified by his “spot resolution” challenging President Polk.
If HNN continues to publish this kind of drivel, it should at least have the honesty to change its name to Fictional News Network.

Robert Russell Pollock - 9/6/2010

Where does the idea that Grant expected a million blacks to go to Santo Domingo come from? Grant wasn't trying to "get some of the blacks out of the south." His idea was that if they had a place they could threaten to go then southern whites would be afraid of losing their labor supply and consequently treat them better. In other words, Santo Domingo would become their "safety valve." It would also become a solid political base for blacks in Congress. In addition, Grant wanted a stategic base in the Caribbean, and he believed Santo Domingo could provide much cheaper sugar and coffee, two staples of the American diet.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/5/2010

It's bad enough that Mr. Fleming is tarring George Washington with his fevered right-wing imaginings, but to suggest that Abraham Lincoln would, as a peacetime president, pursue an aggressive anti-British expansion in Canada is quite bizarre.

The connection between Haiti and Lincoln is fascinatingly, slanderously suggested, but unproven in this screed.

And, in the end, Fleming contradicts himself, saying that a surviving Lincoln would pursue a "strong Presidency" course, but admitting, at the very beginning, that Lincoln might not have managed Congress with the level of autocracy which excites Fleming's deepest fantasies.