Lincoln and Reconstruction

This is a book by John C. Rodrigue in the wonderful “Concise Lincoln Library” series from Southern Illinois University Press. These books are short enough to be read in a single sitting and focus on one aspect of Lincoln to give readers an accessible, scholarly, accurate account that won’t overwhelm them.

Lincoln began thinking of reconstructing the Union almost immediately after the cotton states seceded. Lincoln’s “thinking on reconstruction underwent a profound, even fundamental, transformation. Lincoln’s initial approach to reconstruction followed from his conceptualization of secession and the war. Originally envisioning secession as the work of a coterie of politicians with little public support in the South, Lincoln likewise conceived of a limited war for the purpose, as he frequently put it, of restoring the ‘national authority’ over the seceded states, or of restoring those states to their ‘proper practical relations with the Union.’ Instead of wartime reconstruction initiatives being undertaken to win the war, the war was being undertaken to reconstruct–or better, to restore–the Union. Lincoln’s original approach to reconstruction could more accurately be described as ‘restoration,’ since the war was intended to restore the antebellum status quo. But whether reconstruction or restoration, what Lincoln said and did on the restoration of seceded states to the Union was precisely what he meant to say and do.” [p. 3] He tells us Lincoln adjusted his reconstruction aims after his Emancipation Proclamation. “Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln began seriously contemplating the implications of emancipation for southern slave society and for the nation at large. In effect, he was forced to expand his definition of reconstruction, from the mere restoration or the seceded states to the Union to the more fundamental social, economic, and political reordering of those states and of the Union itself. By the end of the war, Lincoln had come nowhere near working out the issues that a genuine reconstruction entailed–recasting racial relations, defining black legal and political rights, reorganizing the South’s labor system, among other issues–but he had begun to think seriously about them.” [pp. 3-4] Rodrigue traces the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking on reconstruction as the war progressed to its ultimate conclusion. “By the end of the war, and in his famous ‘last speech,’ Lincoln had endorsed limited black suffrage, and it is not difficult to envision him eventually coming to embrace black suffrage in general, a nonracial conception of American citizenship, and the incorporation of African Americans into the nation’s body politics. However, Lincoln was also a quintessentially centrist, mainstream Republican who adhered to the principle of absolute property rights grounded in a system of law. He was thus unlikely ever to have endorsed the kinds of measures–including land confiscation, which might have provided land to former slaves while breaking the power of the South’s planter elite–that a genuine reconstruction of southern society would have required. In short, a postwar reconstruction wuld have foundered not on race but on economics. Thus, Lincoln’s reconstruction initiatives are best understood not as a means of winning the war but as ends themselves.” [p. 5]

This is a terrific book. Its compact size means it’s packed with information with very little filler. I was tempted in some areas to just keep highlighting because it seemed whole pages were made up of important information. Rodrigue takes us through Lincoln’s presidency in chronological order, incorporating the latest scholarship and providing keen insights into what Lincoln was doing. At the end of the book he takes on what he calls “One of American history’s great ‘what-ifs:’ what would have happened in Reconstruction had Lincoln lived. Intertwined with that is the question of “How far Lincoln’s thinking on reconstruction would have evolved, as he confronted the challenges of the postwar world.” [p. 147]

I highly recommend this book. You’ll enjoy it.

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