April 15, 1865 – Abraham Lincoln’s death meant that a southern Democrat would become the next U.S. president, much to the dismay of northerners hoping to punish the South.
In the 1864 election campaign, the Republicans had joined with pro-war Democrats to form a “National Union” party. To solidify this new alliance, they nominated Andrew Johnson, leader of the pro-war Democrats, as Lincoln’s vice president. Johnson had been the only congressman from the Confederate states to stay loyal to the U.S. He co-authored the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution of July 1861, and later Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee.
The Republican majority in Congress viewed Johnson with suspicion because of his southern roots. This was especially true for the Radical Republicans, who favored harsh retribution against the defeated South. However, this distrust was tempered by Johnson’s history of denouncing the southern aristocracy, as well as many Republicans’ disapproval of Lincoln’s lenient approach toward bringing the southern states back into the Union.
The Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, dominated by the Radicals, held a caucus on the day of Lincoln’s death. Wasting no time to mourn, they discussed “the necessity of a new cabinet and a line of policy less conciliatory than that of Mr. Lincoln.” George Julian of Indiana stated that–
“–aside from his known tenderness to the rebels, Lincoln’s last public avowal, only three days before his death, of adherence to the plan of reconstruction he had announced in December 1863, was highly repugnant… while everybody was shocked at his murder, the feeling was nearly universal that the accession of Johnson to the Presidency would prove a Godsend to the country.”
Shortly after Lincoln was pronounced dead, members of his cabinet requested that Johnson take the oath of office and become the new president. At 10 a.m., Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase administered the oath in Suite 68 of Washington’s Kirkwood Hotel, Johnson’s current residence. Johnson became the sixth vice president to ascend to the presidency, and the third to ascend due to death.
A dozen members of Congress and other government officials witnessed the ceremony, which Johnson followed with a brief speech: “Gentlemen, I have been almost overwhelmed by the announcement of the sad event which has so recently occurred… The duties have been mine; the consequences are God’s.” A New England senator noted, “Johnson seemed willing to share the glory of his achievements with his Creator, but utterly forgot that Mr. Lincoln had any share of credit in the suppression of the rebellion.” This encouraged the Radicals, along with the fact that Johnson had taken his oath on a Bible opened to the vengeful Book of Ezekiel.
Influential Radical Senators Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Benjamin Wade of Ohio visited Johnson on the night of the 15th. Both men had worked with Johnson in the Senate and were sure that his policy would be harsher than Lincoln’s. Wade told him, “Mr. Johnson, I thank God that you are here. Mr. Lincoln had too much of the milk of human kindness to deal with these damned rebels. Now they will be dealt with according to their desserts.” The Radicals’ first order of business was to clear the executive branch of Lincoln’s influence, and Johnson would be the man to do it for them.
The new president held his first cabinet meeting on the 16th. He asked all members to stay in their positions for now and trust in him based on his record: “The course which I have taken in the past, in connection with this rebellion, must be regarded as a guaranty for the future.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported that Federal troops were pursuing John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and the reconstruction of the South had begun.
Johnson later met with Stanton and Radical leaders at the War Department, where Chief Justice Chase agreed to tour the South and lobby the new Unionist state governments to grant former slaves the right to vote. Moderates had argued that slaves should be educated before immediately starting to vote, but Radicals wanted black suffrage because it would create a solid Republican voting bloc that would end the Democratic Party’s domination of the South.
Sumner, one of the loudest champions of black suffrage, supported Chase’s mission but doubted that “the work could be effectively done without federal authority.” Johnson’s tough talk about punishing Confederate leaders gave Sumner hope that he might use his new presidential powers to force the southern states to allow freed slaves the right to vote.
Meanwhile Lincoln’s cabinet (now Johnson’s) quickly began moving to impose a harsher reconstruction plan than Lincoln had intended. Stanton reissued his proposal of the 14th which would place the South under military rule. Lincoln had not commented on the plan at the time, but Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant argued that Lincoln’s idea for reconstruction was based on a “desire to have everybody happy, and above all his desire to see all people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all.”
This did not deter Stanton, who presented his plan to influential Radicals in a meeting to which Johnson had not been invited. The men generally agreed with the idea of treating the South as a conquered province, but, according to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “Mr. Sumner declared he would not move a step–not an inch if the right of the colored man to vote was not secured.”
At the Treasury Department, Johnson met with members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, including its chairman, Wade. Johnson had been a former committee member himself, and Wade reiterated his support for him: “Johnson, we have faith in you. By the gods, there will be no trouble now in running the government.”
Johnson declared: “I hold that robbery is a crime; rape is a crime; murder is a crime; treason is a crime–and crime must be punished. Treason must be made infamous, and traitors must be impoverished.” This satisfied the committee, but that satisfaction quickly dimmed when Johnson later clarified his statement: “I say to the (Confederate) leaders, punishment. I also say leniency, reconciliation and amnesty to the thousands whom they have misled and deceived.”
Bowers, Claude G., The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA, 1929), p. 3-7; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 118-19; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 20760-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 585; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 151-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 677-78; McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 226-27; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 16-18, 20; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265