Abraham Lincoln's Presidency

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How were Lincoln and Johnson's political backgrounds and ideologies similar and different?

Quick answer:

Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were similar in that emerged from similar backgrounds and worked together to save the Union. They differed in that Johnson's presidency shows a number of divergences from Lincoln's policy and personality. Moreover, Johnson sought to halt black progress after the Civil War.

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Lincoln and Johnson shared many qualities prior to the Lincoln’s death and Johnson’s elevation to office. Both came from the tradition of Andrew Jackson-style candidates whose non-Eastern backgrounds made them more popular among working-class people but less so with the elites. Lincoln won respect through military service, working as a country lawyer and ably representing a district in the Illinois legislature. For his part, Johnson clawed his way up from poverty, working first as a tailor. His pugnacious style won admiration from the common man and derision from elites. Lincoln brought a more laid-back approach, but his storytelling on the stump often proved powerfully provocative in its own way.

As the Civil War came to a close, Lincoln faced critical choices over how to define the postwar nation. Slavery would end. The development of the freedman in society and the disposition of the seceded states would be unpredictable issues requiring a steady and experienced hand. However, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln in 1865 placed a much less stable personality in the White House.

Andrew Johnson loved the Union and hated secession. The East Tennessee native despised the social elites of his region who ridiculed him until he got into political power. He identified them with secession and gleefully savaged them in the first months of his presidency, saying he wanted to make treason infamous. His class hatred soon transformed. Suddenly, delegations of Southern elites from around the nation called on him at the White House. They flattered him with compliments and attention. For his part, he enjoyed attention from the newly obsequious planters and other powerful figures.

During Lincoln's administration, Lincoln and Johnson agreed that Reconstruction should wrap up quickly to get the Union back to normal socially, politically, and economically. Lincoln’s administration had already taken steps toward providing the freedmen resources and education. The army even proposed a plan to use some land from secessionists for freedman farms. History cannot predict which direction Lincoln might have moved, but he did seem to prioritize helping freedmen more than Johnson did.

Johnson quickly moved from treating former Confederates as traitors to seeing them as vital partners. Likely they used him more than they genuinely embraced him. Republicans who at first saw Johnson as a hammer against former Confederates increasingly bemoaned his lighter touch. Republicans under Lincoln and Johnson had varying perspectives on the status of freed slaves and the black population in general. Few believed in true racial equality at the time, but most supported an expansion of recognized rights and privileges. Republicans also benefited from black support at the polls, at least in areas that allowed them to vote freely. They supported elected black members of the US Congress from the former Confederate states as well.

Johnson’s presidency effectively froze black progress. Its policies encouraged Southerners to rebel rather than comply. President Grant had to intensify federal and military operations in the South after Johnson’s permissiveness resulted in later resistance. No one knows what Lincoln might have done differently, but many assume it would have created more peace and less oppression than the reality that played out during Reconstruction.

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