So Who Should Lincoln Have Chosen in 1864?

Brian Dirck just finished a series of posts on Abraham Lincoln’s greatest “flubs.”  Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Brian singled out Lincoln’s choice of Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate as his greatest flub.  Seems reasonable given what transpired following Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s opposition to the Radical Republican’s preferred vision of Reconstruction.  Of course, Lincoln could not have know that he would fall victim to an assassins bullet leaving the White House in the hands of a Unionist who proved to be hostile to the idea of black civil rights.  The whole question, however, hinges on the assumption that another choice would have led to a different outcome.  Well, of course it would [Imagine that somehow Thadeus Stevens got the nod and that somehow Lincoln managed to win.], but as Elektratig [click here for his blog] noted in the comments, what if we stay within the political parameters that governed the choice:

So who, then, should Lincoln have chosen? I’m assuming we keep to the same parameters: a Democrat or very “conservative” Republican, from a border state or (if no other choice) the “lower” north.

What a wonderful question and one that I’ve never really considered.  The commenter is forcing us to keep in mind the political considerations that would have shaped the choice of Lincoln (to whatever extent he was actually involved) and the Republican Party.

I’m not a big fan of counterfactuals, but this one is certainly intriguing.  In what way would the short-term effects have been different given the choice?  And in light of my recent post on Marc Egnal’s new book, how might the long-term consequences have been different?  Finally, does careful reflection about this counterfactual force us to shift our popular memory of Andrew Johnson in any way?

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20 comments… add one
  • Tim Abbott Mar 10, 2009 @ 10:02

    A McCook presidency has too many variables to project with any confidence what the course of Reconstruction might have been. In the split ticket hypothesis I put forward in my prior comment, a Democratic Vice presidential successor to Lincoln would have been a weak leader with little power to persuade Congres to support his policies. Certainly no better than Johnson.

    A Rutherford B Hayes presidency on the heels of Lincoln’s assassination and not a decade later would have put a politican newcomer in office with something to prove. Instead of ending Reconstruction, he would have implemented it, and probably with more civil rights enforcement given his actual record as president. He had a longstanding political connection with Chief Justice Chase. Instead of cracking down on striking railroad workers, the golden spike would have been driven on his watch.

    I think he would have been a dark horse, as he was in actual fact, but an intriguing alternative to Johnson. Basically, though, whoever succeeded Lincoln got a raw deal.

  • Craig the Marker Hunter Mar 10, 2009 @ 4:39

    I do think you have a valid point there Will. We are not only speculating about a “what if” alternative to the selection, but also that Lincoln indeed acted in the selection. A double transgression of the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky Bridge if we may be allowed to discuss such “low” subjects on a history thread.

    Most indications are that Lincoln remained out of the discussion until the delegates were finished with their selection. That’s why looking back at my comment, I amended my position. Best way to put it, I think Lincoln was pleased not to have a running mate so strong as to eclipse him on the national stage in the post-war era.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2009 @ 3:53


    I suggested that Lincoln may have played a limited or even no role in the choice of VP. It is still a legitimate question, however, to ask whether another choice within the political parameters governing such a choice would have made much of a difference.

  • Will Keene Mar 9, 2009 @ 18:38

    This discussion is based on a faulty premise. Lincoln did not choose his VP — the party chose it at the convention. The process was very different than it is now. So for example, Craig’s speculation that “Lincoln selected Johnson with a mind to…” doesn’t make sense to me since Lincoln did not select Johnson.

  • Toby Mar 9, 2009 @ 3:14

    I still think Grant would have been a better choice. He was a military hero and would have pushed McClellan’s military credentials into the shade.

    Grant’s lack of any political past (what existed was Democratic anyway) would have been an asset.

    Would he have been better than Johnson? He could hardly have done worse. Johnson was basically a racist Democrat; his chief hatred was towards the slaveowning aristocracy. Once they were removed, he returned to his true colours a run-of-the-mill bigoted Southern politician.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2009 @ 3:18

      Hi Toby,

      O.K., but what political constituency needed for reelection in 1864 would Grant have satisfied?

  • Craig the Marker Hunter Mar 8, 2009 @ 11:24

    Kevin, you asked for speculation. So it’s speculation. I’ve not said it was anything other than that.

    Call it “human nature” then. Nobody can say for sure Lincoln was completely aloof from any third term. Nobody can say for sure that Lincoln was all for it either. But the prospect was certainly on the table if he had lived.

    Recall that the only man who ever successfully ran for a third term, FDR, was down playing such a run right up to May 1940. In the end, FDR saw much unfinished business AND an emerging crisis he felt the call to answer. Do you think Lincoln might have felt the need to find closure with the war (complete reconstruction) and at the same time further the economic growth which had been a plank in his party’s platform?

    Some of the writings that have influenced me to see Lincoln in that light, I’d have to say are David Donald’s biography of Lincoln; and Pederson and William’s comparison of FDR and Lincoln. But of course neither works speculate beyond Lincoln’s death, as clearly I’m doing here. Yet to answer your base question, one has to cast an eye to “what if Lincoln had lived” since the question of the VP on the ticket fit into Lincoln’s plans for such.

    With regard to that, we cannot say what Lincoln would have felt in 1867 or 1868 regarding a third term. But we do know Lincoln had a keen eye to political strategy. One flaw to the speculation tact you’ve asked us on is, however, that Lincoln didn’t get to pick his VP. Rather the party convention did. Some have claimed Lincoln exerted influence on the proceedings, but those close to Lincoln discounted it. Instead, at best, Lincoln simply had the option to acquiesce to the VP nomination or voice disapproval.

    All I’m saying is the presence of Andrew Johnson on the ticket left doors open for Lincoln. And we would be naive to think Lincoln didn’t consider those doors to be considered. Much in the same way FDR kept his options open right up to his party’s convention in 1940.

  • Greg Rowe Mar 8, 2009 @ 10:36

    You’re right, Grant didn’t meet the political demands for VP. Neither did he meet those demands as president. My point is whomever Lincoln chose (and Grant would have been one of several who seem likely to do this) needed to consider that the Cabinet was Lincoln’s, not his own, and it might have been better to have selected those who would have helped him implement a compromise between Presidential Reconstruction and Congressional Reconstruction, led by Radical Republicans. That being said, continuity in the Cabinet at the time might have outweighed the desire for more trusted voices, and wholesale changes in the group might not have been wise either.

    Perhaps, due to the steps backward the nation took after Reconstruction, I see Johnson as being milquetoast on the issue AND radicalism in Congress as being the problem, not exlusively Johnson’s job performance; but, as is most often the case, the fellow addressed as “Mr. President” is held most responsible for failures during his tenure and failures provoked by his initial stand thereafter.

  • Craig the Marker Hunter Mar 8, 2009 @ 9:14

    For what suggestion Kevin? That Logan was a good choice as VP?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2009 @ 9:25


      No, the first part of your comment.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2009 @ 6:31


    I don’t see how Grant meets the political demands of a VP pick.


    I agree. As Brian counted down I just assumed that Lincoln’s failure to properly read the South would come out as no. 1.

  • Ken Noe Mar 8, 2009 @ 5:37

    The other prominent southern Unionist in Lincoln’s circle was Joseph Holt of Kentucky, who actually did make the short list, I believe. Given his later career, he might have been tougher but it’s hard to imagine him being any better. But at least we’d all be in agreement here that Lincoln should have picked Andrew Johnson instead. Once Lincoln decided to balance the ticket with a Democrat, the Union governor of Tennessee, popular across the Republican spectrum, became the obvious choice. I think Lincoln’s inability to realize that the white South was serious about secession–Brian Dirck’s Flub #3–was really the worst one. It’s not Lincoln’s fault that Johnson choked.

  • Greg Rowe Mar 8, 2009 @ 5:21

    I think Johnson’s assessment as one of our worst presidents stems from his lack of getting much done before he was impeached, rather than on whether what he got done was good or bad. Yes, he went soft on former Confederates and, while that was a problem for the Radicals, even they were at loggerheads at times regarding black civil rights.

    As far as defending Grant as a choice, I think, as his eventual presidency points out, he would have appointed his own cabinet members after Lincoln’s death, something Johnson didn’t do, to his detriment. People who were supposed to be advising Johnson on how to proceed on the matter and get along with Congress didn’t like his approach to Reconstruction and black civil rights nor were they interested in seeing him succeed after it became apparent he had gone soft. So, perhaps Johnson’s failure was in not getting a cabinet he could control. After all, most of those guys, particularly Seward, had been hard for even Lincoln himself to control.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2009 @ 3:30


    What is your evidence for such a suggestion?


    Interesting suggestion, but it seems to me that there is a distinction to be made between a premonition of such an event and knowing that such an event will take place.

    Tim and Greg,

    Interesting suggestion, but now the tough part. To what extent would such a choice have altered the short- and long-term course of Reconstruction? Again, the assessment of Johnson as a choice and his place in our popular memory as one of the worst presidents seems to hinge on an implicit assumption that another choice would have led to a different outcome.

  • Greg Rowe Mar 7, 2009 @ 18:24

    Kevin —
    I don’t necessarily think we have to “shift our popular memory of Andre Johnson in any way.” I’ve been reading Foner’s _Reconstruction_ and, according to Foner, Johnson’s approach as the military governor of Tenneesse made it appear that he would take a much stronger stance on the issue than he did as president. A change in Johnson’s heart can hardly be Lincoln’s, or anyone else’s, fault. That was Johnson’s choice. As you can see, even when considering counterfactuals, I still look for evidence that supports a different outcome, but I’m still working my way through Foner. I think, as was the case in the day, Lincoln may have had little choice in the matter, but my choice, had he not been so desparately needed in the field, would have been Grant, but then we may have only had his disparaged presidency sooner. Sherman could have been given Grant’s post and with his friend as the vice-president, he could have prosecuted the remainder of the war effectively.

    Craig —
    An interesting “what-if” indeed — a third term. I suppose he might have been keeping that “door open,” but given Doris Kearns Goodwin’s description of Abraham and Mary’s conversation on the day Lincoln was assassinated, doesn’t make that likely. (Talking of the future and moving back to Springfield after it was over leads me to believe this would have happened sooner rather than later, see Goodwin’s interview in PBS’s “The American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”)

    rhapsodyinbooks —
    Sure, Lincoln “suspected” he would be assassinated, but he didn’t “know” he was going to be. So, how does that suspicion figure into putting him on the “hook” with Johnson’s selection? See my comments related to Johnson above.

    Larry —
    Interesting choice with Douglass and I kind of think the idea would be interesting, but, as you say, “not in the cards.”

    But, who could he trust from his cabinet? Certainly not Seward…Radical Reconstruction would have been the same only with full presidential support upon Lincoln’s death. Who would you suggest?

    Kevin —
    Sorry about being long-winded.

  • Tim Abbott Mar 7, 2009 @ 17:37

    Kevin, I love counterfactuals, and this is a great one. In 1864, as with today, the electoral votes were of first importance. The top five states with the most electors were New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana and several of these states were peace Democrat strongholds. To counter Little Mac and secure more of the soldier vote, Lincoln might have turned to a War Democrat from the midwest, such as any of several of the Fighting McCooks. Or he might have plucked Republican Rutherford B Hayes from the field (depriving the army of his services at Ceder Creek and Winchester), making him as Lincoln’s successor the 17th instead of 19th US President.

    Assuming any of the “Tribe of Dan” or “Tribe of John” agreed to run on the Republican ticket, they would have faced tremendous challenges from the Radical Republicans. Even if this split ticket won the election, Lincoln’s assassination might have lead to a very weak McCook presdiency with a hostile congress and pressure from northern Democrats to go easy on reconstruction and light on the rights of freemen. Perhaps a President McCook would become even more of a hardliner (in for a penny, in for a pound). Or perhaps he would have reshuffled the cabinet, pushing some of the radicals out. There might have been no Seward’s Folly: no Alaska.

  • Larry Cebula Mar 7, 2009 @ 12:40

    Frederick Douglass!

    OK, not in the cards. Why not someone from his cabinet?

  • rhapsodyinbooks Mar 7, 2009 @ 10:41

    But in fact Lincoln strongly *suspected* he would be assassinated, so I don’t think he gets totally off the hook for Johnson!

  • Craig the Marker Hunter Mar 7, 2009 @ 9:08

    Part of me always has figured Lincoln selected Johnson with a mind to a possible, and to a large degree unprecedented, third term run. Let’s face it, Johnson was not likely to fare well at the head of the ticket on a national election. I think Lincoln looked at most recent past patterns, and opted for a running mate who would be less of a rival in 1868. (And yes that opens a hole can of worms as to if Lincoln would consider breaking tradition and running a third time. I say he at least was leaving doors open.)

    However, if you really want to look at options, Lincoln might have done the Army a favor and selected Ben Butler, a War Democrat. Arguably you pull that guy out of the field command and the war ends a lot sooner.

    Another option would be a personal favorite of mine, John A. Logan. Logan was rather popular, and had a strong war record serving under Grant and Sherman. But a selection of Logan would go against traditional wisdom about splitting the ticket geographically for broad appeal.

    • Gregory Gunn Nov 3, 2018 @ 6:25

      There was no doubt that President Lincoln couldn’t choose a southerner to balance the ticket because the south was the confederacy. Lincoln couldn’t have known that by choosing Andrew Johnson in 1864, he wouldn’t carry out Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction. Had he kept Vice-president Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln might well had been a one term president. Ah, how history repeats itself. Almost 100 years later, another Johnson, a southerner from Texas, failed to carry out President Kennedy’s vision over Vietnam. Kennedy wouldn’t have made that war an all out long scale unpopular, no win war! Kennedy would have either gradually withdrew troops from Vietnam after his expected reelection in 1964, or he would have remained in Vietnam keeping that war a limited conflict as it had been by the time of his assassination in 1963. If there were 2 events that changed history it was Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassination. (not to mention Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968) Vietnam would have ended sometime in 1969, so he could rebuild U.S cities that were riot torn in btw 1965-68. No Watergate! My only fear of the Kennedy brothers whom I adore thru readings, and clips) because I was too young to remember them, that their private lives wouldn’t have come back to haunt them had they lived.

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