Lincoln's Other Presidency

I wonder sometimes about Lincoln's other presidency.  You know, what he hoped to accomplish during his presidency, before the South seceded. 

His 1860 platform called for free homestead legislation, internal improvements - especially a transcontinental railroad, also river and harbor improvements, daily mail service, a protective tariff, a prohibition on changing naturalization laws, and, yes, a ban on extending slavery into the territories and suppression of the African slave trade.  It also (and somewhat contradictorily) called for a "return to rigid economy and accountability... to arrest the systematic plunder of the public treasury by favored partisans" because "the people justly view with alarm the reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the Federal Government."

Several of these planks were enacted into law during Lincoln's presidency (aided no doubt by the absence of much of the opposition party).  The Homestead Act of 1862, for example, which enabled poor farmers and other landless people to own property by living on it and working it for five years.  Then there was the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which chartered the federally-incorporated Union Pacific Railroad and provided both it and the Central Pacific Railroad with land grants and rights of way to build a railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.  Also the Morrill Act or Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which donated land to the states (30,000 acres for each senator and representative) to establish colleges focusing on practical agricultural and mechanical arts training.  They were enormously significant pieces of legislation which laid the foundations for the future prosperity of a great many Americans in succeeding generations. 

But -- how shall I put it? -- these government programs were not on the front-burner when Lincoln assumed office.  By that time, seven states had seceded from the Union.  Confronting that new reality became the polestar of Lincoln's presidency.  As John Lennon might have said, a presidency is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.  Or better, it's what you make of it while you're busy making other plans.

Lincoln could have handled secession in quite a different fashion.  For example, he could have established a blue-ribbon commission to study the situation and report back with recommendations for confronting the crisis and findings about its cause, say a year or two into his term after he had already expended most of his political capital.  Meanwhile, he could have focused on bringing more of his platform to fruition.  During the interim, he could have responded to critics of his failure to act by telling them, his predecessor Buchanan sure made a mess of things, and it's going to take a while to clean it up. 

And when the commission at length issued its report, if its recommendations did not interest him, or would have cost too much political capital to implement (especially given the political cost of implementing his other programs meanwhile), he could have opted not to carry them out.  Or simply claimed it would not be productive for him to propose how to deal with secession and suggested that Congress take the lead.

That might have reconciled him to the many people who opposed his controversial policy of fighting a war with the South, and who nearly denied him re-election in 1864.  On the other hand, perhaps his refusal to address the burning issues of the day would have alienated the public and cost him re-election.  We'll never know.
I wonder sometimes about Lincoln's other presidency.  You know, what he hoped to accomplish during his presidency, before the South seceded. 

His 1860 platform called for free homestead legislation, internal improvements - especially a transcontinental railroad, also river and harbor improvements, daily mail service, a protective tariff, a prohibition on changing naturalization laws, and, yes, a ban on extending slavery into the territories and suppression of the African slave trade.  It also (and somewhat contradictorily) called for a "return to rigid economy and accountability... to arrest the systematic plunder of the public treasury by favored partisans" because "the people justly view with alarm the reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the Federal Government."

Several of these planks were enacted into law during Lincoln's presidency (aided no doubt by the absence of much of the opposition party).  The Homestead Act of 1862, for example, which enabled poor farmers and other landless people to own property by living on it and working it for five years.  Then there was the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which chartered the federally-incorporated Union Pacific Railroad and provided both it and the Central Pacific Railroad with land grants and rights of way to build a railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.  Also the Morrill Act or Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which donated land to the states (30,000 acres for each senator and representative) to establish colleges focusing on practical agricultural and mechanical arts training.  They were enormously significant pieces of legislation which laid the foundations for the future prosperity of a great many Americans in succeeding generations. 

But -- how shall I put it? -- these government programs were not on the front-burner when Lincoln assumed office.  By that time, seven states had seceded from the Union.  Confronting that new reality became the polestar of Lincoln's presidency.  As John Lennon might have said, a presidency is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.  Or better, it's what you make of it while you're busy making other plans.

Lincoln could have handled secession in quite a different fashion.  For example, he could have established a blue-ribbon commission to study the situation and report back with recommendations for confronting the crisis and findings about its cause, say a year or two into his term after he had already expended most of his political capital.  Meanwhile, he could have focused on bringing more of his platform to fruition.  During the interim, he could have responded to critics of his failure to act by telling them, his predecessor Buchanan sure made a mess of things, and it's going to take a while to clean it up. 

And when the commission at length issued its report, if its recommendations did not interest him, or would have cost too much political capital to implement (especially given the political cost of implementing his other programs meanwhile), he could have opted not to carry them out.  Or simply claimed it would not be productive for him to propose how to deal with secession and suggested that Congress take the lead.

That might have reconciled him to the many people who opposed his controversial policy of fighting a war with the South, and who nearly denied him re-election in 1864.  On the other hand, perhaps his refusal to address the burning issues of the day would have alienated the public and cost him re-election.  We'll never know.

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