One of the great tragedies of American history is that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could implement his post war reconstruction policy. In a letter in January 1864 to Major General James Wadsworth, a wealthy New York politician and philanthropist who helped found the Free Soil Party, Lincoln set forth his basic policy:
You desire to know, in the event of our complete success in the field, the same being followed by a loyal and cheerful submission on the part of the South, if universal amnesty should not be accompanied with universal suffrage.
Now, since you know my private inclinations as to what terms should be granted to the South in the contingency mentioned, I will here add, that if our success should thus be realized, followed by such desired results, I cannot see, if universal amnesty is granted, how, under the circumstances, I can avoid exacting in return universal suffrage, or, at least, suffrage on the basis of intelligence and military service.
How to better the condition of the colored race has long been a study which has attracted my serious and careful attention; hence I think I am clear and decided as to what course I shall pursue in the premises, regarding it a religious duty, as the nation’s guardian of these people, who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot, which is but the humane protection of the flag they have so fearlessly defended.The restoration of the Rebel States to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of the both races; and it must be sealed by general amnesty.
Neither Lincoln nor Wadsworth lived to see post-war Reconstruction, Wadsworth dying leading his division at the battle of the Wilderness. Lincoln’s policy of having the South reintegrated as rapidly to the rest of the nation as possible, along with civil and political equality of whites and blacks, was a noble one. Whether he could have implemented it is very much open to doubt. His two goals were at cross purposes and it may have been beyond the ability of any president to carry them both out. However, if anyone could have made this policy succeed, Abraham Lincoln could. We are still suffering the consequences from the sad fact that he never had the opportunity to try.