What if…John Wilkes Booth had not assassinated Abraham Lincoln?

What if Booth had not killed Lincoln? Put another way, what if Lincoln had lived through two complete presidential terms?

In my view, had Lincoln lived and died of natural causes his reputation would reach us today in lessened form. We would not have the near Christ-like admiration that most people express for Lincoln. Conversely, we would probably still have the current minority (which is either pro-South, pro-states right, pro-white supremacy, or some combination thereof) view that denounces Lincoln as a dictator, bully, and so on.

Lincoln as president from 1865 to 1868 would have had to make unseemly bargains and compromises to keep political support in Congress. He would probably have endorsed positions that resemble those ultimately adopted by President Andrew Johnson—positions that balanced the pursuit of black rights with the maintenance of southern white loyalty to the nation. I suspect he would have squabbled with “Radical Republicans” (a term that describes those Republicans in the 1860s and 1870s most concerned with promoting black rights), though on a smaller scale than Johnson did and with far greater artistry than Johnson ever demonstrated. He would have had no hesitation in promoting the need for Republicans in office with much the same energy that he did the causes of Union and Freedom in the Civil War. Thus, Lincoln would be seen as much more of a common politician who happened to be highly skilled, rather than the existing perspective of him as a gifted, tragic, and doomed visionary of the American ideal. I say this as an admirer of Lincoln’s and genuine believer of him as an American hero.

As far as the impact on Reconstruction and our own lives today go, the continuation of Lincoln’s life after 1865 would have been profound. The compromises and deals that would likely have sullied his reputation would have improved basic conditions for southern blacks after the war. Such improvements would have been measurable, if not majestic. It’s also probable that Lincoln would have succeeded in offering some form of aid, comfort, and support to both southern blacks and whites. This strategy would have suited both the politician and the leader in him. He would have offered soaring eloquence to the postwar period and probably have provided 21st-century Americans with ideals and vision that resonated as much in the era of Facebook as they did in the era of the telegraph. As in his war years, the rhetoric might not have enshrined complete victory but it would have encouraged us to strive for better days. And I think that Lincoln would have made significant contributions—again perhaps in letters, speeches, and other forms of communication—to the general themes of opportunity, liberty, and respect in the American idea. What he wasn’t allowed to write and say and think might be the biggest costs of that horrible moment.

Booth killed a lot of things the day he squeezed the trigger. The echoes of the gunshot reverberate today.