American Heritage Magazine – Issue 6

American Heritage has just published the sixth issue of volume 58. In this month’s magazine are articles on the Kennedy assassination, Abraham Lincoln, and Wall Street’s first collapse in history.

Did Castro OK the Kennedy Assassination?
On September 24, 1964, a copy of the official Warren Commission Report was delivered to President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office. Its conclusions were, in hindsight, as accurate as possible, given the commission’s impossibly short investigative calendar and its utter lack of foreign intelligence. It named, correctly, Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone shooter, hypothesizing that in shooting John F. Kennedy he had been lashing out for reasons only he knew. The report found “no evidence of a conspiracy.”

A few weeks later, President Johnson’s hidden tape recorder captured a phone conversation with Senator Richard Russell, the old Dixiecrat whom he had pressured to be on the Warren Commission.

“I don’t believe it,” Russell said about the report’s conclusions. “I don’t either,” admitted the president.

Around the same time, Johnson was on the phone with his old friend Mike Mansfield, the majority leader of the Senate. The president divulged what few in Congress had been briefed about: “There’s a good deal of feeling that maybe the Cuba thing. Johnson’s voice trailed off for a moment. He was always careful not to be too definite on the subject. “Oswald was messing around in Mexico with the Cubans.”

Johnson had handpicked the members of the Warren Commission and directed its focus. Could it be that he and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, believed there might be details that should remain hidden to keep the American public calm in the wake of the tragedy in Dallas? The fact was, Lyndon Johnson never would believe the conclusions of the Warren Commission Report. His staunch contention would always be that “Oswald was a Communist agent.” A year before his death, in 1972, Johnson finally started revealing his secret to people outside his close circle, telling George Weidenfeld, publisher of his autobiography, that one day he would prove the Oswald-Castro connection. But there weren’t enough days left at that point for Johnson to expose the truth.

Lincoln’s Legacy
As we approach the bicentennial of his birth, leading historians look at the man and his achievements

During the campaign of 1860, and throughout what Henry Adams would justly call the “Great Secession Winter” that fell like a shadow after that year’s momentous presidential election, a convincing case could be made that Abraham Lincoln was totally unprepared to assume the nation—s highest office, particularly at the hour of its gravest domestic crisis.

At best a dark horse, Lincoln had won his party’s nomination only when more seasoned stalwarts such as William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase faltered at the raucous convention. Not only was Lincoln the least experienced candidate that year of any political origin, but as the Republican presidential candidate he also represented the youngest and least tested political organization in the country.

Though largely unknown outside his home state, Lincoln nonetheless refused to barnstorm on his own behalf during the six long months between his designation and Election Day. Insisting that he had said all he needed to say on doctrinal issues, and proclaiming only that he stood by the Republican Party platform affirming opposition to the spread of slavery by any means into new national territories, he remained calmly ensconced in Springfield as the opposition splintered. His few private letters show astounding poise and confidence—or was it “the valor of ignorance”?—as he presciently estimated votes.

Though his formidable foes included a thrice-elected member of the U.S. Senate, the nation’s sitting vice president, and a former senator and cabinet secretary, Lincoln—merely a one-term ex-congressman who had failed in every election since his service in the House a decade earlier—handily prevailed.

Even so, his victory—in which he amassed less than 40 percent of the popular vote, the smallest total ever to go to an outright winner—did little to reassure Northerners, particularly Democrats. And it did nothing to placate Southern fears that he would use his slim margin to destroy the slave power. The stock market plummeted, the timid demanded concessions, and several Deep South states proclaimed that they would secede from the Union. If ever an orderly transfer of power to a new president seemed open to question, it was then. Adams had grounds to lament the nation’s failure to select a more seasoned statesman to face such troubling times.

Lincoln & Douglass
The prairie lawyer president and outspoken abolitionist formed an unusual friendship

At dusk in early April 1866, a large crowd filed into Representatives Hall of the imposing Illinois Capitol in Springfield. Just 11 months earlier, President Lincoln’s rapidly blackening body had lain here in state as thousands of townspeople had filed past to say goodbye.

Now many of the same people gathered to hear a lecture entitled “The Assassination and Its Consequences,” delivered by the country’s foremost abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. For several months the powerful black orator had given the same speech across the nation, but this venue, more than any other, lent extraordinary gravity to his words. In the great room Lincoln had accepted the 1858 Republican Senate nomination and delivered his controversial “House Divided” speech. Though the obscure Illinois lawyer would lose that contest to his longtime rival Stephen A. Douglas, he found himself unexpectedly propelled to the presidency. Lincoln had also argued in front of the Illinois Supreme Court more than 200 times in this building.

Standing on the podium, Douglass immediately commanded attention with his splendid mane of graying hair swept back from his broad forehead, his blazing brown eyes, deep regal voice, and overwhelming physical presence. “Prior to the Civil War,” he began, “there was apparently no danger menacing our country, but a few farseeing men foresaw the calamities that have come upon us, and their warnings were treated as idle talk . . . The few listen and the many pass on, unheeding the precipice over which they are being hurled.”

Lincoln the Orator
Our most talented writer-president always wrote his own material and sweated hours over it

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd of 1,500 at Cooper Union Hall in New York City. Until he had declared his candidacy for President of the United States, the former one-term Congressman had drawn little attention outside his home state of Illinois. Now the rail-thin prairie lawyer attracted a sizeable audience, including the “pick and flower of New York culture,” along with an army of journalists eager to record and reprint his words.

“Let us have faith that right makes might,” Lincoln challenged his listeners, “and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Here was no stump speech, but rather a powerful argument that extending slavery to new territories was not only wrong but also counter to the intent of the founding fathers. His delivery was eloquent, the argument carefully reasoned and fact-filled.

Had Lincoln not delivered such a triumphant address before the sophisticated and demanding audience that night, it is possible that he would not have been nominated, much less elected, to the presidency the following November. And had Lincoln not won the White House in 1860, the United States—or the countries it might have fractured into—would probably look very different today.

How Lincoln crafted this brilliant and critical delivery has remained the topic of some debate over the years in part prompted by an interaction he had the following month. Lincoln had traveled from Springfield to Chicago to appear in what turned out to be his last big trial: the famous “sandbar case,” a complex civil dispute in which he represented his most important client, Illinois Central.

While in the city, Lincoln also agreed to sit for a wet-plaster life mask at the studio of sculptor Leonard Wells Volk. Chatting in the studio, their conversation turned to Lincoln’s nationally noticed appearance in New York a few weeks earlier. As Volk remembered it, Lincoln told him the astonishing fact “that he had arranged and composed this speech in his mind while going on the cars from Camden to Jersey City.”

Lincoln and the Navy
The president takes charge and directs a successful amphibious landing at Hampton Roads

In May 1862, two months after the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) fought to a draw in Hampton Roads, Virginia, President Abraham Lincoln traveled south from Washington on a revenue cutter to visit the Army of the Potomac, intending to prod his recalcitrant general, George B. McClellan, into action. The president took with him Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Gen. Egbert Ludovicus Viele, who had recently returned from the capture of Fort Pulaski off Savannah.

Lincoln’s destination was Fort Monroe, the largest and most powerful of the forts constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1819 and 1834 as part of the Second System of coastal fortifications. The fortress had remained in Union hands despite its location in Virginia because Maj. Gen. John E. Wool had quickly reinforced it while the lame- duck James Buchanan administration had dithered over Fort Sumter. Since then the massive fortress at the tip of the peninsula formed by the York and side of the Confederacy, for it protected the Union anchorage in Hampton Roads.

Lincoln and his party spent the night aboard the USS Minnesota, flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, from whose broad deck the next morning, May 7, 1862, he viewed the fort and the half-dozen imperious warships at anchor, plus the intriguing form of the Monitor’s “cheesebox on a raft” stump of a turret. That turret, only 22 feet across, was the only part of the Monitor that showed from a distance, making the warship seem insignificant next to the others, including the huge side-wheel steamer Vanderbilt, recently reinforced with an iron-plated ram to enable it to contend with the feared rebel ironclad that Lincoln and all other Union officials continued to call the Merrimack. That vessel’s rampage on March 8 had destroyed two Union warships and greatly frightened the capital, leading some (including Secretary Stanton) to believe that the dreaded ironclad would steam unchallenged up the Potomac and lay waste to Washington.

If Lincoln hadn’t died….
Would the disastrous Reconstruction era have taken a different course?

What would have happened had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated? Every time I lecture on Lincoln, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, someone in the audience is sure to pose this question—one, of course, perfectly natural to ask but equally impossible to answer. This has not, however, deterred historians from speculating about this “counterfactual” problem.

The answer to the question depends in part on one’s opinion of Reconstruction, which for many decades historians viewed as the lowest point in the saga of American democracy— a “tragic era” of corruption and misgovernment brought about by the decision of the victorious North to give the right to vote to the South’s freed black men, who were allegedly unfit to exercise it properly. In this interpretation, Lincoln, before his death, had envisioned a quick and lenient reuniting of the nation, centered on forgiving most Confederates and quickly bringing their states back to full participation in the Union. His successor, Andrew Johnson, supposedly sought to implement Lincoln’s plan but was eventually thwarted by the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress. Motivated by a thirst for vengeance upon the defeated South or, in some accounts, the object of placing the South under the heel of northern capitalism, the Radicals swept aside Johnson’s plan and turned southern government over to incompetent former slaves and their nefarious allies: unscrupulous carpetbaggers from the North and traitorous scalawags (white southerners who cooperated with the Republican Party). Eventually, “patriotic” groups like the Ku Klux Klan overthrew this misgovernment and restored “home rule” (or what we would call white supremacy) to the South.


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