Lincoln by a landslide: The weary nation breathed a sigh of relief as the hostilities of the long and wrenching War Between the States closed that frightful chapter of history. But before the wounds began to heal, the bloodshed that had taken a generation of young Americans, was aimed at Abraham Lincoln. With his brutal murder, presidential power passed to the weak and ineffective Andrew Johnson. In the grim contest of which untimely transition of Presidential power affected the country the most, the conventional wisdom would most certainly cast its vote for Lincoln by a landslide. It is also one of those rare occasions where the popular perception is undoubtedly correct and supported solidly by the facts.

3 considerations: Three primary factors help shape our evaluation of the significance and impact of such presidential transitions on the nation:

  • Cause of transition: While all such transitions by their nature are traumatic to the nation’s mental health, we must note the cause of the abbreviated term (death, assassination, or resignation).
  • Successor: The character and leadership of the successor plays a significant role in determining the response of the nation.
  • Historical context: The headlines and events of the day and how effectively the president had inspired the nation, impacts the nation’s emotional response in times of such transitions.

First assassination: Lincoln’s untimely death encompasses all three of these elements, far surpassing in impact other such presidential transitions. First and foremost, while the nation had already experienced two presidential deaths (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor), Lincoln was the first president assassinated, a violent and traumatic action that deeply shook the foundations of the American psyche, and contradicted a rich history of governance based on the ballot box and not the bullet. While Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 had not been assured, and while many ridiculed Lincoln in his lifetime, his death rattled the nation, prompting a heartfelt outpouring of corporate grief unknown up to that time. Thousands lined railroad tracks across the rural landscapes and urban centers, waiting to pay their last respects as the president’s lifeless body returned to his roots in Springfield, Illinois.

A problematic successor: As the power passed to Vice President Andrew Johnson, the nation was not reassured. In many presidential transitions, the nation has been fortunate to have men of experience and judgment (Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford). But Andrew Johnson was temperamentally unfit for the presidency, an arrogant and pugnacious man, who lacked Lincoln’s unique political skills of finesse. As a result, the nation was pushed to the brink of yet another presidential transition with Johnson’s impeachment and razor-thin acquittal by the Senate. While Johnson was probably unjustly targeted by the Radical Republicans in Congress in their quest to remove him from office, he nevertheless simply lacked the character and skills required for the presidency, especially in the fragile post-Civil War era.

End of a traumatic war: The Civil War represented the most serious threat to the continuation of the American experiment as north and south, brother and brother, battled for a way of life, in a war driven by the conflict over slavery – an issue long suppressed since the nation’s founding. For Lincoln, the successful war leader, to be assassinated just as the soldiers were beginning to return to their homes, subjected the already reeling nation to yet more uncertainty and trauma. Lincoln’s death profoundly impacted every American and raised more doubts and fears about the present times and future dreams.

High impact presidential transitions: While Lincoln’s death ranks highest in impact of the untimely presidential transitions, it is not to suggest that the other transitions were necessarily easy for the nation. On the high impact scale, one could make a credible case for any of the following:

  • William Henry Harrison (first presidential death and an event without precedent for the fledgling nation)
  • Franklin Roosevelt (untimely death in the midst of the uncertainly of World War II, and after more than a dozen years in office)
  • John F. Kennedy (death of a living American icon)
  • Richard Nixon (first presidential resignation and the stress on our constitutional system).

But with the possible exception of William Henry Harrison, these men were followed in office by successors who capably, if not surprisingly, filled the presidential shoes and managed the issues of the times, thus limiting the negative impact of the transition.

Lower impact presidential transitions: The deaths of Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, and Warren Harding occurred in times of relative tranquility and their successors (Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, and Calvin Coolidge, respectively) blandly and without much fanfare made the transitions uneventful. With William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, the nation witnessed an enthusiastic Theodore Roosevelt as president who very effectively administered the affairs of the nation and expanded the role of the presidency, making the transition from the beloved McKinley to the even more popular Roosevelt almost a non-issue.

Summary: Not only was Lincoln the first president to be assassinated, but he was followed in office by a weak and ineffective successor, during the greatest crisis point in the nation’s history, at a time when the pain of war was still fresh and the relief of healing still far off. The strong confluence of these three factors in Lincoln’s death makes the presidential transition from Lincoln to Andrew Johnson the one that affected the country the most.

Mike Purdy’s Presidential History Blog