President Foster

In writing the Bingham biography, the tragedy that brought Andrew Johnson to the White House looms large, partly because of Bingham’s role in the Lincoln conspiracy trial and partly because of Johnson’s opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment.  Lots of people have pointed out that, but for John Wilkes Booth, Reconstruction would have turned out a lot differently.

There is, though, an interesting second-order version of this problem.  George Atzerodt was one of the co-conspirators, and his job was to kill the Vice-President.  He went to Johnson’s hotel armed with a gun and knife and could easily have done the deed (Johnson had no security), but he lost his nerve at the last minute.  If Johnson had also been killed, then the President would be been . . . drumroll please . . . Senator Lafayette Foster of Connecticut, the President pro tempore of the Senate.

Now, pardon the expression, but who the hell was Lafayette Foster?  Well, he started out as a Whig who served in the state legislature and was elected to the Senate in 1854.  While he became a Republican, he was quite conservative and eager to make concessions in 1861 to prevent secession.  He was also not terribly enthusiastic about racial equality, and was not renominated by the GOP in 1866 because they thought he was too sympathetic to Johnson.  He then became a law professor at Yale(!) and there is now a chair named after him at Yale Law School.

It may be that the substitution of Foster for Johnson would have made no difference (I’d have to look more closely at Foster’s voting record in the Thirty-Ninth Congress, but it’s a great counterfactual.

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2 Responses

  1. Can I just say how much I’m enjoying these little tidbit posts from your biographical research? It’s like watching a really good set of DVD extras from the “making of” the biography.

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Let’s hope this isn’t a situation where the trailers are better than the movie.