- Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion by Louis P. Masur
On April 11, 1865, only two days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech from the White House to a joyous crowd. In the course of his address Lincoln became the first American president to suggest that some African Americans ought to have the right to the “elective franchise”: “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent,” Lincoln recommended, “and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.” Upon hearing these words, the actor John Wilkes Booth angrily observed that this meant “nigger citizenship,” and he subsequently promised, “That is the last speech he will ever make.” Indeed it was, as three days later Lincoln was assassinated, thus making the president’s earlier remarks his “last speech.”
Louis P. Masur’s Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion is a splendid addition to Oxford’s Pivotal Moments in American History series and a narrative study not only of the president’s address that fateful April evening, but of Lincoln’s approach to reconstructing the Union—for Lincoln, “the re-inauguration of the national authority,” one “fraught with great difficulty.”
Premised on the idea that in order “to understand what happened with postwar Reconstruction we need first to look hard at what Lincoln meant by wartime reconstruction, and at the speech that defined it more fully than anything else he ever wrote or spoke,” Masur holds that “the fluid term shifted meanings and came to be used synonymously with restoration and reunion” (11). Characterizing Lincoln’s stance as “simultaneously magnanimous and transformative,” Masur shows that as the conflict and carnage continued, reconstruction, like emancipation itself, became both “a means toward bringing the war to a close and an end that would result [End Page 462] in the Union once again becoming a nation” (11, 55). But it would be a different country: “The Union ‘as it was,’” Masur quotes one observer, “is a thing that never can be again” (51). Consequently, Lincoln’s Last Speech is a valuable addition to the historiography on Lincoln and reconstruction—particularly William C. Harris’s With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union (1997), Paul D. Escott’s “What Shall We Do with the Negro?”: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America (2009), and John C. Rodrigue’s Lincoln and Reconstruction (2013)—that highlights the president’s continuing emphasis on restoring the Union alongside his commitment to a more egalitarian nation.
Once Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in December 1863, debate over the postwar nature of the United States began in earnest because now there was a specific policy with which critics and defenders alike could argue. A wartime and flexible proposal—“Saying that reconstruction will be accepted if presented in a specific way,” said Lincoln, “it is not said it will never be accepted in any other way”—the president’s plan required only 10 percent of the voters in a state to declare an oath of loyalty to the Union, offered generous terms to Confederates, yet refused to retreat on emancipation and maintained executive control over the reconstruction process (75). The response was excellent. To be sure, there were Radicals disappointed with its timidity regarding postwar security for the freedpeople, and the Confederates were unsurprisingly outraged by it, but even Massachusetts’s abolitionist senator Charles Sumner saw the policy’s overall wisdom.
Differences between Lincoln and the Radicals nevertheless persisted. Although Lincoln had privately suggested black suffrage in a letter to newly elected Louisiana governor Michael Hahn in March 1864, when pressed by Hahn after the president’s reelection in November to publicly broadcast such a politically radical idea, Lincoln did not reply. Still, in his annual message to Congress in December 1864 Lincoln hinted to Confederates that “more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted” if the national authority was not restored...