- Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion by Louis P. Masur
On April 11, 1865, the citizenry of the North was enthralled with the recent turn of events. The surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia two days earlier, the news that the Confederates were evacuating Mobile, and rumors that Johnston was about to surrender to Sherman in North Carolina generated mass celebrations in the streets. In the nation’s capital, large crowds flooded into the streets to witness in the illuminations and to hear President Lincoln’s remarks on the grand victories. Yet instead of reveling in the moment of triumph as many expected, Lincoln looked to the future. His remarks centered on the process by which the southern states would be brought back into their proper relation with the federal government through the “re-inauguration of the national authority—reconstruction.” The president opened by congratulating the army and navy on the recent victories then launched into the core of the speech, focusing on efforts that had already been made in Louisiana as far back as the summer of 1862. Most remarkably, he offered for the first time publicly that “the elective franchise” should be conferred upon those African Americans who were educated and those who had served in the military. In closing, he said he would “make some new announcement to the people of the South … when satisfied that action will be proper.” In the words of Noah Brooks, it was “longer and of a different character from what most people had expected” (11).
Sandwiched between the surrender of Lee’s army and the assassination of President Lincoln, the speech is often portrayed as more of a novelty as Lincoln’s final public address than as shedding light on his plans for the nation. In his new book, Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion, through a wealth of correspondence, newspaper accounts, speeches, and political transcripts, Masur reveals the president’s long journey of reconstructing the nation. The author demonstrates the shifting concepts of reconstruction by highlighting how even before the fighting had commenced some southerners believed secession would allow them to reconstruct the nation as the founding fathers had intended. We see the evolving concepts of “restoration” versus “reconstruction” as the Civil War progresses and the debates within the North over the status of individual southern states. Had they committed “state suicide,” as Charles Sumner and some radical republicans contended, which would reduce them to a territorial status (66)? Or were the southern states, as the president argued, simply in need of ending the rebellion and restoring the loyal population to control of the state’s apparatus? In December 1863, Lincoln announced his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction during his annual message to [End Page 441] Congress. This document, initially well received by both radicals and conservatives, offered a roadmap for reconciliation that guaranteed the restoration of “all rights of property, except as to slaves” for those who would swear an oath of allegiance. It further stated that once 10 percent of the population that had been eligible to vote in 1860 had taken the oath, they could begin the process of reestablishing a state government, which would be “recognized as the true government of the State.” The speech, which reads more like a policy statement to Congress than a victory speech, offers its own historical questions. Spread across twelve leaves, numbered A and B then 1 through 10, it was likely prepared after Congress refused to recognize the representatives from Louisiana, and the president had simply waited for an appropriate occasion to deliver it.
Masur reveals the numerous obstacles and missteps that would arise in the sixteen months between Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation and his final speech. Unlike authors of other book-length studies of Lincoln’s famous speeches, such as Harold Holzer, in Lincoln at Cooper Union, or Garry Wills, in Lincoln at Gettysburg, Masur does not have the...