Why Lincoln’s last speech matters

tags: Lincoln

Louis P. Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. He is the author of many books, including "Lincoln's Last Speech, The Civil War: A Concise History," and "Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union."  This post originally appeared on the OUPBlog.

Lincoln’s last speech, delivered on 11 April 1865, seldom receives the attention it deserves. The prose is not poetic, but then it was not meant to inspire but to persuade. He had written the bulk of the speech weeks earlier in an attempt to convince Congress to readmit Louisiana to the Union. But Congress had balked. With Robert E. Lee having surrendered on 9 April, Lincoln now took the opportunity to take the case for Louisiana directly to the people.

Lincoln’s last speech was about reconstruction, a subject that had been on Lincoln’s mind from the beginning—it occupied “a large share of thought from the first,” he declared. Under the terms of his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, issued on 8 December 1863, loyal Louisianans had organized a new state government. They had also adopted a new state constitution that abolished slavery. But Congress had reservations about how many voters participated and whether the business of reconstruction belonged properly to the executive branch or to the legislative. Before going into recess until December, Congress had refused to seat Louisiana’s newly elected representatives.

The president was undeterred. As he often did to simplify difficult issues and appeal to people’s common sense he used an analogy to compare Louisiana’s new state constitution to what it might become in time. He said it was as the egg is to the fowl and asked whether “we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it?” Many laughed at the analogy, and some were no doubt reminded of Lincoln’s admonition in 1862 that “broken eggs cannot be mended.” In editorials the next day, some insisted that rotten eggs should indeed be smashed, and Louisiana might just be a rotten egg.

To persuade radicals that he took seriously their concerns that abolishing slavery was not enough and that more needed to be done, Lincoln publicly embraced limited black suffrage: 

“It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. Still the question is not whether the Louisiana government, as it stands, is quite all that is desirable. The question is, ‘Will it be wiser to take it as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it?’ ‘Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State government?’”

Lincoln had previously supported black suffrage in a private letter to Louisiana’s Governor Michael Hahn written in March 1864. Now he publicly endorsed the step. John Wilkes Booth was among the crowd who listened to Lincoln’s address. Hearing the call for limited black suffrage, Booth declared “that is the last speech he will ever make.” A conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was already afoot. But Lincoln’s speech on 11 April, and his call for black suffrage, led to the tragic event of 14 April when Booth made good on his word.

Lincoln died “not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.” We will never know what might have been had he lived to complete his second term, but one statesman grasped fully the tragedy when he predicted hat “the development of things will teach us to mourn him doubly.”

Read entire article at OUP blog

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