Lincoln’s Last Speech is subject of new book
It was a rainy, misty mid-April night in the capital city. Crowds throughout Washington DC were celebrating the recent surrender of the leading Confederate army and its legendary leader Robert E. Lee, an event which finally signaled the impending end of the long, bitter Civil War. Thousands of citizens gathered outside the White House hoping to hear a triumphant message from the president. Torches blazed. Hearts quickened with anticipation as Abraham Lincoln appeared and began to speak.
Instead of a message of martial victory and the triumph of Northern will over the secessionists, the spectators heard something different, in fact much different than they expected. The president spoke not of the current events, but instead discussed his vision of the future and how to reconstruct the vanquished South. In the audience, a vindictive and angry John Wilkes Booth supposedly muttered that this was the last speech Lincoln would ever make.
He was right.
Author Louis P. Masur, a distinguished history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has produced a new book entitled Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion. He examines the political backdrop to the speech, analyzes Lincoln’s words and their implications, and interprets Lincoln’s intentions for national reconciliation and most likely actions had he not been the target of John Wilkes Booth’s loaded derringer only a few scant days after his last speech on April 11, 1865.
Masur’s book is a sweeping overview of Lincoln’s written and spoken words over the course of the last months of his presidency, taken in context with the last speech, to construct a plausible and well reasoned scenario of how the president planned to deal with the South as a focal point of his second term in office. There were many issues to consider — what to do with former Confederate leaders, how to integrate former slaves into society, rebuilding the Southern economy without the “peculiar institution,” ensuring that there would not be a repeat of secession in the years to come, and mapping a defined pathway to reconstruction and a lasting peace. He gave clues to some of these potential policy decisions; others remain less certain and open to interpretation, but Lincoln’s goals and objectives are reasonably clear for other issues.
This book is certain to be a useful addition to the historiography of the Lincoln Administration and the presidency itself, as well as Reconstruction. Masur is to be commended for his concise prose which flows well, yet covers the important points without excess verbiage or over-analysis.
ISBN 978-0-19-021839-3 (hardback version); 247 pages, annotated, Oxford Press, 2015. Few photos or maps, but they are not really needed. The text is the focal point of the book and of Masur’s reasonable arguments, suppositions, and interpretations.
From the publisher: What did Abraham Lincoln envision when he talked about “reconstruction?” Assassinated in 1865, the president did not have a chance to begin the work of reconciling the North and South, nor to oversee Reconstruction as an official postwar strategy. Yet his final speech, given to thousands gathered in the rain outside the White House on April 11, 1865, gives a clear indication of what Lincoln’s postwar policy might have looked like-one that differed starkly from what would emerge in the tumultuous decade that followed.
In Lincoln’s Last Speech, renowned historian and author Louis P. Masur offers insight into this critical address and its vision of a reconstructed United States. Coming two days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and a week after the fall of Richmond, Lincoln’s speech was expected to be a victory oration. Instead, he looked to the future, discussing how best to restore the seceded states to the national government, and even endorsing limited black suffrage. Delving into the language and arguments of Lincoln’s last address, Masur traces the theme of reconstruction as it developed throughout his presidency, starting with the very earliest days of the war.
Masur illuminates the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking and the national debate around reconstruction, touching on key moments such as the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on December 8, 1863, and Lincoln’s pocket veto of the Wade-Davis bill in July 1864. He also examines social reconstruction, including the plight of freedmen and the debate over the place of blacks in society; and considers the implications of Lincoln’s speech after April 1865, when Andrew Johnson assumed office and the ground was laid for the most radical phases of the postwar policy. A nuanced study of Lincoln’s views on national reconciliation, this work gives us a better understanding of the failures that occurred with postwar Reconstruction and the eventual path that brought the country to reunion.