#b#The Visionary Politician#/b#
#b#Louis P. Masur#/b#, “Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion,” Oxford University Press. global.oup.com/
Louis Masur, a Rutgers professor of history and American studies in the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, analyzes Abraham Lincoln’s last speech, delivered from a window on the north portico of the White House on April 11, 1865. The president laid out his plans for reconstructing the South, defended his acceptance of the new constitution of Louisiana, and suggested that voting rights be extended to some African Americans, especially those who had served in the armed forces.
In the audience that evening was the actor John Wilkes Booth, who, hearing Lincoln advocate enfranchisement for African Americans, told his companion, Lewis Powell: “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Powell simultaneously tried but failed to kill Secretary of State William Seward.
Rutgers Today, the university’s news service, asked Masur to discuss the significance of Lincoln’s last speech and the reconstruction that followed:
Rutgers Today: Lincoln’s speech was what we would call “wonky” today — it explained and defended policy. What was Lincoln’s aim in this speech?
Masur: Lincoln wanted to talk directly to the people about his plan to restore the Union. It was certainly time. Lee had surrendered to Grant only two days earlier. Six weeks earlier in his second inaugural, Lincoln had waxed poetic about the need to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Now he sought support specifically for bringing Louisiana back into what he called “proper, practical relation” with the government. In typical Lincoln fashion, he did so by using an analogy that everyone could understand when he talked about the new Louisiana state government being as the egg is to the fowl and asked whether “we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it?”
Rutgers Today: Aside from John Wilkes Booth and Lewis Powell, who was on the White House lawn that night?
Masur: Thousands of Americans swarmed the White House grounds. Many were government employees and residents of Washington. Some were soldiers. Many others were members of the professional and working classes. Some traveled from Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere to celebrate.
Rutgers Today: Is it fair to say that “reconstruction” — meaning, the reintegration of the former Confederate states into the Union — was a continuing project of Lincoln’s almost from the beginning of the Civil War? Why has this attracted relatively little attention from historians?
Masur: The events of 1865-1877 that so traumatized the nation have made it easy to think only of President Andrew Johnson’s battles with Congress as the era of Reconstruction. But Lincoln understood from the very start of the war the need to craft a policy for restoring the seceded states to the Union. Indeed, he understood it as both a means toward winning the war as well as an end in itself — the more quickly Southern unionists could organize new state governments and send representatives to Congress, the more quickly the Confederate effort would be defeated. Accordingly, he appointed military governors in several southern states and in 1863 issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction that established his plan for ending the war and making the nation whole again.
Rutgers Today: Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, wanted to treat the rebellious states as “conquered provinces.” Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts maintained that the Confederate states had “committed state suicide” when they seceded from the Union and that only Congress could lay down the conditions upon which they might be readmitted. How might history have been different if Sumner and Stevens had their way?
Masur: Lincoln called the doctrines of state suicide and conquered provinces “a pernicious distraction.” In his last speech he referred to the “so-called seceded states” because he held to the doctrine of an indissoluble union so, as far as he was concerned, they never left. While Sumner and Stevens did not get their way to the extent that they hoped, they did wage a fierce battle against Andrew Johnson and managed to assure passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
It is likely that had he lived, Lincoln also would have supported constitutional protections for the freedmen. It is also likely that, as he had during the war, he would have been able to work with Sumner and Stevens and not allow their differences to become toxic. Sadly, it was not to be. The process of Reconstruction after his death, one writer predicted at the time, “will teach us to mourn him doubly.”
#b#The Mothers’ Son#/b#
Jeff Oppenheimer, “That Nation Might Live.” TNML Production Company. www.ThatNationMightLive.com.
As much as has been written about Abraham Lincoln, little is known about the woman who was most influential in turning him into the man he became. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine years old. Fourteen months later his father remarried a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston. Lincoln later said he thought of both women as his mother.
The person who brings Sarah to life is a political science (not history) graduate of George Washington University who works for a direct mail company in central New Jersey. Jeff Oppenheimer may not be a professional historian, but he is a dedicated amateur who has dug deep into the life of Lincoln.
Reading the Stephen B. Oates Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None,” Oppenheimer “was touched by the farewell between Lincoln and his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, as he left to become President.” Reading more books on the young Abe Lincoln, Oppenheimer “realized the person responsible for giving the world Abraham Lincoln was largely unknown. A woman of such significance, Lincoln’s self-described, ‘best friend,’ with great humor, energy, and wherewithal, and yet curiously difficult to find in the mountain of books pertaining to our 16th President.”
“Somewhere along the line,” Oppenheimer continues, “while binge-ing on Lincoln books, I acquired ‘Lincoln’s Herndon,’ by David Herbert Donald. The subject of that book was William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and a close friend. After the assassination Herndon had traveled to Goosenest Prairie, Illinois, to visit the grieving stepmother and recorded their conversation in handwritten notes.
As Oppenheimer says of the Herndon book, “I went there looking for more detail of Herndon’s afternoon with his friend’s aged stepmother, which of course was well provided by the author. With the insight and tenderness of a mother’s vantage point, Herndon’s notes were the voice of Sarah Bush Lincoln retelling the life of Lincoln.”
Using that voice, and detailing the facts of Lincoln’s childhood from other sources, Oppenheimer has created a fictional work that covers much of Lincoln’s formative years.
“I’ve always enjoyed history,” says Oppenheimer, “not as facts and dates, but the story of the people and their times. But I was particularly drawn to Lincoln. Such an odd man to arrive on the scene at the critical hour, and in my view, the only person capable of maintaining the Union, self-government, and moving America beyond the abomination of slavery.
“I feel the same way an astronomer likely feels about the heavens; how could you not be interested? Finding a way to humanize the man and the times in such a way that it invites readers into the story was my objective, and my joy.”