Saturday, April 11, 2015

Lincoln's Last Speech

"It is 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."

Abraham Lincoln
April 11, 1865

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave what would prove to be his final speech.

That wasn't the only thing he did that day, of course. Carl Sandburg observed, in his biography of Lincoln, that the president dispensed a proclamation closing Southern ports. If any vessel from outside the United States attempted to enter a Southern port with a cargo for which duties would be owed, such cargo would be "forfeited to the United States."

The president issued another proclamation barring foreign war ships from all U.S. ports if those war ships came from countries that would not give similar privileges to U.S. ships.

It was all part of the necessary, if somewhat routine, business to which Lincoln had to attend in the new postwar environment. Most students of history probably do not know the details, and, really, the only detail anyone needs to know is the big picture: The war was over.

Truth be told, Lincoln didn't devote that much time to such postwar business on this day in 1865.

"The president spent his best working hours this day on his speech for the evening," Sandburg wrote. "He was seizing the initiative to set in motion his own reconstruction program. Not until next December would Congress meet, not unless he called a special session. He intended to speak to the country so plainly that before Congress met, he could hope the majority of the people would be with him."

Those who are accustomed to the speed with which information travels in the 21st century need to understand how slowly news traveled in the mid–19th century. It didn't move at the speed of lightning, more like the speed of a snail. On this day, Lincoln probably envisioned having to go on some kind of barnstorming speaking tour through the American Midwest to ramp up support for his plan. At the same time, he had to educate his listeners about the issues — for, unless they read newspapers, and many could not read, they probably were not acquainted with much of the news that took place outside their towns and villages — and persuade them that his approach was the best.

It might have taken most of the rest of the year to accomplish, but, as Chinese philosopher Lao–tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lincoln clearly intended to take that first step 150 years ago tonight.

Actually, a crowd clamored for him to speak to them the night before, on Monday, April 10, and many waited in the rain outside the White House, hoping to hear him speak, but Lincoln sent word that he was behind in his work because of a recent trip, and he asked those who were gathered there to disperse. He would speak the following evening at the formal observance of the South's surrender.

Lincoln did sit for a photographer that day, a session that was occasionally interrupted by Lincoln's 12–year–old son, Tad, who "frolicked around the room," Bishop wrote, "bouncing on and off his father's lap, distracting Mr. Lincoln to the point that, for the first time, he smiled faintly in a picture."

At one point, Tad dashed outside with a captured Rebel flag and ran up and down a porch "trying to make the banner snap in the breeze," Bishop wrote. Lincoln stepped out to retrieve his son, waved to the crowd and insisted he would speak the next night. The Navy Yard band was on hand, and Lincoln asked them to play for the folks who had gathered. Lincoln was asked what they should play; after a moment's reflection, he suggested "Dixie." He had long admired the song, and "it could now be considered the lawful property of the United States," Bishop wrote.

Lincoln is remembered for many things, of course, including some of the most important and most memorable speeches in American history, but the speech he delivered 150 years ago has always seemed to me to be the one that sealed his fate.

It was also a remarkable example of what made Lincoln such a unique and truly visionary leader. Those who had gathered "listened for exultation, and there was none," Bishop wrote. "They strained for eloquence, and there was none. They waited patiently for vengeance, and there was none."

Lincoln took the occasion to speak of the challenge of reconstruction (he observed that it was "fraught with great difficulty") and the problems of the postwar environment. And he advocated voting rights for black Americans.

The man who would assassinate Lincoln a few days later, actor John Wilkes Booth, was in the crowd listening to Lincoln's speech. When he spoke of giving blacks the right to vote, Booth turned to his companion, Lewis Paine, and said, "That means nigger citizenship! Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."

"The two men edged out of the crowd," Bishop wrote.

Booth was a Confederate sympathizer, and he may well have assassinated Lincoln, anyway, even if the president had not delivered the speech he made 150 years ago today. Booth and some co–conspirators had plotted earlier to kidnap Lincoln in an attempt to help the South's cause, but the plan fell through.

It is possible that the idea of killing Lincoln first seriously came to Booth 150 years ago tonight. I'm not sure if anyone really knows when it became more than idle musing on Booth's part.

Historian Jim Bishop wrote that it was probable that the idea first came to Booth following Lincoln's re–election in 1864. "Lincoln," Bishop wrote, "had been Booth's emotional whipping boy for four years." That may be so, but Booth may never have seriously entertained the idea of killing Lincoln until a few days before actually assassinating the president.

Lincoln's assassination was clearly the outcome of a premeditated conspiracy, but the conspiracy may have been as spontaneous as that. In modern times, the assassination of American leader undoubtedly would require more advance planning if only because presidential security in the mid–19th century was so unsophisticated compared to today.

If Lincoln's words were not what the crowd came to hear, they got it, kind of, from the next speaker — Iowa Sen. James Harlan who had been designated to be the next secretary of the Interior and whose daughter would, in a few years, marry Lincoln's oldest son, Robert.

"Mr. Harlan had excellent intentions," Bishop wrote, "but he did not know that a good speaker never asks an explosive mob a question.

"'What,' he said with arms outstretched, with silvery syllables echoing in the trees, 'shall be done with these brethren of ours?'

"As one, the crowd roared, 'Hang 'em!'

"The senator smiled in the face of thunder and said that, after all, the president might exercise the power to pardon.

"'Never!' the crowd screamed.

"The senator tried to educate and inform by suggesting that the great mass of Southern people were not guilty. He got silence. The senator was not up to further effort. He finished haltingly by proclaiming that he, for one, was willing to trust the future to the president of the United States."

Harlan, naturally, believed that president would be Lincoln, as did nearly everyone in the crowd that night.

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