On April 11, 1865, two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln gave the last speech of his life from a White House window to an exuberant crowd outside. He spoke in the evening, reading his text by candlelight, dropping the pages one by one while his son Tad scrambled about the floor, happily picking them up.
Lincoln used the occasion to offer his thoughts about making the nation whole. Half-way into the speech, he touched on suffrage for Black people, saying, “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
It’s the kind of statement that, without historical context, sounds jarring to modern ears. What? Lincoln supported voting rights for only “very intelligent” African Americans and those in uniform? What a racist. Quick — cancel him!
Cancel culture mentality has led University of Wisconsin-Madison students to demand the removal of the school’s famous Lincoln statue. The San Francisco school board voted to strip the names of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and others from area schools until a public outcry forced it to suspend its plan. Chicago is examining 41 monuments, including five statues of Lincoln, for possible removal. A CNN reporter recently wrote that “in some circles, ‘Honest Abe’ is increasingly becoming Racist Abe.”
But Lincoln was deeper and wiser than his critics realize. In this case, by suggesting voting rights for a limited group of Black people, he was opening a new front in the battle for civil rights.
At the close of the war, vast numbers of whites in both the North and the South were vehemently against the idea of African Americans voting. From a political standpoint, the idea of Black suffrage was a non-starter.
But, as I remind readers in my novel, “Old Abe,” Lincoln was an expert rail splitter in his days on the Indiana and Illinois frontiers. He knew how to insert the thin edge of a wedge into a crack in a log and pound the wedge’s thick end with a heavy maul to force the crack open until the log split in two.
As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, Lincoln was practicing the art of political rail splitting on the night of his last address. Suffrage for African Americans with an education and for those who had fought valiantly to save the Union was an idea Northern whites just might accept. Once the right was secure for some Blacks, it would be easier to extend it to others.
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“It was like Abraham Lincoln,” Douglass wrote. “He never shocked prejudices unnecessarily. Having learned statesmanship while splitting rails, he always used the thin edge of the wedge first, and the fact that he used this at all meant that he would, if need be, use the thick as well as the thin.”
Lincoln’s audience was hoping for a rousing victory speech that evening, not an address about Reconstruction. Some began to drift away before Lincoln finished. But one listener grew inflamed over the president’s talk of Black suffrage.
“That means n—– citizenship,” John Wilkes Booth growled to a friend. “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Three nights later, Booth slipped into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater, aimed his derringer pistol and put a bullet through the back of Lincoln’s head.
Lincoln gave his life because of his stand for Black Americans. Do his critics today even know that?
Perhaps not. Many Americans learn little history in school. And in many classrooms, what they are taught about their own country is largely negative.
Lincoln wasn’t perfect
Was Lincoln perfect? Of course not. Did he say and do some things that strike us, by today’s terms, as bigoted and wrong? Yes, he did. The man was president more than a century and a half ago.
Forcing 21st century standards on people who lived decades or centuries ago is a slippery and self-centered business. May we all hope that Americans a century or two from now view us with more understanding.
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Lincoln led the effort to save our country when it was literally falling apart. He led the effort to save our founding principles when many people were ready to cast them aside. And he helped lead the effort to free millions of enslaved Americans. It is a record without parallel.
Lincoln was a great man who lived an extraordinary life that came to a tragic end 156 years ago this week. Instead of complaining that such American icons were not woke enough, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we, as a nation, are sufficiently grateful for their deeds.
John Cribb is the author of “Old Abe: A Novel,” published by Republic Book Publishers.