Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

70

Last Public Address:
CW, 8:401–404

On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General U. S. Grant. Five days earlier, Lincoln himself sailed up the James River to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and landed not far from the infamous Libby Prison. The president, Admiral David Dixon Porter, three other officers, and ten carbine-armed sailors then walked to the Confederate White House. It was a time for national thanksgiving, Lincoln remarked in his last public address. The Reconstruction experience in Louisiana, however, was foremost on his mind, and he defended his minimal requirements for states to return to the Union. He sought reconciliation and reunion, not radical reform and retribution. He refused to take the ground of a growing number of Republicans who contended that having seceded from the Union, the Southern states were now akin to territories and entirely subject to the authority of Congress. By labeling such a view “good for nothing” and a “pernicious abstraction,” Lincoln moved away from, not toward, those who sought a more thorough Reconstruction of the South and greater rights for the former slaves. The president acknowledged that Louisiana blacks insisted on the right to vote. Yet he maintained that those who sought this end would bring it about sooner by supporting the current state government—based on 10 percent of the prewar voting population's taking an oath of allegiance to the Union—than by rejecting such governments in hopes of getting reformed ones more agreeable to radicals in Congress. Moreover, Lincoln asserted, by keeping Louisiana out of the Union, the Congress would be losing one more vote in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery. Given Lincoln's record and limited goals for restoration of the Union, his Reconstruction policy meant that African Americans would never gain full equal rights.

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