What if John Wilkes Booth had been a better listener?

April 11, 2008, 3:43 pm

On this day in 1865 Abraham Lincoln gave his last public speech, taking up the question of reconstruction, managing to sound a radical note or two:

By these recent successes, the reinauguration of the national authority—reconstruction—… is pressed much more closely upon our attention…. Unlike a case of war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with—no one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with and mould from disorganized and discordant elements….

Later, in laying out the case of Louisiana, he remarked

It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the coloured man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.

Which is supposed to have inspired the listening John Wilkes Booth to say to his friend, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I will put him through. That will be the last speech he will ever make.”

But Booth wasn’t listening carefully enough. Lincoln also remarked,

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper, practical relation with the Union, and that the sole object of government, civil and military, in regard to those States, is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe that it is not only possible, but in fact easier to do this without deciding or even considering whether these States have ever been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad.

Which seems to contradict the suggestion that the U.S. “begin with and mould from disorganized and discordant elements”. It sounds like a speech in which Lincoln was keeping his options open. As well he might; as he said, “we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and measure of reconstruction.” And we still do disagree just what Lincoln might have done.

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