When John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865, he destroyed the Union that Lincoln and the Army of the Potomac had only five days before begun to cobble back together after four years of draining, intensely personal warfare. There is no other way to say it. By killing Lincoln and attempting to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, Booth and his fellow conspirators materially changed the course of history and also altered, probably forever, the ways in which Americans think about each other. No other event on American soil–not even the Al-Queda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 or the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941– has been as life-changing and as psychologically-damaging as this one. The other two attacks involved us in a World War and a world-wide campaign against terrorism, both of which, by definition, include other countries and are therefore impersonal conflicts to a great degree. The murder of Lincoln was different. To some historians, it marked a last, desperate attempt to maintain the Confederacy; to others, and to the common voices of history, it represented the final, utterly-hateful act of a cause that had been doomed for over a year.
But what of that cause greater than the Confederacy? What of the cause of Union? What we all lost when Lincoln died was the living embodiment of the charity he wished to plant in the hearts of every one of his fellow Americans. We remember the words of his Second Inaugural Address well enough, spoken barely a month before his death: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
But we lost more than Lincoln’s immense sympathy and compassion. We also lost his strength. Let us remember, as we think of him, that Lincoln wanted the Presidency that cost him his life. He did not want the conflict that marred those years, but as long as the burden was his to bear, he bore it, because he knew that was the price he had to pay for the office. He had achieved his goal by being a moderate voice in a chorus of extreme views, and a superb politician. As an office-holder and a Congressman from the border state of Illinois, he built and held together a rough coalition of Republicans and abolitionists mostly by denouncing the ideas of equality and voting rights for slaves in front of white voters in the southern part of the state, while advocating the converse before abolitionists in the northern part of the state. In 1848, in a speech opposing the Mexican War and its threat to extend slavery even further south on the continent, Lincoln conceded the right of people anywhere to rise up, rebel, and overthrow their government, but only if they were a people “having the power to do so.” This ability to state a popular proposition and yet pull back from its full implications is the essence of any office-seeker’s skill: to proclaim what is popular and whisper what is not. Lincoln was always aware of the contradictions in his positions–not the least of which was fighting a war to deny the South a right he said they had–but it would have been fatal at an early date to admit his true views, whatever they were. He did not denounce slavery directly until 1854, and even campaigned for the Presidency on the promise of not disturbing slavery where it already lay. The calculated but foolhardy decision to fight a war to stop the spread of slavery without actually destroying it where it already existed caused much of the pressure that made Lincoln’s presidency so difficult. There were other pressures.
For four years, Lincoln not only led the fight against southern states which denied the idea that enslaving others could lead to their own enslavement and which feared the prospect of thousands of former slaves being released into the work force to compete with whites, he also conciliated Union border states that didn’t want to deal with the Negro, either, and did their best under the Fugitive Slave law to keep them out. For four years, the situation demanded that he be strong beyond all measure, and that is what he was. Manic-depressive and melancholy, to be sure, as the casualties mounted, but immensely strong and resolute. During the first two of those years, he struggled to find a general who would put personal ambition aside and simply fight the enemy. The dithering George McClellan wouldn’t do it; neither would Joseph Hooker. But look for a moment at his letter of Jan. 26, 1863 to Hooker, written after he gave command of the Army of the Potomac to him: “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.” Few commanders have ever had a voice with such steel in it.
Lincoln did not achieve that military success until he found in Ulysses S. Grant a general whose will matched his own. Grant didn’t give a damn about strategy, but he knew a thing or two about tactics and he knew what the other two gentlemen did not: one has to fight a war in order to win it. Lincoln’s will was also singularly focused on one objective: saving his country. He made that objective as plain as day to editor Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, on Aug. 22, 1862:
“As to the policy I ‘seem to be pursuing,’ as you say, I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be ‘the Union as it was.’ If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing harms the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they appear to be true views.”
Lincoln’s critics have made much about what they see as his shift in policy after 1863. But his remarks to Greeley do not indicate that Lincoln regarded any modification of his actions as a genuine shift of policy. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” he says, and his mind is also open, at this early date, to the other two possibilities: freeing all the slaves, or only some of them. To the critics, however, he changes from a man who would save the Union into the Great Emancipator, the man who freed the slaves. Yet this is part of the Lincoln myth. By 1863, the policy of leaving existing slavery alone was unsupportable, but Lincoln’s response was only symbolic. The Emancipation Proclamation specifically excluded slaves in southern states like Louisiana that Union forces already controlled and the document had no effect on territories that Union forces could not yet reach. In other words, the proclamation freed no one, and Lincoln regarded it, at best, as an intermediate step toward the larger goal of saving the Union.
When the President died, however, any hope of reconstructing the Union in a fair and compassionate way went with him. Lincoln had doubtless thought a lot about Reconstruction in 1864 and 1865, but he hadn’t committed many of his thoughts to paper beyond the idea that Congress, rather than the Executive, should have the final say in when a state would be readmitted to the Union. We in the present day are not often mindful of how difficult the process of readmission truly was, nor are we aware of how complex the integration of thousands of former slaves–most of them uneducated and untrained except in the ways of survival–into the larger Union was going to be. Both sides in the conflict were uneasy about the latter task. The idea of repatriating as many slaves as possible to Liberia was floated about but soon rejected as impractical by both the Administration and the public. The President did not know exactly what to do. Given, however, his entire career as a political compromiser and his extraordinary eloquence in both writing and speaking, I have to believe that Lincoln would have been enormously useful as a moderator of the many disputes that erupted between 1865 and 1877, years that would have encompassed his second term and his resumed life as a private citizen.
But none of us knows what would have happened had Lincoln lived, because Booth killed him. The most heinous consequence of the assassination is that it robbed all of us of a future that might have been. Would there still have been carpetbaggers? Probably. Would the Jim Crow laws still have been imposed? Most likely. But their impact would have been far less severe. Had he lived, Lincoln would have been able to begin the long, long process of teaching us how to live with each other again. He would have been teaching himself that process, too. He had his doubts about whether blacks and whites could coexist. By the time of the Proclamation, though, he had met a few blacks in Washington, and talked to them. He never, as far as I know, doubted that blacks could live on their own or among others. Had he lived and begun to move us toward a century of peace, we might never have seen the Watts riots, the violence in Los Angeles after Rodney King’s arrest; the travesty of the O.J. Simpson trial, the death of Michael Brown and the destruction of businesses in Ferguson, Missouri, or the civil unrest in Baltimore after the arrest of Freddie Gray.
Yet, Booth’s act altered the trajectory of history. It set into motion the whole chain of events in race relations that has led to the country in which we now live. When I grieve for Lincoln, as I do every year at this time, I grieve also for the dark consequences of his death: carpetbaggers, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and generation after generation of blacks trapped in poverty and haunted by the legacy of slavery. His death even makes me wonder, in the depths of my despair, whether we truly have, as he believed, “better angels” in our nature. On the one hand, our whole history from 1865 to 1940 represents an argument against that proposition; but on the other, the Civil War itself, and the deaths of all those Northern soldiers, and our accomplishments in the decades that have followed–many black mayors and Congressmen and our first African-American President–argue for it.
Lincoln’s life, it seems to me, also argues for it. A man or woman might strive to become President in order to be something or to do something. Lincoln, for all of his questionable compromises and strategic silences, was the finest example we’ve ever had of the President who wished to be President. But he became that way because he realized that being President is not enough. One has to lead, even if the way ahead is not clear. And Lincoln led us. He led us toward Union and a vision of ourselves as a better, more generous people with an eloquence and an urgency that no other President in our history has had, an eloquence that none of the present-day candidates for the office comes close to possessing. He led us with strength and openness and compassion because he realized that the cause for which he was fighting–the unity of a nation–was larger than the office he held. It always had been. It always will be.