College of LAS « Illinois

Lincoln’s Last Speech

By Vernon Burton
Dr. Burton is a professor emeritus of history, sociology, and African American studies at U of I and is the author of Age of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

On April 11, 1865, just two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S.Grant, Lincoln addressed a gathering crowd from the White House balcony. Lincoln knew that Reconstruction would not confront one single, unified South, but rather “disorganized and discordant elements.” Nevertheless, he hoped and expected that a majority of white southerners would support efforts to reunify the country. Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction became fighting points in the years ahead, but during this speech, Lincoln discussed the need for cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of the government. More important, just as Lincoln had done with the Emancipation Proclamation and his answer to Horace Greeley’s plea of 20 million, he was once again preparing the nation to accept African American citizenship. Lincoln concluded this speech by telling the gathered crowd to expect a further announcement.

One man in the audience understood perfectly what Lincoln intimated. John Wilkes Booth told his companion, “That means n----- citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

Lincoln proclaimed early in 1865 that the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the 19th century.” A Maryland Civil War Trails brochure tells tourists in a section entitled “Escape of an Assassin” that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln “for what he perceived as Lincoln’s harsh wartime policies.” Abraham Lincoln was not killed for “harsh wartime policies,” which included Emancipation. He was killed for advocating African American voting, as limited as that was. Lincoln is part of a long list of martyrs who died for black voting rights: Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King, Jr., and tragically so many more.

Those murders during the “Second Reconstruction” reflected the problems left over from the first Reconstruction. And indeed, Lincoln's assassin struck a blow from which America has never recovered. The North lost a hero. African Americans lost an ally for fair and equal opportunity. The South lost a leader, southern born, who called for charity without malice. By murdering the president, on Good Friday, no less, Booth guaranteed Father Abraham’s place in history as a beloved martyr for freedom.

The issues Lincoln faced continue to have an impact today. Moral choice, democratic citizenship, and equality still mingle, and Lincoln’s word still inspire.

Read the other monthly essays in this special commemorative series.

May 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial Events at U of I

October 13
Lincoln’s Rhetorical Worlds, Professor Michael Leff
November 11
Lincoln Lecture, Professor Robin Blackburn