April 11, 1865. Washington, D. C.
A celebratory crowd gathered on the White House lawn. Abraham Lincoln peered out from a second floor window. He had something important he wanted to say:
We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.
The end of this terrible war was finally at hand; however, the president did not want the country to lose sight of the hard road that lay ahead:
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 the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation.
But what would that mean?
Lincoln cited the Louisiana example. Under his “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” Louisiana had already made great progress toward reentering the Union:
- As many as 12,000 Louisiana residents had already “sworn allegiance to the Union."
- The state held elections, organized a state government, and adopted a free-state constitution, under which both black and white children could attend public schools.
- The state legislature had also already ratified the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.
- In essence, the 12,000 people who had already taken the oath were “committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants—and they ask the nation's recognition, and it's assistance to make good their committal,” Lincoln explained.
Voting rights was another issue, but now, for the first time in public, Lincoln endorsed a controversial idea:
It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.
Actor John Wilkes Booth was one of the many faces in the crowd that night. When Lincoln spoke about voting rights for African Americans, Booth promised a companion, "That is the last speech he will make.”
The president had been thinking about Reconstruction for a long time. He definitely had ideas about how it should occur, but he needed more time to work them out. Of course, fate had different designs.