Top Gun | The Nation


Top Gun

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Although he does not express it so unequivocally, William Harris agrees with this appraisal. His study of the last six months of Lincoln's life, from his re-election to the assassination, includes a lucid account of Lincoln's resistance to powerful pressure in 1864 to back away from his commitment to emancipation. Harris also emphasizes the President's key role in getting the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. Lincoln's reputation as "the Great Emancipator," writes Harris, "is truly deserved." Under his "careful, step-by-step management," the "Constitution had been changed to a document of freedom."

About the Author

James M. McPherson
James M. McPherson, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the author of many books on the Civil War, most...

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Guelzo and Harris have driven a stake into the heart of recent arguments--especially those of Lerone Bennett Jr. in his Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (2000)--that Lincoln did more to hinder than to help the cause of ending slavery. While Guelzo keeps his focus on the central theme of emancipation, however, Harris covers a wide array of issues that Lincoln faced during his last months in office. Indeed, the book at times becomes a virtual laundry list of such issues without clear distinctions between the important and the routine: patronage, foreign policy, emancipation, reconstruction, Indian policy, licit and illicit trade with the South, re-election, peace terms and negotiations, and the assassination. Part of one chapter documents the increasingly "careworn" and haggard countenance of the President as he grappled with these problems. "Though only fifty-five years of age when re-elected," Harris writes, "Lincoln was worn down and unable to shake his feeling of dread at the prospect of four more years of the presidency.... It is conceivable that Lincoln, after having achieved his purposes of saving the Union and ending slavery, would have seriously contemplated resigning as president at war's end." Despite this startling speculation--for which there is no evidence whatsoever--Harris stops short of implying that the assassination was therefore a blessing in disguise.

Next to emancipation, the most challenging problems for Lincoln during these months were terms of peace with the Confederacy and terms of reconstruction for the South. The platform on which he ran for re-election demanded "unconditional surrender" of the enemy as well as a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln never deviated from these terms. At the Hampton Roads meeting in February 1865 between Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward for the Union and three Southern commissioners headed by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Lincoln reiterated this policy of unconditional surrender--without using the words. The words he did use, however, meant precisely that: "The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States. No receding, by the Executive of the United States on the Slavery question. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all forces hostile to the government." Because Lincoln also promised liberal terms of amnesty to Southerners who gave up their rebellion, Harris denies that Lincoln's policy was one of unconditional surrender. But the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, who denounced Lincoln's terms as a "humiliating surrender" and the New York Times, which declared that "we have always demanded 'unconditional surrender,'" were closer to the mark.

On the issue of voting rights for blacks in the reconstructed South, Harris insists that Lincoln intended to leave the question up to whites in the restored states. Other historians have pointed to evidence that during the winter of 1864-65 Lincoln was moving toward the radical Republican position of requiring at least limited black suffrage in the reconstructed South. In what turned out to be the last speech of his life, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Lincoln said that he would like literate freedmen and those who had fought in the Union army to have the right to vote, and hinted at a forthcoming "new announcement to the people of the South." It is not far-fetched to state that Lincoln gave his life for the cause of black voting rights. Standing in the crowd listening to the President that evening of April 11, 1865, was John Wilkes Booth. When he heard those words, Booth turned to a companion and snarled, "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."

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