After viewing the devastation in Richmond in April 1865, Lincoln knew the Civil War would be over soon. Yet he also realized that the most challenging task remained—bringing the country together as one people, not unlike the difficulty the nation faces today. This weekend we once again recognize Lincoln’s sacrifice156 years after his assassination. But few acknowledge his death came because John Wilkes Booth could not stomach giving even a few African American veterans the right to vote.
Lincoln wasn’t sure he had the words needed to temper Americans’ anger with their opponents or ease their grief for what we’ve lost. But he agreed to address those gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House. His first words met their expectations: “We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in the gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and the surrender of the principal insurgent army (he did not identify it as Confederate) give the country hope for a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.”
Speaking from the White House balcony, Lincoln didn’t notice a tall man dressed in black stalking the fringes of the crowd. John Wilkes Booth scowled at the President’s remarks. Less than a month earlier, on March 20, Booth and his conspirators had attempted to capture Lincoln to use him as a bargaining chip to negotiate Southern freedom from federal rules ending slavery.
Then Lincoln turned to the purpose of his speech–Reconstruction—to restore and unite the nation after the war. “No one man had the authority to give up the rebellion for another man. We must begin with and mould (sp) from disorganized and discordant elements,” he said.
He noted the political differences that stood between Americans. Nevertheless, Lincoln sought to begin to bind the wounds of Americans now that the war had ended. The President stated the nation’s problem: “We, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of Reconstruction.”
But then, the critical message that would seal the President’s fate. Lincoln told the crowd the nation should grant African American men, particularly those who fought for the Union, the right to vote. Before this speech, no president had ever publicly endorsed even limited suffrage for blacks.
Booth became enraged when he heard Lincoln speak of suffrage. The thought of giving any African American the right to vote infuriated Booth. Standing in the shadows across from the White House, Booth turned to his co-conspirator, Lewis Powell, and nearly spat out his disgust: “That is the last speech he will ever make.” As an actor well known at Ford’s Theater, he learned when Lincoln would be coming to see Laura Keene perform there in Our American Cousin.
On April 14, 1865, just after 10 pm, Booth’s lightning-quick tempter drew him up the stairs, where he pushed open the door to Lincoln’s box and pulled out a derringer that fit into the palm of his hand, which he used to shoot the President. Booth shouted: “Sic Semper Tyrannus! (Ever thus to tyrants!) The South be avenged.”
Lincoln’s plans to restore the country equitably died with him. His vice president, who took control, Andrew Johnson, a Dixie Democrat and an enslaver from Tennessee, came from the opposite political view. Johnson believed in States’ rights. He allowed Southern governors to make their own decisions regarding the treatment of African Americans.
Four million enslaved people were freed when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed on January 31, 1865, while Lincoln was alive. However, laws to establish freedom of movement and voting rights for African Americans would not become law for a century.
What would Lincoln say today as Congress fails to support voting rights for all Americans? He acted because he believed it to be right and just. Today’s Republicans, who express their pride in being “the Party of Lincoln” but can’t support voting rights, the principle for which he gave his life. fail to live up to his sacrifice. They lack the courage to stand up for all the voters in their state. They betray Lincoln’s legacy and further rip apart our delicate democracy.