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Thursday, April 30, 2015 12:01 am

Aftermath of an assassination

Historians address the ramifications of Lincoln’s death

Even before he ascended to the White House, Abraham Lincoln was often referred to as “old.” It wasn’t an insult but a compliment.

Michael Burlingame
“He radiated the qualities of wisdom and nurturing,” said Dr. Michael Burlingame, a noted Lincoln author and professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield. “He had several positive aspects of oldness that made him much loved.”

Burlingame says what appeals to him about Lincoln is the fact that he overcame not only economic poverty, but also emotional poverty. Lincoln endured the loss of his mother at a young age, then later the loss of his sister. His father was distant and unsympathetic.

“Yet he was able to overcome that and become remarkably psychologically balanced and rooted,” Burlingame said.  “In politics, he was able to rise above the petty clamoring of the ego.”

In large part because of his strong character, Lincoln came to be seen – at least among some people – as a father figure, and so his assassination amounted to a national trauma.

“One of the striking features about the mourning for Lincoln was that so many people responded as if they had lost a father,” Burlingame said. “That image is used again and again and again.”

Burlingame, who has written more than a dozen books about or relating to Lincoln, is one of three scholars speaking April 30 about the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. Burlingame will be joined by Dr. Martha Hodes, professor of history at New York University and Dr. Louis Masur, professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University.

Martha Hodes
Hodes is the author of Mourning Lincoln, which examines the varied responses to Lincoln’s death – ranging from outrage to joy. She says that most of the north was distraught by the assassination while the south reveled in it, but there were certainly exceptions. Hodes dug through historical court documents of northerners brought to trial for treason in relation to Lincoln’s assassination, discovering that some white northerners who were Lincoln’s political enemies barely concealed their glee at his death.

Meanwhile, African-Americans in the south were “deeply grieved” to hear of Lincoln’s death, Hodes says, adding that the president was well-liked among slaves.

“Enslaved African-Americans spent lots of time hearing whites talk,” she said. “People assumed slaves didn’t understand what they were saying, but the reality is that they understood much more than white people would have guessed.”

Hodes is known for examining history through the eyes of those who lived through the events.

“What’s so interesting about it is what people were doing day-to-day and how they lived out what they believed,” she said.

Following the Civil War, the barely united United States faced the monumental task of rebuilding both its physical infrastructure and the deeply damaged relationship between the North and South. Dr. Louis Masur says that process almost certainly would have turned out differently if Lincoln had been alive to oversee it.

Louis P. Masur
Masur wrote Lincoln’s Hundred Days, which recounts the agonizing time between Lincoln’s threat of ending slavery in the rebelling Confederate states and his final issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Two days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Lincoln stood in the main door of the White House to give what would become his final speech on April 11. Masur says observers expected it to be a victory speech celebrating the end of the war, but it turned out to be a policy speech about the important work of Reconstruction. Lincoln saw rebuilding the south as a way to gain the rebel states’ reliance on – and thus acceptance of – the federal government, Masur says.

“For him, Reconstruction began at the beginning of the war,” Masur said. “He realized that Reconstruction was an end, but it was also a means to an end.”

Unbeknownst to Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was present in the crowd at that speech on April 11, and Booth vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make.” He assassinated Lincoln three days later.

Masur says it’s always problematic for historians to speculate, but he suspects that if Lincoln hadn’t been murdered before Reconstruction began in earnest, the whole process likely would have turned out better.

“Lincoln demonstrated his political genius in working with a variety of people,” Masur said. “We can say for certain that the kind of deeply divided confrontation between Congress and the executive never would have metastasized as it did during Reconstruction.”

Additionally, Masur believes the freed slaves would have fared better if Lincoln had lived. Although the Republican-controlled Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to aid former slaves, southern states responded by creating “black codes” that firmly reestablished white supremacy in the south. Lincoln’s vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, was far less concerned with the well-being of African-Americans, and he opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to former slaves.

Burlingame, Hodes and Masur will speak at 7 p.m. on April 30 in Brookens Auditorium at UIS. For more information, contact Dr. Barbara Ferrara at bferr1@uis.edu or 217-206-7094, or visit bit.ly/mourningabe.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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