A Requiem for Abraham Lincoln

By Nancy Spannaus

[April 13, 2023 — Do most Americans even know what happened on this day in 1865?  I believe it is part of my mission to remind them not only of its occurrence, but of its significance in our nation’s history. I do this with a conviction that understanding President Lincoln, the situation he confronted, and the aftermath of his assassination, is critical to resolving the crises which we face today. Thus, I am reprinting my post from last year, which I hope will find wider circulation and resonance far beyond the “history community.”]

April 13, 2022—The assassination of Abraham Lincoln a mere five days after the victory of the Union in the Civil War represents one of the greatest tragedies this nation has ever endured. With that act, we moved from the prospect of Reconstruction and reconciliation led by a man of principle and compassion, as he signaled in his Second Inaugural and final speech, to a bitter and ongoing struggle which ensured that we would remain a nation divided, if not doomed.

A Requiem for Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln in 1865, photographed by Gardner

To address this tragedy, I want to evoke a kind of Requiem for our 16th President, a remembrance of his life and impact which points the way toward a peaceful solution to the turmoil within our nation which still threatens our very existence.

Over the last four weeks, I conducted a class series at Shepherd University in West Virginia on Lincoln’s Life and Legacy. This gave me an opportunity to delve more deeply into this man’s thinking and the environment which he had to deal with, as well as the reactions of others to his efforts. Two of those classes are currently available on the You Tube channel associated with this blog, and I believe you will find them useful supplements to my efforts here.

My major companion in this project is Frederick Douglass, the slave-turned-statesman, who gave an extensive eulogy for the fallen President at Cooper Union on June 1, 1865. In a vicious act of discrimination, the New York Common Council declared that African Americans could not march in the City’s grand funeral parade for Lincoln in April. That decision sparked the black community to call its own event, which coincided with the national day of mourning set by Congress on June 1.

Cooper Union was nearly full, with a mostly black audience, on that day. Frederick Douglass, who had known the President personally, addressed the crowd.

Profound Optimism

Douglass began by addressing the special feelings of the black population for the fallen President:

One thing will be at once conceded by all generous minds; no people or class of people in this country, have a better reason for lamenting the death of Abraham Lincoln, and for desiring to honor and perpetuate his memory, than have the colored people; and yet we are about the only people who have been in any case forbidden to exhibit our sorrow, or to show our respect for the deceased president publicly. The attempt to exclude colored people from his funeral procession in New York – was one of the most disgraceful; and sickening manifestations of moral emptiness, ever exhibited by any people professing to be civilized.

But what was A. Lincoln to the colored people or they to him? As compared with the long line of his predecessors, many of whom were merely the facile and service instruments of the slave power, Abraham Lincoln, while unsurpassed in his devotion, to the welfare of the white race, was also in a sense hitherto without example, emphatically the black man’s President: the first to show any respect for their rights as men.

A Requiem for Abraham Lincoln
Blacks in front of a school in Port Royal, South Carolina, where the Union Army had distributed land for them to cultivate in 1862.

Douglass went on to recount Lincoln’s accomplishments: the freeing of millions and their enlistment in the fight for freedom; the independence of Haiti and Liberia recognized; the Confederate slave-holding states overpowered and defeated.

What clearly fed his optimism as well were the actions that Lincoln, a strong advocate of the American System, had already approved for the distribution of land to the former slaves,[1] and his halting, but definite support for enfranchisement.[2] But that evening was not one for specifics. As Douglass said:

But we speak here to night not merely as colored men, but as men among men, and as American citizens – having the same interest in the welfare, permanence, and prosperity, of the country—that any other class of citizens may be supposed to have.  We survey the facts of the hour with reference to this relation to our fellow citizens: — From this outlook we find the prospect bright & glorious.

A soaring feeling of optimism infused Douglass’s oration. “Hence we have a new date, a new era for our great Republic,” he said. “Henceforth a new account is opened,[3] between the government and the people of the United States: Henceforth there is to be no north, no south in American politics, but a common country of all for all.”

And a Depth of Sorrow

After evoking the national mood of shock and foreboding which swept the country following Lincoln’s bloody end, Douglass turned to the “one sentiment” he believed most pervasive in the country, the “sense of personal bereavement.” Why such great grief? he asked.

A Requiem for Abraham Lincoln
Frederick Douglass as a young man

“I affirm that it was not because the country had lost a president, but because the world had lost a man—one whose like we may not see again.” He [Lincoln] was thoroughly American and represented the best qualities of American citizens, Douglass said; thus, he was dearly loved.

As for Douglass himself, he recalled his personal relationship with Lincoln, noting again the President’s lack of condescension toward a black man, and his ability to put those he spoke with “at perfect Liberty.” Despite Lincoln’s affinity to colonization ideas for the black race, Douglass said, the President “soon outgrew his colonization ideas and schemes–and came to look upon the Blackman as an American citizen.”

May He Rest in Peace

As we all know, Douglass’ optimism about realizing the fruits of Lincoln’s emancipation of the slave was quickly dashed. Despite the momentous achievements of the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments (the 13th had already been passed by Congress before Lincoln’s death), blacks were soon denied the economic and political rights which they deserved as citizens of this republic.

The early years of Reconstruction had seen significant progress, including the election of 16 black Congressmen and hundreds of black state legislators. Schools were being opened under Federal auspices, and former slaves were tilling their own lands, under the policy initiated by General Sherman of “40 acres and a mule.” Yet the rise of terrorist attacks on blacks and their Republican advocates, and the reversal by President Johnson of the land redistribution and of military enforcement of civil rights for the formerly enslaved,[4] put the former slavocracy back into power, aborting much of the progress that had been achieved.

The first blacks elected to Congress

How then can we have confidence, or even hope, that Abraham Lincoln can indeed “rest in peace,” having accomplished what he set out to do?

When he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln left no doubt that he was taking the step that would define his legacy. “I never, in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” he said. “If my name ever goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”[5]

Lincoln was right. From that moment on, despite procrastination, compromises, betrayals, and last-minute appeals to bring the peace, Emancipation was here to stay, and Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. He had taken an act of courage according to his own strategic evaluation and conscience that he would not back down from. Vicious sabotage of his intent cannot erase the import of his historic action, much as his opponents from all sides of the political spectrum have tried.

True civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King, and countless other citizens, have taken heart from his example.

Abraham Lincoln, despite being a war president, was a man constantly seeking peace, eager to reconcile opposing parties, resolute against injustice, yet with “malice toward none.” The peace he sought was a principled peace, under which all would enjoy what he called the “ability to rise.”  That he made errors was to be expected; but he demonized no individuals or nations, but rather sought the greater good for all.

How desperately do we need these qualities in those seeking to lead our nation today!

As Douglass said, Lincoln’s actions, his very character, created a new era, one where the possibilities of realizing the commitments of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the Constitution were now alive and real. One hundred and fifty-seven years later, to our great shame, we have still not fulfilled those commitments. But we have before us the example of a man, a President, who can inspire us to courageously pursue the battle.

Lincoln on his deathbed

To study Abraham Lincoln’s thought and life is, in my view, to have access to the true source of optimism, the God-given quality of humble dedication to duty to our fellow man which can lead some souls to reach the Sublime. May we commemorate Abraham Lincoln in that spirit, not for his benefit, but for ours.

“Requiescat in pacem.”

[1] With Lincoln’s approval, Gen. Sherman launched a program of land distribution to the former slaves on January 16, 1865.  Special Field Order 15 opened up 400,000 acres to the black dispossessed in a policy later described as “40 acres and a mule.”

[2] Lincoln’s April 11 speech following Lee’s surrender expressed his hope for enfranchisement of those blacks who fought for the Union and the “more intelligent.”

[3] This concept appears again in Martin Luther King’s concept of the “promissory note” which American blacks were determined to “cash” with the civil right struggle.

[4] President Jackson reversed the “40 acres” policy in September of 1865. His broad pardoning of former Confederate landowners, along with guarantees of them getting their property back, created a horrendous situation for the formerly enslaved.

[5] Reported by Secretary of State Seward’s son Fred, who attended the signing ceremony.

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