On the evening of 11 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Washington about black suffrage. The Civil War had been over for a week. Lincoln had already walked the streets of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, taking in the devastation at first hand. ‘The only people who showed themselves were negroes,’ the radical senator Charles Sumner noted. The president had been thinking about what would happen after the war since 1862, when his generals began to seize swathes of Confederate territory, but had stubbornly resisted the idea that emancipated slaves would have to be given the vote to consolidate their freedom. Perhaps what he saw in Richmond changed his mind: the eerie absence of the city’s white inhabitants confirmed what Sumner saw as ‘the utter impossibility of any organisation which is not founded on the votes of negroes’. When Lincoln spoke from the White House balcony a week later, he was characteristically cautious. He didn’t advocate universal suffrage for blacks and suggested that the vote might only be ‘conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers’. For some in the audience, this was more than enough. ‘That means nigger citizenship,’ John Wilkes Booth told his companions. Three nights later, he followed the president to Ford’s Theatre and shot him in the head.
LRB 1 December 2011 | PDF Download