Lincoln was intent on seeing his Louisiana experiment through but also hoped to work with the Radicals. He had played a crucial role in the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment by a somewhat reluctant House of Representatives. In his last public address, on 11 April, before the White House, he pleaded for saving the Louisiana government that congressional Radicals opposed: "Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it."
What the fowl was to look like he indicated by expressing his personal preference for giving the franchise to blacks who were educated, or propertied, or were Union veterans. How far he was to go beyond that, or with what speed, we do not know, but his course would have depended in no small part on what he judged to be attainable. The direction he took was clear, and though he knew each state to be unique, in his last address he also explained that "what has been said of Louisiana will apply to other states."
Lincoln knew and prized the achievement of black soldiers against heavy odds, which he could not always readily lighten. As early as 1863, he had spoken glowingly of the black man who "with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, . . . helped mankind" to the great consummation of freedom. Blacks had fought in more than 190 battles, and about 68,000 black soldiers and sailors had been killed or wounded. Twenty-one blacks won the Congressional Medal of Honor. A black regiment was the first to march into Richmond when the Confederate capital fell, and Lincoln toured the city escorted by black cavalry. No one could misunderstand the significance of his escort. For the postwar era Lincoln was determined to bring both political and economic advancement to blacks. His commitment to black freedom fit into a larger commitment to a democratic, capitalist America. And so his postwar response to black needs would have also depended in no small part on his response to the coming Gilded Age.
Reconstruction for Lincoln meant more than providing a place for blacks in "a new birth of freedom," central though that issue was. He was also concerned with southern whites, even the former slaveholder, and as late as 1865, he gave serious attention to compensating slaveholders. During the war years his numerous peace feelers and reconstruction schemes included strong appeals to the economic interests of the Confederates. He assumed, somewhat naively for a time of bitter war, that materialist enticements could seduce the South into peace. This assumption largely explains the absurdly vast amount of time he devoted to the problems of trading with the Confederacy (the corruption it bred notwithstanding), especially in cotton. The same was true of his secret feelers about the federal takeover of the Confederate war debt (obliquely attacked in the Wade-Davis Manifesto), his persistent offers for large-scale compensation for slaves, his lack of enthusiasm for congressional laws of confiscation, and perhaps even the unrealistic presidential request that the Pacific Railroad be built on the five-foot gauge used primarily in the South.
After the war ended, such economic incentives were likely to have more substantial effects. The blueprint that Congress created during the war for a modern nation was also a blueprint for the new, reconstructed America. Lincoln not only tried to help set the tone for it—though unsuccessfully in the field of labor relations—but in crucial instances he made vital contributions to the revolution that changed the government's role in the American economy. He Whiggishly stayed in the background as a rule, letting Congress shape legislation, but when he was needed, as in the case of the establishment of the national banking system and of the Department of Agriculture, he brought the full weight of the presidency to bear. He also encouraged movement toward graduated income taxes (though such taxes were later declared unconstitutional); uniform paper currency (the greenbacks); higher tariff protection for American industry; internal improvements, notably the Pacific Railroad; immigration; the Land Grant College (or Morrill) Act (1862); and the Homestead Act (1862), which provided free homesteads of 160 acres for those who would work the land in the West for five years. The net result, as the president reported while calling for the support of immigration, was that the nation "was beginning a new life."
Nowhere would this new life be more beneficial than in the war-ravaged South. There, Lincoln knew, more than in the rest of the country, the interests of blacks and whites were intertwined, and he had come to nurture a faith that the two races would learn to cooperate. Emancipation, Lincoln believed, did not merely liberate the blacks but also the whites. It made the American dream also a southern dream, with a resultant prosperity for all. In the midst of the hatreds of war, he took pleasure, in private, in creating a "word painting of what the South would be when the war was over, slavery destroyed, and she had an opportunity to develop her resources." Long after one of Lincoln's treasury officials had heard him dream thus, the official found himself listening to a new breed of southerner advocating economic development and a "New South." The official experienced a flash of memory that came with "the vividness of an electric light," as he "recognized the word-picture of Mr. Lincoln.. . ."
The war had been won, the Union saved. But the Union to Lincoln had not been an end but a means. It had to be upheld, as he had explained in 1861, as it held "that thing for which the Union itself was made." The Union was a ship, and its cargo "the prosperity and the liberties of the people. . . . So long as the ship can be saved, with the cargo, it should never be abandoned."
The idea of a Union is essentially national; that of democracy, the American Dream, the right to rise in the world, is universal. One historical view prizes the Civil War as a "war for nationality" and makes Lincoln into the "Great Nationalist" of the modern historians, a man who had a religious faith in the Union. Another view cherishes him as an American Moses or Christ, one who spoke to mankind.
The first view denies the uniqueness of the United States and sees Lincoln as a New World counterpart of those Europeans whose highest goal was the building of a nation—almost as an end in itself. In contrast, Lincoln's dream helped lead America to the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In March 1865, at his second inaugural, Lincoln delivered another speech that might be described as one of the finest in the English language. He again looked ahead:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.. . .
With malice toward none, with charity for all, . . . let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Six weeks later, on the night of 14 April 1865, Good Friday, the president was shot while attending a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington. He died nine hours later. He thus did not live to see how difficult it would be to create a "new life," a "new birth of freedom," in a new America.