JUDY WOODRUFF: President Abraham Lincoln died 150 years ago today. He had been shot by actor John Wilkes Booth while watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital. His assassination came just five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the main Confederate forces in Appomattox, Virginia, ending four years of civil war, with over 750,000 casualties, two events with long-lasting effects.
Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.
JEFFREY BROWN: When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, and the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
Walt Whitman wrote those famous lines about the death of Abraham Lincoln.
We take our own look at that moment and the legacy of the Civil War.
We’re joined by Martha Hodes, a professor of history at New York University and the author of the recently published “Mourning Lincoln.” James McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, his new book is “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.” And Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”
And, Martha Hodes, I want to start with you.
Is it possible to speak of one reaction to Lincoln’s assassination? What happened in the days that followed?
MARTHA HODES, Author, “Mourning Lincoln“: Well, it isn’t possible to speak of one reaction.
African-Americans, both North and South, and white Northerners felt that there was one reaction. They felt the whole country was in shock and in grief, but in fact they knew that there were other people who were not responding as they were responding, Confederates, Lincoln’s Northern enemies, the Copperheads. Even some members of Lincoln’s own party were relieved that he had been assassinated because they thought he would be too lenient on the Confederates.
James McPherson, you know, we look at President Lincoln through the shroud of time. Who was he? Who did you come to see him at, at his death?
JAMES MCPHERSON, Author, “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters”: Well, Lincoln was a master politician. Politics was in his blood. It had been from the time he was a young man.
And as president of the United States and commander in chief of the Army, he wielded this political experience in a way that could unite the country on behalf of the war, to save the Union and eventually to abolish slavery. I think it all stems from his shrewdness and his skill as a politician.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Isabel Wilkerson, you would write about the aftermath of all of this for so many African-Americans. What about in that first period, in those first days?
ISABEL WILKERSON, Author, “The Warmth of Other Suns”: Well, in those first days, there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty and yet hopefulness that somehow, after so many generations of having been enslaved, that this would finally be the moment after the war that there would be this opportunity truly to be free and to partake of the country that they had helped to build.
It’s important to recognize that, at this particular moment, African-Americans had been enslaved for 246 years, 12 generations. So that was a long buildup of hopefulness and uncertainty about what the future would hold.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so now let’s try to build out from some of these things, Martha Hodes, with you first.
When you think about the legacy, all that came afterwards, from the war, you were looking at personal stories, right, in your work? Did you see things already that kind of stayed as themes through time, even up to our own time?
MARTHA HODES: Yes.
What I found was, at the moment Lincoln’s assassination, those hours, days and weeks right afterwards, which is a time that people haven’t explored deeply — and that’s the reading I did in all these personal source — those responses foretold clashing visions of the nation’s future, and we see the legacies of that today.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was there already?
MARTHA HODES: It was there already, right from the start.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what kinds of clashes were most obvious from the start?
MARTHA HODES: Well, the question of black freedom was very, very important. So African-Americans and their white allies wanted more than freedom. They wanted equality. They wanted suffrage. They wanted land and education, and they wanted that with federal enforcement.
The former Confederates wanted their own political rights back. White Southerners wanted to be back the political process again, and they wanted no federal interference, and that’s a legacy that we see to this day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, James McPherson, you wrote in your recent book about one of the things that Lincoln did was take this plural idea, the United States are, and turn it into a singular, the United States is, one nation.
Pick up — explain that. Was that there from the beginning? Was it an easy path?
JAMES MCPHERSON: Well, the United States, on the eve of the Civil War, was a federation of independent and quasi-independent sovereignties, which we know as states.
The federal government was superior in some ways, but it didn’t touch the lives of many people, except with the post office. And, at the beginning of the war, the idea in the North was to preserve the Union, this union of states. And, in fact, Lincoln’s language in his early wartime papers and addresses reflected that. He talked about restoring the Union.
But, as time went on, the idea was that this was a nation, not merely a union of states, but a nation. That’s what the war accomplished, the transformation of the United States from a union and from a plural noun, the United States are a republic, to a singular noun, the United States is a powerful nation.
That was Lincoln’s major contribution. That was Lincoln’s major legacy. And the strength of that nation was then invoked to free the slaves, and in the 14th and 15th Amendments after the Civil War to grant them civil and political equality.
JEFFREY BROWN: Isabel Wilkerson, a nation, a sense of a moment of possibility that you were speaking of a little earlier, right after the war, and yet so much pain still to come for so many people, as you document, later.
ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, absolutely.
There were — there was that 12-year period of time that we call Reconstruction, that brief window of opportunity, in which there — we often think of civil rights legislation applying to the 20th century, but the civil rights legislation, as the professor mentioned, of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment, which were to have secured the rights, the new rights for the newly freed people, ended up only being recognized for an all-too-brief period of time, and then set in motion.
After the doors had been opened, they were quickly slammed shut with the introduction of what would be called the Jim Crow caste system, in which there were rules and laws and customs that repressed the efforts of these newly freed people just as they were beginning to hope for something better.
And this set in motion essentially 90 years of repressive laws, of what we think of as the water fountains and the restrooms, would have been just the beginning of it. But every aspect of life for people was restricted and could be punished with severity, meaning the lynchings that would occur at one point every four days in the American South.
JEFFREY BROWN: I just want to go around to all three of you briefly, if I could, because there’s so much fascination.
I will start with you, Isabel Wilkerson. We will go in reverse order here.
There was so much — there is so much fascination with this period. And I wonder why, for you personally, you’re so interested in looking at the Civil War and its legacy.
ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, I think it’s the fulcrum of the identity of our country. It’s the — and it was a moment at which people very passionate about how they felt about our country were making choices about and arguing and willing to fight and die for what the country was supposed to be, who — what we are as a country, who could be a citizen of our country, what did the country stand for, and what was it going to be going forward.
And I think that we — because we are still dealing with the long shadow of that war and of the consequences of that war and the unresolved questions of that war, it still haunts us to this day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, James McPherson, I was interested in reading your recent book, where you look back at your younger self, right, when you first got interested in this.
JAMES MCPHERSON: Well, I was a graduate student in Baltimore in the late 1950s and early 1960s at Johns Hopkins University.
Those were the years of the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Freedom Riders, extended into the early 1960s, Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
I was struck by the parallels between the time in which I was living and the events of exactly 100 years earlier, a confrontation between North and South, between the national government and Southern political leaders vowing massive resistance to national law, federal troops being sent into the South to enforce national law.
There was a kind of deja vu about what was going on in my own time, and I decided that I need to learn about the historical roots of my own world, my own time and place. And those historical roots were in the Civil War era.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Martha Hodes, a final brief last word?
MARTHA HODES: Absolutely.
The resonances of the Civil War are so deeply with us today. And when I teach the Civil War, my students are so amazed at how those resonances are available all around them in the present day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right there in the headlines.
MARTHA HODES: Absolutely, right there in the headlines.
JEFFREY BROWN: Martha Hodes, Isabel Wilkerson, James McPherson, thank you, all three, very much.
ISABEL WILKERSON: Thank you.
MARTHA HODES: Thank you.
JAMES MCPHERSON: Thank you.