Louis Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion (Oxford University Press, April 2015).
JF: What led you to write Lincoln’s Last Speech?
LM: I was invited to deliver a lecture in which I speculated about what would have happened had Lincoln lived. That led me to reread his final speech, delivered three days before his assassination, which is devoted almost entirely to his plans for reconstruction. From there I worked back to the beginning of the war and realized that there was a story about Lincoln and wartime reconstruction that has not been fully told.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Last Speech?
LM: The book argues that reconstruction did not begin in 1865, or even 1863 when Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, but rather from the very start of the war when consideration of how the seceded states would return to the Union became both a means and an end toward winning the war. The book’s epigraph, from Shakespeare, “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentlest gamester is the soonest winner,” offers another argument about Lincoln’s approach to reconstruction, one in which he desired justice but also mercy.
JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Last Speech?
LM: The book helps us to understand reconstruction in a new way and offers a portrait of Lincoln that focuses on his efforts to restore the Union.
LM: I majored in history and English in college and when I graduated I applied to law school and graduate school. When I was offered a scholarship to graduate school I decided to go because I thought that whatever happened on the job market, and at that time in the early 1980s there was an employment crisis, I would have the personal satisfaction of earning a doctoral degree and publishing a book.
JF: What is your next project?
LM: I’m undecided about my next project. This is my second Lincoln book, and it is hard to leave him behind, but I have written on a range of topics in my career and I plan to move onto something else. I am not sure what just yet.