One hundred and fifty eight years ago, President Abraham Lincoln gave Last public address. This speech was delivered just two days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. In this speech, he addressed the crowd gathered outside the White House, which was celebrating the Union victory. Lincoln focused on the social, legal, and political problems of Reconstruction, on the process of returning the seceded states to their “proper practical relations with the Union.” Throughout the war, Lincoln maintained that the rebellious states never technically left the Union: the conflict was an internal rebellion, not an external war between independent countries. But if that were the case, would the federal government have the constitutional authority to dictate to the states and change their internal or local social arrangements, including their treatment of African Americans? If this had not happened, would the Union have been able to achieve its military objectives? These issues became key issues dividing Lincoln and radical Republicans in Congress.
Both sides also disagreed as to whether the President or Congress should lead the Reconstruction, and whether the terms should be more punitive, as the Radicals wanted, or more lenient, as Lincoln insisted. Lincoln used the newly reconstructed state of Louisiana as a model for his redevelopment plan. He also supported limited black suffrage and civil rights.
John Wilkes Booth was listening in the audience that evening. Outraged by Lincoln’s plan for the freed people, Booth swore that this was Lincoln’s last speech. Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater three days later on April 14, 1865.
You can read more about Lincoln’s writings on emancipation, reconstruction, and secession in our latest volume. Abraham Lincolnavailable in our bookstore.
We meet this evening not in sadness, but in heartfelt joy. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and the surrender of the main rebel army give hope for a righteous and speedy peace, the joyful expression of which cannot be contained. However, in the midst of this; The one from whom all blessings come should not be forgotten. A national thanksgiving call is in preparation and will be made public in due course. We must not lose sight of those whose difficult part gives us cause for joy. Their honors should not be shared with others. I myself was not far from the front and had great pleasure in conveying to you most of the good news; but no part of the credit for the plan or execution belongs to me. Everything belongs to General Grant, his able officers and brave men. The valiant fleet was ready, but could not take an active part.
Thanks to these recent successes, the renaissance of national power—reconstruction—which attracted much attention from the beginning, is now drawing our attention much more closely. This is fraught with great difficulties. Unlike a war between independent nations, we do not have an authorized body with which we could negotiate – no person has the right to refuse to rebel in favor of another person. We just have to start and form from unorganized and uncoordinated elements. A considerable additional difficulty is caused by the fact that we, faithful people, differ among ourselves in the methods, methods and measures of reconstruction. As a general rule, I refrain from reading posts about attacks on myself, not wanting to be provoked by something that I cannot properly respond to. However, in spite of this precaution, I became aware that I was being heavily criticized for some alleged agency creating and attempting to maintain the new government of Louisiana.
In this I have done exactly as much and no more than the public knows. In the annual message of December, 1863, and in the proclamation accompanying it, I presented, as they say, a plan of reconstruction, which I promised, if accepted by any state, would be acceptable and supported by the executive government of the country. I have made it clear that this is not the only plan that could be acceptable, and I have also protested clearly that the executive branch does not claim the right to decide when and whether members of such states should be admitted to seats in Congress. This plan was presented in advance to the then cabinet and clearly approved by each of its members. One of them suggested that I should then and in this connection apply the Emancipation Proclamation to the previously excluded parts of Virginia and Louisiana; that I should refuse the offer of an apprenticeship for liberated people, and that I should omit the protest against my own authority in regard to the admission of members to Congress. But even he approved of every part of the plan that has since been used or affected by Louisiana’s actions.
Louisiana’s new constitution, which proclaims the emancipation of the entire state, practically applies the proclamation to the previously excluded portion. He does not accept apprenticeships for freedmen and is silent, as it could not be otherwise, about the admission of members to the Congress. So, as far as Louisiana is concerned, every member of the cabinet fully approved of the plan. The message was sent to Congress, and I received many approvals of the plan, written and oral, and I was not aware of a single objection to it from any professing emancipation until word reached Washington that the people of Louisiana began move in accordance with it. From about July 1862, I corresponded with various people who were supposed to be interested in re-establishing the government of Louisiana. When the 1863 message with the previously mentioned plan reached New Orleans, General Banks wrote to me that he was confident that the people, with his military assistance, would be substantially reorganized according to this plan. I wrote to him and some of them to try. Tried, the result is known. This was my only contribution to the creation of the government of Louisiana.
As far as maintaining it, my promise is not being kept, as stated earlier. But since bad promises are better broken than kept, I will treat this as a bad promise and break it whenever I am convinced that keeping it is contrary to the public interest; but I was not yet so convinced. I was shown a letter on the subject, considered to be competent, in which the author expresses his regret that my mind does not appear to have been definitely fixed on the question whether the so-called seceding states are in or out of the Union. this. Perhaps his regret would have been even more amazement if he had known that, since I discovered that conscientious representatives of the Union were trying to ask this question, I had deliberately refrained from any public expression on this subject. It seems to me that the matter was not, and still is not, practically essential, and that any discussion of it, so long as it thus remains practically unimportant, could have nothing but the pernicious effect of dividing our friends. In the meantime, whatever it becomes in the future, this question is bad as a basis for a dispute and generally good for nothing – just a harmful abstraction.
We are all agreed that the so-called seceding states have gone out of their proper practical relations with the Union, and that the only purpose of the government, civil and military, in regard to these states is to put them back into proper practical relations. . I think that it is not only possible but easier to do this without deciding or even considering whether these states have ever been outside the Union than with it. Once they were safe at home, it wouldn’t matter if they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restore proper practical relations between these states and the Union, and each one after that innocently indulge in his own opinion, whether he brought the states from outside into the Union by acts, or only gave them proper help, they never were not aloof. The number of electors, so to speak, on which the new government of Louisiana rests, would be more satisfactory to all if it consisted of 50,000, or 30,000, or even 20,000, and not only about 12,000, as is the case. Some are also unhappy that the right to vote is not given to a colored man. I myself would prefer it now to be awarded to the very intelligent and those who serve our cause as soldiers.
However, the question is not whether Louisiana’s current government is entirely desirable. The question is, would it be wiser to take it as it is and help improve it, or reject it and disperse it! How soon can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relations with the Union by retaining or rejecting her new state government! About 12,000 voters in the formerly slave state of Louisiana swore allegiance to the Union, considered the state’s legitimate political power, held elections, organized a state government, adopted a free state constitution that gave public school benefits to black and white alike, and empowered the legislature to grant voting rights to a person of color. Their legislature has already voted to ratify a constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress to abolish slavery nationwide. Thus, these 12,000 people are fully committed to the Union and eternal freedom in the state – committed to just that and almost everything that the nation wants – and they ask the nation for recognition and its help in order to fulfill their obligation.
Now, if we reject and reject them, we do our best to disorganize and disperse them. We are essentially saying to the white person: you are worth nothing, or worse; we will neither help you nor help you. To the blacks we say: this cup of freedom which these old masters of yours hold to your lips, we will beat out of you and give you a chance to collect the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and indefinite place, when, where and how. If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both whites and blacks, has any intention of bringing Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I still have not been able to understand it. If, on the contrary, we recognize and support the new government of Louisiana, then the opposite becomes true. We call upon the hearts and nerves of the 12,000 hands to stick to their work, and stand for it, and preach for it, and fight for it, and nourish it, and nurture it, and mature to full success. A colored person, too, seeing that everything is one for him, is inspired by vigilance, energy and courage towards the same goal. Let us suppose that he desires the right to vote, but will he not achieve it sooner by keeping the steps already taken towards it than by running back through them! Agree that the new government of Louisiana is what it should be, like an egg for a hen, we’d rather get a hen by hatching an egg than by breaking one.
Again, if we reject Louisiana, we also reject one vote in favor of the proposed amendment to the national constitution. It was argued that for this proposal to be satisfied, no more than three-fourths of those states that did not attempt to secede needed to actually ratify the amendment. I object to this no further than to say that such ratification would be doubtful, and will necessarily be constantly questioned, while ratification by three-fourths of all the States would be unquestionable and unquestionable. I repeat the question: Can Louisiana be quickly brought into proper practical relations with the Union by keeping or rejecting her new state government! What has been said about Louisiana generally applies to other states. And yet each state has such great peculiarities, and such important and sudden changes occur in the same state, and at the same time the whole case is so new and unprecedented, that it is impossible to prescribe with certainty any exceptional and unchanging plan for details and side effects. Such an exclusive and inflexible plan is sure to become a new confusing situation. Important principles can and should remain the same. In the current situation, as they say, it may be my duty to do something new for the people of the South. I consider and will not fail to act when I am sure that the action will be right.