The president’s last speech reached beyond the war to a peace he wouldn’t experience.
Despite the misty Washington weather, the White House was bathed in light on April 11, 1865, as thousands assembled to hear the president speak. Throughout the city, bonfires blazed and celebratory rockets whistled. Crowds had gathered here the day before, expecting a triumphal speech in the aftermath of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9 at Appomattox Court House, Va. A procession of some 2,000 Navy Yard workmen, dragging six boat howitzers that lobbed explosive shells into the sky, trekked across the city. The crowd swelled on its relentless march to the White House; bands played and revelers sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia” and other patriotic tunes. First to be sighted at the mansion’s second-floor window was not the president, but his 12-year-old son. Tad couldn’t resist a parade and, encouraged by the crowd’s cheering, he waved a captured Rebel fag. Quickly, noted Noah Brooks, the Washington correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union, “he was lugged back by the slack of his trousers by some discreet domestic.”
Lincoln had appeared twice on April 10. In the early afternoon, he gazed upon “an agitated sea of hats, faces and men’s arms,” Brooks recalled.
“I am greatly rejoiced that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people can’t restrain themselves,” Lincoln said to boisterous cheers. “I suppose arrangements are being made for some sort of formal demonstration, perhaps this evening or to-morrow night.”
“We can’t wait,” the crowd roared.
“If there should be such a demonstration, I, of course, will have to respond to it and I will have nothing to say if you dribble it out of me.”
The throng laughed and shouted, “We want to hear you now.”
Lincoln used the occasion to ask the band that had assembled to play a song. His choice was “Dixie” (“one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he said) and he joked that the Union would reappropriate it as a captured prize of war. Some listeners may have wondered whether in selecting the song he was signaling eventual reconciliation rather than mocking the defeated Confederacy. “The President understands well the power of national songs,” observed Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer, “and what is better, he uses it in the right time and for a good purpose.” Lincoln proposed three cheers for Gen. Ulysses Grant and his forces, and three more for the Union Navy, and retired from the scene to work on his remarks for the following day.
At 5:30 p.m., another crowd called on Lincoln, but again the president demurred, saying he planned to wait until the following evening when he “would be then that much better prepared to say what I have to say.” After all, he observed, everything he said found its way into print and he did not want to make a mistake that would harm the country.
“You have made no mistakes yet,” someone shouted.
One reporter thought Lincoln’s remarks as “unresolvable as the riddle of Sphinx…so carefully did he refrain from any opinion.”
The next day people were waiting “anxiously for the speech which the President has promised to make,” according to the Daily Age. The afternoon edition of the Daily Republican announced that the event was planned for 8 p.m. The notice presumed that bands again would be present. “But the music most desired by the nation at this hour of the country’s trial is a speech from the president,” noted the writer. “ If he speaks tonight he will speak to the people of the whole country who are anxiously listening to hear something from him.”
That evening, the north portico of the executive mansion was brightly illuminated. Men and women gathered and stood in ankle-deep mud from the April rains. Banners streamed and bands played. Mrs. Lincoln and some friends could be seen in a window adjoining the one where the president would appear. Writing several years later, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante, recalled a mass of heads like “a black, gently swelling sea…. Close to the house the faces were plainly discernible, but they faded into mere ghostly outlines on the outskirts of the assembly; and what added to the weird, spectral beauty of the scene, was the confused hum of voices that rose above the sea of forms.”
When Lincoln appeared the crowd greeted him with “tremendous and continued applause,” Brooks reported. The president chose to read from a prepared manuscript, “evidently so that there should be no chance for misconception of his views enunciated,” one reporter assumed. As the pages fell, Tad scurried about the floor gathering them up.
“We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart,” he began. Petersburg and Richmond had been evacuated. Only a week earlier, the president had walked through the streets of Richmond and had sat in Jefferson Davis’ chair at the Confederate White House. Since then, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered. “Hope of a righteous and speedy peace” now abounded.
Lincoln then turned to the subject of his speech: Reconstruction. Few expected the president to address such a weighty matter at this moment of celebration, but for Lincoln it was the central question. “The re-inauguration of the national authority—reconstruction—which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention,” he told the crowd,
Indeed, throughout the war Lincoln viewed Reconstruction not simply as an end in itself, but as a means of winning the war. In 1861 he had appointed military governors in North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas, and had recognized a restored government in Virginia. On December 8, 1863, he had issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction that provided a plan by which states in rebellion could be reorganized and restored to the nation, once a tenth of eligible voters established a loyal government and adopted a state constitution that abolished slavery.
Six times in his speech he used the phrase “proper practical relation” to describe what needed to be done to return rebellious states to the Union. It was typical Lincoln, who abjured theoretical debates. The argument over whether the rebellious states were in or out of the Union was “a pernicious abstraction,” he said.
Lincoln was especially anxious to have Louisiana, which had adopted a new constitution the previous year, formally restored—but Congress had refused in February to seat representatives elected from the state. Radical Republicans led by Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sought to slow the process and were instrumental in rejecting a new state government formed under military rule by only 10 percent of the eligible voters.
But Lincoln viewed the matter differently; 12,000 voters in Louisiana had sworn allegiance to the Union, held elections, organized a state government and adopted a constitution that abolished slavery and even provided for public schooling for blacks as well as whites. What could possibly be accomplished, he wondered, by discarding the new state government? How could this serve the public interest?
Lincoln conceded in the speech that the Louisiana government was only at the beginning of what it could potentially become. He publicly acknowledged for the first time a preference for bestowing the vote on selected freedmen—“the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers”—a privilege not specifically included in Louisiana’s constitution, though it did authorize the legislature to enfranchise blacks at its discretion.
Whatever the circumstances at that precise moment, Lincoln suggested that the new state government of Louisiana was “only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl” and asked whether “we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it?” Put differently, “can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”
Expressing his pragmatic and flexible approach to policy, Lincoln also assured listeners that “as bad promises are better broken than kept, I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest. But I have not yet been so convinced.”
Lincoln had taken his case for Reconstruction directly to the people. The tone was temperate yet firm in challenging the radicals who had prevented the readmission of Louisiana. At the same time, he nodded in their direction by supporting limited black suffrage.
He knew a struggle lay ahead. But Congress would not gather until December, and he had no inclination to call them back for an early session. Perhaps by year’s end his approach to Reconstruction would have been so far advanced Congress would dare not fail to ratify it. Sumner, no doubt, would still be an obstacle. Mary Todd Lincoln invited him to the White House to hear Lincoln’s speech and celebrate, but he declined. “I…was unwilling to put myself in the position of opposing him on his own balcony or assenting by silence,” he told Chase.
The first lady also invited Adolphe Pineton, Marquis de Chambrun, a French journalist visiting the United States. After the speech, she led him through the White House and when “we came opposite the President’s door, she threw it open without knocking,” he recalled. “There was Mr. Lincoln, stretched at full length, resting on a large sofa from his oratorical efforts….We exchanged several words on the subject of his address and the extremely moderate ideas which he had expressed therein. He spoke at length of the many struggles he foresaw in the future and declared his firm resolution to stand for clemency against all opposition.”
“The views of the president concerning reconstruction, as enunciated in his speech of the 11th April, are very animatedly discussed and meet with widely different comments from different people,” reported Noah Brooks, adding, “the speech was longer and of a different character from what most people had expected.”
Still, there was ample praise. The Philadelphia Press reported that the speech “gives universal satisfaction,” and believed “Radicals and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and in some cases even original Secessionists, are eulogizing it.
“The speech is from a lofty stand-point; it soars away above party; it is paternal as well as fraternal; it is Christian, and its spirit will be hailed with delight and responded to by almost the unanimous voice of the masses of the people, South as well as North,” predicted the Daily National Intelligencer.
Others were less generous. Even The New York Times, a pro-administration paper, reported that “those who expected from the President the statement of a settled reconstruction policy have been disappointed. His speech disclosed nothing new on that subject.” The editors tried to turn vice into virtue by stating that the “special characteristic of the speech was its reserve” and calling this “wisdom.”
The rival New York Tribune disagreed: “It is no criticism of the speech to say that it fell dead, wholly without effect, upon the audience.”
The Democratic New York World called it “vague and vacillating….Mr. Lincoln gropes in his speech like a traveler in an unknown country without a map.”
Many observers recognized that Lincoln’s speech challenged the Radicals. The Baltimore Sun claimed “the signs are unmistakable of an impending disagreement between what are called extremists and the administration, relative to the reconstruction policy. The breach is said to be widening, but the policy of the President seems most likely to win, and be accepted by the people as the most practicable one.”
Voicing the concerns of Radicals, Salmon P. Chase was not about to accept the president’s policy. After reading Lincoln’s speech, Chase wrote the president and insisted that the only way to have Congress extend to Louisiana its right to representation as a loyal state in the Union would be if the Louisiana legislature passed “an act extending suffrage to colored citizens.”
“So far as I can see, his speech has fallen very dead,” Sumner wrote Chase, but that was wishful thinking as much as reality.
The speech prompted discussion of several topics, including black voting rights. The president “briefly alluded to the question of negro suffrage at the South, which is soon to become one of the most important issues of reconstruction,” reported the Albany Evening Journal, which argued the franchise should be based on “patriotism and intelligence, and not upon birth, caste, or color.
“We propose to permit the Confederate soldier, who has been an armed foe of the fag, and of the principles it represents, to return to his forfeited allegiance and resume its immunities; shall we be less generous to the black who has stood for our banner upon the bloody field?” the editor asked.
In what might have been another exercise in wishful thinking, the Democratic press saw Lincoln’s comment on suffrage as little more than a “temporizing concession” to the Radicals.
Lincoln should have told them, advised the New York World, that “the qualifications of voters in the states is a subject in which the federal government cannot intermeddle without a plain violation of the Constitution.”
“Because States Rights run mad have brought on this war is no reason States Rights should be ignored,” observed the New York Herald.
Lincoln’s lengthy defense of Louisiana seemed to devolve into the egg/fowl analogy, and opponents of recognizing the state government, whether Radical Republicans or Democrats, found ways to turn the metaphor to their advantage. The New York Tribune observed that “one sentiment in the whole of [the speech] was applauded— that which favored getting of chickens by hatching eggs instead of smashing them. This figure of speech in behalf of the Louisiana scheme of reconstruction provoked great laughter from a portion of the crowd.”
“But if it should happen that these eggs are cockatrices eggs, what then?” the New York Evening Post asked. “No egg is better than a rotten one or ones filled with the germs of snakes and monsters.”
The New York Sun called the president “facetious” and asked, “What would Mr. Lincoln say if a young hawk or buzzard emerged from the egg he so carefully watched over?”
While it was easy to mock the analogy, Lincoln’s audience was not newspaper editors or even politicians, but the public at large. As the New York Commercial Advertiser opined, Lincoln “places the question before them in language as homely yet as expressive as his own countenance….The war-worn people, depend upon it, will say hatch rather than smash, and will rally around the Executive, rather than follow what Mr. Lincoln last night called ‘some vague and undefined when, where and how’.”
Lincoln had ended the speech by declaring “in the present ‘situation’ as the phrase goes, it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South.” But he would not be given the chance.
Two men, lingering toward the front of the grounds, could not bear what they heard. John Wilkes Booth tried to persuade Lewis Powell to shoot the president as he stood in the window, but Powell refused to take the chance. They departed and, as they walked away, Booth remarked, “that is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later, he made good on his boast.
We can never know what would have happened had Lincoln lived, but one writer was not alone in his grief when he predicted “the development of things will teach us to mourn him doubly.”
Adapted from Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion, by Louis P. Masur (Oxford University Press, 2015)