Abraham Lincoln’s Last Public Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Two days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate States Army, President Abraham Lincoln stood at the White House and addressed a tremendous crowd that had come to hear the president’s thoughts on the end of the Civil War. Lincoln shared with the throng his ideas for postwar reconstruction of the South. He also discussed his thoughts on the next course of action to reconcile the differences between the North and South, which included bringing Louisiana back into the Union. Furthermore, Lincoln made a controversial statement on his preference for giving black Americans the right to vote. Lincoln’s speech, particularly his comments on black suffrage, was not well received by his opponents, including John Wilkes Booth, who was on hand during the speech and who would assassinate Lincoln in only a matter of days.

Summary Overview

Two days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate States Army, President Abraham Lincoln stood at the White House and addressed a tremendous crowd that had come to hear the president’s thoughts on the end of the Civil War. Lincoln shared with the throng his ideas for postwar reconstruction of the South. He also discussed his thoughts on the next course of action to reconcile the differences between the North and South, which included bringing Louisiana back into the Union. Furthermore, Lincoln made a controversial statement on his preference for giving black Americans the right to vote. Lincoln’s speech, particularly his comments on black suffrage, was not well received by his opponents, including John Wilkes Booth, who was on hand during the speech and who would assassinate Lincoln in only a matter of days.

Defining Moment

On April 9, 1865, the Union Army had effectively cut off General Lee from the rest of the Confederate Army, having driven him out of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Lee and his twenty-eight thousand troops, constantly harassed by the pursuing Union Army and lacking food and supplies, had no choice but to surrender. Lee and his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, met inside Appomattox Court House, just east of Lynchburg, Virginia. After hearing and agreeing to Grant’s terms, Lee and his men were given a meal and were allowed to return to the South as private citizens once more. Grant turned to his officers and told them, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”

The surrender of Lee and his men understandably caused great jubilation across the nation, as four years of violence, bloodshed, and fear had come to an end. It also turned a page in American history, as the attention of the American people turned to reconciliation with the former secessionist Confederate states. President Lincoln was in the unenviable position of both welcoming the joy of the war’s end and planning for the immediate next steps with regard to the South. As word quickly spread of Lee’s surrender, attention turned to the president and his plans for the reunited country.

On the morning of April 11, two days after the events at Appomattox, the loud reports of celebratory cannon fire from the Washington Navy Yard attracted a crowd of revelers. The rapidly growing crowd, carrying six large cannons with it, moved through the muddy streets of the city. The group approached the White House, anticipating Lincoln’s first public words since the surrender. Lincoln came to the window above the main doors of the White House and offered his thoughts on both reconciliation with and the reconstruction of the South.

Lincoln’s address to the celebrants who gathered on the White House lawn included some policies he was developing, with regard not only to the South but also to the recently emancipated slaves. These proposals would not sit well with people such as Confederate sympathizer Booth. Lincoln told the audience that another, more formal announcement on the ideas he had just introduced would be coming shortly. After Lincoln’s speech, Booth told Lewis Powell, a coconspirator, “That is the last speech he will ever make.”

Author Biography

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky, to parents Thomas Lincoln (a farmer and frontiersman) and Nancy Hanks (who died when Abraham was only nine years old). Lincoln and his father moved through the frontier several times after Nancy’s death, first to Indiana and later to Illinois. Lincoln’s childhood education was basic, a product of his upbringing in the rural areas of the Midwest. For example, his school in Indiana was a log cabin. His father assisted in Lincoln’s education. Although his education was limited, young Lincoln developed a love for literature that continued throughout his life. As he grew older, he also gained a strong interest in law.

In 1832, the twenty-three-year-old Lincoln joined the army as a volunteer during the Black Hawk War. He was elected captain of his unit within months of joining and remained involved until the end of the conflict. After the war, Lincoln explored a number of business activities, including work on a riverboat and at his father’s store, before he set up a law practice in New Salem, Illinois.

Lincoln soon pursued elected office. He was defeated in his first campaign for the Illinois state legislature. He remained involved in government until his next campaign opportunity, holding a number of local appointed positions, such as surveyor and postmaster. He also continued to practice law from his own office. In 1834, he successfully campaigned for the state legislature and was reelected three times thereafter. After retiring from the state legislature, he returned to Springfield, Illinois, where he had established a new law practice after passing the Illinois bar. In 1842, he married Mary Todd, with whom he would have four children, although only one would survive into adulthood.

In 1847, Lincoln was elected, as a member of the Whig Party, to the US House of Representatives, a post he held for one term. In 1855, he ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate. He tried again in 1858, this time as a Republican. In 1860, undaunted by his previous electoral defeats, Lincoln ran successfully for president on the Republican ticket. He was reelected in 1864.

President Lincoln’s 1861–65 tenure was marked not just by his Civil War accomplishments. He also helped build the Republican Party, unify the Northern Democrats, bring an end to slavery, and improve relations with the Indians on the American frontier. During his second term, he led the effort to reconcile the nation’s relationship with the secessionist South. However, he was unable to complete his work as president: On April 14, 1865, while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After three days of lying in state in the US Capitol rotunda, he was interred at Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield.

Document Analysis

Lincoln begins his speech by speaking directly to events that had unfolded only a few days earlier. General Grant’s troops were successful in driving the Confederates from Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, cornering General Lee’s men and forcing them to surrender. Lincoln says that he was near the front, witnessing firsthand the Union Army’s campaign and transmitting the news to the rest of the United States. However, he insists, he played no part in the army’s accomplishments at Appomattox. The honors and recognition, he states, must be bestowed upon Grant and his men.

Lincoln says that what occurred at Appomattox warrants a national celebration, and that the crowd at the White House was there “in gladness of heart” for this accomplishment, for it brought about a quick and “righteous” end to the conflict. This success, he says, deserves a “joyous expression” that cannot be understated. In fact, he says, a national day of thanksgiving was being planned and would soon be established.

Although the Appomattox surrender warranted a national celebration, Lincoln adds, a much more difficult task was at hand in the wake of the war’s end. The end of the war reestablished the government in Washington, DC, as the “national authority.” This “re-inauguration” of the federal government’s authority over the whole country was to be focused on the reconstruction of the United States. However, how Reconstruction (which came to be used as a proper noun to refer to the whole postwar period) was to proceed was a major challenge. Reconciliation with the South had been on the minds of Lincoln and his leadership team since the war began, he says, but now that the war had come to a close, the government needed to act quickly on this issue.

The task of reconciliation and reconstruction was particularly daunting to the American government because there had never before been a conflict like the Civil War, Lincoln says. Independent warring nations were always able to reconcile using treaties, he adds, but there was no vehicle for the US government to use to bring back into the Union the former Confederate states. It would be enough of a challenge to convince the Southern states (and their citizens) to give up their rebellion. There was no single approach, nor a single entity with which to engage on the subject of reconciliation. Lincoln says that the government would need to deal with each entity on an individual basis. If that approach was successful, it could be used as a model for addressing other Southern entities.

Compounding the issue, Lincoln says, was the fact that not every Northern leader had the same ideas about how to address Reconstruction. There would almost certainly be a diversity of views on how to proceed, and Lincoln says that it is no “small additional embarrassment” that the country’s leaders are not in agreement on the issue. His argument was not based on a desire to control the nation’s policy on Reconstruction. Rather, he is speaking to what he sees as divisive political forces that may actually undermine the entire process.

One major area where Lincoln saw political difficulties was the subject of Louisiana. As he states in the speech, many states and regions in the postwar South would require a different approach for reconciliation. In 1863, Lincoln–in his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconciliation–had offered the Southern states an opportunity to reintegrate. If 10 percent of the voters in each state followed the rules of emancipation and took an oath of allegiance to the Union, their respective states could be reinstated in the United States, with a full pardon to all its residents. Louisiana, however, had already taken the oath and emancipated its slaves, giving that state a large number of free black citizens under a Unionist government. Seeking to solidify Louisiana’s support for the Union during the war, Lincoln reached out to Governor Michael Hahn to broach the subject of allowing black suffrage.

The fact that Lincoln made this move set off a backlash in the North. Many in Congress (including South-friendly members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party) bristled at his overtures, deciding that it was best to wait until after the war before returning to this hot-button issue. With the war’s end, the divisive rhetoric returned, and the Louisiana issue took center stage.

Lincoln is defensive of his actions during the war, stating that his proposal to Hahn was not made in secret. In fact, he says, when he was presenting his ideas for Reconstruction to Congress in 1863 (referring to the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconciliation), he “distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable,” adding that the executive would not interfere in any way in the states’ congressional elections. Furthermore, he states, Louisiana made the decision to emancipate its slaves and follow the guidelines of the proclamation on its own accord. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s own cabinet approved of the proclamation, and, he adds, many members of Congress commended Lincoln’s proposal.

Furthermore, Lincoln says, there were a number of cabinet and congressional leaders who offered what they deemed improvements to the proclamation–modifications that would have both given more power to Lincoln and applied the Emancipation Proclamation–the landmark declaration bestowing freedom to the slaves of the rebellious Southern states–to states such as Louisiana and Virginia. Put simply, the well-intentioned suggestions of these leaders would likely have generated more controversy than what Lincoln had initially offered. The controversial suggestions were not integrated, but Louisiana continued its policy of emancipation. In fact, Louisiana had gone further than the Emancipation Proclamation had: the new state constitution in Louisiana unilaterally declared emancipation and did away with mandatory apprenticeships for former slaves as well.

Lincoln’s comments on Louisiana underscore the hazards of eliminating the practice of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation did not grant unlimited freedom to all slaves, nor did it provide any sort of guidance for the integration of freed slaves into society. Lincoln says that much of the responsibility for addressing the issue of freed slaves fell to the states that reintegrated. Louisiana simply granted their slaves freedom in the constitution they sent to Washington, DC. In fact, the constitution included another major omission: it was, as Lincoln states, “silent” on the subject of former slaves’ right to vote. Lincoln tells the crowd that, despite this omission, Congress approved the constitution, with some members even forwarding commendations for the document’s language.

Despite the fact that Louisiana took it upon itself to emancipate its slaves in this manner and that Congress overwhelmingly approved that state’s constitution, Lincoln continued to receive criticism. He continued to communicate with the government of Louisiana during that state’s reconstruction. Lincoln says he had his doubts about the sincerity of Louisiana’s convictions and the viability of its plan, but he refrained from interceding further. Nevertheless, Congress and other leaders, faced with the reality that the state had chosen its own course and potentially allowed for black suffrage, chose to criticize Lincoln for his continued communication with Louisiana’s government.

Next, Lincoln speaks to the question of how the states that seceded before and during the war could be reintegrated into the Union. He tells his audience that he was criticized in a letter from a citizen for his stance (or rather his lack thereof) on how and if the states were to be returned to the United States. The issue had long been simmering in Washington, DC. Some believed that the former Confederate states should follow the example of Louisiana, establishing a system of self-government that was both loyal to and represented by the federal government. Others, however, argued that the seceded states should be placed under strict federal control, with all aspects of social services and the economy in the hands of the federal government.

With regard to this question, Lincoln insists that he has no set opinion on the specific form of government the former Confederate states should establish. He clearly understands that there are political motivations for asking this question and states that he finds such a question irrelevant at the time. In the future, the question of the federal government’s role in these reintegrated states will be worthy of exploration, he says. However, he adds, the at this early stage of the postwar period, asking such a question only creates divisions in state and federal government and is “good for nothing at all.”

Lincoln’s refusal to definitively answer the question of the states’ relationship with the federal government was in line with the ongoing question of the states’ overall status as members of the Union. He says that there is no disagreement that the seceded states had come “out of their proper practical relation with the Union” and that the role of every level of government is to bring these states back to the fold. Here he is echoing the comments he made a month earlier during his second inaugural address: the government should be focused on welcoming back the former Confederate states. At one point in the future, the federal government might explore the nature of the federal-state relationship. However, Lincoln says, the most important pursuit at this stage was to make sure the states were “safely at home,” not to ask “whether they had ever been abroad.” This action called for the collective effort of all involved.

Lincoln maintained this stance when referring to the Louisiana question. He says that it would be more favorable if the number of people living and voting in that state totaled as much as fifty thousand rather than twelve thousand. The black residents of Louisiana played an integral role in this pursuit, he adds. Regardless of whether Louisiana’s government took the shape preferred by Lincoln, Congress, or anyone else, Lincoln says, is irrelevant. The more pressing question at hand, he states, is whether Louisiana can sooner be brought back into “practical relation” with the Union by allowing it to keep or discard its current form of government.

Lincoln continues to underscore his point by describing how Louisiana has progressed since opting to return to the Union. The state, he said, had twelve thousand voters agree to swear allegiance to the United States. It also adopted a viable constitution, held elections, established a government, and gave the proper authority to that government. Louisiana also decided to offer both the same public school benefit to black residents that it gave to white citizens and to extend suffrage to black residents, and it ratified the recently passed constitutional amendment to abolish slavery nationwide. Put simply, Lincoln said, the people of Louisiana had done everything that was expected of them in order for the state to be considered a committed member of the United States. The state looked to the federal government both for recognition of its commitment and for assistance.

If the federal government rejected the Louisiana mode of government, Lincoln says, in effect, it would be turning its back on a loyal member of the Union. Such a course of action would send that state into disarray, undermining its ability and willingness to return to the Union. However, Lincoln says, if the federal government recognizes and encourages Louisiana’s reintegration, all twelve thousand residents of that state would commit fully to (and even fight for) the nation. The black population of Louisiana would also be “inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring” if the nation showed its support for Louisiana’s freed blacks. Furthermore, if the federal government pushed away Louisiana’s state government, Lincoln warned, the Union would lose one vote for the proposed constitutional amendment to fully abolish slavery in the United States (since the amendment, it was at first proposed, would need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states that had not seceded, as opposed to three-fourths of all the states; ultimately it was submitted for ratification to all the states). Ratification might be still be possible, he says, but there would remain questions and doubts about the legitimacy of that ratification if not all of the states voted in favor.

Therefore, Lincoln poses the question: Can Louisiana be brought back into the Union with greater expediency if the federal government approves or disapproves of the state government? This question could be applied to any state, he says. Lincoln’s Republican leanings are apparent here, as he suggests that each state should be allowed to devise its own government framework. Each state, after all, will have its own “peculiarities” and immediate priorities to address. It would be imprudent to impose a general and “inflexible” plan on the states, particularly in light of the fact that there was no historical precedent to guide the nation on post–Civil War reconstruction.

Lincoln emphasizes that any exclusive, inflexible plan imposed on the governments of reintegrating states would only create new problems for Reconstruction. He stresses that the important democratic principles of the US government should be upheld and, therefore, remain inflexible aspects for reintegration. Beyond that, however, the federal government should be respectful of the nuances and special features of state governments, particularly as long as those details do not run counter to the values of the United States.

Lincoln’s address was designed as a relatively informal speech. Speaking before a celebratory crowd, he provided in broad terms his opinions on the nation’s next course of action. Lincoln completed his address by stating that more formal announcements and policies would be coming soon, as the government began the difficult task of postwar reconstruction. Unfortunately, there would be no more addresses on this or any other subject from Lincoln. Three days after his last public address, he was shot, and he died the next day, April 15. The responsibility of postwar reconstruction would fall to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, and Congress.

Essential Themes

Lincoln’s last public address was an informal speech prepared as a large crowd, which gathered in the southeast section of Washington, DC, marched in celebration of the surrender of General Lee and the Confederate forces. Indeed, Lincoln himself was relieved that the end of the war had come. He had been near the front where the Union Army had chased Lee’s Confederate troops, and he says during this address that he was immediately made aware of the goings on at Appomattox Court House. Therefore, he had great cause for celebration, but he had already moved past the jubilation for the end of the war and into deep thought about the next steps to take regarding the seceded states. As the crowd gathered in front of the White House, Lincoln shared the generalities of his proposals, all of which were still being developed. Formal announcements on Lincoln’s policies concerning Reconstruction, he promised, would be coming in the near future.

Reconstruction was a topic given great consideration while the war continued to rage. The general consensus was that, if seceded state governments made formal declarations of loyalty to the Union and adhered to the general principles of the United States, they would be allowed to reenter the Union. Among the expectations for these states was adherence to the ideals of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the proclamation was interpreted differently by Louisiana, one of the first states to seek reintegration. This state fully freed its slaves and even explored the idea of black suffrage (its leaders sharing their ideas with Lincoln during his wartime communications with the Louisiana governor).

Lincoln’s opinions about emancipation, coupled with his Republican ideologies (which favored states rights over a strong central government), made him an easy target for rival Democrats and pro-Southern Republicans. In his last public address, Lincoln defiantly stated that the federal government should give returning states some flexibility in the creation of state governments loyal to the federal government. Furthermore, he added, the most pressing matter was not low-priority “peculiarities” in the draft constitutions sent to Washington, DC, for approval. There was no historical precedent or set of guidelines to be used for Reconstruction, a fact that led Lincoln to believe that the federal government should be flexible with regard to the foundation of state governments. According to Lincoln, the top concern was the full restoration of the United States. This pursuit, he argued, required the concerted efforts of the president, Congress, and the state governments. He completed his speech by calling upon all Americans to work collectively on the issue of reconciliation and reconstruction. Lincoln was never able to work on these formal policies; one of the audience members would assassinate him only a few days after this public address.

  • Beschloss, Michael, and Hugh Sidey. “Abraham Lincoln.” White House. White House Historical Association, 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  • Burton, Vernon. “Lincoln’s Last Speech.” College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois. University of Illinois Board of Trustees, May 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
  • “Lincoln, Abraham.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  • “Louisiana and Black Suffrage.” Mr. Lincoln and Freedom. Lincoln Institute, 2002–13. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Carter, Dan T. When the War Was Over: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865–1867. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985. Print.
  • Carwardine, Richard. “Lincoln and Emancipation: Black Enfranchisement in 1863 Louisiana.” OAH Magazine of History 21.1 (2007): 45–46. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 2002. Print.
  • Holzer, Harold, Edna Greene Medford, and Frank J. Williams. The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (Conflicting Worlds). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2006. Print.
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