How the South could have been saved: Abraham Lincoln's last speech, and a vision unrealized

Exactly 150 years ago, two days after Robert E. Lee's surrender, Lincoln spoke not of victory, but reconciliation

Published April 11, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Abraham Lincoln (AP/Alexander Gardner)
Abraham Lincoln (AP/Alexander Gardner)

Excerpted from "Lincoln's Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion"

Through the cool evening mist of Tuesday, April 11, 1865, darkness gave way to light. The White House was “brilliantly illuminated” and the reflection revealed a “vast throng” assembled to hear the president speak. Throughout the city bonfires blazed and celebratory rockets whistled.

Crowds had gathered outside the White House the previous day, expecting a triumphal speech in the aftermath of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9. A procession of some two thousand Navy Yard workmen, dragging six boat howitzers, trekked through the city. The gathering had swelled on its march to call on the president. Bands played and people 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 twelve-year-old son. Tad couldn’t resist the parade and, encouraged by the crowd’s cheers, he waved a captured rebel flag. Quickly, according to one reporter, “he was lugged back by the slack of his trousers by some discreet domestic.”

Abraham Lincoln had appeared twice on the 10th. In the early afternoon “an agitated sea of hats, faces and men’s arms” greeted him. “I am greatly rejoiced that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people can’t restrain themselves,” he 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.”

Many in the throng laughed and someone 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,” 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 (“one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he announced), he was signaling eventual reconciliation with rather than mocking the defeated Confederacy. In any case the band played “Dixie” with “extraordinary vigor.” “The President understands well the power of national songs,” observed the Daily National Intelligencer, “and what is better, he uses it in the right time and for a good purpose.” Lincoln proposed three cheers for General Grant and his forces, and three more for the navy, and retired from the scene to work on his remarks for the following day.

At 5:30, again on the 10th, another crowd called on Lincoln to speak, but again the president demurred, saying that 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 create confusion.

“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 restrain from any opinion.”

The next day, people were waiting “anxiously for the speech which the President has promised to make.” The afternoon edition of the April 11 Daily National Republican announced that the event was planned for eight o’clock. 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,” noted the writer, “is a speech from the president. If he speaks tonight he will speak to the people of the whole country who are anxiously listening to hear something from him.”

As darkness fell, lights illuminated the city. At the War Department, every window was “ablaze with light” and the building decorated with large flags. A transparency with the word “Grant” flapped beneath a wreath of evergreens. The Treasury Department featured a sign that read, “U.S. Greenbacks and U. S. Grant—Grant gives the greenbacks a metallic ring.” The State Department, “brilliantly lighted and festooned with flags,” displayed a banner that read, “the Union saved by faith in the Constitution, faith in the people, and trust in God.”

The north portico of the White House was also brightly lit. Men and women gathered and stood in ankle-deep mud from the April rains. They not only filled the grounds in front of the White House but spilled over onto the sidewalks from Fifteenth to Seventeeth Streets. Banners streamed and bands played. At last Lincoln appeared and was greeted with “tremendous and continued applause.” Mrs. Lincoln and some friends could be seen in an adjoining window. Noah Brooks, the Washington correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union, observed later that “there was something terrible about the enthusiasm with which the beloved Chief Magistrate was received—cheers upon cheers, wave after wave of applause rolled up, the President modestly standing quiet until it was over.” Writing several years afterward, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s black seamstress, recalled a vast 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.” Lincoln chose to read from a prepared manuscript, “evidently so that there should be no chance for misconception of his views enunciated,” thought one reporter.

“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’s chair at the Confederate White House. Lee’s army had surrendered. “Hope of a righteous and speedy peace” now abounded.

The word “righteous” invites attention. It was not a word Lincoln employed frequently, but its appearance here echoed earlier usage. In the speech that helped make him a candidate for president, Lincoln told the crowd at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, that those who seek to preserve the Union by yielding to those who were clamoring for disunion reverse the divine order of things and call “not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance.” He repeated the formulation several times in his speaking tour through New England that followed.

The cause of Union was the righteous cause; the next time he would use the word in his writings, it was for the cause of emancipation, also deemed “righteous.” In response to a letter from two Iowa Quakers commending him for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln wrote, “it is most cheering and encouraging for me to know that in the efforts which I have made and am making for the restoration of a righteous peace to our country, I am upheld and sustained by the good wishes and prayers of God’s people.”

The religious overtones of the righteous cause, and by extension all measures necessary for victory, were made clear in Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, when he quoted Psalms 19:9, “‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” Following that line, Lincoln memorably concluded with a sentence calling for “a just, and a lasting peace.” Perhaps he did not say “righteous” because he had used it in quoting Psalms. More likely, in keeping with the overall content of a soaring conclusion that begins “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” Lincoln wanted to signal fairness and even-handedness. On March 4, the war still was not over; on April 11, it essentially was.

Lincoln not only sought justice, he also desired mercy. His generosity and magnanimity would come to distress his party’s radicals, though he never wavered from what he declared in his second inaugural: “judge not that we be not judged.” Indeed, he repeated the injunction several times in April 1865. There would be occasion to debate how best to unify the nation, but Lincoln began that speech on April 11 by reasserting the righteousness of the Union cause and calling for a day of national Thanksgiving. “He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten,” he said.

Lincoln then turned to the subject of his speech: reconstruction. This word, too, is not without its ambiguities. It is common to contrast “reconstruction” with “restoration,” and to suggest that the former entailed a more or less radical remaking of southern society whereas the latter simply meant returning the states to full political membership in the nation. Some Democratic newspapers in 1865 were careful to distinguish between the two words. Some historians argue that Lincoln’s ideas shifted from “restoration” to “reconstruction,” but the president’s uses of the words suggest something different. He told the crowd on that misty night, “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.” Here, Lincoln defines “reconstruction” simply: the states submitting to federal authority and returning to the nation.

When Lincoln used “restoration,” he tended to do so in the context of the return of peace or, as he put it in 1862, “the speedy restoration of our Union.” But the terms were fluid. Either “restoration” or “reconstruction” could signify simultaneously the process of establishing civil government in the states themselves and the process of the states returning to the nation. Lincoln himself acknowledged the fluidity and imprecision of the nomenclature when, in his Annual Message to Congress in 1863, he spoke of “maintaining the political framework of the States on what is called Reconstruction.” Nearly three months earlier, in a letter to Andrew Johnson, then still the military governor of Tennessee, he declared, “let the reconstruction be the work only of such men as can be trusted for the Union.”

Under the terms of “a plan of government” that he had proposed in his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, issued on December 8, 1863, the work of reconstruction had advanced during the war in several states, including Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. That plan provided for states in rebellion to be reorganized and restored to the nation once persons equaling one-tenth of the number of eligible voters who had participated in the election of 1860 established a loyal government and adopted a state constitution that abolished slavery. The plan was well received at the time, and Lincoln held out hope for the speedy restoration of these states.

He was especially eager to have Congress recognize reconstruction efforts in Louisiana, the only Deep South state that had taken the necessary steps as outlined by the December proclamation. From the moment New Orleans had surrendered on April 28, 1862, Lincoln had seized the opportunity to establish a loyal state government in Louisiana. Throughout the war, he had monitored developments and encouraged military and civil leaders to organize a loyal government and adopt a new state constitution. They had done so. Nonetheless in February 1865, Congress had refused to seat the representatives elected from the state.

Three times in one paragraph (and six overall) in his April 11 speech he used the phrase “proper practical relation” to characterize the return of seceded states to the Union. Lincoln abjured abstract, theoretical debates. Politicians, jurists, and editors avidly debated the status of the rebellious states but Lincoln himself never recognized the legitimacy of secession (time and again he insisted on referring to the “so-called seceded states”), and instead held to the theory of an indissoluble union. As far as he was concerned, the eleven Confederate states had never left. Some radical Republicans, however, offered different ideas, as embodied in the terms “state suicide” and “conquered territory.” Under these notions of the status of the rebellious states, more could be demanded as the price for readmission, because in seceding they had forfeited any rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. In the hands of some radicals, these demands included universal male suffrage and the confiscation of large estates. But Lincoln had no patience for such arguments and dismissed them as “a pernicious abstraction.”

Displeased by the Congress’s refusal to act, and appealing directly to the people, Lincoln devoted the speech on April 11, what would turn out to be his final speech, to the case of Louisiana. Twelve thousand voters there had sworn allegiance to the Union, held elections, organized state government, and adopted a constitution that abolished slavery and even provided for public schooling for blacks as well as whites. Lincoln admitted that “we, the loyal people, differ” in thoughts about how best to reconstruct the nation, and he affirmed his willingness to consider all plans and not be entrapped by some “exclusive, and inflexible plan” that would apply to all the former rebel states. Yet what could possibly be accomplished, he wondered, by discarding the new state government of Louisiana? How could this serve the public interest?

Lincoln conceded that the Louisiana government was only at the beginning of what it could become. He publicly acknowledged for the first time a preference for giving the vote to freedmen who were educated or had served as soldiers, a provision not included in Louisiana’s constitution (though it did authorize the legislature to enfranchise blacks at its discretion). By 1865, suffrage had become a vital issue, pressed by radical Republicans and abolitionists alike. Lincoln had not pleased these groups when in 1864 he pocket vetoed a bill proposed by Senator Benjamin Wade and Representative Henry Winter Davis. Their bill (which did not include a provision for black suffrage) offered a congressional alternative to the president’s plan of reconstruction, one that would have slowed the process and imposed more stringent requirements for readmission. The brouhaha after Lincoln had explained the reasons for his veto, and Wade and Davis published a manifesto that denounced Lincoln’s plan of reconstruction, contributed to the desire on the part of some Republicans to replace Lincoln as the party nominee in the election of 1864. Perhaps now, with his public endorsement of qualified voting rights for black men (previously he had offered support only in private correspondence), he was signaling a shift toward the radicals, one that might make them more amenable to readmitting those states that had formed new governments and ratified new constitutions under Lincoln’s plan.

Lincoln’s endorsement of limited black suffrage signified something else as well: reconstruction would entail more than merely the restoration of the political status quo before the war. For many Republicans, it would not suffice simply to require white Southerners living in Confederate states to take an oath of allegiance, form a new loyal government, and adopt a state constitution that abolished slavery. Reconstruction would also have to address the social transformation of Southern society in the aftermath of emancipation.

The transition from slavery to freedom for millions of blacks and the role of the federal government in that transition were widely debated and, as the war progressed, the lives of the freedmen could not be separated from discussions of reconstruction.

Whatever the state of affairs in Louisiana on April 11, Lincoln suggested that the new state government 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?” Lincoln loved metaphors and once told a New York legislator that “common people . . . are more easily influenced and informed through the medium of a broad illustration than in any other way.” The egg-fowl analogy captured the public’s attention and allowed him to defend his policy in simple terms easily understood by anyone. Broken eggs could not be mended, he declared on more than one occasion. The war had cracked the Union, but not smashed it. Would the turmoil over reconstruction, however, destroy in peace what had been won in war?

The minister Henry Ward Beecher had warned Lincoln in February, six weeks or so before the April 11 speech, that “it is more dangerous to make peace than to make war.” “Making peace” had preoccupied Lincoln from the start. He knew it was an enterprise “fraught with difficulty.” Reconstruction did not begin once the war ended. Indeed, it had begun even before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, initially in the ways some Southerners discussed reconstruction as a rewriting of the Constitution to protect slavery. As important as the debates over reconstruction throughout the war were to shaping what came after, they were also central to the war itself. For Lincoln, reconstruction was not simply an end, but also a means toward winning the war and reuniting the nation. Each state that could be restored while the conflict still raged was one state fewer that remained part of the Confederacy. Each restored state brought the Union one step closer to victory.

In this last speech, which he did not know of course would be his last, Lincoln reminded his audience of what had been done and what was being argued over. He invited them to look with him to the future when the “present ‘situation’” required action. Now that it was certain the United States would endure, reconstruction, both political and social, was the only question, and it was a momentous one. The ongoing debates over how to reestablish state governments and provide for the needs of the freedmen informed his April 11 speech, which brought listeners back to the beginning of the war and invited them to gaze into the future.

Lincoln’s last speech was a speech about reconstruction, but not the reconstruction that has become reified as a textbook chapter title referring to 1865–1877. Throughout the war, the fluid term shifted meanings and came to be used synonymously with restoration and reunion. To understand what happened with postwar Reconstruction we need first to look hard at what Lincoln meant by wartime reconstruction, and at the speech that defined it more fully than anything else he ever wrote or spoke.

At the time, the speech perplexed and disappointed those listeners who did not appreciate its importance as a statement of the goals of wartime reconstruction and the necessity of taking immediate steps toward reunion. Noah Brooks observed that the speech was “longer and of a different character from what most people had expected.” Others, however, grasped all too well Lincoln’s vision of the future, one simultaneously magnanimous and transformative.

As Lincoln spoke, two men, lingering toward the front of the grounds, felt nauseated by 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. As they walked away, Booth remarked, “that is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later, he made good on his threat. We can never know what would have happened had Lincoln lived, but one writer was not alone when he predicted, “the development of things will teach us to mourn him doubly.”

Excerpted from "Lincoln's Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion" by Louis P. Masur. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Louis P. Masur. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Louis P. Masur

Louis P. Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. He is the author of many books, including Lincoln’s Last Speech, The Civil War: A Concise History, and Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union.

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