Lincoln's Final Public Speech Addressed Reconstruction

1861 Inauguration of Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln’s final public address took place on April 11, 1865. Since his inauguration as president in March 1861, Lincoln had been a “war president,” never wavering from his commitment to preserve the Union. In his last address, he spoke of a “re-inauguration of the national authority…” and his goal of guiding the seceded states into their “proper practical relation with the Union.” Although the battle over Southern Reconstruction began in earnest with Lincoln’s December 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox two days before this final address signaled the differences between Presidential Reconstruction and Congressional Reconstruction.

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A Reconstructed Louisiana Served as the Example for Other Southern States

New Orleans was captured by Union forces at the end of April 1862. The lengthy presence of Union occupation enabled Louisiana to serve as a model for Lincoln’s Reconstruction Proclamation. Most of his final address defends that plan in the light of substantial progress coming out of the Deep South state.

Enough citizens of Louisiana, in conformity to Lincoln’s so-called “ten percent” plan, had taken the proscribed oath and submitted a new state constitution. The newly elected legislature ratified the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. Louisiana was committed to non-segregated public schools and granting freedmen voting privileges.

Lincoln’s Final Address was Both Political and Moral

Louisiana represented the first step in bringing the seceding states back into a proper relationship with the Union. In his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, Lincoln called upon the nation to “strive on to finish the work we are in…” The work included “binding up the nation’s wounds.” The goals of Reconstruction were simple: “…to…achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Lincoln dismissed the question of whether or not the Southern states had actually left the Union. As early as 1861, Lincoln reread the opinions of Chief Justice John Marshall regarding federal supremacy. To reestablish a proper relationship, according to Lincoln, “We simply must begin with, and mold from, disorganized and discordant elements.”

Radical Congressional Republicans Disagreed with Lincoln

Republican leaders like Senator Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens believed that Lincoln was too lenient. Many in the Congress were motivated by revenge and called for the execution of Jefferson Davis and high ranking political and military leaders. Senators like Benjamin Wade, author of the harsh Wade-Davis Bill, wanted to deprive any Southern whites that had been associated in any way with the rebellion of future political participation.

Lincoln knew this conflicted with his message of “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” In his final address, he acknowledged the differences of opinion regarding reconstruction. He also admitted that what was accomplished in Louisiana was not the only plan – nor did he intend it to be so. As President and Commander in Chief, however, his December 1863 Proclamation, approved by the entire Cabinet, was justified.

Lincoln’s Assassination Provides an Edge for Congressional Radicals

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated three days after this final, public address. According to his biographers, he had had premonitions about his death. This final address, a last will and testament of his plan of Reconstruction, represented a logical and clear argument for a “righteous and speedy peace.”

Lincoln even addressed black suffrage, stating that the very intelligent as well as those “who serve our cause as soldiers” should receive the franchise. His successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, would not be so magnanimous. Johnson’s reconstruction views, as well as his strict-constructionist application of the Constitution, would pit him against the Congressional radicals and result in his impeachment trial.

Lincoln’s Final Address Conformed to his Philosophy and Morality

The last public speech of Abraham Lincoln reflected the same ideals he held throughout the war. In the Gettysburg Address he called for a “new birth of freedom…” In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln hoped and prayed that, “…this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” The final paragraph speaks of a “firmness in the right…”

Every wartime action, even the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, was part of the long-term final goal, a “righteous and speedy peace” that restored the “proper practical relationship” of seceding states with the Union. On the day Lincoln died, the Stars and Stripes were against hoisted over Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, by General Anderson, the same man who defended the federal outpost when Southern General P. T. Beauregard ordered the bombardment of Ft. Sumter. The Union was again one. But the applications of that wholeness would take over 100 years.

Sources:

  • The Language of Liberty: The Political Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Joseph R. Fornieri (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2003)
  • Page Smith, Trial By Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Volume Five (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982)
  • Jay Wink, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (Harper, 2001)

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