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Contents > Author > Abraham Lincoln > Last Public Address, April 11, 1865 1809- 1865
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Abraham Lincoln
Last Public Address, April 11, 1865
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We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.
The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender
of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and
speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.
In the midst of this, however, He from whom all blessings flow,
must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being
prepared, and will be duly promulgated. Nor must those whose
harder part gives us the cause of rejoicing, be overlooked. Their
honors must not be parcelled out with others. I myself was near
the front, and had the high pleasure of transmitting much of the
good news to you; but no part of the honor, for plan or execution,
is mine. To Gen. Grant, his skilful officers, and brave men, all belongs.
The gallant Navy stood ready, but was not in reach to take active
part.

By these recent successes 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. It
is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between
independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat
with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any
other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized
and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment
that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode,
manner, and means of reconstruction.

As a general rule, I abstain from reading the reports of attacks
upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I can
not properly offer an answer. In spite of this precaution, however,
it comes to my knowledge that I am much censured for some
supposed agency in setting up, and seeking to sustain, the new
State government of Louisiana. In this I have done just so much
as, and no more than, the public knows. In the Annual Message
of Dec. 1863 and accompanying Proclamation, I presented a plan
of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if
adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by,
the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this
was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable; and I
also distinctly protested that the Executive claimed no right to say
when, or whether members should be admitted to seats in Congress
from such States. This plan was, in advance, submitted to the then
Cabinet, and distinctly approved by every member of it. One of them
suggested that I should then, and in that connection, apply the
Emancipation Proclamation to the theretofore excepted parts of
Virginia and Louisiana; that I should drop the suggestion about
apprenticeship for freed-people, and that I should omit the protest
against my own power, in regard to the admission of members to
Congress; but even he approved every part and parcel of the plan
which has since been employed or touched by the action of
Louisiana. The new constitution of Louisiana, declaring emancipation
for the whole State, practically applies the Proclamation to the part
previously excepted. It does not adopt apprenticeship for freed-people;
and it is silent, as it could not well be otherwise, about the admission
of members to Congress. So that, as it applies to Louisiana, every
member of the Cabinet fully approved the plan. The message went
to Congress, and I received many commendations of the plan,
written and verbal; and not a single objection to it, from any
professed emancipationist, came to my knowledge, until after the
news reached Washington that the people of Louisiana had begun
to move in accordance with it. From about July 1862, I had
corresponded with different persons, supposed to be interested,
seeking a reconstruction of a State government for Louisiana.
When the message of 1863, with the plan before mentioned,
reached New-Orleans, Gen. Banks wrote me that he was
confident the people, with his military co-operation, would
reconstruct, substantially on that plan. I wrote him, and some
of them to try it; they tried it, and the result is known. Such
only has been my agency in getting up the Louisiana government.
As to sustaining it, my promise is out, as before stated. But, 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.

I have been shown a letter on this subject, supposed to be
an able one, in which the writer expresses regret that my mind
has not seemed to be definitely fixed on the question whether
the seceding States, so called, are in the Union or out of it. It
would perhaps, add astonishment to his regret, were he to learn
that since I have found professed Union men endeavoring to
make that question, I have purposely forborne any public
expression upon it. As appears to me that question has not
been, nor yet is, a practically material one, and that any discussion
of it, while it thus remains practically immaterial, could have no
effect other than the mischievous one of dividing our friends. As
yet, whatever it may hereafter become, that question is bad, as
the basis of a controversy, and good for nothing at all-- a merely
pernicious abstraction.

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their
proper relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the
government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to
again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is
not only possible, but in fact, easier to do this, without deciding,
or even considering, whether these States have ever been out
of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it
would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad.
Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper
practical relations between these States and the Union; and
each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether,
in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the
Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having
been out of it.

The amount of constituency, so to speak, on which the new
Louisiana government rests, would be more satisfactory to all,
if it contained fifty, thirty, or even twenty thousand, instead of
only about twelve thousand, as it does. It is also unsatisfactory
to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored
man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the
very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.
Still the question is not whether the Louisiana government, as
it stands, is quite all that is desirable. The question is, "Will it
be wiser to take it as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject,
and disperse it?" "Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical
relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding
her new State government?"

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of
Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be
the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized
a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving
the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and
empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise
upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to
ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by
Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These
twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union,
and to perpetual freedom in the state--committed to the very
things, and nearly all the things the nation wants--and they
ask the nations recognition and it's assistance to make good
their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our
utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to
the white men "You are worthless, or worse--we will neither
help you, nor be helped by you." To the blacks we say "This
cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips,
we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering
the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined
when, where, and how." If this course, discouraging and
paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring
Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have,
so far, been unable to perceive it. If, on the contrary, we
recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the
converse of all this is made true. We encourage the hearts,
and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their
work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and
feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success. The
colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with
vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end. Grant that
he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by
saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running
backward over them? Concede that the new government of
Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the
fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than
by smashing it? Again, if we reject Louisiana, we also reject
one vote in favor of the proposed amendment to the national
Constitution. To meet this proposition, it has been argued that
no more than three fourths of those States which have not
attempted secession are necessary to validly ratify the
amendment. I do not commit myself against this, further than
to say that such a ratification would be questionable, and sure
to be persistently questioned; while a ratification by three-fourths
of all the States would be unquestioned and unquestionable.

I repeat the question, "Can Louisiana be brought into proper
practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining or by
discarding her new State Government?

What has been said of Louisiana will apply generally to other
States. And yet so great peculiarities pertain to each state,
and such important and sudden changes occur in the same
state; and withal, so new and unprecedented is the whole
case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can be safely
prescribed as to details and colatterals [sic]. Such exclusive,
and inflexible plan, would surely become a new entanglement.
Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.

In the present "situation" as the phrase goes, it may be my
duty to make some new announcement to the people of the
South. I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when
satisfied that action will be proper.

(For the first time, Lincoln publicly expressed his support for
black suffrage. This statement incensed John Wilkes Booth,
a member of the audience, who vowed, "That is the last
speech he will make." A white supremacist and Confederate
activist, Booth made good on his threat three days later.)
 

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