This 1865 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner is believed by historians to be the final photo taken of Lincoln (1865, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).
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 the 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 seceded 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 practical 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 even 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 to [sic] 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 safely be prescribed as to details and colatterals. 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.
Annotation (per Roy Basler, et. al., editors):
 AD-P, ISLA. On April 11, Salmon P. Chase had written Lincoln at length about reconstruction:
“I am very anxious about the future: and most about the principles which are to govern reconstruction for as these principles are sound or unsound so will be the work & its results. . . .
“And first as to Virginia.
“By the action of every branch of the Government we are committed to the recognition & maintenance of the State organization of which Governor Pierpont is the head. You know all the facts. . . . There will be a pressure for the recognition of the rebel organization on condition of profession of loyalty. It will be far easier and wiser, in my judgment, to stand by the loyal organization already recognized.
“And next as to the other rebel States:
“The easiest & safest way seems to me to be the enrollment of the loyal citizens without regard to complexion and encouragement & support to them in the reorganization of State Governments under constitutions securing suffrage to all citizens. . . . This you know has long been my opinion. . . .
“This way is recommended by its simplicity, facility & above all, justice. It will be, hereafter, counted equally a crime & a folly if the colored loyalists of the rebel states shall be left to the control of restored rebels, not likely, in that case, to be either wise or just, until taught both wisdom and justice by new calamities.
“The application of this principle to Louisiana is made somewhat difficult by the organization which has already taken place: but happily the Constitution enables the Legislature to extend the right of suffrage. . . .
“The same result can be assured in Arkansas by an amendment of the state constitution; or what would be better, I think, by a new Convention . . . without distinction of color. To all the other states the general principle may be easily applied. . . .'” (DLC-RTL).
On the morning after Lincoln’s speech, Chase wrote again:
“The American of this morning contains your speech of last evening. Seeing that you say something on the subject of my letter to you yesterday—reconstruction—, & refer, though without naming me, to the suggestions I made in relation to the Amnesty Proclamation, when you brought it before the Heads of Departments, I will ask your permission to add some observations to what I have already written.
“I recollect the suggestions you mention; my impression is that they were in writing. There was another which you do not mention and which, I think, was not in writing. It is distinct in my memory; though doubtless forgotten by you. It was an objection to the restriction of participation in reorganization to persons having the qualifications of voters under the laws of their several states just before rebellion.
“Ever since questions of reconstruction have been talked about, it has been my opinion that the colored loyalists ought to be allowed to participate in it and it was because of this opinion that I was anxious to have this question left open. I did not however say much about the restriction. I was the only one who expressed a wish for its omission; & I did not desire to seem pertinacious.
“You will remember, doubtless, that the first order ever issued for enrollment with a view to reconstruction went to General Shepley & directed the enrollment of all loyal citizens; and I suppose that, since the opinion of Attorney General Bates, no one, connected with your administration, has questioned the citizenship of free colored men more than that of free white men. The restriction in the amnesty proclamation operated as a revocation of the order to General Shepley:—but, as I understood you not to be wedded to any particular plan of reconstruction, I hoped & believed that reflection & observation would probably satisfy you that the restriction should not be adhered to.
“I fully sympathized with your desire for the restoration of the Union by the change of rebel slave States into Union free States; and was willing, if I could not get exactly the plan I thought best, to take the plan you thought best, & to trust the future for modifications. I welcomed, therefore, with joy the prospects of good results from the cooperation of General Banks with the free state men of Louisiana. I think General Banks’ error, & I have said so to him, was in not acting through instead of over the Free State Committee. This Committee had already shown itself disposed to a degree of liberality towards the colored people quite remarkable at that time. They had admitted delegates from the creole colored population into their free State Convention, & had evinced a readiness to admit intelligent colored citizens of that class to the rights of suffrage. I have no doubt that great & satisfactory progress would have been made in the same direction had not the work been taken out of their hands. This created the impression that the advocates of general suffrage were to be treated with disfavor by the representatives of the Government. Discouragement & disinterest were the natural consequences.
“For one I was glad of all the good that was done; and, naturally, wanted more. So when I came to Washington last winter I saw Gen Banks: and, being now more deeply than ever persuaded of the necessity of universal suffrage, I begged him to write himself & to induce the Senators & Representatives elect from Louisiana to write to members of the Legislature and urge them to exercise their power under the constitution by passing an act extending suffrage to colored citizens. I knew that many of our best men in and out of Congress had become thoroughly convinced of the impolicy and injustice of allowing representation in Congress to States which had been in rebellion and were not yet prepared to concede equal political rights to all loyal citizens. They felt that if such representation should be allowed & such states reinstated in all their former rights as loyal members of the Union, the colored population would be practically abandoned to the disposition of the white population, with every probability against them; and this, they believed would be equally unjust & dangerous.
“I shared their sentiment & was therefore extremely desirous that General Banks should take the action I urged upon him. I thought indeed that he concurred, mainly, in my views, & would to some extent at least act upon them. I must have been mistaken, for I never heard that he did anything in that direction.
“I know you attach much importance to the admission of Louisiana, or rather to the recognition of her right to representation in Congress as a loyal State in the Union. If I am not misinformed there is nothing in the way except the indisposition of her Legislature to give satisfactory proof of loyalty by a sufficient guaranty of safety & justice to colored citizens through the extension to loyal colored men of the right of suffrage. Why not, then, as almost every loyal man concurs with you as to the desirableness of that recognition, take the shortest road to it by causing every proper representation to be made to the Louisiana Legislature of the importance of such extension.
“I most earnestly wish you could have read the New Orleans papers for the last few months. Your duties have not allowed it. I have read them a good deal—quite enough to be satisfied that, if you had read what I have, your feelings of humanity & justice would not let you rest till all loyalists are made equal in the right of self protection by suffrage.
“Once I should have been, if not satisfied, reasonably contented by suffrage for the more intelligent & for those who have been soldiers; now I am convinced that universal suffrage is demanded by sound policy and impartial justice alike.
“I have written too much already & will not trouble you with my reasons for this conclusion. I shall return to Washington in a day or two & perhaps it will not be disagreeable to you to have the whole subject talked over. . . .” (DLC-RTL).
1. Basler, Roy P., editor, et. al. Collected works. The Abraham Lincoln Association/Springfield, Illinois, vol. 8. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
2. Masur, Louis P. Lincoln’s Last Speech. New York: Opinionator: Disunion, The New York Times, 10 April 2015.