A Call for Reconciliation: Lincoln's Final Speech

7/29/2020 Nathan Cooper

John Wilkes Booth (far left) listens as Lincoln delivers his final speech to the public. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Abraham Lincoln delivered his last speech on April 11, 1865, just three days before he was shot. Speaking from a White House window to a crowd below, the president shared some of his thoughts on Reconstruction, the process of reuniting the nation and determining the role of African Americans who were now free from slavery.

Despite being overshadowed by his death, the speech offers a tantalizing glimpse of how Reconstruction might have proceeded under Lincoln instead of his successor, the racist Andrew Johnson. Lincoln focused on re-admitting Louisiana, where a new government had abolished slavery, promised education to children of all races, and opened the door to letting some African Americans vote. 

Lincoln's handwritten notes for the speech

Lincoln urged the nation not to focus on whether Louisiana's new government was perfect but on whether it was a good start to build upon. "The question is not whether the Louisiana government, as it stands, is quite all that is desirable," he said. "The question is, 'Will it be wiser to take it as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it?'"

One of the more important parts of this final speech was Lincoln's support of limited suffrage for African Americans. He advocated giving the vote to those who were "very intelligent" or who had fought for the Union.

Salmon P. Chase, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and Lincoln's former Treasury secretary, wrote to Lincoln the next day and expressed support for African American participation in Reconstruction. "No one, connected with your administration, has questioned the citizenship of free colored men more than that of free men," Chase wrote.

Letter from Salmon P. Chase to President Lincoln

Not all were happy with Lincoln's plan. Joel P. Bishop, a northern abolitionist and legal expert, felt it was too forgiving of the South. He wrote to Lincoln and warned against putting "the political power in the late rebel States into the hands of the disloyal ministries, to the inconceivable woe of the loyal majorities, & the perpetual turmoil of the nation."

Meanwhile, far to the other side of political spectrum, another person in the crowd was infuriated by Lincoln's support for African American suffrage. "That is the last speech he will ever make," actor John Wilkes Booth vowed.

He shot the president three days later. Lincoln's call for reconciliation and for small steps toward racial equality had ended in bloodshed. His plans for Reconstruction would never be carried out.

Coverage of the speech in the Illinois State Journal

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