Guest Bedrooms: Last Public Address

Mr. Lincoln delivered few formal speeches as President. Besides the occasional “serenade” after a political or military victory or remarks to a visiting group, almost none were actually made at the White House. A notable exception occurred on April 11, 1865. From the hallway window between the two bedrooms, President Lincoln delivered his final speech with his family nearby and a large crowd outside. Noah Brooks, who was scheduled to become his new secretary, held a candle to provide reading light while Tad picked up the pages of the speech as the President dropped them. The next day, Brooks wrote a dispatch for the Sacramento Daily Union:

Most people were sleeping soundly in their beds when, at daylight on the rainy morning of April 9th, a great boom startled the misty air of Washington, shaking the earth and breaking the windows of the houses about Lafayette Square, compelling the inhabitants once more to say that they would be glad when Union victories were done with, or celebrated somewhere else. But boom, boom, boom went the guns, until five hundred of them were fired. Some few people got up and raced around in the mud to see what the news was, and some few got up a procession of flags and things, wet as it was….

The streets, horribly muddy, were alive with people, cheering and singing, carrying flags and saluting everybody, hungering and thirsting for speeches…

Later in the forenoon an impromptu procession came up from the Navy Yard, dragging six boat howitzers, which were fired through the streets as they rolled on; this crowd soon swelled to a formidable size, and filled the whole area in front of the President’s house, where they patiently waited for a speech, guns firing and bands playing meanwhile. The young hopeful of the house of Lincoln – ‘Tad’ –made his appearance at the well known window from whence the President always speaks, where he was received with a great shout of applause; encouraged by which he waved a captured rebel flat, whereat he was lugged back by the slack of his trowsers by some discreet domestic, amidst the uproarious cheers of sovereign people below. The President soon after made his appearance, and for a moment the scene was of the wildest confusion; men fairly yelled with delight, tossed up their hats and screamed like mad. Seen from the windows, the surface of the crowd looked like an agitated sea of hats, faces and men’s arms. Quiet restored, the President briefly congratulated the people on the occasion which had called out such unrestrained enthusiasm, and said that as arrangements were being made for a more formal celebration, he would defer his remarks until then; for, said he, ‘I shall have nothing to say then if it is all dribbled out of me now,’ whereat the crowd good humoredly laughed. He alluded to the presence of the band, and said that our adversary had always claimed one old good tune – Dixie – but that he held that on the 8th of April we fairly captured it – in fact, he said, he had submitted the question to the Attorney General, who had decided that the tune was our lawful property; and he asked that the band play ‘Dixie,’ which they did with a will, following with ‘Yankee Doodle.’ The President then proposed three cheers for General Grant and the officers and men under him, then three for the navy, all of which were given heartily, and the crowd dispersed.

The notable feature of the evening was the President’s speech, delivered to an immense throng of people, who, with bands, banners and loud huzzas poured around the familiar avenue in front of the mansion. After repeated calls, loud and enthusiastic, the President appeared at the window, the signal for a great outburst. There was something terrible about the enthusiasm with which the beloved Magistrate was received – cheers upon cheers, wave after wave of applause rolled up, the President modestly standing quiet until it was over. The speech was longer and of a different character from what most people had expected, but it was well received, and it showed that the President had shared in, and had considered, the same anxieties which the people have had, as this struggle has drawn to a close…” 1

What Brooks, a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, neglected to mention was that Mrs. Lincoln and some friends, were standing at a nearby window, conversing in a manner that distracting the audience and interfering with her husband’s speech. Historian Michael Burlingame, quoting from later newspaper accounts of the event: “At first the listeners below showed forbearance, but several eventually hushed the women emphatically. The president thought ‘that some word of his own had called forth the unwonted demonstration’ but realized instantly that no disrespect to him was intended. With ‘an expression of pain and mortification which came over his face as if such strokes were not new, he resumed his reading.'” 2 Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress, also recorded the scene of President’s Lincoln last public speech, but in a way which reflected more favorably on Mrs. Lincoln:

“Great crowds began to gather in front of the White House, and loud calls were made for the President. The band stopped playing, and as he advanced to the centre window over the door to make his address, I looked out, and never saw such a mass of heads before. It was like a black, gently swelling sea. The swaying motion of the crowd, in the dim uncertain light, was like the rising and falling of billows–like the ebb and flow of the tide upon the tide upon the stranded shore of the ocean. 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 the voices that rose above the sea of forms, sounding like the subdued, sullen roar of an ocean storm, or the wind soughing through the dark lonely forest. It was a grand and imposing scene, and when the President, with pale face and his soul flashing through his eyes, advanced to speak, he looked more like a demi-god than a man crowned with the fleeting days of mortality.

The moment the President appeared at the window he was greeted with a storm of applause, and voices re-echoed the cry, ‘A light! a light!’

A lamp was brought, and little Tad at once rushed to his father’s side, exclaiming:

‘Let me hold the light, Papa! let me hold the light!’

Mrs. Lincoln directed that the wish of her son be gratified, and the lamp was transferred to his hands. The father and son standing there in the presence of thousands of free citizens, the one lost in a chain of eloquent ideas, the other looking up into the speaking face with a proud, manly look, formed a beautiful and striking tableau.

There were a number of distinguished gentlemen, as well as ladies, in the room, nearly all of whom remarked the picture.

I stood a short distance from Mr. Lincoln, and as the light from the lamp fell full upon him, making him stand out boldly in the darkness, a sudden thought struck me, and I whispered to the friend at my side:

‘What an easy matter would it be to kill the President, as he stands there! He could be shot down from the crowd, and no one be able to tell who fired the shot.’

I do not know what put such an idea into my head, unless it was the sudden remembrance of the many warnings that Mr. Lincoln had received.

The next day, I made mention to Mrs. Lincoln of the idea that had impressed me so strangely the night before, and she replied with a sigh:

‘Yes, yes, Mr. Lincoln’s life is always exposed. Ah, no one knows what it is to live in constant dread of some fearful tragedy. The President has been warned so often, that I tremble for him on every public occasion. I have a presentiment that he will meet with a sudden and violent end. I pray God to protect my beloved husband from the hands of the assassin.’ 3


April 11, 1865

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 skillful 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 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 rec-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 only the plan which might possible 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 free-people, and 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 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 write 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, that 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 is 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 collaterals. 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. 4