Abraham Lincoln's Independence Day Address of July 7, 1863

Researched by James R. Heintze. All rights reserved.

Abraham Lincoln's Independence Day address of 1863 in Washington is significant in that it was presented three days after the city had celebrated the holiday and represented one of only a few Fourth of July addresses given in Washington during the 19th century that were reprinted in newspapers outside the city.

Perhaps not referred to as often as his other speeches, Lincoln's July 7 address is nonetheless important. Presented, apparently spontaneously, as a response to hundreds of persons who had gathered in front of the White House as an expression of joy regarding news of the Civil War's Vicksburg campaign, Lincoln's words were elegant, and in some sense, might have been a prelude to his Gettysburg Address of November 19 later that year. The wording and theme of the July 7 address bears resemblance to the November 19 address. Its possible that the idea and emotion for Lincoln's timeless Gettysburg Address were already gestating in his mind as early as July.

On July 4, Lincoln passed up any opportunities to participate in Washington's ceremonies. He was aware of the direction the Gettysburg engagement had taken on that day and was encouraged that Southern forces were retreating. But the President was also concerned about the Vicksburg campaign and was reluctant to participate in any sort of festive celebration until he heard news of that battle's outcome. He did issue a brief statement in the form of a letter to the American people on July 4:

Washington, July 4.--The President of the United States announces to the country that the news from the Army of the Potomac until 10 o'clock P.M., on the 3d inst., is such as to cover that army with brightest honor--to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen, and that for this he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratification. (Signed) Abraham Lincoln. ("Congratulatory Address by the President," The Frederick Examiner, 8 July 1863, 2.)

Vicksburg surrendered to the Union on July 4, but the news did not reach Lincoln's desk in the White House until July 7. About midday Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles received the news and immediately went to the White House to report to Lincoln what he heard. Word spread quickly through the streets, taverns, and hotels in Washington. Crowds gathered and officers of the Thirty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment promptly decided that a military parade to the White House was in order.

That evening the parade of military accompanied by one or more bands of music commenced up Pennsylvania Avenue drawing hundreds of citizens as it made its way to the White House. At 8 p.m. with the immense throngs in front of the Executive Mansion, Lincoln, who was in the War Department, was compelled to respond and thus quickly returned to the White House.

Benjamin B. French, a highly regarded citizen of the city, commented in a Fourth of July oration he gave in 1870 that he was on the White House grounds on July 7, 1863 and that President Lincoln was elated:

We were celebrating the day in the President's grounds when the news of victory came, and I shall never forget the exultant joy with which it was received. The countenance of President Lincoln, never very demonstrative, beamed all over with gladness; and the sun that rose that day, on many fears, went down in glory on the universal idea that the Union was saved. (Washington Evening Star, 5 July 1870, 4.)

A local newspaper described the event and the festive atmosphere:

Last evening, in response to a notice hastily given, a large assemblage of citizens gathered in front of the National Hotel, and, preceded by the band of the thirty- fourth Massachusetts Regiment, marched to the Executive Mansion, to offer their congratulations to the President upon the late successes of our Army and Navy. As the column marched up the Avenue it gained constant accessions, like a rolling snowball, and an immense crowd entered the space in front of the White House, about half past 8 o'clock.

Mr. Lincoln was at that moment absent at the War Department, but he promptly came over, and made his appearance at the window of the portico of the Executive mansion. When he stood before them, hearing the marks of the excessive labor and care that has fallen to his lot ever since he assumed the duties of his office, but wearing a smile of supreme satisfaction at the glorious events which his fellow-citizens were celebrating, vociferous cheers vent the air. The crowd cheered Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, General Meade, General Rosecrans, and President Lincoln again. ("The Rejoincings Last Night," Daily National Republican, 8 July 1863, 2.)

Another Washington newspaper thought the crowd "numbered many thousands" (Washington Evening Star, 8 July 1863, 2). News of the event quickly spread along the Eastern seaboard. In a dispatch sent to New York, it was reported that "The news spread like wildfire through the city[Washington]. Flags were thrown from public and private buildings, and cheers given to all extent and with an enthusiam such as have rearely been paralleled here. The fact that the capture was made on the Fourth of July gave an added zest to the general satisfaction (New York Times, 8 July 1863, 1.) Even in the Confederate South, in Charleston, S.C., the "tremendous rejoicing all over the North" was reported. However, Lincoln's address was referred to there as a "foolish speech" (Charleston Daily Courier, 13 July 1863, 1).

Lincoln's July 7 speech was made available and was printed in newspapers across the country. A comparison of some of these reprintings of the speech reveals that the texts do not exactly match. Apparently, editors of these newspapers recopied the text and in so doing changed and deleted words which resulted likely in detracting from Lincoln's intentions. Among the variant versions of the speech, I have selected that printed in the Washington Evening Star,8 July 1863, 2, because first, its a version closer to home, likely not having passed through as many hands, and second, its text displays more elegance than the others I have examined; it just seems more Lincolnesque:

Fellow-citizens: I am very glad to see you to-night. But yet I will not say I thank you for this call. But I do most sincerely thank Almighty God for the occasion on which you have called. [Cheers.] How long ago is it? Eighty odd years since, upon the Fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal. [Cheers.]

That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the fourth day of July has had several very peculiar recognitions. The two most distinguished men who framed and supported that paper, including the particular declaration I have mentioned, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the one having framed it, and the other sustained it most ably in debate, the only two of the fifty-five or fifty-six who signed it, I believe, who were ever President of the United States, precisely fifty years after they put their hands to that paper it pleased the Almighty God to take away from this stage of action on the Fourth of July. This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events.

Another of our Presidents, five years afterwards, was called from this stage of existence on the same day of the month, and now on this Fourth of July just past, when a gigantic rebellion has risen in the land, precisely at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow that principle "that all men are created equal," we have a surrender of one of their most powerful positions and powerful armies forced upon them on that very day. [Cheers.] And I see in the succession of battles in Pennsylvania, which continued three days, so rapidly following each other as to be justly called one great battle, fought on the first, second and third of July; on the fourth the enemies of the declaration that all men are created equal had to turn tail and run. [Laughter and applause.]

Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme and a glorious occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the theme and worthy of the occasion. [Cries of "go on," and applause.] I would like to speak in all praise that is due to the the [sic] many brave officers and soldiers who have fought in the cause of the Union and liberties of this country from the beginning of this war, not on occasions of success, but upon the more trying occasions of the want of success. I say I would like to speak in praise of these men, particularizing their deeds, but I am unprepared. I should dislike to mention the name of a single officer, lest in doing so I wrong some other one whose name may not occur to me. [Cheers.]

Recent events bring up certain names, gallantly prominent, but I do not want to particularly name them at the expense of others, who are as justly entitled to our gratitude as they. I therefore do not upon this occasion name a single man. And now I have said about as much as I ought to say in this impromptu manner, and if you please, I'll take the music. [Tremendous cheering, and calls for the President to reappear.]

It was reported in the Washington Evening Star that after Lincoln's speech, there was music by the band and the crowd then went to the War Department to hear speeches by Secretary Stanton and others.

(Note: Lincoln's July 7 speech was printed in, for example, New York Tribune, (8 July 1863, 1), New York Times, (8 July 1863, 8), Philadelphia Inquirer, (8 July 1863, 4), Alexandria Gazette, (8 July 1863, 1), Boston Evening Transcript, (8 July 1863, 4), Daily National Republican, (8 July 1863, 2.), and National Intelligencer, ( 9 July 1863, 2.))

This page was last updated July 2009.

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