Abraham Lincoln's Farewell Address | Summary & Analysis
Lincoln's Life in Illinois
On February 11, 1861 Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) left Springfield, Illinois, for the last time as he set out for Washington, DC, to fulfill his new role as President of the United States. Lincoln gave a short, meaningful speech at the train station where a large crowd gathered to hear him speak. Before running for president, he was a member of the state legislature in Illinois for many years and served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served on the Springfield town board. He was associated with the Whig political party until joining the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.
Farewell to Springfield
Lincoln begins his speech by addressing the people in the crowd as "friends." Many of those gathered are indeed friends and acquaintances whom he recognizes. He describes his current emotion as sadness about leaving Springfield and expresses his gratitude for the place and the people there. Lincoln claims that he owes everything to Springfield. He may have felt this way because of the success he had with raising his family and beginning his political career in Springfield, including his elections to local, state, and national offices.
He then discusses his family. Lincoln spent 25 years living in Springfield, and he describes maturing from a young adult to an old man during that time. Lincoln met and married his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–82), in Springfield. He explains in his speech that his children, all four sons, were born in Illinois, and one son is buried there. He would later bury two sons before they reached adulthood.
Lincoln suggests that he may not return to Springfield when he states that he does not know when, "or whether ever," he will return. Lincoln hints at the possibilities of staying in Washington, DC, following his presidency or that his age might prevent him from returning home to Illinois. He also knows that it is a turbulent time for the nation, and his work as president will be difficult. He in fact did not return home to Springfield because he was assassinated in Washington, DC, during his presidency, on April 15, 1865.
The speech ends with a description of Lincoln's upbringing in a highly religious Baptist family. He indicates that he will not be able to succeed without God's assistance, but with God's assistance he cannot fail. He also shares that God will go with him but also remains with everyone in Springfield. Before bidding his final farewell, Lincoln states that he hopes the prayers of his friends who are gathered there will commend him.
Comparison to President Washington
In the middle of his speech, Lincoln compares his situation to George Washington's time as president. He describes the task before him as "greater than that which rested upon Washington." President Washington faced significant challenges while serving as the country's first president. Lincoln recognized that he would also encounter difficult situations as president.Lincoln's election in November 1860 was surrounded by controversy. There were many political differences between northern and southern states, including disagreements about slavery. Seven southern states seceded from the union as a result of Lincoln's election. Upon his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln attempted to persuade those states to rejoin the nation. The Civil War (1861–65) officially began a few weeks later. While President Washington's challenge was to unite the country under the new Constitution, Lincoln faces what he believes will be the even greater challenge of reuniting the nation in the midst of a violent war. Lincoln states that he hopes that the Divine Being (God) that watches over Washington will also help him succeed in overcoming these obstacles.
Though his speech is short, it is both emotional and meaningful. Many presidents give a farewell speech as they exit their role as president, but Lincoln never had that opportunity because of his assassination. This speech connects Lincoln's life before becoming president to his new role by acknowledging the significant part the Springfield community plays in his life. His speech also indicates that Lincoln is aware of the difficult decisions and controversies he will face as president, even though he does not directly mention the secession of some southern states and the prospect of going to war. His last words, "I bid you an affectionate farewell," bring the short speech to an abrupt end by transitioning from serious matters to a warm goodbye to friends.
Abraham Lincoln's Farewell Address | Quotes
My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting.
Lincoln addresses his audience as friends and expresses that he feels sad about leaving Springfield. He says that no one can understand his sadness because he is in a unique position. Not many people have the opportunity or obligation to leave their home to serve as president. Lincoln had lived in Springfield for nearly 25 years and made his home there by marrying and having four children. He was also an active member of the community he was leaving behind.
To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.
Lincoln expresses his gratitude to Springfield and the kind people there. The community has supported Lincoln throughout his political career at the local, state, and national levels and Lincoln does not take this for granted.
Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man.
Lincoln spends the majority of his life in Springfield and has many life experiences in the nearly 25 years he lives there. When he moves to Springfield, he is 28 years old and has just become a licensed lawyer. He marries Mary Todd when he is 33, and they have their first child the next year. Lincoln goes from sharing a room with a local shopkeeper, to renting a room with his wife, to owning a home and expanding it during his time in Springfield. Lincoln's career also matures during this time as he opens his own law practice and is elected to several public offices including the U.S. House of Representatives.
Here my children have been born, and one is buried.
All four of Lincoln's sons are born in Springfield. One dies as a child and is buried there. This gives Lincoln a special connection to the town.
I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.
Lincoln admits that he does not know if he will return to Springfield due to his new duties as president. Since he won the election the previous November, seven southern states have seceded from the union. He will be tasked with reuniting the country, which he claims will be even more of a challenge than what George Washington had faced as the first president.
Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed.
Lincoln addresses his religious faith and belief that The Divine Being will help him and that he will not succeed without that assistance. Lincoln was raised in a Baptist family, and he invokes his Christian upbringing in his speech. The Baptist faith is a part of the Christian religion. Baptists believe that they can be saved by having faith in God. Lincoln demonstrates that he believes in a Divine Being, such as God, to help him succeed.
With that assistance I cannot fail.
Lincoln states that he will not fail in his new role as president as long as he has help from The Divine Being which he believes had helped President Washington to be successful.
Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good.
Lincoln references that The Divine Being will travel with him to Washington and also remain with the people in Springfield. He encourages people to remain hopeful that things will go well. He trusts that The Divine Being will be with those working toward the greater good.
... let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.
Lincoln's serious tone indicates that difficult times lay ahead, but he remains optimistic that things will end well. He does not mention the specific troubles the nation is facing, but the secession of several states and an impending Civil War (1861–65) in which the nation would be divided are among his main concerns.
To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
Lincoln ends his speech with a prayer that the Divine Being will care for the people of Springfield, and he hopes that they are praying for him, too. His final line is a short and simple goodbye as he extends warm feelings toward his friends.