Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

African-Americans crossing the Rappahannock River, Virginia after the 2nd Battle of Bull Run

African-Americans crossing the Rappahannock River, Virginia after the 2nd Battle of Bull Run

African-American refugees on a barge which contains their household belongings

African-American refugees on a barge which contains their household belongings

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner presented his ideas of “state suicide” in resolutions he presented to Congress in February 1862. According to biographer Moorfield Storey, Sumner said that “Congress must provide for the termination of slavery in fact throughout the whole seceded territory; that as allegiance to the government and protection by it are corresponding obligations, the slaves were entitled to its protection; and that congress must ‘assume complete jurisdiction’ of the ‘vacated territory,’ and proceed to establish therein governments republican in form with due regard to the qual rights of all the inhabitants.” Storey noted: “Upon Sumner’s motion the resolutions were laid upon the table, and were never taken up.”1 Sumner’s ideas of reconstruction were far more rigid and extreme than those of even his fellow Radical Republicans. What they shared was a belief that Congress, not the President, should control the reconstruction process.

Mr. Lincoln had set out his reconstruction in his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction issued on December 8, 1863. It stated: “And I do further proclaim, declare, and make known, that whenever, in any of the States of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina, a number of persons, not less than one-tenth in number of the votes cast in such State at the Presidential election of the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty, each having taken the oath aforesaid and not having since violated it, and being a qualified voter by the election law of the State existing immediately before the so-called act of secession, and excluding all others, shall re-establish a State government which shall be republican, and in no wise contravening said oath, such shall be recognized as the true government of the State, and the State shall receive thereunder the benefits of the constitutional provision which declares that ‘The United States shall guaranty to every State in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and, on application of the legislature, or the executive, (when the legislature cannot be convened), against domestic violence.”2

Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “This plan, according to the newer view, made emancipation the ‘first prerequisite for restoration’ of a seceded state. In fact, it did not such thing. It required the prospective state-makers to swear to support all congressional acts and presidential proclamations with regard to slavery. As yet, no act of Congress or action of the president called for complete abolition. The Emancipation Proclamation exempted those parts of the Confederacy that the Union armies had already recovered – the only parts where state-making then could possibly begin. Lincoln heartily approved when, in 1864, the first reconstructed government, in Louisiana, provided for statewide emancipation. But the plan he had announced in 1862 did not require it.”3

President Lincoln was adaptable to circumstance and sought to feel his way through the reconstruction process, recruiting loyal and reconstructed Unionists. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, wrote: “Lincoln’s program of reconstruction can perhaps be understood best as the product of reactive leadership – that is, as a series of calculated responses to changing military and political conditions. In the beginning, it was a wartime program, intended primarily to facilitate military victory and the progress of emancipation. Lincoln wanted to detach Southerners from their Confederate allegiance and to set in motion a process of abolition by state action. And fearing that the fundamental purposes of the war were at risk in the approaching electoral votes that would undoubtedly come to him from any Confederate states fully restored to the Union. During the early stages of the program, it should be noted, Lincoln plainly conceived of reconstruction as a task for white Southerners working in cooperation with army commanders. Such was the import of his ten-percent plan, announced in December 1863, and his subsequent letter to Hahn raising the question of black suffrage in Louisiana was more of an exception than a new departure.”4 Mr. Lincoln’s policy was dictated by “kindness.” Historian Philip S. Paludan wrote: “Kindness meant finding and shaping new directions that fit into existing habits and institutions. Lincoln’s instinct was to implement his policies in ways that would enlist support from an many motives as possible and political self-interest was a motive he understood well.”5

Not everyone in Washington, however, was motivated by kindness. The congressional counterattack on the President’s reconstruction plans took awhile to develop. Moorfield Storey, biographer of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner wrote: “Early in February, 1864, Sumner offered a series of resolutions in order to bring his theory of reconstruction to public attention. In substance these declared that slavery was the cause of the rebellion; that to crush the rebellion it was necessary to destroy it; that in order to eradicate every germ of rebellion, any scheme of reconstruction must be rejected which did not provide ‘by irreversible guaranties against the continued existence or possible revival of slavery,’ and that these guaranties could be had only through the national government; that it was therefore the duty of Congress to let no State resume its functions until within its borders proper safeguards were established, ‘so that loyal citizens, including the new-made freedmen, cannot at any time be molested by evil-disposed persons, and especially that no man there may be made a slave;’ that slavery must be destroyed in the loyal as well as the seceded States, so that it should ‘no longer exist anywhere to menace the general harmony,’ and that to this end the Constitution must be amended so as to prohibit slavery everywhere within the jurisdiction of the United States.”6

A more concerted effort on reconstruction was launched by Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Wade biographer Hans L. Trefousse wrote: “While Wade disapproved of the President’s plan on constitutional grounds, he was even more critical of it for political reasons. Since when did ten per cent of the electorate constitute a majority? The proposition did violence to all his theories of democratic government, and he never missed an opportunity to attack it,” wrote Hans L. Trefousse. “Last, but not least, he objected to the President’s vagueness on slavery. To be sure, Lincoln’s plan exhorted its beneficiaries to abide faithfully by the Emancipation Proclamation and the laws of Congress, but it did not contain specific provisions ending the institution. Ten per cent of the inhabitants might well restore ante-bellum conditions; then, with Northern Democrats reinforced by their old Southern associates, the Republican party might lose its ascendancy. The radicals’ achievements might still be annulled in the very hour of victory. While Wade had been willing to postpone the issue, now that it had been raised, he was determined to solve it in his own way.”7

While Wade was working on his reconstruction plan in the Senate, Congressman Henry Winter Davis took the lead in managing legislation in the House. Historian Don C. Seitz wrote: “The Davis committee, on February 15, 1864, produced a plan of its own, with the premise, devised by Davis, that the seceding States were outside the Union and were to be dealt with de novo. This was reversing Lincoln’s view. The House did not accept it formally, but proceeded as if it were the underlying fact. By resolution, all that Lincoln had authorized in the way of reconstructing the shattered governments was deliberately set aside; it required that a census be taken and that a majority of the whites must take the oath before further procedure, pending which the status of the State would be that of a conquered province.”8 While the House acted by the end of March 1864, it took longer for the Senate to handle the legislation and it did not complete its work on the Wade-Davis until the end of the session in early July.

As in the case of emancipation, Mr. Lincoln was determined not to yield his constitutional authority to Radical Republicans in Congress. Historian Benjamin Thomas wrote: “Lincoln had never swerved from the conviction that Congress had no power over slavery in the states, and that he as President could never have interfered with it except as a necessity of war.”9 When he pocket-vetoed the Wade-Davis legislation, he acted on that principle and activated his Radical Republican opponents once again.

The issue died during the fall presidential campaign as all Republicans concentrated on beating back the threat of Democrat George B. McClellan, whose views were more of an anathema than those of the President.
“Reconstruction was too prickly a subject to be gripped,” wrote historian Allan Nevins. “The President having declared his tentative policy, and Wade, Sumner, and Winter Davis having momentarily retreated from their defiance, most Republicans were content to let that tiger doze.”10

But Mr. Lincoln’s reelection ended the truce. By early 1865, wrote historian T. Harry Williams wrote: “Jacobinism was rolling at flood tide, and its lashing power seemed about to engulf the last conservative bulwarks. Wade and Chandler seized the opportunity of the moment to move again for a system of retaliation upon Confederate prisoners, for the professed purpose of forcing the Southern government to cease its barbarous treatment of Union inmates of its prisons. Equipped with information concerning Southern prison conditions gathered from General [Benjamin] Butler and other witnesses, Wade offered a resolution authorizing the president to invoke reprisals. His measure would have exacted an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, with the reprisals being carried out under the direction of men who had suffered in Confederate prisons. In flaming words he accused the Confederacy of inaugurating a policy compounded of ‘brutality, inhumanity, exposure, and starvation,’ for the base and accursed purpose’ of destroying the manhood of Union prisoners and thus rendering them unfit for military service after they were exchanged. He avowed himself willing to accept any measures of retaliation: ‘I will make the South a desolation, with every traitor shall lose his life, unless they treat our men with humanity….I will go to an extreme in that direction.'”11

The Radicals were emboldened by rumors about possible concessions that Mr. Lincoln might have offered Confederate peace commissioners at meeting in Hampton Roads at the beginning of February. According to historian T. Harry Williams, “So excited were the Jacobins that Sumner introduced a resolution in the Senate calling upon Lincoln to furnish information about what had taken place at Hampton Roads. This touched off a snarling debate in which the hitherto-banked fires of factional controversy flared up in open warfare. The attenuated bonds holding radicals and conservatives together were revealed, as frayed tempers long held in leash snapped completely. Administration senators, led by [James] Doolittle, rushed forward to contend that the resolution was an attack upon the president. Doolittle singled out Wade as the leader of a Jacobin plot to sabotage the administration’s program for peace and reconstruction. In a savage reply, Wade flayed both Lincoln and Doolittle in intemperate language. He was not afraid to attack the president, he proclaimed. Sneeringly he observed that it was not honorable for senators to be Lincoln’s ‘mere servants, obeying everything that we may ascertain to be his wish and will, because he is not always wiser than the whole of us or a majority of us.'”12

Historian Williams wrote: “The Jacobin bosses were grimly confident that they could whip Lincoln on the reconstruction issue. They believed that public opinion had moved up to their position and that the people would support a program which included the suffrage for the Southern Negroes as one of its cardinal principles. They chose to precipitate the inevitable struggle with the president; their object was to defeat congressional recognition of Lincoln’s ten per cent governments.”13

Historian Philip S. Paludan wrote: “Congressmen were equally concerned, and their attention spread across several issues connected to Lincoln’s tolerance for reconstruction by white Southerners. Initially ready to welcome the December 1863 message as an outline that they could fill in with details, by February 1864 suspicions grew that their options were being closed, not invited. They were worried that state-level definitions of black freedom would not protect the freedmen and that Southern whites of dubious loyalty would too quickly acquire power over black liberty. Congress wanted several things: to impose more national control, to provide for a longer process of reconstruction, to increase the standards of loyalty for leadership and participation in government, and to provide better guarantees for black liberty. Congressmen wanted a more general plan, one subject to national influence and enforcement more directly from Washington, and if necessary, one more enduring in that it would operate under the mechanism of national laws, enforced in national courts by national officials.”14

Mr. Lincoln tired to keep things simple. As the Confederacy was collapsing on April 5, Mr. Lincoln wrote John A. Campbell, one of the Confederate peace commissioners at Hampton Roads:

As to peace, I have said before, and now repeat, that three things are indispensable.

1. The restoration of the national authority throughout all the States.

2. No receding by the Executive of the United States on the slavery question, from the position assumed thereon, in the late Annual Message to Congress, and in preceding documents.

3. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war, and the disbanding of all force hostile to the government.

That all propositions coming from those now in hostility to the government; and not inconsistent with the foregoing, will be respectfully considered, and passed upon in a spirit of sincere liberality.

I now add that it seems useless for me to be more specific with those who will not say they are ready for the indispensable terms, even on conditions to be named by themselves. If there be any who are ready for those indispensable terms, on any conditions whatever, let them say so, and state their conditions, so that such conditions can be distinctly known, and considered.

It is further added that the remission of confiscations being within the executive power, if the war be now further persisted in, by those opposing the government, the making of confiscated property at the least to bear the additional cost, will be insisted on; but that confiscations (except in cases of third party intervening interests) will be remitted to the people of any State which shall now promptly, and in good faith, withdraw it’s [sic] troops and other support, from further resistance to the government.

What is now said as to remission of confiscations has no reference to supposed property in slaves.15

Mr. Lincoln addressed the nation’s reconstruction succinctly in his final public address on April 11- days after the surrender of the Confederates at Appomattox and days before his own murder.

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 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 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 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, 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 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.16


  1. Moorfield Storey, Charles Sumner, p. 218-219.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 53-56 (December 8, 1863).
  3. Richard N. Current, Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, p. 164.
  4. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context, p. 156.
  5. Philip S. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 245.
  6. Moorfield Storey, Charles Sumner, p. 258-259.
  7. Hans L. Trefousse, Benjamin Franklin Wade, p. 220.
  8. Don C. Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 404.
  9. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 439.
  10. Allan Nevins, War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 126.
  11. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals, p. 352-353.
  12. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals, p. 355.
  13. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals, p. 357.
  14. Philip S. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 264-265.
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 386-387 (April 5, 1865).
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 399-405 (April 11, 1865).