Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction

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In his annual message to Congress in December, 1863, in fulfillment of that provision of the Constitution which requires that the President shall “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union,” Lincoln addressed himself to the question of reconstruction. He did not deal in quibbles or generalities, but came up with a plan. Anyone who knew Lincoln would have known that his design for a restored Union would not be hateful and vindictive. It would not rule out the very spirit of reunion. His view had never been narrowly sectional. Born in the Southern state of Kentucky of Virginia-born parents, moving thence to Indiana and Illinois, he was part of that transit of culture by which Southern characteristics, human types, and thought patterns had taken hold in the West and Northwest. Though he was antislavery and of course antisecession, he was never anti-Southern.

He had said in his first inaugural: “Physically we cannot separate,” and on various later occasions he had returned to this theme. As he wrote in his annual message of December 1, 1862, to “separate our common country into two nations” was to him intolerable. The people of the greater interior, he urged, “will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but will vow rather that there shall be no such line.” The situation as he saw it, in “all its adaptations and aptitudes . . . demands union and abhors separation.” It would ere long “force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might cost.”

Thus Lincoln’s fundamental adherence to an unbroken Union was the point of departure for his reconstruction program. One could find, in the earlier part of his presidency, other indications bearing upon restoration. In an important letter to General G. F. Shepley, military governor of Louisiana (November 21, 1862), he advised strongly against what came to be known as “carpetbagger” policy. He did not want “Federal officers not citizens of Louisiana” to seek election as congressmen from that state. On this his language was emphatic: he considered it “disgusting and outrageous ... to send a parcel of Northern men here as representatives, elected, as it would be understood (and perhaps really so), at the point of the bayonet.”

While in this manner disallowing the idea of importing Northern politicians into a Southern state as pseudo-representatives in Congress, he also repudiated the opposite policy of Fernando Wood of New York which would accept Southerners in Congress prematurely—that is, before resistance to the United States was ended and loyalty assured. To mention another point, he had, in considering the formation of the new state of West Virginia, expressed his view that, in the pattern of the Union, only those who were loyal—i. e., who adhered to the United States—could be regarded as competent voters.

To these points—the indispensable Union, loyalty, and the unwisdom of carpetbaggism—one must add Lincoln’s fundamental policy of emancipation and his non-vindictiveness in the matter of confiscation. Taking these factors together the historian has, before December, 1863, the ingredients of the President’s reunion program.

In announcing that program on December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued two documents: a proclamation, and a message to Congress. In his proclamation, having the force of law, he set forth the conditions of a general pardon and the terms of restoring a Southern state to the Union. In his accompanying message he commented upon his plan, telling more fully what was in his mind and defending his course by reason and persuasion. The offer of pardon (with stated exceptions) and restoration of rights (except as to slaves) was given to anyone in a seceded state who would take and keep a simple oath. Phrased by the President, this oath constituted a solemn pledge to support the Constitution of the United States “and the union of the States thereunder.” The oath-taker would also swear to abide by and faithfully support all the acts of Congress and all the proclamations of the President relating to slaves unless repealed, modified, or declared void by the Supreme Court.

So much for the oath, with pardon and restoration of rights. The next element in the proclamation was re-establishment of a state government. This again was intended to be simple and practical. Whenever, in a seceded state, a number not less than one-tenth of those voting in 1860, should re-establish a republican government, such a government, according to Lincoln’s proclamation, would “be recognized as the true government of the State.”

Turning from the proclamation to the simultaneous message, we find Lincoln setting forth the reasons and conditions of his policy. In this he addressed himself to various questions that he knew would arise. What about the oath? Why the ten per cent? What about state laws touching freedmen? Why preserve the state as it was? How about state boundaries? Why was the President assuming the power of reconstruction as an executive function? He started with the obvious unwisdom and absurdity of protecting a revived state government constructed from the disloyal element. It was essential to have a test “so as to build only from the sound.” He wanted that test to be liberal and to include “sworn recantation of ... former unsoundness.” As for laws and proclamations against slavery, they could not be abandoned. Retaining so far as possible the existing political framework in the state, as Lincoln saw it, would “save labor, and avoid confusion.” He did not, of course, mean by this that the system in any state was to be permanently frozen for the future in unchangeable form.