Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction


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.

As to the specific formula of ten per cent, he said little; yet his simile of a rallying point held the key. The important object was to get a movement started. Acceptance of an initial electorate of ten per cent did not signify that Lincoln was favoring minority rule. It was not his thought that any minority should usurp the rights of the majority. Within his pattern of loyalty, Union, non-dictatorial government, and emancipation, he was putting the formation of any new state government in the hands of the loyal people of the state. Government by the people was to him fundamental, but as a practical matter some loyal nucleus was essential; else time would pass, precious time, and nothing would be done.

The whole situation, of course, was abnormal. All beginnings, or re-beginnings, are difficult, especially rebuilding after or during a war, taking up the shattered pieces of a disrupted social and political order and putting them partly together so that ultimately they could be fully restored. Lincoln was willing to accept informality in order to accomplish the main practical purpose which he considered imperative. He was unwilling to throw away the cause while futilely waiting for perfection. Reconstruction, as he saw it, was a matter of stages. His “ten per cent plan” was easy to criticize. Yet it was the first step.

Lincoln would take his first step in the most available manner. A few states could be rebuilt and restored. This was to be done during the war, indeed as an important factor in waging and ending the war. Let people see that Lincoln did not intend an ugly and vindictive policy, and Southerners themselves, the President hoped, would set their own houses in order. Let one or two states do this; they would serve as examples for others as the armies advanced and national authority was extended. In time of war, prepare for peace, was Lincoln’s thought. On the other hand, let the months pass, and let the Southern people witness only carpetbaggism, Federal occupation, and a repressive attitude as to the future, and victory itself would lose much of its value. It was Lincoln’s intent that policy associated with victory should envisage willing loyalty while leaving free play for self government.

II Lincoln’s plan of reunion was greeted with a mixed response. The Washington Chronicle , regarded as a Lincoln “organ,” naturally praised the President’s announcement. The editor noted that the President gave out his statement in a setting of military and naval success: our armies victorious, our navy in control of Southern coasts, our cause strengthened by increased friendship of foreign nations. His generous offering of pardon was interpreted by the Chronicle as evidence of his kindness and sympathy toward the people of the South.

An English gentleman friendly to the United States wrote: “We have just received the news of President Lincoln’s message, accompanied with his amnesty; also the message of ... [Jefferson] Davis. The two documents coming together are doing an immense amount of good for the right cause.”