Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction


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.”

It is doubtful how many readers made the comparison of the two messages, but those who did must have noted a marked difference of tone. In general spirit Lincoln’s message of December 8, 1863, was notable for its absence of war-engendered hatred toward the South, ending as it did on the note of “freedom disenthralled.” In appealing for reunion the President was holding out the hand for genuine renewal of friendly relations. This attitude, however, was not reciprocated by the Confederate President. Though perhaps the comparison should not be overstressed, one finds quite the opposite note in the message (December 7, 1863) of Jefferson Davis to his Congress. After a depressing account of Confederate military reverses and of discouraging condition in foreign affairs and finance, the Southern Executive threw in bitter denunciations of the “barbarous policy” and “savage ferocity” of “our enemies.” At one point he referred to them as “hardened by crime.” (There were, of course, those in the North, though not Lincoln, who were saying equally hateful things of the South.) That enemy, wrote Davis, refused “even to listen to proposals . . . [of peace] of recognizing the impassable gulf which divides us.” This expression, the orthodox attitude of Confederate officialdom, must be remembered along with Lincoln’s other problems. If anyone doubted why the President, in his reconstruction plans and his wariness toward “peace negotiations,” realized the hopelessness of expecting high Confederate officials to consider a peaceable restoration of the Union, the reading of this message of Davis would have been enough to dispel such doubt.

It was obvious from the start that the President’s plan would not have smooth sailing, but on several fronts steps were taken to make it known and put it into operation. Army officers were instructed to take copies of the proclamation and distribute them so as to reach soldiers and inhabitants within Confederate-held territory. Aid and protection was to be extended to those who would declare loyalty. On the occasion of raids into enemy territory a number of men were to be detailed “for the purpose of distributing the proclamation broadcast among rebel soldiers and people, and in the highways and byways.”