Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction


In Washington and throughout the country the speech aroused much speculation about Lincoln’s undisclosed intentions, and it provoked mixed feelings about his general approach to reconstruction. The editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger noted that the President had indicated his “feelings and wishes” rather than his “fixed opinions,” then commended him for his lack of “passion or malignancy” toward the late rebels. The Washington correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette believed that Lincoln’s position was generally approved except among the Radical Republicans, who were saying that the rebel leaders must be punished and the rebel states subjected to “preliminary training” before being restored to their rights as members of the Union. “The desire of the people for a settlement—speedy and final—upon the easiest possible terms, will, it is believed, sustain the President in his policy foreshadowed in his speech.”


Whatever the people might have approved, it was again made clear to Lincoln, when the Cabinet met on the morning of April 14 (with General Grant present), that some of his own advisers would not approve a settlement upon easy terms. Secretary Stanton came to the meeting with a project for military occupation as a preliminary step toward the reorganization of the Southern states, Virginia and North Carolina to be combined in a single military district. Secretary Welles objected to this arrangement on the grounds that it would destroy the individuality of the separate states. The President sustained Welles’s objection but did not completely repudiate Stanton’s plan. Instead, he suggested that Stanton revise it so as to deal with Virginia and North Carolina separately, and that he provide copies of the revised plan for the members of the Cabinet at their next meeting.

Before the Cabinet meeting adjourned, Lincoln said he was glad that Congress was not in session. The House and the Senate, he was aware, had the unquestioned right to accept or reject new members from the Southern states; he himself had nothing to do with that. Still, he believed, the President had the power to recognize and deal with the state governments themselves. He could collect taxes in the South, see that the mails were delivered there, and appoint Federal officials (though his appointments would have to be confirmed, of course, by the Senate). He knew that the congressional Radicals did not agree with him, but they were not in session to make official objection, and he could act to establish and recognize the new state governments before Congress met in December. He did not intend to call a special session before that time, as he told the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, later on the day of that final Cabinet meeting, as he was leaving to go to Ford’s Theater.

When, in December, 1865, the regular session of Congress finally began, Andrew Johnson had been President for nearly eight months. At first, in the days of terror following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson talked like a good Radical. He also acted like one when he ordered the arrest of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders on the charge of complicity in the assassination. But Johnson and the Radicals soon disagreed on reconstruction. During the summer he succeeded in the restoration of state governments according to a plan which required them only to abolish slavery, retract their ordinances of secession, and repudiate their debts accumulated in the Confederate cause. In December the Radicals in Congress refused to seat the Senators and Representatives from these restored states. After checking Johnson’s program, the Radicals proceeded to undo it, while impeaching the President. Eventually they carried through their own program of military occupation, similar to the one Stanton had proposed at the Cabinet meeting of April 14, and they undertook to transfer political power from the old master class to the freedmen, as Chase and other Radicals long had advocated.

Whether Lincoln, if he had lived, would have done as Johnson did, is hard to say. Certainly Lincoln would not have hounded Jefferson Davis or other Confederate officials (but, then, the presupposition here is that there would have been no assassination to seem to justify it). To his Cabinet in April he had indicated his hope that there would be no persecution, no bloody work, with respect to any of the late enemy. “None need expect he would take any part in hanging or killing those men, even the worst of them,” Welles paraphrased him. “Frighten them out of the country, open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off, said he, throwing up his hands as if scaring sheep.”

As for the restoration of state governments, it is impossible to guess confidently what Lincoln would have done or tried to do, since the very essence of his planning was to have no fixed and uniform plan, and since he appeared to be changing his mind on some points shortly before he died. In the states already being reconstructed under his program of December, 1863, he doubtless would have continued to support that program, as he did to the last. In other states he might have tried other expedients.

Whether, if Lincoln had lived and had proceeded along Johnson’s lines, he would have succeeded any better that Johnson, is another “iffy” question, impossible to answer. It seems likely that, with his superior talent for political management, Lincoln would have avoided the worst of Johnson’s clashes with Congress. Yet he could scarcely have escaped the conflict itself, unless he had conceded much more to the Radicals than Johnson did.