Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction


On September 5, 1864, the people of Louisiana voted to ratify the constitution (6,836-1,566); members of Congress were then chosen by popular election, after which the legislature set up under the new constitution chose two senators. If and when these men should be admitted by Congress—a big “if”—reconstruction for Louisiana, so far as essential political structure was concerned, would be complete. In the matter of preliminary steps—shaping up the situation so that Congress could act—the work of the executive branch for this pivotal state was done.

Fourth Phase: Trouble in Congress . Much water was to pass over the mill before one could know what Congress would do as to admitting Louisiana according to Lincoln’s plan. The Radical clique in Louisiana had opposed the measures taken in 1864 looking toward a new state government. This element made a break with the Lincoln Administration, denounced the new constitution as null and void, and proceeded to make their influence felt in Congress. The Radical element in Congress was working strongly against Lincoln’s program in any case, and it was no surprise that the decision of the solons at Washington concerning Louisiana reorganization was negative. A long period of Federal occupation and troublous abnormality was to ensue. There were a number of uneasy years after Lincoln’s death before the state was, one should not say restored, but outfitted with a carpetbag government. After that there was to be further delay—nearly a decade—before that unworkable carpetbag regime collapsed.

Unionism in the South

As in Louisiana, so in other regions of the Confederate South, Lincoln did his best to promote reorganization measures so that state governments could supersede Federal military rule, but wartime conditions made for obstruction and progress was slow. In Tennessee, where secession had been strongly resisted and where Union victories came in February and April of 1862, it might have seemed that a choice opportunity was offered for early restoration of civil government under unionist auspices. The pro-Confederate regime in Tennessee was brief; it extended only from May 7, 1861 (legislative ratification of the military league with the Confederacy) to March 3, 1862, when Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson military governor of the state, a period of ten months.

Johnson’s attitude had been demonstrated by “violent opposition to slavery and secession” and by retention of his seat in the United States Senate. His unionism was unassailable, but he could only perform the functions of civil government on an emergency basis and Lincoln’s hopes for instituting a more permanent and regular regime were repeatedly deferred. There was heavy fighting in 1862 and 1863. Guerrilla warfare, raids by Forrest, agitation among discordant pro-Union elements, puzzlement as to what was “regular” by the old code of the state (nothing could be strictly regular in those war times), lack of popular interest when elections were held, complications as to soldier voting and military influence, divided leadership as between Nashville and Washington—these were among the factors that caused continual delay.

Not until February, 1865, was an election held in Tennessee which had importance in terms of popular voting for fundamental state reorganization. After that there loomed, as always, the serious obstacle of congressional opposition. Tennessee was not to be admitted to the Union until 1866. Yet as early as September 11, 1863, Lincoln had written to Governor Johnson: “All Tennessee is now clear of armed insurrectionists.” Insisting that “Not a moment should be lost” in “reinaugurating a loyal State government,” the President insisted, as in Louisiana, that prudent steps be taken without delay. Discretion was left with Johnson and “co-operating friends” as to ways and means, with the presidential injunction that the reinauguration should not be allowed to slip into the hands of enemies of the Union, “driving its friends . . . into political exile.” “It must not be so,” wrote Lincoln. “You must have it otherwise.”

In September, 1863, Andrew Johnson said to his people: “Here lies your State; a sick man in his bed, emaciated and exhausted . . . unable to walk alone. The physician comes. Don’t quarrel about antecedents, but administer to his wants . . . as quickly as possible. . . . This is no . . . metaphysical question. It is a plain, common sense matter, and there is nothing in the way but obstinacy.” Johnson’s simile of the sick man and his suggestion as to the ineptness of those administering to him could have covered a great deal more territory than Tennessee.

II Events of 1863 and early 1864 in Arkansas proceeded with little difficulty so far as that commonwealth itself was concerned. It was a sparsely settled state, with 435,000 inhabitants in 1860, of whom 111,115 were slaves. Illinois, of comparable area, had nearly four times the population. It was chiefly in the southeastern part, in the plantation area near the Mississippi River, that slaveholding was concentrated. Throughout most of the state there were few slaves, in the northern portion hardly any. People of the Ozark mountain region had little in common with the few cotton-growing magnates. To the vast majority of the people the abolition of slavery would produce no serious reordering of their lives and economy.