- Historic Sites
Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
Under these circumstances, though Union sentiment was held to be widespread in the state, the small-scale efforts to restore Florida were subject to the taunt that their motive was to give a plausible basis for sending pro-Lincoln delegates to the coming Republican convention; even the Seymour expedition was derided as a feature of the political campaign of 1864.
From Lincoln’s standpoint the approach to reconstruction in Florida was like that in other Southern areas. On January 13, 1864, he wrote Gillmore advising that the general was to be “master” if differences should arise; in this letter the President urged that restoration be pushed “in the most speedy way possible,” and that it be done within the range of the December proclamation. To handle some of the details John Hay was sent to Florida “with some blank-books [for recording oaths] and other blanks, to aid in the reconstruction.” This trip of Hay’s (February-March 1864) was not a brilliant success and the sum-total of the Florida gesture for reconstruction was far from impressive. Florida’s “delegates,” chosen by a few in Jacksonville, did turn up at the Republican convention in June, 1864, but not until after the war did the commonwealth proceed to the making of a new state constitution within the range of the Union; readmission to the Union—i. e., inauguration of carpetbag government—occurred in 1868; restoration of home rule—the throwing off of Radical Republican control—was deferred to 1877.
Small though it was, there was more in the Union effort in Florida than at first met the eye. One could treat the Seymour, or Gillmore-Seymour, expedition of 1864 as a sorry military enterprise, or as a disappointing phase of Lincoln’s reconstruction plan, but in a realistic study one needs to enlarge the scope of inquiry. The episode must also be viewed in its relation to such subjects as the use of Negro troops (in which there was creditable performance), maneuvers in the pro-Chase sense, the opening of trade, and what has been called “carpetbag imperialism.” In a detailed study George Winston Smith has pointed out that grandiose schemes or experiments were conjured up in connection with the Florida effort. There was, for example, the “extravagant plan” of Eli Thayer of Kansas emigrant fame—a well-intentioned plan to set up “soldier-colonists” and create model communities on the most approved New England pattern. The plan reached “only the blueprint stage,” but it reveals much as to Yankee enterprise in the deep South. There was also injected into the wartime Florida scene the “machinations” of Lyman K. Stickney, “the most notorious of the early Florida carpetbaggers,” who operated under Secretary Chase in the enforcement of a congressional act for collecting the Federal direct tax in the South. This law, writes Smith, was a “move to confiscate the real property of southern landholders” and was so administered as to become “an instrument of predatory corruption in Florida.”
These factors need to be borne in mind in judging Lincoln’s approach to reconstruction. It was a complicated problem of many facets, with idealistic motives combined with profit-seeking greed. Lincoln tried to keep restoration on the main track and keep it unmarred, but it was part of the history of the time—the prelude to the “Gilded Age”—that debased and uninspiring maneuvers would creep in. Florida was only an example. When one remembers such influences, he can realize with fuller force the significance of Lincoln’s rejection of the whole drive and tendency toward carpetbaggism.
IV In Lincoln’s planning for a restored Union he kept his eye constantly on a highly important factor, that of unionism in the South. Of course it could have been said by critics that Lincoln was not bothering with the opposition, that he was requiring an oath of Union allegiance as a prerequisite for the right to vote on any state reorganization, and that he was thus stacking the cards in his favor, working only with friends of the Union. This seemed the more striking because of his willingness to depend on a Union-minded minimum of ten per cent (of 1860 voters) for the initial steps of reconstruction.
Yet on closer study it will be seen that success for any reunion movement was dependent upon popular support in the state. Always at some point there had to be an election, a popular choice of a constitutional convention to remake the state constitution, and a vote for state officials and members of Congress. People who voted in these initial elections had to take the Union oath; but no one was to be coerced into taking it, and if the number of oath-takers was too insignificant, the plan would not get very far. Lincoln was starting with a loyal minority, but the quality and extent of that minority was never unimportant. Furthermore, the President was planning for peace, for the long years ahead after the war ended.