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Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
In his annual message to Congress in December, 1863, in fulfillment of that provision of the Constitution which requires that the President shall “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union,” Lincoln addressed himself to the question of reconstruction. He did not deal in quibbles or generalities, but came up with a plan. Anyone who knew Lincoln would have known that his design for a restored Union would not be hateful and vindictive. It would not rule out the very spirit of reunion. His view had never been narrowly sectional. Born in the Southern state of Kentucky of Virginia-born parents, moving thence to Indiana and Illinois, he was part of that transit of culture by which Southern characteristics, human types, and thought patterns had taken hold in the West and Northwest. Though he was antislavery and of course antisecession, he was never anti-Southern.
He had said in his first inaugural: “Physically we cannot separate,” and on various later occasions he had returned to this theme. As he wrote in his annual message of December 1, 1862, to “separate our common country into two nations” was to him intolerable. The people of the greater interior, he urged, “will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but will vow rather that there shall be no such line.” The situation as he saw it, in “all its adaptations and aptitudes . . . demands union and abhors separation.” It would ere long “force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might cost.”
Thus Lincoln’s fundamental adherence to an unbroken Union was the point of departure for his reconstruction program. One could find, in the earlier part of his presidency, other indications bearing upon restoration. In an important letter to General G. F. Shepley, military governor of Louisiana (November 21, 1862), he advised strongly against what came to be known as “carpetbagger” policy. He did not want “Federal officers not citizens of Louisiana” to seek election as congressmen from that state. On this his language was emphatic: he considered it “disgusting and outrageous ... to send a parcel of Northern men here as representatives, elected, as it would be understood (and perhaps really so), at the point of the bayonet.”
While in this manner disallowing the idea of importing Northern politicians into a Southern state as pseudo-representatives in Congress, he also repudiated the opposite policy of Fernando Wood of New York which would accept Southerners in Congress prematurely—that is, before resistance to the United States was ended and loyalty assured. To mention another point, he had, in considering the formation of the new state of West Virginia, expressed his view that, in the pattern of the Union, only those who were loyal—i. e., who adhered to the United States—could be regarded as competent voters.
To these points—the indispensable Union, loyalty, and the unwisdom of carpetbaggism—one must add Lincoln’s fundamental policy of emancipation and his non-vindictiveness in the matter of confiscation. Taking these factors together the historian has, before December, 1863, the ingredients of the President’s reunion program.
In announcing that program on December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued two documents: a proclamation, and a message to Congress. In his proclamation, having the force of law, he set forth the conditions of a general pardon and the terms of restoring a Southern state to the Union. In his accompanying message he commented upon his plan, telling more fully what was in his mind and defending his course by reason and persuasion. The offer of pardon (with stated exceptions) and restoration of rights (except as to slaves) was given to anyone in a seceded state who would take and keep a simple oath. Phrased by the President, this oath constituted a solemn pledge to support the Constitution of the United States “and the union of the States thereunder.” The oath-taker would also swear to abide by and faithfully support all the acts of Congress and all the proclamations of the President relating to slaves unless repealed, modified, or declared void by the Supreme Court.
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.”
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.”
On the legal or prosecuting front the effect of the pardon policy was explained in an instruction from the office of the attorney general of the United States to district attorneys throughout the country. It was made known that the “President’s pardon of a person guilty of ... rebellion . . . [would] relieve that person for the penalties” of that crime. District attorneys were therefore directed to discontinue proceedings in United States courts whenever the accused should take the oath and comply with the stated conditions.
Such a statement would make it appear that the transition from a kind of rebellious guilt to complete relief from penalty was easy, automatic, and practically instantaneous, but it soon became evident that the matter was not so simple as that. Lincoln found that he had to make a distinction in applying his offer of pardon in return for the oath. What about Confederate soldiers held by Union authorities as prisoners of war? On this point the President issued a letter clarifying the proclamation, declaring that his pardon did not apply to men in custody or on parole as prisoners of war. It did apply, he explained, to persons yet at large (i. e., free from arrest) who would come forward and take the oath. It was also explained that those excluded from the general amnesty could apply to the President for clemency and their cases would have due consideration.
What it amounted to was that Lincoln himself was generous in the application of his pardon both to soldiers and civilians, and the same was true of the attorney general’s office; but army officers were not prepared, in return for the oath, to deliver prisoners nor give up penalties for offences of various sorts, such as violation of rules of war. No one statement applies. Some enemies held as prisoners, on establishing loyalty, were discharged from custody by the President on assurance of good faith by three congressmen. This showed, as in many cases, that Lincoln’s general rules were subject to individual exceptions.
III With a scorn of fine-spun theories and an urgent wish to get ahead with the job of reconstruction, the President proceeded, so far as possible, to make restoration a reality wherever, and as soon as, any reasonable opportunity offered in the seceded South.
In Lincoln’s plan of reconstruction the effort in Louisiana was of vital importance. From the time that New Orleans fell to Union arms on May 1, 1862, the President saw, in terms of Federal occupation, an early opportunity to make reconstruction a wartime reality. Let Louisiana be restored, he thought, let this be done in a reasonable manner with Washington approval, let it be seen that the plan would work, and other states would follow. To go into all the details of the Louisiana story, treating its complications month by month, would be a tedious process. It will be convenient to reduce this elaborate Louisiana story to four successive phases:
First Phase in Louisiana: Military Rule Under Butler and Shepley . The first phase was that of army rule under General B. F. Butler. Immediate adjustments were of course necessary from the moment when New Orleans, largest city of the South, together with a large portion of Louisiana, came under the Union flag. Governmental officials in the occupied region, including merely local functionaries in city or parish, were now under Federal authority—not in terms of any deliberation as to procedure by Congress or the Executive, but simply by the fortunes of war. Where men in local office stood ready to co-operate with the occupying power, they had a good chance of being retained; if un-cooperative, they were dismissed. For a time the mayor and council of New Orleans were continued in office subject to General Butler’s authority with some relaxation of military pressure, but this situation did not last long. Within a month the mayor was deposed and imprisoned, and George F. Shepley, acting closely with Butler, took over mayoral functions. Then in June, 1862, Shepley became military governor of Louisiana; soon afterward he had the rank of brigadier general.
This was military occupation, and of course it was intended only as a temporary condition. It amounted to martial law which has been defined as the will of the military commander; this meant that the sometimes eccentric will of General Butler was paramount. If nothing offered in the form of a re-established and recognized state government, the abnormal and temporary regime would continue.
It thus came about that Federal rule in Louisiana, the first step toward what Lincoln regarded as restoration of loyalty and normal conditions, got off to a bad start. The name of “Beast Butler” became a hated byword in the South, with far-reaching complications in Federal-Confederate relations; it came as a considerable relief when President Lincoln removed him from his Louisiana command on December 16, 1862. His successor, as commander of the military forces stationed in Louisiana and Texas, was Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, with Shepley retaining his position as “military governor of Louisiana.”
Under Butler little or nothing had been done toward wartime governmental reconstruction in the state, but this problem, dear to Lincoln’s heart, was tackled under the President’s urging during the Banks-Shepley regime.
A careful study of these matters reveals a problem as to top executive leadership locally applied—that is, the difficulty of achieving effectiveness in a particular area in terms of policy developed in Washington. Lincoln was President; he was the Chief; he made the appointments and formed decisions; presumably he would choose men to put his policies into operation. Yet so unpredictable were events and so complicated was the situation as to politicians’ maneuvers that those who supposedly should have carried out Lincoln’s purposes promoted their own factional and contrary schemes in such manner as to jeopardize the President’s best laid plans.
George F. Shepley was a case in point. He had been a Maine Democrat, an appointee of Pierce and later of Buchanan as district attorney, and a supporter of Douglas in 1860. These factors in his background did not militate against him in Lincoln’s view—the President often appointed Democrats—nor should they have been a drawback to successful service in Louisiana’s reconstruction. There was, however, the further fact that Shepley became a Butlerite and a Radical; remaining after Butler’s removal, he played the Radical game at a time when it was hoped that a more Lincolnian policy would be inaugurated. Thus Shepley stood as an obstacle to Lincoln’s efforts to allay factionalism and to promote speedy and liberal restoration.
Toward the end of the Butler-Shepley period an election was held within the Union lines on December 3, 1862, for members of Congress from Louisiana. Two men of different outlook were elected: B. F. Flanders from New Hampshire, who was to become an instrument of the Radical faction; and Michael Hahn, a citizen of Louisiana born in Bavaria, who was more in tune with Lincoln’s purposes. When the question of admitting these gentlemen as members of the House of Representatives was brought before that body (February 9, 1863) a species of dog fight ensued, a forerunner of the rough treatment in store for Lincoln’s whole reunion program. Few were ready for frontal attack and sidestepping was more in evidence; the result was confusion, unrelated motions, and postponement. Finally, on February 17, 1863, the House voted, 92 to 44, to seat Flanders and Hahn. By that time that particular Congress, the Thirty-seventh, was about to pass out of existence.
Second Phase: Shepley and Durant versus Banks . In the next phase, while Banks was in top command in Louisiana with Shepley as military governor—i. e., governor as to civil affairs under military authority—certain groups in the state got to work, though at cross purposes, to seize control of the process of state remaking. It turned out to be a period of bickering and futility, a time of bitter disappointment to the President. Taking over the rebuilding task and attempting to do it in his own way, Governor Shepley proceeded to make a registry of voters, appointing T. J. Durant, a Radical like himself, as commissioner of registration. An oath of allegiance was required (this was before the presidentially prescribed oath of December 8, 1863) and the registration of whites who would take the oath was ordered. It was Durant’s idea that ten loyal men in a parish, if no more could be registered, would be a sufficient basis for an election. This was a period when Banks was preoccupied with military command in the Port Hudson and Texas areas, while Shepley was also absent from Louisiana, spending a large part of the summer of 1863 in Washington. Lincoln approved the Shepley-Durant registration and wanted it pushed.
The President was trying to keep himself in the background, to avoid seeming to dictate, and to let things work themselves out as a Louisiana movement. Yet he soon found that a jurisdictional dispute or confusion as to control was spoiling everything. Shepley as military governor and Durant, his appointee, were claiming “that they were exclusively charged with the work of reconstruction in Louisiana,” while Banks had “not felt authorized to interfere” with them. In a letter of December 16, 1863, Banks advised the President that he was “only in partial command,” adding: “There are not less than four distinct governments here claiming . . . independent powers based upon instructions received directly from Washington, and recognizing no other authority than their own.”
Though this unfortunate situation was due in large part to the activities of Radical groups, another factor may have been a bit of inadvertence on the part of the burdened President: he had supposed all the time that Banks was in chief command but had not made that point sufficiently clear. He now wrote a strong letter to Banks (December 24, 1863) with a fourfold repetition of the main theme: You are master. The President was seriously annoyed at the frustration and delay. Shepley, he wrote, was to “assist” Banks, not to “thwart” him. The desirable object, of course, was to have unity among pro-Union men and leaders, but a serious obstacle to such unity was the attitude of Shepley and his considerable faction. It became increasingly apparent that these Radicals were unwilling to co-operate with the man whom Lincoln had placed in chief authority and whom he had plainly designated as “master.” Treating delay and factionalism as if things of the past, Lincoln wrote to Banks: “Give us a free State reorganization of Louisiana in the shortest possible time.”
Third Phase: The Louisiana Constitution of 1864 . Under Lincoln’s spurring Banks went into action. In January and February of 1864 he issued proclamations for two kinds of elections: an election for governor under the old Louisiana constitution of 1853, and an election of delegates to a convention to make a new state constitution. In his proclamations, copies of which he sent to the President, Banks declared that officials then to be chosen were to govern unless they tried to change Federal statutes as to slavery. Voters were required to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.
Lincoln continued to prod and encourage. Proceed “with all possible dispatch,” wrote the President. “Frame orders, and fix times and places for this and that . . . .” Recognition of the death of slavery in Louisiana was causing less difficulty than might have been expected. While the planter class wanted to keep the institution, they were in the minority; the majority of the people were ready to accept emancipation.
Both of the elections were a success from the standpoint of Banks and of Lincoln. Not that Lincoln considered the outcome perfect, but the whole point of Lincoln’s policy was that he was not expecting perfection. He wanted steps to be taken, a “free” government set up; modifications and improvements could come later. The vote for state officials was held on February 22, 1864. In a total of 11,411 votes (over a fourth of the normal peacetime vote of Louisiana) Michael Hahn, the moderate Union candidate acceptable to Banks and Lincoln, received 6,183 votes and was elected; Flanders, candidate of the anti-Banks Radical element, received 2,232 votes; J. Q. A. Fellows, nominated by the proslavery conservatives, received the disturbingly large vote of 2,996.
Next came the problem of constitution remaking. By Banks’s proclamation an election was held on March 28, 1864, by which delegates were chosen (not a distinguished lot, but they represented the people rather than officials or politicians) to form a new instrument of government. From April to July the convention labored. Among its main acts was to abolish slavery by a vote of seventy to sixteen. Negro suffrage, then a new question and a difficult one, came harder. After voting it down, the convention reconsidered; it then “empowered” the legislature to grant the vote to colored persons; by the constitution it was provided that a militia be enrolled without distinction of color.
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.
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.
The state had avoided secession until swept away by the post-Sumter excitement; when secession was adopted it was done reluctantly. Even after secession, considerable Union sentiment remained. According to a contemporary account, pertaining to the situation in 1863, “Citizens of distinction came forward to advocate the Union cause; among others, Brig.-Gen. E. W. Gantt, of the Confederate army, once held as a prisoner of war.” The shift of General Gantt from Confederate to Union allegiance was, as he said, part of a popular movement; Union sentiment, he noted, was “manifesting itself on all sides and by every indication.” For many who were of like mind with Gantt the open declaration of loyalty to the Federal government, especially after the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, came naturally. It was like snapping out of an abnormal situation.
Military events provided a considerable impulse toward Union reorganization, especially the Union victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and the Helena-Little Rock expedition of General Frederick Steele, U. S. A., against Sterling Price, C. S. A., which resulted in Confederate evacuation of Little Rock on September 10, 1863. With this Confederate reverse a large part of the state was brought under Union control.
Lincoln kept in touch with Arkansas affairs, notifying General Steele that he, as in the case of Banks in Louisiana, was “master” of the reorganization process. “Some single mind,” wrote the President, “must be master, else there will be no agreement in anything.” He had ample reason to realize the truth of this statement.
The pattern of the Arkansas movement reveals much as to Lincoln’s plan in practical operation. Sentiment developed in meetings, with Union resolutions, in large parts of the state. Delegates were chosen in such meetings (by no more and no less authority than is usual in such popular movements under the stress of abnormal conditions) for a “convention” designed to make a new regime constitutional and legal. Lincoln encouraged the holding of the convention, welcoming it as a fulfillment of his plan as announced in December, 1863. On January 20, 1864, he indicated that the reorganization emanated from citizens of Arkansas petitioning for an election, and directed Steele to “order an election immediately” for March 28, 1864. When, on counting the votes for a Union-minded governor and for changes in the state constitution, the number should reach or exceed 5,406 (that being ten per cent of the Arkansas vote of 1860), Lincoln directed that the governor thus chosen should be declared qualified and that he should assume his duties under the modified state constitution. (As a minor detail, when it was found that the Union convention in Arkansas was planning the election for March 14, not March 28, the President quickly acquiesced in the convention plan.)
In the President’s mind a milestone had been reached in Arkansas affairs with that election of March 14. By an overwhelming majority (12,179 to 226) the voters, having qualified by taking the Federal oath of allegiance, approved those changes in the state constitution which abolished slavery, declared secession void, and repudiated the Confederate debt. Isaac Murphy, already installed as provisional governor by the convention, was now elected governor by “more than double what the President had required.” On April 11 the new state government under the modified constitution was inaugurated at Little Rock. The reconstructed legislature chose senators (William M. Fishbach and Elisha Baxter); three members of Congress had already been chosen in the March election.
Obstruction in House and Senate prevented the admission of these representatives and senators, and for long years Arkansas remained outside the pale so far as Congress was concerned. Lincoln’s view, however, both as to practical matters and as to his own function in promoting them, was shown in his executive measures to get these important steps taken, and in his advice to Steele (June 29, 1864) that, despite congressional refusal to give these solons their seats at Washington, the new state government should have “the same support and protection that you would [have given] if the members had been admitted, because in no event . . . can this do any harm, while it will be the best you can do toward suppressing the rebellion.”
III A different type of situation presented itself in Florida, where the reconstruction effort was of a minor sort. Military accomplishment, so evident in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, was lacking in this detached area, which was off the main line of strategy and unpromising as a field in which to commit any considerable body of troops. Aside from holding a few coastal points and maintaining the blockade, the United States paid little attention to the region of the St. John’s, the St. Mary’s, and the Suwannee. The only sizable engagement in the state during the war was the ill-starred “battle of Olustee,” in the northeast corner, a short distance inward from Jacksonville, where a minor Union force under General Truman Seymour, U. S. A., was defeated by somewhat superior numbers, with advantage of defensive position, under General Joseph Finegan, C. S. A. This engagement, February 20, 1864, was the futile anticlimax of an army-navy expedition of Seymour, a subordinate of General Quincy A. Gillmore who was in command of the “Department of the South” with headquarters at Hilton Head, S. C.
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.
At all times the President felt assured that his plan would work for the whole South. He could hardly have proceeded with such confidence unless he genuinely believed that unionists in the South were, for the long run and for normal times, in the majority. In fact the validity of Lincoln’s basic political philosophy depended upon self rule by the people. To impose a government upon an unwilling state—even a benevolent government—would have been contrary to this fundamental philosophy. There was a risk involved in Lincoln’s scheme but it was a calculated risk. When there would come the hazard of an election, that would not merely mean that people should vote because of having sworn allegiance. It meant that such allegiance was expected to prove justified in the type of government set up, the working out of labor adjustment, the choice of well disposed officials, the installing of honest government, and the like.
If these things went wrong even after the initial steps had been taken in compliance with the President’s plan, the broad policy would fail. Lincoln’s feeling of assurance that it would not fail must have been based on more than wishful thinking. It is therefore of importance to look into the matter and find the basis for this assurance—in other words, to discover some of the evidences of unionism in the South which were known to the President. To give the whole body of such evidence is obviously impracticable, but a few items may be mentioned with the understanding that they were typical of a large and impressive total.
There was the element of war-weariness in the South; people were sick and tired of the continued slaughter. A captured Union general, the famous Neal Dow, wrote to Lincoln from Libby Prison, Richmond, on November 12, 1863: “... I have seen much of Rebeldom, behind the curtain, and have talked with a great many soldiers, conscripts, deserters, officers, and citizens. The result of all is, to my mind, that . . . the masses are heartily . . . anxious for its [the war’s] close on any terms. . . .” He went on to mention numerous Confederate desertions, soldier infirmities, general debility, the worthlessness of conscripts, depreciation of the currency, flour at $125 a barrel, and “everything in the provision line . . . [bearing] a corresponding price.”
In Virginia the attitude of intelligent and patriotic unionists was typified by Alexander H. H. Stuart. Though not active against secession during the war, he had been fundamentally opposed to it as inexpedient. Stuart defined his wartime attitudes as follows:
“During the war, I abstained from all participation in public affairs, except on two or three occasions when I was called to address public meetings to urge contributions for the relief of the suffering soldiers and the prisoners going to as well as returning from the North.
“My age relieved me from the obligation to render military service, and all the assistance I gave to the Confederate cause was by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and nursing the sick Confederate soldiers, and making myself and urging others to make liberal donations for their relief.”
Another prominent Virginia unionist was the distinguished lawyer John Minor Botts. He had strongly opposed Southern Democratic disunionists, and, though disapproving also of abolitionists, had given support to the efforts of John Quincy Adams in the matter of antislavery petitions presented to Congress. When Lincoln was a Whig member of Congress from Illinois, Botts was a Whig member from Virginia (1847-49); indeed many of his views were similar to Lincoln’s. Both in 1850 and in 1860 he was an earnest opponent of secession, his opposition to Jefferson Davis and to Governor Henry Wise of Virginia being especially marked. He greatly regretted the secession of his state in 1860, which he had tried to prevent. During the war he was so far out of sympathy with the Confederate government that he was arrested and confined for some months in jail. For the most part, however, he spent the war years in retirement. His later career showed the steadfastness of his Union loyalty.
The fact that certain Southern areas had never left the Union was, of course, significant. That was true of Kentucky. It was remarked that the mountainous districts of that border state were “with very few exceptions . . . thoroughly union.” The same observer noted derisively that in the central part of the state “most of the large slave holders, . . . the gamblers ... all the decayed chivalry ... all the fast & fashionable ones & nearly all the original Breckinridge Democrats are bitter to secessionists.”
V Unionist voices were audible throughout the unhappy South. A clear sign of the times in Louisiana was the editorial of the True Delta of New Orleans (February 5, 1864) praising Lincoln, comparing him to Washington and Jackson, and favoring his re-election. In Mississippi a local judge wrote: “I have first, last and all the time , been a Union man.” Secession, he reported, had been put over without the people understanding what was involved. In another report from Mississippi it was indicated that there were “thousands . . . who desire most ardently the restoration of the United States.”
In North Carolina peace movements were rife and it was reported early in 1864 that troops from the Old North State were deserting rapidly and extensively from the Confederate service. In the previous year a group of North Carolina citizens had presented a petition to the President, asking him to “order an election day for this district for the purpose of electing a representative for the next Congress.” These petitioners represented themselves as “loyal to the Constitution of our country anxious that it should be perpetuated.”
As to Alabama it was predicted that if the question of returning to the Union were submitted to a vote, the people would “vote aye, five to one .” The President was given the following assurance: “Could you know how deep and universal is the returning love for the union among the people of Ala & Geo you would discharge your great responsibilities with a hymn of joy in your heart.”
These evidences, and more of the same, were available to Lincoln. Since his day further material has come to light tending to reveal the extent of Union sentiment in seceded states. Naturally, men and women of Union sympathies in the South found existing conditions difficult for any expression of loyalty in active, organized form. Yet their restricted attitude was significant as they maintained a kind of passive resistance, avoided voluntary measures against the government at Washington, opposed the Confederate draft, carried provisions and medicines to Union soldiers, contributed money for the welfare of blue-coats, attended boys in hospitals, and performed other friendly acts for Federal troops. Such acts incurred persecution, and the Southern unionist moved often in an atmosphere of scorn and hostility not unaccompanied by threats and acts of personal violence. Of course, in various respects he was compelled to act against his will when it was a matter of serving as conscript, subscribing to a Confederate loan, contributing cotton, paying taxes, or performing labor. Since Southern wartime history has been largely remembered and recorded in Confederate terms, these details are still somewhat obscure; at least their full force is not generally recognized.
No history of Lincoln, however, can ignore them. His reports from the South were a vital element in policy making. When he made his broad appeal in December, 1863, offering pardon, prescribing his simple oath, and opening the way for new state governments by genuine Southern effort looking toward peace with freedom and union, he had reason to know, at least in large part, the kind of support and fulfillment upon which he could count. His sense of his own function as leader was strengthened by his realization that Southern unionism did not signify willingness to accept the program and regime of congressional Radicals. On the contrary, such union-mindedness was oriented in Lincolnian terms. In taking on the responsibility of launching and promoting reconstruction, Lincoln saw an opportunity which needed to be seized while its most fruitful results were yet possible.
At the end of June, 1864, the final resignation of Treasury Secretary Chase raised new questions about government finance and complicated the relations between Congress and President. His resignation climaxed the long-raging feud in Congress between his adherents and those of Seward, Welles, and the Blairs.
After Frank Blair’s repeated philippics in the House against the Treasury Secretary, the friends of Chase twice demanded that Lincoln dismiss Montgomery Blair as Postmaster General in order to repudiate his brother. But Lincoln not only declined to get rid of Montgomery; he also showed favor to Frank by telegraphing Grant, late in April, to restore him to his position as Major General. Infuriated, Chase thought of resigning, going home to Ohio, and rallying the people to support him against Lincoln and the Blairs. The Governor of Ohio, John Brough, talked him into withholding his resignation—for the good of the country.
Though Chase was quieted for the moment, his adherents in both houses of Congress were not. Some of the Representatives muttered about impeaching the President, and the Senate approved a resolution, introduced by Garrett Davis of Kentucky, which rebuked Lincoln along with Stanton for violating the Constitution by permitting Blair to serve as a military officer while a member of Congress. Unable to get at the Cabinet representative of the hated Blair family, the Radicals became the more determined to make an example of his more vulnerable brother. Stevens introduced and the House passed a resolution calling on the Executive to provide information about Frank Blair’s dual character, military and congressional. Responding fully and yet somewhat defiantly, Lincoln gave Congress a complete report, including a copy of a letter he had written the previous December advising that Blair give up his military commission temporarily, aid in organizing the House of Representatives, and then remain in Congress if elected Speaker. Their fury redoubled by this revelation, the Radicals took occasion at the Baltimore convention to strike at the Blairs by seating the anti-Blair delegation from Missouri and by inserting in the platform the sixth resolution, which called for a reorganization of the Cabinet in the interests of harmony. In Congress they succeeded in unseating Blair before the end of the session.
Blair’s ouster did not entirely appease Chase and his friends, for Chase was already encountering the Blair charges of corruption and mismanagement from another quarter, and these charges became involved in and gave added bitterness to a deadly patronage fight. Thurlow Weed, replying in his Albany Evening Journal to attacks on Seward in the pro-Chase New York Evening Post , elaborated on the alleged corruption of Chase’s Treasury appointees in New York. In the midst of this journalistic bickering the Assistant Treasurer in New York, John J. Cisco, decided to leave his job. Chase was ready to name as Cisco’s successor the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Munsell B. Field. But Weed objected to Field’s appointment.
Lincoln faced a dilemma. If he appointed Field he would antagonize not only Weed and Seward but also the New York Senators, one of whom was Edwin D. Morgan, chairman of the Republican National Committee. The rule of Senatorial courtesy as well as relations with the New York machine was at stake. Lincoln regularly consulted with Republicans in the Senate before making major appointments in their respective states. After consulting with Senator Morgan, who protested against Field and suggested three others as possibilities for a compromise appointment, Lincoln submitted the three names to Chase and requested him to approve one of them or suggest someone else not obnoxious to the Senators. Chase refused to consider anyone except Field for Cisco’s job but, rather than force the issue, he persuaded Cisco to withdraw his resignation for the time being. Lincoln meanwhile was putting pressure on Chase by hinting that, if Field was to be appointed, another Chase man, Hiram Barney, might have to be removed from the position of Collector of the Port of New York.
Chase replied in a two-page letter with a couple of enclosures which Lincoln received on the evening of June 29. Hastily scanning the first page, Lincoln noticed the words: “The withdrawal of Mr. Cisco’s resignation, which I enclose, relieves the present difficulty. . . .” This was most welcome news, and happy that the troublesome matter was thus disposed of, Lincoln put the papers in his pocket without finishing the letter. Hours later, sitting down to pen a congratulatory note to the Secretary, he looked at the letter and the enclosures again. He now discovered that, while Cisco was taking back his resignation, Chase was putting forth his own!
That evening Lincoln happened to see Governor Brough, visiting in Washington, and invited him into the White House to discuss Chase’s resignation. Brough thought he could get the Ohio congressmen together and, with them, prevail upon Chase to retract it. “But,” protested Lincoln, as Brough quoted him in a memorandum he dictated two weeks afterward, “this is the third time he has thrown this at me, and I do not think I am called on to continue to beg him to take it back, especially when the country would not go to destruction in consequence.” The next day Lincoln penned a note to Chase—“you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relations which it seems can not be overcome”—accepting the resignation.
In naming Chase’s successor Lincoln at first seemed to be most concerned about appeasing the Ohio Republican organization rather than Congress or Wall Street. He promptly thought of David Tod, Brough’s predecessor as Ohio Governor. The Senate Finance Committee, however, was not willing. Headed by William Pitt Fessenden, the committeemen called on the President to tell him Tod had too little experience and was too little known. Lincoln assured them of his own confidence in Tod, acknowledged their duty and responsibility of passing on Tod’s fitness, and declared that he could not “in justice to himself or Tod” withdraw the nomination.
In another talk with Governor Brough the President emphatically repeated his refusal to withdraw it. “The Governor,” according to Brough’s own account, “advised him to request the Senate Committee to delay their report until the next morning, as he was satisfied Tod w d decline the appointment, and in that way the President, the Senate, Tod and the country would be relieved from embarrassment.” Lincoln wanted to know Brough’s reasons for thinking Tod would decline. Brough gave his reasons: “The state of his [Tod’s] health, and the fact that in the nomination he got all the honor without the hard work; and that Tod was a man of good common sense and would not willingly place himself in a position which he was not capable of filling.” Lincoln “accepted this advice, and apparently with great pleasure.”
Tod did decline, but Lincoln continued to talk of appointing an Ohioan, either former Governor Dennison or Governor Brough himself. Brough, again according to his own story, argued against any such appointment and recommended Senator Fessenden instead.
The next morning, July 1, Lincoln sent Hay to the Senate with Fessenden’s nomination. It was “instantly confirmed, the executive session not lasting more than a minute,” as Hay recorded. At this very moment, unaware of his appointment, Fessenden was in the White House in conversation with the President. “I could not help being amused,” Lincoln told Hay afterwards, “by seeing him sitting there so unconscious and you on your way to the Capitol.”
For a while some of Lincoln’s friends as well as Chase’s partisans feared that the loss of Chase might prove disastrous to the Administration and to the Union cause. At a time of “military unsuccess, financial weakness,” and “Congressional hesitation on question of conscription,” Representative Washburne said, Lincoln’s acceptance of the resignation would be “ruinous.” The financiers in Wall Street, however, did not consider Chase an indispensable man. Though distressed by Tod’s nomination, they were reassured by Fessenden’s appointment and by the coincident repeal of the gold bill.
The political consequences of the Cabinet change were more dangerous for the Administration than the financial consequences. So far as Lincoln’s re-election prospects were concerned, Abram Wakeman, the New York Postmaster, believed that Chase’s departure would be a help rather than a hindrance, for “henceforward the fifty thousand Treasury agents would be friends of the President instead of enemies.” But a newspaper correspondent warned that, if the people generally should get the impression that Chase had been “wrongly treated,” then Lincoln, though reelected, might “find himself in a minority of Congress ” during his second term.
Certainly the affair did bode ill for Lincoln’s relations with Congress, immediately as well as remotely. Though Fessenden was a Radical of sorts and “the Senate’s man,” the Radicals in Congress did not consider him a sufficient offset to such Cabinet Conservatives as Montgomery Blair. With Chase out, the Radicals were to increase their clamor for Blair’s removal. Already one of the most extreme among them in the House, Blair’s Maryland rival Henry Winter Davis, was preparing in collaboration with Benjamin F. Wade in the Senate an explosive challenge to the President’s authority over the reconstruction of the Southern states.
II While the President was beginning the reestablishment of Southern state governments with his “ten per cent plan,” many of his fellow partisans in Congress were denouncing it, frustrating its purposes, and preparing an alternative of their own. “We may conquer rebels and hold them in subjection,” Stevens told the House in reply to Lincoln’s message of December, 1863, but it was a “mere mockery” of democratic principles to say that a “tithe” of the inhabitants of a conquered state could carry on government because they were “more holy or more loyal than the others.” Stevens refused to hear of giving seats in Congress to representatives seeking admission from states reorganized under the presidential plan.
Meanwhile Henry Winter Davis had induced the House to refer the reconstruction passages of the President’s message to a special committee, of which he became chairman. From the committee he reported a bill (February 15, 1864) to guarantee a “republican form of government” to certain states whose governments had been “usurped or overthrown.” A preamble to the bill implied that these states were no longer in the Union: they were entitled neither to be represented in Congress nor to take any part in the national government. Some of the bill’s provisions coincided with features of the President’s plan, but others ran counter to it.
As in his program, slavery was to be prohibited, the post-secession public debts disavowed, and representation in Congress permitted only with congressional assent. A majority of the white male citizens, however, and not a mere ten per cent of the 1860 voters, was to start the remaking of a state government—a majority taking an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. Not all members of this majority were to be allowed actually to participate in the creation of a new state constitution: only those who could swear that they had never voluntarily borne arms against the United States, nor given aid to persons in armed hostility thereto, nor supported any hostile “pretended government.” Nor was any former officeholder under a “usurping power” to vote or hold office in the recreated state.
On May 4, by a strict party vote of 73 to 59, the House passed the Davis bill. Extreme though it was, it still did not go far enough to suit all the Radicals who voted for it. Stevens, for one, desired a measure providing for the reversion to the Federal government of all lands, in the “so-called states” or “territories” of the South, belonging to rebels who owned a hundred acres or more.
In the Senate Ben Wade took charge of the bill. Wade tried, without success, to strike the word “white” from the clause directing provisional governors to enroll “all white male citizens” for taking the loyalty oath. Sumner tried, without success, to add an amendment by which the Emancipation Proclamation would have been “adopted and enacted as a statute of the United States.” Other Senators succeeded in attaching amendments, none of them drastic, and the minor differences between the House and Senate versions had to be reconciled by a conference committee. The Senate finally passed the bill on July 4, 1864, within an hour of the sine die adjournment of the session.
As the hands of the clock neared the closing time, some of the congressmen began to wonder whether the President was going to sign the Wade-Davis bill. Word came that he had no further communication for the House, and Speaker Colfax adjourned the session and dismissed the members to their homes. “In the disorder which followed, Davis standing at his desk, pale with wrath, his bushy hair tousled, and wildly brandishing his arms, denounced the President in good set terms.”
Unless the President signed the bill within ten days, it would fail to become law, no positive veto being necessary after the adjournment of Congress. Lincoln could have let the ten days pass in silence on his part. Instead, he chose the unusual course of issuing a proclamation on the subject, and a most remarkable proclamation it proved to be. He announced (July 8, 1864) that he was “unprepared, by a formal approval of this bill, to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration,” and that he was “also unprepared to declare that the free-State constitutions and governments already adopted and installed in Arkansas and Louisiana” should be “set aside and held for nought.” Nevertheless he was “fully satisfied with the system for restoration contained in the bill as one very proper plan for the loyal people of any State choosing to adopt it,” and he was “prepared to give the executive aid and assistance to any such people.” That is to say, he was willing to give effect to a mere proposal—a bill that had not become law—and he left the Southern people to take their choice between his plan and that of Davis and Wade.
“What an infamous proclamation! ” exclaimed old Thad Stevens in a letter to an intimate. “The idea of pocketing a bill and then issuing a proclamation as to how far he will conform to it. . . .” Though Lincoln had intended to mollify the Radicals, he had succeeded only in exasperating them with his conditional approval of their plan. “But what are we to do?” Stevens asked his friend, then answered his own question: “Condemn privately and applaud publicly!” His colleagues Wade and Davis, however, were in no mood for applause, and in a month the President and the nation were to hear from them.
III Lincoln based his ten per cent plan on his 111 assumption of a strong potential unionism in the South. He counted upon the good will of his countrymen, even in their hour of defeat, and he intended to nourish that sentiment rather than take for granted, and thereby foster, the perpetuation of wartime hatreds. But the Radicals did not share his faith in this regard. Stevens, for one, expected guerrilla warfare to go on indefinitely even after the Confederate armies should all have surrendered. And Winter Davis declared: “There is no fact that we have learned from any one who has been in the South and has come up from the darkness of that bottomless pit which indicates . . . repentance.” There was no fact “at all reliable,” he went on, which indicated that “any respectable proportion of the people of the southern states” were willing to accept even such terms as the Northern Democrats might grant them. Davis and his associates in Congress looked for continuing disunionism and strife; the President hoped for peace.
The differing approaches of President and Congress, in planning for the defeated South, followed naturally from their differing assumptions. Lincoln aimed to conciliate the recent rebels and to adapt his program, if necessary, to meet conditions that might vary from state to state. The bill, by contrast, would have provided a fixed and invariable program for all areas of the South, regardless of differences in the time and circumstances of the rebuilding of state governments.
The difference in spirit between the presidential and the congressional plans is clearly seen in the different oaths the two required. The Wade-Davis bill prescribed the “ironclad oath” that a man had not willingly supported the rebellion, before he could participate in politics or government. Thus, in the bill, loyalty was made a matter of past conduct, not of present attitude or future promise, and no allowance was made for a possible change of heart. In Lincoln’s plan the concept of loyalty was forward and not backward looking. “On principle I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong,” Lincoln explained. “It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter .”
The President and the Congress disagreed on issues of constitutionality as well as loyalty. Could a state secede from the Union? Had some of the states actually done so? The Wade-Davis bill implied that they had, and Radicals like Stevens made the point explicit. “This bill and this position of these gentlemen seems to me,” Lincoln commented in Hay’s presence, “to make the fatal admission (in asserting that the insurrectionary States are no longer in the Union) that States whenever they please may of their own motion dissolve their connection with the Union.” Lincoln thought the Federal government could not survive such an admission. The real problem was a practical one—how to “restore the Union”—and he believed the Union could best be restored without a quarrel over abstractions.
Both Lincoln and the Radicals, including Davis himself, favored an amendment to the Federal Constitution as an ultimate measure for disposing of slavery in the states of the South. Pending the adoption of such an amendment, there were sharp differences of opinion about presidential and congressional powers in the sphere of abolition. The President was, in fact, already committed to an antislavery constitutional amendment (and was, within a year, to press it upon Congress). Wade and Davis were only confusing the issues when they tried to give the impression that their bill was an antislavery alternative to proslavery policies on the part of the President.
Their bill, if enacted, would have had other consequences very different from those of the President’s plan, if he had been free to carry it out. His kind of “restoration” would have meant the early return of the Southern states to a normal and natural place in the Union. The Radicals’ brand of “reconstruction,” however, might have delayed the return indefinitely. Even to begin the process would have been difficult, if not impossible, so long as a majority of adult white males, willing to take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, was required. And after the process was begun, the disfranchisement of the former political leaders would doubtless have led to complications, conflicts, and delays.
On the part of some of the Radicals the postponement of restoration was deliberately intended. As Stevens was to say, the Southern people must “eat the fruit of foul rebellion” before receiving all the rights of citizenship again. He was to calculate that, as soon as Southern representatives should be readmitted to Congress, they along with the Northern Democrats would have a clear majority there. His own aim, he was frankly to state, was to “secure perpetual ascendancy to the party of the Union,” that is, to the Republican party. If Republicans should lose the ascendancy, then their entire economic program—the protective tariff, the national banking system, the subsidization of railroads—would be jeopardized.
This much is certain, that in consequence of the bill’s passage and pocket veto, Congress and the President had reached a stalemate in the conflict over policy with regard to the Southern states. And this conflict boded ill for the success of the party in general and the President in particular in the coming political campaign. Some of the bills recently passed and signed —tax laws, the conscription act—were dubious party assets in an election year, but the bill passed and not signed was likely to make far more trouble for the party. Congress adjourned with worse relations between legislative and executive than at any time since the foundation of the Republic under the Constitution, or at least since the days of Andrew Jackson. The prospects for fruitful co-operation between Congress and President, even if Lincoln should be re-elected with a Republican majority, seemed rather poor.
A month and a day after the adjournment of Congress the authors of the Wade-Davis bill replied to Lincoln’s pocket veto and his proclamation with a joint statement published in the New York Tribune . Their “manifesto” was a most remarkable document for two so prominent Republicans to hurl at the candidate of their own party in the midst of a presidential campaign.
Mincing no words, Senator Wade and Representative Davis savagely denounced Lincoln for proceeding with his own reconstruction plan in disregard of the aims of Congress. They charged him with “grave Executive usurpation” and with the perpetration of a “studied outrage on the legislative authority.” They condemned his “shadows of governments” in Arkansas and Louisiana as “mere oligarchies” and “mere creatures of his will.” Referring to his “personal ambitions” and his “sinister” motives, they insinuated that his real purpose in hastening the readmission of Southern states was to assure himself of additional electoral votes. They questioned whether the Supreme Court sooner or later would not disapprove his plan.
Then they turned to strong hints of immediate retaliation against him. They declared that his pocket veto—“this rash and fatal act”—had been “a blow at the friends of his Administration” as well as a blow at the “rights of humanity” and the “principles of Republican Government.” He “must understand that our support is of a cause and not of a man,” and “if he wishes our support” he must “confine himself to his Executive duties” and “leave political reorganization to Congress.”
Throughout the North the Wade-Davis Manifesto made sensational news. The immediate reaction among many of the Radical Republicans was highly favorable, though Greeley himself, on publishing it, said only that it was “a very able and caustic protest.”
Some conservative Republicans came wholeheartedly to the President’s defense. The New York Times , edited as it was by Lincoln’s campaign manager, Henry J. Raymond, deplored the “ultra radicalism and barbarism” of “these gentlemen,” Wade and Davis. They were dangerous revolutionaries, the Times alleged. “They have sustained the war not as a means of restoring the Union, but to free the slaves, seize the lands, crush the spirit, destroy the rights and blot out forever the political freedom of the people inhabiting the Southern States.” A Buffalo newspaper saw the issue as one of patronage, not revolution. “It is suggested that if Mr. Lincoln had granted Winter Davis what he modestly asked a year ago—the control of all the military and civil appointments for Maryland—Winter wouldn’t have issued his protest.”
Among members of Lincoln’s Cabinet the protest aroused as much alarm as it did rejoicing in extreme Radical circles. Welles assumed that Wade had been motivated by presidential aspirations of his own. J. P. Usher, the Secretary of the Interior, noted that, except for Chase, everyone in the Cabinet had approved the President’s amnesty proclamation. Usher thought that Wade and Davis were seeking to “gratify their malignity” at the expense of Republican success in the election. Lincoln, he wrote, had tried to “oblige this class of men,” had given them little “cause & reason to assail him,” but they were unappeasable and would never be satisfied. Montgomery Blair saw them as enemies of the Union and the Administration, which had to face Jefferson Davis, R. E. Lee, and the rebels on one side and “Henry Winter Davis & Ben Wade and all such hell cats on the other.”
Seward read the manifesto to Lincoln on the night of August 5, and the President (as a State Department visitor heard the next day, apparently from Seward himself) commented: “I would like to know whether these men intended openly to oppose my election—the document looks that way.” Not long afterward he said to Noah Brooks: “To be wounded in the house of one’s friends is perhaps the most grievious affliction that can befall a man.”
II Lincoln had guessed right about the intentions of Davis and Wade when he suspected that these men meant openly to oppose his re-election. Their “protest” was, in fact, the first public sign of a move to replace him as the Republican candidate in mid-campaign. Davis soon was circulating among prominent party men, for their signatures, a paper calling for a new national “Union” or “Peoples” convention to meet in September and nominate another candidate. This document, said to be a “powerful arraignment” of the Administration’s “shortcomings in the conduct of the war,” demanded the nomination and election of a President who could and would “save the country from anarchy and rebellion.” If the “call” gained the support of enough politicians, it was to be brought out into the open at a suitable time.
Once launched, the movement was directed (in so far as it had any central direction) by a secret council of party leaders who met on August 14 and from time to time thereafter in New York. The chief conspirators included not only such chronic dissidents as Davis and Greeley, but also the Mayor of New York, George Opdyke; the prosperous merchant, David Dudley Field; and the president of the New York Bank of Commerce and treasurer of the Union (i. e., Republican) National Committee, John Austin Stevens. Among other schemers were three outstanding Massachusetts politicians: Senator Sumner, Governor Andrew, and General Butler. Chase was expected to co-operate, and so were Seward’s friend Weed and Lincoln’s campaign manager Raymond. As the project attracted both numbers and respectability, it developed into something far more serious than a mere gesture of Lincoln haters and party irresponsibles.
What gave it sense, during those dark days of August, was the seeming hopelessness of Lincoln’s chances for re-election in the fall. Republican politicians gloomily assured one another that the people would have no more of him. “Among the masses of the people a strong reaction is setting in, in favor of the Democrats & against the war,” said one. “I have been among the mechanics, and the high prices . . . are driving them to wish a change.” Said another, in upstate New York: “It is certainly true that in this region the President has lost amazingly within a few weeks, and if the public sentiment here affords a fair indication of the public sentiment throughout the country, the popular suffrage today would be ‘for a change.’”
Who, if not Lincoln, could inspirit Republicans, unite the party, and salvage victory on election day? On this question the malcontents disagreed. Davis himself was said to favor some man like Charles Francis Adams, but most of the others preferred a military man like General Grant or, if he was unavailable, then some lesser general like Sherman, Hancock, or Butler. Grant, endorsing the re-election of Lincoln, refused to allow himself to be made a rallying point for political opposition to his commander-in-chief. Butler however, was willing enough, as always. To Andrew’s friends he was unacceptable, but to Wade he appeared available enough.
The leaders of the anti-Lincoln movement disagreed on questions of tactics as well as personnel. Some of them wished to go ahead with a new nomination regardless of Lincoln’s attitude. Others, like Sumner, were willing to proceed only if Lincoln first could be induced voluntarily to resign as the party’s candidate. Most of them came to agree that both Lincoln and Frémont should withdraw, so that the followers of both could reunite behind a single nominee, who might be expected also to attract many of the War Democrats if the Democratic party, at its forthcoming convention, should choose a peace man or a peace platform.
Frémont indicated his willingness to consider the plan when he replied to an appeal from six Bostonians. “You must be aware of the wide and growing dissatisfaction, in the republican ranks, with the Presidential nomination at Baltimore; and you may have seen notices of a movement, just commenced, to unite the thorough and earnest friends of a vigorous prosecution of the war in a new convention which shall represent the patriotism of all parties,” the six had written. “Permit us, sir, to ask whether, in case Mr. Lincoln will withdraw, you will do so, and join your fellow citizens in this attempt to place the Administration on a basis broad as the patriotism of the country and as its needs.” In reply, Frémont said he could not resign his nomination without consulting the party that had nominated him at Cleveland, but he suggested that his correspondents confer with leaders of both his own and Lincoln’s party, then organize a “really popular convention,” one broader than factions or cliques. This exchange of letters was published on August 27.
Lincoln knew of the movement against him in his own party, as he also knew of the consensus among political experts that his chances of re-election were slim, at best. Yet, rather than make concessions to the politicians who beset him on either side, he was willing to accept defeat, if defeat must come. On August 23, the day after Raymond had penned his pessimistic letter on “the political condition of the country,” Lincoln wrote the remarkable memorandum which he folded, pasted, and gave to his Cabinet members to endorse, sight unseen. In it he put himself on record thus:
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
This, as Lincoln was to recall after the election, was at a time “when as yet we had no adversary, and seemed to have no friends.” The Democratic convention was six days away. Even when defeat seemed most probable, however, Lincoln had not quite abandoned hope. Earlier he had been reported as saying that the people blamed him for Grant’s failure to take Richmond, and that he knew as well as anyone that he was going to be “ badly beaten ”—unless “some great change” occurred in the military situation. Pessimistic though he became, he still counted on that great change.
III The gloomier the Republicans became, the more hopeful the Democrats had reason to be as they looked ahead to the meeting of their own nominating convention, scheduled for the unprecedentedly late date of August 29, in Chicago. They ran the risk, however, of exposing fissures in their own party as wide and deep as any in Administration ranks. To win, they must unite War Democrats with Peace Democrats.
The pre-convention favorite was the erstwhile hero of the Army of the Potomac, General George Brinton McClellan. Would McClellan run? “It is very doubtful whether anything would now induce me to consent to have my name used,” he wrote as late as June 25. But he must run, the War Democrats told one another. Only he could “control any large portion of the army vote in the field and at home"; only he could “prevent the use of the army by Mr. Lincoln” to deprive the opposition of free expression at the polls. McClellan was not the choice, however, of such party leaders as Vallandigham, Pendleton, and Wood. These men stood to gain by the long delay in the opening of the convention. “The democrisy have postponed their convenshun till it is ascertained how Lee agt Grant comes out,” explained Petroleum V. Nasby, one of Lincoln’s favorite humorists. “Ef Lee whales Grant—Peace Platform.”
Some Republican as well as Democratic politicians believed that McClellan, if nominated, could beat Lincoln in the campaign. During the darkest days of July and August the Blairs, Cameron, and others toyed with a stratagem of nullifying the general’s supposed popularity or converting it into an Administration asset. Here was another of those last-minute schemes for salvaging Lincoln’s chances. In pursuance of it the elder Frank Blair called upon McClellan in New York, about July 20, and told him he would be restored to command if he would disavow any presidential aspirations he might have. McClellan was noncommittal. When Blair returned to Washington the President listened to him without comment, though, according to Frank Blair, Jr., the President himself “had concluded with Genl Grant to bring again into the field as his adjunct Gen McClellan if he turned his back on the proposals of the peace junto at Chicago.”
Nothing came of all this, except for some campaign propaganda later on, and McClellan still led all contenders when the Democratic convention finally met. The delegates disposed of their business within a remarkably few days. Vallandigham, dominating the resolutions committee, saw to it that the platform denounced the war and declared for an early peace, though he insisted that a “dishonorable peace” was not to be considered. “Whoever charges that I want to stop this war in order that there may be Southern independence and a separation,” he declared, “charges that which is false, and lies in his teeth, and lies in his throat!” The key plank, as reported and adopted, read in part: ”. . . after four years of failure to restore the Union by experiment of war . . . justice, humanity, liberty, and the public welfare demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the states, or other peaceable means, to the end that at the earliest practicable moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States.” After the adoption of the platform, McClellan was nominated on the first ballot. Then, unexpectedly, and as another sop to the peace faction, Pendleton was selected as his running mate.
Whether or not it served to unite and inspirit Republicans, the Chicago convention had the effect of exacerbating the factional quarrel among the Democrats. They had nominated McClellan because of his war record but had provided a peace platform for him to run upon. Now they would be handicapped by a fundamental contradiction in their position—unless McClellan somehow could resolve their dilemma for them.
In composing his letter of acceptance he faced that impossible task. The issue between the factions of his party was not one of peace or union, since even Vallandigham insisted that no cessation of hostilities should be considered on the basis of a separation of the states. The question was, which should come first—union, or peace? Vallandigham and his followers desired an armistice without prior stipulations in regard to reunion; they took it for granted that reunion would follow. The other faction demanded that reunion be made a precondition of any cease-fire agreement. For days, prominent men of both groups pelted McClellan with contradictory advice. Thus beset, McClellan wavered as he drafted and redrafted his letter. For a time he seemed willing to accept an armistice even at the risk of disunion. At last, in the fourth and final version, dated September 8, he came out for union as the prerequisite of peace.
The publication of his letter provoked new disagreements within his party, setting the separate factions to quarreling among themselves. Some of the peace men desired to repudiate him and reassemble the convention for nominating a new candidate. Others preferred to make the most of a bad situation by endorsing him, acceptance letter and all.
As September came in 1864, Democrats were bickering among themselves at least as bitterly as Republicans lately had been doing. The Democrats, too, were troubled by factious enterprises for setting aside their duly nominated candidate. Yet, though increasingly defeatist, they were not defeated. They had declared the war a failure, as conducted by the Lincoln Administration, and if the news of battle should continue to bear them out, they could expect success on election day. In this sense bad news would be good news for them. But not for Lincoln.
“If we come triumphantly out of this war, with a presidential election in the midst of it,” Francis Lieber wrote to Charles Summer at the end of August, 1864, ”... I shall call it the greatest miracle in all the historic course of events.”
There was, indeed, something marvelous if not miraculous in the very fact that a presidential election was being held, and still more in the fact that its being held was taken pretty much for granted. In all the historic course of world events, there had been few if any examples of a great people doing what the American people were now about to do. In the midst of a desperate civil war they were about to assess their leadership and, if they so decided, to change their rulers by the same orderly processes as in times of peace. If these processes, as usual, involved a certain amount of “dirty” politics, the dirt must not be allowed to obscure the shining truth that American democracy now met and surmounted one of its supreme tests of all time.
Political forecasting, even in this present day of public opinion polls and “scientific” sampling, is a some what hazardous business. In 1864 no such techniques were known. One could attempt prediction by appraising the reports of politicians with their ears to the ground, but, in the fall of 1864, the wiseacres were hearing uncertain and contradictory noises.
If such politicians’ guesses were undependable, there was in those days an indicator of election trends in several of the states which was much more reliable, even more reliable than modern samplings of public opinion seem to be. In Maine and Vermont the voters chose various state officers in September, and, by the time the national campaigning got seriously under way, these states already had gone Republican by increased majorities. In Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania the state elections were to be held in October, and the results would give an even more significant indication of the voting trend—at least in those three important “October states.”
On the night of October 11 Lincoln watched anxiously for the returns from Indiana and Pennsylvania, both of which balloted that day. At eight o’clock he went to the telegraph office in the War Department. The place was locked, and Stanton had taken the keys upstairs, but “a shivering messenger was pacing to and fro in the moonlight over the withered leaves,” and he let the President and his party in at a side door. When there was a lull in the dispatches coming in over the wires, Lincoln—as he so often did in worried moments—took a volume of Petroleum V. Nasby from his pocket and read aloud several chapters. Later the good news from Indiana became better, but the fat reports from Pennsylvania began to be “streaked with lean.” When, a few days afterward, the final returns were in, Indiana like Ohio had gone Republican by a gratifying margin but Pennsylvania by a less satisfactory one.
After the October elections Lincoln was by no means overconfident about his own chances in November. On October 13, again at the War Department’s telegraph office and writing on its stationery, he jotted down his estimate of the forthcoming electoral vote. In the Democratic column he listed the states of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois, and tallied 114 electoral votes. In the Republican column he listed the rest of the states and got a total of 117. The conclusion thus was that he probably would win—but by the very narrow majority of three in the electoral college.
Yet, even if this probable majority had been an absolutely certain one, he would not have been satisfied with it. He longed for a decisive vindication of his party and his Administration, for a victory made glorious by the numbers of Republican congressmen and governors elected as well as by the size of the popular and electoral votes for himself.
II In some parts of the country the Republicans, expecting violence, awaited election day with apprehension. In Illinois, Stanton was informed, more than five thousand armed Confederates were roaming at large. “They intend to vote at the coming election and by terrorism to keep from the polls more than 5,000 citizens .” In the city of New York, Stanton heard, the rebels intended not only to jam the polls with “enemies” but also to start a general conflagration.
When November 8 came, however, no serious disturbances interfered with the polling anywhere. In Illinois the qualified voters—white men over twenty-one with a year’s residence in the state—patiently waited their turns to vote, standing single file in long lines at many polling places. Saloons were closed, and in Springfield, where it rained steadily most of the day, the Illinois State Journal noted that “fewer drunken people were seen upon the streets than usual.” From New York, General Butler, in command of the Federal troops, telegraphed laconically to the War Department at noon: “The quietest city ever seen.”
Butler had not seen Washington that day. It was even quieter. The day was dark and rainy, and the city was considerably depopulated by the homeward exodus of more than 18,000 voters, mostly government employees. “The rush to the cars of those going home to vote was too much for the railroads,” a news dispatch reported two days before the election. “Some four hundred were left behind, but by the aid of extra trains, all have been able to get off to-day.”
In the evening, the weather still rainy and “steamy,” Lincoln went with a party including Brooks and Hay to the telegraph office, to get the returns as they came in. “We splashed through the grounds to the side door of the War Department where a soaked and smoking sentinel was standing in his own vapor with his huddled-up frame covered with a rubber cloak.” Upstairs, the President was handed the reports of the early returns, which were extremely favorable.
By midnight, though to his great disappointment he had not heard from Illinois (or Iowa), Lincoln could be “tolerably certain” that Maryland, Pennsylvania, most of the Middle West, and all of New England would go for him. A midnight supper was brought in, and Hay observed how “The President went awkwardly and hospitably to work shovelling out the fried oysters.” As he received congratulations on what looked like a sure and decisive victory, Lincoln appeared utterly calm, with no trace of elation or excitement. He did say “he would admit that he was glad to be relieved of all suspense, and that he was grateful that the verdict of the people was likely to be so full, clear, and unmistakable that there could be no dispute.”
About two o’clock in the morning a messenger brought the information that a crowd of Pennsylvanians were serenading the White House. Lincoln went home and, in response to cries for a speech, he talked for a few minutes, concluding: “If I know my heart, my gratitude is free from any taint of personal triumph. I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one, but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity.”
III Victory could not be deferred for long, or so most Northerners believed during the winter of 1864-65. “The people seem to have settled since the election into perfect confidence,” a Washington visitor wrote in mid-February, “that the end is sure, that the South must submit and come back, that slavery is dead, & that Grant & Sherman & Thomas are masters of the situation & guarantors of their security.”
As they looked hopefully ahead to a Confederate collapse, the Northern people (or some of them, at least) began to think about the kind of peace that should be made. How many favored a lenient and how many a vengeful settlement, it was impossible to know. The only poll of public opinion was the one provided by the elections of 1864, and those elections gave no clue to popular preference as between Lincolnian and Radical reconstruction. Lincoln had been triumphantly re-elected, of course, but at the same time the Radical strength in Congress had been increased.
There was not only the question of the kind of peace ultimately to be made; there was also the question, very closely related to it, of the procedure for making peace. This was not a case where the President was to negotiate and, with the consent of the Senate, to ratify a treaty, as with a foreign power. What should be the President’s role, and what the role of Congress?
In his annual message to Congress, December 6, 1864, Lincoln made a clear statement of his own considered views on peacemaking procedures and peace terms. As for a peace mission to Richmond: “On careful consideration of all the evidence accessible it seems to me that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not and cannot give.” As for the people of the South: “They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution.” As for the roles of President and Congress: “Some certain, and other possible, questions are, and would be, beyond the Executive power to adjust; as, for instance, the admission of members into Congress, and whatever might require the appropriation of money. The Executive power itself would be greatly diminished by the cessation of actual war. Pardons and remissions of forfeitures, however, would still be within Executive control.”
As for the President’s use of his pardoning power: “A year ago general pardon and amnesty, upon specified terms, were offered to all, except certain designated classes; and it was, at the same time, made known that the excepted classes were still within contemplation of special clemency.” During the year many had availed themselves of the general provision, and many others had received special pardons. “Thus, practically, the door has been, for a full year, open to all. . . . It is still so open to all. But the time may come—probably will come—when public duty shall demand that it be closed; and that, in lieu, more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted.” As for slavery: “I repeat the declaration made a year ago, that ‘while I remain in my present position I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation, nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the Acts of Congress.’ ”
In sum: “In stating a single condition of peace, I mean simply to say that the war will cease on the part of the government, whenever it shall have ceased on the part of those who began it.”
As of March 4, 1865, the old Congress had met for the last time, and the new one would not meet for several months (until December) unless the President meanwhile should choose to call it into special session. Lincoln now began his second term, which was not expected necessarily to be his last—gamblers soon were betting that he would be re-elected in 1868. After four years as a war President, he could look ahead to nearly four more, at least, as a peace President. More immediately, with no Congress in session to hinder him, he could look ahead to a few months of peace-making on his own. He could hope, within that time, to complete the preliminaries of the kind of settlement that he desired.
Inauguration day dawned dark and rainy, and rain fell steadily throughout the morning. The streets of Washington, especially Pennsylvania Avenue, were filled with soft mud which oozed up between the bricks even where there was pavement. Before the inaugural ceremonies began, the rain stopped, but most of the spectators, standing in the mud around the east entrance of the Capitol, already were thoroughly bedraggled. The ceremonies themselves were poorly planned, or so they seemed to Secretary Welles, who wrote: “All was confusion and without order,—a jumble.” As if the weather and the planning were not bad enough, the new Vice President, Andrew Johnson, made something of a scene when he was inaugurated. Those who heard or read his rambling and maudlin speech wondered whether he was crazy or only drunk. In fact he was unwell. Having been strongly urged by Lincoln to be present, he had fortified himself with whiskey beforehand, and because of his illness and his temperate habits, the effect was only too noticeable.
Lincoln’s own inaugural address was short, the shortest any President had ever made. Its opening lines gave the impression that Lincoln had nothing to say. So many public declarations had been made during the war, he remarked, that “little that is new could be presented.” He went on to remind his hearers of the circumstances of his first inaugural, then restated the central issue of the ensuing struggle as he saw it: “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
Then he elaborated upon the basic issue by speaking of the “peculiar and powerful interest” of slavery. “All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” He proceeded to describe the sufferings of the people, both North and South, as divine punishment for the sin of slavery, of which both were guilty. He concluded with the paragraph which made the address forever memorable (except to a later President, who in 1945, in characterizing his own war aims, distorted its spirit by omitting the first two phrases): “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
II The many-sided problem of reconstruction was a subject of continual debate in the North from 1863 on. After reaching a furious pitch in the summer of 1864, the debate had been toned down during the final weeks of the presidential campaign, to be renewed fitfully and shrilly as the final military victory approached. Lee’s surrender brought the issue to a climax again. Then, temporarily at least, Lincoln and the Radicals found themselves even farther apart than before.
For a while, in early April, 1865, he seemed willing to readmit the Southern states on terms more generous than those he had announced in his ten per cent plan and in his amnesty proclamation of December, 1863. But the Radicals were prepared to demand terms even more rigorous than those they had embodied in the Wade-Davis bill, which Lincoln had refused to sign in July, 1864.
With a new sense of urgency the Radicals began to consult with one another and to speak out. On the day after Appomattox, in Washington, General Butler made a speech in which he recommended, on the one hand, that the leaders of the rebellion should be disfranchised and disqualified for public office and, on the other, that the masses including the Negroes should be given immediately all the rights of citizenship. The next evening, in Baltimore on court duty, Chief Justice Chase dined with Henry Winter Davis and other Maryland Radicals, then wrote a letter to the President. “It will be, hereafter, counted equally a crime and a folly,” Chase said, “if the colored loyalists of the rebel states shall be left to the control of restored rebels, not likely, in that case, to be either wise or just, until taught both wisdom and justice by new calamities.”
That same evening, April 11, Lincoln made his own, last contribution to the public debate when he addressed the crowd gathered on the White House grounds. After a few congratulatory words on Grant’s recent victory, he proceeded to defend at some length his own reconstruction view.
The problem, as he saw it, was essentially one of re-establishing the national authority throughout the South. This problem was complicated by the fact that there was, in the South, “no authorized organ” to treat with. “Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.” He had been criticized, he said, because he did not seem to have a fixed opinion on the question “whether the seceded States, so called,” were “in the Union or out of it.” He dismissed that question as “a merely pernicious abstraction” and went on to declare: “We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation.”
He had been criticized also for setting up and sustaining the new state government of Louisiana, which rested on the support of only ten per cent of the voters and did not give the franchise to the colored man. He confessed that the Louisiana government would be better if it rested on a larger electorate including the votes of Negroes—at least “the very intelligent” and those who had served as soldiers. “Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it?” The loyalists of the South would be encouraged and the Negroes themselves would be better off, Lincoln argued, if Louisiana were quickly readmitted to the Union. An additional ratification would be gained for the Thirteenth Amendment, the adoption of which would be “unquestioned and unquestionable” only if it were ratified by three-fourths of all the states.
What Lincoln said of Louisiana, he applied also to the other states of the South. “And yet so great peculiarities pertain to each state; and such important and sudden changes occur in the same state; and, withal, so new and unprecedented is the whole case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can safely be prescribed as to details and colatterals.” (Virginia was not mentioned.) In concluding, Lincoln said enigmatically that it might become his duty “to make some new announcement to the people of the South. I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper.”
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.
Another poser is the question whether Lincoln’s approach to peace, if he had lived and had carried it through, would have advanced the Negro toward equal citizenship more surely than did the Radical program, which degenerated into a rather cynical use of the Negro for party advantage. One is entitled to believe that Lincoln’s policy would have been better in the long run for Negroes as well as for Southern whites and for the nation as a whole.