After major Union victories at the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln began preparing his plan for Reconstruction to reunify the North and South after the war’s end. Because Lincoln believed that the South had never legally seceded from the Union, his plan for Reconstruction was based on forgiveness. He thus issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863 to announce his intention to reunite the once-united states. Lincoln hoped that the proclamation would rally northern support for the war and persuade weary Confederate soldiers to surrender.
Lincoln’s blueprint for Reconstruction included the Ten-Percent Plan, which specified that a southern state could be readmitted into the Union once 10 percent of its voters (from the voter rolls for the election of 1860) swore an oath of allegiance to the Union. Voters could then elect delegates to draft revised state constitutions and establish new state governments. All southerners except for high-ranking Confederate army officers and government officials would be granted a full pardon. Lincoln guaranteed southerners that he would protect their private property, though not their slaves. Most moderate Republicans in Congress supported the president’s proposal for Reconstruction because they wanted to bring a quick end to the war.
In many ways, the Ten-Percent Plan was more of a political maneuver than a plan for Reconstruction. Lincoln wanted to end the war quickly. He feared that a protracted war would lose public support and that the North and South would never be reunited if the fighting did not stop quickly. His fears were justified: by late 1863, a large number of Democrats were clamoring for a truce and peaceful resolution. Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan was thus lenient—an attempt to entice the South to surrender.
President Lincoln seemed to favor self-Reconstruction by the states with little assistance from Washington. To appeal to poorer whites, he offered to pardon all Confederates; to appeal to former plantation owners and southern aristocrats, he pledged to protect private property. Unlike Radical Republicans in Congress, Lincoln did not want to punish southerners or reorganize southern society. His actions indicate that he wanted Reconstruction to be a short process in which secessionist states could draft new constitutions as swiftly as possible so that the United States could exist as it had before. But historians can only speculate that Lincoln desired a swift reunification, for his assassination in 1865 cut his plans for Reconstruction short.
White southerners in the Union-occupied state of Louisiana met in 1864—before the end of the Civil War—to draft a new constitution in accordance with the Ten-Percent Plan. The progressive delegates promised free public schooling, improvements to the labor system, and public works projects. They also abolished slavery in the state but refused to give the would-be freed slaves the right to vote. Although Lincoln approved of the new constitution, Congress rejected it and refused to acknowledge the state delegates who won in Louisiana in the election of 1864.
Many leading Republicans in Congress feared that Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction was not harsh enough, believing that the South needed to be punished for causing the war. These Radical Republicans hoped to control the Reconstruction process, transform southern society, disband the planter aristocracy, redistribute land, develop industry, and guarantee civil liberties for former slaves. Although the Radical Republicans were the minority party in Congress, they managed to sway many moderates in the postwar years and came to dominate Congress in later sessions.
In the summer of 1864, the Radical Republicans passed the Wade-Davis Bill to counter Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan. The bill stated that a southern state could rejoin the Union only if 50 percent of its registered voters swore an “ironclad oath” of allegiance to the United States. The bill also established safeguards for black civil liberties but did not give blacks the right to vote.
President Lincoln feared that asking 50 percent of voters to take a loyalty oath would ruin any chance of ending the war swiftly. Moreover, 1864 was an election year, and he could not afford to have northern voters see him as an uncompromising radical. Because the Wade-Davis Bill was passed near the end of Congress’s session, Lincoln was able to pocket-veto it, effectively blocking the bill by refusing to sign it before Congress went into recess.
The president and Congress disagreed not only about the best way to readmit southern states to the Union but also about the best way to redistribute southern land. Lincoln, for his part, authorized several of his wartime generals to resettle former slaves on confiscated lands. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 set aside land in South Carolina and islands off the coast of Georgia for roughly 40,000 former slaves. Congress, meanwhile, created the Freedmen’s Bureau in early 1865 to distribute food and supplies, establish schools, and redistribute additional confiscated land to former slaves and poor whites. Anyone who pledged loyalty to the Union could lease forty acres of land from the bureau and then have the option to purchase them several years later.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was only slightly more successful than the pocket-vetoed Wade-Davis Bill. Most southerners regarded the bureau as a nuisance and a threat to their way of life during the postwar depression. The southern aristocracy saw the bureau as a northern attempt to redistribute their lands to former slaves and resisted the Freedmen’s Bureau from its inception. Plantation owners threatened their former slaves into selling their forty acres of land, and many bureau agents accepted bribes, turning a blind eye to abuses by former slave owners. Despite these failings, however, the Freedman’s Bureau did succeed in setting up schools in the South for nearly 250,000 free blacks.
At the end of the Civil War, in the spring of 1865, Lincoln and Congress were on the brink of a political showdown with their competing plans for Reconstruction. But on April 14, John Wilkes Booth, a popular stage actor from Maryland who was sympathetic to the secessionist South, shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. When Lincoln died the following day, Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, became president.