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Abraham Lincoln


1865 and Beyond

Summary 1865 and Beyond

How would Lincoln have dealt with the difficult business of reconstruction that faced the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War? Based on the few public remarks that Lincoln made on the subject in the months before his death, one can make a reasonable guess as to his opening gambit, but anything beyond this is mere speculation. It is safe to say that Lincoln remained much more moderate than the bulk of so-called Radical Republicans in Congress, who favored a harsh, retributive plan of reconstruction.

As early as December of 1863, Lincoln had come forward with a generous plan of reconstruction, providing for the readmission of former Confederate states to the Union upon an oath of loyalty by one-tenth of the electorate. Radical Republicans reacted with distaste at what they found to be an all too lenient plan, and proposed instead the Wade-Davis Bill, which demanded a majority of citizens to swear loyalty before readmission would be considered. Lincoln pocket-vetoed this measure after it passed through Congress on July 4, 1864, raising the ire of those who found his executive usurpation excessive. It was a bold move that nearly cost him re-election.

At his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln had announced the imperative duty of the American people to proceed "with malice toward none; with charity toward finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds." Such a stance continued to draw criticism, with many still finding Lincoln to be overly soft in his plans for the rebels. Lincoln himself recognized the question of reconstruction to be "fraught with great difficulty." For example, should a former Confederate state be allowed the right of self-government? Lincoln's position was to allow such a transitional arrangement in more moderate states like North Carolina and Virginia, while granting the federal government a larger degree of control further to the south.

In his final public address, concerning the question of Louisiana's re-admission to the Union, Lincoln explained that the goal of reconstruction was to restore the seceded states back into their "proper practical relation" with the federal government. To Lincoln, this did not mean federal domination in the form of confiscation and occupation. He had repeatedly voiced his objections to carpetbaggers, although he was unable to develop a clear alternative for truly effective and lasting reform. What exactly was the "proper practical relation" of the states to the federal government? No such balance had ever truly been struck, and the Civil War did more to confuse rather than to resolve this complicated issue, which continues to persist even today.

Unfortunately, Lincoln did not survive to face the challenges of reconstruction, which were every bit as great as the Civil War itself. The task of rebuilding the nation was left to Lincoln's bewildered vice president, Andrew Johnson, who had assumed the nation's second office just forty days before. A Tennessee native who had remained loyal to the Union, Johnson found himself in a precarious position, trapped between his compassion for the south and his need to placate the harsher wishes of the Radical Republicans in Congress.

Three major amendments to the Constitution were passed in the first years of reconstruction: the thirteenth, which abolished slavery; the fourteenth, extending citizenship to blacks; and the fifteenth, extending the right of suffrage to black males. Additionally, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 made extensive provisions in order to improve the lot of former slaves from the southern states. A Freedman's Bureau was established to ease the transition of former slaves into free society. 4,000 free schools were established for blacks, and as a result 250,000 black children began learning to read and write English.

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