The Wade-Davis Bill

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 50percent 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 Freedmen’s Bureau

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.

Effectiveness of the Freedmen’s Bureau

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.

Lincoln’s Assassination

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.

Popular pages: Reconstruction (1865–1877)