By early November 1863, Abraham Lincoln found himself frustrated with the glacial pace of wartime reconstruction efforts, particularly in Louisiana. In an August letter to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, the president had outlined “what I would like Louisiana to do.” His wish list included a new constitution, statewide adoption of emancipation, a system to help ease the transition from slavery to freedom for blacks and whites and education for young freedmen and women. He went on to assure his abolitionist general that “I shall not … retract the emancipation proclamation; nor … ever return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.”
Now, three months later, the president once more wrote to Banks, to note that “nothing has yet been done,” a fact that “disappoints me bitterly.” A clearly impatient Lincoln urged Banks to “go to work and give me a tangible nucleus … which I can at once recognize and sustain as the true State government. … Time is important,” he continued, for there was danger that disloyal men might “set up a State government, repudiating the emancipation proclamation, and re-establishing slavery,” a situation he could not “recognize or sustain.”
The commander in chief’s sense of urgency about reconstruction was understandable. Events had long ago disabused him of an early belief that there existed a strong pro-Union element in the South. Victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga had led him to hope (and perhaps fear) that the Confederacy might be at the point of imminent collapse. As the Lincoln biographer David Donald notes, “There was a real possibility that the Confederates, admitting defeat, might claim that they had never been out of the Union — a legal fiction [Lincoln] and his advisers had always stoutly maintained — and send back to Washington the same congressmen who had denounced the Union in 1861.” Lincoln, Donald argues, feared such a circumstance would “make probable ‘a renewal of the terrible scenes through which we are now passing.’”
Despite assurances from Senator Zachariah Chandler, a Radical Republican from Michigan and frequent critic of the president, that “You are today master of the Situation if You stand firm,” Lincoln fully grasped the dilemma that crafting a reconstruction policy presented. “[I must] stand firm enough not to go backward,” he told Chandler, “and yet not go forward fast enough to wreck the country’s cause.”
Three major roads to reconstruction presented themselves. Prominent conservatives such as Reverdy Johnson, a Maryland lawyer and Democratic politician, embraced “The Union as it was, and the Constitution as it was.” The withdrawal of the Emancipation Proclamation and the issuance of general amnesty would enable former Confederate states to send new representatives to Washington, effectively ending the war.
By the fall of 1863, however, events had conspired to make such a backward step increasingly unlikely; the real contest over reconstruction policy resided within the Republican Party. While Republicans as one agreed that slavery must go and that states-rights secessionists must be prevented from resuming their antebellum prominence, a wide gap yawned between the radicals and conservatives.
Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens contended that the Confederate states were “conquered provinces.” Reconstruction, he insisted, must “revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners. … The foundation of their institutions … must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain.” Senator Charles Sumner argued that the seceded states had committed “state suicide,” and in doing so had forfeited their rights and reverted to territorial status.
In the September 1863 Atlantic Monthly, Sumner elaborated on his argument in “Our Domestic Relations; or, How to Treat the Rebel States.” Reconstruction policy, Sumner claimed, was a legislative, not an executive, responsibility. Congress should divide the liberated lands “among patriotic soldiers, poor whites, and freedmen” as “a restraint upon the lawless vindictiveness and inhumanity of the Rebel States.”
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair fired back almost immediately. In an October speech — “On the Revolutionary Schemes of the Ultra Abolitionists, and in Defence of the Policy of the President” — he contended that peace was “menaced by the ambition of the ultra-Abolitionists” who, “whilst pronouncing philippics against slavery seek to make a caste of another color by amalgamating the black element with the free white labor of our land.” Reconstruction, Blair believed, must be trusted to the “safe and healing policy of the President.”
Lincoln knew enough to avoid this intraparty scrimmage. There could be “little difference among loyal men” over the issue of keeping “the rebellious populations from overwhelming and outvoting the loyal minority,” he told one visitor. The question of whether the seceded states remained states or reverted to territories was “merely metaphysical,” because everyone agreed that they were “out of their proper relation with the Union, and that the sole object of the government … is to again get them into that proper relation.”
Shortly after returning from the dedication of the new national cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, Lincoln set about defining how to restore the seceded states to their “proper relation.” Working from his sickbed — he had contracted what was probably a mild case of smallpox and was bedridden for the better part of the two weeks after Nov. 25 — Lincoln began preparing his annual address to Congress, the forerunner to today’s State of the Union.
An amalgam of reports from cabinet secretaries as well as Lincoln himself, the 6,000-word address has been generally judged to be a rather tepid affair, suggesting perhaps that inspiration temporarily deserted the ailing president. As one historian has noted, the report is more memorable for what it omitted — any mention of the “new birth of freedom,” the completion of the Capitol, the heroic performance of black troops or his nascent relationship with Frederick Douglass — rather than for what it included.
The president received much higher marks, both then and now, for the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which he appended to the annual message. Less a blueprint for the postwar South than a wartime measure intended to shorten the fighting, the proclamation offered political repatriation for those portions of the Confederacy under Union control. Those willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States would receive “full pardon … with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves.” Among those ineligible for a pardon were Confederate civil or diplomatic officers, military or naval officers above the respective ranks of colonel and lieutenant, former members of Congress who left to aid the rebellion and anyone mistreating captured black or white Union troops.
As soon as 10 percent of the eligible voters in the 1860 election took the oath of allegiance, they could reestablish a state government that would receive the guarantees of a republican form of government and protection against invasion and domestic violence outlined in Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution. Lincoln took care to note that “whether members sent to congress from any state shall be admitted to seats constitutionally rests exclusively with the respective houses, and not to any extent with the Executive.”
The proclamation further provided that “the name of the state, the boundary, the subdivisions, the constitution, and the general code of laws” would be maintained “as before the rebellion,” subject only to the provisions regarding the inviolability of emancipation. State governments were further assured that the “National Executive “ would not object to any temporary arrangement that, while recognizing the permanent freedom of former slaves, would take into account “their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class.”
Lincoln’s Dec. 8 proclamation met with immediate acclaim across the political spectrum. The author and social activist Charles Eliot Norton declared it an “admirably timed” state paper that would “compel even politicians to like virtue.” The noted diarist George Templeton Strong proclaimed: “Uncle Abe is the most popular man in America today” and suggested that “the weight of his personal character may do a great deal toward restoration of our national unity.” Surveying the political landscape, The Chicago Tribune editorialized that “the political future begins to look clear,” while the president’s secretary John Hay noted that “men acted as if the Millennium had come.”
The outpouring of support was hardly surprising, for the proclamation had a little something for almost everyone but the freedmen. Conservatives were pleased that the plan recognized the prewar boundaries and laws of the states, excepting slavery; that it acknowledged local control; and that Lincoln would tolerate a gradual adjustment to freedom by the former slaves. The New York World, an organ for the Democratic Party, adjudged the proclamation “a creditable specimen of political dexterity [that] trims with marvelous adroitness between the two factions of the Republican party.”
Radical Republicans took comfort in Lincoln’s obvious commitment to emancipation’s permanence, the inclusion of a strict loyalty oath, and his nod toward congressional authority over admission of new members elected by the new state governments. Charles Sumner wrote, “He makes emancipation the cornerstone of reconstruction and I am ready to accept any system which promises this result.” His fellow Massachusetts senator, Henry Wilson, declared, “The president has struck another great blow … God bless him.”
While fulsome, such praise was not universal. The Chicago Times protested that Lincoln was either “insane with fanaticism, or a traitor who glories in his country’s shame.” In a Dec. 13 letter to Gen. Benjamin Butler, Wendell Phillips argued that the amnesty program “makes the negro’s freedom a mere sham.” The administration was “willing that the negro should be free” but sought “nothing else for him.” In a particularly cutting observation, Phillips wrote, “What McClellan was on the battlefield — ‘Do as little hurt as possible!’ — Lincoln is in civil affairs — ‘Make as little change as possible!’”
Among the president’s harshest critics was his new friend, Frederick Douglass. The abolitionist lion roared that Lincoln “has virtually laid down this as the rule of his statesmen: Do evil by choice right from necessity. …Our Government asks the Negro to espouse its cause” and “turn against his master.” Once peace came, Douglass feared the government would “hand the Negro back to the political power of his master, without a single element of strength to shield himself from the vindictive spirit sure to be roused against the whole colored race.”
Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction was hardly the last word on reconstruction. The president himself had hedged his bets, suggesting in the accompanying annual address that “saying that reconstruction will be accepted if presented in a specified way … [is not to say] it will never be accepted in any other way.”
His critics among the Radical Republicans began to argue that the threshold for readmittance was too low and express fears that Lincoln’s 1864 re-election bid would benefit unduly from votes from the new states. Within months he would infuriate these critics by vetoing the Wade Davis Act, which sought far harsher terms for reconstruction. But for a brief moment in December 1863, Lincoln may well have been the “most popular man in America.”
Sources: Michael Burlingame, “Abraham Lincoln: A Life”; Richard Carwardine, “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power”; David Herbert Donald, “Lincoln”; Eric Foner, “Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction”; Eric Foner, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery”; Eric Foner, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877”; Harold Hyman and William M. Wiecek, “Equal Justice Under the Law: Constitutional Development, 1835-1875”; James M. McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”; Mark E. Neely Jr., “Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War”; Phillip Shaw Paludan, “The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln”; Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, “Lincoln and Medicine”; Ronald C. White, Jr., “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”
Rick Beard, an independent historian and exhibition curator, is co-author of the National Park Service publication “Slavery in the United States: A Brief Narrative History.”