July 8, 1864 (Friday)
Half of a week had slid by since Abraham Lincoln had pocket-vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill. After refusing to sign the measure, he explained that the bill conceded that the rebellious states had indeed left the Union. In his opinion, the states simply could not leave the Union unless the Union itself was dissolved. Additionally, it would not allow states to reenter the Union unless fifty percent of the population was proved to be loyal. Lincoln, on the other hand, would allow the states to reform their Unionist governments with merely ten percent.
That Lincoln did not sign it was somewhat surprising at the time. The election wasn’t too far in the future and Lincoln was alienating a large section of those who might now cast their ballots elsewhere. But others saw that had he signed the bill, put forward by the more radical members of the Republican party who wished to subjugate the South, he would have alienated those in the border states and the conservatives everywhere.
The Wade-Davis Bill didn’t just deal with the states, but attacked the institution of slavery. Had it passed, the seceded states would have been required to abolish slavery before being allowed back into the Union. This most certainly would not have set well with the conservatives.
Lincoln also worried that the bill would have nullified the new constitutions drawn up by Louisiana and Arkansas, both of which outlawed slavery. Had Wade-Davis passed, those two states, being but ten percent loyal, would be thrust back out of the fold of Union, and slavery would once more be legal, remaining so until a full fifty percent of the population could be convinced to sign oaths of loyalty.
To explain all of this to the public, Lincoln did something rare. He issued a proclamation briefly discussing why he decided not to sign the Wade-Davis Bill. Through this, he hoped to bring the young Republican party together once more.
Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do proclaim, declare, and make known, that, while I am, (as I was in December last, when by proclamation I propounded a plan for restoration) unprepared, by a formal approval of this Bill, to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration; and, while I am also unprepared to declare, that the free-state constitutions and governments, already adopted and installed in Arkansas and Louisiana, shall be set aside and held for naught, thereby repelling and discouraging the loyal citizens who have set up the same, as to further effort; or to declare a constitutional competency in Congress to abolish slavery in States, but am at the same time sincerely hoping and expecting that a constitutional amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the nation, may be adopted, nevertheless, I am 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 that I am, and at all times shall be, prepared to give the Executive aid and assistance to any such people, so soon as the military resistance to the United States shall have been suppressed in any such State, and the people thereof shall have sufficiently returned to their obedience to the Constitution and the laws of the United States,—in which cases, military Governors will be appointed, with directions to proceed according to the Bill.
This single, incredibly long sentence said six (or so) things.
1) Lincoln was sticking to his December plan of reconstruction. He simply thought it was better.
2) He did not want to be bound to a single plan, hoping to take the states on a more case-by-case basis.
3) The already-established governments in Arkansas and Louisana should not be sacrified.
4) Neither should their abolitions of slavery.
5) He was in favor of, and hoped to pass, a constitutional amendent abolishing slavery throughout the entire country, north and south.
6) Lincoln was completely fine with, and would give support to any state adopting the Wade-Davis Bill on their own, should they so choose to do it.
If Lincoln believed that his concession allowing seceded states to adopt the Wade-Davis Bill somehow placated radicals, he would be sadly mistaken. The whole point of the bill was to enforce such strictures. Most in that corner figured that Lincoln was just hoping for votes.
But soon, leaders in the party, such as Thadeus Stevens, would soon urge his fellows to curb their public outcry so they could present a united front come election time and not lose out to the northern Democrats.
For most, this call was enough. But for Senator Benjamin Wade and Representative Henry Davis, they would not be so easily quieted.1
- Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 7; Life of Henry Winter Davis by Bernard Christian Steiner; The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner; With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union by William C. Harris; Reelecting Lincoln by John C. Waugh; Unpopular Mr. Lincoln by Larry Tagg. [↩]