The Bill in Lincoln’s Pocket

July 4, 1864 (Monday)

And starring Henry Winter Davis as Mark Twain!
And starring Henry Winter Davis as Mark Twain!

President Abraham Lincoln had very specific ideas for how to “reconstruct” the South, both during and after the war. His plan had been detailed in December, through a proclamation allowing any seceded state to return to full participation in the Union if but ten percent of their population swore to be loyal.

To some, like Representative Henry Winter Davis, this was simultaneously too radical and too lax. Davis was a radical Republican in the vein of Thaddeus Stevens. Davis introduced a bill in January that would shift control of Reconstruction away from the President, giving it instead to Congress. Once that might be accomplished, he had a set of very specific guidelines that ran counter to much of what Lincoln was putting forward.

Rather than allowing a state to return with only ten percent of the disloyal state’s population swearing its loyalty, Davis wanted an actual majority. And as Lincoln’s plan took an incredibly lenient view when it came to allowing former Confederates (even officers) to vote in elections, Davis’ plan made sure that very few Rebels would show up at the polls.

The most glaring contrast naturally came from slavery – the institution which started the war. While Lincoln’s plan called for all the seceded states to abolish slavery on their own, Davis demanded that slavery be ended before they be allowed back into the Union. This was actually unconstitutional and would require an amendment, the Thirteenth, to even become a law.

That said, Davis’ plan barred free blacks from voting. Lincoln’s plan had already allowed black people to vote in Louisiana. He had been cool on the idea for years, but the more he thought about it, the more to him it seemed ludicrous that they could not.

There was also a subtle, but incredibly important difference. Davis’ plan admitted that the southern states had actually become their own independent states. Lincoln, on the other hand, held that since it was unconstitutional for a state to actually secede, they were still part of the Union. It was simply that they had disengaged from the active workings of the Federal government.


Davis had absolutely no love for Lincoln. In an age when public figures actually had declared enemies, Davis may have been Lincoln’s biggest. Some even believed that Davis wished to destroy Lincoln every bit as much as he wished to destroy slavery and Southern independence.

In March, Davis’ bill reached the floor of the House, where he preached that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually end slavery (though it did free some slaves). There were loyal states, for example, that still held to the system. It was, asserted Davis, “a political trick,” as was the Ten Percent Plan.

It finally passed the House in May, though by an underwhelming majority. From there, it went to the Senate, where it stagnated for months. It was sent to a committee headed by Benjamin Franklin Wade, who was even more of a radical than Davis. Wade, too, wished for Congress, and not the President, to reconstruct the South.

Old "Bluff" Wade
Old “Bluff” Wade

On the 1st of July, Senator Wade took the floor and introduced the bill. As in the House, it passed by a small margin. Two days later, it appeared on Lincoln’s desk. It came with a bundle of numerous other bills, and Lincoln took to signing that morning, before Congress adjourned. When he came to the Wade-Davis Bill, he set it aside, continuing with his work at hand. Through this, several congressmen entered Lincoln’s chambers and waited impatiently. The patience of Zachariah Chandler, however, was short-lived and he demanded to know if Lincoln was going to sign the bill.

Lincoln expressed his reservations, and a debate ensued. Chandler begged to know why Lincoln was against freeing the slaves if his Emancipation Proclamation supposedly did just that. The President then had to explain to the Senator the differences between things the Executive branch could do in war that the Legislative branch could not do ever. One of those was ending slavery without a Constitutional amendment.

Setting that aside, Lincoln then addressed his true concern with the Wade-Davis Bill:

“This bill and the position of these gentlemen seem to me, in asserting that the insurrectionary States are no longer in the Union, to make the fatal admission that States, whenever they please, may of their own motion dissolve their connection with the Union. Now we cannot survive that admission, I am convinced. july4lincoln

If that be true, I am not President; these gentlemen are not Congress. I have laboriously endeavored to avoid that question ever since it first began to be mooted, and thus to avoid confusion and disturbance in our own councils. It was to obviate this question that I earnestly favored the movement for an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, which passed the Senate and failed in the House.

I thought it much better, if it were possible, to restore the Union without the necessity of a violent quarrel among its friends as to whether certain States have been in or out of the Union during the war — a merely metaphysical question, and one unnecessary to be forced into discussion.”

And so rather than sign, and rather than veto, Lincoln instead did neither, pocketing the bill and prohibiting it to become law. With Congress adjourned, there was nothing they could do in the present, but immediately began planning for the future.

This, Lincoln understood. “If they choose to make a point upon this,” he said to his secretary John Hay, as they left the Capitol, “I do not doubt that they can do harm. They have never been friendly to me.”1

  1. Sources: Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 9 by John Hay; 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. []
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The Bill in Lincoln’s Pocket by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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