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President Abraham Lincoln began the task of reconstructing the Confederate states in order to reunify the North and the South well before the Civil War ended. As Union forces gained control of the Mississippi River by capturing Confederate cities of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and as Confederates were forced out following the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln offered his conciliatory plan for reunification with his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863. Hoping to build a strong Republican Party in the South and end the acrimonious relationship between the two regions, Lincoln issued the proclamation aiming to fully pardon and restore the property of almost all Southerners engaged in the rebellion. This plan further offered a method for reinstatement of Southern states, as long as at least ten percent of voters pledged an oath of allegiance to the union and abide by the previously issued Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in rebellious states.
Lincoln’s policies, based on forgiveness, primarily aimed to unify the nation as quickly as possible without punishing the South excessively. The president feared that a protracted war would not only lose public support, but also make it increasingly difficult for the North and South to reunite again. By granting amnesty to Southern states, Lincoln’s lenient Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction proved to be successful as it strengthened the Emancipation Proclamation and encouraged an increasingly weary confederate army to surrender, ultimately leading to the preservation of the union, Lincoln’s primary goal. Despite these achievements, Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan failed to address how freedmen would integrate into a racially divided society and ensure any real measure of racial equality. It also created divisiveness within the Republican Party and further enlarged the already existing gap between Northern and Southern states.
The decision to reconstruct the nation arose almost immediately after the Civil War began, as both Abraham Lincoln and the majority in Congress saw the inevitability of Southern defeat. Lincoln further maintained his unionist position during his first Inaugural Address, asserting that the Constitution implied that no state could legally secede from the federal union. In fact, four months into his first term on July 4, 1861, Lincoln addressed Congress and alluded to the eventual defeat of the South, stating, “Lest there be some uneasiness in the minds of candid men as to what is to be the course of the Government toward the Southern States after the rebellion shall have been suppressed, the Executive deems it proper to say it will be his purpose then, as ever, to be guided by the Constitution and the laws…” By implying that Southern defeat was an eventuality and believing that the South had never really legally seceded from the union, Lincoln viewed the Southerners as domestic insurgents who could legally be suppressed by the militia. Additionally, the president, accustom to expanding presidential powers since the onset of the Civil War, believed and declared in 1862 that he had “…a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” Believing it was the president’s responsibility as Commander-in-Chief to both call in the militia and grant general amnesty, Lincoln moved forward and initiated a reconstruction plan based on principles of forgiveness, facility, and justice.
Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863, at the height of the Civil War as a means to quickly end the war, thereby preserving the union. He announced his proclamation as union armies captured large sections of the south and some states such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee were willing to have their government rebuilt. The president, addressing those who were involved in rebellion in the south stated that, “full pardon is hereby granted to them and each of them, with restoration of all rights of property…” The president further required an oath of allegiance from southern states demanding that, “a number of persons, not less than one tenth in number of the votes cast in such state at the presidential election… each having taken the oath aforesaid… shall reestablish a state government which shall be republican… and the state shall receive thereunder the benefits of the constitutional provision which declares that the United States shall guaranty to every state in this Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion.” By granting a full pardon to those engaged in rebellion, excluding high ranking confederate officials and military leaders and by requiring only ten percent of eligible voters to pledge allegiance to the United States in order to be readmitted into the union and form their own government, Lincoln offered a lenient plan to Southerners. He hoped this would expedite their surrender. Confederate states were also willing to accept the president’s proposal as the Civil War had left the confederacy in shambles, destroying its infrastructure and devastating the economy. Lincoln’s offer to protect southern property and to rebuild the south detached southerners from their allegiance to the confederacy, encouraging surrender. In fact, by 1864 Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee were all reconstructed under Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan and had developed fully functioning Union government. Although presented to the public as a reconstruction plan, Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction was in actuality a political maneuver, which encouraged southern states to surrender and thereby preserving the union.
Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction also strengthened his previous Emancipation policy by insisting that the newly formed state governments entering into the union must abolish slavery. In his decree, Lincoln stated, “…that any provision which may be adopted by such state government in relation to the freed people of such state, which shall recognize and declare their permanent freedom, provide for their education, and which may yet be consistent as a temporary arrangement with their present condition….” By offering a lenient reconstruction plan, which guaranteed property rights and an establishment of their own government, Lincoln hoped Southern constituents would come to terms with the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln feared that compelling enforcement of the proclamation alone could lead to the defeat of the Republican Party in the election of 1864, and hence led to the overturn of his proclamation by the incoming Democrats.
The president appeased Southern voters by offering policies that benefitted them and gently coaxed them into accepting the terms of emancipation. Louisiana, the first state to respond to Abraham Lincoln’s plan to readmit southern states into the Union selected delegates to write a new constitution. Their new Constitution abolished slavery and discarded Louisiana’s old order of rule by planters and aristocrats. Arkansas also ceded to Lincoln’s reconstruction plan in 1864. The state’s new constitution stated that,” That all men, when they form a social compact are equal, and- have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, amongst which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty; of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation; and of pursuing their own happiness.” By proposing a lenient policy, which favored southerners in the first two parts of Proclamation of Amnesty and reconstruction plan, Lincoln was successfully able to convince rebellious s states to accept the entire proposal. This helped Lincoln in implementing his reconstruction goals of emancipating slaves and preserving the union.
Despite its successes, Lincoln’s proclamation had several drawbacks. It not only created divisiveness within the Republican Party but also enlarged the already existing gap between Northern and Southern states. While moderate Republicans supported Lincoln’s stance that southern states should be reintegrated as quickly as possible and granted leniency, Radical Republicans in Congress strongly opposed it, claiming it would lead to the re-enslavement of blacks and restore southern aristocracy. The Radicals believed that Lincoln’s plan was far too forgiving and were angered that Lincoln would not leave reconstruction to the lawmakers. Hence, on July 2, 1864, Congress attempted to passed the Wade-Davis bill, a stricter version of Lincoln’s ten percent plan. This bill stipulated that “if the persons taking that oath shall amount to a majority of the persons enrolled in the state,” the former Confederate states could return to the Union and set up a new government. Furthermore, the bill only guaranteed enfranchisement of Southern constituents if at least fifty percent citizens took an oath of allegiance, promising that they had never voluntarily taken arms against the Union or supported the Confederacy. The Wade-Davis proposal also required the abolishment of slavery in new-formed states and vehemently opposed Lincoln’s attempt to pursue a compensated emancipation policy in which the government would compensate slaveholders in states that had not joined the confederacy. Lincoln, fearing that the bill would “sabotage his own reconstruction activities in states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee and jeopardize state-level emancipation movements in loyal Border States like Missouri and, especially, Maryland” pocket vetoed it. His decision to ignore the bill caused great dissension and political discord amongst the Republican Party.
Angry Radical Republicans in Congress promptly responded by issuing the Wade-Davis Manifesto, accusing the president of trying to gain political strength by usurping power from congress and securing electors in the south. The Manifesto claimed Lincoln to, “be at the dictation of his personal ambition,” and ordered the President “must confine himself to his executive duties – to obey and execute, not to make the laws – to suppress by arms armed rebellion, and leave political reorganization to Congress.” The differing political philosophy promoted by the two reconstruction plans not only divided the party but also served to enlarge the already existing gap between the north and south. The Radical Republicans’ attempted to reshape the south as a way to punish them for trying to secede. They did this through the establishment of pro-Republican government in southern legislature and by attempting to enfranchise blacks. Angry southerners denounced such measures and looked further widening the gap between the North and the South.
Although Lincoln’s reconstruction plan succeeded in preserving the union, it failed to protect newly emancipated slaves, address how they would integrate into a racially divided society and ensure any real measure on how to bring about racial equality. In order to find a solution as to where to place blacks after their emancipation, Lincoln approved of Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Fields Order No. 15, which stated, “The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.” Issued shortly after the end of Sherman’s March to Sea, the order called for the transfer of the captured land of slaveholders to freed slaves for the purpose of settlement. Although this decree was quite specific on establishing rules and regulations regarding the maximum amount of land a single black family could own, it failed to map out a plan on how freedmen would deal with new daily challenges.
Additionally, by limiting the government’s role and interference in helping freedmen settle, Sherman’s plan left blacks to defend themselves, failed to offer them protection, and made no attempt to help them function independently. Although blacks saw the 40-acre and a mule policy as proof that they had gained economic independence after years of slavery, their excitement ended soon after President Andrew Johnson took office. As one of his first reconstruction Acts, Johnson restored all land along the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina to the southern planters who had owned it initially. Other attempts by Lincoln to bring about racial equality also failed. The establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a governmental agency initiated by Lincoln in 1865, which aimed to help southern blacks transition from slavery to freedom, faced many challenges and was unable to accomplish its goals. Although the bureau provided food, housing, medical assistance, and educational opportunity for blacks, it lacked proper funding and adequate staff. The bureau, under the direction of Lincoln, also attempted to redistribute land by declaring “there shall be assigned not more than forty acres of such land and the person to whom it was so assigned shall be protected in the use and enjoyment of the land for the term of three years.” However this plan had little long-term success as most of the abandoned confederate territory was restored to the original order. Over time, the Freedman’s Bureau began to lose support as southern legislature passed laws for black codes, and the nation saw a rise of white supremacy groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. By 1872, Congress shut down the Freedmen Bureau, which had failed to meet many of its initiatives and was unable to provide long-term protection for blacks or ensure any real measure of racial equality.
Abraham Lincoln announced his conciliatory plan for Reconstruction in 1863 well before the Civil War ended. He adopted a humble and compassionate approach, which aimed to preserve the union, emancipate slaves, and ignore the calls to punish the rebellious south. By promising “malice toward none, with charity for all” in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln primarily sought to bring the nation together. The president’s plan however, was more than a proposal to restore peace and unite the country. It was in actuality a political maneuver, designed to hasten the surrender of southern and strengthen the Emancipation Proclamation. While the president’s proposal was indeed successful in preserving the union and solidifying his emancipation plan, it was deemed as failure by many historians. It failed to address several key issues plaguing the union. The Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction not only failed to determine how freedmen would integrate into a racially divided society, bringing about long tern racial equality, but also created divisiveness within the Republican Party and further enlarged the already existing gap between Northern and Southern states. It is difficult to determine exactly how Lincoln would have handled the drawbacks of his plan had he lived. A popular president wielding great political power after being re-elected in 1864, Lincoln may have constructed a final, more definitive plan for reconstruction, one which would have allowed a smooth integration of blacks into society with long term measures of racial equality.
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