March 13, 1864 – Federal authorities tried implementing President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” in many states, including Louisiana, where Lincoln suggested for the first time that black men be given the right to vote.
In Florida, Lincoln’s private secretary (now major) John Hay had tried to register 10 percent of eligible voters pledging loyalty to the U.S. according to Lincoln’s plan. However, Floridians’ support for the Confederacy, coupled with the abortive Federal invasion in February, made Hay’s efforts a failure.
Hay announced, “I am very sure that we cannot now get the President’s 10th” in Florida. Newspapers critical of Lincoln accused him of wasting “2,000 men in a sordid attempt to manufacture for himself three additional (electoral) votes in the approaching Presidential election.”
In Arkansas, Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal troops supervised an election of delegates to a state constitutional convention. Only those who pledged loyalty to the U.S. in accordance with Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” were permitted to vote. Not surprisingly, Unionists won overwhelming majorities.
Another election was held four days later, in which Unionist voters elected state officials and ratified a Unionist Arkansas constitution that included abolishing slavery and repudiating secession. The election, supervised by military force, consisted of less than a quarter of the total votes cast in the state in the 1860 canvass. The convention that had adopted the new constitution consisted of delegates from only half the counties in Arkansas.
On the 4th, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Andrew Johnson as Federal military governor of Tennessee. Johnson had been the only U.S. senator from a seceded state who refused to relinquish his seat. The next day, Johnson began the “process for State reconstruction” by calling for an election of county officials as soon as possible. Only those pledging loyalty to the U.S. would be permitted to vote. Johnson declared, “It is not expected that the enemies of the United States will propose to vote, nor is it intended that they be permitted to vote or hold office.”
In Louisiana, Michael Hahn became the new Unionist governor in accordance with Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan.” Hahn was a Bavarian immigrant and former Democrat who switched allegiances when Louisiana seceded; he eventually became one of the state’s greatest champions of slave emancipation. Over the past year, Lincoln had relied on Hahn to gauge the political atmosphere in Louisiana.
Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Gulf occupying New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, had arranged elections for civil officials in which only those who swore allegiance to the U.S. could participate. The elections only took place in areas under Federal military occupation, thus ensuring Unionist results. Hahn won the governorship by portraying himself as a moderate between the conservative J.Q.A. Fellows and the radical Benjamin F. Flanders.
The extravagant inaugural ceremonies included 1,000 singers from local army bands singing the “Anvil Chorus” in Lafayette Square. In his inaugural address, Hahn declared that “although the people of a State may err, a State, as a member of the American Union, cannot die.” He continued:
“The Union of these States, handed down by our revolutionary ancestors, is of more value than any falsely styled ‘State rights,’ especially when these ‘rights’ mean sectional institution, founded on a great moral, social and political evil, and inconsistent with the principles of free government. The institution of slavery is opposed alike to the rights of one race and the interests of the other; it is the cause of the present unholy attempt to break up our government; and, unpleasant as the declaration may sound to many of you, I tell you that I regard its universal and immediate extinction as a public and private blessing.”
Lincoln bestowed military powers onto new Governor Hahn in addition to his civil powers as governor, even though over 90 percent of Louisianan voters did not vote for him. Banks began arranging to stage another election, this time to elect delegates to a state convention that would rewrite the Louisiana constitution. It was a foregone conclusion that slavery would be abolished in the new constitution, but a debate raged over whether freed slaves should be allowed to vote.
In January, Lincoln had met delegates representing “the free people of color” of Louisiana, who presented a petition signed by over 1,000 blacks (27 of whom were veterans of the War of 1812) asking for Lincoln’s help in securing the right to vote. Impressed, Lincoln weighed in on the debate in a letter to Hahn. After congratulating him “as the first-free-state Governor of Louisiana,” the president wrote:
“I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in–as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty in the family of freedom.”
Lincoln closed by writing, “But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone.” Many Radical Republicans who might have supported black suffrage boycotted the convention, while the remaining moderates and conservatives approved emancipation but would not grant political equality to the former slaves. However, they did approve a provision empowering the state legislature to allow blacks to vote if it chose to someday revisit the question.
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