The Wade-Davis Bill: Congressional Reconstruction

July 3, 1864 – The U.S. Congress passed a measure that aimed to supersede President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” for bringing Confederate states back into the Union after the war.

In December 1863, Lincoln had presented a plan whereby Confederate states could return to the Union if 10 percent of their registered voters swore loyalty to the Union and elected delegates to a constitutional convention that would abolish slavery and repudiate secession. Many members of Congress, especially the Radical Republicans, denounced this plan as too lenient for the “treasonous rebels.” Perhaps more importantly, they opposed any plan that would allow the president, and not Congress, to make the rules.

Congressman Henry W. Davis of Maryland, chairman of the House Committee on the Rebellious States, introduced a congressional reconstruction measure in January. Davis, who feuded with the prominent Blair family (which supported Lincoln) over political power in Maryland, sought to place Congress in charge of restoring the Union. And while Lincoln sought to begin the restoration process immediately, Davis’s plan would not go into effect until the war ended.

Sen. B.F. Wade and Rep. H.W. Davis | Image Credit:

Under this plan, a state could begin its restoration process only after 50 percent of its registered voters swore loyalty. And while Lincoln’s oath involved promising prospective loyalty to the Union, Davis’s oath required men to swear they had never voluntarily supported the Confederacy. This meant that northerners would have to move into these states because none of them had half their voters oppose the Confederacy from the beginning.

Davis’s bill called for the president to appoint military governors to rule the Confederate states until the loyal registered voters elected delegates to constitutional conventions. These conventions were required to abolish slavery, and repudiate secession and the war debt.

It also called for the abolition of slavery, even though a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery (which Lincoln supported) was defeated in June. But the bill did not go as far as some Radicals went in calling for giving freed slaves the right to vote. In fact, Lincoln had already urged Governor Michael Hahn of Louisiana to consider granting suffrage to slaves and free blacks in his state.

The measure also banned all Confederate officials and military personnel from voting or holding public office. Only when all these conditions were met could the president declare the state restored the Union, and the declaration required congressional consent. Once restored, the state would be granted its representation in Congress and the Electoral College.

The bill came under House debate in March, when Davis railed against Lincoln and his Ten Percent Plan. Davis declared that until Congress recognized “a state government organized under its auspices, there is no government in the rebel states except the authority of Congress.” Davis also condemned Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which he called “a political trick” because it technically freed no slaves.

The House, divided between Radicals supporting Davis and conservatives supporting Lincoln (as well as a small group of Democrats both for and against the war) passed the bill in May by a vote of 73 to 59. Leading Radical Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania voted against the measure because he thought it too lenient.

The bill next went to the Senate, where it was taken up by a committee chaired by Radical Republican Benjamin Wade of Ohio. As the congressional session was set to expire on July 3, Wade scrambled to bring the bill to the Senate floor on the 1st for debate. By that time, many senators had already returned to their home states; 20 were absent when the bill passed in the late hours of the 3rd by a vote of 18 to 14. All non-Republicans opposed the measure.

The bill reflected the Radicals’ continuing opposition not only to Lincoln’s view of reconstruction, but also to Lincoln’s reelection, which could be secured by the electoral votes of the three states that had been restored to the Union according to Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan (Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas). Both the executive and legislative reconstruction plans called into question whether the Federal government had the authority to force states to amend their constitutions.

Since the bill passed both chambers of Congress by far less than the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, it would require Lincoln’s signature to become law.


References; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10855-77; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 794-95; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9674-715; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 639; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 532-33; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 706; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 618

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