Was Lincoln’s Plan for Reconstruction Too Lenient?
Well, a lot of Radical Republicans thought so. By 1863, with much of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and parts of Virginia under Union control, Lincoln was working toward easing the southern states back into the Union.
His plan was simple. His Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction offered full pardons and restoration of all property except slaves to all of those who would swear allegiance to the United States and accept all laws and proclamations of the President and U.S. government concerning slavery and emancipation. Once 10% of the voting population of 1860 met these conditions, they could “reestablish” a recognized state government. Political and civil leaders as well as high ranking Confederate officers were excluded from this plan, but otherwise Lincoln’s reconstruction policy was remarkably lenient – no punishment for treason.
Naturally, radicals in the republican party were incensed. Under Lincoln’s pan, free black people were to be kept in a subservient state – landless laborers. Southern states were even allowed to enact labor laws restricting movement of freed people. Furthermore, traitors were let off the hook. Radicals in Congress insisted on harsh measures.
But what could they do? If, as Republicans had argued, the states could not, and thus had not seceded from the Union, then Congress had no authority to interpose any plan against state constitutions. Well, clever minds among the radicals in Congress came up with a couple of things. Thadeus Stevens viewed the southern states as “conquered provinces” and wanted to treat them accordingly. But that was too radical even for the radicals. So Charles Sumner came up with the idea of “state suicide.” The states, by the act of secession, had essentially given up their statehood and reverted to territorial status, which meant that Congress had every right to step in and have their way. Still, many in the North thought this was too radical as well.
The debate raged on and on between the wings of the Republican Party. Bills were introduced (and vetoed), compromises reached (that fell apart) and just when Lincoln hinted that he might be moving toward a new plan for reconstruction, an assassin’s bullet cut him down. We will never know what Lincoln had in mind
So when it comes to wartime reconstruction – what do you think? Do you think Lincoln should have come down harder?