Lincoln’s Plan for Reconstruction: A Closer Look

U.S. flag broken into puzzle pieces main

President Lincoln did not live to oversee the reconstruction of the United States after the Civil War. But prior to his assassination he had formed a loose plan of action to reunite the states after the war. Lincoln wanted easy access for southern states to rejoin the Union. His driving motive was to reunite the states as quickly as possible in order to rebuild as a whole nation. This would leave states open to engaging in civil rights violations. However, during the war Lincoln pivoted when necessary and he probably would have done so during Reconstruction as well.

States Broken Apart

Eleven states voted to secede (separate) from the United States.  This took place in the months after Abraham Lincoln was elected president (November 1860).  The states eventually declared that they were part of a new nation, the Confederate States of America.

The reality of the situation was that they would only be permanently so recognized if they won a war for independence, now commonly called the “Civil War.”  Such is the path of independence movements that are unrecognized by the mother countries.  The United States freely released control of some places, including Cuba and the Phillippines.  Not so here.  

The United States declared itself a new nation in 1776 too. It received some foreign recognition (one historian argued that the “first salute” to its independence was from Holland).  Independence only truly came by winning the Revolutionary War.  The South did not win.  

As occurred during World War II, the ultimate victorious side (here the North or “the Union”) looked to the future as the war was still fought to plan for its aftermath.  The United States already regained control of chunks of so-called Confederate territory by the halfway point of the Civil War.  How would the United States become whole once again?  


After four years of civil war, it would take some time to rebuild, or reconstruct, the country. The nation needed to be rebuilt physically, politically, and emotionally. The job was not truly completed for at least a hundred years.  Perhaps, one might say it is still going on.

A basic summary of the Reconstruction can be found here.   President Lincoln’s reconstruction plan is briefly discussed there.  We are going to examine his plans, which he announced over time, including in a speech days before his assassination, in more detail here.   

By 1863, the U.S. military had gained control of significant parts of the Confederacy, which brought with it military control over chunks of states still part of the Confederacy.  

West Virginia was admitted as a state in 1863.  President Lincoln appointed military governors in multiple states, including Tennessee (Andrew Johnson, future president, was appointed military governor there). 

And, he released the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate territory and welcoming them into the military. 

Areas under Union control were not covered and slavery legally continued there. Slavery, however, was on its way out.

Slavery was abolished in the nation’s capital and federal territories in 1862.  The federal Fugitive Slave Law would be abolished in 1864.  

Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

At the end of the year, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty [Pardon] and Reconstruction, which ended with a statement of purpose and a bit of humility: 

[T]his proclamation is intended to present the people of the States wherein the national authority has been suspended, and loyal State governments have been subverted, a mode in and by which the national authority and loyal State governments may be re-established within said States, or in any of them; and, while the mode presented is the best the Executive can suggest with his present impressions, it must not be understood that no other possible mode would be acceptable.

The final comment suggests the preliminary nature of this presidential announcement.  Nonetheless, it was an important opening gambit.  President Lincoln acted based on his powers as commander-in-chief, his ability to pardon, and his duty to faithfully execute federal law.  

Also known as the “10% plan,” the basic idea was that if ten percent of the voters (of those who voted in the 1860 election) in a seceded state took a loyalty oath, they could form a state government that the president would recognize as a loyal, legitimate government.  

The state would be the sort of “republican form” of government referenced in Article IV of the Constitution, guaranteed by the United States. It would still be up to Congress, by constitutional rule, to decide whether or not to seat representatives and senators from such states.  And, when Arkansas and Louisiana did follow Lincoln’s rules, Congress did not.  

What happens to the people who swear loyalty after the Civil War?

The people who swore the loyalty oath would get a full pardon with various exceptions. These exceptions included Confederate government officials, high-ranking military officials, those who broke their military oaths to fight for the Confederacy, and those who mistreated prisoners of war (both black and white).  Again, Lincoln’s pardon power was used here.  

The newly constructed states could basically go back to their old ways with the exception of slavery. The oath included an agreement to “faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves.”  The lasting effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, a war measure, was left unclear.

 Lincoln added this regarding free blacks:

And I do further proclaim, declare, and make known 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 as a laboring, landless, and homeless class, will not be objected to by the national Executive.

Lincoln here balanced the needs and rights of free blacks with the discretion given to states to regulate them in ways that might treat them differently from whites in certain ways.  The issue was handled carefully, as a temporary matter.  

It is left to supposition what Lincoln would demand once the Thirteenth Amendment (ratified after his death) abolished slavery and gave Congress the authority to enforce the amendment.  

Lincoln was pragmatic and acted based on ongoing events.  His purpose now was to do what was best to end the war and bring back seceded states back into normal alignment as quickly as possible.  Lincoln’s immediate goal was peace as long as basic republican values were upheld.   

What was the Wade-Davis Bill? 

There was much debate in Congress over the proper path for reconstruction.  

This included disputes over the status of the Southern states. Were they still part of the Union?  Did secession mean they gave up their statehood, and their status was now a sort of “conquered provinces” for which Congress had broad power like it would a territory? 

And, if states were welcomed back, was Lincoln’s policy much too generous?   

The Wade-Davis Bill ultimately was passed by Congress in 1864.  It required a strict loyalty oath sworn by 50% of a state’s white males.  The newly established states had to abolish slavery.  It added various other details and assured a greater role for Congress.  

President Lincoln “pocket vetoed” the measure by refusing to sign it before the end of the congressional session.  He put forth a veto message explaining that he thought the bill was too inflexible.  Also, Lincoln argued Congress did not have the power on its own to require states to accept the abolishment of slavery.  He hoped a constitutional amendment be passed to do that. 

Congress’ Reaction to Lincoln’s Veto

Lincoln’s action upset the radicals in Congress.  It is left to supposition how he would have handled things if he lived to see the war’s end.  President Johnson severely clashed with Congress.  We simply do not know how Lincoln and Congress would have worked together. 

Lincoln’s Final Speech 

The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed by Congress at the beginning of 1865.  It would be ratified in December, too late for President Lincoln to enjoy the moment.  

After the defeat of Lee’s Army, basically ending the Civil War in all but name, Lincoln gave a speech on peace and reconstruction.  Given on April 11th, it would be his final speech.  

Lincoln defined “reconstruction” as the “re-inauguration of the national authority.” He suggested it would not be useful to debate the exact nature of the seceded states, except to note that they are “out of their proper practical relation with the Union.”  

Lincoln notes his preference that blacks who are “very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers” would be able to vote. 

History would determine that the Fifteenth Amendment would be ratified in 1870, abolishing (by constitutional rule if not in actual practice) discrimination in voting by race.  

Lincoln argued the best policy overall was to allow for some flexibility, noting the new government set forth in Louisiana as a possible model.  Louisiana abolished slavery, authorized its legislature to allow black suffrage, and gave “the benefit of public schools equally to black and white.”   Lincoln continued to contemplate reconstruction and might say more later.

An assassin’s bullet made this impossible.  

Final Thoughts 

President Andrew Johnson, with Congress not in session until the end of the year, put forth his own plan for reconstruction in May 1865.   President Johnson supported a quick return of the seceded states with minimum conditions: ending slavery and renouncing secession.  

Johnson’s conservative path would leave civil and voting rights in the hands of the states, even former Confederate ones. The result was the passing of “black codes,” treating blacks as second-class citizens.  He honestly felt he was following in the footsteps of Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction, but times had changed.  And, Johnson did not, even in Lincoln’s limited way, support black suffrage.

We are left to suppose how things would have gone down had Lincoln lived.  Lincoln always left things open, repeatedly changing his policy in the face of events.  His reconstruction policy was more lenient than the congressional reconstruction of 1865-77, but times were different too.

It’s one of history’s “what ifs.”

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.