The Wade-Davis Bill and Reconstruction

The statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction conflicted with the Wade-Davis Bill.

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

At the end of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wanted to bring the Confederate states back into the Union as amicably as possible. In fact, he did not even officially recognize them as having seceded from the Union. According to his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, any Confederate would be pardoned if they swore allegiance to the Constitution and the union except for high-ranking civil and military leaders or those who committed war crimes. In addition, after 10 percent of voters in a Confederate state took the oath and agreed to end enslavement, the state could elect new congressional representatives and they would be recognized as legitimate.

Wade-Davis Bill Opposes Lincoln's Plan

The Wade-Davis Bill was the Radical Republicans answer to Lincoln's Reconstruction plan. It was written by Senator Benjamin Wade and Representative Henry Winter Davis. They felt that Lincoln's plan was not strict enough against those who seceded from the Union. In fact, the intention of the Wade-Davis Bill was more to punish than to bring the states back into the fold. 

The key provisions of the Wade-Davis Bill were the following: 

  • Lincoln would be required to appoint a provisional governor for each state. This governor would be responsible for implementing measures set out by Congress to reconstruct and state government. 
  • Fifty-percent of the state's voters would be required to swear loyalty to the Constitution and the Union before they could even begin creating a new Constitution through the state Constitutional Convention. Only then would they be able to begin the process to be officially be readmitted to the Union. 
  • While Lincoln believed that only the military and civilian officials of the Confederacy should not be pardoned, the Wade-Davis Bill stated that not only those officials but also "anyone who has voluntarily borne arms against the United States" should be denied the right to vote in any election. 
  • Enslavement would be ended and methods would be created to protect the liberty of freedmen. 

Lincoln's Pocket Veto

The Wade-Davis Bill easily passed both houses of Congress in 1864. It was sent to Lincoln for his signature on July 4, 1864. He chose to use a pocket veto with the bill. In effect, the Constitution gives the president 10 days to review a measure passed by Congress. If they have not signed the bill after this time, it becomes law without his signature. However, if Congress adjourns during the 10-day period, the bill does not become law. Because of the fact that Congress had adjourned, Lincoln's pocket veto effectively killed the bill. This infuriated Congress.

For his part, President Lincoln stated that he would allow the Southern states to pick which plan they wanted to use as they rejoined the Union. Obviously, his plan was much more forgiving and widely supported. Both Senator Davis and Representative Wade issued a statement in the New York Tribune in August 1864 that accused Lincoln of attempting to secure his future by ensuring that southern voters and electors would support him. In addition, they stated that his use of the pocket veto was akin to take away the power that should rightfully belong to Congress. This letter is now known as the Wade-Davis Manifesto. 

Radical Republicans Win in the End

Sadly, despite Lincoln's victory, he would not live long enough to see Reconstruction proceed in the Southern states. Andrew Johnson would take over after Lincoln's assassination. He felt that the South needed to be punished more than Lincoln's plan would allow. He appointed provisional governors and offered amnesty to those who took an oath of allegiance. He stated that states had to end enslavement and acknowledge seceding was wrong. However, many Southern States ignored his requests. The Radical Republicans were finally able to get traction and passed a number of amendments and laws to protect the formerly enslaved people and force the Southern states to comply with necessary changes. 

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Kelly, Martin. "The Wade-Davis Bill and Reconstruction." ThoughtCo, Dec. 21, 2022, Kelly, Martin. (2022, December 21). The Wade-Davis Bill and Reconstruction. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Wade-Davis Bill and Reconstruction." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).