Wade-Davis bill

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The Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 was a program proposed for the Reconstruction of the South written by two Radical Republicans, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. In contrast to President Abraham Lincoln's more lenient "Ten percent plan," the bill made re-admittance to the Union almost impossible (or at least without a great moral defeat for the South) since it required a majority in each Southern state to swear the Ironclad oath to the effect they had never in the past supported the Confederacy. The bill passed both houses of Congress on July 2, 1864, but was vetoed by Lincoln and never took effect.


The Wade-Davis Bill emerged from a plan introduced in the Senate in February, 1863. It proposed to base Reconstruction in traditional concepts of federalism and republicanism, for the Constitution gave the national government power to guarantee a "republican form of government" in each state. There had been a widespread belief that southern Unionism would return the seceded states to the Union after the South's military power was broken. This belief was not fully abandoned until 1863, and it now became clear that new constitutional methods must be applied to bring the states back into a normal status.


The propsed law provided:

  1. Until states were readmitted, they would be under the control of a governor appointed by the president.
  2. The provisional governor would enroll all white men. If over 50% of them took the "Ironclad Oath," these same loyalists would be allowed to elect a constitutional convention. No one who held any Confederate office or served in the confederate army would be allowed to vote for this convention. The "Ironclad oath," attested that the white male had never borne arms against the Union or supported the Confederacy. Considering the numbers in the Confederate Army, historians believe it would have been impossible for a southern state to meet this requirement, leaving the states in limbo.
  3. The new constitution must abolish slavery, punish Confederate leaders by distributing their property, and repudiate debts collected during the war. After meeting these conditions, a state could finally be readmitted to the Union.
  4. Freedmen, although not citizens, were to be granted federal habeas corpus rights, and former masters who denied freedom to the enslaved were subject to federal fines and imprisonment. That is, the bill would transfer legal authority over ex-slaves from state to federal courts.
  5. Senior Confederate civil officials and military officers of the rank of colonel and higher would lose their U.S. citizenship.

The Wade-Davis bill looked to the past: everyone who actively supported the Confederacy lost his vote. Lincoln looked to the future: under his plan 10% of the voters had to pledge to support the Union in the future.

Section 14 of the Act stripped Confederate leaders of their U.S. citizenship: "And be it further enacted, That every person who shall hereafter hold or exercise any office, civil or military (except offices merely ministerial and military offices below the grade of colonel), in the rebel service, State or Confederate, is hereby declared not to be a citizen of the United States."

Lincoln's veto

Lincoln feared the bill would sabotage his own reconstruction activities in states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee, all of which had seceded but were under the control of a loyal minority. Wade-Davis would also jeopardize state-level emancipation movements in loyal border states like Missouri and, especially, Maryland. Worst of all, the bill threatened to destroy the delicate political coalitions that Lincoln had begun to construct between northern and southern moderates. Lincoln therefore killed the bill with a pocket veto and it was not resurrected.

Davis was a bitter enemy of Lincoln, because he was not harsh enough. He and Wade issued a manifesto "To the Supporters of the Government" on August 4, 1864, that accused Lincoln of using reconstruction to secure electors in the South who would “be at the dictation of his personal ambition,” condemned his efforts to usurp power from Congress, and implicitly recommended dumping him from the Republican ticket. Lincoln survived their attacks and greatly strengthened his position with a landslide victory in the election, and the passage of the 13th Amendment in February, 1865. He marginalized the Radicals in terms of shaping Reconstruction policy; after Lincoln's death and the failures of Andrew Johnson, the Radicals took control of reconstruction policy in 1866.


  • Belz, Herman. "Henry Winter Davis and the Origins of Congressional Reconstruction" Maryland Historical Magazine 1972 67(2): 129-143. ISSN 0025-4258
  • Belz, Herman. Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era 1978
  • Belz, Herman. Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy during the Civil War 1969
  • Benedict, Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869 1974
  • Harris, William C. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union 1997, pp 123–70.
  • Hesseltine, William B.; Lincoln's Plan of Reconstruction 1960
  • Hyman; Harold M. A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution 1973
  • Nicolay and Hay, "Abraham Lincoln: A History. The Wade-Davis Manifesto" (1889) The Century pp 414–21

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