Co-authored by Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade and Maryland Congressman Henry Winter Davis in 1864, the Wade-Davis Bill was an attempt to impose harsh Reconstruction terms on the South, which President Lincoln pocket vetoed.
Union fortunes on the battlefield were not faring well at the beginning of 1863. Armies in the West had won hard-fought victories at Shiloh and Corinth in 1862, but Confederate forces had them stalled near Vicksburg. In the East, Major General George McClellan’s failure to pursue General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated from the Battle of Antietam led to his ouster as commander of the Army of the Potomac. His successor, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside suffered a humiliating Union defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Despite these reversals, Washington officials were contemplating how they should reconstruct the Union should if federal forces won the Civil War.
Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction
On December 8, 1862, just a few days before the Fredericksburg disaster, President Abraham Lincoln announced his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Beyond pardoning nearly any Confederate willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union, Lincoln’s decree established terms for federal recognition of re-formed state governments in the South. Lincoln declared that when 10% of the number of voters (as of 1860) in any Confederate state swore the oath of allegiance and organized a republican form of government that abolished slavery, the newly formed state government would be “recognized as the true government of the State.”
It soon became clear that some congressional leaders of Lincoln’s party were not as forgiving as the President. On February 17, 1863, Republican Senator Ira Harris of New York introduced a bill (S. 538) “To guarantee in certain States a republican form of government.” The bill enumerated various conditions for the re-establishment of constitutional governments in the Confederate states following the war. Harris’ proposal served as the foundation of a Reconstruction measure co-authored by Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade and Maryland Congressman Henry Winter Davis a year later.
On February 15, 1864, Davis reported a bill from the House Select Committee on the Rebellious States entitled, “A Bill to guarantee to certain States whose governments have been usurped or overthrown, a republican form of government” (H.R. 244). Commonly known as the Wade-Davis Bill, the measure instructed the president to appoint a provisional governor for each Confederate state that came under the control of federal forces.
The further required the provisional governor to enroll all white male citizens of the state and to request each one to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. If 50% of the eligible voters swore the oath, they could elect delegates to a convention to draft a constitution and form a new government. The bill required the proposed government to be republican in form. It excluded Confederate officials and high-ranking military officials from serving as convention delegates or from holding office in the newly formed government. It also prevented the new government from assuming or paying any Confederate debts. Finally, the bill required the approval of the new constitution by a majority of eligible voters in the state.
Upon meeting all of those conditions, the measure authorized the president to recognize the new state government “after obtaining the assent of Congress.” In a provision unrelated to the mechanics of reconstructing state governments, the final provision of the Wade-Davis Bill stated:
be it further enacted, that all persons held to involuntary servitude or labor in the states aforesaid are hereby emancipated and discharged therefrom, and they and their posterity shall be forever free.
After several weeks of consideration, the House passed Davis’ proposal on May 4, 1864, and sent it to the Senate for concurrence. The Senate approved the measure in principle and passed an amended version on July 1. On July 2, a conference committee between the two bodies resolved their differences. The full Congress approved the measure on the same day and sent it to the President for approval.
Presidential Pocket Veto
As Wade and Davis navigated their proposal through choppy legislative waters, President Lincoln indicated that he had reservations about its contents. Still, the co-authors assumed that the President would approve the bill after Congress approved it and then adjourned on July 4, 1864.
Despite intense lobbying at the White House, Lincoln chose not to sign the bill. In addition, Lincoln took the unusual step of issuing a presidential proclamation on July 8, outlining his reasons for the pocket veto. In his proclamation, Lincoln stated that he was “unprepared, by a formal approval of this Bill, to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration,” especially in Arkansas and Louisiana where reconstruction under his Ten-percent Plan was already underway. Lincoln also questioned the “constitutional competency in Congress to abolish slavery in States,” despite his sincere hopes that “a constitutional amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the nation, may be adopted.”
Unstated in the President’s proclamation was his concern that Congress was undermining the Northern rationale for the war. For Congress to assert that it could ban slavery in the South, although the Constitution gave it no such authority, would imply that those states were no longer part of the Union (thus making secession legitimate)—an admission Lincoln would not make.
Outraged by Lincoln’s pocket veto and subsequent proclamation, Wade and Davis issued a manifesto “To the Supporters of the Government” on August 4, 1864. First published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the vitriolic diatribe accused Lincoln of not signing the bill because he coveted “the electoral votes of the Rebel States” (Arkansas and Louisiana) during the upcoming 1864 presidential election. Wade and Davis also characterized the president as “an enemy of the Government” and Congress as “the proper constitutional authority” regarding Reconstruction.
Attempting to place Lincoln’s actions in a historical perspective, Wade and Davis declared that “A more studied outrage on the legislative authority of the people has never been perpetrated.” Finally, in a not-so-veiled threat, Davis and Wade, supposedly speaking for their colleagues in Congress, warned that if President Lincoln “wishes our support, he must confine himself to his executive duties-to obey and execute, not make the laws—to suppress by arms armed Rebellion, and leave political reorganization to Congress.”
Unfortunately for the two legislators, not everyone in Congress (or the Republican Party) shared their sentiments. Viewed by many as a treasonous attack on the office of the presidency during the war, the Manifesto backfired. Republican moderates and voters in the North rallied behind President Lincoln to reelect him by a wide margin of electoral votes in the November contest.
After President Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, Congress reasserted its authority to dictate terms for Reconstruction. President Andrew Johnson proved to be a much less adroit politician than his predecessor, and many of the principles expressed in the Wade-Davis Bill eventually resurfaced in legislation enacted under Congressional Reconstruction.