Reconstruction Plans: Wade Davis Bill Debate

Reconstruction Plans: Wade Davis Bill Debate

Reconstruction Plans: The Debate over the Wade Davis Bill


The period following the American Civil War, commonly known as Reconstruction, was a pivotal and tumultuous time in our nation’s history. It was a time of healing, rebuilding, and reshaping the United States after the devastating conflict that had torn the nation apart. This essay delves into one of the most contentious debates of the era, centering on the Wade Davis Bill, and examines how it mirrored the broader challenges faced in reconstructing the nation.

Background on Reconstruction

Before we delve into the intricacies of the Wade Davis Bill and the passionate arguments it provoked, it is essential to establish the historical context of the Reconstruction era. The American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865, left the nation scarred and deeply divided.

The conflict had ended with the surrender of the Confederate forces, marking a significant turning point in American history. The nation had to grapple with the aftermath of a brutal war that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left large swaths of the South in ruins. In this post-war landscape, questions abounded about how to rebuild the United States both physically and politically.

Crucially, there were differing visions for how Reconstruction should unfold. Some advocated for a lenient approach, seeking to quickly reintegrate the Southern states back into the Union, while others called for a more stringent and comprehensive restructuring of the former Confederate states. This debate over the path of Reconstruction would come to define the era.

Congressional Reconstruction, characterized by the influence of the Radical Republicans, emerged as a critical force in shaping the nation’s direction during this period. The Republican-controlled Congress sought to impose its vision of Reconstruction, often in opposition to President Abraham Lincoln and later his successor, Andrew Johnson. The tension between the executive and legislative branches of government played a significant role in the debates surrounding the Wade Davis Bill and other Reconstruction policies.

In this essay, we will explore how the Wade Davis Bill, introduced in Congress during this turbulent period, became a focal point of contention and represented the ongoing struggle to determine the course of Reconstruction.

Wade Davis Bill: Origin and Provisions

The Wade Davis Bill, formally known as the “Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill,” was introduced in Congress in early 1864. This legislative proposal was named after its primary sponsors, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. The bill aimed to address the thorny issue of how to reintegrate the Southern states back into the Union.

Key provisions of the Wade Davis Bill included:

  • 1. The requirement that the majority of eligible white males in each seceded state had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States before a state could hold a constitutional convention.
  • 2. A provision known as the “ironclad oath,” which barred anyone who had supported the Confederacy in any way from participating in the constitutional conventions.
  • 3. The insistence that the new state constitutions must grant suffrage rights to African American men.
  • 4. The requirement that the state constitutions must abolish slavery and repudiate the Confederate debt.

These provisions reflected the bill’s intention to establish a more rigorous and controlled process for the readmission of Southern states into the Union. It sought to ensure that the Confederate leadership and sympathizers did not regain political power and that the civil rights of African Americans were protected.

Supporters of the Wade Davis Bill

The Wade Davis Bill found staunch support among a faction of Republicans in Congress known as the “Radical Republicans.” Led by figures such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, these radicals believed that the Southern states needed to undergo a profound transformation before they could be readmitted to the Union.

The motivations behind their support for the Wade Davis Bill were multifaceted. Radicals were deeply concerned about the potential for the reestablishment of white supremacy in the South, especially in the absence of significant reforms. They believed that the bill’s stringent provisions were necessary to prevent former Confederate leaders from returning to power and enacting laws that would oppress newly freed African Americans.

Additionally, Radical Republicans saw the Wade Davis Bill as a means of asserting congressional authority over Reconstruction, challenging President Lincoln’s more lenient approach. They believed that Congress, rather than the executive branch, should dictate the terms of Reconstruction policy and ensure that it aligned with their vision of a more just and equitable post-war South.

As we delve deeper into the Wade Davis Bill debate, it is crucial to understand the motivations and ideals of its supporters, as well as the complex political landscape in which it was introduced.

Opponents of the Wade Davis Bill

While the Wade Davis Bill had its fervent supporters among the Radical Republicans and others who shared their concerns, it also faced vehement opposition from various quarters.

Opponents of the bill included more moderate Republicans, often referred to as “Moderate Republicans” or “Conservative Republicans.” These individuals were generally aligned with President Abraham Lincoln and favored a more lenient approach to Reconstruction. They believed that a swift and less punitive reintegration of the Southern states into the Union was essential for national healing and unity.

Many Moderate Republicans were worried that the Wade Davis Bill’s stringent requirements would alienate white Southerners who might otherwise be willing to pledge loyalty to the Union. They feared that these measures could prolong the conflict and hinder the nation’s ability to move forward. Moreover, some argued that the bill’s emphasis on African American suffrage was premature and could prove counterproductive.

President Lincoln himself did not support the Wade Davis Bill and expressed his reservations about its provisions. He preferred a more conciliatory and inclusive approach to Reconstruction, as outlined in his “Ten Percent Plan,” which allowed for rapid state readmission as soon as 10 percent of voters in a Confederate state took an oath of allegiance.

Congressional Debates and Compromises

The introduction of the Wade Davis Bill in Congress set the stage for intense debates and negotiations. The legislative process was marked by impassioned speeches, political maneuvering, and attempts to find common ground.

In Congress, the bill faced challenges from both its proponents and opponents. Radical Republicans fought to preserve its stringent provisions, while Moderate Republicans sought amendments to make it more palatable to the Southern states. These debates highlighted the ideological divisions within the Republican Party and underscored the complexity of the Reconstruction issue.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached in the form of the “Wade-Davis Manifesto.” This document, signed by several prominent Republicans, acknowledged their support for the Wade Davis Bill but also expressed a desire for further discussion and potential modifications. It was an attempt to bridge the gap between Radical and Moderate Republicans within the party.

However, this compromise was short-lived, as President Lincoln effectively killed the Wade Davis Bill through a pocket veto. His decision not to sign the bill into law further intensified the tensions between Congress and the executive branch over control of Reconstruction policy.

As we move forward in this exploration of the Wade Davis Bill debate, we will delve deeper into the consequences of this legislative struggle and its impact on the broader landscape of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Presidential Response: Lincoln’s Pocket Veto

The fate of the Wade Davis Bill ultimately rested in the hands of President Abraham Lincoln. As the bill made its way through Congress, it became clear that there were fundamental disagreements between the legislative and executive branches regarding the path of Reconstruction.

On July 2, 1864, President Lincoln took a decisive action regarding the Wade Davis Bill, known as a “pocket veto.” This involves the President refusing to sign a bill into law within the constitutionally mandated ten-day period before Congress adjourns, effectively preventing it from becoming law without issuing a formal veto.

Lincoln’s decision to exercise the pocket veto was a strategic move, reflecting his reluctance to fully embrace the Wade Davis Bill’s more punitive approach to Reconstruction. He expressed concerns that the bill’s stringent requirements could alienate the Southern states and impede the healing process. Instead, he favored a more lenient and conciliatory approach outlined in his “Ten Percent Plan,” which he believed would encourage a swifter return to normalcy.

Lincoln’s pocket veto of the Wade Davis Bill deepened the divide between the Radical Republicans in Congress and the President. It underscored the ongoing struggle for control over Reconstruction policy between the legislative and executive branches, with profound implications for the direction of the nation’s recovery after the Civil War.

Impact and Legacy

The failure of the Wade Davis Bill and its subsequent pocket veto had significant and far-reaching consequences for the Reconstruction era and the course of American history. It marked a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate over how to rebuild the nation after the Civil War.

One immediate consequence was the continued tension between Congress and the executive branch over the direction of Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans in Congress felt frustrated by what they perceived as President Lincoln’s leniency towards the Southern states. This tension would persist into the post-war period, culminating in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor.

Furthermore, the failure of the Wade Davis Bill had implications for the Southern states. In the absence of a comprehensive federal plan for Reconstruction, the individual states were left to chart their courses. This led to a patchwork of policies and varying degrees of progress in granting civil rights and political participation to African Americans across the former Confederacy.

As we continue to explore the aftermath of the Wade Davis Bill debate, we will delve into how these consequences shaped the broader landscape of Reconstruction and set the stage for the challenges and struggles that lay ahead.


The debate over the Wade Davis Bill during the tumultuous years of Reconstruction encapsulated the profound challenges and divisions that defined the era. As the United States grappled with the aftermath of a devastating Civil War, the question of how to reintegrate the Southern states into the Union loomed large, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the nation’s future.

The Wade Davis Bill, with its stringent provisions and calls for significant reform in the South, became a focal point of contention. Its supporters, the Radical Republicans, championed its measures as necessary safeguards against the resurgence of white supremacy and the oppression of newly freed African Americans. Opponents, including President Abraham Lincoln, favored a more lenient approach, believing that reconciliation and unity should take precedence over punitive measures.

The bill’s ultimate fate, sealed by Lincoln’s pocket veto, highlighted the ongoing power struggle between Congress and the executive branch over the direction of Reconstruction. This tension would reverberate throughout the post-war period, shaping the nation’s recovery and the trajectory of civil rights in the South.

While the Wade Davis Bill itself did not become law, its legacy endured. It served as a symbol of the deep divisions and competing visions that characterized Reconstruction. It left an indelible mark on the course of American history, influencing the debates, policies, and struggles that would define the nation’s path forward in the years to come.

As we reflect on this pivotal moment in our nation’s past, we are reminded that the challenges of Reconstruction were not easily overcome. The Wade Davis Bill debate remains a testament to the complexities of rebuilding a fractured nation and the enduring quest for justice and equality in the aftermath of war.

Class Notes: The Debate over the Wade Davis Bill

In 1864 Benjamin Wade and Henry Winter Davis, sponsored a bill that provided for the administration of the affairs of southern states by provisional governors until the end of the war. They argued that civil government should only be re-established when half of the male white citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Union. The bill also excluded from amnesty all Confederate civil officers above ministerial rank and military officers ranking colonel or above.

On the 4th May, 1864, the Wade-Davis Bill was passed in the House of Representatives by 73 to 59. It passed the Senate, 18 to 14 on 2nd July, with only one Republican voting against it. However, Abraham Lincoln refused to sign the bill on 4th July and so it failed to become law. Lincoln defended his decision by telling Zachariah Chandler, one of the bill’s supporters, that it was a question of time: “this bill was placed before me a few minutes before Congress adjourns. It is a matter of too much importance to be swallowed in that way.”Lincoln made a speech on 8th July where he explained that he had rejected the bill because he did not wish “to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration”.

The Radical Republicans were furious with Lincoln’s decision. On 5th August, Wade and Henry Winter Davis published an attack on Lincoln in the New York Tribune. In what became known as the
Wade-Davis Manifesto, the men argued that Lincoln’s actions had been taken “at the dictation of his personal ambition” and accused him of “dictatorial usurpation”. They added that: “he must realize that our support is of a cause and not of a man.”

Document (1) Carl Schurz wrote about the Wade-Davis Bill in his autobiography published in 1906.

Senator Benjamin F. Wade, from Ohio, one of the oldest, most courageous, and most highly respected of the anti-slavery champions, and Henry Winter Davis, a member of the National House of
Representatives from Maryland, a man of high character and an orator of rare brilliancy, rose in open revolt against Lincoln’s reconstruction ideas, and issued a formal manifesto, in which, in language of startling vehemence, they assailed the integrity of his motives as those of a usurper carried away by lust of power.

Document (2) Benjamin Wade, speech in the Senate (21st April, 1862)

If there is any stain on the present Administration, it is that they have been weak enough to deal too leniently with those traitors. I know it sprung from goodness of heart; it sprung from the best of
motives; but, sir, as a method of putting down this rebellion, mercy to traitors is cruelty to loyal men. Look into the seceded States, and see thousands of loyal men there coerced into their armies to run
the hazard of their lives, and placed in the damnable position of perjured traitors by force of arms.

Document (3) Thaddeus Stevens, letter to Edward McPherson about Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation after his rejection of the Wade-Davis Bill (10th July, 1864)

What an infamous proclamation! The president is determined to have the electoral votes of the seceded States. The idea of pocketing a bill and then issuing a proclamation as how far he will conform to it is matched only by signing a bill and then sending in a veto. How little of the rights of war and the law of nations our president knows!

Document (4) Benjamin Wade and Henry Winter Davis issued a joint statement in the New York Tribune after Abraham Lincoln vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill (5th August, 1864)

The bill directed the appointment of provisional government by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The President, after defeating the law, proposes to appoint, without law and without the
advice and consent of the Senate, military governors for the rebel States!

Whatever is done will be at his will and pleasure, by persons responsible to no law, and more interested to secure the interests and execute the will of the President than of the people; and the
will of Congress is to be “held for naught unless the loyal people of the rebel States choose to adopt it.”

The President must realize that our support is of a cause and not of a man and that the authority of Congress is paramount and must be respected; and if he wishes our support, he must confine himself to his executive duties – to obey and execute, not make the laws – to suppress by armed rebellion, and leave political reorganization to Congress.