Wade Davis Bill

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,

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

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

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