Pencil drawing of a group of men in suits standing together in the room and talking.
Drawing from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1866.

The Wade-Davis Bill and Reconstruction

3 min read

Long before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln developed plans for restoring the divided nation. He, his advisors and members of Congress faced difficult questions: How and under what conditions would the Confederate states rejoin the Union? What should happen to the former leaders of the rebellion? How would the rights of four million newly freed slaves be protected?

In December 1863, Lincoln proposed his solution with the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, or Ten Percent Plan. This stated, among other things, that seceded states would be readmitted if 10 percent of their voters (white males) swore allegiance to the United States and recognized the “permanent freedom of slaves.” The plan’s pardon would apply to all members of the previously rebellious states, except for the highest-ranking Confederate officials and military leaders. He believed that this plan would accomplish his goals of freeing the slaves and restoring the Union as quickly as possible.

House and Senate Republicans rejected the plan, fearing that it was too lenient on the South and didn’t guarantee rights beyond freedom for former slaves. This ignited tensions between President Lincoln and Congress over the priorities and control of Reconstruction.

Image of President Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Representative Harry Winter Davis proposed the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill in February 1864, as a response to Lincoln’s proposal. This new proposal required 50 percent, instead of 10 percent, of seceded states’ voters to promise Union allegiance and citizens to swear that they never voluntarily fought in support of the Confederacy. It also insisted that states would not just free slaves, as Lincoln had proposed, but extend voting rights to African-American men. The authors also sought to punish those who had carried out the rebellion: Confederate officials and veterans would not be allowed to vote. The Wade-Davis Bill also stipulated that military governors would be appointed by the president to oversee each previously seceded state. This law would make it more difficult for seceded states to rejoin the Union than Lincoln’s plan.

The Wade-Davis Bill passed in the House of Representatives on May 4, 1864, by a vote of 73 to 49. It continued to succeed in the Senate on July 2, 1864, by a vote of 18 to 14. But Lincoln pocket vetoed the proposal; he stalled signing the bill until Congress adjourned for the session, therefore preventing the bill from becoming law. Lincoln said he that wasn’t ready “to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration.”

Hon. Henry W. Davis of Maryland and Hon. Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio Courtesy Library of Congress: LC-DIG-cwpbh-01037 and LC-DIG-ppmsca-26730.

After Lincoln’s veto, Davis and Wade wrote their Wade-Davis Manifesto to The New York Times on August 9, 1864. They feared that Lincoln was using his presidential powers to control the reconstruction process and that he was prioritizing fast restoration of the Union over the rights of former slaves and the need to punish those they deemed traitors. According to the House of Representatives’ online history resource, Davis believed that until Congress acknowledged “a state government organized under its auspices, there is no government in the rebel states except the authority of Congress.”

Tensions shifted after Lincoln’s assassination and subsequent death on April 15, 1865. Although the Wade-Davis Bill was never implemented, Reconstruction continued later that year. Congress struggled with the new president, Andrew Johnson, to impose many similar rules that were outlined in the bill. Would Reconstruction have been different if Lincoln wasn’t assassinated? In our Aftermath Exhibits at the Center for Education and Leadership, a section on Reconstruction encourages visitors to explore the policies used to rebuild the nation.

Plan an upcoming visit to Ford’s Theatre, and explore Lincoln’s legacy and the questions regarding Reconstruction.

Danny Dubin is the former Communications and Marketing Intern at Ford’s Theatre. He is a sophomore at American University with a major in Public Communication. Originally from the Chicago area, Dubin is also a professional magician, performing for private events and functions around Washington, D.C.

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Danny Dubin is the former Communications and Marketing Intern at Ford’s Theatre.


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