Lincoln’s Plan

Learning Objectives

  • Describe Lincoln’s plan to restore the Union at the end of the Civil War
  • Describe the circumstances and purpose of the Thirteenth Amendment
A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln unveils the “ten percent plan”; a portrait of Lincoln is shown. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinates Lincoln, Congress establishes the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified; an illustration of Booth shooting Lincoln in his theater box, as his wife and two guests look on, is shown. In 1867, Radical Republicans pass the Military Reconstruction Act. In 1868, Congress moves to impeach Andrew Johnson, and the Fourteenth Amendment is ratified; a portrait of Johnson and an image of the impeachment resolution signed by the House of Representatives are shown. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment is ratified. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes defeats Samuel Tilden in a contested presidential election; a photograph of Hayes’s inauguration is shown. In 1877, the Compromise of 1877 ends Reconstruction.

Figure 1. Major events of the Reconstruction era.

Restoring the Union

The end of the Civil War saw the beginning of the Reconstruction era, when former rebel Southern states were integrated back into the Union. Reconstruction became a tumultuous journey as formerly enslaved freedmen and White southern males hoped to obtain the kind of freedom they wanted. These two groups believed in two different realities, which made freedom hard to define, and led to a tug of war between both groups. President Lincoln moved quickly to achieve the war’s ultimate goal: reunification of the country. He proposed a generous and non-punitive plan to return the former Confederate states speedily to the United States, but some Republicans in Congress protested, considering the president’s plan too lenient to the rebel states that had torn the country apart. The greatest flaw of Lincoln’s plan, according to this view, was that it appeared to forgive traitors instead of guaranteeing civil rights to former slaves. President Lincoln oversaw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, but he did not live to see its ratification.

The President’s Plan: The Ten Percent Plan

From the outset of the rebellion in 1861, Lincoln’s overriding goal had been to bring the Southern states quickly back into the fold in order to restore the Union. In early December 1863, the president began the process of reunification by unveiling a three-part proposal known as the ten percent plan that outlined how the states would return. The ten percent plan gave a general pardon to all Southerners except high-ranking Confederate government and military leaders, required 10 percent of the 1860 voting population in the former rebel states to take a binding oath of future allegiance to the United States and the emancipation of enslaved people, and declared that once those voters took those oaths, the restored Confederate states would draft new state constitutions.

Photograph (a) shows a standing portrait of Lincoln. Cartoon (b), titled “The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union,” shows Andrew Johnson sitting atop a globe, mending a map of the United States with a needle and thread. Beside him, Lincoln holds the globe in place using a large split rail. Johnson says “Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever!!!” Lincoln replies, “A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended!”

Figure 2. Thomas Le Mere took this albumen silver print (a) of Abraham Lincoln in April 1863. Le Mere thought a standing pose of Lincoln would be popular. In this political cartoon from 1865 (b), Lincoln and his vice president, Andrew Johnson, endeavor to sew together the torn pieces of the Union.

Lincoln hoped that the leniency of the plan—90% of the 1860 voters did not have to swear allegiance to the Union or to emancipation—would bring about a quick and long-anticipated resolution and make emancipation more acceptable everywhere. It should be noted that in this plan, voters would be White males age 21 years old and older. During the Civil War, the South lost 268,000 of these men, which of course could have a significant impact on the voting for this plan. This approach appealed to some in the Republican Party, which wanted to put the nation on a speedy course toward reconciliation. However, the proposal instantly drew fire from a larger faction of Republicans in Congress who did not want to deal moderately with the South.

There were three factions of the Republican Party at this time: the Radical Republicans, the Moderate Republicans, and the Conservative Republicans. The members of Congress known as Radical Republicans wanted to remake the South and punish the rebels. Radical Republicans insisted on harsh terms for the defeated Confederacy and protection for former slaves, going far beyond what the president proposed. They also believed that the slaves’ legal rights should be protected, the Southern leaders should be punished and disenfranchised, the land of the wealthy should be distributed to the Blacks, and that Blacks should obtain suffrage. Conservative Republicans believed in the abolition of slavery but did not believe in imposing punishment on rebellious Southerners and were not as concerned with equality. Moderate Republicans fell between these two groups.

Ironclad Oath

In February 1864, two of the Radical Republicans, Ohio senator Benjamin Wade and Maryland representative Henry Winter Davis, countered Lincoln’s proposal with one of their own. Among other stipulations, the Wade-Davis Bill called for a majority of voters and government officials in Confederate states to take an oath, called the Ironclad Oath, swearing that they had never supported the Confederacy or made war against the United States. Those who could not or would not take the oath would be unable to take part in the future political life of the South. The Wade-Davis Bill required that 50 percent of a state’s White males take a loyalty oath to be readmitted to the Union, instead of Lincoln’s proposed 10%. For this reason, the Wade-Davis bill is also known as the “50 Percent Plan.”

Congress assented to the Wade-Davis Bill, and it went to Lincoln for his signature. The president refused to sign, using the pocket veto (that is, taking no action after Congress adjourns) to kill the bill. Lincoln understood that no Southern state would have met the criteria of the Wade-Davis Bill, and its passage would simply have delayed the reconstruction of the South.

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The Thirteenth Amendment

Initially proposed as a war aim, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation committed the United States to the abolition of slavery. However, the proclamation freed only enslaved people in areas of rebellion and left more than seven hundred thousand in bondage in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri as well as in Union-occupied areas of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation

Congress passed several laws between 1861 and 1863 that aided the growing movement toward emancipation. Despite his concerns that premature attempts at emancipation would weaken his support and entail the loss of crucial border states, Lincoln signed these acts into law. The first of these laws to be implemented was the First Confiscation Act of August 1861, which authorized the confiscation of any Confederate property, including slaves, by Union forces. In March 1862, Congress approved a law enacting an additional article of war, which forbade Union Army officers from returning fugitive slaves to their owners. The following month, Congress declared that the federal government would compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. Moderate Republicans accepted Lincoln’s plan for gradual, compensated emancipation, which was put into effect in the District of Columbia.

In June 1862, Congress passed a law enacting emancipation in the federal territories, and in July, passed the Second Confiscation Act, which contained provisions intended to liberate slaves held by rebels. The latter act also declared that any Confederate official, military or civilian, who did not surrender within 60 days of the act’s passage would have his enslaved laborers freed.

In order to increase public support for emancipation, Lincoln strategically chose to associate the Emancipation Proclamation with the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. On September 22 of that year, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation that he would order the emancipation of all slaves within all Confederate states that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863. When none of the states returned to the Union by that date, Lincoln honored his proclamation, and the order immediately took effect.

Despite the Confiscation Acts and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the legal status of enslaved people and the institution of slavery remained unresolved. Since these were wartime acts, once the war was over, these people could be put back into bondage. To deal with the remaining uncertainties, the Republican Party made the abolition of slavery a top priority by including the issue in its 1864 party platform. The platform read: “That as slavery was the cause, and now constitutes the strength of this Rebellion, and as it must be, always and everywhere, hostile to the principles of Republican Government, justice and the National safety demand its utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic; and that, while we uphold and maintain the acts and proclamations by which the Government, in its own defense, has aimed a deathblow at this gigantic evil, we are in favor, furthermore, of such an amendment to the Constitution, to be made by the people in conformity with its provisions, as shall terminate and forever prohibit the existence of Slavery within the limits of the jurisdiction of the United States.” The platform left no doubt about the intention to abolish slavery.

The president, along with the Radical Republicans, made good on this campaign promise in 1864 and 1865. A proposed constitutional amendment passed the Senate in April 1864, and the House of Representatives concurred in January 1865. The first amendment added to the Constitution since 1804, it overturned a centuries-old practice by permanently abolishing slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment legally abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Section Two of the amendment granted Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” State ratification followed, and by the end of the year (December 1865) the requisite three-fourths of the states had approved the amendment, and four million people were forever free from the slavery that had existed in North America for 250 years.

Dig Deeper: the 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution


Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

Many people today believe that the 13th amendment’s sole focus was freeing the slaves after the Civil War. However, its importance has long-reaching ramifications even today dealing with current issues, including penal labor and hate crimes. The clause in the amendment that says “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” has been used as justification for penal labor, or requiring prisoners to work. This “loophole” in the 13th Amendment is still used today to permit labor from prisoners, but it was especially problematic during Reconstruction because Black Codes designed to target and criminalize Blacks led to larger percentages of imprisoned Blacks who were forced back into slave labor. For example, the inability to pay fees for vagrancy crimes resulted in imprisonment, during which prisoners labored in the very same wage-free positions held by slaves less than two years prior.

Between 1866 and 1869, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida became the first states in the U.S. to lease out convicts. Previously responsible for the housing and feeding of the new prison labor force, the states developed a convict leasing system as a means to rid penitentiaries of the responsibility to care for the incarcerated population. State governments maximized profits by putting the responsibility on the lessee to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the prisoners. Convict labor strayed from small-scale plantation and sharecrop harvesting and moved toward work in the private sector. States leased out convicts to private businesses that utilized the low-cost labor to run enterprises such as coal mines, railroads, and logging companies. Private lessees were permitted to use prisoner labor with very little oversight. This resulted in extremely poor conditions and inadequacy of necessities like food, water, and shelter, often exacerbated by unsafe labor practices and inhuman discipline. This cheap labor supply from convicts aided the southern economy’s return from wartime devastation.

This 2020 NPR Article offers more insight on the interpretation of the 13th amendment regarding penal labor, and this BigThink video discusses this issue in a modern light.

An illustration shows John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln in the back of the head as he sits in the theater box with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their guests, Major Henry R. Rathbone and Clara Harris. Rathbone stands and points at Booth as the women look on in horror.

Figure 3. In The Assassination of President Lincoln (1865), by Currier and Ives, John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln in the back of the head as he sits in the theater box with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their guests, Major Henry R. Rathbone and Clara Harris.

President Lincoln never saw the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. On April 14, 1865, the Confederate supporter and well-known actor John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln while he was attending a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theater in Washington. The president died the next day. Booth had steadfastly defended the Confederacy and White supremacy, and his act was part of a larger conspiracy to eliminate the heads of the Union government and keep the Confederate fight going. One of Booth’s associates stabbed and wounded Secretary of State William Seward the night of the assassination. Another associate abandoned the planned assassination of Vice President Andrew Johnson at the last moment. Although Booth initially escaped capture, Union troops shot and killed him on April 26, 1865, in a Maryland barn. Eight other conspirators were convicted by a military tribunal for participating in the conspiracy, and four were hanged. Lincoln’s death earned him immediate martyrdom, and hysteria spread throughout the North. To many Northerners, the assassination suggested an even greater conspiracy than what was revealed, masterminded by the unrepentant leaders of the defeated Confederacy. Militant Republicans would use and exploit this fear relentlessly in the ensuing months.

Link to Learning

Learn more about Lincoln’s Presidency on the Miller Center website or explore a comprehensive collection of documents, images, and ephemera related to Abraham Lincoln on the Library of Congress website.

Review Question

What was the purpose of the Thirteenth Amendment? How was it different from the Emancipation Proclamation?

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Ironclad Oath: an oath that the Wade-Davis Bill required a majority of voters and government officials in Confederate states to take; it involved swearing that they had never supported the Confederacy

Ten percent plan: Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan, which required only 10 percent of the 1860 voters in Confederate states to take an oath of allegiance to the Union

Thirteenth Amendment: provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”