Wade-Davies Act

In 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."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(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.

(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.

(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!

(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.