Why did President Lincoln reject the Wade-Davis Bill?

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President Abraham Lincoln rejected the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill on the official grounds that he was not prepared to commit to a plan for Reconstruction but also because the bill was too oppressive toward the South and would cause resentment in the Confederacy. Lincoln had his own plan, which was much more mild, for Reconstruction.

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Even as the Civil War still waged across America, President Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress were trying to determine how best to reunite the country and provide for the reinstatement of the Confederacy and its people.

Lincoln offered the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (also called the Ten-Percent Plan) at the end of 1863. He would welcome the seceded states back into the Union if ten percent of voters in those states took an oath of allegiance to the United States and agreed to “permanent freedom of slaves.” No one would be left out of this deal, not even Confederate government officials and military officers.

Members of Congress, however, didn't care for Lincoln's plan. They thought it was far too easy on the South. Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Representative Harry Winter Davis teamed up to write the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill, which was designed to be much tougher on the Confederates and force them to agree to more stringent terms for their readmission. Instead of ten percent of voters, fifty percent had to swear the oath and even swear that they had never fought for or aided the Confederacy. Freed male slaves would receive voting rights along with white men, but Confederate officials and anyone who had served in the Confederate military would be denied the vote. Further, the president would appoint military governors to rule formerly seceded states.

The Wade-Davis Bill passed both the House and the Senate in 1864, but Lincoln vetoed it. He knew that the bill would make Reconstruction far more difficult than it needed to be and that it would cause deep resentment among the Confederates, perhaps even extending the length of the war. Officially, he declared that he was not yet prepared “to be inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration.” Lincoln was a practical and compassionate man, and his plan for Reconstruction might have made the process smoother than it was, for after the president was assassinated in April of 1865, Congress and President Andrew Jackson implemented many of the propositions in the Wade-Davis Bill.

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