President Lincoln began to reconstruct the seceded States when he issued his amnesty proclamation in December, 1863, which offered pardon to all who were in arms if they would lay them down and take an oath to support the government of the United States. He said he would recognize a State government as a loyal government, provided as many as one-tenth of the number who voted in 1860 would organize a State government and comply with certain conditions named in the proclamation. It was evident also, that he followed the spirit of the resolution passed by Congress in July, 1861, as to preservation of the Union, "with all the dignity, equality and rights of the several States unimpaired," although in the progress of the war, the Constitution was greatly strained, and had been, at times, ignored to secure success which he regarded as paramount to a restored Union. He tried personally to keep as near the principles of the Constitution as was possible in war. His object was to restore the Union. This was the one object near his heart. His theory was, "that the States were never out of the Union; that the people of these States, when they returned to their allegiance, had the power of reconstruction in their own hands," His views as to the qualification of voters were given in his proclamation of 1863, referred to in his message of December 21, 1863, viz: "Being a qualified voter by the election laws of the State, existing immediately before the so-called act of secession and excluding all other, shall re-establish a State government." He believed in the people; to the extent that the people in the seceded States, notwithstanding the war, should and must be trusted. There can be no doubt as to Mr. Lincoln's intention in reconstructing the Southern States, and time has demonstrated that his statesmanship was correct, and that his principles were based on the proper theory of the organization of the government. The decisions of the Supreme court since the war clearly sustain his general views.
When he visited Richmond early in April, 1865, after the city had been occupied by the Union troops, he conversed freely with leading citizens, and after leaving the place and arriving at City Point (near Richmond), on his way back to Washington, on April 6, 1865, he sent written authority to General Weitzel, commanding the United States forces in Richmond, "to permit the assembling of the legislature of Virginia;" and a formal call was issued, signed by prominent citizens and approved by the general commanding. In his letter he directed the general to extend his "permission" and "protection" to the assembly until it should attempt any action hostile to the United States. He intended at that time to restore the States through their existing legislatures and executives, acknowledging the State as a political authority, and as represented by them through its constituted authority. If he had not so considered the matter before, he thought so now that he saw the war was virtually over. He was ready to restore the Union as far as he was able in accordance with the principles and resolutions promulgated over and over again in the halls of Congress during the war, and that, too, in the most expeditious way.
On his return to Washington from Richmond, he changed his mind as to restoring Virginia to the Union through the executive and legislature as then existing under the constitution of that State, and he recalled the order given General Weitzel. It is not known why he did so, but he evidently was informed that he would again have trouble with the extreme men of his party if he pursued this policy; and he deemed it best to revoke the order and await events then rapidly following the collapse of the Confederate government. A few days afterward he was assassinated (April 14th). This monstrous crime was a great calamity both to the North and to the South. Lincoln was a statesman and had a good heart. He had the prestige of success. His brain and heart were then grappling with the problems of restoring the seceded States to the Union. He had maturely digested the plan, had discussed it with his cabinet, and they had agreed with him. Restoration had in fact proceeded so far that the proclamation to restore civil government in North Carolina had been prepared. Mr. Lincoln had great tact in controlling men and bringing them to his views without irritating those who differed with him, as all conceded his patriotism, his love of the Union, and his sincerity.
The effect of his death on the people of the North and the South was electrical. At the North it intensified hatred and revengeful feelings toward the crushed South, and gave excuse to extremists to push their views to the injury of the people of the seceded States in their extreme helplessness. At the South, the people were shocked at the tragedy and condemned it in their brave hearts. They felt that Lincoln was the most moderate and kind-hearted of the men in power at the North, and believed that he, if any one could, would hold in check all extreme measures and stand between them and all unnecessary severities.
It is not certain, however, that Mr. Lincoln's policy would have been otherwise than the "reconstruction" policy of Congress. He intended to attempt to carry out his matured plan if possible. His pocket veto of the bill of Congress in 1864, relative to reconstructing the seceded States, and his giving no official explanation in his next message to Congress, showed that he was adhering to his prerogative of restoring the States as he had determined. He knew that there was great opposition by extremists in his party to his proposed plan of action, yet Congress had not renewed its claims to the extent of antagonizing him again before his death. Congress and a majority of the Northern people had confidence in his ability, and apparently were disposed to give him the right of way by adjourning, March, 1865.
Mr. Lincoln, however, was a party man; his fealty to his party dominated him. Before his death, many of the party leaders demanded a reconstruction that would enable them to control the South as well as the North. The Republican majority distrusted the Northern Democrats, who were less disposed to violate the Constitution by going too far out of the beaten tracks of the past. Mr. Stanton, the great war secretary, said, "If he (Lincoln) had lived, he would have had a hard time with his party, as he would have been at odds with it on reconstruction." His speech made in answer to a serenade immediately preceding his death, showed that, although he had recalled permission for the Virginia legislature to meet at Richmond, he still adhered to a liberal view of reconstructing and restoring the Southern States.
He would certainly have met the opposition of many in his party, and whether or not his persuasive tact in dealing with such matters would have prevented the extremes to which his party carried legislation after his death, is a matter of speculation. It is believed that the appointment of provisional governors was a concession to the extreme party in Congress even before his death. He recognized that the States had control of suffrage, and that negroes had no legal right to vote except as that boon was given them by the State. It is generally agreed now, that the death of Mr. Lincoln was at least a great blow to early reconciliation, if it did not end the last hope entertained for a conservative and wise policy of reconstruction.
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