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Background // Wartime Reconstruction // South and North, 1865
District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Early Proposals

In the midst of the Civil War, as federal troops claimed more territory in the South, both President Abraham Lincoln and Congress turned their attention to Reconstruction, the process of reintegrating former Confederate states into the Union.  In December 1863, President Lincoln announced his Reconstruction plan, which did not demand that the former Confederate states enfranchise blacks.  A few days later, Republican Congressman James Ashley of Ohio introduced into the House of Representatives a Reconstruction bill that did allow black as well as loyal white men to vote for delegates to state constitutional conventions.  However, the measure was replaced by the Wade-Davis Bill, which only granted suffrage to loyal white men.  President Lincoln pocket vetoed it in July 1864 because he did not want the congressional policy to replace his plan. 

Meanwhile, on February 22, 1864, the Union oversaw state elections in Louisiana.  On March 12, two leaders of the black community in New Orleans, Jean-Baptiste Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau, met with Lincoln at the White House and urged the president to enfranchise their city’s black men.  They argued that the federal government had legitimate power over voting qualifications, and that enfranchising freedmen and ex-slaves was the only way that the Union could secure political stability in the South.  Although President Lincoln did not agree that the federal government could supercede state authority over voting regulations, two days later he wrote privately to Louisiana’s new governor, Michael Hahn, suggesting that he consider granting suffrage to “some of the colored people … for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.”    

Roudanez and Bertonneau also met with other Republican leaders, including Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who on March 15 introduced into Congress a petition from 1000 Louisiana blacks calling for the right to vote.  Governor Hahn was not able to convince delegates to grant suffrage to black men in the proposed state constitution, although he was able to see the legislature authorized to do so.   

In December 1864, Congressman Ashley again introduced a Reconstruction bill, which required former Confederate states to enfranchise black men.  Unable to gain sufficient support, he amended the bill to require voter registration of loyal white men only, while arguing that black soldiers should be enfranchised by the new state constitutions in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee (Confederate states then under Union control).  Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis concluded that Ashley’s bill was defeated by a combination of those claiming it violated states’ rights and those disappointed that it did not enfranchise black men. 

On April 11, 1865, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and four days before his death, President Lincoln explained publicly to a crowd gathered on the White House lawn what he had previously told then-Governor Hahn in private concerning the enfranchisement of black men.  Lincoln remarked that he would “prefer that it [the franchise] were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”  Nevertheless, the president urged Congress to recognize Louisiana’s new state government even if it did not yet allow black men to vote.  “Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.”  He emphasized the importance of Louisiana to the ratification of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which aimed to abolish slavery.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  March 26, 1864, p. 195, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

2)  August 25, 1866, p. 534, c. 4
“The Constitutional Convention”

3)  March 11, 1865, p. 146, c. 2-3
editorial, “Reconstruction” 

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Background // Wartime Reconstruction // South and North, 1865
District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Early Proposals





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