Wade-Davis Bill of 1864: Definition, Summary & Quiz

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Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 represented the legislative policies that Radical Republicans attempted to enact during the early stages of Reconstruction. Learn what measures the bill attempted to adopt as well as its ultimate demise.

We also recommend watching The Bill of Rights: The Constitution's First 10 Amendments and The Red Scare of the 1920s: Definition, Summary & Causes


Following a period of reprehensible behavior, those parties involved in the malevolent act are usually punished by an authoritative power. This is a good way to understand the period of Reconstruction that began in 1863. When the tide of the Civil War turned in favor of the Union, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress began developing plans for the post-war United States. Lincoln supported a lenient form of discipline, outlined in his Ten Percent Plan. However, Radical Republicans in Congress sought a harsher form of punishment for those who rebelled. The proposed Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 was the legislative manifesto that represented the radical notion of extreme discipline.


The Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 was crafted by Radical Republicans Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. Both men served on some form of reconstruction committees in their respective chambers and believed in absolute punishment to be levied against the South as a condition of re-admittance during Reconstruction.*

*This is an important concept to remember. The Radical Republicans believed that those in rebellion had to be re-admitted into the Union. Lincoln did not believe in such an idea.

The proposed provisions included in the Wade-Davis Bill were inflexible. First, the legislation called for a complete abolition of slavery to prevent any type of residual survival the institution might have following the conclusion of the war (remember, the Thirteenth Amendment did not become law until 1865, meaning there was no law in place to abolish slavery in 1864). Second, the bill required 50% of rebellious voters to swear allegiance to the Union. Finally, the bill demanded that a constitutional convention occur before state officers were elected and those who vote for the aforementioned officers had to take an 'ironclad oath' claiming they never supported the secession.

The proposed measures were strict, but Radical Republicans believed they were necessary in order to prevent, what radicals considered, treasonous behavior to ever occur again in the United States.

To a Vote

The House of Representatives were the first to vote on the Wade-Davis Bill. On May 4, 1864, the House passed the legislation by a razor-thin vote of 73 to 59. The bill moved onto the Senate were, again, it narrowly passed. On July 2, 1864, the Senate passed the bill 18 to 14. It seemed as if the legislation was going to be enacted into law as long as President Lincoln signed the bill in time. This is where the history of the impending legislation became very interesting.

Lincoln and the Pocket Veto

The July 4th reflection period represented an adjournment of the congressional session in order to celebrate the anniversary of the nation's independence. Since the Wade-Davis Bill was passed on July 2nd, Lincoln only had two days to sign the legislation into law before it would be lost at the end of a Congressional session.

Needless to say, Lincoln did not support the Wade-Davis Bill for a number of reasons. First, he had already established pro-union governments in Louisiana and Arkansas and the passage of the Wade-Davis bill would have nullified this progress. Second, Lincoln argued that slavery could not be determined by a legislative mandate. Simply put, he believed Congress had to officially abolish slavery via an amendment to the Constitution. Most importantly, however, was Lincoln's objection to the notion of re-entry into the Union. Lincoln maintained that states in rebellion were not constitutionally permitted to secede. Therefore, the war was not being fought over secession; rather, it was to end an organized rebellion. The states in rebellion had not committed 'treason;' they were simply rebelling and re-entry was not an issue.

Lincoln took all of the above into consideration and decided to pocket veto the Wade-Davis Bill (he simply refused to sign the legislation until the congressional session was officially over). The legislation never became law. Radical Republican backlash quickly ensued.

Radical Response and Legacy

It should be very obvious that the Radical Republicans were extremely disappointed in the decision President Lincoln made to veto the Wade-Davis Bill. Senator Wade and Congressman Davis quickly published a statement condemning the actions of Lincoln. They believed that the president had no right to infringe upon the decisions of Congress, and that the president was solely in office to execute the laws made by Congress. Radical Republicans sought to find a candidate in 1864 who supported the radical reconstruction ideology; they failed. The 1864 election was won by Lincoln in a landslide, which ultimately placed any type of radical legislation on the back burner.

While the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 failed, the proposed legislation spotlighted the Republican intra-party division. The Republican party viewed Reconstruction in two different ways and a political battle developed. It would not be until after the assassination of Lincoln that the Radical Republicans would gain enough congressional power to levy a system of punishment analogous to that which was outlined in the Wade-Davis Bill.

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