Presidential Reconstruction

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Presidential Reconstruction

In the spring of 1865, the Civil War came to an end, leaving over 620,000 dead and a devastating path of destruction throughout the south. The North now faced the task of reconstructing the ravaged and indignant Confederate states. There were many important questions that needed to be answered as the nation faced the challenges of peace:

  • Who would direct the process of Reconstruction? The South itself, Congress, or the President?

  • Should the Confederate leaders be tried for treason?

  • How would the south, both physically and economically devastated, be rebuilt? And at whose expense?

  • How would the south be readmitted and reintegrated into the Union?

  • What should be done with over four million freed slaves? Were they to be given land, social equality, education, and voting rights?

In the 1864 election, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson as his vice presidential running mate as a gesture of unity. Johnson was a War Democrat from Tennessee, a state on the border of the north-south division in the United States. Johnson was a good political choice as a running mate because he helped garner votes from the War Democrats and other pro-Southern groups.

Johnson was born to impoverished parents in North Carolina, orphaned at an early age, and moved to Tennessee. Self-educated, he rose through the political ranks to be a congressman, a governor of Tennessee, and a United States senator. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson was the only senator from a seceding state who remained loyal to the Union. Johnson's political career was built on his defense of small farmers and poor white southerners against the aristocratic classes. He was heard saying during the war, “Damn the Negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.”

Unfortunately, Johnson was unprepared for the presidency thrust upon him with Lincoln’s assassination. The Radical Republicans believed at first that Johnson, unlike Lincoln, wanted to punish the South for seceding. However, on May 29, 1865, Johnson issued his own reconstruction proclamation that was largely in agreement with Lincoln’s plan. Johnson, like Lincoln, held that the southern states had never legally left the Union, and he retained most of Lincoln’s 10 percent plan.

Johnson’s plan went further than Lincoln’s and excluded those Confederates who owned taxable property in excess of $20,000 from the pardon. These wealthy Southerners were the ones Johnson believed led the South into secession. However, these Confederates were allowed to petition him for personal pardons. Before the year was over, Johnson, who seemed to savor power over the aristocrats who begged for his favor, had issued some 13,000 such pardons. These pardons allowed many of the planter aristocrats the power to exercise control over Reconstruction of their states. The Radical Republicans were outraged that the planter elite once again controlled many areas of the south.

Johnson also called for special state conventions to repeal the ordinances of secession, abolish slavery, repudiate all debts incurred to aid the Confederacy, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Suggestions of black suffrage were scarcely raised at these state conventions and promptly quashed when they were. By the time Congress convened in December 1865, the southern state conventions for the most part had met Johnson’s requirements.

On December 6, 1865, Johnson announced that the southern states had met his conditions for Reconstruction and that in his opinion the Union was now restored. As it became clear that the design of the new southern state governments was remarkably like the old governments, both moderate Republicans and the Radical Republicans grew increasingly angry.

The Black Codes

When Congress convened in December 1865, the legislative members from the newly reconstituted southern states presented themselves at the Capitol. Among them were Alexander H. Stephens--who was the ex-vice-president of the Confederacy--four Confederate generals, five colonels, and several other rebels. After four bloody years of war, the presence of these Confederates infuriated the Congressional Republicans, who immediately denied seats to all members from the eleven former Confederate states.

Adding to the controversy, the new southern legislatures began passing repressive “Black Codes.” Mississippi passed the first of these laws designed to restrict the freedom of the emancipated blacks in November 1865. The South intended to preserve slavery as nearly as possible in order to guarantee a stable labor supply.

While life under the Black Codes was an improvement over slavery, the codes identified blacks as a separate class with fewer liberties and more restrictions than white citizens. The details of the Codes varied from state to state, but some universal policies applied. Existing black marriages were recognized, blacks could testify in court cases involving other blacks, and blacks could own certain kinds of property.

In contrast, blacks could not serve on a jury and were not allowed to vote. They were barred from renting and leasing land and in many states could not carry firearms without a license. The Codes also had strict labor provisions. Blacks were required to enter into annual labor contracts and could be punished, required to forfeit back pay, or forced to work by paid “Negro catchers” if they violated the contract. Vagrants, drunkards, and beggars were given stiff fines, and if they could not pay them, they were sentenced to work on a chain gang.

Most former slaves lacked capital and marketable skills and had only manual labor as a means of support. The black activist Frederick Douglass explained: "A former slave was free from the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet."

Thousands of freedmen became sharecropper farmers, which led them to becoming indentured servants, indebted to the plantation owner and resulting in generations of people working the same plot of land.

The situation in the south left Northerners wondering what they had gone to war for, since blacks were essentially being re-enslaved. Even moderate Republicans started to adopt the views of the more radical party members. Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction plan, along with the South’s aggressive tactics, led Congress to reject Johnsonian Reconstruction and create the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.

Congressional Reconstruction

A clash between President Johnson and Congress over Reconstruction was now inevitable. By the end of 1865, Radical Republican views had gained a majority in Congress, and the decisive year of 1866 saw a gradual diminishing of President Johnson’s power.

In June of 1866, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction determined that, by seceding, the southern states had forfeited “all civil and political rights under the Constitution.” The Committee rejected President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan, denied seating of southern legislators, and maintained that only Congress could determine if, when, and how Reconstruction would take place. Part of the Reconstruction plan devised by the Joint Committee to replace Johnson’s Reconstruction proclamation is demonstrated in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Northern Republicans did not want to give up the political advantage they held, especially by allowing former Confederate leaders to reclaim their seats in Congress. Since the South did not participate in Congress from 1861 to 1865, Republicans were able to pass legislation that favored the North, such as the Morrill Tariff, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act. Republicans were also concerned that the South’s congressional representation would increase since slaves were no longer considered only three-fifths of a person. This population increase would tip the congressional leadership to the South, enabling them to perpetuate the Black Codes and virtually re-enslave blacks.

The strained relations between Congress and the president became increasingly apparent in February 1866 when President Johnson vetoed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau had been established in 1865 to care for refugees, and now Congress wanted to amend it to include protection for the black population. Although the bill had broad support, President Johnson claimed that it was an unconstitutional extension of military authority since wartime conditions no longer existed. Congress did override Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping it last until the early 1870s.

Striking back, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill in March 1866. This Bill granted American citizenship to blacks and denied the states the power to restrict their rights to hold property, testify in court, and make contracts for their labor. Congress aimed to destroy the Black Codes and justified the legislation as implementing freedom under the Thirteenth Amendment. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, which prompted most Republicans to believe there was no chance of future cooperation with him. On April 9, 1866, Congress overrode the presidential veto, and from that point forward, Congress frequently overturned Johnson’s vetoes.

The Republicans wanted to ensure the principles of the Civil Rights Act by adding a new amendment to the Constitution. Doing so would keep the Southerners from repealing the laws if they ever won control of Congress. In June 1866, Congress sent the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which in the context of the times was a radical measure, to the states for ratification:

  • It acknowledged state and federal citizenship for persons born or naturalized in the United States.

  • It forbade any state to diminish the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, which was the section that struck at the Black Codes.

  • It prohibited any state to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law.”

  • It forbade any state to deny any person “the equal protection of the laws.”

  • It disqualified former Confederates from holding federal and state office.

  • It reduced the representation of a state in Congress and the Electoral College if it denied blacks voting rights.

  • It guaranteed the federal debt, while rejecting all Confederate debts.

All Republicans agreed that no state would be welcomed back to the Union without ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment. In contrast, President Johnson recommended that the states reject it. Johnson’s home state of Tennessee was the first to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, while the other 10 seceded states rejected it. During this same time, bloody race riots erupted in several southern cities, adding fuel to the Reconstruction battle. Radical Republicans blamed the indiscriminate massacre of blacks on Johnson’s policies.

The congressional election of 1866 widened the divide between President Johnson and Congress. President Johnson embarked on a “swing around the circle” tour where he gave speeches at various Midwestern cities to rally the public around his policy of lenient Union recognition for the southern states. His tour was a complete failure as he exchanged hot-tempered insults with the critics in the crowd. To counter Johnson’s rhetoric, Congressional Republicans took to “waving the bloody shirt”--appealing to voters by reminding them of the sacrifices the Union made during the Civil War. When the congressional election was complete, the Republicans won more than the two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate that they needed to override any presidential vetoes.

If the southern states had been willing to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment, coercive measures might have been avoided. On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which became the final plan for Reconstruction and identified the new conditions under which the southern governments would be formed. Tennessee was exempt from the Act because it had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.

This legislation divided the former Confederacy into five military districts, each occupied by a Union general and his troops, whom Southerners contemptuously called “bluebellies.” The officers had the power to maintain order and protect the civil rights of all persons. The southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and adopt new state constitutions guaranteeing blacks the right to vote in order for their representatives to be admitted to Congress and military rule to end (which paved the way for easy ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment later). However, the Act did not go as far as giving freedmen land or education at federal expense.

Although peacetime military rule seemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, the Supreme Court allowed it. The hated “bluebellies” remained until the new Republican regimes were firmly established in each state. It was not until 1877 that the last federal troops left the south.

Radical Republicans were still concerned that once the states were re-admitted to the Union, they would amend their constitutions and withdraw black suffrage. They moved to safeguard their legislation by adding it to the federal Constitution with the Fifteenth Amendment. The amendment prohibited the states from denying anyone the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1870, the required number of states had ratified the amendment, and it became part of the Constitution.

Officially, Johnson was impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act, which had been passed over Johnson's veto, which prohibited the president from dismissing certain federal officials without Senate approval, and for denouncing Congress as unfit to legislate. But those reasons masked the issues that were more important to Congressional Republicans. Johnson had vetoed 20 Reconstruction bills and had urged southern legislatures to reject the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. He had ordered African American families evicted from land on which they had been settled by the U.S. Army.

Johnson's lawyers sought to portray the dispute as a partisan attack made to look like a legal proceeding. His opponents insisted he had abused his powers and flouted the will of Congress. The House voted 126-47 to impeach Johnson on 11 separate articles. The proceedings were intensively partisan. One Republican Representative even suggested that Johnson, as vice president, had been involved in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, just so he could succeed him. The chief of the Secret Service gave false reports that the president had an affair with a woman seeking to obtain pardons for former Confederates.

Johnson's attorneys argued the Tenure of Office Act applied to officials appointed by the president, and since Secretary of War Stanton was appointed by Lincoln, not Johnson, he was not covered by the act.

The final vote was 35 to 19, one short of the two-thirds needed for conviction and removal from office. Seven Republicans voted to acquit. The Senate voted on two more articles of impeachment, each again just one vote shy of conviction. The chamber never voted on the remaining eight impeachment articles. But Johnson had been defamed. In the future, he no longer obstructed Congress' Reconstruction policies.

President Johnson spent the rest of his life seeking vindication. He actively pursued the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination but in the end lost the nomination to New York governor Horatio Seymour, who subsequently lost the election to Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson then moved back to Tennessee, where he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1869 and the House in 1872. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1874 and was greeted by the Senators with thunderous applause, his desk strewn with roses. After a few months, however, he suffered a series of strokes and died. His wife placed a copy of the U.S. Constitution under his head in his coffin.

The Fifteenth Amendment did not guarantee the right to vote regardless of sex, which outraged feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Equally disappointing to feminists was the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment marked the first appearance of the word “male” in the Constitution. Efforts to include female suffrage in the Fifteenth Amendment were defeated, and 50 years passed before an amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote.

While most of the southern states had quickly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment under pressure from the federal government, Democratic Party dominance in those states assured the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were largely ignored. Literacy tests and poll taxes were often used to keep blacks from voting. Intimidation and lynching were also common means to keep blacks from the polls. Full suffrage for blacks was not realized until 1965.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last congressional Reconstruction measure. It prohibited racial discrimination in jury selection, transportation, restaurants, and "inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement." It did not guarantee equality in schools, churches, and cemeteries. Unfortunately, the Act lacked a strong enforcement mechanism, and dismayed Northerners did not attempt another civil rights act for 90 years.

How did most Americans expect Johnson to treat the South when he succeeded Lincoln as President? Why was he believed to act this way?

Presidential & Congressional Reconstruction Guided Question Set

How did Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan differ from Lincoln’s? From the Radical Republicans?

Describe what the Black Codes were. How did the Radical Republicans react to the Black Codes?

Explain the parts and significance of each portion of the Congressional Reconstruction Plan:

Joint Committee on Reconstruction—

Civil Rights Bill of 1866—

14th Amendment—

Military Reconstruction Act—

15th Amendment—

Civil Rights Act of 1875—

Describe the significance of the “Swing Around the Circle” tour.

Why was President Johnson impeached? What did this reflect about the nature of American unity after the Civil War?

Explain what criticism existed about the 15th Amendment.

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