Politics of Reconstruction

Well before the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln began formulating a plan to restore the Confederate states to the Union. His Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (December 1863) provided that if at least ten percent of a state's voters in the 1860 election accepted emancipation and took an oath of allegiance to the United States, then the state could form a new government and return to the Union. Blacks, who obviously had not voted in 1860, were excluded, as were most Confederate officials and army officers, who were disenfranchised unless they appealed for and received a presidential pardon. The Radical Republicans considered the “Ten Percent Plan” far too generous. The reconstruction approach they preferred was embodied in the Wade‐Davis bill (July 1864), which called for the establishment of a military government in each state and required at least fifty percent of the eligible voters to swear allegiance to the United States. Only those who could take an “ironclad” oath that they had never willingly supported the Confederacy could vote or participate in the state constitutional conventions. Although Congress approved the Wade‐Davis bill, Lincoln did not sign it before Congress adjourned, and the bill died (pocket veto).

Following Lincoln's assassination, the task of implementing Reconstruction fell to his vice president, Andrew Johnson. A Democrat and the only senator from the South who remained loyal to the Union, Johnson at first seemed ready to take a hard line against the former Confederacy. He talked about punishing the traitors and breaking up the large plantations, but at the same time, he supported states' rights and had little sympathy for blacks. His policies after he became president were even more lenient than Lincoln's, and they caused a confrontation with the Radical Republicans in Congress that culminated in his impeachment.

Johnson's policies. In May 1865, with Congress out of session, Johnson began to implement his own Reconstruction program. Amnesty was granted to any southerner who took an oath of allegiance, with the exception of Confederate officials, officers, and wealthy landowners. Exclusion of the last group reflected Johnson's hatred of the planter aristocracy rather than some condition that had to do with restoring the former Confederate states. Those who were not eligible for amnesty could appeal for a pardon. Johnson appointed provisional governors and authorized them to set up state conventions, which in turn were charged with declaring secession illegal; repudiating Confederate debts; ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States; and scheduling elections. Once each convention's elections were held for governor, state legislators, and members of Congress, the states would be readmitted to the Union.

Several states refused to either repudiate the huge debt produced by the war or unconditionally accept the Thirteenth Amendment. Southern voters also elected to Congress high‐ranking Confederate officials and officers, some of whom had not received one of the thirteen thousand pardons Johnson issued during the summer of 1865. The new state legislatures adopted so‐called black codes to keep the newly freed African Americans, or freedmen, in their place. Blacks were required to either sign labor contracts or face arrest for vagrancy, and they were not allowed to serve on juries or testify in court. Despite these violations of both the letter and spirit of his program, the president announced that Reconstruction was complete in December 1865. However, Congress refused to seat the newly elected senators and representatives from the South.

Johnson versus Congress. Congress was divided among Radical, Moderate, and Conservative Republicans and Democrats. Rather than working with congressmen who might have supported his Reconstruction plan, Johnson alienated potential political allies by vetoing legislation intended to ensure civil rights for African Americans. A bill was introduced in February 1866 to reauthorize the one‐year‐old Freedmen's Bureau and allow it to try in military courts persons accused of depriving former slaves of their rights. Established in March 1865, the Bureau had provided blacks in the South with material assistance, schools, and guidance in settling on abandoned land. The new legislation was passed in July over Johnson's veto. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted blacks born in the United States the same rights as white citizens, also became law (in April) over the president's objection.

Because of doubts about the constitutionality of the new Civil Rights Act, the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It was approved by both houses in June 1866. Essentially repudiating the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the amendment clearly states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It provides for due process and equal protection under the law. The amendment also denies to anyone who had participated in rebellion against the United States or had given aid and comfort to those in rebellion the right to hold any national or state office, an exclusion intended to undercut Johnson's pardon policy and protect the rights of blacks, particularly those of former slaves and particularly their right to vote.

Johnson denounced the Fourteenth Amendment and urged the southern states not to ratify it. Adoption of the amendment was an issue in the 1866 congressional elections, but the president's campaign against it did not work. Republicans were in control of both the House and Senate, and they gave a ringing endorsement to the amendment and congressional, not presidential, Reconstruction.

Congressional Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction Act (March 1867) invalidated the state governments established under Johnson's policies (except the government of Tennessee, which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment) and divided the former Confederacy into five military districts. State conventions, elected by universal male suffrage, were to draw up new constitutions, which had to give blacks the right to vote and had to be approved by Congress. In fact, African Americans took part in all the conventions and made up the majority of delegates in South Carolina. Finally, each state legislature had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. The Reconstruction Act was refined by subsequent legislation. In June 1868, Congress determined that Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina had met the requirements, and the states were admitted to the Union. When duly elected black representatives were expelled from the Georgia legislature, Georgia once again fell under military rule. Georgia, along with Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, had to satisfy an additional condition: ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited the states from denying a citizen the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The four states did not rejoin the Union until 1870.

Women's rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were incensed that the Fifteenth Amendment did not also list gender among the conditions that could not be used to deny a citizen the right to vote. The long alliance between the women's movement and the abolitionist cause broke, and women struggled on their own for another half century for the right to vote.

Congress enacted its Reconstruction program over Johnson's veto. Determined to prevent Johnson from interfering with their plan, Radical Republicans pushed through two pieces of legislation in March 1867 intended to severely limit presidential power. The Command of the Army Act prevented the president from issuing orders to the military except through the general of the army, who at the time was Ulysses S. Grant; additionally, the commanding general could not be removed without the Senate's consent. The Tenure of Office Act required the president to obtain approval from the Senate to remove any officeholder that the Senate had confirmed. Johnson and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were bitter enemies, and the president wanted to get rid of him. Stanton was suspended in August 1867 and replaced with Grant as an interim. This was all Congress needed to begin impeachment proceedings.

The impeachment of Johnson. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives acts as a grand jury in impeachment cases and determines whether there is enough evidence to bring an official to trial. In February 1868, after months of investigation, the House voted to impeach the president, largely on the grounds that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act in firing Edwin Stanton. It was left to the Senate to try the president—with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding—and determine whether he should be removed from office. Enough Republican senators appreciated the fact that Johnson's offenses were political and that they did not fall under the “high crimes and misdemeanors” specified in the Constitution for presidential impeachment. The vote in the Senate was thirty‐five to nineteen in favor of conviction, one short of the necessary two‐thirds majority.