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Presidential and Congressional (Radical) Reconstruction

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Author: Richard Pierce

Andrew Johnson

    • Johnson's biography was similar to Lincoln's -- he grew up poor and sought opportunities for advancement, eventually becoming a prosperous landowners
    • With a long and accomplished political resume, he was one of the most politically qualified men who have assumed the presidency.
    • His past history, particularly his intense dislike for the "slaveocracy," led many to believe that his Reconstruction plan would be even more damning to the South than Lincoln's.
    • Johnson set himself up as a kind of Moses in relation to the freedmen, but his real concern was empowering the (white) yeoman farmers of the South, with the dream of instituting a real and equitable democracy in the South.
    • Radical Republicans pushed him to include black suffrage.  However, he was a strict constitutionalist who believed he had no power as president to unilaterally extend citizenship and suffrage.
    • Although a firm nationalist, he also had a solid respect for states' rights.  His goal was for states to assume their full rights as soon as possible.
    • View of slavery, slaveholders, and African Americans:
      1. Abhorred race-mixing, and saw it as an evil result of slavery.
      2. Slavery was evil because it gave rise to miscegenation and to the slaveocracy
      3. Believed that blacks were inferior to whites, and that whites alone could manage the affairs of the South.
      4. Encouraged colonization of blacks to Africa.
      5. Believed that slaves and masters combined to oppress poor whites by depriving them of full economic participation.
      6. Believed black suffrage would revive the slave-master alliance at the expense of poor whites.
      7. By condemning both slaves and masters, he essentially was supporting his own position, empowering the yeoman class and showing that most of the South was moral and loyal to the Union.

Presidential Reconstruction

    • May 29, 1865 Proclamation
      1. Amnesty and pardon, including the restoration of all property (except slaves), extended to all former Confederates who pledged loyalty and supported emancipation.
      2. Identified fourteen classes of people for whom restoration did not apply, including major former Confederate officials, owners of property of more than $20,000.  These people had to apply personally to Johnson for pardon.
      3. Gave yeomanry greater opportunity in the new political economy.
      4. Elite class was forced to humble themselves before Johnson, thus affording him immense personal power.
      5. Different from Lincoln -- Lincoln's plan was more lenient toward blacks, harsher toward southern elites.
    • What happened as southern states reconstituted themselves under Johnson's plan?
      1. No southern Unionists extended suffrage to the freedmen.
      2. Johnson appointed provisional governors in former Confederate states, who then had power to appoint other state officers.  The people who were appointed were generally wealthy, thus reifying elite rule and undermining the idea that the former ruling class would be replaced.
      3. Blacks were mustered out of the federal army in the South.
      4. Southern militias reformed, often wearing old Confederate uniforms.
      5. Black Codes were enacted, with the aim of controlling the newly freed black labor force.  The planter class thus reinstituted many of slavery's restrictions with only limited rights for the freedmen.  African Americans did enjoy some rights, such as property ownership, marriage, and going to court (versus other blacks).  However, restrictions on African Americans included limited mobility, restricted power in labor negotiations, required evidence of employment, subject to arrest by any white citizen, and black children apprenticed without compensation.  The courts and police forces were all white.
    • Response of northern public
      1. Thought Johnson was letting South back into Union too easily -- they wanted more punitive measures after the war.
      2. Heard reports that freedmen were largely in the same circumstances as under slavery, leading many to ask why the war was fought in the first place.
      3. Indignant at the institution of the Black Codes and Johnson's attempt to remove and/or limit the Freedman's Bureau.
      4. Called for additional federal measures to protect black civil rights and suppress southern violence.
      5. Most northerners believed in black civil equality but stopped short of suffrage, but Radicals, mostly in New England, were insistent on extending the franchise to blacks and felt betrayed by Johnson's policies.
      6. Johnson believed most northerners were anti-Radical, and could not believe that his Reconstruction plan would be discarded solely over the issue of black civil rights.

Congressional (Radical) Reconstruction

    • Congressional Republicans move to the political left
      1. Congress did not recognize southern representatives in Dec. 1865
      2. Both houses formed a joint committee on Reconstruction to investigate whether any southern states deserved representation
      3. Moderates wanted to solve a political problem, but Radicals wanted a social revolution.
      4. Question of whether civil rights were a state's or the federal government's responsibility?  Was the South a conquered foe or a group of states?
      5. Extended the rights and powers of the Freedman's Bureau, largely in response to the white South's recalcitrance.
    • Civil Rights Act of 1866
      1. All persons born in U.S. (except Indians) were national citizens.
      2. All citizens enjoy rights equally without regard to race -- rights to make contracts, be parties in lawsuits, enjoy benefits of "all laws and proceedings for the securing of person and property."
      3. No state law or custom could deprive any citizen of the "fundamental rights belonging to every man as a free man."
      4. States were still responsible for enforcement of the law.  There was no national police force, and the burden of enforcing the law laid primarily with the courts.  The federal government would only step in if the state violated the law.
    • Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights bill and the bill extending the life of the Freedman's Bureau
      1. He reasoned that federal aid to blacks would imply that they couldn't take care of themselves, and he believed in limited government and self-help.  He also believed the bills took too much power from the states and gave it to the federal government.
      2. He believed that giving blacks full citizenship rights discriminated against whites.  To him, white privilege was itself a right.
      3. Congress overrode both of his vetoes.  Even moderate factions acknowledged that black civil rights were necessary correlaries to the Civil War and emancipation.
      4. The Radical platform thus became the mainstream northern platform, as moderates were pushed leftward by the failure of Johnson's policies and the ineptitude of his politics.
    • Reconstruction Act of 1867
      1. Divided the Confederate states, except Tennessee, into five military districts under commanders empowered to employ the army to protect life and property.
      2. Laid out the steps by which new state governments could be created and recognized by Congress:  their new constitutions had to provide for universal male suffrage; they had to be approved by a majority of registered voters; and they had to ratify the 14th Amendment.
      3. Simultaneously, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which greatly expanded citizens' ability to remove cases to federal courts.
      4. The Reconstruction Act contained a somewhat incongruous mix of idealism and political expediency.  The bill established military rule, but only as a temporary measure to keep the peace, with the states assured of a relatively quick return to the Union.  It looked to a new political order for the South, but failed to place Southern Unionists in immediate control.  It made no economic provision for the freedmen.  Even black suffrage derived from a variety of motives and calculations.  For Radicals, it represented the culmination of a lifetime of reform efforts.  For others, it seemed less the fulfillment of an idealistic creed than an atlernative to prolonged federal intervention in the South, a means of enabling blacks to defend themselves against abuse while relieving the nation of that responsibility, and a means of building Republican strength in the region.
    • Fourteenth Amendment
      1. Declared that all citizens would enjoy due process and equal protection under the law, not subject to any legislation or veto.  It was, inasmuch as the Constitution could provide, a permanent guarantee of citizenship rights.
      2. Prohibited states from abridging equality before the law based on race
      3. Had provisions to reduce states' representation in Congress proportional to the number of male citizens denied suffrage.  Feminists were upset that the language only protected male rights.  States were thus forced to admit the freedmen into the body politic or have their representation reduced.
      4. Men who had aided the Confederacy were declared ineligible for national or state office.  The vote was construed as a universal right; office as a privilege.
      5. Created dual state and national citizenship, with equal protection under the law and a guarantee of life, liberty, and property rights.
    • Despite all its limitations, Congressional Reconstruction was indeed a radical departure, a stunning and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy.  In America, the ballot not only identified who could vote, it defined a collective national identity.  Democrats had fought black suffrage on precisely these grounds:  "With reference to the question of equality, I say we are not of the same race; we are so different that we ought not to compose one political community."  Enfranchising blacks marked a powerful repudiation of such thinking.  In some ways it was an astonishing leap of faith.  Were the mass of freedmen truly prepared for political rights?  Gen. E. O. C. Ord, federal commander in Arkansas, believed them "so servile and accustomed to submit" to white dictation that they would not "dare to present themselves at the polls."
    • In the course of Reconstruction, the freedmen disproved these somber forecasts.  They demonstrated political shrewdness and independence in using the ballot to define the conditions of their freedom.
    • However inadequate as a response to the legacy of slavery, it remains a tragedy that the lofty goals of civil and political equality espoused by the Radicals were not permanently achieved.  And the end of Reconstruction came not because propertyless blacks succumbed to economic coercion, but because a tenacious black community, abandoned by the nation, fell victim to violence and fraud.
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