Presidential Reconstruction


*With the end of the Civil War, the South was devastated and needed to be rebuilt or Reconstructed.  Who would determine how this would be done, and how would they do it?


*At the time of Lincoln’s death, nothing was resolved, although Lincoln was known to still favour a mild plan for reunification, welcoming the Southerners back into the Union as brothers who had gone astray.  Many Radicals were actually glad of Lincoln’s death at first, as they hoped that Johnson, known to hate the planter aristocracy, would side with them.  Despite his class biases however, Johnson was still a Southerner and did not want to see his countrymen suffer unduly.  He and Congress would fight over plans for Reconstruction for his entire presidency.  Lincoln might have had the prestige to maintain his plan for Reconstruction in the face of opposition, but his death would ensure that the transition from war to peace would not go smoothly.


*On 29 May 1865, Johnson issued his own plan for Reconstruction, known as Presidential Reconstruction.  It was based on Lincoln’s Ten Per Cent Plan, although it was not identical to it.  It disenfranchised rich Confederates worth over $20,000, and a few other prominent (but less wealthy) Confederate leaders, although they could appeal for individual pardons personally, mostly so that backwoods Johnson could gloat over their humiliation and defeat.  Southern states would have to call special state conventions to repeal the ordinances of secession and repudiate all Confederate debts.  This had the good effect of not leaving the South in debt, but, according to some interpretations, taken by Radical Republicans, meant that the South could not pay pensions to Confederate veterans, either.  He also recommended that they give the vote to blacks (although no state North or South did this at the moment).  States that did all this could return to the Union without other trouble, because Johnson saw them as being fellow states of the Union.  The Radical Republicans did not approve, but Congress was not in session and could not do much.  By the end of 1865, four Southern states (Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Virginia) had re-joined the Union under Johnson’s terms.  Several states refused to ratify the XIII Amendment, but enough states did so that it became part of the Constitution in December 1865.


*As the Southern states returned to the Union, they found their own ways to deal with the freedmen.  All the Southern states created laws to limit the rights and opportunities of the freemen.  These were called Black Codes.  These varied in severity from state to state, but had more or less the same goals.  They meant to provide a stable workforce for the South and to control the Black population.


*In order to work, Blacks had to sign labour contracts, obliging them to work for a set period of time, typically a year, for one master.  Usually they were only paid at the end so they would not dare leave early, and they could have their pay docked for any number of reasons, some real and some not.  Contracted labourers who ran away could be hauled back forcibly, generally forfeited back pay, and sometimes were fined and then put to work to pay off the fines.


*The rights of freedmen were also limited.  Although they were legally free and could now marry and enjoy some other rights, they could not vote, serve on juries, or, in some places, own land or even rent or lease it.  Blacks could be punished for idleness and vagrancy by being forced into labour contracts.  Despite all the assumptions behind the Black Codes, most Blacks wanted to do honest work—few if any wanted to be vagrants.  The problem was finding work that treated them better than slaves.


*Eventually the Black Codes would be removed (at least nominally and temporarily) but there were no easy solutions to the economic disadvantages of Blacks.  Without capital, and with nothing to offer but their labour, many became share-croppers, working for a share of the crops that they grew.  Others became tenant farmers, technically renting the land and paying the rent out of the proceeds from the sale of crops, but always in debt and unable to leave or control their lives because they had to buy new seed, clothes, and other supplies each year, which the subsequent harvest barely paid off.  The same things happened to many poor whites, as the poor of both races were reduced to something very like slavery.


*Northerners asked if these Black Codes were what they had fought for since Sharpsburg.  Congressional Republicans certainly felt it was not.


*When Congress re-convened on 4 December, 1865 after a nine-month recess, the Republicans were shocked to see Southern Democrats back in town, many of them prominent former Confederates, including generals, cabinet officials, and even the former Vice-President, still under indictment for treason.


*The Republicans had liked being in charge.  During the War they had passed the Homestead Act, making western land very cheap to settle, the Pacific Railroad Act, subsidising a transcontinental railroad, and the Morrill Land Grant Act, allowing states to sell federal lands and spend the money to set up universities.


*Not wanting to lose power to a bunch of traitorous rebel Democrats, the Republicans refused to let their new colleagues take their seats in the House and Senate.  The problem was only going to get worse, too.  With the emancipation of the slaves, the old three-fifths compromise no longer counted, so Southern states could count their resident Blacks as complete human beings for the purposes of electoral apportionment, giving the South 12 more seats in the House of Representatives.  That was too many rebels and too many Democrats to contemplate, because who knew what they might do to the Republican platform?  They might mess with the Homestead Act, the Transcontinental Railroad, the tariff, or even the national debt (which some wanted to repudiate because it was so high—an act that would have helped the nation in the short run but destroyed the nation’s credit and the trust of foreigners, and upset the international economy). Congress’ refusal to seat the new congressmen angered President Johnson, however.  He had thought he was restoring the Union more or less as Lincoln wanted it done—with malice towards none, with charity for all.


*Angry, Johnson vetoed a bill passed by Congress in 1866 to extend the duration of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  In response, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, granting blacks the rights of citizenship and attacking the black codes.  Johnson vetoed this, but Congress overturned his veto, as the Republicans had more than the 2/3 majority required to do so.  They would do this repeatedly, although Johnson tried to veto so many laws that he got the nickname ‘Andy Veto,’ ‘Sir Veto,’ and even ‘the dead dog of the White House’ because so many of his vetoes were overturned.


*The Republicans, now that they saw their power, put the Civil Rights Bill in the Constitution itself as the XIV Amendment.  Sent to the states for ratification in June, 1866, it conferred civil rights (including citizenship but not the franchise) on freedmen, reduced representation of states in Congress and the Electoral College if they denied Blacks the right to vote, disqualified any former Confederates who had earlier held federal office from ever holding a federal or state office again, and guaranteed the national debt while repudiating the Confederate debt. 


*Under Congressional Reconstruction in 1866 and 1867, the old Ten Per Cent Plan applied with the additional requirement that all states ratify the XIV Amendment before returning to the Union.  Tennessee did so, but Johnson encouraged the rest of the South not to, and they happily obliged.


*To try to stop the XIV Amendment from passing and to support fellow Democrats throughout the Union in the Congressional elections of 1866, Johnson went campaigning throughout the country on his way to and from the dedication of Stephen Douglas’s tomb in Chicago.  His campaign circuit was called the ‘swing ‘round the circle,’ and was a spectacular failure.  Johnson could be a good stump speaker, and he spoke passionately against the Republicans in Congress, even accusing them of starting the recent race riots in Memphis, but he was easily irritated, and the Republicans planted people in his audience to heckle him.  His responses would grow increasingly wild and frenzied, to the point that people began to accuse him of public drunkenness.  The only thing Johnson did was alienate voters from himself and his party.  The Republicans returned the Congress with a larger majority than before and more radical than ever.


*The Radicals in the Senate were led by Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, recovered from his ordeal twelve years before, and an advocate of black freedom and equality.  The most powerful Radical in the House was Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, devoted to the rights of blacks (he even asked to be buried in a black cemetery at his death) but deeply vindictive towards the South for the cruelties done to Southern Blacks, the death toll of the war, and the murder of Lincoln.  He was also a leader of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction


*The Radicals wanted to keep the South out of the Union as long as possible so they would have the opportunity to force drastic social and economic change on the South, to completely reconstruct society.  Moderate Republicans still believed in states’ rights to a degree, and knew their constituents would only support so much radical change.  They were willing to coerce the states, but not individuals.  Both sides agreed, though, that Blacks needed the right to vote in the South (and not just because they would all vote Republican), and the Republicans were willing to use force to ensure this if necessary.


*On 2 March, 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act.  Along with later acts, it abolished all Southern states (except Tennessee) saying they had forfeited their right to be states by their secession.  The states were divided into five military districts comprising between one and three old states, with each district having a military governor and about 20,000 occupying troops.  Tennessee did not get off much easier, as the governor, Parson Brownlow, used the state militia (or Home Guard) to enforce his own rule, which was moderately pro-Black, strongly against the old Confederates, and eventually tainted by corruption and debt so that even to-day his portrait in the state capitol is stained with the spit of those who resent him.


*The Southern states under military reconstruction were required to ratify the XIV Amendment and to give Black males the right to vote.  Many whites also lost the right to vote temporarily.  The Reconstruction Act did not do what some Radicals and African-Americans had hoped though, neither offering free education nor forty acres and a mule.  The plan was to create friendly state governments and new state constitutions that would eventually let Congress and the Army pull out.


*The Radicals were afraid that once they left the South, the old Black Codes would return.  So, one year after the ratification of the XIV Amendment in 1868, Congress wrote the XV Amendment in 1869 which made it illegal to deny the franchise on the basis of race or former condition of servitude.  This was ratified in 1870 by Republicans freely elected in the North and elected under military rule in the South.


*Congress were on very shaky legal ground in creating a military dictatorship in the South.  The courts had already ruled that military courts could not try civilians at any time civil courts were available.  This had come up in the case of ex parte Milligan, settled in 1866.  Lambdin P. Milligan was an Indiana Copperhead who belonged to a group called the Sons of Liberty and related to the Knights of the Golden Circle.  They supported the secession of the West from the Union, planned an armed uprising in Indiana, plotted to attack prisons holding Confederate prisoners to free them, and asked the Confederacy for help.  That pushed the conspiracy over the line into treason and Milligan and four others were arrested, tried by a military court, and sentenced to death in 1864.  In ex parte Milligan the Supreme Court ruled that the military may not try civilians, even during wartime, if civil courts are open.  Milligan and his friends were freed.  However, the Supreme Court was scared of the Radicals, and put up with Military Reconstruction for now.


*The XIV and XV Amendments had one aspect that troubled some Americans.  Before the war, many women interested in civil rights had fought mostly for Black rights, saying they could get their own rights later.  However, when the new amendments were created, women’s leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony suggested that they should also include provisions forbidding the restriction of civil rights and the franchise on the basis of sex.  However, the XIV Amendment specifically gave civil rights to males, and the XV did not mention sex, so it could still be used as a basis of discrimination.  Although the women’s movement would complain, they would not give up, and would work until they did get the right to vote nation-wide fifty years later.


*The conflict between the Northern plans for Reconstruction and the society that Southerners were used to would result in violence against those Southerners saw as a threat, making Reconstruction one of the most unpleasant chapters in the history of the United States.  The debate between Johnson and Congress would lead to the first presidential impeachment in American history.

This page last updated 26 September, 2018.
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