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Johnson and the Radical Republicans
Reconstruction in the South
Black Reconstruction


With Lincoln’s assassination, Vice President Andrew Johnson was automatically elevated to the presidency.  But he had neither the personal skills nor the political support necessary to carry the nation forward through a post-war healing process.  Johnson was a Southerner (from Tennessee) with something of Northern attitudes, and as a Democrat (not a Republican, as was Lincoln) put on the presidential ticket with Lincoln in 1864 to flesh out the National Union ticket that both Lincoln and Johnson ran under.  This left Johnson in the peculiar position of being on the political spectrum as too moderate for many Republicans and too radical for many of his fellow Democrats.  

He generally believed that he understood and supported the policies that Lincoln had previously laid out as his intentions for the South ... but would find it virtually impossible to carry out those policies.  He had no personal political leverage that would enable him to do so.

Johnson was opposed to slavery, but as with many in the North, was not convinced that freed Blacks or ‘freedmen’ were yet capable of conducting the responsibilities of citizenship (voting and holding office).  Thus he was in no hurry to see the enfranchisement of the freedman.  Rather, he turned his attentions to the issue of reintegrating the Southerners back into the Union.  Like Lincoln, he generally opposed the wide-spread retribution against Confederates called for by Northern Radicals.  Thus to the Radicals, in particular Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, Johnson seemed treasonously pro-South.

The Congressional election of 1866 returned a large number of Republican Radicals ... who then began to design their own Reconstruction policy (whose bills Johnson vetoed – only to have each veto overturned by a two-thirds vote in Congress).  And thus it was that Johnson found himself slowly alienated from the powers that ruled Washington.  Ultimately the split between Johnson and Congress was birthed by the 1866 Civil Rights Act affirming the legal equality of American Blacks, which was passed despite his veto (Johnson claimed that as per the 10th Amendment, only the states had the right to determine the legal status of its citizens).  And seeing a challenge to the new law coming from the South, Congress then authored the 14th Amendment reaffirming the intent of the Civil Rights Act (full equality for all Americans ... although exempting Indians and Confederate army veterans!).  Johnson’s opposition to the 14th Amendment merely served to build the strength of the Radicals in the 1866 elections ... and point to his own political demise.

Eventually, in early 1868, Johnson would be formally impeached by the House of Representatives (March 2nd) and placed on trial by the Senate for his ‘unconstitutional behavior’1 ... nearly being found guilty and thus removed from office (May 16th).   Only the lack of a single vote to produce the Senate two-thirds majority necessary to convict spared him this enormous humiliation.  But in any case after that, Johnson proved totally powerless over the remaining two yeaers in office to control events developing in the country, both North and South.

1Of the eleven charges brought against him, the primary charge concerned his removal of the Radical Republican Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War and replacement by the more moderate Ulysses S. Grant.  This was in violation of the Tenure of Office Act passed in 1867, itself a highly questionable constitutional act that Congress enacted specifically to end Johnson’s power to remove Cabinet appointments (such as in the specific case of Stanton ... where considerable friction had been developing between Stanton and the President).

"Home Again" by Dominique Fabronius - depicting a returning wounded Union soldier

Senate Committee to try President Johnson's Impeachment charges
National Archives

Leaders of the Radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner


Southern Reconstruction had actually already begun before war’s end, as Lincoln had placed Union-sponsored governments in each of the Southern states as they came under Union control: specifically Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana.  Slaves had technically been freed as of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation coming into effect on January 1st 1863 ... but the economic reality of what newly freed slaves might do to feed and take care of themselves had created a huge amount of confusion.  Many joined the ranks of the Union army ... thus fitting them into some kind of a place within the social scheme of things.  That helped.  But with war’s end, the future of the freedman was still in doubt.  Radicals talked of giving each freedman some 40 acres and a mule to start out life with.2  But that idea had never been put into some kind of specific political formula before Lincoln’s assassination.  Anyway for most Blacks who received no title to any land, the only alternative they had was to sign on with a White plantation owner either as a tenant farmer ... or as a ‘sharecropper’ in which the plantation owners provided the land and the sharecroppers the labor (actually the majority of Southern sharecroppers were poor Whites).  Lacking property, the Blacks soon were to discover what poor Southern Whites had long known ... that they were unlikely to achieve the American ‘dream’ (although in fact a small number were ultimately able to acquire land and a settled place in the Southern scheme of things).

Indeed the situation for the Whites was often not much better than that facing the Black freedmen after the war ... haggard soldiers and starving women and children scrounging through burned-out towns and farms looking for food or anything else of value.  

And there was the question of what to do with those who had served in the Southern rebellion as Confederate soldiers.  Radicals were ready to have every Confederate officer imprisoned and many even executed.  A number of Confederate families, expecting the worst – or just monumentally angry over the war’s outcome – left the country ... Mexico and Brazil being favored destinations.  For his part, Lincoln had wanted the South reintegrated as quickly as possible ... and stood adamantly opposed to the vengeance sought by the Radicals.  But the South tragically had lost Lincoln’s critical advocacy.  Then when Johnson tried to follow Lincoln’s program – but lacking Lincoln’s political base – he ended up merely making his political standing in Washington all the worse.

What Johnson decreed as the requirement for a Southern state’s readmission to the Union was a minimum of ten percent of that state’s population to pledge allegiance to the United States.  The Radicals were hotly opposed to these easy terms.  Even more, they were outraged that readmission to full status in the Union legally exempted the Southerners from having their land seized, something the Radicals eagerly sought as a means of redistributing Southern land to the benefit of property-less Blacks.
Further, this meant that Southerners could elect their own state officials and send Congressional representatives to Washington ... many of whom were simply former political leaders and military officers of the Confederacy.  The Radicals were furious ... and refused to seat these Southern representatives in the House and Senate.

Little by little in subtle ways traditional Southern culture began to assert itself ... and whatever plans the Radicals had for ‘reforming’ the South were to come to nothing.  ‘Black codes’ were passed throughout the South, forcing Blacks to contract their labor to Whites, requiring Blacks to obtain official permission to travel or move outside their counties, and imposing harsh ‘vagrancy’ penalties of stiff fines or even imprisonment on any unemployed Blacks.  Also the professions and skilled trades tended to be closed to Blacks.  And Blacks were forbidden to bear arms (in clear violation of the 2nd Amendment).  

Then there was the creation (1866) of the Ku Klux Klan – headed up by Confederate cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest – which terrorized the Blacks in order to keep them “in their place.”  But the KKK could be just as hard on Southern Whites whom they interpreted as being too sympathetic to the Blacks ... burning crosses being left prominently at strategic spots by the KKK to remind the terrorized individuals as to who and what was in charge of Southern society.

Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest
 Grand Wizard of the KKK

2This idea had actually been put into action by Sherman as he swept through the South ... settling some 40 thousand freedmen on South Carolina’s Sea Islands.


Charleston under Reconstruction


Facing this recalcitrant Southern attitude were large numbers of Northern Whites who descended on the South, many sent by the new Freedmen’s Bureau, to help the Blacks make the transition away from slavery.  These ‘carpetbaggers’3 were disliked intensely by the Southern Whites (especially the poorer Whites) ... but they did help bring education to thousands of Black children (although absenteeism among Black students was very high and a serious problem in trying to bring Black population into mainstream American culture).

These reformers were backed by a 1867 Military Reconstruction Act which stripped the South of its governments set up under Johnson’s liberal reconstruction policies.  The new law dismissed these state governments ... and divided the South into five military districts commanded by Union generals ... and enforced by a 60,000 strong Union Army positioned throughout the South.  And the terms for readmission to the Union now required not ten percent but a full majority of a state’s citizens ... which now included Black voters.  

In fact the tendency of White voters to boycott the new elections advantaged considerably the Black vote.  As a result the South saw its first Black politicians (almost universally members of Lincoln’s Republican Party) take their place in the states’ assemblies ... and even in the nation’s Congress.  

None of this however served to bridge the ever-widening emotional gap between Southern Whites and Blacks.  But for the time being – as long as this military administration was kept in place in the South – there was little that Southern Whites could do about a situation that they detested (including their anger directed at the North for its imperialistic behavior).

3Named for the type of luggage they arrived with: a large bag made of heavy cloth or ‘carpeting.’

A Freedman's Bureau school for former slaves

Hiram Revels - First Black Congressman (appointed to serve a 1-year unexpired term in the Senate) - 1870

Miles H. Hodges