Reconstruction’s New Order

On New Year’s Day 1863, Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in captured portions of the Confederacy, a decision which helped win the war and which brought a new order to the United States.5 The North’s victory in 1865 ensured that the newly freed slaves would stay free, but their emancipation generated new questions about the future economic and political landscape of the South. Sweeping change transformed the former Confederacy in the decade that followed, as the Northern victors in Congress experimented with ways to improve the lives and opportunities for freedpeople in the South.6

Constitutional Amendment/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_constitutional_amendment_1866_lc_usz62_32499.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This 1866 political cartoon, distributed by a white-supremacist candidate, declared that Republicans sought to grant suffrage to black men in order to create a voting bloc for themselves. Detractors of the campaign for full black male suffrage were attempting to discredit abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and others.

Radical Republicans set the agenda in Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Many were former abolitionists who represented Northern constituencies and looked to implement in the postwar South what the historian Eric Foner has described as their “utopian vision of a nation whose citizens enjoyed equality of civil and political rights, secured by a powerful and beneficent state.”7 Radical Republicans emphasized the political equality of American men, yet with few exceptions, stopped short of calling to fully integrate society. The venerable Charles Sumner of Massachusetts—a fiery, well-spoken abolitionist who endured an infamous beating from South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate Floor in 1856—led the Radical Republicans in the Senate. Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens—caustic, brooding, and a brilliant political strategist—led the charge in the House.

Sumner and Stevens hoped President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated President Lincoln in April 1865, would be even harsher than Lincoln in readmitting Confederate states. But Johnson, a former slaveowner from East Tennessee, believed in limited federal intervention and did not share the Radical Republicans’ sweeping vision of the rights of African Americans. Johnson’s plan instead granted amnesty to repentant former Confederates and turned southern politics over to Union loyalists in the former rebel states. Given the stark differences in their national agendas, the administration and the congressional majority were soon at odds. Of the 29 vetoes Johnson issued—many involving Reconstruction bills—Congress overrode 15, more than for any other President.8

Freedman/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_freedmans_bureau_-currier_LC_USZC2_2365.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This 1868 Currier & Ives print, titled “The Freedman’s Bureau,” features a young man tying his tie. An ambivalent image highlighting both the subject’s conscientiousness and poverty, this commercial print reflected the complex attitudes toward African Americans during the period.

Unable to fully circumvent Johnson, Radical Republicans sought to remove him from office. In January 1867, Republican Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio introduced a resolution, adopted by the House, instructing the Judiciary Committee to “inquire into the conduct of Andrew Johnson,” with an eye toward impeaching the President. The committee initially rejected the measure. But in September 1867, after President Johnson attempted to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—who opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and worked closely with congressional Radicals—the committee revisited the issue and recommended impeachment proceedings in a 5 to 4 vote, claiming Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act which prevented Johnson from removing select officials without the Senate’s consent. The full House rejected the committee’s recommendation, but Johnson was bent on confronting Congress. In February 1868, when the President again tried to dismiss Stanton, congressional retribution was swift. The House voted 126 to 47 to impeach President Johnson; the Senate later acquitted him by a single vote.

15th Amendment/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_15th_amendment_nara.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Ratified on February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Even in the face of presidential intransigence, the Radical Republicans imposed a bold agenda of strict reforms upon the former Confederacy. Collectively, their push for African-American political rights surpassed any measure ever seen in the United States. The 38th Congress (1863–1865) quickly passed and submitted for ratification the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865. That same year, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was responsible for helping prepare the newly freed slaves for civic life by providing social services and education. In 1866 the 39th Congress (1865–1867) passed the first Civil Rights Act, granting American citizenship to freed slaves and then expanded upon the legislation by approving the Fourteenth Amendment, which enforced the equality of all citizens before the law. At the close of the 39th Congress, the Radicals divided the former Confederacy into five military districts, each commanded by a U.S. Army general and ruled by military law. The act also provided strict conditions for readmission to the Union: each of the 10 remaining Confederate states was required to rewrite its constitution at a convention attended by black and white delegates, guarantee black suffrage, and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.9 In a rare move, the 40th Congress (1867–1869) convened minutes after the 39th Congress adjourned and quickly granted greater authority to the commanders of each military district by vesting them with considerable power to hold elections and determine citizens’ eligibility to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment, which passed in 1869, enforced the right to vote for eligible African-American men. Thus, in an effort to achieve their ambitious vision for a racially transformed South, Radical Republicans drastically changed the status of southern blacks. Within the space of a decade, men who formerly had been classified as property exercised their new rights as voters and potential officeholders.10

After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, formerly enslaved African Americans flocked to the ballot boxes and the more ambitious sought political office. By 1877 about 2,000 black men had won local, state, and federal offices in the former Confederate states.11 But although black voters formed the bulk of the Republican constituency in the former Confederacy, black officeholders never achieved significant power within the GOP: no southern state elected black officeholders in proportion to its African-American population, and black politicians never controlled a state government during the Reconstruction Era even though the populations in several states were majority black.

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5President Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, after the Civil War battle of Antietam. In his message to the Confederacy, the President announced his intention to free the slaves in the rebellious states; one hundred days later, he signed the official proclamation. For more on the history of both proclamations, see James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 138–146; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 562–563. See also National Archives and Records Administration, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” accessed 13 May 2008, documents/emancipation_proclamation/.

6The Confederacy originally included 11 states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee).

7Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988): 230.

8This includes the 21 formal vetoes and eight pocket vetoes issued by Johnson in the 39th and 40th Congresses (1865–1869). Johnson had the second-highest percentage of vetoes overridden (51.7 percent). Franklin Pierce, who had 55.7 percent of his vetoes overridden, issued nine vetoes only to have five overridden by the 33rd and 34th Congresses (1853–1857). See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Presidential Vetoes.”

9An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, 13 Stat. 507 (1865); Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27 (1866). Tennessee, which had rejoined the Union on July 24, 1866, was exempt from the requirements of the Reconstruction Act.

10See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Constitutional Amendments and Major Civil Rights Acts of Congress Referenced in Black Americans in Congress.”

11Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): xi.