Power Struggle Over a New America
By the time Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the largest Confederate force, surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in 1865, some 750,000 Americans, soldiers and civilians, lay dead and many thousands more maimed for life.9 The war’s great blood-letting slashed a deep scar on the national psyche that lasted for decades, creating what one historian has called a “republic of suffering.”10
In the waning months of the conflict, with much of the South in ruins, millions of former enslaved people sought freedom behind Union lines, creating a refugee crisis that taxed the military’s resources. As the Confederate government fled and U.S. armies hunted down remnant rebel forces, an assassin shot President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. The following morning, Lincoln, who had led the Union through the war, died just a few blocks from the White House.
Facing the immense and unprecedented task of reconstructing an entire region of the country—economically, politically, and socially—an untested and volatile Southerner assumed the presidency: Vice President Andrew Johnson.
Johnson, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee known for his populist attacks on the wealthy, had been the only southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union when the Civil War started in 1861. A year later, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee after Union forces took control of the state, and in 1864 Johnson was chosen by the National Union Party as Lincoln’s running mate to broaden the ticket’s appeal and show that Republicans and Democrats were committed to rebuilding the country together.
But now, as President, Johnson’s liabilities quickly surfaced: he was impetuous, often resorted to demagoguery, and unwilling to compromise. Pugnacious and stubborn, Johnson, a former slaveholder who sought to preserve the South’s rigid system of white supremacy, was nostalgic for a world where the races would remain separate and unequal. But that world had been turned upside down: the North had defeated the South, the Emancipation Proclamation had freed millions of enslaved men and women living in the Confederacy, and Republicans in Congress had and were continuing to pass visionary laws to help modernize America’s economy and make its society more equitable. It all made Johnson an incongruous leader for an America that looked to its future. He was, a recent historian has written, “the great anomaly of the postwar United States.”11
When Johnson took over the presidency in April 1865, Republicans dominated Congress with huge majorities in the House and Senate. But Lincoln’s death had created something of a power vacuum in the nation’s capital, and while Johnson had been Lincoln’s running mate, few Republicans in Congress believed Johnson was any less the southern Democrat he once was. Johnson, they believed, had cheated his way into the presidency.
Johnson became President one month after the 38th Congress (1863–1865) adjourned and almost eight months before the 39th Congress (1865–1867) was set to convene in December 1865. The new President quickly confirmed Republican fears: with Congress away, Johnson moved to unilaterally implement his Reconstruction policy for his native South. Not only did Johnson’s Reconstruction vision depart widely from that of Republicans in Congress, it diverged markedly from the conciliatory approach Lincoln outlined before his death. Republicans in Congress wanted to keep former Confederates from serving in the very government they had tried to destroy. But Johnson believed that without the participation of the southern states any actions taken by Congress would be illegitimate. In May 1865 he issued a blanket amnesty proclamation across the South, requiring only Confederate military or civil leaders to petition for pardons individually. Johnson also appointed sympathetic provisional governors to supervise the readmission of each rebel state into the Union. Johnson hoped his program, which he called “restoration,” would allow the former rebel states to elect new Representatives and Senators by the fall of 1865. If Johnson had his way, control of the South would largely be given back to the people who had just spent four years and countless lives trying to overthrow the United States government in order to preserve the institution of slavery.12
The 39th Congress, elected in the fall of 1864 and the spring of 1865, was overwhelmingly Republican.13 Some of these Members, led by an influential group of Radicals, had served in Congress during the Civil War. They had passed legislation that mobilized the armed forces to destroy the rebellion, and they expected to shape the Reconstruction of the South. Radical Republicans in Congress had begun articulating their process to readmit southern states during the war, and it was far more stringent and unforgiving than Johnson’s. But with the new Congress still months away from convening, they looked on helplessly as the President carried out his vastly different program. Radicals seethed as Johnson’s new southern state governments refused to repeal their secession ordinances from 1861, refused to repudiate Confederate debts, and refused to protect or even recognize the civil rights of African Americans in the South. Congressional Republicans were outraged as the President granted lenient pardons to Confederate leaders while the new southern state governments elected many of those same Confederates to the 39th Congress.14
When the 39th Congress finally opened on December 4, 1865, the large Republican majority in the House immediately counteracted the President. Edward McPherson—Clerk of the House and longtime ally of Thaddeus Stevens—simply refused to read the names of Members-elect from former Confederate states during the opening roll call. None were sworn in.15
The relationship between Republicans and the President only soured from there as Johnson’s animosity toward Congress quickly poisoned what little relationship the two branches had. Republicans in Congress had sought to use two key pieces of legislation as a foundation for Reconstruction: a bill to strengthen and protect the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal program administered by the Army to help millions of formerly enslaved men and women get a foothold in freedom through education and economic self-sufficiency; and comprehensive legislation to guarantee the civil rights and political representation of African Americans at every level of government. Despite having once voiced his support, Johnson vetoed both bills in the winter of 1865–1866, claiming they violated the rights of the southern states which were not represented in Congress.16
Johnson may have been an obstacle for Republicans on Capitol Hill but he was not an insurmountable one: Congress quickly overrode Johnson’s veto of a sweeping civil rights bill—the first time Congress had ever done so on a major law. To bypass Johnson entirely, Congress then passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that redefined citizenship to include the millions of formerly enslaved men and women in the South. In all, Johnson vetoed nearly 30 bills during his tenure—all of which congressional Republicans interpreted as attempts to thwart popular will. Congress overrode more than half of those vetoes—three times the number in all prior federal history.17
An embittered Johnson also made things personal. He leveled gratuitous attacks on individual Members of Congress, including shots at Stevens and Radical Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Johnson sustained these insults in the fall of 1866 in what was called his “swing around the circle” speaking tour of northern cities. At one point, Johnson compared himself favorably to Jesus Christ, noting that he too forgave penitent sinners—but that the irredeemable Stevens and his fellow Radicals were intent on ripping up the Union and had to be stopped. Johnson was widely condemned by the press and the public for acting beneath the dignity of the office.18
9See, for example, Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimate Raises the Civil War Death Toll,” 2 April 2012, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html; White, The Republic For Which It Stands: 28.
10Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2009).
11Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989): 54; Annette Gordon-Reed, Andrew Johnson (New York: Times Books, 2011): 11, 48. Quotation from White, The Republic For Which It Stands: 35. For an accessible, concise online analysis of Johnson’s presidency see Elizabeth R. Varon, “Andrew Johnson: Impact and Legacy,” Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, accessed 11 July 2019, https://millercenter.org/president/johnson/impact-and-legacy.
12Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: 214–233; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1853–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988): 180–197; White, The Republic For Which It Stands: 40.
13For the party makeup of the House, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Party Divisions of the House of Representatives, 1789 to Present.”
14Hans L. Trefousse, The Radical Republicans: Lincoln’s Vanguard for Racial Justice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969): 325–326; William R. Brock, An American Crisis: Congress and Reconstruction, 1865–1867 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963): 38.
15Congressional Globe, House, 39th Cong., 1st sess. (4 December 1865): 3–5; Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: 237–238; Trefousse, Thaddeus Stevens: 175–176.
16Foner, Reconstruction: 246–250; Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: 242–247; White, The Republic For Which It Stands: 65–67.
17Foner, Reconstruction: 250–251; Trefousee, Andrew Johnson: 251–253; White, The Republic For Which It Stands: 68.
18Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: 263.