The Radical Republicans Clash with the President

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5 The Radical Republicans Clash with the President

For some African Americans, the end of slavery came with the January 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that proclaimed most of them free. For others, it came in April 1865 with the end of the Civil War (1861–65). This bloody, four-year conflict had divided the nation, pitting the Northern Union (federal government) against the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states that had seceded (broken away) from the United States. In any case, all of the four million former slaves rejoiced in their freedom.

The end of slavery did not, however, bring with it an easy solution to the problems facing black people. As noted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, according to respected African American leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895), a former slave who fought first for the abolition of slavery and later for black civil rights, the freed people "were sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends, and without a foot of land to stand upon. Old and young, sick and well, they were turned loose to the open sky, naked to their enemies."

The enemies Douglass referred to were all around them, in the form of white Southerners embittered by defeat and unwilling to accept the realities of their postwar lives, especially their changed relationship with the black people who had been their unpaid laborers and servants. During the period known as the Reconstruction era, which lasted from the end of the Civil War in April 1865 to the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) in 1877, African Americans and whites from both North and South attempted to form a new society in the states of the former Confederacy. Their efforts were hampered not only by racial hostility and the conflicting interests of the various groups but by the economic devastation that had followed in the wake of the war. Reconstruction brought both achievements and disappointments, and it set in motion consequences that continue to be felt in the twenty-first century.

Johnson's bold Reconstruction stance

After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in April 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, was thrust unexpectedly into the highest office in the nation. Instead of waiting for Congress to convene—an event scheduled for December 1865—Johnson abruptly put into effect his own plan for readmitting the Southern states into the Union and reorganizing their state governments.

Expected to deal harshly with those who had rebelled against the Union, Johnson surprised everyone by treating them leniently. Owing to Johnson's liberal signing of presidential pardons, many Confederate military and civil leaders were able to regain power in the South. The governments they formed then went about trying to recreate the conditions of slavery, using laws called Black Codes to limit the economic options and civil rights of the former slaves.

Formerly a champion of ordinary, working people, Johnson seemed to have aligned himself with the South's most powerful class, the wealthy owners of the sprawling plantations (the large estates where basic crops like cotton, tobacco, and rice were grown). In the North and in Washington, D.C., opposition to Johnson's policies was growing. People were shocked to hear about the Black Codes and about the violence that blacks were increasingly subjected to as white Southerners vented their anger and frustration and tried to keep the former slaves in their place. The popular outcry helped the cause of the Radical Republicans, a group of senators and representatives who had long been active in the abolitionist movement (the movement dedicated to ending slavery) and now hoped to remake the South as a true democracy for both whites and African Americans.

A Republican majority in Congress

When the Thirty-ninth Congress met in December 1865, the Republican Party held a strong majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Members of this political party, most of whom lived in the Northern United States, tended to favor protections for business interests, public support for internal improvements (like roads and services), and social reforms. Making up a very small minority of the Thirty-ninth Congress was the Democratic Party, which had been dominant in the South before the war. Democrats were opposed to the kinds of changes proposed by the Republicans, especially those that, they felt, took away individual freedom and local government control by making the federal government too strong.

Among the Republicans in Congress, several subgroups existed. The largest of these was made up of moderates, whose approval would have to be won for any policy or law to be passed. The small group of conservatives did not have much of a voice, but the equally small group of Radicals, most of them veterans of the tough antislavery fight, were extremely vocal. Prominent Radicals in the Senate included

Thaddeus Stevens: The Great Leveler

Thaddeus Stevens was a champion of ordinary people, especially slaves. Out-spoken and sometimes harsh, Stevens is remembered for his commitment to democratic values and his leading role in the congressional Reconstruction plan.

Stevens was born in 1792 in Danville, Vermont, the second of four sons. His mother, a nurse, ran the family farm after Stevens's father left the family. Accompanying his mother on her nursing rounds, Stevens saw how the poor suffered, and his experiences probably influenced his dislike of class divisions and inequality.

In 1807, Stevens's mother sold the farm and moved her family to nearby Peacham, so her boys could attend school. Stevens graduated from Dartmouth College in 1814, then moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he taught school while preparing for a law career. He also became interested in politics and joined the Anti-Masons Party, which shared his distrust of secret organizations like the Masons.

Elected to Pennsylvania's state legislature, Stevens gained a reputation as a strong-minded, uncompromising, outspoken idealist. He served for six terms, during which time he began his lifelong crusade against slavery and in favor of civil and political rights for blacks. He continued to practice law, often defending runaway slaves and others who could not pay him.

Stevens won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1849. In his first speech before the House, he declared his opposition to slavery and his refusal to compromise with the powerful Southerners in Congress. As a congressman, Stevens opposed all bills that were favorable to the South, as well as the despised Fugitive Slave Law, which encouraged the capture of slaves who had escaped to the North so that they may be returned to their Southern masters. His belief in the equality of all people and his wish for a classless society gained him the nickname "the Great Leveler."

After serving two terms, Stevens left Congress and returned to his law practice and also became involved in an iron manufacturing business. As the slavery debate heated up, however, Stevens was drawn back to politics. At the age of sixty-seven, he was again elected to the House of Representatives, arriving in time to take part in the debates that led up to the Civil War. Once again he was known for his quick wit and honesty, as well as his sarcasm and occasional lack of politeness.

One of the few to realize that the Civil War would probably be longer and bloodier than expected, Stevens worked hard to raise the money the military would need to pay salaries, buy weapons, and provide pensions. By 1863, the now-powerful Stevens had turned his attention to the question of how the South would be readmitted and reconstructed once the war was over. Not surprisingly, Stevens took an extreme stance, advocating black suffrage, strict readmission requirements, and harsh penalties for those who had supported the Confederacy.

Stephens considered the Reconstruction plan that President Abraham Lincoln initially proposed, known as the Ten Per Cent Plan, too lenient toward the South. Following Lincoln's assassination, Stevens was shocked when the new president, Andrew Johnson, put his own plan—even milder than Lincoln's—into motion without any input from Congress. In December 1865, Stevens took a leading role in the refusal by Congress to seat Southerners elected under Johnson's program.

Like other members of the group of Radical Republicans who now dominated national politics, Stevens believed that Reconstruction offered an ideal opportunity to create a perfect form of democracy in the South. In early 1866, intense debates about Reconstruction occurred in Congress. Believing that former slaves deserved to be compensated for their many decades of unpaid labor, that owning land would give them an economic boost, and that those who had been disloyal to the Union should be punished, Stevens recommended an extreme plan. He proposed that the federal government confiscate all the Southern plantations of more than 200 acres of land and divide them into 40-acre plots to be distributed to the freed people. Any remaining land would be sold and the proceeds used to repay wartime debts.

Most members of Congress rejected this plan. But other measures supported by Stevens, such as the Reconstruction Acts, the Civil Rights Bill, and the Fourteenth Amendment, were approved and became law. President Johnson, however, fiercely opposed this legislation and frequently clashed with Congress. In February 1868, the arguments reached a climax: Stevens formally recommended impeachment (a process that could have resulted in his removal from office) of the president.

Following hearings, Johnson was acquitted by only one vote, allowing him to remain president. The disappointed Stevens's health was failing, and he died six months later. By his special request, he was buried in a racially integrated cemetery; the inscription on his tombstone read in part: "Equality of Man before the Creator."

Charles Sumner (1811–1874) and Henry Wilson (1812–1875) of Massachusetts and Benjamin Wade (1800–1878) of Ohio. Prominent Radicals in the House of Representatives included Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) of Pennsylvania, George W. Julian (1817–1899) of Indiana, and James M. Ashley (1824–1896) of Ohio. Most of the Radicals were from New England or the upper Midwest, areas dominated by small farms and towns and by the concepts of free labor and liberal (open-minded) social reform.

Idealistic people like Stevens and Sumner recognized this as an important moment in history, a golden opportunity to push through the kinds of changes they desired. An iron manufacturer with a blunt manner and a reputation for fighting hard for his beliefs, Stevens was a passionate advocate of equality for African Americans. Considered somewhat self-righteous but principled and responsible, Sumner too had fought long and hard, not only against slavery but in favor of women's rights and prison reform. He was much admired by both black abolitionists and ordinary African Americans as a defender of their rights. Now Stevens and Sumner would spearhead the battle to win black suffrage (the right to vote), which many considered the most essential right because it gave citizens the power to make changes in their society.

In addition to the issue of black civil and political rights, the Radical Republicans also had a vision of economic reform for the South, which they hoped to model after the North as much as possible. They looked down on the plantation system, which had created wealth and leisure for whites by exploiting the labor of enslaved blacks. As noted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, in the Radical Republicans' view, "new railroads, new factories and foundaries, all the busy, profitable industry of the North, were linked with the grand march of humanity toward a more productive and fuller life, while the world of the Southern plantation embodied the ways of sloth, backwardness, and darkness itself." Achieving the new Southern society they envisioned would, however, prove more difficult than they had guessed.

An intense debate begins

The moderate Republicans in Congress were not initially prepared to go as far as the Radicals in reconstructing the shattered South. Nevertheless, when the roll was called on the first day of the Thirty-ninth Congress, the Radicals were in agreement: The names of the Southern senators and representatives elected under Johnson's program were not to be recognized—they would not be permitted to take their seats. Thus Johnson was put on notice that the plan he had implemented in the nearly eight months of his presidency had not been found acceptable by the legislators chosen by U.S. citizens to represent their interests. From this point on, Johnson would face an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, the moderate Republicans still dominated Congress. These moderates included U.S. senators Lyman Trumbull (1813–1896) of Illinois, John Sherman (1823–1900) of Ohio, and William Pitt Fessenden (1806–1869) of Maine and U.S. representatives James G. Blaine (1830–1893) of Maine and John A. Bingham (1815–1900) of Ohio. Although unwilling to seat the new Southern legislators, they continued to hope for a compromise with the president. As 1866 began, an intense debate commenced as the senators and representatives discussed the role that black people would play in the life of the nation. Although the Republican majority did not yet accept black suffrage, they did support civil rights for blacks (such as the right to a trial by jury and to equal protection of the laws).

Johnson, however, allied himself with those white Southerners whose racist attitudes prevented them from seeing blacks as anything but inferior and unworthy of full U.S. citizenship. As noted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, Johnson used his Annual Message to Congress to express his views on the subject, claiming that "wherever [blacks] have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to lapse into barbarism." Further, he warned of the danger of "Africanizing" the South, or creating a society in which blacks were given more consideration than whites. In refuting the idea that the U.S. government was made only for white men, Thaddeus Stevens declared that "to say so… violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty. This is man's government, the government of all men alike."

Johnson's supporters in Congress—made up primarily of the Democrats, who had opposed him when they thought he agreed with the views of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, but began to support him when he expressed

Charles Sumner: A Fierce Fighter for Black Rights

A U.S. senator for twenty-three years, Charles Sumner began his career as a passionate abolitionist. Once African Americans gained their freedom, Sumner led the fight to expand their political and civil rights. During the Reconstruction era, he was one of the most prominent of the Radical Republicans, who created a Reconstruction program that resulted in the nation's first multiracial state governments.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1811, Sumner was the son of a prominent lawyer and politician. A shy and studious boy, he graduated from Harvard College at the age of nineteen. He went on to attend Harvard Law School and earned his degree in 1834, but he soon discovered that he did not care for practicing law. Sumner spent three years traveling through Europe, where he met some of the leading writers and political figures of the period. When he returned to Boston, he was in demand at parties and gatherings.

Nevertheless, Sumner found both his law practice and his social life unfulfilling. But a new interest in reform movements created a spark. He began to speak out for prison reform and against war, offending some listeners with his rather aggressive, self-righteous speaking style but impressing others. Sumner also became involved with the antislavery movement, and he was one of the few who spoke out against the nation's war with Mexico (1846–48).

Two years later, Sumner's involvement in a new political organization called the Free Soil Party (whose members opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories of the United States) led to his election to the U.S. Senate. There his combative speeches against slavery made him unpopular with Southerners, who considered him a radical abolitionist. Many Northerners, however, agreed with Sumner's views and appreciated his passionate efforts to end slavery. Sumner became a member of the Republican Party soon after its formation in the middle of the 1850s.

In May 1856, Sumner gave a threehour speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which threatened to nullify (negate) the earlier Missouri Compromise by allowing the settlers in these two states to make their own decisions on whether to allow slavery. His "Crime Against Kansas" speech was full of colorful insults against various people who had publicly defended slavery. The next day, an angry congressman named Preston Brooks (1819–1857)—whose cousin had been one of those insulted by Sumner—attacked him on the Senate floor with a walking stick.

Seriously injured, Sumner spent the next three years as an invalid. Although he won reelection in 1857, he did not return to the Senate until June 1860. He marked his return with another fiery speech against slavery, which was thought to give a boost to the successful bid by Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. As the tension over the slavery issue mounted and the Southern states moved toward secession, Sumner refused to go along with those who wanted to reach a compromise with the South. He called for an immediate and unqualified end to slavery.

During the Civil War, Sumner pressed Lincoln to completely abolish slavery, but Lincoln insisted—during the first years of the war, at least—that the purpose of the war was to reunite the country, not emancipate the slaves. Sumner also pushed for blacks to be allowed to enlist in the Union army and for harsh punishments for Confederates once the Union won the war. In February 1862, he charged that the Southerners had committed "state suicide" by seceding, which meant that they had given up all their rights and that the military could now confiscate all their property, including their slaves.

While Sumner's advocacy of black rights made him a hero among African Americans, his outspoken manner alienated some of his colleagues, including some who basically agreed with his views. More focused on principles than on practical matters, Sumner did not play a major role in actually implementing the important legislation of the Reconstruction era.

When tensions between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans in Congress resulted in an impeachment trial, Sumner's was one of the loudest voices calling for the president's removal from office. He was bitterly disappointed when Johnson was acquitted by one vote. After the election of President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–1877), Sumner used his longtime position as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block bills and appointments the president favored. Sumner was eventually ousted from his committee chair position.

As the Reconstruction era drew to a close and more conservative views began to prevail, Sumner's influence diminished. In the 1872 presidential election, Sumner supported the Democratic candidate, Horace Greeley (1811–1872), but Grant was reelected. As 1874 began, Sumner faced an uphill battle for reelection and also suffered from heart disease. In March—after urging his colleagues, from his sickbed, to support a new Civil Rights Act to protect black rights—Sumner died.

ideas similar to their own—accused the Radicals of hypocrisy. They charged that these upper-class Northerners were using the equality issue to mask their true aims, which were to punish white Southerners and to promote Northern business interests. In addition, the Democrats claimed, they only wanted blacks to vote in order to keep their own party in power.

There may have been some truth in some of these charges (the Radicals did hope, for example, that when blacks were able to vote they would use their ballots to keep Republicans in office), but the idealism of men like Stevens and Sumner had certainly been proved by their long years of activism. Indeed, the deep hatred of these and other leaders for slavery had eventually helped to shift the focus on the Civil War from state's rights and keeping the Union intact to winning freedom for blacks. Most historians now agree that their interest in gaining equality for African Americans was sincere.

The Freedmen's Bureau bill

One of the first actions Congress had taken after refusing to recognize the Southern legislators was to create a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to investigate and report on conditions in the South. Already reports were arriving that documented the mistreatment of blacks in the South. Perhaps the most revealing report was compiled by ex-Union general Carl Schurz ([1829–1906]; see Chapter 4 for more details). As the new year began, it was clear that the agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency established in March 1865 to assist the former slaves in their transition to freedom, needed more power to punish those who denied blacks their rights or physically assaulted them. To that end, Senator Trumbull introduced a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau (which had been authorized to operate for only one year) and broaden the power of its agents to protect blacks.

Much hated by white Southerners because of its advocacy of black rights, the Freedmen's Bureau had been criticized even by some Northern leaders. Some of the agents, it was charged, had misled African Americans into thinking they would receive free land; others had been incompetent and corrupt, and some had even collaborated with plantation owners by pressuring blacks to sign unfair labor contracts. Generally, though, it was agreed—especially among black people themselves—that the Freedmen's Bureau had done a great deal of good. By 1869, when it finally did close, the Bureau's agents had distributed $15 million worth of food rations to destitute Southerners, both black and white; dispensed medical care to a million people; and spent $5 million on setting up black schools.

It came as a surprise to almost everyone when President Johnson vetoed (refused to approve) the Freedmen's Bureau bill. He claimed that it was not necessary and too expensive to extend the Bureau's life and even asserted, as noted in A Short History of Reconstruction, that giving blacks assistance was unfair to "our own people" (meaning whites). Even Johnson's supporters had urged him to sign the bill, as it would help to keep the moderate Republicans on his side. Congress immediately overrode the bill, and it became law.

Johnson's lack of sympathy for the challenges faced by African Americans was evident. He gave further evidence of insensitivity—as well as arrogance and tactlessness—when, during an unplanned speech at the White House, he referred to his congressional opponents as traitors, claiming they were as bad as those who had rebelled against the Union during the Civil War.

The Civil Rights Bill

The next important piece of legislation introduced during this period was the Civil Rights Bill, which guaranteed that all persons born in the United States (except for Native Americans) were to be considered U.S. citizens with the right to make contracts, bring lawsuits in court, and receive full protection of "person and property" under the law. This bill was intended to give fuller meaning to the Thirteenth Amendment which, when added to the Constitution the previous year, had officially outlawed slavery but had not specified exactly what black people's new freedom entailed.

The Civil Rights Bill was in direct opposition to the Black Codes, which had made a legal distinction between the rights that blacks and whites enjoyed. It was truly a revolutionary document, in that it overturned not only the Black Codes of the South but many discriminatory laws that existed in the Northern states. It also proved that the Republicans in Congress were united in their belief that civil rights for the former slaves must be part of any Reconstruction program.

Again, Johnson caused ripples of surprise and outrage when he vetoed the bill, on the grounds that it gave too much power to the federal government and also discriminated against white people. Once more, Congress overrode Johnson's veto and enacted the Civil Rights Bill on April 9, 1866, the first time in U.S. history that this override had happened with such a major piece of legislation.

Republicans prepare to
shape Reconstruction

Near the end of April, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction submitted its report on conditions in the South. The testimony that witnesses provided caused alarm and shock. Many instances of violence and injustice against blacks were reported by military officers, Freedmen's Bureau agents, former slaves, and others, as was the continuing, bitter resentment that white Southerners held toward the U.S. government. The committee concluded that until the Southern states could guarantee civil rights for all citizens, and until the former leaders of the Confederacy had been excluded from holding public office, their legislators must not be allowed to participate in the federal government.

Johnson's refusal to support the legislation that had united the Republican majority in Congress proved fatal to his program, for it had driven the moderates into the Radical camp. Johnson now lacked the support he needed to get his own policies approved and enacted. The Republicans, meanwhile, would now be able to create the kind of Reconstruction plan they had long and idealistically envisioned.

By passing the Civil Rights Bill, the Republicans had shown their commitment to civil rights for blacks. Yet there were fears that the bill might someday be found unconstitutional (not in keeping with the ideas outlined in the Constitution, the central document of the U.S. government, and therefore not valid). Therefore, to safeguard the rights described in the Civil Rights Bill, the Republicans wanted to put a guarantee of those rights directly into the Constitution through an amendment. Thus they created the Fourteenth Amendment, which was approved by Congress in June 1866.

The Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment made it illegal for any state to deny equality before the law to any male citizen. Although it did not guarantee that blacks could vote, it gave an advantage to states that did allow black suffrage, by reducing the number of a state's congressional representatives—which is determined by population—in proportion to the number of male citizens denied the right to vote. Before the war, three-quarters of the slaves had been included in population counts, but now they would all be counted. To avoid giving

The Fight for Women's Rights

Once slavery was abolished, many longtime antislavery crusaders turned their energies to the struggle for black suffrage. At the same time, the leaders of the fledgling women's movement were just as passionate about gaining the same right for women.

During the course of the nineteenth century, reform movements of various kinds gained momentum as public awareness of social problems increased. Across the nation—especially in the northeastern region—activists called not only for an end to slavery but for an improvement in conditions in prisons and mental institutions and for equality between men and women. At this time, women not only could not vote but were not allowed to own property, and they did not have equal access to education and employment. Many schools and universities were closed to female students, and very few career choices were available to them. Single women could work in factories, but they earned only half of what men did for the same job.

Around the middle of the century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton emerged as a leader of the struggle for women's rights. She was inspired to begin her fight after attending the World Antislavery Conference in London with her husband; Stanton and other women were not allowed to participate. She and fellow reformer Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) soon organized a political meeting in Seneca Falls, New York. Held in July 1848 and attended by 240 people (40 of whom were men), it was the first such gathering to focus on women's rights. Attendees produced a "Declaration of Sentiments" that detailed the injustices against women, especially the denial of the right to vote and own property and the lack of equal opportunity in education and employment.

In 1865, the document that would eventually become the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced to Congress. The amendment would give all male citizens voting rights, but women would be excluded. Most alarming to the feminist leaders was that for the first time, the words "male citizen" would be written into the Constitution. Even though they sympathized with the plight of blacks and their desire for suffrage, Stanton and other prominent women objected to the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, it was passed in July 1868. From this point on, the women's movement would separate itself from the abolitionists who had previously been its allies.

Over the next fifty years, women gradually gained more rights (especially pertaining to owning property and entering careers), but it was not until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that women received the right to vote. During the social unrest of the 1960s, the women's movement gained momentum as more and more women, as well as sympathetic men, demanded an end to discrimination in education, employment, law, and other areas. The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, required employers to pay the same wages for the same work. The Civil Rights Act (1964) also provided protection against job discrimination on the basis of both race and sex.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women's Political Caucus continued to apply pressure for societal and political change. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, women had made many advances, but some forms of discrimination continued (for example, some women were still paid less for the same work).

the Southern states an unfair advantage, though, they would lose representatives if they did not allow blacks to vote.

In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment decreed that anyone who had once sworn allegiance to the U.S. Constitution but later given aid to the Confederacy could not hold national or state office. This meant that the South's prewar leaders—many of whom had served as Confederate military or civil officers—would not be allowed to govern the new Southern states, and the true Unionists (who had remained loyal to the federal government throughout the Civil War) would be in charge.

Among those who believed that the Fourteenth Amendment did not go far enough were women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), feminist leaders (those who support expanded rights for women) who thought women should also have the right to vote. They felt betrayed because, for the first time, the word "male" had been introduced into the Constitution in regard to suffrage, thus making their goal even harder to attain. The women's suffrage movement had previously been closely linked to abolitionism, but now the feminists severed that tie and took up their struggle alone.

Still, the Fourteenth Amendment was a document of major significance because it guaranteed that equality before the law would be protected by the federal government. The individual states were now required to uphold for all citizens those fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution's first eight amendments, including the rights to engage in free speech, to bear arms, and to be tried by an impartial jury.

President Johnson immediately denounced the amendment and advised the Southern states not to ratify it. (Ratification is the process of approval through which an amendment must pass to become part of the U.S. Constitution.) Ten of the eleven states of the former Confederacy took Johnson's advice; only Tennessee ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and thus was readmitted to the Union. At this point, Congress had not yet answered the question of how the remaining states could be readmitted.

Race riots in Memphis and New Orleans

Meanwhile, events occurring in two major cities of the South in the spring and summer of 1866 were causing great concern and horror in the North. The first occurred in May, when Memphis, Tennessee, became the scene of a bloody race riot. Following a collision of two taxis, one driven by a white and one by a black, police arrested the black driver. A group of black Civil War veterans came to the driver's aid, and a fight broke out between them, the police, and a white crowd. The violence lasted for three days, during which time the Memphis police and other whites attacked blacks and invaded black neighborhoods, burning hundreds of homes, schools, and churches and raping several black women. In all, forty-six blacks and two whites were killed.

Less than two months later, bloody clashes broke out in New Orleans, Louisiana, at a gathering of several hundred supporters of black suffrage. Union general Philip Sheridan (1831–1888), who would later serve as military governor of Louisiana, reported an "absolute massacre," with thirty-four blacks and three white radicals killed and more than a hundred people injured. Both of these violent outbreaks helped to further discredit the president's Reconstruction plan, as they seemed to many to prove what happened when former Confederates were treated too leniently.

A disastrous speaking tour

As the summer progressed, Johnson and his supporters began to worry about the congressional elections that were coming up in the fall. Realizing that he needed to somehow turn the tide of opposition that seemed to be rolling over him, and believing that the common folk of the nation would rally behind him if they heard his message directly, Johnson embarked on a speaking tour. Referred to as a "swing around the circle," the tour took Johnson north through New York and then west to Ohio and Missouri before returning to the East Coast. Despite his intentions, Johnson's personal weaknesses made the tour a disaster.

Instead of dazzling crowds with his inspiring message, Johnson sparred with hecklers (people in a crowd who annoy and taunt a speaker) and indulged in long, rambling speeches full of self-pity and vindictiveness (feelings of revenge) toward those he regarded as his enemies. In Cleveland, Ohio, someone in the crowd yelled, "Hang Jeff Davis!" Johnson yelled back, "Why not hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?" (Phillips [1811–1884], an abolitionist, was another Radical Republican.) In St. Louis, Missouri, Johnson claimed that he had been "slandered" (made the subject of lies) and "maligned" (spoken evil of) by his opponents.

Having previously misjudged the attitudes of ordinary Southerners toward their old leaders, Johnson had now misjudged those of ordinary Northerners. It seemed that they wanted those who had rebelled against the Union to be treated more harshly, and were even worried that Johnson's stance might disrupt the peace that been won at such a high cost. Even Johnson's supporters admitted that the tour had been a mistake, and he was roundly criticized for lowering himself to take part in exchanges with hecklers.

Republicans sweep the 1866 elections

During the campaign of 1866, most support for Johnson came from the Democratic Party, whose members tried to play on white fears about expanding rights for blacks. They claimed, for example, that the Republicans wanted to give black workers an advantage over white workers. Meanwhile, the Republicans also campaigned hard and used dramatic language and images to discredit Johnson. As recounted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton (1823–1877) called the Democratic Party a "common sewer and loathsome receptacle, into which is emptied every element of treason North and South, every element of inhumanity and barbarism which has dishonored the age."

When the election results came in, the widespread lack of support for Johnson was evident. The Republicans had won by a huge margin. They were now solidly in control of every Northern state legislature and government; in addition, they had more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass bills in both houses of the U.S. Congress. As the second session of the Thirty-ninth Congress met in December 1866, the Radicals were at their most powerful.

As the new year began, black suffrage seemed close to becoming a reality. In January, Congress approved a bill giving blacks in the District of Columbia the right to vote. Soon black suffrage was also expanded to the western territories (recently settled areas that were on their way to becoming states). Congress was still struggling, however, with a plan for the Reconstruction of the South. Some felt that this hesitancy was not such a bad thing, though, as a careful approach seemed preferable to Johnson's hastily implemented program.

Giving blacks the vote

In any case, the main issue that was holding up the process was black suffrage. Most believed that whatever Reconstruction act Congress passed must require the states to guarantee black voting rights, not only because it was the right thing to do but because the Republicans would need the political force of those black votes to move their programs forward. The act would probably require a limited period of military rule, and it would also need to prevent former Confederates from participating in government, at least temporarily. At the same time, blacks were going to need not only access to economic opportunity but training in how to manage their own affairs and how to be good citizens.

As noted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, slavery had been "a poor training school for the responsibilities of citizenship." The very survival of black people under slavery had required them to be docile and obedient. Freedom, however, would require them to be independent and self-reliant and to overcome the sense of inferiority and, in some cases, fear of white people that they had absorbed over the years.

Some suggested that blacks were not ready for the responsibilities of citizenship, especially voting. Others, though, claimed that blacks could only learn about freedom by living it. As noted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, at a black political convention held in North Carolina soon after the end of the war, an African American leader named James Hood said, "The best way is to give the colored man rights at once, and then they will practice them and the sooner know how to use them."

The Republican plan for Reconstruction

Debate and discussion about the shape that Reconstruction should take finally resulted in the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which was passed over Johnson's veto in March. The act divided the ten Southern states (Tennessee had already been readmitted to the Union) into five military districts ruled by military commanders, who were authorized to use the Army to protect lives and property. To be readmitted to the Union, the new state governments would have to write constitutions that guaranteed suffrage for all male citizens, and the constitutions would have to be approved by a majority of registered voters. In addition, each state must ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.

Three subsequent Reconstruction acts refined some of the issues brought up by the first. The second act empowered the military commanders to register voters, set up elections, and adopt state constitutions even if Southerners did nothing. The third act declared that the temporary military governments took precedence over the civil governments elected under Johnson's program. The fourth act made it harder for citizens to prevent the ratification of state constitutions.

The dream of black landownership

Although the Republican plan promised a more just society for all citizens than the one the president had created, African Americans were disappointed by its lack of any provision for the redistribution of land. Blacks associated the ownership of land with freedom itself and, like most Americans, they yearned for the economic independence it could afford. When slavery ended, they hoped that the government would compensate them for their long years of unpaid labor with free land.

Indeed, many Republicans agreed that the Southern plantation system should be broken up and the big estates divided into small farms. In an 1864 report on conditions in the South, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) had predicted—as quoted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877—that "no such thing as a free, democratic society can exist in any country where all lands are owned by one class of men and cultivated by another."

Even before the end of the Civil War, a glimmer of hope that black dreams of landownership would come true had been provided by Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891). Reaching Savannah, Georgia, after his victorious, destructive march across the South, Sherman had issued Special Field Order #15. This document allowed blacks to settle on 40-acre plots of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts; soon after the war, however, the land was returned to its Confederate owners (see Chapter 4 for more details). In addition, the original plan for the Freedmen's Bureau had authorized the agency to distribute land to the freed people.

During the discussions that had taken place before the passage of the Reconstruction Act, Senator Stevens had recommended that forty-four million acres of Southern land—which represented land owned by less than 5 percent of white Southern families—should be confiscated and redistributed to former slaves. In the end, though, there was too little public support for such a measure.

Despite its limitations, the Reconstruction Act of 1867 ushered in an exciting period in U.S. history. By giving African Americans the right to vote, it held out the promise that they would become equal participants in the life of the nation and that racist attitudes would be overcome. In A Short History of Reconstruction, this was "a radical departure, a stunning and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy." The experiment would prove tragically short lived. For now, however, a brief period of hope and of genuine accomplishments had begun.

For More Information


Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Benedict, Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869. New York: Norton, 1974.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Golay, Michael. Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

Jenkins, Wilbert L. Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Murphy, Richard W. The Nation Reunited: War's Aftermath. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1987.

Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Wagner, Margaret E., Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, eds. Civil War Desk Reference. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Web Sites

Louisiana State University. The United States Civil War Center. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"Reconstruction." African American History. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"Reference Resources: Civil War." Kidinfo. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"US Civil War." Internet Modern History Sourcebook. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

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The Radical Republicans Clash with the President

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