The South needed to be rebuilt following the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson, the successor to President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, had very different ideas about it than did congressional Radical Republicans. Johnson, a Southern Democrat, took a more lenient, conciliatory approach to the South, which did not sit well with the Radical Republicans, who favored civil rights for African-Americans, even if that meant increased federal intervention into Southern states’ affairs. This conflict eventually led to Johnson’s impeachment, and his near removal from office.
President Johnson believed that even though Southern states had seceded from and made war against the Union, they never gave up their right to govern themselves. In his view they would retain this right so long as they respected the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery, paid off war debts and swore loyalty to the Union. Under Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction, announced in May 1865, land that the Union Army had confiscated during the war and distributed to freed former slaves would revert back to its prewar owners. Johnson was, in a sense, following Lincoln’s lead. Before his death, Lincoln had laid the groundwork for conciliation, pocket-vetoing a congressional measure mandating that a majority of a Southern state’s electorate must swear allegiance to the Union before that state could be readmitted to the Union. Lincoln's plan, instead, called for only a 10-percent requirement, which set him at odds with some Radical Republicans before the 1864 presidential campaign.
The Black Codes
Because of Johnson's lenient, hands-off approach, Southern states began passing “black codes,” laws that chipped away at African-Americans’ newly won rights and ensured that they remained a source of cheap, exploitable labor. In some cases, African-Americans were forced to sign yearly labor contracts, and if they refused they could be arrested for vagrancy. This angered the Radical Republicans. In 1866 they pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, which would grant blacks equal status as whites. Johnson vetoed this bill, but then for the first time in U.S. history, Congress overrode his veto. During the 1866 congressional elections, Johnson campaigned against the Radical Republicans, but the Radicals won. The next year, they passed the 14th Amendment, which, after its ratification, granted African-Americans equality under the law.
The period from 1867, when Radical Republicans took control of Congress, and 1876, when Reconstruction ended, is known as Radical Reconstruction. In 1867 the Radicals passed the Reconstruction Act, which divided the South into five military districts, mandated universal male suffrage and forced Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment to be readmitted to the Union. In 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote. During Radical Reconstruction blacks gained rights in the South that would have been unthinkable just decades earlier, and some were elected to office. Radical Reconstruction also saw the South’s first publicly funded education system, economic development programs and anti-discrimination laws.
President Johnson’s relationship with congressional Radical Republicans quickly deteriorated after his election. After he unsuccessfully campaigned against them in 1866, they passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited Johnson from removing civil officers in the government. One of those officers, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a holdover from the Lincoln administration, had been working with the Radicals to undermine Johnson’s Reconstruction policy. When Johnson suspended Stanton for disloyalty, the House of Representatives -- for the first time in American history -- voted to impeach the president. Johnson came one vote shy in the Senate from being removed from office, and thereafter became more amenable to the Radicals’ Reconstruction demands. Johnson did not seek reelection in 1868.
Jeffrey Billman is both an experienced and accomplished journalist with national awards for everything from investigative reporting to religion reporting to humor and opinion columns. A student of government and politics, he holds a master's degree in public policy analysis.