17 Andrew Johnson


  • Explain the problems that came with the ending of slavery
  • Describe how Reconstruction can be viewed as the Civil War, Part II
  • Discuss how Reconstruction was a failure in the eyes of the Radical Republicans
  • Describe what life was like for African-Americans from 1865-1965 in the South

Following the American Civil War (1861-1865), President Abraham Lincoln set about putting the nation back together in his program called Reconstruction.  After Lincoln’s death, Reconstruction continued under his Vice President Andrew Johnson, although the Radical Republicans in Congress redirected the program.  Ultimately, Reconstruction fell short of its intended goals.

Lincoln’s plan was forgiving of the Southern states that seceded.  He sought to readmit them into Union as quickly as possible and pardoned—to formally forgive someone of a crime—most Confederates, except the top leaders.  The Radical Republicans in Congress thought Lincoln’s plan was too lenient.  They wanted to destroy the political power of the former slaveholders and rebuild the South, bringing the freedmen—the freed slaves—into politics and society.  After Lincoln’s assassination, the Radical Republicans intentions toward Reconstruction started to take over.

Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, continued Lincoln’s vision of Reconstruction.  Under Johnson, the Southern states were all readmitted to the Union.  And thanks to his Presidential pardons, many former Confederate officials regained political power both in the state governments and in the federal government.  Upset by the lack of political change made by Reconstruction under Johnson, the Radical Republicans found themselves at odds with the President.  He vetoed more acts of Congress than any other President.

Reconstruction did little to help the freedmen become a part of American society.  When Johnson claimed Reconstruction was complete in late 1865, the Radical Republicans attempted to make more changes to Southern society, but Johnson vetoed both.  One way Congress tried to improve life in the South for the freedmen was by enacting the Freedman’s Bureau.  It was originally established by Congress towards the end of the Civil War to distribute clothing and food to freedmen and poor whites in the South.  It was responsible for setting up hospitals, schools, vocational education programs and teacher training centers. In 1866, Congress wanted to continue and expand the role of the Bureau, but Johnson vetoed it.

Another action Congress took was passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866.  Civil rights are the freedoms that are universally expected to be free from government interference, such as freedom of speech, freedom from unwarranted government action (such as search and seizure), freedom from discrimination, etc.  This act was passed as a direct response to the emergence of black codes—laws passed specifically to restrict the lives of and discriminate against blacks in the South.  Black Codes were designed to keep the freedmen socially and politically inferior to whites.  These laws denied African-Americans rights, prohibiting blacks from carrying weapons, serving on juries, testifying against whites in court, marrying whites and traveling without a permit.  Again, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, staging a battle between the President and Congress.  Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and the bill became a law.

In 1866, in an effort to cut President Johnson out of Reconstruction, Congress drafted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  It granted the freedmen citizenship and equal protection under law.  Again, this action was caused by the Southern states refusal to grant African-Americans their civil rights.  This amendment was so controversial that it did not get ratified until 1868.  With the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Reconstruction took an even more radical turn.  Congress changed Lincoln’s original plan to readmit Southern states into the union by making new requirements for new states governments.  African-American males were to be a part in electing the politicians set to make the new state Constitutions.  Johnson vetoed this act too, but Congress was able to override it.

Because Congress felt President Johnson stood in the way of the changes the Radical Republicans believe the South needed, Congress impeached him and almost removed him from office.  In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act.  This law made it illegal for the President to remove someone from office without the Senate’s approval.

Johnson violated the law by firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a hold-over from Lincoln’s cabinet.  Stanton did not agree with Johnson’s view of Reconstruction and enforced the Radical Republicans’ policies.  It was with Stanton in mind, knowing that Johnson was itching to dismiss him, that the Tenure in Office Act was passed.  With Stanton’s firing, without Senate approval, the House of Representatives voted to impeach—or formally accuse of a public official for committing “high crimes and misdemeanors”—Johnson.  Ultimately, the Senate—who tries impeachment hearings to find out if the official is guilty—was only one vote short from being removed.  Disgraced, Johnson didn’t run for president in the next election.  The next president was Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant.

See also:  Reconstruction

BEFORE: 16 – Lincoln          AFTER: 18 – Grant

Leave a Reply