Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans

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Andrew Johnson

The death of Lincoln elevated Andrew Johnson to the presidency, allowing him to follow a lenient policy of restoration toward the South in defiance of the radicals.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 ushered in a new set of issues that separated the Executive branch from Congress. How was the defeated and occupied South to be reconstructed? Presidential reconstruction had begun before the end of the war under Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s policy was best summarized in the last paragraph of his Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” But Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 and would be unable to “bind the nation’s wounds.” His successor was a Southerner, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee.

Andrew Johnson and Restoration

Andrew Johnson was picked as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 as an act of unity. Although poorly educated, Johnson had been a U.S. Senator – the only one from the South not to resign in 1861, and Military Governor of Tennessee during the Union occupation. And he was a Democrat. But Johnson was also a firm believer in states’ rights, vigorously opposed black suffrage, and harbored an intense hatred of the pre-war Southern plantation aristocracy.

Johnson assumed the presidency in the absence of Congress, which would not meet again until December. During the intervening months, Johnson put into place his own reconstruction policies, called “restoration,” and viewed as extremely lenient by many Northern political leaders. Under his plan, Southern states elected Congressional representatives without the iron-clad restrictions of the Radical Republicans, in many cases men who had been part of the pre-war political system.

By July 1865, Thaddeus Stevens, who would soon become the undisputed leader of the Radical Republicans in the House, wrote the president, expressing his concerns. Receiving no answer, he delivered a speech in early September, accusing Johnson of “assuming the powers of Congress.” Senator Charles Sumner attacked Johnson in a similar speech on September 15th, asserting that “the barbarism of slavery still rages…” in the South.

The 39th and 40th Congress

Thaddeus Stevens formed a 15-member Congressional Joint Committee to deal with Southern reconstruction. Its first act was to reject the credentials of Southern representatives elected under Johnson’s plan. The Committee held extensive hearings into the mistreatment of freedmen and the functioning of Southern “Black Codes.” The outraged members concluded that the humbled South was once again acting arrogantly and with insolence.

On February 19th, Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill designed to extend and strengthen the popular Freedmen’s Bureau. Although Johnson cited numerous reasons for the veto, his ultimate conclusion was that it was unconstitutional, to which Sumner later replied, “whatever is needed…is constitutional.” According the historians specializing in Reconstruction, Johnson was a strict-constructionist of the Constitution.

Andrew Johnson, during his brief tenure, issued 29 vetoes of which 15 were overridden by Congress. No president before him had handed down that many vetoes. Despite taking his case to the people in the late summer in 1866 through a railroad trip that stopped at many large Northern cities, voters in the 1866 mid-term election replaced moderate Republicans with Radicals. Voters recalled the terrible riots in Memphis and New Orleans earlier that year, evidence that restoration was the wrong policy.

Johnson’s Political Isolation

The 40th Congress was veto-proof and would enact various measures to emasculate white supremacy in the South, including the Reconstruction Acts, Civil Rights Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, in 1868, the Radicals impeached Andrew Johnson on 11 charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Johnson survived the impeachment, much to the chagrin of Senator Benjamin Wade who would have become the next president. Although restoration may have been too lenient, the Radical Republican policies took the other extreme. In the end, the newly freed African Americans of the South bore the brunt of unchecked emotionalism as the South, by 1877, “redeemed” itself from Northern “tyranny.”

Sources:

  1. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (HarperCollins, 1988)
  2. Page Smith, Trial By Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction Vol. 5 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982)
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