Podcast # 26: Reconstruction and the Presidency of Andrew Johnson


The time period of Reconstruction is from 1865-1877. The majority of the south was in ruins. There was so much that needed to be done Politically, Socially and Economically. Imagine looking at a large glass vase that has fallen and shattered into hundreds and thousands of pieces. Where do you begin? How do you put this back together in a way that it functions, can you repair it in a way where you can’t tell that it had been broken apart? 12 years wasn’t nearly enough time. Reconstruction ends not because the work they had set out to complete was finished. Reconstruction ends because it was politically necessary for it to end in order for the Republican party to maintain control over the executive branch.

When the civil war ended in 1865, Lincoln had already made his plan known for how former Confederate states would be readmitted to the Union. Hi plan was a lenient one. A Plan that sought to bring the states back into the Union as quickly as possible.

Lincoln’s Plan is sometimes referred to as the 10% Plan

  1. Amnesty would be given to those willing to take an oath of loyalty to the US. (high ranking Confederate officials were excluded)
  2. Had to promise to support the US Constitution and ratify the 13th amendment
  3. Once 10% of the population that voted in the 1860 election took the loyalty oath in a state, that state could organize a new government.

Lincoln supported voting rights for some freedmen – if they were educated and owned property. The Radical Republicans wanted all black men given the right to vote.

The Wade-Davis Bill proposed 50% of white males take an amnesty oath before new state constitutions could be written, equal protection under the law for freed blacks. Lincoln vetoed the bill.

Prior to the end of the Civil War, when Lincoln was reelected, Republicans chose Andrew Johnson, a southern democratic senator from Tennessee that had remained in the union. It was a symbolic gesture – showing the south that the North would work with them. Andrew Johnson was never meant to be President of The United States, but fate had different plans. When Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth and died the next day on April 15, 1865, just days after Gen. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, a southern democrat was now in charge of Reconstruction. The stage was set for a power struggle between the new President and the Radical Republicans. Johnson was seen as being too lenient on the south by the republicans and a traitor to the south by democrats. Johnson couldn’t win.

When it comes to Reconstruction, there are certain terms that are essential to understanding this time period. Antebellum – Pre Civil War, – Carpetbaggers were northerners who moved to the south after the civil war hoping to profit from the social, economic and political conditions of the south. This could have been former union soldiers, businessmen looking to make a profit, reformers looking to improve the conditions of freedmen. Scalawags – just the word itself sounds terrible it was a term used to describe an old useless horse– scalawags were southern republicans. In the eyes of southerners these were traitors because they supported Reconstruction policies instead of actively opposing them.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are referred to as The Civil War amendments and we talk more about each of them.

Andrew Johnson like Lincoln was born in a log cabin. His family was originally from North Carolina but moved to Tennessee. His family was poor. His father died when he was three and when he got older his mother hired him out as an apprentice. Johnson despised working as an apprentice, so much so that he ran away. Which posed a problem because he was legally bound to stay. There was actually a reward for his return. The family moved to Tennessee and he opened a tailor shop and built himself a lucrative business. His shop still stands and is a museum today in Greenville Tennessee. He never attended school. He taught himself how to read and write. At the age of 18 he married the daughter of local business man. Andrew and Eliza Johnson had a happy marriage. They had 5 children and she helped him further his education. He read constantly and often participated in debates with his customers. Born poor he had worked and saved up enough to buy himself a home and even a handful of slaves. He didn’t own a plantation. Instead, the enslaved members of his household worked at domestic servants in his home. AS a slave owner, records indicate he was somewhat of a father figure to them. Now, that’s certainly a description that doesn’t tell the whole story. If people are being enslaved and kept against their will, it’s not A relationship of loving father to his devoted children. It is still a relationship of someone who owns another human being. A man who despised the wealthy aristocracy of the south, had kept up with the joneses as we would say. He referred to the southern white aristocracy as a slaveocracy. He got involved in local politics and held a number of different positions. His support base was built around gaining support from poor southern whites. Non slave holding whites. They had needs for basics – schools, jobs for example. In the south the majority of labor was done by slaves. So there is this layer of racism there. That even though they were poor, they were white and they felt their whiteness held them in a higher status that southern blacks and the enslaved population. He was a mayor a member of The Tennessee Legislature, a member of the House of Representatives (serving at the same time as Abraham Lincoln), Gov of Tennessee, and served in the US Senate. When he remained with the union after his state seceded, his property was confiscated and his wife and children were forced to flee. He was appointed Military general of Tennessee by President Lincoln before being made Vice President. When he was sworn in as Vice President, he was drunk. He gave this rambling speech, couldn’t remember people’s names, he had to be pulled down into a chair to get him to stop speaking. He was so drunk that he was unable to do his job and had to go home. Not a promising start, but the job of VP was still one that had very little meaning. He was never meant to be President. Imagine the reaction of Republicans when Lincoln was Assassinated and Johnson became President! Johnson was a southerner, with southern views. He was a former slave owner. Only freeing his slaves, months after the emancipation proclamation was issued while he was the military gov. of Tennessee. This once indentured servant was now President of the United States. Johnson took the oath of office in the parlor of the hotel where he had been staying. There would be no grandiose inauguration or address to a large crowd. In fact, he wouldn’t move into the white for a number of weeks. Mary Lincoln took her time moving out. He worked in an office in The Treasury Department before moving into the White House.

Congress was not in session when Johnson became President. Johnson was a believer in states’ rights and a strict constructionist when it came to the Constitution. His plan for Reconstruction was similar to Lincoln’s. He took advantage of Congress’ absence and quickly got moving, much to the dismay of Republicans who assumed he would do their bidding. They were wrong.

Johnson’s Plan for Reconstruction: was similar to Lincoln’s - Had to take a loyalty oath, state constitution’s had to abolish slavery, approve the 13th amendment and declare secession illegal. Johnson mandated that high ranking confederate officials and wealthy white southerners who owned property worth more than 20,000 dollars had to personally request amnesty from him. Now, if you know anything about Andrew Johnson, he despised the wealthy white class. He blamed them for the war. They looked down on Johnson as a commoner and a traitor to the south, if they wanted amnesty, they had to gravel to him for it. He pardoned about 90% of the people who requested it. Based on Johnson’s Plan, the majority of southern states had fulfilled these requirements by the end of 1865, but Congress refused to recognize their representatives. The Legislative Branch was intent on controlling Reconstruction.

Imagine if you will a tug of war between President Johnson and the Republican members of Congress.

For many white southerners, they looked at what happened to their country, their land, their sons, their former wealth (it would take an entire generation to help build back the economy of the south) their property that in their minds was stolen from them through emancipation and blamed the North. Forgiveness was not something they were seeking nor were they ready to forgive the north.

In the Pre-Civil War South or what we call the Antebellum South, one’s whiteness was a sign of superiority. I mentioned in our Civil War podcasts that the majority of Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves. So why were they fighting? It’s a very complex answer. If you look at the Lost Cause narrative – the southern argument that the civil war was justified so as to save the southern way of life. States’ rights – but understand it was the states’ rights to preserve slavery. The depictions of slavery in the south were always positive. The enslaved people of the south were happy, they were incapable of anything more. If you look at what was being preached throughout southern churches about secession and the need to preserve slavery, ideas of racial equality and how it would threaten southern society were being used to scare people and to gain further support for the cause, discussions of interracial marriages etc. When the Civil war ended and now there are 4 million newly freed people, they are talks of citizenship, and voting rights, black men elected to political office, the drive to protect white superiority went into high gear. So while most confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves, they were fighting to protect the south that they knew and loved, the were fighting to maintain the status quo. In their minds, for even the poorest of the white southerners their whiteness held them above blacks and they wanted to maintain that social hierarchy. So what do we see happening in the post-civil war south: we see the creation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, we see the passage of the black codes that sought to limit the rights and protections of newly freed citizens, we see slavery replaced with the systems of sharecropping and tenant farming which was basically slavery by another name, we see the age of Jim Crow.

In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee and by 1870, chapters existed in almost every southern state. Former Confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forrest was made the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. The KKK used violence to intimidate newly freedmen from exercising their rights. Klansmen destroyed property, beat and killed people. Their goal was to restore white supremacy in the south. The Federal government attempted to limit them by passing Enforcement Acts in the 1870s. These acts would be repealed in the 1890s and the KKK would go on to gain momentum in the early 1900s, target additional groups of people and still exists today.

Black Codes were passed in many southern states. The purpose of these laws were to restrict the rights and opportunities of Freedmen. Some examples of these laws just to give you an idea – can’t quit their job, if they did, they had to work for free for a year

No intermarriage with whites

Couldn’t serve on juries

Segregated public facilities.

The Black Codes passed in Mississippi were especially restrictive and harsh.

The Radical Republicans were members of both the Senate and House of Representatives and shared similar goals for Reconstruction. Radical Republicans supported immediate emancipation (which they disagreed with Lincoln on throughout the Civil War), citizenship and equal protection of the law for newly freed black men and women and lastly, voting rights for black males. Radical Republican wanted the south punished. They wanted freed blacks to have more rights, especially for black men to have the right to vote. They saw this extension of voting rights as a way to maintain their control over the federal government. Some famous Radical Republicans were Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner.

While most Republicans in Congress were Moderates, President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes of key pieces of legislation lead to moderates joining in with the Radical Republicans to override his vetoes, impeach the president and seize control over Reconstruction.

Johnson issued 21 vetoes. More than any other President before him. So the battle of who was going to control Reconstruction policies was a contentious one. Congress overrode many of his vetoes, especially when the Radical Republicans gained a majority in the Legislative Branch.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was created in 1865 to help both newly freed slaves and poor whites of the south. It provided these groups with food, housing, medical care, legal aid, education. You have 4 million former slaves that need to be reintegrated into society. No or very limited education, no place to live, if married, most marriages weren’t legal, you may need to find relatives who had been sold. The Bureau tried to help secure jobs, even to redistribute land confiscated from former Confederates. The Bureau was first created before the Civil War ended. In 1866, Congress sought to extend the Freedmen’s Bureau. Johnson Vetoed the bill but after reworking the bill and a second Veto by Johnson, Congress overrode his Veto and passed the Bill extending the Bureau for two more years. Johnson vetoed the bill saying it was a large expense that only helped a certain group of people and that it gave the federal government control over things that states should have the right to control. There was some debate over this agency. If they are free, let them be free and not depend on the federal government on the flip side you have to look at the opposing argument – here is a population of 4 million people who have been denied basic human rights – no education, no property or place to live, no money, they needed and deserved help. The agency was run by former Union General Oliver Otis Howard who went on to help found Howard University one of the most famous Historically Black Colleges and served as its President.

It lacked the necessary funding to complete the work the Bureau sought to do throughout the southern and border states.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 This law was revolutionary in a number of different ways. It was the first time the federal government dealt with the issue of civil rights. It took two attempts to pass this law. Johnson disliked it so much he vetoed it twice. Once the first time the bill was put forth in 1865 and once when it was reworked and put forth in 1866 when it was ultimately passed.

"all persons born in the United States," with the exception of American Indians, were "hereby declared to be citizens of the United States." The law goes on to say that “all citizens the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.”

This law defined what citizenship meant and that all people, regardless of race should be have equal protection under the law.

Reconstruction Act of 1867 ushered in the age of Radical Reconstruction

  1. The majority of voters had to take a loyalty oath
  2. Each state government had to outlaw slavery
  3. Former Confederate officials were banned from voting for state governments
  4. Southern states with the exception of Tennessee, (Tennessee had already ratified the 14th amendments and met most of the requirements) were divided into 5 military districts until they complied with the demands and could reenter the union. Each district was controlled by a general – they had the power to remove any state official and to overrule any state law. Military troops ensured laws were enforced and provided much needed protection for freedmen. Virginia had its own district and was readmitted in 1870, North & South Carolina made up District # 2 and were readmitted in 1868. In military district 3 you have Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Alabama & Florida were readmitted in 1868, but Georgia did not reenter until 1870 – in fact, it was the last one to reenter the union. In Military district 4 you have Arkansas and Mississippi The 5th military district consisted of Louisiana and Texas.
  5. States had to ratify the 14th Amendment – what people know most about the 14th amendment was the it granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States or naturalized. It also did a number of other things – section 2 dealt with how the population of each state would be counted to determine representatives in the house of representatives – no longer would the 3/5 compromise rule be used. – section 4 – stipulated that the federal government would never pay war debts owed by the Confederacy.
  6. Black males had to be given the right to vote. Now that the whole number of state’s population was going to be counted towards representation – black males needed to be able to vote 1. To prevent former confederate officials from gaining power 2. To be able to elect people who will help protect their rights 3. To ensure continued support for the Republican party. The 15th amendment will eventually be added to the Constitution which we will talk more about in the next podcast.

The Republicans were victorious in that the majority of elected positions were filled with Republicans and a number of African American males were elected to Congress – 15 members of the House of Representatives and two senators.

The first African American Senator was Hiram Revels – free born and worked to recruit black regiments during the civil war. He was selected by the state legislature to represent the state of Mississippi – he held the same position that former Confederate President Jefferson Davis once held. In 1874, Mississippi would have its second African American Senator and the first to serve a full term. With the abrupt end to Reconstruction in 1877, there would not be another Black Senator elected to Congress until 1967.

The Tenure of Office Act was passed in 1868. This law prohibited the President from firing any Presidential appointee that had to be confirmed by the senate without first getting approval for their removal. Typically, these positions serve at the pleasure of the president. If the president wanted a member of their cabinet gone, all they need to do is ask for their resignation. This law was passed to protect Republican appointees, especially Sec. of War, Edwin Stanton, a republican and as Sec of War was in charge of carrying out Reconstruction policies. Johnson hated him and wanted him gone. Johnson also felt the law was Unconstitutional.

This law sets the stage for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment – the first of any President and wouldn’t happen again until President Bill Clinton and more recently with President Trump.

After the Tenure of Office Act was passed in March of 1867.

President Andrew Johnson asked Sec. of War Stanton to resign; he refused. Johnson then suspended him and appointed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as an interim acting Sec. of War. President Johnson submitted proof to the Senate as to why Sec. Stanton was suspended. The senate declared that Stanton had to remain in office.

By Feb of 1868 Now, Johnson had enough – he fired Stanton. Stanton still doesn’t leave – he actually goes as far as locking himself in his office for weeks and refused to leave.

A few days later, The House of Representatives voted to impeach Andrew Johnson. We did an entire podcast on how the President is elected and how the President can be removed from office if need be. So the process begins in the House of Representatives and the Senate then holds the trial. The Chief

Justice of The Supreme Court acts as the judge and the members of the Senate as the jury. 2/3 of the senate must vote yes in order for the President to be removed from office.

If you go to Senate.gov, you can see all 11 articles of impeachment that Johnson was charged with. Johnson did not appear at the senate trial. He also didn’t have a Vice President and as such had he been removed from office, the President Pro Tempor of the senate would have become President had he not been acquitted.

Johnson received 35 guilty votes and 19 not guilty votes. He was 1 vote shy of being removed from office. Only after Johnson was acquitted, Did Sec. of War Edwin Stanton leave his post. The Act was repealed in 1887 and deemed unconstitutional in 1926 in a Supreme Court Case. It also set an important standard that the President shouldn’t be removed from office because members of legislative branch disagreed with policy. Members of the legislative branch wanted the vote to be close, but didn’t feel Johnson should be removed from office.

Johnson remained in office and finished the last few months of his term. While he was constantly at odds with the Legislative Branch during his time as President, and Reconstruction dominated his Presidency, it is important to note a major foreign policy achievement that occurred during his Presidency. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for 7.2 Million dollars. Sec. of State William H. Seward helped to broker the deal. The amount accounted to 2.5 cents an acre. The purchase was important as it rid the continent of a major foreign power. The Russians never built permanent settlements there and did very little with it, as did the US for many years after the purchase. Some critics referred to the purchased as Seward’s Folly or Seward’s ice box. When gold was found in Alaska in the late 1890s, that of course changed. The purchase of Alaska was essential in increasing the US’ ability to trade in the pacific and it is rich in natural resources. Alaska would go on to become a state in 1959. In the election of 1868, Johnson was not nominated by any party. The Republicans nominated General Ulysses S. Grant who would go on to win and Reconstruction policies continued during his Presidency.

If you were to ask most historians to rank the Presidents from best to worst, you would find that Andrew Johnson would be at the bottom or in the bottom three. Legacy wise, you have a white southerner who sided with the union during the civil war, was made Vice President as a symbolic gesture, that symbolic gesture became an accidental president due to assassination. He is a rags to riches story if there ever was one. A once indentured servant had become President of The United States. Politically, his impeachment weakened the office of the President for decades. He was a former slave owner and in a number of public speeches made blatantly racist comments; Even in addresses to Congress as President. His vetoes of essential bills that would have aided millions of newly freed men and women in the south are evidence enough to his views on equality. He was combative and unwilling to entertain ideas that were different from his own. Lincoln was a tough act to follow, it would have been for anyone. The task of Reconstruction would have been overwhelming for any President. Most historians would argue that Andrew Johnson was especially unequal to the task. After his Presidency ended he returned to his home in Greenville, Tennessee. He was elected Senator in 1875 and is the only former President to serve in the Senate. His victory was short lived, he only served a few months into his term when he died. As per his request, Andrew Johnson was buried with an American flag and a copy of the Constitution. Today, in Greenville Tennessee, there is a museum dedicated to the 17th President. You can see his tailor shop, his home and visit his gravesite. Andrew Johnson was buried on his own property at the top of a hill. Also per his request. It was willed to the federal government after his last daughter died and is now a National Cemetery.

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