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Reconstruction, Congress vs. Johnson

Congressional Reconstruction, Presidential Reconstruction, black suffrage, Reconstruction Act, President Andrew Johnson

The process of reconstruction (the process by which the divided nation was reunited) had in fact begun in 1863 when President Lincoln announced a plan to restore the Southern states to the Union. Radical Republicans in Congress opposed Lincolnís plan. After Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, they turned hopefully to President Andrew Johnson. In May 1865 Johnson announced his restoration plan, called Presidential Reconstruction. His plan disqualified former Confederate civil and military officers from holding office but brought the ex-Confederate states back into the Union on undemanding terms.

Presidential Reconstruction took effect in the summer of 1865. Johnson gave pardons to thousands of Southerners, and former Confederate states passed ďblack codesĒ that curtailed the freed slavesí rights. Enraged Republicans united in opposition to Johnson, denouncing the black codes and the president. When the 39th Congress, dominated by Republicans, convened in December 1865, Republicans planned to revoke the black codes and to replace Johnsonís program.

In 1866 they passed two laws over the presidentís vetoes: the Civil Rights Act to protect the rights of freed slaves and an act that extended the life of the Freedmenís Bureau. The bureau was designed as a relief organization for blacks and whites who were left destitute by the war. It also helped blacks by establishing schools, supervising labor relations, and protecting them from violence and intimidation.

Johnsonís vetoes provoked Republicans to pass the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed the civil rights of all citizens, whatever their race, and restricted the political power of former Confederates. Johnson denounced the proposed amendment because he believed it was an unconstitutional invasion of statesí rights. After the congressional elections of 1866, Republicans maintained enough power to pass their own reconstruction program.

In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, followed by three supplemental acts passed later the same year and in 1868. These acts invalidated the state governments formed under Lincolnís and Johnsonís plans and divided the ex-Confederacy into five military districts. The acts also provided that votersóall black men and white men not disqualified by the 14th Amendmentócould elect delegates to write new state constitutions that ensured black male suffrage. A state could be readmitted to the Union once it had met a series of requirements, including ratification of the 14th Amendment. Black enfranchisement made Congressional Reconstruction more radical than Johnsonís plan. Still, even Congressional Reconstruction provided only a temporary period of military rule, and it did not take property away from former Confederates or punish them for treason.

When President Johnson tried to block the new Reconstruction laws, Republicans again united, this time in order to remove him from office. The House approved 11 charges of impeachment, but Johnson escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote. Congress then passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed black suffrage. Womenís rights advocates complained that the new amendment ignored their demands for enfranchising women, but to Republican leaders the woman suffrage issue was not vital. Black suffrage, in contrast, was imperative: Only with the votes of African Americans could Republicans control the former Confederate states.

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