Reconstruction of the southern states followed the Civil War from 1865 to 1877, during which time, attempts were made to make the newly freed slaves citizens with civil rights and transform the 11 former Confederate states so that they could be readmitted to the Union.
A few hours after President Abraham Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee took the oath of office as President of the United States on April 15, 1865. Johnson had been given the second place on the Republican ticket in 1864, partly to reward him for his fidelity to the Union cause in the seceding state of Tennessee, and partly to save the Republican Party from the reproach of being called “sectional” in again choosing both its candidates from Northern states, as it had done in 1856 and 1860.
But, the selection of Johnson was most unfortunate. Many would say that he was coarse, violent, egotistical, obstinate, and vindictive, and of Lincoln’s splendid array of statesman-like virtues, he possessed only two, honesty and patriotism. Most would agree that over the next few years, he would display political ineptitude and an astonishing indifference toward the plight of the newly freed African-Americans. Unfortunately, his lack of tact, wisdom, and deference to the opinions of others was lacking at a time when they were sorely needed.
Armed resistance in the South was at an end. But the great question remained of how the North should use its victory. Except for a momentary wave of desire to avenge Lincoln’s murder by the execution of prominent “rebels,” there was no thought of inflicting on the Southern leaders the extreme punishment of traitors; but, there was the difficult problem of restoring the states of the secession to their former place in the Union.
What was their condition? Were they still states of the Union, in spite of their four years’ struggle to break away from it? Or, had they lost the rights of states, and become territories of the United States, subject to such governments as might be provided for them by the authorities at Washington? Or, was the South merely a “conquered province,” which had forfeited by its rebellion, even the right of protection by the national government, and which might be made to submit to such terms as the conquering North saw fit to impose?
Long before the close of the war, President Abraham Lincoln had answered these questions according to the theory he had held consistently from the day of the assault on Fort Sumter, South Carolina; namely, that not the states themselves, but, combinations of individuals in the states, too powerful to be dealt with by the ordinary process of the courts, had resisted the authority of the United States. He had therefore welcomed and nursed every manifestation of loyalty in the Southern states. He had recognized the representatives of the small Unionist population of Virginia, assembled at Alexandria within the Federal lines, as the true government of the state. He had immediately established a military government in Tennessee on the success of the Union arms there in the spring of 1862. He had declared, by a proclamation in December 1863, that as soon as 10% of the voters of any of the seceded states should form a loyal government and accept the legislation of Congress on the subject of slavery, he would recognize that government as legal. And, such governments had actually been set up in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana. However, Lincoln had not come to an agreement with Congress as to the final method of restoring the Southern states to their place in the Union. That question waited until the close of the war, and the awful pity is that when it came, Abraham Lincoln was no longer alive.
During the summer and autumn of 1865, when Congress was not in session, President Andrew Johnson proceeded to apply Lincoln’s plan to the states of the South, just as if it had been definitely settled that Congress was to have no part in their reconstruction. He appointed military governors in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. He ordered conventions to be held in those states, which repealed the ordinances of secession and framed new constitutions. State officers were elected and Legislatures were chosen, which repudiated the debts incurred during the war (except in South Carolina) and ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (except in Mississippi). When Congress met in December 1865, senators and representatives from the Southern states, which, but a few months before had been in rebellion against the authority of the United States, were waiting at the doors of the Capitol for admission to their seats.
However, Congress had good reasons for not permitting these men to participate in making laws for the Union, which they had so lately fought to destroy. In the first place, President Johnson had presumptuously assumed to himself, during the recess of Congress, the sole right to determine on what terms the seceded states should be restored to the Union. The President had the power of pardon, which he could extend to individuals as widely as he pleased. But the pardoning power did not give him the right to determine the political condition of the states which had made war against the Union.
Furthermore, the conduct of the Johnson administration in the autumn of 1865 was offensive to the North. Although the south accepted the 13th amendment, they passed very harsh laws against the freed slaves, which in some cases, came very near reducing them to the condition of slavery again. For example, “vagrancy” laws imposed a fine on any blacks who were wandering about without a permanent home, and, if a white man were to pay their fine, he could then compel him to work out his debt.
“Apprentice” laws assigned young African-Americans to “guardians,” who were often their former owners, and dictated that they should work without wages in return for their board and clothing. To the Southerners, these laws seemed to be only the necessary protection of the white population against the deeds of crime and violence to which a large, wandering, unemployed body of blacks might be tempted. Nearly 4,000,000 slaves had been suddenly liberated. Very few of them had any means for beginning a life of industrial freedom and many thought that miraculous prosperity was to be bestowed upon them without their effort, such as the plantations of their late masters being up among them. Unfortunately, these ideas were often encouraged by many low-minded broken-down politicians, who came from the North and posed as their guides and protectors and poisoning their minds against the only people who could really help them begin their new life of freedom — their old masters.
The people of the North, who had little or no realization of the tremendous social problem which the liberation of 4,000,000 freed slaves brought upon the South, regarded the ” black codes” of the Johnson administration of 1865, which forbade the blacks such freedom of speech, employment, assembly, and migration as they themselves had, as a proof of the defiant purpose of the South, to thrust the blacks back into their old positions of slavery. Therefore, the North determined that the Southern states should not be restored to their place in the Union until they gave better proof of an honest purpose to carry out the Thirteenth Amendment. The war for the abolition of slavery which had divided the Union had been too costly in men and money to allow its results to be jeopardized by the legislation of the Southern states.
A further offense in the eyes of the North was the sort of men whom the Southern states sent up to Washington in the winter of 1865 to take their places in Congress.
They were mostly prominent secessionists. Some had served as members of the Confederate Congress at Richmond; some as brigadier generals in the Confederate Army. Alexander Stephens, who had served as vice president of the Confederate, was sent by the legislature of Georgia to serve in the United States Senate. To the Southerners, it seemed perfectly natural to send their best talent to Congress. They would have searched in vain to find statesmen who had not been active in the Confederate cause. But, to the North, the appearance of these men in Washington seemed a piece of defiance and bravado on the part of the South; a boast that they had nothing to repent of, and that they had forfeited no privilege of leadership.