Lincoln’s assassination seemingly gave Radical Republicans in Congress the clear path they needed to implement their plan for Reconstruction. The new president, Andrew Johnson, had seemed supportive of punitive measures against the South in the past: he disliked the southern planter elite and believed they had been a major cause of the Civil War. But Johnson surprised Radical Republicans by consistently blocking their attempts to pass punitive legislation.
Johnson, a Democrat, preferred a stronger state government (in relation to the federal government) and believed in the doctrine of laissez- faire , which stated that the federal government should stay out of the economic and social affairs of its people. Even after the Civil War, Johnson believed that states’ rights took precedence over central authority, and he disapproved of legislation that affected the American economy. He rejected all Radical Republican attempts to dissolve the plantation system, reorganize the southern economy, and protect the civil rights of blacks.
Although Johnson disliked the southern planter elite, his actions suggest otherwise: he pardoned more people than any president before him, and most of those pardoned were wealthy southern landowners. Johnson also shared southern aristocrats’ racist point of view that former slaves should not receive the same rights as whites in the Union. Johnson opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau because he felt that targeting former slaves for special assistance would be detrimental to the South. He also believed the bureau was an example of the federal government assuming political power reserved to the states, which went against his pro–states’ rights ideology.
Like Lincoln, Johnson wanted to restore the Union in as little time as possible. While Congress was in recess, the president began implementing his plans, which became known as Presidential Reconstruction. He returned confiscated property to white southerners, issued hundreds of pardons to former Confederate officers and government officials, and undermined the Freedmen’s Bureau by ordering it to return all confiscated lands to white landowners. Johnson also appointed governors to supervise the drafting of new state constitutions and agreed to readmit each state provided it ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Hoping that Reconstruction would be complete by the time Congress reconvened a few months later, he declared Reconstruction over at the end of 1865.
Radical and moderate Republicans in Congress were furious that Johnson had organized his own Reconstruction efforts in the South without their consent. Johnson did not offer any security for former slaves, and his pardons allowed many of the same wealthy southern landowners who had held power before the war to regain control of the state governments. To challenge Presidential Reconstruction, Congress established the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in late 1865, and the committee began to devise stricter requirements for readmitting southern states.
Early in 1866, Congress voted to renew the charter that had created the Freedmen’s Bureau, in retaliation for the fact that Johnson had stripped the bureau of its power. Congress also revised the charter to include special legal courts that would override southern courts. Johnson, however, vetoed the renewed Freedmen’s Bureau, once again using the states’ rights argument that the federal government should not deprive the states of their judicial powers. Johnson also claimed that it was not the federal government’s responsibility to provide special protection for blacks. Although Congress’s first attempt to override the veto failed, a second attempt succeeded in preserving the bureau. The bureau was weakened, however, and Congress finally terminated it in 1872.