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.
A few months after the battle over the Freedmen’s Bureau charter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 . The act guaranteed citizenship to all Americans regardless of race (except, in an unfortunate irony, Native Americans) and secured former slaves the right to own property, sue, testify in court, and sign legal contracts. President Johnson vetoed this bill as well, but Radical Republicans managed to secure enough votes to override it.
Shortly after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Congress drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ensure that the 1866 act would have its intended power. Although the amendment did not give former slaves the right to vote, it guaranteed citizenship to all males born in the United States, regardless of race. Republicans in Congress specified that southern states had to ratify the amendment before they could reenter the Union. In 1868, enough states ratified, and the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment were milestones in the fight to give former slaves equal rights. The Civil Rights Act was the first piece of congressional legislation to override state laws and protect civil liberties. More important, it reversed the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated that blacks were not citizens, effectively legalizing slavery. In giving former slaves citizenship, the Civil Rights Act also gave them—at least in theory—equal protection under the law.
The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed that from that point onward, no one in the United States—even a Supreme Court justice or president—could deny a black person citizenship rights on the basis of racial inequality. Constitutional law stood in the way. Of course, true equality did not happen in a day; the first real steps would not be taken for another hundred years. But the Fourteenth Amendment was a significant start.
Many southern whites were angered by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment. Angry mobs took to the streets in communities throughout the South, and riots erupted in Memphis and New Orleans, leaving many innocent blacks dead. The violence shocked many northerners, who accused President Johnson of turning a blind eye. The president, in turn, placed the blame on Radical Republicans in Congress during his infamous “Swing Around the Circle,” in which he traveled throughout the country giving speeches that lambasted Republicans, pro-war Democrats, and blacks. Rather than drum up support, however, Johnson’s coarse rhetoric hurt the Democratic Party’s credibility and persuaded many northerners to vote Republican in the congressional elections of 1866.
Ironically, the southern race riots and Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle” tour convinced northerners that Congress was not being harsh enough toward the postwar South. Many northerners were troubled by the presidential pardons Johnson had handed out to Confederates, his decision to strip the Freedmen’s Bureau of its power, and the fact that blacks were essentially slaves again on white plantations. Moreover, many in the North believed that a president sympathetic to southern racists and secessionists could not properly reconstruct the South. As a result, Radical Republicans overwhelmingly beat their Democratic opponents in the elections of 1866, ending Presidential Reconstruction and ushering in the era of Radical Reconstruction.