After sweeping the elections of 1866, the Radical Republicans gained almost complete control over policymaking in Congress. Along with their more moderate Republican allies, they gained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and thus gained sufficient power to override any potential vetoes by President Andrew Johnson. This political ascension, which occurred in early 1867, marked the beginning of Radical Reconstruction (also known as Congressional Reconstruction).
Congress began the task of Reconstruction by passing the First Reconstruction Act in March 1867. Also known as the Military Reconstruction Act or simply the Reconstruction Act, the bill reduced the secessionist states to little more than conquered territory, dividing them into five military districts, each governed by a Union general. Congress declared martial law in the territories, dispatching troops to keep the peace and protect former slaves.
Congress also declared that southern states needed to redraft their constitutions, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and provide suffrage to blacks in order to seek readmission into the Union. To further safeguard voting rights for former slaves, Republicans passed the Second Reconstruction Act, placing Union troops in charge of voter registration. Congress overrode two presidential vetoes from Johnson to pass the bills.
The murderous Memphis and New Orleans race riots of 1866 proved that Reconstruction needed to be declared and enforced, and the Military Reconstruction Act jump-started this process. Congress chose to send the military, creating “radical regimes” throughout the secessionist states. Radical Republicans hoped that by declaring martial law in the South and passing the Second Reconstruction Act, they would be able to create a Republican political base in the seceded states to facilitate their plans for Radical Reconstruction. Though most southern whites hated the “regimes” that Congress established, they proved successful in speeding up Reconstruction. Indeed, by 1870 all of the southern states had been readmitted to the Union.
Though Radical Reconstruction was an improvement on President Johnson’s laissez-faire Reconstructionism, it had its ups and downs. The daily lives of blacks and poor whites changed little. While Radicals in Congress successfully passed rights legislation, southerners all but ignored these laws. The newly formed southern governments established public schools, but they were still segregated and did not receive enough funding. Black literacy rates did improve, but marginally at best.
In addition to the Reconstruction Acts, Congress also passed a series of bills in 1867 to limit President Johnson’s power, one of which was the Tenure of Office Act. The bill sought to protect prominent Republicans in the Johnson administration by forbidding their removal without congressional consent. Although the act applied to all officeholders whose appointment required congressional approval, Republicans were specifically aiming to keep Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in office, because Stanton was the Republicans’ conduit for controlling the U.S. military. Defiantly, Johnson ignored the act, fired Stanton in the summer of 1867 (while Congress was in recess), and replaced him with Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Afraid that Johnson would end Military Reconstruction in the South, Congress ordered him to reinstate Stanton when it reconvened in 1868. Johnson refused, but Grant resigned, and Congress put Edwin M. Stanton back in office over the president’s objections.