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.
House Republicans, tired of presidential vetoes that blocked Military Reconstruction, impeached Johnson by a vote of 126–47 for violating the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate then tried Johnson in May 1868 in front of a gallery of spectators. However, the prosecutors, two Radical Republicans from the House, were unable to convince a majority of senators to convict the president. Seven Republican senators sided with Senate Democrats, and the Republicans fell one vote shy of convicting Johnson.
Although Johnson did technically violate the Tenure of Office Act, the bill was passed primarily as a means to provoke Johnson and give Radical Republicans in Congress an excuse to get rid of him. Indeed, Johnson’s trial in Congress exposed the real reason that House Republicans impeached the president: he had ignored them in the process of crafting Reconstruction policies, and they wanted retaliation.
The Senate, however, acquitted Johnson, aware that a frivolous impeachment would have set a dangerous precedent. If Congress had removed a president from office simply on the basis of a power struggle between the president and Congress, they might have endangered the system of separation of powers—an integral part of U.S. government. Although Johnson had stubbornly opposed Congress, he had not violated the Constitution and was not guilty of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
In addition, another factor was the fact that, because Johnson had no vice president, the president pro tempore of the Senate was next in line for the presidency should Johnson be impeached. This man was a rather liberal Republican named Benjamin Wade, whose politics did not sit well with certain other senate Republicans. Some of these Republicans deemed the prospect of a Wade presidency just as unpalatable as the dangerous precedent of impeachment and thus voted with the Democrats to acquit Johnson.
The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments had abolished slavery and granted blacks citizenship, but blacks still did not have the right to vote. Radical Republicans feared that black suffrage might be revoked in the future, so they decided to amend the Constitution to solidify this right. They also believed that giving blacks the right to vote would weaken southern elites, who had regained political power in the South. In 1869, therefore, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, granting all American males the right to vote. Congress also required secessionist states that had not yet reentered the Union to ratify the amendment in order to rejoin. By 1870, three-quarters of the Union had ratified the amendment, and it became law.
After the amendment’s ratification, southern blacks flocked to the polls. By the beginning of 1868, more than 700,000 blacks (and nearly the same number of poor landless whites) had registered to vote. Not surprisingly, virtually all of them declared themselves Republicans, associating the Democratic Party with secession and slavery. Black civic societies and grassroots political organizations began to sprout up across the South, most led by prominent blacks who had been freedmen since before the Civil War.
Soon, black voters gained majorities in South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi and were able to facilitate Republican plans for Reconstruction. These voters elected many black politicians in the majority states and throughout the South: fourteen black politicians were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and two to the Mississippi State Senate. These new state governments funded the creation of roads, hospitals, prisons, and free public schools.
Prior to 1866, most Republicans had opposed black suffrage. Even the “Great Emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln, considered giving the right to vote only to blacks who were freedmen before the Civil War and those who had served in the Union Army. Most moderate Republicans saw freedmen suffrage as unnecessary until they realized that the Republican Party would never gain influence in the South unless blacks had the right to vote. Blacks would support the Republican Party en masse, so ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed Republicans this support.
Ironically, the Fifteenth Amendment also forced reluctant northern states to give blacks the right to vote. Even though most of the new postwar state constitutions in the South gave blacks the right to vote, many northern states refused to follow suit, because they considered universal manhood suffrage a solution unique to the South that was unnecessary in the North.
The amendment also granted voting rights to poor whites, especially in the South. Prior to the Civil War, landowners were the only social group who had the privilege to vote, excluding the majority of poor, landless whites from active political participation. The Fifteenth Amendment thus brought sweeping changes for blacks, poor whites, and politics in general in the United States.
The Fifteenth Amendment did not secure the right to vote for all Americans: women still did not have the right to vote, and leaders in the women’s suffrage movement felt betrayed by their exclusion from the amendment. Prior to the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement and the abolition movement had been closely related: both groups strived to achieve political and civil rights for the underrepresented in society.
After the Union victory, prominent women in the movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, saw a window of opportunity: they believed that with progressive, Unionist support in Congress, blacks and women would achieve enfranchisement. Radical Republicans in Congress believed otherwise. Republicans assumed that if Congress granted all men and women the right to vote, their party would lose support in both the South and North. As it turned out, women would have to wait almost fifty more years for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted them the right to vote.