Johnson followed the North Carolina Proclamation with identical declarations for Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. During the summer and fall of 1865, all of these states held constitutional conventions. Through the provisional governors he appointed, Johnson directed each state to nullify its secession ordinance, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment by formally abolishing slavery, and repudiate its Confederate debt. South Carolina refused to carry out nullification, Mississippi balked at ratification, and neither of those states repudiated its debt.
Aware of Republican concern about blacks, Johnson also advised—but did not require—these states to "extend the electoral franchise to all persons of color" who could read, who could write their names, or who owned real estate worth at least $250, and to enact laws "for the protection of freedmen in person and property." By doing this, Johnson pointed out, they would "completely disarm the adversary"—by which he meant the Radicals—and greatly enhance their chances of quick readmission to the Union. It was excellent advice, but the southerners failed to heed it. The very idea of former slaves voting was repugnant to them, and they were resolved to restore by other means the "white supremacy" formerly guaranteed by slavery. Hence, none of the southern states so much as considered limited black suffrage; instead, they began enacting "black codes"—laws that provided some basic rights for blacks but had the effect, as well as the intent, of placing them in a position of legal, economic, and social subordination approaching peonage.
Nor was this all. During the fall of 1865 the South held state and congressional elections in which most of the successful candidates were men who had supported the Confederacy. Furthermore, many of the winners were ineligible to hold office under the terms of the Amnesty Proclamation, but by then, that made little practical difference. At first sparing in conferring pardons, Johnson was granting them almost automatically by the latter part of 1865. By doing so, he undermined his plan of transferring political power in the South to the "plebeian" class, but he advanced his presidential ambitions by gaining the goodwill of the former Confederate leaders, who obviously remained dominant in the South. In keeping with this alteration in his strategy, Johnson directed that lands confiscated from rebels during the war be returned to them, thereby dispossessing several thousand blacks who had been settled on them by the Union army.
Aside from Democrats and Conservative Republicans, northerners became increasingly disturbed by Johnson's program and its consequences. They resented the election of Confederate leaders to office, they considered the black codes an attempt to restore slavery, and they were angered by newspaper reports, sometimes exaggerated but sometimes quite accurate, of violent acts committed against blacks, Unionists, and northerners in the South. To them it seemed that the southerners were not displaying proper repentance for the sins of secession and slavery, that they remained disloyal at heart, and that they were attempting to undo the results of the war.
Most Republican politicians felt the same way. Furthermore, they feared that the newly elected southern senators and representatives would, by uniting with the northern Democratic members, threaten their control of Congress. Hence, when Congress, which had not been in session since March, reassembled early in December 1865, the Republican majority barred the southern congressmen from their seats and set up the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, headed by Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, to investigate conditions in the South and recommend appropriate legislation. In taking these actions, the Republicans signaled that they believed further Reconstruction measures were needed and that they intended to formulate them.
Congress' rejection of the southern delegates did not surprise Johnson, as newspapers had been predicting it for sometime, but he was angered by the establishment of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, deeming it a direct challenge not only to his Reconstruction policy but also to his authority as president. In his annual message to Congress, delivered on 5 December and ghostwritten by the historian George Bancroft, Johnson sought to rally public opinion behind his program by arguing that to continue military occupation of the South or to try to impose black suffrage on it was contrary to the Constitution and to the very concept of democracy, that the sole legitimate purpose of Reconstruction was the restoration and reconciliation of the southern people to the Union, that this now had been substantially accomplished, and that all that remained to be done to complete Reconstruction was to seat the congressmen from the former rebel states.
Public reaction to the message was, on the whole, favorable, and Johnson felt confident that eventually the Republicans would be compelled to admit the southern delegates or else place themselves in the ruinous position of keeping America divided. The only significant group that openly denounced Johnson for his handling of Reconstruction was the Radicals. Johnson endeavored to counteract them by releasing a report written by General Grant on conditions in the South in which Grant asserted that "the mass of thinking men in the South accept the present situation of affairs in good faith" and by stating in published interviews that giving blacks the vote against the will of the whites would produce a race war in the South.
For a while it seemed that Johnson's strategy would succeed. Then, early in February 1866, Congress, by unanimous vote of the Republicans, passed the Freedmen's Bureau bill. This measure extended indefinitely the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency created near the end of the war to provide aid, education, and legal protection for former slaves. Republican leaders not only hoped but expected Johnson to sign it. Anxious to avoid a split with the president that would play into the hands of the Democrats, they had gone to him prior to its passage and offered to change anything to which he had strong objections; he voiced none and they assumed he had none.
Hence, they and Republicans throughout the nation were stunned when, on 19 February, Johnson vetoed the bill. It was, he declared, unnecessary and unconstitutional; furthermore, it had been passed by a Congress that unjustly excluded the duly elected representatives of eleven states. In totally rejecting the bill, Johnson ignored the advice of some of his advisers, notably Secretary of State Seward, that he propose a compromise. Doing this, he feared, would cost him his recently acquired popularity in the South, where the Freedmen's Bureau was hated as the main obstacle to the restoration of white supremacy, and cause the Democrats to turn against him, thereby ruining his plan to form a new party. He realized that the Republicans would resent the veto, but he calculated that popular sentiment would oblige most of them to accept both it and his leadership.
On 20 February the Senate, by a vote of 30 to 18, failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto; three Moderate Republicans, hoping to forestall an open break with the president, joined eight Democrats and seven Conservatives to sustain it. Johnson exulted in the victory. Ignoring the thin margin by which it had been obtained, he believed that he had successfully defied the "Radicals," as he indiscriminately labeled all Republicans who were not Conservatives. On the evening of Washington's Birthday, he delivered from a White House balcony to a crowd of supporters a speech in which he excoriated his opponents in general, and Sumner and Stevens in particular, as traitors bent on subverting the Constitution and consolidating all power in the central government. So intemperate were his remarks that even friends were embarrassed, and most Northerners felt that he disgraced the presidency.
Less than three weeks later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Designed to protect blacks against the black codes and southern white terrorism, the bill declared them citizens of the United States entitled to equal protection of the laws and conferred broad enforcement powers on the federal government. As with the Freedmen's Bureau bill, Republican congressional leaders solicited Johnson's views on this measure and again got the impression that he found it acceptable. In spite of the Freedmen's Bureau bill veto and the Washington's Birthday tirade, Moderates still hoped to achieve harmony with the president and within the Republican party.
As before, their hope proved unfounded. On 27 March, Johnson delivered another stern veto. The civil rights bill, he declared, was an unconstitutional intrusion on states' rights and discriminated against whites in favor of blacks. No doubt he was sincere in making these assertions, but as in the case of the Freedmen's Bureau veto, he also was motivated by his desire to retain Democratic and southern support.
The veto outraged most northerners and turned all of the Moderate Republicans against Johnson. They concluded that he had gone over to the Democrats and that in alliance with them and the southerners he was endeavoring to destroy the Republican party. Hence, on 6 April the Senate overrode the veto by 33 to 15, and three days later the House did the same by 122 to 41. For the first time, a Congress had defeated a presidential veto.
Johnson's rejection of the civil rights bill was the greatest blunder of a presidency filled with blunders. Had he signed the bill or, as most of his advisers urged him to do, returned it to Congress with a request that its enforcement provisions be modified, he could have kept the Moderates and Radicals divided. Instead, he united them in opposition to him, thereby ruining any realistic chance of securing the early readmission of the southern states while setting in motion forces that would render him nearly impotent as president.
Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction had been conducting hearings and considering legislation. On 30 April—the same day a white mob began a three-day rampage against blacks in Memphis, Tennessee—the committee reported a constitutional amendment designed to make permanent the protections given by the Civil Rights Act. Two months of debate ensued, at the end of which Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are to be citizens and that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." In addition, the amendment provided for reducing the House representation of any state denying adult male citizens the vote, disfranchised former federal and state officials who engaged in rebellion, guaranteed the Union war debt, declared the Confederate debt void, and stated that "Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."
Like the Freedmen's Bureau bill (which, incidentally, Congress repassed in July, overriding another veto) and the Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment was a product of the Moderates, who beat back an effort by Sumner and Stevens to incorporate black suffrage per se. By adopting it, the Republicans in effect set forth the peace terms of the North and of Congress. Should the southern states ratify it, thereby indicating acceptance of equal civil rights for blacks, they would be readmitted forthwith to the Union. Should they reject it, then (the Republicans clearly implied) they could expect much more drastic treatment.
Johnson promptly denounced the amendment and called for its defeat. All of the former Confederate states, with one exception, either rejected it or took no action. The exception was Johnson's own Tennessee, which, under the almost dictatorial sway of Governor William ("Parson") Brownlow, ratified it against the will of its largely disfranchised citizens. The vast majority of southerners found the prospect of black legal and civil equality intolerable. Moreover, they believed, as did Johnson himself, that northerners would not impose on their fellow whites of the South something they themselves denied blacks in most of their states.