Andrew Johnson - Johnson's task



With Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, the Civil War to all intents and purposes ended, leaving in its wake over six hundred thousand dead Union and Confederate soldiers, a devastated and demoralized South, and an exultant and dominant North. The great issue now was Reconstruction. The Union was preserved and slavery was destroyed. But by what process and under what terms would the seceded states come back into the Union? And what would be the future legal, political, and social status of blacks? Johnson faced the task of dealing with these questions; on his success or failure in doing so depended the success or failure of his presidency.

During the war both Lincoln and Congress had wrestled with Reconstruction. In 1863, Lincoln instituted in Louisiana and Arkansas a program whereby 10 percent of the voters, on taking an oath of allegiance, could form state governments and elect congressmen; once the latter were seated, these states again would be in the Union. The Republican majority in Congress, feeling that the Ten Percent Plan was inadequate and overly lenient, refused to seat the congressmen elected under it and declared that Reconstruction should be carried out by the legislative, rather than the executive, branch.

In July 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill, which disfranchised all high-ranking Confederates, required 50 percent of the voters in a rebel state to take a loyalty oath before elections could be held, and made abolition of slavery a condition for read-mission to the Union. Lincoln in turn pocket vetoed this measure on the grounds that Reconstruction policy should be flexible—that is, carried out by the president. Finally, to confuse matters even more, just before his death Lincoln hinted that with the coming of peace he might take a different approach to Reconstruction, one in which voting rights would be given to blacks who had served in the Union army or who were "very intelligent."

Thus, April 1865 found the government without an established Reconstruction policy and with the Republicans divided over what the policy should be. One faction, the Radical Republicans, of whom Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania were the outstanding spokesmen, contended that the Confederate leaders should be punished severely, that the rebel states should not be restored to the Union until their future loyalty was assured, and that blacks should receive full civil and political rights both as an act of justice and as a means of securing Unionist (that is, Republican) domination of the South.

Another faction, the Moderate Republicans, was primarily concerned about preventing secessionist leaders from returning to power in the South and about keeping the Democrats from regaining their pre-1861 control of the government. They favored securing for blacks their basic personal and civil rights but were hesitant about granting them political rights. They were more numerous and powerful than the Radicals, particularly in Congress.

Finally, there were the Conservative Republicans, who saw no need to go beyond what the war had already achieved—salvation of the Union and emancipation of the slaves—and who therefore believed that the southern states should be readmitted quickly and that the fate of the blacks should be left to the indefinite future. Although weak in Congress, the Conservatives were strong in the cabinet that Johnson inherited from Lincoln—notably in the secretary of state, the highly experienced and astute William H. Seward. In contrast, only one influential member of the cabinet, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, was sympathetic to the Radicals.

The differences between the Radicals and Moderates were essentially ones of timing and degree, but the Conservatives had more in common with the Democrats. Bitter over their loss of national power in 1860, the Democrats wanted to bring the southern states back into the Union as soon as possible, confi-dent that this would bring their party back to power. Moreover, having opposed emancipation, they likewise opposed "Negro equality"; as far as they were concerned, the status of the former slave should be determined by the former master.



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