Andrew Johnson - Reconstruction program

Paradoxically, both the Radicals and the Democrats welcomed Johnson's unexpected accession to the presidency. The latter hoped that Johnson, as a lifelong Democrat, would sympathize or even ally himself with their party. For their part the Radicals, who had considered Lincoln too conservative, believed that Johnson inclined to their viewpoint because of his frequent and vehement denunciations of secessionists as traitors who should be treated as such. Their confidence that the new president was "thoroughly radical" increased as he continued to advocate punishing the rebel leaders and when he repudiated an agreement made by Major General William T. Sherman with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston that had the effect of leaving Confederates in control of southern state governments.

On 29 May 1865, Johnson announced his Reconstruction program in the form of two proclamations. The Amnesty Proclamation pardoned all participants in the rebellion, restored their property except slaves, and required them to take a loyalty oath. It excluded from amnesty the upper-echelon leaders of the Confederacy and all persons possessing over $20,000 in taxable property. Such people would have to apply to the president for a restoration of their right to vote and hold office.

The other proclamation dealt with North Carolina, but its provisions set the pattern for all of the seceded states except Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where pro-Union governments already existed. It stated that the president would appoint a provisional governor who would summon a convention to draw up a new constitution, whereupon the state would resume its normal relationship to the Union. Only those men who had been eligible to vote in 1861 and who had taken the loyalty oath could vote for delegates to the constitutional convention; in other words, unpardoned rebels and all blacks were barred from the polls, although the convention or a subsequent state legislature could enfranchise the latter if it so desired.

Johnson's cabinet unanimously approved the proclamations, although the North Carolina one, as drafted by Secretary of War Stanton, originally left the way open for black suffrage. Taken together, they were in accordance with Lincoln's approach to Reconstruction in that they gave top priority to reconciling the North and South and looked to the speedy return of the seceded states to the Union. On the other hand, the disfranchisement clauses of the Amnesty Proclamation had more in common with the Wade-Davis bill than with the Ten Percent Plan, and the North Carolina Proclamation showed no trace of Lincoln's proposal to give the vote to at least some blacks.

Three interlocking motives prompted Johnson's Reconstruction program. First, like Lincoln, Johnson wanted to restore the southern states as functioning members of the Union as soon as possible. To him this was the supreme purpose of the Civil War, whereas the future status of blacks was a secondary matter that, for both constitutional and practical reasons, should be left to the states. Second, he wished to transfer political power in the South from the planter aristocracy to the "plebeian" democracy through the disfranchisement clauses of the Amnesty Proclamation. Black suffrage, as he saw it, would thwart the achievement of this objective, because the majority of blacks, even though free, would remain economically bound to the big planters and so would be controlled politically by that class. Third, he hoped to be elected president in 1868 in his own right by promoting what he was confident most Americans desired—sectional reconciliation—and opposing what he was sure few of them favored—black equality. This approach, he believed, would lead to the formation of a new political party that would combine the moderate majority in both sections; unify and dominate the nation; and, of course, look to him as its leader.

Johnson's proclamations delighted the northern Democrats, pleased Conservative Republicans, and relieved southerners, who had expected the worst from the Tennessee turncoat. The Radicals were disappointed by Johnson's failure to give at least some blacks the vote and began to suspect that they were mistaken about his sentiments. As for the Moderate Republicans, they considered the proclamations satisfactory as far as they went, but worried about unrepentant rebels taking control of the new southern state governments and electing congressmen who would join with the northern Democrats to challenge Republican power nationally. Many of them also had misgivings about leaving the fate of the blacks entirely in the hands of their former masters. For the time being, both Radicals and Moderates withheld overt criticism of Johnson's program and waited to see how it worked in practice.

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