By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
As 1865 drew to a close, much of the North was very unhappy about the course that Reconstruction was taking. The Congress that was scheduled to meet in December 1865 had a three-to-one Republican majority. Hence, those Republicans had the power to deny places in Congress to the newly elected congressmen and senators from these southern states, and they meant to do just that.
A Congress Dominated by Moderate Republicans
Even conservative Republicans in the North, not to mention moderates and radicals, deplored the ease with which the leaders of the rebellion were returning to power in the southern states. The mood favored harsher measures against the South, and the Republicans waiting to take their seats in the next Congress were very much aware of it.
Affairs came to a crisis in 1866. Moderate Republicans dominated the Congress that met in December of 1865, but all members of the party agreed that the men elected to Congress under the Johnson regimes, in the former Confederate states, shouldn’t be seated.
There was already an enormous intimidation of freed people in that first summer after the war, and into the fall. Moderates and conservatives were ready to deal with Andrew Johnson, to try to get him to act more sanely from their point of view. The radicals felt that they needed to take control of the process. Their aim was to enact sweeping changes in the South.
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Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction
A Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction was put together, dominated by moderates. Initially, it called for: first, extending the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, second, defining freedmen’s civil rights and giving federal courts the power to hear appeals from cases involving violations of those civil rights; in other words, some protection against what the state courts might do to freed people.
Congress passed both these measures in early 1866 but Andrew Johnson vetoed both of them. He said that they were unconstitutional.
The Civil Rights Bill
A bitter Congress tried again with the Civil Rights Bill, in March of 1866. It stated that African Americans were citizens and it nullified all the Black Codes. It also granted certain property and legal rights to African Americans though it did not give them franchise.
Andrew Johnson vetoed this bill, among other grounds, the lack of southern representation in Congress. This was the last straw for many moderate Republicans. They were now moving over toward the radical view that Andrew Johnson was not someone you could deal with.
The Fourteenth Amendment
Congress regrouped. It passed both the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill over Johnson’s veto, in April and July respectively, 1866. It then wrote a constitutional amendment that would serve as a basis for readmitting southern states to the Union. On June 13, 1886, what became the Fourteenth Amendment passed both Houses. Among its provisions were that all native-born Americans, including African Americans, were citizens. The amendment also prohibited the states from denying, “any person of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of law”.
It guaranteed equal protection of the laws to all. It also barred many ex-Confederates from holding office at either the federal or the state level, and it said that Congress could enforce the amendment by quote, “appropriate legislation”.
This was an extremely important amendment that, over the years, became the basis for an enormous amount of litigation.
Waving the Bloody Shirt
It was implicit in Congress’s work with the Fourteenth Amendment that any southern state that ratified the amendment would be accepted back into the Union. Tennessee ratified it in July 1866 and came back into the Union. That was Andrew Johnson’s state. It was readmitted. Andrew Johnson declared the amendment unconstitutional. What a surprise, because the South was unrepresented in Congress.
Johnson took steps in the summer and fall of 1866 to set up a conservative party of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives from both parties. The split between the president and Congress grew even wider, but the movement for what Johnson called “a National Union Party” did not go very far. There weren’t a lot of Republicans who were gravitating toward it.
In addition, Johnson attacked the moderate Republicans far too vehemently and alienated them very quickly. In response, the Republicans began to use a tactic later called ‘waving the bloody shirt’. This was something they would use through a good part of the rest of the 19th century.
Republican candidates would remind northerners that Democrats had largely led the rebellion and had sundered the Union. It was a reminder that it was the Democrats that had been the cause of all the problems that had plagued the nation over the last couple of decades.
Common Questions about Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment
The Civil Rights Bill, of March of 1866, stated that African Americans were citizens and it nullified all the Black Codes. It also granted certain property and legal rights to African Americans.
The Fourteenth Amendment passed both Houses. Among its provisions were that all native-born Americans, including African Americans, were citizens. The amendment also prohibited the states from denying, “any person of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of law”.
It was implicit in Congress’s work with the Fourteenth Amendment that any southern state that ratified the amendment would be accepted back into the Union. Tennessee ratified it in July 1866 and came back into the Union.