By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
The elections of 1866 showed that the North was fully behind the Fourteenth Amendment. However, four southern states had to ratify it before it became law. Three-quarters of the states had to ratify any amendment in order to secure the approval of four of the former Confederate states. President Andrew Johnson encouraged the southern states to vote against it, sowing the seeds for the idea behind the Reconstruction Acts which soon followed.
The Constitutionality of the Fourteenth Amendment
The Republicans in favor of the amendment believed that it would have to be three-quarters of all the states; otherwise, there would be constitutional questions left lingering, and there could be challenges to the constitutionality of a Fourteenth Amendment that hadn’t received approval from three-quarters of all the states. And yet, President Andrew Johnson encouraged southern states to vote against the Fourteenth Amendment. One by one, the southern legislatures, the governments approved by Andrew Johnson, voted down the amendment.
There was some irony in the fact that the only former Confederate state that supported the amendment—that ratified the amendment—was Johnson’s home state of Tennessee. Of the former Confederate states, Tennessee alone did not take the advice of its native son, and it got on board with the Fourteenth Amendment.
Johnson’s stubbornness and southern white defiance sent most of the moderate Republicans over toward the radical position in terms of thinking that the South was going to have to be rebuilt from the bottom up.
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Seeking Black Support
Even the moderate Republicans believed that the ex-Confederate white South was so intransigent that it was going to require much sterner measures to bring them into line. The moderates and the radicals agreed that the key to bringing change in the former Confederate states lay with potential black voters. Black support would be a critical element in the building of any Republican Party in the South, and so it was to potential black voters that both moderates and radicals looked.
Congress was controlled by the Republicans, of course, and Congress decided that it was going to press for black suffrage, so that there would be a broad base of support across the former Confederate states for the Republican Party, a base of support that would match the base that the Republicans had among white voters in the North.
Something for Posterity?
In March of 1867, Congress passed two Reconstruction Acts. Andrew Johnson vetoed both of them. Both were passed over his vetoes.
It is important to remember that this was the second session of the 39th Congress, which began in December of 1866 and would end in early March 1867. There was a sense of urgency among members of the Republican Party and Congress. They wanted to get something finished, something accomplished, something on the books, before this session ended, and they had only until the first week of March to do so.
The Reconstruction Acts
The legislation that came out of their discussions, through the winter of 1866 and into the early spring of 1867, reflected a great deal of debate among moderates and more radical elements of the Republican Party, a great deal of compromise, and was fueled in the end, by a desire to make certain that something happened before the members of Congress went home.
The legislation came in early March. The first Reconstruction Act act nullified the state governments in all the former Confederate states except Tennessee. Remember that Tennessee had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. It was readmitted to the Union because it did that.
The legislation also divided the South into five military districts, and imposed military rule. The legislation said that states could be readmitted to the Union if they wrote new constitutions that accepted black suffrage, and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
A second Reconstruction Act ordered the military commanders, who were put in charge of these districts in the South, to begin enrolling black voters. The legislation also disqualified about 10 percent of white potential voters in the South. About 90 percent would be eligible to vote, but about 10 percent were disfranchised by this legislation.
The Tenure of Office Act
The Congress also passed legislation limiting President Johnson’s ability to remove appointed officials from office if those appointments had required senatorial approval. It was called the Tenure of Office Act. It was really designed to protect Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, who was a radical and supported the radical program for Reconstruction, and who was often at odds with Andrew Johnson. Stanton had been first named during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
This Tenure of Office Act also limited the president’s control over the army. Johnson vetoed the Tenure of Office Act. It was passed over his veto, yet even some Republicans in Congress worried about the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act because it seemed to infringe upon presidential powers that were guaranteed by the Constitution for the president, as commander-in-chief and as head of the Executive Department. There was, then, some uneasiness about the Tenure of Office Act, even among the members of the party that promoted it.
Common Questions about the Reconstruction Acts of 1867
President Andrew Johnson encouraged southern states to vote against the Fourteenth Amendment. One by one, the southern legislatures, the governments approved by Andrew Johnson, voted down the amendment.
The first Reconstruction Act act nullified the state governments in all the former Confederate states except Tennessee.
A second Reconstruction Act ordered the military commanders, who were put in charge of these districts in the South, to begin enrolling black voters.