In 1867, the Reconstruction Act was passed over Johnson’s veto establishing five military districts in ten of the ex-Confederate states. Twenty-thousand federal troops, including a number of black units, occupied the South. Military rule replace conservative state governments previously recognized by Johnson. Congress demanded that for southern states to be admitted into the union, they had to adopt constitutions drafted by conventions elected by universal suffrage—specifically including black voters. In some states, freed blacks outnumbered white voters because most ex-Confederates were still barred from voting. The federal army was charged with registering voters. The result was that 703,000 blacks and 627,000 whites were registered. Blacks formed a majority of registered voters in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. The involvement of the Freedman’s Bureau and Union League Clubs created a powerful Republican Party, especially in the upper south, Virginia and North Carolina. In deeper Southern states, including South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, Republicans relied on a large black base for support.
In 1868, Radicals in Congress approved new state constitutions for seven states and admitted them into the Union. Republicans expected the new representatives in these states would be loyal Republicans in their state legislatures and in Congress. This proved to be wishful thinking. In the Georgia state legislature, Republicans joined Democrats in expelling all black representatives. Congress reacted by reinstating military rule, demanded that black legislators be reinstated and the fifteenth amendment, guaranteeing that voter rights, could not be abridged. Georgia was reinstated as a state in 1870. By this time, over half of its black legislators had been murdered.
Tensions between the President and Congress had become so tense by 1868, that Representative Thaddeus Stevens pushed through a measure to impeach Johnson. Radicals charged Johnson with a number of violations including his attempt to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office. These impeachment charges were more political than legal. Radicals in the Senate had enough votes, a two-thirds majority, to convict Johnson, but public opinion swung against removing a standing president. Business leaders were concerned about the financial effects of an impeachment conviction. In a 35-19 vote, they came up one short of conviction.
- Impeachment is a political, not a criminal process. Yet, while it has occasionally been credibly threatened, no president has ever been removed from office (although President Nixon would almost certainly have been convicted, had he not resigned). In countries with a parliamentary system, it is common for the prime minister to lose office when his or her popularity wanes. Do you think it would be good for the United States to have an easier process for removing the president?
- The purging of elected black officials set the stage and created the possibility of continued oppression of the former slaves and their descendants for another century. What do you think might have been done to change this?
- Major social change sometimes occurs in revolutionary ways. More normally, it occurs over time. Do you think it would have been more successful to have tried to integrate former slaves more gradually? If so, would it have been just? How might one have done so?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers. Click here to download the Common Sense American History materials.