Andrew Johnson: Domestic Affairs

Andrew Johnson: Domestic Affairs

On April 15, six weeks after Andrew Johnson was sworn in as vice president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Had the assassin's plot gone as planned, Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Secretary of State William Seward would have also been killed. As it turned out, co-conspirator George Atzerodt had stalked the vice president but lost his nerve at the last minute. Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood House hotel, rushed to Lincoln's bedside when he was told of the attack. A few hours after Lincoln's death, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase swore Johnson in as President of the United States. Republicans were relieved that Johnson had not been killed and could provide continuity; they thought that he would be putty in their hands and would follow the dictates of Republican congressional leaders.

Although Johnson came into the presidency with much political and administrative experience, the task confronting him would require extraordinary talents of leadership that Johnson had yet to exhibit. Most immediate was the question of what to do with the defeated Confederate states—that is, what rights would be granted the 4 million former slaves, and what punishment, if any, would be applied to the supporters of the Confederacy? Just prior to Lincoln's death, indeed the very morning of his assassination, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had presented to Lincoln's cabinet the outlines of a reconstruction program. The program would impose military rule and stiff conditions upon the defeated Southern states for their restoration to the Union. This represented a substantial modification of Lincoln's earlier stand urging a quick return to equal status with few conditions beyond oaths of loyalty and the abolishment of slavery. Although Lincoln favored granting voting rights to black men with property and education, he had not been prepared to force the issue, which aroused intense opposition and concern among Radical Republicans within his own party.

The Question of Black Suffrage

In the minds of most Republicans, there were three related problems to Lincoln's easy no-strings-attached postwar policy toward the Confederate states. First, the defeated states would certainly take advantage of the freed slaves to impose racial strictures and labor conditions that would keep intact the economic and political power of the old planter class. This situation would enable the South to continue its obstructionist role in Congress and opposition to federal programs benefiting industrial and western interests. Secondly, unless Southern blacks were enfranchised and Confederate leaders disfranchised, a united Democratic Party might win the congressional elections in 1866 and then run and elect someone like Robert E. Lee to the presidency in 1868. As a new party, the Republicans understood how fragile their hold on government was. In a fully restored Union, the black vote was considered essential to continued Republican control of the White House and Congress. And thirdly, the presence of black soldiers stationed in Southern states, the intense expectations of the former slaves for full civil rights, and the demands of abolitionist reformers, such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass, for racial equality could not be ignored easily.

At first, many Radical Republicans had assumed that Johnson shared their broad and expansive concept of federal power and their commitment to political equality for blacks. In this, they were mistaken. Although a strong Union man, Johnson had always believed in a strict construction of the Constitution and in states' rights, which did not include the rights of secession. He followed Lincoln's earlier reasoning that while individual "traitors" should be punished, the states had never legally left the Union nor surrendered their rights to govern their own affairs. Indeed, he echoed Lincoln's view that 600,000 dead soldiers had determined the issue that the South had been unable to leave the Union. So how could the Southern states be treated as if they had? In Johnson's mind, the issue of what to do with the defeated Southern states was simple: impose conditions upon their return to full standing, such as the irrevocable abolition of slavery written into their state constitutions and loyalty oaths as a condition of suffrage, but do not impose black suffrage as a condition of readmission.

Phase I: Presidential Reconstruction

From the day he became President in April 1865 until December 1865, the question of Reconstruction was almost totally in the hands of Johnson because Congress had recessed shortly before he took the oath of office and it did not reconvene until December. In those eight months, Johnson rushed to implement his own Reconstruction policies based upon his interpretation of Lincoln's program. He appointed provisional governors to the defeated states and required them to call special conventions to draft new constitutions that abolished slavery and renounced secession. After the ratification of these constitutions, newly elected governments were to send representatives to Congress, and the states thereby would be restored to the Union. According to his program, every Southern voter would have to swear an oath of loyalty in order to obtain amnesty, or pardon. Several classes of Southerners were not to be given amnesty, however: (1) former federal officials who had supported the Confederacy, (2) graduates of the military academies at West Point or Annapolis who had fought on the side of the rebels, (3) high-ranking Confederate officers and political leaders, and (4) all individuals who had aided the rebellion and owned taxable property valued at more than $20,000. Individuals who fell into these four categories had to apply personally to the President for pardon and restoration of their political rights.

During the summer of 1865, the white residents of every Southern state worked feverishly to abide by Johnson's program so as to be ready to take seats in the U.S. Congress upon its reconvening in December. Surprisingly, Johnson handed out thousands of pardons in almost routine fashion, thus enabling most members of the old planter class and many Confederate leaders to reemerge in power on the state level. Historians have offered a variety of explanations as to why Johnson so quickly abandoned his tough talk against the Confederate elite and settled into a policy of appeasement. They have cited Johnson’s deep-seated racism; his pleasure in having the planter class come before him on bended knee to receive their pardons; his commitment to states’ rights; his desire to build a new electoral constituency, composed of conservative Democrats and Republicans, for a presidential bid in 1868; and his belief that if African American men were granted the vote, planters would control their votes, and the middling white man would continue to be marginalized.

In the rush to reenter the Union, some state conventions defiantly refused to reject secession and the Confederate debt. Almost all of these states imposed severe laws that limited the freedom of former slaves. Known as "black codes," these laws required, with variations in each state, former slaves to carry permits on their body when off plantations, to observe curfews in town, and to have signed contracts of employment by the end of January or be arrested as vagrants. These codes were designed to force the former slaves into a slave-like employment status on the plantations. Each youth, for example, was required to be apprenticed to an employer, who could exercise parental authority over their wards. According to law, parental permission was not required, and in many cases, the courts bound young men and women in their twenties as apprentices. Some state conventions disallowed former slaves to own or rent farms. Rights to hunt, carry firearms, fish, or freely graze livestock were typically revoked for blacks. And most state-supported institutions, such as schools and orphanages, excluded blacks completely.

Phase II: Congressional Reconstruction

Not surprisingly, when Congress reconvened in December, the Republican majority established a Joint Committee of Reconstruction to examine Johnson's policies and voted not to admit the newly elected Southern representatives or to recognize the newly reestablished state governments as valid. Thereafter, Congress and the President clashed continually over the next two years. In the ensuing confrontation, the Republican membership in Congress united in support of a military Reconstruction program that would guarantee political and civil rights for Southern blacks. Johnson aided this party unity by his heavy-handed efforts to block black suffrage and congressional programs that he considered a usurpation of presidential authority.

When Congress passed an extension of the Freedmen's Bureau in February 1866, most Republicans fully expected Johnson to sign it into law. Congress wanted this agency to continue a federal refugee program aimed at protecting and providing shelter and provisions for the displaced slaves as well as trials by military commissions of individuals accused of depriving African Americans of their civil rights. To Congress's surprise, Johnson not only vetoed the bill but he also attacked it as race legislation that would encourage a life of wasteful laziness for Southern blacks. In response, Congress passed this bill over President Johnson's veto five months later.

President Johnson also vetoed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined as citizens all persons born in the United States (except Native Americans). The bill also listed certain rights of citizens, including the right to testify in court, to own property, to make contracts, and to enjoy the "full and equal benefit of all laws" and the due process accorded to all citizens. It authorized federal officials to bring suit in federal courts rather than state courts for civil rights violations. Johnson tried to strike down the law as a violation of states' rights, expecting his veto to appeal to anti-black sentiment among Northern voters. In April, Congress passed the act over Johnson's veto—this was the first time that Congress had overridden a veto of major legislation.

As tensions mounted further, Johnson's determination to deny civil rights to African Americans motivated the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to formulate the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Fearful that the Supreme Court might at some future date rule unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act, Congress passed this far-reaching amendment on June 16, 1866. For the first time, the nation's lawmakers defined national citizenship, which authorized the federal government to protect the rights of U.S. citizens. Congress also revoked the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, and it now provided for a proportionate reduction in representation when a state denied suffrage to any male citizen, except for those who have participated in rebellion or other crimes. When most Southern states rejected the amendment, the Joint Committee made its acceptance a condition of a state's restoration to the Union.

Off-Year Election Showdown

It was in this intense atmosphere that the congressional elections of 1866 loomed large. Southern whites hoped to use the expected popular backlash to Republican militancy to seize control of the House and then overturn the Congressional Reconstruction initiatives. Johnson hit the campaign trail in an unprecedented effort to elect congressmen who supported his policies. Johnson's "swing around the circle" backfired on him, however, as his blatant racism came to the forefront in his personal attacks on his opponents, offending many Democratic moderates and uncommitted voters. When Republicans won two-thirds control of both houses, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction passed—over the President's veto—the Reconstruction Act of March 8, 1867. This act divided the eleven Southern states—excluding Johnson's home state of Tennessee—into five military districts subject to martial law. To be fully restored to the Union, Southern states were required to hold new constitutional conventions elected by universal manhood suffrage. These conventions would then establish state governments to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and guarantee voting rights for black males. A military governor, who was authorized by Congress, controlled each district with the power to use military force to protect life and property. Once these provisional governments had fully complied with congressional directives, they might be allowed full status in the Union, but Congress reserved the right to decide each case.

On March 2, 1867, Congress moved to limit Johnson's powers as President in several ways. The Command of the Army Act instructed the President to issue orders only through the General of the Army, then Ulysses S. Grant, who could not be removed nor sent outside of Washington without Senate permission. Then Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, on the same day, which prohibited the President from removing certain federal officials without senatorial approval. It did this by specifying that officials appointed with the advice of the Senate were to remain in office until the Senate approved a successor.

When Southern whites refused to cooperate in the calling of new constitutional conventions, Congress passed a series of supplementary Reconstruction acts from March through July 1867. These new pieces of legislation gave the military commanders broad powers to initiate the calling of the conventions and to declare a convention valid if supported by a majority of the votes cast, thus overriding the white boycott. Union commanders were expected to follow congressional policy and not directives from the commander in chief on this matter. By late 1867, most Southern states held constitutional conventions, and all of them were dominated by a Republican coalition consisting of white Southerners supporting Reconstruction, Northern transplants to the South, and the newly enfranchised freedmen. Between June 22 and 25, 1868, Congress readmitted seven Southern states—Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina—to full status in the Union.

Johnson’s vetoes of the Reconstruction Acts tried to preempt Radical Reconstruction by associating it with vengeance, subjugation, and disunion. He called the congressional program an exercise in “absolute despotism” that would “Africanize” the South, and he repeatedly claimed that the reunion of the North and South would have been “easy and certain” if only Congress had not defied him. Although he believed he represented the will of the masses of whites in the North as well as South, Johnson was out of step with public opinion, and Congress easily overrode his vetoes.

Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Thoroughly blocked at every turn, Johnson felt he had no choice but to challenge what he considered to be the usurpation of presidential authority in the Tenure of Office Act. Understanding that he risked impeachment, Johnson challenged the act by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on August 12, 1867, while Congress was out of session. He then named General Grant as interim secretary of war. When Congress reconvened in December, Johnson submitted his reasons to the Senate, but the Senate refused to concur with the dismissal under the provisions of the law. Grant broke with the President. The crisis flared up again, however, on February 21, 1868, when Johnson dismissed Stanton once more. On February 24, 1868, the House voted to impeach Johnson by a vote of 126 to 47 without holding hearings first or having specific charges against him. The House subsequently drew up eleven charges against the President, principally associated with his alleged violations of the Tenure of Office Act and the Command of the Army Act but also including charges that his actions had brought disgrace and ridicule to the presidency.

The managers of the House of Representatives Impeachment Committee presented the articles to the Senate for trial on March 4, and the trial began with opening statements on March 30, presided over by Chief Justice Chase. Johnson's legal counsel argued that Johnson had fired Stanton to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act and that his action constituted neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor by any sensible definition of the terms. Voting on May 16, the Senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote of the two-thirds necessary—35 votes to 19 votes. Two subsequent ballots on May 26 produced the same results, and the Senate adjourned as a court of impeachment.

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the first of only three Presidents to be impeached in U.S. history—the second was President William Clinton, the third was President Donald Trump—involved complicated issues of law, politics, and personalities. At its heart lay the nearly irreparable relations between President Johnson and Congress over which agency of government should oversee Reconstruction. This question of competing authority masked, however, a more fundamental issue: Congress had instructed the U.S. Army to implement a policy that its commander in chief vehemently opposed. In direct violation of congressional intent and the Command of Army Act, Johnson had used the summer of 1867, when Congress was not in session, to remove several military commanders in favor of officers more supportive of white rule in the South. Later, he tried to create an "Army of the Atlantic," headquartered in the nation's capital, as a means of intimidating his opponents in Congress. Seeing that Johnson was using the Army to play politics and thus endangering the lives of soldiers in the field, Grant turned against the President.

The principal issue was Johnson's loss of support within the majority congressional party. Had the nation been governed by a parliamentary system, which requires a prime minister to have the support of a majority of the legislature, Johnson would have been summarily removed in a vote of no confidence. Almost all Republicans agreed that Johnson was totally unfit for office. Republicans felt that Johnson had disgraced the government and the party, and abdicated the moral high ground that the Union and Republicans had won in the war. Article Ten of the impeachment charges arraigned Johnson for his “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” during the 1866 “swing round the circle” tour.

But these were not clearly impeachable offenses, and this uncertainty worked in the President’s favor. Also, because no vice president had been elected after Johnson's ascent to the presidency, his successor would have been Benjamin Wade, president pro tem of the Senate, an extreme radical on Reconstruction and a soft-money, pro-labor politician feared by many Northern businessmen. With Senator Wade in the wings, many Johnson opponents were hesitant about voting to convict, especially those who thought that if Wade assumed the presidency, he might try for the nomination in 1868, thus blocking General Grant. Also, Chief Justice Chase refused to allow deviation from the charges to discuss or include broader issues of policy.

In the end, the seven Republicans who voted to acquit—most of them supporters of Grant—were silently supported by their moderate party colleagues. Had these seven not indicated a willingness to acquit, others stood ready to change their votes. Many Senate Republicans had decided to make it a close vote but not a conviction, especially once it became clear that if Johnson was acquitted, he was prepared to cease his obstructionist ways for the rest of his term and stop his interference with Reconstruction and with the military commanders and the War Department.

The final vote maintained the principle that Congress should not remove the President from office simply because its members disagreed with him over policy, style, and administration of office. But it did not mean that the President retained governing power. For the rest of his term, Johnson was a cipher without influence on public policy. Moreover, between his presidency and the turn of the century, a "weak presidency" system of governance was instituted, one which Woodrow Wilson referred to in the 1870s as "Congressional Government" because after the Johnson collapse, the country was really run by congressional committee leaders and cabinet secretaries.