The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson: Conflict Between President and Congress

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  • 0:04 Radicals Take Control
  • 2:15 The 14th Amendment
  • 3:48 Radicals vs. Johnson
  • 6:29 Impeachment
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Congressional Reconstruction, guided by Radical Republicans, aggressively pursued political equality for African Americans as defined by several pieces of legislation and the 14th Amendment. Conflict between Congress and President Andrew Johnson escalated until he was impeached.

Radicals Take Control

Before the Civil War, when tensions were running high between abolitionists and slave owners, violence broke out in Congress. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an outspoken critic of Southern slavery, was severely beaten with a cane by two congressmen from South Carolina while he worked at his desk on the Senate floor. It took three years for Sumner to recover from head injuries and trauma. The Massachusetts legislature left his seat unfilled and reelected him in 1859.

Then when the Civil War broke out, Sumner was one of the first to insist that ending slavery should be a war goal. After the Union victory, the Senator became an outspoken leader for civil rights. In the absence of Southern Democrats in Congress for a window of time, Charles Sumner and his fellow Radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives, saw the opportunity to remake the social order of the South and ensure political equality for African American men. Lincoln had opposed many of their measures, believing that unity would come more quickly if the South were not treated as an enemy. But after Lincoln's death, there was just one person that stood in the Radicals' way: President Andrew Johnson.

Radical Republicans wanted to ensure political equality for African American men
Radical Republicans

Unfortunately for them, President Johnson's position was even more Southern-friendly than Lincoln's had been, and many of the governors he appointed to help the process of reunification passed Black Codes to restrict the legal rights of African Americans and allow white planters to retake control of government and society. When some states refused to cancel Confederate debt and others delayed ratification of the 13th Amendment (banning slavery in the U.S.), Republicans won heavy majorities in the 1866 mid-term elections. They now had the required 2/3 majority needed to override a veto, effectively ending the era of presidential Reconstruction. And then by impeding the arrival of newly-elected Southern congressmen, they had almost no legislative opposition. Radical Republicans got to work right away on their most pressing agenda: extending the life of the Freedmen's Bureau and passing a Civil Rights bill.

The 14th Amendment

Johnson vetoed both, of course. Moderate Republicans joined their Radical colleagues in Congress to override the presidential veto and pass both bills. Foreseeing that the laws could be rejected by the Supreme Court, or that future Congresses might overturn them, Republicans drafted the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing full citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Johnson, predictably, opposed it.

Johnson: 'The Fourteenth Amendment represents a major shift in power away from the states to the federal government, something that was never intended by the framers and that goes against the nature of our Constitution.'

Sumner: 'After the 13th Amendment prohibited slavery, Southern states passed Black Codes in a blatant attempt to return freedmen to a condition akin to slavery. This new amendment is necessary to keep all Americans free.'

The Military Reconstruction Act divided the South into five military districts
Military Reconstruction Act

All Southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment, so Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act - the first of four such measures to be passed by Congress, vetoed by the President, and then passed again with a 2/3 vote. As a result, the South was divided into five occupied military districts, each ruled by a military governor to supervise Reconstruction. Under the Military Reconstruction Act, states had to ratify the 14th Amendment and allow African Americans to vote, or else they would lose their representation in Congress. The 14th Amendment was ratified within a year.

Radicals vs. Johnson

Johnson vetoed all four Reconstruction Acts for some legitimate reasons. That's not to say that all of Johnson's motives were pure - but then again, don't assume that just because Congressional Reconstruction had noble goals meant that Radicals always used proper methods to achieve these goals.

Johnson: 'The main goal of Reconstruction must be to rapidly bring the South back into the Union and to heal the wounds of the Civil War; punishing the South is counterproductive. What's more, attempts by the federal legislature to dictate the structure of state governments goes against the nature of our Union. Finally, the Radical's move to keep the Supreme Court from reviewing their Reconstruction Acts is a gross violation of our system of checks and balances. I will oppose these measures with all of my power!'

Sumner: 'The South must be changed while we have the opportunity. The president is a Southern sympathizer, and his prejudice is keeping him from upholding our Constitution. The federal government has an obligation to 'secure the blessings of liberty' for all Americans. We will override every one of his vetoes in order to bring racial equality and justice.'

Congress passed all four Reconstruction Acts into law over the president's veto. Political offices throughout the South were filled by Unionists (those were Southerners who supported the Union during the War), carpetbaggers and even African Americans - all of whom were Republicans. Some former Confederates were disenfranchised, but black men finally voted freely.

Congress directed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (a Radical) to enforce the Acts with the military, if necessary. Fully expecting that President Johnson would try to get rid of Sectary Stanton and replace him with another leader more sympathetic to his cause, Congress limited the president's authority to issue military orders and passed The Tenure of Office Act in 1867. This law required the president to get Senate approval before firing anyone who had been appointed by a past president. Johnson dismissed him anyway in 1868, stating that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional.

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