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Reconstruction: 1865–1877

Andrew Johnson's Plan for Reconstruction

President Johnson's Plan for Reconstruction

President Andrew Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, modeled after President Abraham Lincoln's plan, was judged too lenient by Radical Republicans in Congress.

Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the United States (1865–69) and governed the country through the beginning stages of Reconstruction. Abraham Lincoln deliberately chose Johnson, a Southerner and former Democratic senator, for his running mate in the election of 1864. Johnson had remained loyal to the Union since the onset of the Civil War. Lincoln hoped he would attract the backing of pro-war Democrats at a time when support for the war was faltering within their party. On April 14, 1865, five days after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union, Lincoln was assassinated. Vice President Andrew Johnson stepped into the role of president.

At the time, Congress was in recess until December, putting the new president in control of the early stages of Reconstruction. Johnson's plan for Reconstruction was based on a plan approved by Lincoln before his death, generally referred to as the Ten Percent Plan. Under this plan, a Confederate state would be readmitted to the Union if 10 percent of its voting citizens took a loyalty oath. No charges would be brought against Southerners who swore allegiance to the Union. States then, under the leadership of provisional governments set up by the federal government, could draft new state constitutions. The new state governments would have to ratify the 13th Amendment, emancipating all slaves and outlawing slavery. Confederate military and government officials and the wealthiest landowners could apply for a pardon but were unable to hold office in the new state governments.

A Radical Republican was a member of the Republican party who usually lived in the North and who before the Civil War had advocated the abolition of slavery. After the war, Radical Republicans favored the extension of civil rights to African Americans. In the end, Johnson pardoned many of the Confederate elites who were to be excluded from the reunification process. He also returned Confederate land seized by the Union to the Southern landowners. The Confederate elites returned to power in the governments of the Southern states. Many refused to comply with requirements for readmission to the United States. Furthermore, Johnson did not create a role for African Americans in Reconstruction and vetoed legislation aimed at ensuring their civil rights. This set the stage for a showdown between Radical Republicans and the president.
After the Civil War, things changed too slowly for some. Here, Columbia (Liberty) carries a baby representing the 14th Amendment, and President Johnson holds a leaking "Reconstruction" kettle. Columbia is urging Johnson to speed the ratification process.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-9374

Black Codes

During the postwar years, Southern states passed black codes, which restricted the freedom of former slaves and ensured the availability of cheap labor.

In defiance of federal government action to promote the civil rights of the newly emancipated African Americans, Southern states began passing black codes. Black codes were post–Civil War laws that replaced abolished slave codes. They were meant to ensure continued control by white people of the newly freed slaves as well as the continued availability of cheap labor in the absence of slavery. The laws were also a response to fears of black uprisings should former slaves now seek revenge against white people for their enslavement. The content of the laws varied among states, but they all served to uphold white supremacy, a belief that the white race is superior to all other races, in particular the black race.

Black codes restricted the freedoms and civil rights of African Americans in a number of ways. They prohibited or restricted their ownership of land and weakened their ability to enter fair labor contracts. Vagrancy laws allowed unemployed African American men without permanent residence to be jailed until they were able to pay a fine. If unable to pay the fine, they could be forced into labor. Many of these laws were passed by state governments populated by Confederate officials who had been pardoned by President Johnson. Frustrated by these results of Johnson's lenient plan for Reconstruction, Congress would pass the 14th and 15th Amendments as a counterweight to these postwar laws.