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At the conclusion of the Civil War there were two completely different plans for reconstructing the nation was faced with. Had Abraham Lincoln had survived his assassination attempt maybe the history books would have read differently. However, the assassination of President Lincoln left a vulnerable Southern boy as well as a former slave owner who had no former college education to be President, that boy was Andrew Johnson. Could he have possibly have lived up to President Lincoln’s ideals? Would Johnson even be given an opportunity? That is what seems to have been the burning question.
Once the Civil War had ended it is believed that Congress was headed by a group called the “Radical Republicans.” Fortunately President Lincoln was able to control this group and prior to his death had proposed a plan for “reconstruction” that’s intention was to treat the South more like a lost brother coming back home. President Lincoln had looked to his reconstruction plan as a need for healing. The group, “The Radical Republicans”, however, looked at the reconstruction plan as an opportunity to teach the South an extreme lesson which was to punish them and in 1866 Congress had passed the “Wade-Davis Bill” which had ruled for rather than draconian measures of reconstruction. Prior to his death Lincoln had vetoed the bill but the debate continued to rage.
The conventional wisdom is that Lincoln would have been able to control the group known as the “Radical Republicans”. President Lincoln’s assassination, however, left a huge void in American leadership. The President who stepped in after President Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson, was a southerner. As one can imagine this bit of bitter irony was not lost on the “Radical Republicans” who had disliked him before he was even appointed the Presidency. Johnson again proposed a “Reconstruction Plan” similar to the former President Lincoln. Low and behold, the members of congress were not amused. Needless to say the relationship between Congress and Lincoln had soured quickly.
Immediately after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Southern states had passed a number of laws restricting the rights of all people of color. These laws were also known simply as the “Black codes”. As an example, in Mississippi they had barred all marriages of mixed races. The punishment for committing this act was death. Another “code” implemented a restriction to the areas in which any Black person could live. As an example, Blacks could not even own or rent any property outside of a town they deemed fit. The belief of this code during this time was to undermine any effort the federal government had in giving former slaves forty acres of land. Various large plantations in the Southern states were either abandoned or confiscated as this was the land that was to be given out to slaves in allotments of forty acre.
As the actions by South had angered congress, led by what is believed to be the “Radical Republicans”, congress had passed a sweeping legislation during the its Reconstruction years. Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner led the charge and first passed an act to establish what was called the “Freedmen’s Bureau”. Its sole purpose was to not only provide education and training for non whites in their immediate transition from slavery to freed men. Despite all of the best efforts of newly appointed President Andrew Johnson to stop all legislation that would assist Black people, several significant other bills were passed. With the South enforcing martial law, congress could literally do anything it wanted to. The rebellious states did not have the ability to vote on the measures before congress, which resulted in there not being enough votes to override any of President Johnson’s vetoes.
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The year after the Civil War had ended it is believed that congress had passed the Civil Rights act of 1866. It subsequently was vetoed by President Johnson. However Congress overrode his veto and immediately put the 14th Amendment in place despite Johnson’s resistance. Congress than voted in the “Reconstruction Act”, which prohibited the Southern States from participating in Congressional hearing until they passed the measure and revised all of their states constitutions. Passage of this amendment with the Reconstruction Act was met with violent opposition. Despite all presence of military, the white population went on a rampage beating, burning, killing, and outright destroying any black citizen they could find. As a result of these actions Blacks were lynched by the hundreds. In 1870, another Civil Rights Act was passed, and was immediately followed by the 15th Amendment – “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous conditions of servitude.”
It is firmly believed that the discord between the “Radical Republicans and President Johnson made Johnson a very ineffective President which led to a rise of strength in the power of Congress. In 1868 Congress voted to impeach President Johnson for violating a law called the Tenure of Office Act which does not allow the President to fire any member of the Cabinet. Johnson was never convicted but it was clear that he was a lame duck President. Which leads many to believe that the outcome would have been entirely different had Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated.
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