A Look at Reconstruction in History

Aug 4 08:29 2010 Nick DAlleva Print This Article


Following the American Civil War was a process known as reconstruction where the Union (or the North) tried to matriculate the southern states back into the fabric of a new unified America.

Reconstruction was a long,Guest Posting complicated, and controversial process following the American Civil War.  The Union was faced with the arduous challenge of bringing the Southern secessionist states back into the fabric of society as efficiently and fairly as possible.  Andrew Johnson was an interesting selection to preside over the complex process of Reconstruction, and largely, an unpopular one.  Johnson was a man of very little political savvy, who made a career out of battling public opinion rather than embracing it.  Southern whites provided further ammunition against Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction by causing civil unrest in the South. 

Johnson’s own actions played directly into the hands of the Radical Republicans who seized control of the government by means of the house and senate.  Contrary to some of Johnson’s historical supporters’ theories, Radical Reconstruction was not the doing of a select few fanatical senators, but a group effort unwittingly supported and propelled by Johnson’s own actions.  Finally, Johnson’s ineptitude in handling his political position during Reconstruction factored heavily into the failure of the Reconstructionist period. 

            Johnson was somewhat of an outcast from both political ideologies following the Civil War.  Rather than trying to mediate between two extremes, as Lincoln did, Johnson agitated both sides by following his own extreme political philosophy.  After Lincoln’s assassination, the Radical Republicans were pleased with Johnson’s ascension to the presidency.  They regarded him as a president who had the fortitude to be as punitive toward that South as they believed necessary.  Johnson quickly gained the wrath of the Radicals by granting pardons to many wealthy southern plantation owners.  Johnson also issued a more general proclamation of amnesty to confederate leaders who had fought against the Union in the war.  Johnson was insensitive to both the opinions of the Northern States and the Southern States.  He did little to reconcile the different factions, and incurred the frustration of the general populace by making every effort to fight public opinion.           

Johnson’s lenient policy of Reconstruction was undermined by the very people he was trying to appeal to.  The Southern Whites abused Johnson’s policies for Reconstruction by creating such terroristic organizations as the Ku Klux Klan.  This greatly embarrassed and tainted the president’s plans for rebuilding the south in the public’s eyes, and thus made it much easier for the Radical Republicans to enforce their will in congress.  The public sentiment shifted from Johnson’s plans for Reconstruction and directly into the hands of the Republicans, who offered a much harsher, more aggressive plan for Reconstruction.  Had the Southern Whites not taken such measures to direct public opinion away from a lenient Reconstruction, Johnson’s plan may have collected more support, and the Republicans may never have risen to such prominence during the period.

Johnson’s behavior was directly responsible for the changes brought against him by the Radical Republicans and congress.  The Tenure of Office Act was enacting specifically to protect the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from termination by Johnson.  The Tenure of Office act was clearly a political maneuver by the Republicans enacted in order to impeach President Johnson.  Andrew Johnson, showing no political discretion, immediately terminated Stanton.  This action set in motion a series of events that led to Johnson’s impeachment.  Had Johnson been less reckless with his actions, he would not have put himself in a position to be impeached.  The law that he violated was obviously only in existence in order to expel him from office, regardless, he should have approached the situation with a level of tact more befitting of the leader of a country.

            If Republican Reconstruction was only supported by a handful of extremely Radical idealists in congress, it never would have reached the fevered pitch that it did during the Johnson Administration.  It is naïve to assume that the majority of congress wasn’t thinking in radical fashion during the period of Radical Reconstruction.  It would have been impossible to overturn President Johnson’s vetoes if the Radicals did not have a pervasive influence on congressional opinion.  The congress was dominated by Radical ideas; however there were surely members of congress that were more Radical than others.  The moderate Republicans tended to vote along with the Radical Republicans because it served both factions interests much better.  It would have been utterly impossible to “force” a bill through congress, especially with an obstinate democratic president that was unwilling to cooperate with Radical ideas.

            A large contributing factor toward the failure of Reconstruction was the sheer ineptitude of President Johnson.  Johnson’s handling of Reconstruction was completely and utterly wrong.  He infuriated both sides of the debate between lenient and radical, he ignored public sentiment and demand entirely, and his own plan for Reconstruction was ineffective and held disastrous consequences for the society and population of the south.  If Johnson had been a more careful, tactful, and savvy politician, the Radical Republicans may have not been able to gain the overwhelming majority of public opinion.  The Radical congress hurt Reconstruction because it prevented compromises between both sides of the argument from reaching a compromise and alienated the south from the decisions being made about it.  However, it was Johnson’s poor statesmanship that allowed the Republicans to look as appealing as they did.  Johnson was heavily responsible for the failure that was reconstruction.

            In conclusion, President Johnson was directly responsible for the downfall of his own political career as well as the failure of Reconstruction.  He had no political savvy, his plan for Reconstruction allowed southern whites to abuse and disgrace it, he was responsible for his own impeachment, he allowed a Radical Congress to seize control of the government, and he was a poor and inept statesman.  President Johnson was not the correct man to lead a country during a very confusing and complex time in the United States History.

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Nick DAlleva
Nick DAlleva

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