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Congressional Reconstruction

President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, had been elected vice president in 1864 on a National Union ticket with Republican President Abraham Lincoln.  During the first half of 1866, the divergent views of Johnson and Republicans on Reconstruction became increasingly apparent and his working relationship with Congress deteriorated rapidly.  Consequently, the president and close advisors hoped to transform the National Union Party into a new coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans that could win control of Congress in the 1866 elections, or at least enough seats to allow the president to wield his veto power without the threat of congressional overrides.  The National Union Convention met in Philadelphia on August 14-16, 1866, with the aim of upholding states’ rights against the “usurpation and centralization of power in Congress.”  In the September 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published September 19), a cartoon by Thomas Nast mocked the National Union Convention, which Congressman and New York Times publisher Henry Raymond organized and chaired. 

Following the National Union Convention, President Johnson and key administration figures traveled from August 28 to September 15 on a campaign speaking tour across the nation called the “swing around the circle.”  Rumors circulated widely that the president delivered his speeches while drunk.  At various stops, the president blamed Congress (as they blamed him) for the recent race riot in New Orleans.  In response to a question from the audience, Johnson sarcastically suggested the execution of leading Radical Republicans.  The remark inspired a cartoon by Thomas Nast, which appeared in the November 3 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published October 24).  The tour was a public-relations fiasco, undermining popular and congressional support for the president. 

In the October 6 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published September 26), editor George William Curtis remarked that the question before voters in the fall elections was whether the result of the Civil War would be fulfilled by adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment or overturned by its rejection.  He argued that it should be necessary for the Southern states to ratify the amendment before they could be represented again in Congress.  Republican victories in state elections held in the late summer and early autumn indicated that Johnson’s goal of Democratic gains in Congress would fall far short of success.  A cartoon in the October 27 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published October 17) depicted Uncle Sam as a pharmacist urging President Johnson to take his medicine in the form of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The bottles on the shelf are labeled for states where Republican state tickets had won.  In the November 3 issue, another cartoon played on Johnson’s former occupation as a tailor and showed the president declining to fix Uncle Sam’s Constitution coat with an amendment. 

On October 16, Governor Benjamin Humphreys of Mississippi, a former Confederate general, sent a message to the state legislature urging them to reject the Fourteenth Amendment because it was “an insulting outrage” that would violate states’ rights and centralize federal power.  In the November 3 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published October 24), George William Curtis responded to Humphreys and other white Southerners who opposed ratification.  The editor emphasized that nothing less was at stake than “the existence and security of the nation.”  He predicted that Northern resolve would not weaken under Southern threats to reject the amendment, just as it did not flinch during the Civil War. 

Meanwhile, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified by three more states—New Jersey on September 11, Oregon on September 19, and Vermont on October 30.  Sweeping success in the state elections of 1866 gave Republicans control of enough legislatures to pick up 18 seats in the U.S. Senate (state legislatures elected U.S. senators until ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913), and carried over to the congressional elections in early November when Republicans gained 37 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The Republican majorities in the upcoming 40th Congress (March 1867–March 1869) were more than enough to override any presidential veto. 

Harper's Weekly References

1)  September 29, 1866, p. 617
cartoon, “The Tearful Convention,” Thomas Nast

2)  November 3, 1866, p. 696
cartoon, “King Andy,” Thomas Nast

3)  October 6, 1866, p. 627, c. 2
editorial, “A Clear Issue”

4)  October 27, 1866, p. 688
cartoon, “Extract Const. Amend.”

5)  November 3, 1866, p. 695
cartoon, untitled (Uncle Sam to Andrew Johnson)

6)  November 3, 1866, p. 691, c. 3-4
“Domestic Intelligence” column, “The Mississippi Legislature”

7)  November 3, 1866, p. 691, c. 1
editorial, “Southern View of the Amendment”

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Congressional Passage // Freedmen's Bureau Act // Race Riots
Early State Ratification // Congressional Elections // Southern Rejection
Congressional Reconstruction





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