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Andrew Johnson's Policy // Problems in the South

Although the former Confederate states had reconstructed themselves under President Andrew Johnson’s guidelines, many Northerners did not want to see them reenter the Union so quickly and easily.  Republicans were particularly concerned by the attitudes expressed and actions taken by Southerners while submitting to Presidential Reconstruction.  Even though all the former Confederate states had abolished slavery in their new constitutions and most had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, they had done so with obvious reluctance. 

Furthermore, the newly elected state legislatures had enacted laws restricting the rights and freedoms of blacks in the South.  These “Black Codes” (similar to “Slave Codes”) varied from state to state, but included requiring proof of employment, limiting jobs opportunities, prohibiting property rights in or migration to certain (usually urban) areas, banning the carrying of weapons in public, barring jury duty or court testimony against whites, and withholding voting and office-holding rights.  A cartoon by Thomas Nast in the August 5, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly depicted Miss Columbia lamenting that she had to pardon ex-Rebels such as Confederate General Robert E. Lee (bowing in the foreground) and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (holding the pardon petition), while not allowing a wounded black Union veteran the right to vote.

In the June 10, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly, editor George William Curtis warned that “black laws” passed by the Tennessee State House of Representatives revealed “that the spirit of slavery does exist,” despite the abolition of the institution.  Although the measures were defeated in the Tennessee State Senate, Curtis rightly predicted that the other Southern states would follow the Tennessee House’s lead by enacting Black Codes that reduced the newly freed people “to a condition of serfdom.”  The editor pointed out that the true majority of the people in those states consisted not of the former disloyal whites, who had been granted voting rights under Presidential Reconstruction, but of blacks.  “It is curious to see how the dominance of slavery in this country has destroyed our perceptions of the simplest facts.”

As an example of racism corroding truth, Curtis singled out The New York Times for its unthinking exclusion of blacks as part of “the people.”  In doing so, The Times reinforced the prejudice that the American government “was made by white men for white men.”  The Harper’s Weekly editor concluded by emphasizing “that Congress is constitutionally bound [by Article IV, Section IV] to secure a republican form of government to each State.”

In April and November 1865, respectively, a cartoon and illustration in Harper’s Weekly corroborated editor Curtis’s point that blacks should be considered part of the American people.  In particular, the images focused on the sacrifices made for the Union by black soldiers during the recently ended Civil War.  An article in the November 11, 1865 issue revealed how the absence of black participation in the early Reconstruction process in Louisiana meant that the competition for votes was limited to two racist political parties in the state.  The National Democratic Party in Louisiana claimed that government should be for whites only, and sought financial compensation for the loss in property value from the abolition of slavery.  The National Conservative Union in the state opposed political equality for “the African.”

Northerners were also disturbed by the election of former Confederate leaders to local, state, and national office, a consequence of which was intimidation and violence against blacks and white Unionists living under those Southern governments.  The lead editorial in the October 21, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly began by noting that ex-Confederate General Benjamin Humphreys, “an unpardoned rebel,” had been elected governor of Mississippi (on October 2).  “Meanwhile… the colored people are daily murdered and Union men maltreated, and nobody is punished or arrested.”  Editor Curtis then reported similar threats to democratic government and public safety in other states where former Confederates had also reclaimed political power:  Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.  He quoted a correspondent from Mobile, Alabama, who observed, “The various offices here … are full of bitter rebels, and they openly boast of their Confederate proclivities.”  The editor ended by criticizing the suggestion of General Henry Slocum, who had retired as Union military commander in Mississippi on September 28, 1865, that the federal government should end its control of that state.

The most conspicuous instance of a former high-ranking Confederate elected during Presidential Reconstruction was Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the former vice president of the Confederate States of America.  The December 30, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly reported that the new Georgia state legislature had postponed its selection of a U.S. senator in order to await President Johnson’s pardon of Stephens.  Although Johnson had released Stephens from jail in October 1865, the president did not subsequently pardon him.  Nevertheless, in February 1866, the Georgia legislature selected the unpardoned Stephens to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.  A biographical sketch of Stephens in the May 5, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly associated him with John C. Calhoun’s state sovereignty view, which had been used to justify secession.

Because of the stated problems resulting from the dominance of ex-Confederates in the state governments reconstructed under President Johnson’s authority, Republicans became hesitant about Congress recognizing the governments by seating their elected federal representatives.  In the lead editorial of the November 4, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly, editor Curtis used a natural rights argument to support such caution.  Governments should be based on “the consent of the governed; and we hold that every political community being morally bound to defend all the natural rights of its individual members should impose no qualification for an equal voice in the government which excludes any great number of them or which may not be readily attained by all.”  Curtis refused to apology for being “averse to haste, and advise the utmost care, and prudence, and sagacity in the work of reorganization.”

As Congress prepared to convene on December 4, 1865, the clerk of the House, Edward McPherson, announced that he would not recognize representatives elected from the former Confederate states.  His position was based primarily on a congressional act of July 1862, which required congressmen to swear an oath that they had never actively participated against the United States government.  The House upheld his action.  In the lead editorial of the December 2, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly, George William Curtis expressed his approval.  The editor argued that such a policy prevented one person (the clerk) from deciding that the former Confederate states had reached a stage where they could rejoin the loyal states on an equal basis to legislate for the nation.  Furthermore, Curtis asserted that Southern insistence on quick and easy reentry into Congress should be a warning:  “The spirit which was baffled in the rebellion will seek to achieve its ends by political alliances and intrigues.”  He repeated concerns about the treatment of Union men and blacks in the South.  The editor was confident that Congress would act to secure the rights of blacks because “it is equally plain that the freedmen can not be honorably left by us to the local State legislation.”  A cartoon in the next week’s issue depicted House Clerk McPherson denying a seat to a Southern congressman-elect.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  August 5, 1865, pp. 488-489
cartoon, “Pardon/Franchise”

2)  June 10, 1865, p. 355, c. 1-2
editorial, “A Warning from Tennessee”

3)  April 22, 1865, p. 256, c. 1-2
cartoon, “A Man Knows a Man”

4)  November 11, 1865, p. 712
illustration, “The True Defenders of the Constitution”

5)  November 11, 1865, pp. 717
illustrated articles, “Governor Wells and Louisiana Politics”

6)  October 21, 1865, p. 658, c. 1-2
editorial, “State of Feeling at the South”

7)  December 30, 1865, p. 819, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

8)  May 5, 1866, pp. 276-277
article, “Alexander H. Stephens,” and portrait (p. 276) by William S. L. Jewett from a photography by Mathew Brady

9)  November 4, 1865, p. 690, c. 1-2
editorial, “Reorganization”

10)  November 11, 1865, p. 707, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

11)  December 16, 1865, p. 787, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

12)  December 2, 1865, p. 754, c. 1-2
editorial, “Securing Peace”

13)  December 9, 1865, p. 781
cartoon, “No Accommodations!” 

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Andrew Johnson's Policy // Problems in the South






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