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Reconstruction: Congress v. Johnson // District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Passage // Congressional Reconstruction // Elections, 1867 and 1868

When the 39th Congress convened on December 4, 1865, most Republicans were dissatisfied with President Johnson’s Reconstruction policy under which Southern states were enacting Black Codes, electing former Confederates to public office, and allowing the harassment of the newly freed slaves and white Republicans.  In the winter of 1865-1866, Congress assumed control of the Reconstruction process by refusing to seat representatives elected from the former Confederate states and drafting legislation to address problems in the postwar South.  At that point, moderate Republicans still believed they could work with President Johnson on forging a Reconstruction policy agreeable to the White House and Congress. 

One of the most pressing issues in Congress involved the question of suffrage in the South.  Under the Constitution’s three-fifth clause (Article I, Section 2), each state’s representation in the U.S. House was determined by the number of its free residents plus three-fifths of its slaves.  Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 not only ended slavery, but also nullified the three-fifth clause.  Consequently, Southern states were poised to gain seats in the U.S. House because the ex-slaves would thereafter all be counted when determining the number of federal representatives, even though blacks were disfranchised.   

To remedy the situation, radical Republicans favored Congress enfranchising blacks directly.  On February 13, 1866, Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri introduced a constitutional amendment to prevent states from withholding the ballot on account of color.  The full Senate rejected the measure because moderate Republicans still held to states being the sole judge of voting qualifications.  Congress then compromised with the indirect route of reducing the number of a state’s federal representatives when it denied the ballot to adult males, except for crime or participation in rebellion.  Originally proposed as a constitutional amendment, Senator William Fessenden of Maine, a moderate Republican, argued against conservatives who did not want to change the Constitution as well as against Henderson, Charles Sumner, and other radicals who wanted to enfranchise all black men.  The proposal failed as a separate amendment, but became Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Its penalty would not affect Northern states that denied voting rights to black men because so few blacks lived outside the South.  In June 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment was approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, which it achieved in July 1868.   

Congress dealt with other issues concerning the postwar South by passing the Freedmen’s Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act.  The Freedmen’s Bureau Act extended the life and expanded the authority of the temporary federal agency, which had been established in March 1865 to help slaves transition to freedom.  The Civil Rights Act guaranteed equal protection of the law and indirectly granted citizenship to blacks.  President Johnson had led Republican congressional leaders to believe that he would approve, or at least not oppose, the legislation.  They were understandably shocked when he vetoed the Freedman’s Bureau Act on February 19, 1866, and the Civil Rights Act on March 27.  The vetoes broke the working relationship between the president and moderate Republicans, who thereafter joined the radicals to resist Johnson’s Reconstruction policies.  Congress overrode the president’s veto of the Civil Rights Act on April 9 and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act on July 16, 1866. 

In the May 5, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published April 25), editor George William Curtis reminded his readers that President Johnson had voiced support for limited black suffrage in the Southern states.  The commentary was an implied challenge to Johnson to uphold the principle he had previously espoused.  Curtis concluded:  “Differences as to method will prevail, but in an intelligent, free republican country there can be no question as to the right and necessity of impartial suffrage.” 

The strained relationship between the president and Republicans deteriorated further during the rest of 1866.  Each blamed the other for race riots in Memphis (May) and New Orleans (July).  Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast condemned Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies, using images of the race riots in Memphis (upper-left) and New Orleans (upper-right) as symbols of the violence against Southern blacks.  In mid-August, Johnson’s supporters held a National Union Convention.  They hoped to create a coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans to retake control of Reconstruction.  Cartoonist Nast ridiculed the National Union Convention in the September 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published September 19).   

This cartoon caricatures scenes from the National Union Convention of August 14-16, 1866.  The center circle mimics the opening procession led by Governor Darius Couch (right) of Massachusetts and Governor James Orr (left) of South Carolina, linked arm in arm.  As cartoonist Thomas Nast wrote, the incident reportedly filled “the eyes of thousands with tears of joy” as the chief executives of the first rebel state (“first gun”) and the leading Unionist state (“first blood”) symbolized sectional reconciliation.  Surrounding the two governors, a crocodile and copperhead snake shed “crocodile tears” (center and top), as does President Johnson (lower-center) and a fox and goose (top; animal rivals and symbols of the Democratic Party).

At the top of the cartoon, “the spirit of concord and brotherly affection” is manifested by a kiss between former Confederates and Unionists, including Henry Raymond (in dark suit on the upper-far-left), a Republican congressman, publisher of The New York Times, and chairman of the National Union Convention.  In the scene on the upper right, order is maintained by Assistant Postmaster General Alexander Randall (upper-right), a member of the convention’s executive committee, who kicks out of the convention two leaders of the former Peace Democrats (“Copperheads”), Congressmen Fernando Wood of Ohio (left) and Clement Vallandingham of Ohio (right).  The executive committee refused to recognize the two men’s credentials as elected delegates.  The “patriotic sentiment and unbroken harmony” in the lower panel shows how Democratic Senator James Doolittle (lower-right) of Wisconsin has padlocked the mouths of those who might dissent.

After the National Union Convention, Johnson further undermined his popularity during a campaign speaking tour across the nation called the “swing around the circle.”  Rumors circulated widely that the president delivered his speeches while drunk.  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).  In the fall 1866 elections, Republicans attained veto-proof majorities in Congress by gaining 18 seats in the Senate and 37 in the House. 

In the cartoon about President Andrew Johnson’s disastrous “swing around the circle,” Thomas Nast depicts Johnson as King Andy, with Secretary of State William Henry Seward as his prime minister, who points to the president’s radical Republican critics in line for the chopping block.  On the left of the throne is Navy Secretary Gideon Welles as King Neptune; on the right, Lady Liberty sits in chains, her head lowered in despair or shame.

The characterization of “King Andy” is based on rumors spread among Republicans that the Democratic president had monarchical designs.  The notion was reinforced by Secretary Seward’s speech in St. Louis in which he compared his relationship with the president to that between a king and his prime minister.  The circular inset depicts Seward in profile, revealing scars from the attempt on his life the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  The pose may seem insensitive, but it was a potent reminder that one should not talk loosely, as Johnson had done, about the serious business of execution and assassination.  The line underneath the image—“Do you want Andrew Johnson president or king?”—was falsely attributed to Seward after Democratic victories in Ohio’s October elections.

In the cartoon’s background, the man with his head on the chopping block is Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Massachusetts, the radical Republican who was the president’s chief adversary in the House of Representatives.  Behind Stevens are:  abolitionist and civil rights advocate Wendell Phillips; publisher John W. Forney; Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Johnson’s main foe in the Senate; Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts; popular public speaker Anna Elizabeth Dickinson; New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley; Congressman John Logan of Illinois; and, at the very end, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast himself, with a sketchbook under his arm.

The Order of the Dead Ducks medallion around “King Andy” Johnson’s neck refers to a remark the president made regarding one of his leading opponents in the press, John W. Forney.  In February 1866, Johnson declined to comment on Forney’s criticism, remarking, “I don’t waste my fire on dead ducks.”  Cartoonist Nast seized the term and turned it against Johnson on several occasions, usually contrasting the moribund image against the president’s illusions of grandeur.  The symbol also extends the metaphor of “lame duck,” a term for an outgoing officeholder’s lack of political clout, to its logical extreme:  Johnson was not merely a lame-duck president; with talk of impending impeachment, he was a dead duck.

The “290” medallion worn by Navy Secretary Welles is the original shipyard number for the Alabama, the British-built cruiser under the command of Confederate Raphael Semmes, which destroyed or captured 69 Union ships between September 1862 and June 1864.  British outfitting of Confederate ships continued to undermine the improvement of U.S.-British relations in the post-war period.

(For more information on issues discussed in this section, visit HarpWeek’s Fourteenth Amendment site.)

Harper's Weekly References

1)  March 3, 1866, p. 131, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

2)  February 24, 1866, p. 115, c. 3-4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

3)  May 5, 1866, p. 274, c. 4–p. 275, c. 1
editorial, “The President and the Suffrage”

4)  September 1, 1866, pp. 552-553
cartoon, “Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction and How It Works,” Thomas Nast

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

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

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Reconstruction: Congress v. Johnson // District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Passage // Congressional Reconstruction // Elections, 1867 and 1868





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