Congress takes control of Reconstruction

Congress came back in session in December 1865, more than six months after President Johnson had begun implementing his Reconstruction policies. Many members were not pleased that the president had proceeded without them. They believed that Congress should control Reconstruction rather than the president. After all, only Congress had the power to admit new states to the Union under the U.S. Constitution.

Republican members of Congress, in particular, worried that Johnson's soft policies toward the Southern states might be dangerous for the country. Their feelings grew stronger as many former Confederate leaders returned to power in the South and began passing laws that discriminated against blacks. They began to think that the president's plan was allowing the Union victory to slip away. "Northerners resented the South's cockiness," Trelease wrote. "Right after the war, Southerners, still dazed from their defeat, seemed ready to accept any peace terms the North might offer. But once Andrew Johnson became lenient, they began sitting up and demanding favorable treatment as their right. . . . Who won the war after all? Northerners demanded. And what was it all for? With unrepentant [without regret for past actions] rebels still in the saddle, what had four long years of death and sacrifice achieved?"

As fears increased that the South seemed to be returning to its pre-Civil War attitudes, Congress decided to take over control of Reconstruction from the president. First, Congress refused to allow any representatives from Southern states to take their seats until their states were formally readmitted to the Union. Next, they passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This act, which granted citizenship and equal rights to black people, was designed to put an end to the Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act because he felt it invaded the states' rights. But Congress overrode his veto, and the measure became law in 1866. (The president of the United States must sign bills passed by Congress before they can become laws. When the president refuses to approve a bill, he is exercising his veto power. A bill can become law without the president's signature if two-thirds of each chamber of Congress vote in favor of it. Such a vote is known as overriding the president's veto.)

Radical Republican members of Congress, led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874) of Massachusetts, wanted to place harsh restrictions on Southern states. But more moderate Republicans wanted to compromise with the president. Congress ended up forming a committee of fifteen members to examine the situation in the South. Dozens of witnesses appeared before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and told them about discrimination and mistreatment of blacks and loyal Unionists in Southern states.

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