New hopes of equality

Several other factors helped drive Congress toward a stricter Reconstruction policy. The growing tension between blacks and whites erupted into race riots in the Southern cities of Memphis and New Orleans during the summer of 1866. These riots received a great deal of publicity in the North and convinced many people that stronger action against Southern leaders was needed.

In addition, Congress held its regular midterm elections in the fall of 1866. The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate was up for reelection. Reconstruction policy became the main issue of debate among the candidates. President Johnson toured the country making speeches on behalf of the Democrats, who tended to support his lenient policies. But his rambling speeches, which often included personal insults toward his rivals, only made him the subject of ridicule. The Republicans ended up winning the elections in a landslide and increasing their majorities in both houses of Congress.

After the elections, the strongly Republican Congress considered three options for dealing with the South. First, they could refuse to readmit the Southern states to the Union and keep them under federal govern ment control indefinitely. Second, they could take away the voting rights of so many former Confederates that white Union supporters would control the Southern state governments. Or third, they could grant black men the right to vote. All but the most radical members of Congress felt that the first two options were too drastic. But the third option seemed to have several positive elements. If blacks were allowed to vote, they would help organize loyal state governments and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. Then the Southern states could be readmitted to the Union safely. In addition, many Northerners believed that black people deserved voting rights in a democratic society. Of course, Republicans also had a political motive in granting black men the right to vote— they knew that black voters would be likely to support their party.

In March 1867, the U.S. Congress passed its Reconstruction Act over President Johnson's veto. This act separated the defeated Southern states into five military districts and sent federal troops to maintain order in each one. It also required each state to hold a new convention to rewrite the basic laws in its constitution. This time, however, all adult men—black and white—were allowed to vote for and serve as delegates (representatives) to the constitutional conventions. Congress did make an exception for former Confederate leaders, who were denied the right to vote or hold office. Under the new Congressional plan, the Southern states had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and guaran tee black voting rights in order to be readmitted to the Union.

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