Vice President Andrew Johnson took over as president after Lincoln's death. Johnson came from a poor white farming family in Tennessee. Even though he was from the South, he was against slavery and did not like wealthy slaveowners. Johnson had also opposed the idea of his state seceding from the Union when he was governor of Tennessee before the war (1853-57). But Johnson also supported states' rights to decide for themselves on issues within their borders. He was reluctant to impose the power
of the federal government on the South in order to guarantee equality for blacks.
From the beginning of his term of office, Johnson made it clear that he intended to control the process of Reconstruction. He believed that restoring the Union was his job rather than that of the U.S. Congress. He began implementing his own Reconstruction programs during the summer of 1865, while Congress was in recess. (Congress often adjourns to let its members take time off between legislative sessions.)
First, Johnson accepted new state governments that had been formed in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia. He then appointed governors in the other Southern states and required each state to hold a convention to rewrite its constitution. Johnson insisted that these new constitutions meet certain conditions. For example, the states had to admit that they had been wrong to secede from the Union. They also had to abolish slavery and refuse to pay the debts of the Confederate government. Once the states had made these changes to their constitutions, they would be allowed to elect their own representatives to the federal government. Black people would not be allowed to vote or to serve as representatives under the president's plan. Once these steps were complete, Johnson believed that Congress would accept the Southern representatives and readmit their states to the Union.
The president also pardoned all Confederate officials who agreed to take an oath of loyalty to the United States. He made the wealthiest Confederates appear before him personally to plead their cases, and he pardoned the rest all at once as an official act. Once a former Confederate had received a presidential pardon, he regained his rights of citizenship in the United States, and all of his property was returned. Some Northerners wanted to see the Confederate leaders punished for their actions, but Johnson worried that punishing them would only stir up resentment in the South. Confederate president Jefferson Davis
(1808-1889) and vice president Alexander Stephens (1812-1883) both spent some time in prison, but the charges against them were eventually dismissed. The only Confederate leader who was executed was Major Henry Wirz (1823-1865), who had mistreated Union prisoners of war as commander of the Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia. As Trelease noted, "Very few participants in unsuccessful revolutions were ever treated so leniently as the Southern participants in the Civil War."
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