After the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States continued to struggle with important and complicated issues.
For example, Stevens and other federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. This difficult period in American history was called Reconstruction (1865-77).
President AndrewJohnson (1808-1875; see entry)— who took office after Lincoln was assassinated—controlled the earliest Reconstruction efforts. He pardoned (officially forgave) many Confederate leaders and set lenient conditions for the Southern states to return to the Union. But Stevens and other radical Republican members of Congress worried that Johnson's policies would allow the Confederate leaders to return to power and continue to discriminate against black people. They set up a Committee on Reconstruction, with Stevens as its chairman, to study the effects of Johnson's policies. The committee heard numerous stories of discrimination and violence against blacks in the South. As a result, the U.S. Congress took control of the Reconstruction process in 1866 and sent federal troops into the Southern states to enforce their policies.
By this time, Stevens was in his seventies and in poor health. In fact, he sometimes had to be carried into sessions of Congress. His voice was weak, but the other members respected his authority so much that they crowded around his desk to hear him when he spoke. Stevens viewed the North's victory in the war as an opportunity to make fundamental changes in Southern society. He argued that the Southern states should only be readmitted to the Union if they gave black men the right to vote and guaranteed that they would be treated equally under the law. He also wanted to punish the Confederate leaders for their rebellion. Stevens's extreme positions on Reconstruction earned him many enemies in the South. Even in the North, many people did not share his views. Some Northerners worried that his hard line would make it more difficult for the nation to settle its differences and return to normal.
One of Stevens's most controversial proposals involved confiscating (taking away) land that belonged to wealthy planters (plantation owners) who had supported the Confederacy. He wanted to distribute this land to former
slaves and poor white people in forty-acre parcels. Stevens believed that land was the key to making lasting changes in Southern society. Land ownership would allow former slaves to live independently and support themselves and their families. Otherwise, they would be forced to work for wealthy white landowners again. "The whole fabric of southern society must be changed and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost," he said in a speech before Congress in 1865. "No people will ever be republican [where power resides with the voting public and representatives are responsible to that public] in spirit and practice where a few own immense manors and the masses are landless." But Stevens's proposal was rejected by Congress. Many Northerners were hesitant to confiscate property because they feared it could happen to them someday. For example, poor industrial workers might decide to seize factories belonging to wealthy owners. The United States never took meaningful steps to provide land to former slaves.
The U.S. House of Representatives impeachment committee of President Andrew Johnson. Seated from left to right are representatives Benjamin F. Butler (Massachusetts), Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania), Thomas Williams (Pennsylvania), and John A. Bingham (Ohio). Standing are James Wilson (Iowa), George S. Boutwell (Massachusetts), and John A. Logan (Illinois). (Photograph by Mathew Brady. Reproduced with permission of Corbis.)
Thaddeus Stevens gives the last speech at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
(Reproduced with permission of Corbis.)
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