Sumner and Reconstruction

After the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, Sum-ner and many other Republican leaders who had led the fight to end slavery wanted to punish the Southern states for their rebellion. Angry about the April assassination of Lincoln and the bloodshed of the war, these Republicans—called "Radical Republicans"—wanted to pass laws that would guarantee black rights, punish Confederate leaders, and change Southern institutions that promoted racism. When their ideas were criticized as unconstitutional, Sumner argued that the Southern states had "committed suicide" by their secession and thus had lost their rights under the Constitution.

Sumner's harsh stance toward the South changed somewhat after he toured the region's devastated farmlands and cities. Stunned by the widespread destruction that he saw, he began to show a greater interest in legislation designed to help the entire region recover from the war. Most of the bills that he personally introduced, however, were designed primarily to help blacks. He introduced a number of civil rights bills, for example. He also helped create the Freed-men's Bureau, an organization charged with helping former slaves build new lives for themselves. In addition, he remained hostile to the South's old political leaders and slaveholders. He held them personally responsible for starting the Civil War.

In the years immediately following the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson and the Republican-led Congress became involved in a bitter dispute about how to rebuild the South and readmit the Confederate states into the Union. For one thing, both sides disagreed about who was responsible for this process, known as Reconstruction, which took place from 1865 to 1877. Congressional leaders, for example, charged that Johnson did not have the authority to shape Reconstruction policies. Johnson, however, argued that he—not Congress—should be primarily responsible for the Reconstruction process.

This disagreement became even more heated when it became clear that Johnson and the Radical Republicans had very different approaches to Reconstruction. Johnson, for instance, pardoned many Confederate leaders and set lenient (easy) conditions for the Southern states to return to the Union. In addition, his Reconstruction plan did not give blacks the right to vote or serve as elected representatives.

Republican members of Congress thought Johnson's Reconstruction policies were too lenient toward the South. They worried that former Confederate leaders would return to power and continue to discriminate against blacks. The Radical Republicans wanted guarantees of increased black rights and other new laws. As a result, the Republican-led U.S. Congress took control of the Reconstruction process in 1866 and sent federal troops into the Southern states to enforce their policies. As Congress began implementing its own Reconstruction program, some members were willing to compromise with President Johnson. But Johnson refused to accept any changes to his policies toward the South. The battle between the two sides continued until 1868, when Sumner and other Republican leaders became so angry that they launched an effort to remove Johnson from office.

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