Johnson shared Lincoln's view favoring leniency toward the Southern states, but a group of congressmen called the Radical Republicans resented Johnson's Reconstruction policies. Reconstruction was the official name given the rebuilding process following the American Civil War. It forced the country to grapple with pressing questions that came up after Southern defeat and the abolition of slavery. Should there be punishment for the Confederate rebellion? What rights would be granted to the newly freed slaves? What criteria did Confederate states need to meet before being judged as “reconstructed”? And how would the Southern economy survive and prosper without its traditional labor base?
Johnson's secretary of state, William H. Seward, acquired land that would become Alaska from Russia. Critics called him mad to pay $7.2 million for unexplored territory to the north. Seward reached the deal in 1867, and it was quickly ridiculed as “Seward's Folly.” It wasn't until the Alaskan gold rush years later that Seward's shrewd purchase would be appreciated.
Johnson offered amnesty to all who took the oath of allegiance (and if the Confederates had postwar wealth surpassing $20,000, they had to apply for a pardon). He returned plantations to their former owners, and he sought to restore political rights to the Southern states as soon as possible, with each state drafting a new constitution. Of course, these constitutions had to outlaw slavery and disavow secession. Bitter over their defeat, many Southerners still restricted the rights of former slaves, and this angered Northerners who felt that Johnson was selling out to the South. Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Congressional Radicals, declared that “the punishment of traitors has been wholly ignored by a treacherous Executive.”
The faction against President Johnson grew in its belief that the Union victory had to stand for more than simple restoration. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives refused to seat their colleagues sent by Southern states or to accept the legitimacy of their governments. Lengthy debate ensued, with Congress passing its version of the Reconstruction Act in March 1867 over Johnson's veto. With Tennessee having ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, it was seen as having been restored. Other Southern states were given a military commander to oversee the writing of new state constitutions that would allow all adult males to vote, regardless of race. If states ratified their new constitutions along with the Fourteenth Amendment, they would be readmitted to the Union.
Compromise eventually won out, but the damage had been done. In 1868, Andrew Johnson became the first president to be put on trial by the Senate, even though no constitutional grounds existed for his impeachment. Johnson was spared from removal by a margin of one vote. But his presidency was effectively over, based on the political disagreements stemming from his Reconstruction policies.
Changes in the South
While the U.S. War Department created the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865 to help former slaves find jobs and obtain an education, Southern whites did what they could to keep African-Americans poor and powerless. Confederate war veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan, originally a social organization, which quickly became a violent vigilante group preventing freedmen from voting. This hate group originated in Pulaski, Tennessee, with its members, often dressed in white robes with pointed hoods, spreading terror as they rode on horseback at night.
Radical Republicans in Congress such as Benjamin Butler urged President Ulysses S. Grant to take action against the Ku Klux Klan. Congress passed the Ku Klux Act and it became law in 1871. This gave the president the power to intervene in troubled states. Shortly thereafter, the organization practically disappeared. The founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 was inspired by, among other things, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic agenda and a glorified version of the original Klan presented in the film
Though treated as second-class citizens, blacks eagerly sought to make a better life for themselves, forming their own churches and other institutions. Sympathetic Northerners often helped, winning the label of “carpetbaggers,” as they entered Southern politics to apply their principles. Most blacks continued to vote Republican, but Democrats returned to power in some Southern states by the mid-1870s. As this political transition occurred, Republican fears were confirmed, with Democratic victories sometimes leading to a reversal of Reconstruction accomplishments. Black school funding was slashed, and over many decades to come, a rigid segregation policy pervaded the South. As a result, Southern blacks began their migration north to escape the lingering oppression. Many settled in America's largest cities, such as New York and Chicago.