Presidential term: April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869
Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth President of the United States, who took Lincoln’s place, meant to do what was right; but he had never expected to be President, and was thrust into that position at a very uncomfortable time. He had been a poor boy, and was forced to work so hard at his trade as tailor that he had little time left to spend on books. Still, he did his very best, and was not ashamed to learn to write even after his marriage.
His efforts to improve were constant, and they met with such success that he was elected to share with Lincoln the highest place in the United States. Unfortunately, however, Johnson was not born with Lincoln’s tact, and, while honest and good, was so outspoken and obstinate that he made many enemies.
No sooner had the Union army been reviewed and disbanded than President Johnson made a proclamation, offering full pardon to most of the people in the Southern states, if they would faithfully promise to “support, protect, and defend the Union.”
He also put an end to the blockade, allowed trade to begin again, ordered the mails distributed all through the country once more, the laws obeyed, and the taxes collected. He also said that the Southern states could resume their places in the Union as soon as they elected men who would be true to the government.
But when Congress met, shortly after this, it did not approve of what Johnson had done. A quarrel began, therefore, between President and Congress, which grew worse and worse as time went on. The President wanted the Southern states readmitted right away; but Congress said they should not come back until the Negroes were properly protected in their new rights.
The result of this quarrel was that Congress passed bills which Johnson vetoed. Still, they were passed again by a vote of two to one, and thus became laws without his consent. But Johnson vetoed so many bills, first and last, that his enemies called him “Sir Veto.”
Congress also decreed that no Southern state should join the Union again unless it promised to give up all secession ideas, to protect the Negroes and let them vote, and never to pay the Confederate war debt, or ask the nation to pay it. Besides, Congress insisted that no Southerner should be elected to office who could not make oath that he had taken no part in the Civil War against the United States.
This was very unwise, for most of the respectable Southern men had been in the army. When they heard what was required before they could again hold office, they naturally cried out against what they called the “ironclad” oath. Still, as they could not take it, they were shut out of office. Positions of great trust and importance were, therefore, filled by men from the North, who in most cases had no property in the South except what they brought in their traveling bags. Hence they are generally known as “carpetbaggers.” These men were elected mostly by the colored people, who, as yet, had not received any education, and hence could not make a wise choice, and by a small class of Southern people, called “scalawags,” because they were so dishonest that they would cast their votes for any one who paid them for it.
In spite of these unhappy conditions, eight out of the; eleven seceded states soon managed to get back into the Union; but for years Southerners suffered more than words can tell from bad state government. Such was the disorder, that United States troops had to be stationed there to keep peace. But their presence, in many cases, only made matters worse. Besides, police work was just as distasteful to the soldiers as it was to the people, so both parties felt unhappy and sore.
By this time the quarrel between President and Congress had grown so bitter that the House of Representatives impeached him,—that is, accused him of acting against the law and making a bad use of his power. Johnson was therefore called before the Senate, where he was tried: But before he could be put out of office two thirds of the votes had to be against him. One vote proved lacking to make up this count, so he remained President to the end of his term, although he and Congress were now sworn foes.
On Christmas Day, 1868,—to the relief of the whole nation,—full and unconditional pardon was granted to all who had taken any part whatever in the war. This was a move in the right direction, and was followed, before long, by an act of Congress allowing most of the ex–Confederates to hold office again. The better class of the Southern people, now able to take part in public affairs, worked hard to redeem their states, and their noble efforts were soon rewarded. The years which followed the Civil War are generally known as the time of Reconstruction, or rebuilding the governments of the Southern states.