President Andrew Johnson. By: Mathew Brady.

In the same way that the Second World War would reshape the globe in the Twentieth Century, the Civil War reshaped America for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. Veterans of both wars came to define their respective generations and rise to positions of power: just as Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s meteoric rise culminated in him becoming President three years after the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower would find himself being elected President seven years after the war of his generation. Lesser generals also worked their way into office—some of those offices being elected and others being executive offices of companies in the emerging industries following the wars—but that would occur over the course of decades: the last Civil War veteran to reach the presidency, William McKinley, occupied the White House as the Nineteenth Century faded into the Twentieth. As ever, those who held power determined the direction of the country’s future. In the weeks and months following the end of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, people in power would be sketching out the contours of a post-war America; and it was then, at that nascent stage of the newly reborn nation’s life, that new factions emerged—factions that would vie for weeks, months, and even years to cast the die of America in their own image and either keep, or make, the nation they wished to have.

When Lincoln passed, a man succeeded to the presidency that few had expected to rise to the heights of his predecessor’s leadership. Andrew Johnson had come from a similar background as Lincoln—one of modest means and ambition—but Johnson lacked the genius and political cleverness that Lincoln embodied. Where Lincoln possessed a “sensitivity to the nuances of public opinion,” Johnson did not, and where Lincoln had been known to regale those around him with anecdotes and jokes, one contemporary noted that Johnson “was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House.”[i] Nonetheless, there was optimism that Johnson would be the one who finally brought about black suffrage, and that optimism was mainly housed in the minds of the Radical Republicans—a group of Republicans that had struggled to squeeze out of the Lincoln administration the advances in rights that they thought possible. Johnson had fostered this optimism during the war with rhetoric such as: “Treason must be made odious, and traitors must be punished and impoverished.”[ii] But that rhetoric did not reveal Johnson’s opinions about the black race: his private secretary noted that Johnson “has at times exhibited a morbid distress and feeling against the negroes.”[iii] His secretary was being diplomatic. Johnson, in his annual message delivered to Congress in December 1867, expressed that blacks had less “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”[iv] Lest any Radical Republican maintained hope that Johnson would be a partner in the fight for black suffrage, Johnson warned that, if black suffrage came to be, “a tyranny such as this continent has never yet witnessed” would follow.[v]

The direction of the Johnson administration’s policies became clear on May 29, 1865 when Johnson issued two proclamations: one “conferred amnesty and pardon, including restoration of all property rights except for slaves, upon participants in the rebellion who took an oath pledging loyalty to the Union and support for emancipation,” and the second required top Confederate officials and large landowners to apply for a Presidential pardon (mainly to build political support for Johnson’s re-election).[vi] The provisional governments that the Lincoln administration had created in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia would remain, and there would not be a requirement, or even a call, for those states to enact black suffrage laws as a condition for readmission to the Union. With the Thirteenth Amendment—the amendment abolishing slavery—having passed the Senate and the House of Representatives and with states undergoing the process of ratifying that amendment (a process which would play out for the remainder of 1865), it appeared to contemporaries that progress would not be incremental so much as it would be at a standstill until after the election of 1868.

If power, or nature, abhors a vacuum, then an analog traditionally exists in American politics: where the federal government does not act on a particular issue, states tend to make that issue their own. By the middle of 1865, states and municipalities throughout the South had “adopted ordinances limiting black freedom of movement, prescribing severe penalties for vagrancy, and restricting blacks’ right to rent or purchase real estate and engage in skilled urban jobs.”[vii] If slavery would not be practiced by name, it would exist under a different guise: one planter in the South proposed that each plantation be legally categorized as a town “with the planter as Judge of Police,” essentially having the law bestow on him the same authority as a slaveholder.[viii] By the end of 1865, states like Mississippi and South Carolina had crafted “the first and most severe Black Codes.”[ix] In Mississippi, a law required that: each January, blacks obtained evidence of employment for the duration of the year; if a laborer left the job before the contract’s expiration, he sacrificed all wages earned and could be the subject of arrest by any white citizen; urban areas prohibit renting; and criminal offenses expanded in scope to include “insulting,” “malicious mischief,” and preaching without a license.[x] In South Carolina, the codes had a different emphasis but one no less harmful: the law forbade blacks from “any occupation other than farmer or servant except by paying an annual tax ranging from $10 to $100” and required contracts between “servants” and “masters” that set out the terms of labor—“from sunup to sundown and a ban on leaving the plantation, or entering guests upon it, without permission of the employer”—an arrangement that was essentially contractual slavery.[xi] In Florida’s code, legislators added crimes for “disobedience, impudence, and even ‘disrespect’ to the employer,” and if a black laborer breached a contract, he could find himself “whipped, placed in the pillory, and sold for up to one year’s labor” whereas if that laborer were white, his only fear would be a civil action against him for the damages caused by his breaching the contract—assuming he could not negotiate a favorable resolution with his previous employer.[xii]

Fighting these laws—or the police and judicial system that interpreted and enforced them—was nearly impossible for blacks. Rural areas had patrolling state militias comprised of former Confederate soldiers “ransacking” homes to “seize property” or to abuse those who refused to sign onerous plantation labor contracts.[xiii] Courts were no more welcoming. Many blacks began avoiding courts altogether even after pressure by Northern states led Southern states to permit blacks the right to testify, and that reluctance to appear in court was not merely instinctual but empirical: one British barrister in 1867 worked in Richmond’s courts and found that “the verdicts are always for the white man and against the colored man.”[xiv]

Those in power in the South during the years of the Johnson administration lacked a strategy for how to achieve economic prosperity on the level of that of the Northern states, and legislators saw many of the Black Codes as ensuring that those economic gains—which were sure to come from several burgeoning industries including the railroads—would flow to the people who had power and wealth before the war. The Black Codes fulfilled the goals of their drafters, and every political faction—whether those in the South that were as racist as Johnson or the Radical Republicans in their Northeast haven—saw how the process unfolded. Those in the South who had foresight knew that their states had devised a system that would bring on its own collapse: Johnson’s Provisional Governor Lewis E. Parsons said, “We had, in 1865, a white man’s government in Alabama. . . . [B]ut we lost it.”[xv] The “great blunder,” according to Parsons, was the failure to “have at once taken the negro right under the protection of the laws.”[xvi] Reading in the newspapers and hearing of the South’s relentlessly harsh treatment of its freedmen united not just Radical Republicans but those in the North and West who recognized the Black Codes to be little more than a codified perpetuation of slavery, and together, those factions had sufficient resources and power to unseat Johnson, elect a successor bearing an ideology more open to that of the Radical Republicans, and reshape the South’s future.


[i] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 177 (citing Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service [Chicago, 1911], 143).

[ii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 177 (citing John Sherman, Recollections of Forty Years in the House, Senate, and Cabinet [Chicago, 1895], 1:359).

[iii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 177 (citing Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service [Chicago, 1911], 143).

[iv] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 180 (citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897 [Washington, D.C. 1896-99], 6:564-66).

[v] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 180 (citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897 [Washington, D.C. 1896-99], 6:564-66).

[vi] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 183.

[vii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 198.

[viii] Id. (quoting Raleigh Semi-Weekly Record, August 23, 26, 1865).

[ix] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 199.

[x] See id. at 199-200.

[xi] See id. at 200 (citing Francis B. Simkins and Robert H. Woody, South Carolina During Reconstruction [Chapel Hill, 1932], 48-50).

[xii] See Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 200.

[xiii]  See id. at 203.

[xiv] Id. (quoting Henry Latham, Black and White [London, 1867], 105).

[xv] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 215 (quoting KKK Hearings, Alabama, 93).

[xvi] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 215 (quoting KKK Hearings, Alabama, 93).

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