|Digital History ID 3103|
In early 1866, Congressional Republicans, appalled by mass killing
of ex-slaves and adoption of restrictive black codes, seized control
of Reconstruction from President Johnson. Congress denied representatives
from the former Confederate states their Congressional seats,
passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and wrote the 14th Amendment
to the Constitution, extending citizenship rights to African Americans
and guaranteeing them equal protection of the laws. The 14th Amendment
also reduced representation in Congress of any southern state
that deprived African Americans of the vote. In 1870, the country
went even further by ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, which
gave voting rights to black men. The most radical proposals advanced
during Reconstruction--to confiscate plantations and redistribute
portions to the freemen--were defeated.
In 1867, Congress overrode a presidential veto in order to pass an
act that divided the South into military districts that placed
the former Confederate states under martial law pending their
adoption of constitutions guaranteeing civil liberties to former
slaves. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 gave African American
men in the South the right to vote three years before ratification
of the 15th Amendment. With the vote came representation. Freedmen
served in state legislatures and Hiram Revels became the first
African American to sit in the U.S. Senate.
Although the law empowered him to remove recalcitrant southern
officeholders, President Johnson refused. He also forbade the
Army to try violations of federal law in its courts or to
prohibit activities that were not in specific violation of federal
or local statutes. Many Republicans regarded the president's actions
as a systematic effort to thwart the will of Congress and lend
aid and comfort to enemies of the Union. The hot-tempered Johnson
labeled the Republicans scoundrels in the treasonous tradition
of Benedict Arnold.
To prevent the president from obstructing its reconstruction
program, Congress passed several laws restricting presidential
powers. These laws prevented him from appointing Supreme Court
justices and restricted his authority over the army. The Tenure
of Office Act barred him from removing, without Senate approval, officeholders, who had been appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate.
In August 1867, Johnson tested the Tenure of Office Act by
removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This act prompted Republicans
in Congress to seek to impeach and remove the president.
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