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The Radical Republicans

With Abraham Lincoln gone (see Chapter 12), his Democratic vice president, Andrew Johnson, took over as president. Lincoln had generously planned to let the Southern states rejoin the Union on easy terms. Johnson went even farther with the generous policy; he issued pardons to hundreds of ex-Confederates.

That wasn't what the Radical Republicans (1866) in Congress wanted; they wanted to change the South radically, punish the former slave masters, and protect the blacks with federal power. To the disgust of these Republican lawmakers, new delegates from the South came knocking on the Capitol door in December 1865 — the very same year in which the South was finally defeated and Lincoln was shot.

And who should be there asking for admission as congressmen but several Confederate generals, members of the Confederate Cabinet, and even the Confederate vice president? The Radical Republicans threw them out. The radicals had two reasons for hanging tough:

- The unreconstructed Southerners had passed ugly Black Codes (1866) that made blacks almost into slaves again. Blacks had to sign one-year labor contracts, and if they didn't come through, they could be fined and put so deeply in debt that they would never earn anything. They could be punished for "idleness" by being sent to work on chain gangs.

- Now that the slaves were officially free, the South actually got more representatives in Congress than it had before the war, when a slave counted as only three-fifths of a person. Working with Northern Democrats, the South could even take control of Congress and undo all the progress that the North had fought to gain.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments

The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) prevents slavery in the United States. To nail down blacks' rights, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment (1866) to the Constitution. It guaranteed the citizenship of freed slaves, reduced the representation of Southern states if they kept blacks from voting, disqualified anyone who had left public service in the North to join the Confederacy from ever holding office in the Union again, and guaranteed the debt of the Union while repudiating the debt of the Confederacy. The Fourteenth Amendment also encouraged universal male voting.

Congress was determined to not let any Confederate state back in unless it endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment. President Andrew Johnson told the former rebel states not to sign it. Johnson had been the only senator from a Southern state to remain loyal to the Union; now that the fighting was over, he wanted to go easy on his Southern buddies. Even though Johnson was from a different political party, Lincoln had made him vice president as a show of national unity. Now Lincoln was dead and Johnson was unexpectedly president. The Republican Congress headed for a showdown with the president they never wanted.

Johnson had hoped to pick up some support in the fall congressional elections, but the Republicans won big. After whites attacked blacks in vicious riots in the South, Congress divided the South into five military districts and sent in the Army to keep order. It also passed the Fifteenth Amendment (1869) to guarantee blacks the right to vote. To get back into the Union, representatives of former Confederate states had to sign both amendments.


Question: What was the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Answer: The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship and civil rights for former slaves.


Question: What was the most serious constitutional issue following the Civil War?

Answer: How the former Confederate states would be readmitted to the Union.

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