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When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the task of Reconstruction fell to President Andrew Johnson. He was soon at odds with many different factions in the nation. While Johnson was not successful in domestic policy, his administration had a few foreign successes.
About halfway through the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln began making plans for Reconstruction (the process of rebuilding the Union and the South, in particular), which dominated politics for more than a decade. Lincoln had intended to reunite the nation as quickly as possible using his so-called 10% plan: as soon as 10% of registered voters in a state took an oath of allegiance to the Union, the state could hold a constitutional convention and rejoin the United States. He did not want to punish Southern states and intended to allow most former Confederates to retain their legal rights.
Why would he do that? Lincoln - and others - understood that many war veterans resented the idea of former Confederates running the new state governments. But there were, in fact, several reasons. Perhaps the most noble was that he wanted Northerners to view Southerners as their countrymen, not as a defeated enemy. But there were more practical reasons, as well. If all of the experienced leaders were shut out of the process, then the political offices would be left open for unqualified opportunists or idealists. Many students today overlook the fact that there were a lot of stakeholders in Reconstruction besides the former slaves and plantation owners. Thousands of Northerners also flocked to the South for reasons ranging from aiding the needy to pursuing personal wealth or political power. Southerners derisively called these immigrants carpetbaggers.
Lincoln's plans for Reconstruction defined the moderate Republican platform (though technically he joined the National Union Party for that election cycle). But Lincoln had chosen Andrew Johnson as his vice president - a Democrat from Tennessee who had remained in the senate even after his state seceded from the Union. Among other reasons, Lincoln felt that he and Johnson had similar goals for the war and the Union. So, when Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, the task of Reconstruction fell to Johnson.
Johnson alienated himself from a lot of different groups pretty quickly. He was a Southern slave owner and unabashedly racist. But as a self-made man, he also disliked the planter class of Southern elites (who considered him tactless). His manner was abrasive, and though he indicated that he wanted to follow Lincoln's course, he seemed less eloquent and charitable than his predecessor, and many lawmakers found him difficult to work with. Many Southerners thought he was a traitor for remaining loyal to the Union during secession. Northern Radicals were angry that he followed Lincoln's moderate course of Reconstruction. Still other Northerners who had supported Lincoln now wanted to see the South punished for his murder and thought Johnson was too sympathetic to the South.
But Johnson did not intend to punish the South. And while he did oversee the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery (a process Lincoln had started), Johnson also believed on principle that each state had the right to decide the best course of Reconstruction for itself. He appointed governors to help the states take the steps outlined by Lincoln for readmission to the Union, but many of them proved to be too lenient, and as a result, Black Codes quickly spread throughout the South attempting to restrict the rights of African Americans at the state and local levels.
Johnson's paternalistic attitude toward the freedmen kept him from opposing these measures with presidential authority. In 1866, Johnson suggested that Lincoln's idea of establishing a colony for free blacks in another country might be best. Johnson pardoned Confederate prisoners and allowed former officials and soldiers to take part in the new state governments (as Lincoln intended to do). As soon as they took the oath of allegiance, all of their property, except for slaves, was returned to them (including confiscated land that had been promised to freedmen), and they regained their full legal rights. Before long, even the Freedmen's Bureau was being restricted at the local level, keeping former slaves dependent on the plantations that used to own them.
When some former Confederate leaders were elected back to their old positions in Congress, the Radical Republican majority refused to seat them. Many Americans must have shared their views, since Republicans won heavy majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1866 midterm elections - enough votes to override a presidential veto. And with this mandate, they aggressively pursued their own version of Reconstruction in defiance of the president. Presidential Reconstruction was over.
Although Reconstruction was the focus of most political debates of the era and it clouds Johnson's legacy, there were a few other things going on in the world at the time. During the Civil War, President Lincoln had not been able to address a serious problem at America's southern border. Following the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, Mexico endured a series of civil wars that left the nation bankrupt. When the Mexican government announced that it would not be able to pay its debts to foreign nations, a coalition of forces landed an army in direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine, which insists that European nations could no longer establish colonies in the Americas. Britain and Spain negotiated a settlement with Mexico, but France saw an opportunity for one last shot at establishing a North American colony and invaded in 1861.
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The French president appointed an emperor, Archduke Maximilian I, to take control. On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces won an unlikely victory over the French, spawning the famous celebration of Cinco de Mayo. The war dragged on, and as soon as the American Civil War ended in 1865, Johnson's very capable Secretary of State, William Seward (who survived an assassination attempt the same night Lincoln was shot), demanded that France withdraw its forces. He sent 50,000 U.S. army veterans to the border to show he meant business. France agreed to leave and evacuated all forces by 1867. Maximilian was executed by a firing squad, and the United States proved that it would defend the Monroe Doctrine by force if necessary.
The Johnson administration also resolved an issue to the north in 1867 when Russia offered to sell its American holdings to the United States. The fur trade in Alaska had dried up; Russia needed the money and was afraid that Great Britain might go to war with them to seize the land anyway. Russia figured they might as well sell it while they still had the chance. Secretary of State Seward offered $.02 an acre for the territory. Many Americans were dumbfounded that the government - heavily in debt from the Civil War - would spend millions of dollars for a frozen wasteland with no foreseeable strategic or economic value. They ridiculed the purchase, calling it 'Seward's Folly.' But the Senate loved the idea and enthusiastically approved the treaty. In the long run, of course, Alaska has proven to be full of valuable natural resources, including gold, oil and natural gas, and minerals. In the short term, many politicians, including Seward, still dreamed that the U.S. would control the entire continent. Seward also targeted Hawaii and several other islands, but these efforts failed for the time being.
Let's review. President Andrew Johnson took office upon Abraham Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865, and his term was shrouded in arguments over Reconstruction. While carpetbaggers poured into the South, Johnson continued to pursue Lincoln's vision of a quick and painless restoration of the Union, including allowing former Confederates to participate in the political process. But Johnson didn't have the same popular appeal as Lincoln and soon found himself at odds both personally and politically with many groups. .
His belief in states' rights and his weak appointments for interim governors led to the passage of Black Codes throughout the South. And when Southern leaders were reelected to their old positions at the federal level, the Radical Republicans in Congress refused to seat them. The midterm elections gave the Radicals enough votes in Congress to override Johnson's presidential veto, ending the short-lived era of Presidential Reconstruction. But despite his political weakness on the homefront, Johnson's administration did have some successes in foreign policy by defending the Monroe Doctrine in Mexico and purchasing Alaska from Russia. He failed to acquire several island territories.
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