Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction

A political cartoon with Johnson holding a leaky kettle called reconstruction with Columbia waiting to use it.
A political cartoon referencing Reconstruction - Columbia says: Now, Andy, I wish you and your boys would hurry up that job, because I want to use that kettle right away. You are all talking too much about it.

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Reconstruction or Restoration?

Following the Union victory in the Civil War, the nation faced the uncertainty of what would happen next. Two major questions arose. Were the Confederate states still part of the Union, or, by seceding, did they need to reapply for statehood with new standards for admission?

Andrew Johnson's view, as stated above, was that the war had been fought to preserve the Union. He formulated a lenient plan, based on Lincoln's earlier 10% plan, to allow the Southern states to begin holding elections and sending representatives back to Washington.

His amnesty proclamations, however, emboldened former Confederate leaders to regain their former seats of power in local and national governments, fueling tensions with freedmen in the South and Republican lawmakers in the North.

Lincoln sitting with his hand at his chin
Healy image of Lincoln

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Altogether, several variations of Reconstruction arose:

The Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, or Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan

As Union troops took control of areas of the South, Lincoln implemented this war-time measure to re-establish state governments. It was put forth in hopes that it would give incentive to shorten the war and strengthen his emancipation goals, since it promised to protect private property, not including slaves.

At its core, the plan stated that when 10% of the 1860 voters from a state had taken an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and pledged to abide by emancipation, voters could then elect delegates to draft new state constitutions and establish state governments. Most Southerners, excepting high-ranking Confederate army officers and government officials, would be granted a full pardon.

This plan would serve as a platform for whatever post-war reconstruction would be developed.
The Wade-Davis Agreement, or Congress's Response to the Ten Percent Plan

Congress felt that Lincoln's measures would allow the South to maintain life as it had before the war. Their measure required a majority in former Confederate states to take an Ironclad Oath, which essentially said that they had never in the past supported the Confederacy. The bill passed both houses of Congress on July 2, 1864, but Lincoln pocket vetoed it, and it never took effect.
Lincoln the rail-splitter holds a rail holding up the globe as Johnson, the tailor, sits on the globe and tries to stitch back the country along the split between the Northern and Southern states.
In the brief period before Lincoln's death, political cartoons surmised how the "rail-splitter" president and "tailor" vice-president might put the country back together again.

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Newspaper image of Johnson May 1865 Amnesty Proclamation
Johnson's May 29, 1865 Amnesty Proclamation

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Presidential "Restoration," or Andrew Johnson's Plan for Reconstruction

Following Abraham Lincoln's death, President Andrew Johnson based his reconstruction plan on Lincoln's earlier measure. Johnson's plan also called for loyalty from ten percent of the men who had voted in the 1860 election. In addition, the plan called for granting amnesty and returning people's property if they pledged to be loyal to the United States.

The Confederate states would be
required to uphold the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; swear loyalty to the Union; and pay off their war debt. Then they could re-write their state constitutions, hold elections, and begin sending representatives to Washington.

Under the plan, Confederate leaders would
have to apply directly to President Johnson in order to request pardon. Johnson issued over 13,000 pardons during his administration, and he passed several amnesty proclamations. The last one, issued Christmas Day 1868, granted sweeping pardons to former Confederates, including former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Andrew Johnson and Thaddeus Stevens face off as train engineers with the trains as their policies
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspapers lampooned the standoff between the President and Congress:

A.J. (Driver of Engine "President") - "Look here! One of us has got to back!"
Thaddeus (Driver of Engine "Congress") - "Well it ain't me that's going to do it! You bet!"

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Congressional Reconstruction, or the Military Reconstruction Acts

Passed on March 2nd, 1867, the first Military Reconstruction Act divided the ex-Confederate states into five military districts and placed them under martial law with Union Generals governing. The act also directed that former Southern states seeking to reenter the Union must ratify the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to be considered for readmission. The 14th Amendment granted individuals born in the United States their citizenship, including nearly 4 million freedmen.

The amendment specifically disenfranchised ex-Confederates, barring them from the ballot box. The Constitution states, "Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason." At the time, their actions were viewed as treasonous. The Confederate States of America's leadership lost their right to vote because they lost their citizenship by committing treason.

The Military Reconstruction Act also protected the voting rights and physical safety of African Americans exercising their rights as citizens of the United States.

The Outcome

Andrew Johnson and Congress were unable to agree on a plan for restoring the ravaged country following the Civil War. There was a marked difference between Congressional Reconstruction—outlined in the first Military Reconstruction Act, as well as the second and the third—and Andrew Johnson's plan for Presidential Restoration.

In the midst of it all was the human aspect.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established by the War Department on March 3rd, 1865. The Bureau supervised relief and educational activities for refugees and freedmen, including issuance of food, clothing, and medicine. The Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, border states, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory.

Backlash occurred in the South in the form of the Black Codes. Passed in 1865 and 1866 in Southern states after the Civil War, these Codes severely restricted the new-found freedoms of the formerly enslaved people, and it forced them to work for low or no wages.

Crippling poverty, vast wealth, rampant rumors, fear of insurrection on all levels, assassination, trials - this was the country that all three branches of the Federal government inherited after the war.

The Congressional Plan of Reconstruction was ultimately adopted, and it did not officially end until 1877, when Union troops were pulled out of the South. This withdrawal caused a reversal of many of the tenuous advances made in equality, and many of the issues surrounding Reconstruction are still a part of society today.


Last updated: January 9, 2024

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