Government and Politics

The American Party System

How were the Southern states brought back into the Union?

Even before the Civil War had ended, Washington, D.C., considered the difficult problem of how to rejoin the seceding states with the North. Some lawmakers felt the Southern states should be treated as if they were territories that were gained through war. Others, including both Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), reasoned that since secession was illegal, the South belonged—and always had—to the Union, and therefore the states ought to be brought back into their “proper relationship” with the federal government. They favored punishing the Southern leaders—but not the states themselves.

President Abraham Lincoln developed his 10 percent plan: As soon as 10 percent of a state’s population had taken an oath of loyalty to the United States, the state would be allowed to set up a new government. But Congress opposed it, proclaiming the policy too mild, and responded by passing the Wade-Davis Bill (June 1864), making the requirements for statehood more rigid. Instead of Lincoln’s 10 percent, Congress required that a majority of voters in each state would need to swear their loyalty, in an “ironclad oath,” before statehood could be restored. Further, the bill stipulated that the constitution of each state had to abolish slavery and that Confederate military leaders were to be prohibited from holding political office and otherwise disenfranchised. Lincoln opposed the bill and neither signed nor returned it before Congress was dismissed, and so the Wade-Davis measure failed to become law.

When Lincoln was assassinated the following April, the matter remained unsettled. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, soon put forth a plan to readmit the states. He called for each state constitution to abolish slavery and repudiate the Confederate war debt; further, a majority of voters in each state needed to vow allegiance to the Union. Once a state had reorganized itself under this plan, Johnson required the state legislature to approve the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery in the United States). When Congress reconvened in December 1865 for the first time since Lincoln’s assassination, all former Confederate states except Texas had complied with the president’s specifications for statehood. But these new states had also set up Black Codes, severely restricting the rights of blacks. Further, there was violence against blacks who were the victims of attacks by white Southerners—including members of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, a secret white organization that spread terror across the South.

Congress became determined to fight the readmission of the Southern states by Johnson’s lenient standards, and it refused to seat any representatives from the South. The move angered President Johnson, and political volleying between the legislature and the executive office began. Ultimately it was Congress that determined the process by which the Southern states were readmitted.

By the summer of 1868 the legislatures of 7 (of 11) Southern states had approved the Fourteenth Amendment. The remaining four states—Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia—complied with the requirements for statehood by 1870, at which time the Union was restored and Congressional representatives from the South were again welcomed in Washington.

In the intervening period (between Congress’s rejection of President Johnson’s plan for statehood and the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments), the South was governed by military administrators who protected people and property and oversaw the reorganization of government in each state.


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