Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 7. Segment 2
Making Changes

The first two years of Reconstruction are called presidential Reconstruction—because Andrew Johnson See It Now - President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had been vice president when Lincoln was killed, was in charge. Lincoln had been a Republican; Johnson was a Democrat who owned slaves. But he had backed Lincoln and decided to stick with the Union when the Southern states seceded. That took courage. He seemed the perfect person to bring South and North together again.

At the beginning of Reconstruction, things seemed to go well. Congress had created a Freedmen's Bureau to help the newly freed men and women See It Now - Freedmen's Bureau. The bureau distributed food, clothing, and shelter to black people all across the South. Schools were soon opened for the former slaves. During the years of slavery, every southern state except Tennessee had made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. So the former slaves were starved for knowledge. Parents often sat in classrooms with their children. As soon as they could read and write, the new learners taught others See It Now - A Freedmen's School.

But it's hard to learn if you're hungry, and southern farms were in terrible shape. In 1865 the cotton crop failed. It didn't do much better the next year. The Freedmen's Bureau kept most people from starving. People helped each other, too. A former house slave found a job and brought five dollars to his old mistress each week. Northern soldiers kept order. But just looking at those blue uniforms upset many Southerners. And some whites couldn't accept the idea of a society where people were equal.

On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. It said, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States." But Andrew Johnson was already working against it. The President's plan of Reconstruction put power back into the hands of the South's old white leaders Check The Source - Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. And it gave African-Americans no civil or political rights Check The Source - "Deliver Us From Such a Moses". Soon every southern state passed laws that discriminated against blacks. The laws were called Black Codes Check The Source - The Louisiana Black CodesCheck The Source - The Mississippi Black Codes. They made it a crime for any black person to refuse to sign a contract to labor on white plantations See It Now - Displaced Former Slaves. And they gave African-Americans no voice in government. Soon outbreaks of violence against blacks were taking place See It Now - Race Riot in Charleston, South Carolina. At a riot in New Orleans, thirty-four blacks and three whites who stood with them were killed. Some whites put masks over their faces and began terrorizing and killing black people. They were members of a newly formed hate organization, the Ku Klux Klan See It Now - Ku Klux Klan Members, and they didn't have the courage to show their faces Check The Source - The Organization and Principles of the Ku Klux Klan. It turned out that President Andrew Johnson shared some of their beliefs. In letter after letter he exposed his prejudices. In one he wrote, Hear It Now - Andrew Johnson "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men."

The war had been fought to end slavery. But the black codes were there to do the same old thing: to keep blacks as a subordinate labor force. So, in 1866, Republicans in Congress—both radical and moderate—united to pass the Civil Rights Act Check The Source - The Civil Rights Act of 1866. It was designed to nullify the Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the act See It Now - "King Andy" Political Cartoon. After a veto, two-thirds of Congress must vote for a bill to have it become a law. Two-thirds did. It was the first time in American history that an important piece of legislation was passed over the president's veto See It Now - "Awkward Collision". Andrew Johnson was furious. He was also stubborn and uncompromising. Hear It Now - Andrew Johnson "I am right. I know I am right. And I am damned if I do not adhere to it," he declared.

The next thing Republicans in Congress did was to write the Fourteenth Amendment See It Now - The Fourteenth Amendment. It was a powerful amendment meant to change the Constitution as it was. It said: "No State shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws Check The Source - The Fourteenth Amendment."

It says that the states must provide equal protection of the law to all their citizens. But suppose they don't? The South had fought for states' rights. Many Southerners thought each state should be free to make its own decisions. If a state wanted an aristocratic society with layers of privilege and unfairness—well, if that was what the majority of its people wanted, why shouldn't they have it? This was what one famous judge—Oliver Wendell Holmes See It Now - Oliver Wendell Holmes—had to say about that: Hear It Now - Oliver Holmes "The history of most countries has been that of majorities—mounted majorities, clad in iron, armed with death—treading down the tenfold more numerous minorities."

The Constitution makers had realized that majorities are sometimes tyrannical. The Bill of Rights was meant to protect minorities from abuses by the majority. But it only covered federal laws. The Fourteenth Amendment protected citizens from tyranny by the states. If states pass unfair laws then Congress can override them. That's what the Fourteenth Amendment said. It took power from the states and gave power to the federal government. Andrew Johnson didn't like it a bit.

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