Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The Battle Over Reconstruction: The Politics of Reconstruction

A Created Equal Resource
A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of many who expected President Andrew Johnson to be firm with the occupied South, only to be disappointed by the President's actual policies.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

This lesson plan will explore the clashes between the Radical Republicans in Congress and Presidents Lincoln and Johnson during the battles over direction of Reconstruction policy. It will also examine how these contentious divisions led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

At issue in these struggles was something deeper than policy disputes or a simple grasping for power. To be sure, there were plenty of ordinary politics in this extraordinary time. But there were also larger questions of principle animating the leading figures of this struggle: the fierce contention over the constitutional principle of separation of powers; the meaning and purpose of the Union; and, of course, the contentious question of what ought to be the rights and the obligations of the freedmen. These questions of principle also had to be tempered by weighty practical considerations. What was the state of popular opinion? Could (or should) these statesmen attempt to shape public opinion or were they entirely limited by it? Finally, the upheaval of the social structure in the South loomed large in the minds of those who would form this policy. Did prudence dictate a gentle touch, or did justice demand a firm hand when it came to securing the rights of the newly freed black population?

These were the serious matters before the government of the United States upon the close of the Civil War. Resolving them would be complicated by every imaginable contingency. Understanding the history of this period requires careful attention to the words, deeds, and motives of its major participants. This lesson will propose a path to coming to that understanding, but it must be understood as only a beginning.

Guiding Questions

  • What were the leading differences between Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, and the Radical Republicans in Congress when it came to Reconstruction?
  • Which of the leaders had the best and most realistic understanding of what was needed?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the constitutional claims of both the President and the Congress (in the generic rather than specific sense) for controlling Reconstruction policy.
  • Give a general accounting of the differences between some of the leading representatives in Congress and both Presidents Lincoln and Johnson.
  • Distinguish between the purposes of Johnson and Lincoln in advocating a stronger executive role.
  • Explain how the divisions between President Johnson and the Congress eventually led to his impeachment.
  • Distinguish between the main and competing visions for Reconstruction as they began to emerge at the end of the Civil War.
  • Distinguish the central and driving ideas at work in original documents surrounding Reconstruction and discuss their impact on events.


For Abraham Lincoln, it was impossible to separate Reconstruction policy from the war policy. Re-unification was the central object of the war for Lincoln. Because of that, Lincoln believed that a swift procedure for reconstruction—taking place, in effect, as Union victories gradually spread throughout the South—would aid in the effort to bring the war to a speedy end. In order to encourage a speedy process of Reconstruction, Lincoln argued for generous terms of amnesty to former rebels and encouraged lenient processes for restoring states to their former relations with the Union.

Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of December 8, 1863, set forth a plan, known widely as the “Ten-Percent Plan,” that required only “a number of persons, not less than one tenth in number of the votes cast in such state at the presidential election” of 1860, to take an oath of loyalty to the United States and then vote to re-establish legitimate republican government. Because all efforts at Restoration were considered as part and parcel of the war effort, Lincoln tried to establish a policy that would not discourage the efforts of states already moving in a direction of Restoration.

Many in Congress, however, had a different view. Upon receiving Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” these members were indignant. Apart from the content, which a number viewed as too gentle toward the South, some legislators argued that Lincoln’s proclamation flew in the face of Congress’ presumed sovereignty in the matter. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued that Lincoln’s plan for allowing only 10% of a state’s electorate to put forward a Constitution was contrary to democratic theory and the principle of majority rule. Further, many members argued that the states joining the Confederacy had, in effect, “committed suicide” and had to be re-established from the ground up in the same way territories or conquered foreign lands would be organized.

Lincoln held as illegitimate the idea that a state could take it upon itself to “commit suicide” or secede without the consent of all parties to the Constitution. Whenever speaking of “secession,” Lincoln always qualified the term with the adjective “so-called.” To say that some states had “committed suicide” and therefore needed to be treated as “conquests” without any constitutional protections or obligations, was to admit the legitimacy of secession; and that, Lincoln could not and would not do. As for the question of “sovereignty”—that, Lincoln argued, rested first and foremost with the people (not Congress or the President) who, having “ordained and established” the Constitution, gave him the authority to defend it against those who would destroy it as part of his war powers.

After much heated debate and with much consternation, Congress responded to Lincoln’s Proclamation with a bill co-sponsored by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. Known as the Wade-Davis Bill, it would have imposed a uniform method for re-admission to the Union. Further it would be applied retroactively to states where Lincoln’s ad hoc provisions for reconstruction had already begun bearing some fruit. This bill required the President to appoint a provisional governor who would enroll all white males and then require these same men to take a so-called “Ironclad oath”—stating that they had never voluntarily borne arms against the United States or given “aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement” to the Confederacy—if they wanted to participate in electing delegates to a constitutional convention. The bill further required that more than 50% of enrolled men take this oath before a convention could be called.

Although the bill passed in both houses of Congress, it did not arrive on Lincoln’s desk in time for him to have the customary ten day period of review. Lincoln, therefore, did not sign the bill and so it was, in effect, vetoed (a “pocket veto”). Lincoln also issued a statement explaining that he did not believe Congress had the power to impose any plan.

It did not take long before Wade and Davis issued a biting statement that came to be known as “The Wade Davis Manifesto.” Although Wade and Davis were Republicans like Lincoln, they were of a much more strident variety and thought Lincoln weak on the issues. In their statement, they accused Lincoln of vetoing their bill in a cynical attempt to gain the electoral votes of newly restored states in the 1864 presidential election. Moreover, they were deeply critical of Lincoln’s understanding of executive powers grounded in “military necessity” and as an outgrowth of the operation of his war powers.

Whatever virtues there were in Lincoln’s less strident and less specific plan for reconstruction, however, may also have contributed to its weakness. Because its success depended so much on Lincoln’s own judgment, discretion, and persuasive abilities—his assassination on April 14, 1865 was a devastating loss to its operation. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, shared Lincoln’s view that reconstruction ought to be directed from the White House, but he lacked much of Lincoln’s political savvy and understanding and shared almost none of his forgiving nature or charm with the people.

Johnson’s known distaste for the “planter aristocracy” of the South (upon whom he placed the entire blame for the war) led the Radicals in Congress and many black Americans—such as Frederick Douglass—to believe they had an ally in Johnson, at first. They believed Johnson would be less forgiving of the South and seek to punish where Lincoln had sought to conciliate. But it was not to be. Johnson’s distaste for the planter aristocracy did not extend to the other elements of Southern society—except, perhaps, to blacks. Soon, a Congress that had been suspicious of Lincoln’s motives for supporting Presidential reconstruction became positively accusing when it came to Johnson. Further, with the war over, claims of executive war powers were less credible and excited less popular support. Soon, Johnson found it very difficult to command as much authority over the matter as Lincoln had done.

Further complicating matters, Johnson—no master of words—made a series rhetorical blunders. He accused members of Congress of bad faith and of being effectual “disunionists.” Understandably, Congress was wounded by such wild accusations and Johnson lost even more support as a result. Members of Congress who had been friendly to Johnson’s substantive policies began to distance themselves from his excesses. This emboldened and strengthened the more radical among the Radicals and, eventually, it led to Johnson’s impeachment.

Even though Johnson was not removed from office, his presidency—naturally—was weakened throughout this struggle. Along the way, Congress passed a series of important legislation over and against his veto—including an extension of the Freedman’s Bureau Act, the Civil Rights Act, a series of Reconstruction Acts (directing Reconstruction along the lines of the wishes of the Radicals in Congress) and the Tenure of Office Act which restricted the ability of the President to remove executive officials appointed with Senate approval unless the Senate also approved their removal. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were also prepared, debated and moved toward ratification during this time.

For more detailed information on the process of Reconstruction, the teacher is encouraged to visit America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. For a timeline of the major events of reconstruction also see the Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation.

Preparation Instructions

In preparation to teach this lesson, the teacher should review the entire lesson plan, including introductory background information. The teacher may also wish to visit the two excellent websites mentioned above for additional background material concerning reconstruction: America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War and Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation. In addition, the teacher should carefully review the original documents included as part of this lesson in the activities and in the “Extending the Lesson” section. Download the Text Document for Activity 1 and the Text Document for Activity 2 for this lesson, which will include all needed source material and worksheets. Print out all material from the Text Documents, and make the appropriate number of copies for the students. The teacher may also wish to begin thinking about how the class is to be broken into small groups (3-5 is suggested—but the teacher should judge the correct size based on the size of the class) as several of the activities in this lesson involve small group work.

Analyzing Primary Sources

This lesson involves using a number of primary source documents. The majority of these documents were authored by people deeply involved in public life and well acquainted with both legal language and the English language in general. Students may be unaccustomed to reading documents that presume such a high degree of literacy and, as a consequence, the teacher’s guidance, assurance, and assistance will be necessary. There is nothing that is actually beyond the comprehension of the average high school student in these documents, but it may take some coaxing to get students to believe this. Be prepared to answer questions and give explanations of this nature.

In some cases documents are authored by people without much education or training—such as recently freed slaves. The teacher may wish to review these documents so as to be able to explain any unfamiliar vocabulary or vernacular that is used. The teacher may also want to point out that original documents, such as these, retain their original spelling and syntax—even if incorrect. The teacher may also wish to explain the use of the word “Negro” in some of these documents. While not generally used today, it was accepted usage (by both black and white writers) during this period and it is part of the historical record. While it could be used in a derogatory way, it did not—in every case—suggest racist attitudes or carry the stigma that it can today.

If the teacher’s students have little experience evaluating primary source documents, there are several websites that include activities to help students effectively develop these skills. The website Making Sense of Letters and Diaries is one such site. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of activities to develop primary document skills. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Assessing Lincoln's Plan for Reconstruction

For this activity, the class will play the role of a fictional “Special Congressional Committee on Post-War Reconstruction Policy.” The committee is meeting in the winter of 1865 to debate and, finally, to decide on a comprehensive plan of reconstruction. As members of this committee, it will be their task to decide whether Congress should support President Lincoln and his plan for reconstruction or whether Congress should support the policies favored by Radical Republicans in Congress.

Divide the class into halves. One half of the class will present the arguments in support of the Reconstruction policy favored by Lincoln; the other half will present the arguments of the more radical reconstruction policy favored by Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens, and others in Congress. Each side of the debate will be divided further into two sub-groups: groups A and B. Group size will be determined by class size. In addition to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, each group (Lincoln Groups A and B and Radical Groups A and B) will receive one of the appropriately labeled documents as explained below. All of the following are available from EDSITEment-reviewed websites, but excerpts may be found in the Text Document for Activity 1. If, in the interest of time, you cannot have your class cover all of the documents listed here, divide the class in halves and have one half read Abraham Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” and the other half read the Wade-Davis Bill. Then proceed with debate as described below:

All Groups: Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, December 8, 1863 (Excerpts and questions on pages 3-5 of the Text Document for Activity 1)

Lincoln Group A: Lincoln’s Third Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1863 (Excerpts and questions on pages 7-8 of the Text Document for Activity 1)

Radical Group A: The Wade-Davis Bill, 1864 (Excerpts and questions on pages 10-12 of the Text Document for Activity 1)

Lincoln Group B: Lincoln’s Proclamation on the Wade-Davis Bill, July 8, 1864 (Excerpts and questions on pages 14-15 of the Text Document for Activity 1)

Radical Group B: The Wade-Davis Manifesto, August 4, 1864 (Excerpts and questions on pages 17-18 of the Text Document for Activity 1)

Each member of the group should read the group’s assigned document and complete the accompanying worksheet. When the debate begins, each student will present and defend the arguments set forth in their assigned document. Groups will debate the group from the other side with the corresponding letter (A, B, C, or D). For instance, Lincoln Group A will debate Radical Group A and Lincoln Group B will debate Radical Group B.

Each “Major Question” is stated at the top of the worksheets accompanying the documents. Have the students complete their group’s worksheet as homework, and tell them to remember that the “Focus Questions” will help them and their group to address the “Major Question” that they will be debating. On the following day, have each group spend the first part of the lesson comparing worksheets and getting ready for the debate.

Procedure for Debate:

  1. The class will be assembled with all Lincoln and Radical groups facing each other from across the room (i.e., Lincoln Group A should be in the center of the room facing Radical Group A.)
  2. The teacher should announce the Major Question to be debated by each group and write it on the board, and then announce that group’s Focus Question #1. The first person in Lincoln Group A begins by giving his or her answer to that question. The first person in Radical Group A will respond. Each person in each group must respond at least once before a person who has already spoken may respond again.
  3. This back-and-forth continues until the teacher is satisfied that all salient issues concerning the documents and respective positions have been addressed. Note that all students participate, and they participate in order.
  4. The debate between Lincoln Group A and Radical Group A—still in the center of the room—continues until all focus questions have been debated.
  5. While moderating the debate, the teacher should remain close to the board and draw up two lists: One labeled “Debate Points for Lincoln Group;” another labeled “Debate Points for Radical Group.” In doing this, you will keep track of major points and ideas made during the debate. As each round of debating concludes, review these points for the class.
  6. After all of the focus questions have been debated by a group, the class (as the Special Congressional Committee on Post-War Reconstruction Policy) will vote upon which side won the debate. If time permits, the teacher may also wish to lead a short discussion about the reasons why the class voted the way that it did.
  7. The next debate then takes place, this time between Lincoln Group B and Radical Group B.
Activity 2. The Road to Impeachment—Timeline

In this activity, students will take on the role of journalists reporting on the political events of 1868 Washington. The class will be divided into seven groups (groups A-G). Each group will be asked to review the timeline interactive [temporarily located at http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/neh/interactives/impeach/] beginning with the April 15, 1865 accession of Johnson to the Presidency and ending with the May 16, 1868 acquittal of Johnson in his impeachment trial. Each group will also be assigned to review the link to one of the corresponding documents (hyperlinked in the interactive) that sheds further light on the events leading up to the impeachment and trial of President Johnson

The tensions between Johnson and the Radical Republicans in Congress demonstrate not only the constitutional procedures involved in an impeachment of the President, but also the fine distinctions and passionate disagreements that animated Johnson and the Radicals in the fight for control of Reconstruction policy.

As journalists, each group will report to the rest of the class on their assigned document and explain how it fit into the overall picture of events covered in the timeline. In preparing for their presentations, each group will complete the worksheet that corresponds to their document.

Procedure: The teacher breaks the students into groups A-G of three or more students each (depending upon class size). For homework, each individual in each group will be assigned to review the timeline and the assigned group document. As they read, students should take notes to help them as they work through the assigned worksheet as a group. The groups will then be assembled the following day to complete their document worksheet and prepare their presentations together. The documents, either excerpted or in their entirety, are hyperlinked on the timeline [temporarily located at http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/neh/interactives/impeach/] and may be printed out by the students to take home for review. The worksheets may be found in the Text Document for Activity 2.

Group A: Andrew Johnson’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, May 29, 1865

Group B: Excerpt from Charles Sumner, Promises of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln, June 1, 1865

Group C: Andrew Johnson, Speech to the Citizens of Washington on the Occasion of George Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1866

Group D: Excerpt from Andrew Johnson’s Veto of the First Reconstruction Act, March 2, 1867

Group E: Excerpt from the First Reconstruction Act, March 2, 1867

Group F: Tenure of Office Act, March 2, 1867

Group G: Excerpt from Senator James W. Grimes’s Opinion on the Trial of Andrew Johnson, May 16, 1868

When the students have completed their worksheets, the presentations will begin. Starting with Group A, each individual in the group will report to the rest of the class (in the form of a television report) at least one important point of substance in the document and explain how that point may have contributed to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Students may use their worksheets and/or notes to aid them with their presentations. After all individuals in a particular group have reported, a group spokesman (or lead reporter) will report to the class their group’s conclusions regarding their assigned document and how it contributed to the impeachment battle.

This activity continues in like fashion, with groups A-G reporting to the class in that order, until all groups have reported.


At the end of this lesson, the student should

  1. List the major points of contention first between Lincoln and the Congress and next between Johnson and the Congress in the debate over Reconstruction.
  2. Utilizing this list, students could compose a two-paragraph “letter to the editor” that examines and evaluates the challenges the nation was facing in moving forward with a policy of Reconstruction. In this letter the student should consider what these facts suggest about what might realistically be expected from a Reconstruction policy and make an evaluation of their own based on their understanding. The student should state the reasons for this evaluation in this letter that demonstrates an understanding of the political realities of the day.


  1. Turn in their completed worksheets and/or essays from Activities 1 and 2 for a grade.
  2. Compose a 2-4 page persuasive essay comparing and contrasting the views of Lincoln and Johnson that champions the arguments of one or the other.
  3. Compose a 3-5 page persuasive essay comparing and contrasting the views of Lincoln and the Radicals in Congress that champions the arguments of one or the other.

Extending The Lesson

Teachers may also want to refer to the Impeachment Simulation Game at the EDSITEment-reviewed site for Harper’s Weekly. This activity is also linked from the Digital History site on Reconstruction.

In addition to the documents reviewed in the activities of this lesson, teachers may wish to have students read and review several of the following documents that shed further light on the debate over control of Reconstruction policy.

To exercise their developing skills in reading and understanding primary materials, have the students choose one or more of these documents for review. Assign the students to read and compose notes that help him or her understand what the author of that document is saying. Then ask the student to compose a one-page essay that explains the meaning of the document and what light it sheds on the political debates over Reconstruction.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
  • Julie Ann Ponzi, Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA)
  • Mark Baker, Bishop Rosencrans High School (Zanesville, OH)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources