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

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.