In the closing months of 1865, the U.S. was at a crossroads. The Civil War was over. President Lincoln was dead. And the nation was beginning to confront a series of vexing questions in the aftermath of the Civil War. How does the U.S. answer the Declaration of Independence’s prophetic call for equality? How does the country define what it means to be a U.S. citizen? How broadly should the right to vote sweep? And what role should the federal government play in protecting the civil rights of all? If these issues sound familiar, it’s because the questions America faced then are still present today.
A century and a half ago, these issues pitted President Andrew Johnson against congressional Republicans. On one side, Johnson was “for a white man’s government” and a swift return to normalcy. The South had to renounce secession and accept the abolition of slavery, but little else. Abolition aside, Johnson would leave Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom”—and the fate of the newly freed slaves—to the Southern states. And for several months in 1865, he did just that, pardoning thousands of Confederate officials and plantation owners, and standing aside while the former rebels seized political control of the South.
On the other side, Representative Thaddeus Stevens and many of his Republican colleagues in Congress were committed to leading a second American Revolution. As Stevens explained in a speech before the House in April 1866, “Our fathers had been compelled to postpone the principles of their great Declaration and wait for their full establishment until a more propitious time. That time ought to be present now.”