The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
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Reconstruction: Radicalism vs. Conservatism

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by John Adler, Publisher

The debate regarding the Reconstruction of the Union began well before the Civil War ended and it intensified afterwards. The Radical goal of racial equality was to be accomplished by imposing strict political, legal, and constitutional requirements on the former Confederate states before they would be allowed to rejoin the Union on an equal basis with the other states. Conservatives, such as President Andrew Johnson, opposed such prerequisites on Constitutional and social grounds and advocated a quick and lenient Reconstruction instead.

Johnson’s vetoes of major Reconstruction laws passed by the Republican Congress, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act, as well as his intransigence in implementing Congressional Reconstruction in the South, played a major role in provoking Radical Republican attempts to impeach and remove the President from office.

Harper’s Weekly, led by editor George William Curtis and cartoonist Thomas Nast, supported the Radical Republican policies for Reconstruction. In his editorial of April 29, 1866, Curtis delineated the Radical and Conservative positions on Reconstruction filtered through his perspective as a leading Radical. He presented arguments for the reasonableness of the Radicals’ case and the limitations of the Conservatives’ case.

Curtis discreetly distanced Harper’s Weekly from more acrimonious and extreme Radicals, such as Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Butler, who were early advocates of impeachment. The newspaper held forth the same Radical ideals as Stevens and Butler, but Curtis was more temperate in his rhetoric and, at times, policy recommendations. Instead of overtly criticizing Johnson, as other Radicals were already doing, the editor reminded the President of his own words and the vision of racial equality under the law that they evoked. Instead of berating Johnson, Curtis encouraged the President to do that which in his heart he knew to be just and right.

As time went on, Curtis became increasingly vocal in his opposition to Johnson’s policies, but the editor refused to advocate the President’s impeachment and removal until he overtly broke the law by violating the Tenure of Office Act in 1868. Stevens and Butler, on the other hand, were early and persistent promoters of Johnson’s impeachment. Harper’s Weekly looked with disdain on the tactless Stevens and the bombastic Butler, and expressed the belief that a more competent prosecutor than Butler might have achieved the conviction of President Johnson.

Other Articles in this Section:
Future Control of Congress
The Tenure of Office Act
Personal Considerations Affecting the Vote to Impeach


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