May 29, 1865: Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction Proclamations

We’ve heard a lot of talk about Reconstruction and public memory recently. Today offers a chance to measure what people might do about that public memory, or if it’s more talk than action. After all, we’ve marked the sesquicentennial of other documents, and yet the two documents issued under the president’s name this day 150 years ago fundamentally shaped what happened for the next dozen years.

Having accepted the existence of the Lincoln Reconstruction governments in several former Confederate states, Johnson outlined his own policies concerning the restoration of civil government in the remaining states, starting with North Carolina. He named provisional governors who would oversee the process of erecting new state constitutions and governments. The process excluded blacks from voting: the electorate was defined as those would have been eligible to vote in 1860.

Johnson’s second proclamation outlined his pardon policy. Excluded were several classes of individuals, including high-ranking Confederate officials, and those who claimed over $20,000 in taxable property, a Johnson twist designed to make the large landowners seek pardons from him. However, the granting of a pardon restored all of one’s property except for slaves … which would challenge efforts to engage in widespread confiscation and redistribution of property.

I await the usual insightful commentary on causes and consequences. Let’s see what the Reconstruction sesquicentennial will bring us.

7 thoughts on “May 29, 1865: Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction Proclamations

  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy May 30, 2015 / 6:34 am

    The 150th anniversary of the end of the war and the beginning of Reconstruction got me to thinking about my public school education and how little I was taught about Reconstruction.

    I have zero memory of Reconstruction being taught at any point during K-12. As I recall, at least in high school, 11th grade US history was broken up from the nation’s founding (with scant mention of anything that happened before Columbus) through Reconstruction, while the second semester consisted of 1877 to the present. We didn’t make it through the end of the war by the time the first semester concluded, so we never touched on Reconstruction. And, of course, it’s not a simple subject to begin with, so it’s not like one can skim over it in a single class.

    I also think that because Reconstruction is such a complicated topic, with each state’s history during the period being different, especially in the South, many teachers don’t fully understand it, which may be why it was often skipped or given short shrift.

    I will say that my children, growing up in South Carolina, have been taught Reconstruction in school, but it was a very important part of S.C. history, unlike a couple of the states I lived in when I was growing up.

    • Joshism May 30, 2015 / 7:02 pm

      “We didn’t make it through the end of the war by the time the first semester concluded, so we never touched on Reconstruction.”

      I think this is a widespread problem in K-12 and in college undergraduate survey classes too. Not only does Reconstruction get skimmed or skipped in the first class/semester, but then everything after World War II gets the same treatment at the end of the second class/semester. There are probably a great many people who went to college since the 1980s that know less about the decades their parents’ lived through than the ones their grandparents, great-grandparents, and colonial ancestors lived through.

      I was grateful to be able to take a Civil War & Reconstruction class during my History degree that devoted almost 1/3 of the semester to Reconstruction (the war itself was 1/3 and immediate causes of the war was the other 1/3).

      It further doesn’t help that the best book on Reconstruction is Eric Foner’s and his writing is not the most accessible.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy May 31, 2015 / 7:33 am

        Ironically, the two periods you named – Reconstruction and the Cold War – were critical to the development of Southern U.S. and the world as a whole, respectively. If students don’t get a decent grounding in these periods, how can they be expected to understand the world we live in today?

  2. Pat Young May 30, 2015 / 6:10 pm

    I wonder about Johnson’s need to issue any proclamation concerning an amnesty so soon after the last major Confederate surrenders. Since the Confederate collapse had precluded the securing of guarantees beyond those given through military conventions, Johnson’s act seemed premature and based on limited intelligence. Apart from the moral and legal issues involved it was unnecessary at that moment and conceded matters to former enemies of the government without the extraction of sufficient equities.

    • Rob Baker June 4, 2015 / 9:29 pm

      It was a continuation of plans already worked out by Lincoln’s administration before his death. The idea from the executive branch was a quick reconciliation. The question I’m more concerned with is, why? Johnson had an immeasurable distaste for the South slave aristocracy, yet he didn’t punish them as harshly as he might have.

      Unfortunately for the historiography concerning Johnson, our leading Reconstruction historians incorrectly analyze him from a non-Appalachian cultural apparatus. This hinders the view of Johnson further.

        • Rob Baker June 5, 2015 / 6:48 am

          Unfortunately very little. I’ve never had the the time to conduct serious research into Johnson. I am well versed enough in Appalachian historiography to spot a generalization though. Culture makes Johnson peculiar with regards to race and slavery.

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