Reconstruction: A Constitution Amended and a President Impeached

Lesson Content

Inquire: Why Did Congress Try to Impeach President Johnson?


As the 1860s progressed, the conflict between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republican Congress escalated. Johnson vetoed Congress’ Reconstruction plans only to have Congress override the veto. Congress proposed a new amendment — the 14th — and Johnson traveled around the U.S. to oppose its ratification.

Congress saw Johnson as a never-ending impediment to their plans for Reconstruction. Since there was no way around him — he was one-third of the government — they decided to go through him, taking a drastic step to try and remove him from office. The House of Representatives impeached the president for the first time in U.S. history, but the Senate fell one vote short of removing him from office.

Even though the removal failed, Johnson was left fatally weakened by the attempt, and spent the last two years of his presidency sitting on the sidelines as the Radical Republicans moved forward with their Reconstruction plans. In the end, three amendments were passed — the 13th Amendment (abolished slavery), the 14th Amendment (ensured citizenship), and the 15th Amendment (ensured men the right to vote). The Civil War Amendments (or ABC Amendments from the acronym: 13th-Abolish Slavery, 14th-Become Citizens, and 15th-Can Vote) would change America forever, in ways no one could have foreseen.


Big Question

What impact did the Radical Republicans’ plans for Reconstruction have on the South and the U.S.?

Watch: The Impeachment of Johnson

Read: Radical Reconstruction


During the Congressional election in the fall of 1866, Republicans gained even greater victories. This was due in large measure to Northern voters’ opposition to President Johnson. He lost favor because of his inflexible and overbearing attitude, as well as his missteps during his 1866 speaking tour. Leading Radical Republicans in Congress included Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner (the same senator whom pro-slavery South Carolina representative Preston Brooks had thrashed with his cane in 1856 during the Bleeding Kansas crisis) and Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens. These men and their supporters envisioned much more expansive change in the South. Sumner advocated for integrating schools and giving black men the right to vote. He also argued for disenfranchising many Southern voters. Stevens believed that the Southern states had forfeited their rights as states when they seceded and were no more than conquered territories that the federal government could organize as it wished. He envisioned the redistribution of plantation lands and U.S. military control over the former Confederacy.

Their goals included the transformation of the South from an area built on slave labor to a free-labor society. They also wanted to ensure that the freed people were protected and given the opportunity for a better life. Violent race riots in Memphis, Tennessee and New Orleans, Louisiana in 1866 gave greater urgency to the second phase of Reconstruction, beginning in 1867.

The Reconstruction Acts

President Andrew Johnson

The 1867 Military Reconstruction Act, which encompassed the vision of Radical Republicans, set a new direction for Reconstruction. Republicans passed this law and three supplementary laws, called the Reconstruction Acts, to deal with disorder in the South. The 1867 Act divided the ten Southern states that had yet to ratify the 14th Amendment into five military districts (Tennessee had already been readmitted to the Union by this time and was excluded from these acts). Martial law was imposed, and a Union general commanded each district. These generals and 20,000 federal troops stationed in the districts were charged with protecting freed people. When a supplementary act extended the right to vote to all freedmen of voting age (21 years old), the military in each district oversaw the elections and the registration of voters. Only after new state constitutions had been written and states had ratified the 14th Amendment could these states rejoin the Union. Predictably, President Johnson vetoed the Reconstruction Acts, viewing them as both unnecessary and unconstitutional. However, by this time Johnson had lost relevance and power, due to his impeachment and his senatorial acquittal by only one vote. When it came to the Reconstruction Acts, once again, Congress simply overrode Johnson’s vetoes. By the end of 1870, all the Southern states under military rule had ratified the 14th Amendment and been restored to the Union.

The 15th Amendment

In November of 1868, Ulysses S. Grant, the Union’s war hero, won the presidency in a landslide victory against Democratic nominee Horatio Seymour. The Republicans blamed the devastating Civil War and the violence of its aftermath on the rival party during their campaign, a strategy that Southerners called “waving the bloody shirt.”

Ulysses S. Grant

Though Grant did not side with the Radical Republicans, his victory allowed the Radical Reconstruction program to continue. In the winter of 1869, Republicans introduced another constitutional amendment, the third of the Reconstruction era. When Republicans had passed the 14th Amendment, which addressed citizenship rights and equal protections, they were unable to explicitly ban states from withholding the franchise based on race. With the 15th Amendment, they sought to correct this major weakness by finally extending to black men the right to vote. The amendment directed:

“[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Unfortunately, the new amendment had weaknesses of its own. As part of a compromise to ensure the amendment passed with the broadest possible support, its drafters specifically excluded language that addressed literacy tests and poll taxes, the most common ways blacks were traditionally disenfranchised in both the North and the South. Indeed, Radical Republican leader Charles Sumner, himself an ardent supporter of legal equality without exception to race, refused to vote for the amendment precisely because it did not address these obvious loopholes.

Despite these weaknesses, the amendment’s language did provide for universal male suffrage — the right of all men to vote —and crucially identified black men, including those who had been slaves. The final Reconstruction amendment was ratified in 1870, and with its ratification, many believed that the process of restoring the Union was safely coming to a close and that the rights of freed slaves were finally secure. African American communities expressed great hope as they celebrated what they understood to be a national confirmation of their unqualified citizenship.

Reflect: Which Amendment?


The Civil War Amendments — or, as we labeled them in the Overview above, the ABC Amendments — were fundamental in transforming the political, societal, and historical landscape of America.

In your opinion, which amendment was most important based on its impact on American society, the lives of the American people, American politics, and American values?

Expand: The 14th - Opening A Door For Everything Else


The 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision denied African Americans citizenship. Could the Civil Rights Act of 1866 reverse the terrible precedent?

Seeking to overcome all legal questions, in July of 1866, the Radical Republicans sent the 14th Amendment — with provisions that followed those of the 1866 Civil Rights — to state legislatures for ratification.

The 14th Amendment stated,

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” 

The amendment granted citizenship to every person born or naturalized in the U.S. regardless of race or color and including former slaves. It eliminated the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution; promised punishment for states that denied suffrage to any adult male inhabitant, black or white; and barred Confederates from holding political or military office unless pardoned and approved by two thirds of Congress.

The amendment also settled the question of Civil War debts, specifying that all debts incurred by fighting to defeat the Confederacy would be honored. Confederate debts, however, would not be honored (including remuneration claims by former slaveholders for the loss of their slaves). Any state that ratified the 14th Amendment would automatically be readmitted to the Union — though no former Confederate states ratified the amendment in 1866.

DecorativeMost importantly, perhaps, were the unintended consequences of the language in the 14th Amendment which stated:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Using this language, the Supreme Court incorporated the protection of the civil liberties expressed in the Bill of Rights to mean protection against state governments, and not just the federal government. The rights of people of every race, creed, color, ethnicity, and nationality had therefore been protected from arbitrary discrimination. Without the 14th Amendment, there would be no Brown v. Board of Education; no Gideon v. Wainwright; no Miranda v. Arizona; and no Roe v. Wade. This is perhaps the most important language of any amendment in the Constitution because it has had such a vast impact on a variety of issues in contemporary America.

President Johnson called for the rejection of the 14th Amendment, believing that black men and women were inferior to whites. The president’s speeches against ratification proved to be a disaster. Hecklers provoked Johnson into make damaging statements, and Republicans charged that Johnson was drunk when making his speeches. As a result, Johnson’s reputation plummeted and the 14th Amendment was ratified.

Check Your Knowledge

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Reconstruction and 1876: Crash Course US History #22

A Crash Course video describing Reconstruction following the Civil War

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

A PBS article goes into greater detail concerning President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment

Reconstruction Era: 1865-1877

A list of resources compiled by Howard University allowing you to continue exploring the impact of the Reconstruction

Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, & Fifteenth Amendments

A government resource summarizing the Civil War Amendments and providing resources for more information

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • Civil War Amendments
    refers to the 13th Amendment (abolished slavery), 14th Amendment (ensured citizenship), and 15th Amendment (ensured men the right to vote)
  • Dred Scott decision
    Supreme Court case that declared African Americans were not citizens, and therefore could not sue for freedom
  • impeachment
    formal accusation of wrongdoing against a public official which, when applied to the president, can be used to remove them from office by a two thirds majority in the Senate
  • indictment
    a determination by the Court that someone may very likely be guilty and that the evidence merits further investigation
  • Reconstruction Acts
    a number of conditions for Southern states to be readmitted to the U.S.; proposed by the Radical Republicans

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library.  CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeNo Money Poor Money1820796PixabayCC 0
Decorative14th Amendment Pg2of2 ACNational Archives of the United StatesWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativePresident Andrew Johnson standingUnknownWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeUlysses S Grant by William F Cogswell, 1868William F. CogswellWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain