The Politics of Andrew Johnson. Examines the bitter political battle that caused the first impeachment of an American President.
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As if to demonstrate the land question's complexities, only two days after this vote and with virtually unanimous Republican support, the House passed Julian’s Southern Homestead Act, opening public land in the South to settlement and giving blacks and loyal whites preferential access until 1867. Republicans were quite willing to offer freedmen the same opportunity to acquire land as whites already enjoyed under the Homestead Act of 1862, but not to interfere with planters' property rights. Despite extravagant hopes that it would "break down land monopoly" in the South, Julian’s bill proved a dismal failure. Plantations monopolized the best land in the South; public land-swampy, timbered, far from transportation-was markedly inferior. The freedmen, moreover, entirely lacked capital, and federal land offices were few and poorly managed. By 1869 only 4,000 black families had even attempted to take advantage of the act, three quarters of them in sparsely populated Florida, and many of these subsequently lost their land. By far the largest acreage claimed under the law went to whites, often acting as agents for lumber companies.
Thus, by February 1866, Republicans had united upon Trumbull's Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights bills as necessary amendments to Presidential Reconstruction. Radicals viewed them as first steps toward more fundamental change, moderates as a prelude to readmitting the South to Congressional representation. Meanwhile, the persistent complaints of persecution forwarded to Washington by Southern blacks and white loyalists altered the mood in Congress by eroding the plausibility of Johnson’s central assumption-that the Southern states could be trusted to manage their own affairs without federal oversight. Particularly alarming was the testimony being gathered by the joint Committee on Reconstruction. Although witnesses differed on many points (former Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens even reaffirmed the right of secession), army officers, Bureau agents, and Southern Unionists repeated tales of injustice against blacks, loyal whites, and Northerners. Speaker after speaker criticized Johnson’s amnesty policies for encouraging white intransigence. The few blacks called before the committee agreed. "If [Southern] representatives were received in Congress," one told the committee, "the condition of the freedmen would be very little better than that of the slaves." Early in February, North Carolina Senator-elect John Pool concluded that Southern members would not gain admission for some time, and that the South would have to submit to conditions that would never have been thought of, if a more prudent and wise course had been adopted" by the Johnson governments.
Virtually all Republicans assumed Johnson would sign the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights bills. The first passed Congress in February with nearly unanimous Republican support, including the votes of such outspoken supporters of the President as Senators Doolittle and Dixon. After separate meetings with Johnson, influential moderate Senators Fessenden, Trumbull, and James W. Grimes of Iowa all emerged convinced of his approval. "A veto at that time," Illinois Congressman Shelby Cullom later recalled, "was almost unheard of." If Johnson signed these measures, a local Republican official wrote -Trumbull from Illinois, then no one will care except a few, how soon the Senators and members of the H. R. are admitted to seats," and "no one will ever hear of the old democratic party . . . again."