Subsequent to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson entered the White House as the 17th President of the United States (1865-1869). During his impeachment trial, Johnson was described by Senator Charles Summer as the ‘impersonation of the tyrannical slave power’. However, during his time as president, there were undeniably many advances in the civil rights movement, as the political structure at that time hindered Johnson from blocking pro-civil right changes by the Congress. The conflict between Johnson’s racial attitudes and the laws passed during his presidency is supported by Historian Eric L. McKitrick who suggested that ‘the character of reconstruction’ during Johnson’s presidency was ‘inaugurated by Johnson’s congressional opponents along lines differing so vastly from those advocated by the President.’
The racist attitude of President Johnson was displayed through his speeches during the congressional election period of 1866, which insulted his Republican opponents, and how he seized the opportunity to allow the South to set up codes for African Americans, which advocated slavery, while the Congress was inactive for eight months. In 1866, with the return of the Congress, it pushed forward the Freeman’s Bureau which was a temporary measure to support the former slaves during the transition period, to ensure the protection of their human rights.
In the same year, the Civil Rights Act was passed and it was the first attempt to establish the definition of national citizenship for all born in the United States. However, President Johnson vetoed both, claiming that they challenged the Bills of Rights. Johnson even criticized the Civil Rights Act for operating ‘in favour of the colored and against the white race’, and threatening the rights of white Americans. But despite Johnson’s strong protests, the Congress overrode his veto. This showed how although there were many efforts in improving racial equality and the rights of African Americans, the positive changes in civil rights during Johnson’s presidency were mainly in spite of Johnson, rather than motivated by Johnson. Similarly, for the Reconstruction Act, which was passed to confirm African American suffrage, Johnson vetoed the process once again, but failed.
However, the effects of the Reconstruction Act were limited by the uncooperative attitudes of some Southern states, such as Louisiana and Texas. With the support of Johnson’s racist attitudes, these states were encouraged to use their rights to determine their own affairs within the state to restrict the rights of African Americans through Black Codes. Therefore, further action was required and in 1868, the Congress introduced the 14th Amendment to address problems of the previous acts. By the 14th Amendment, ‘all persons born or naturalized in the United States’ were equal before the law. It also threatened the racist Southern states by reducing their representation in the Congress if they continued to reject African American suffrage. Similar to the previous acts, the 14th Amendment was passed against Johnson’s efforts, and there were limitations. As the Amendment implied that states who were willing to accept the reduction in state representation in the Congress could continue to discriminate against the African Americans, it was not able to fully deter racism in some states. But, although there were some drawbacks in the civil rights laws passed during Johnson’s term, the many attempts to improve racial equality was an encouraging first step, which set a foundation for civil right laws later on, and despite Johnson’s racist beliefs, it cannot be ignored that there were promising changes in American civil rights during 1865-1869. This is supported by Historian Eric L. McKitrick who mentioned that ‘despite some indications in the beginning that Johnson’s attitude toward the South might be a harsh one, his policy turned out to be quite otherwise.’
Throughout his presidency, Johnson was anti-Republican and active in criticizing the Congress’s decisions. He held the greatest responsibility in delaying the processes and encouraging the racist attitudes of the Southern states to frustrate civil right laws. This demonstrated how Johnson made no progressive contribution to the advancement of African American civil rights, and he is arguably one of the worst Presidents judging based upon the extent of support for the civil rights movement. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Johnson was that after the Civil War, there were high expectations on Johnson in the field of civil right. Many also expected him to continue Lincoln’s legacy as his successor. Johnson’s failure to do so made his presidency even more devastating.
Johnson’s contemporaries also understood the negative impact he had on the advancement of African American rights. Thomas Nast, a German-born American political cartoonist published his cartoon (‘Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction and How It Works’) through ‘Harper’s Weekly’. The cartoon depicts the disastrous presidency of Andrew Johnson, portraying him as an antagonist who caused the sufferings of African Americans. In 1865-1866, Johnson was active in appeasing the South, granting them pardons in exchange for their support, while he allowed states to continue to use Black Codes, which threatened the lives of African Americans. Nast published the cartoon in September 1866, hoping to criticize the President and promote Republican values subsequent to the legislative elections to help Republican candidates gain votes. In the center of the cartoon, Andrew Johnson is represented by Iago, a traditional villain from the play ‘Othello’, while the role of Othello, the protagonist, was portrayed by an innocent, injured African American war veteran. This mirrored how Johnson refused to acknowledge the rights of African Americans despite their sacrifices during the war, which can be seen through his efforts in limiting the rights of African Americans in the South through vetoing the pro-civil right Congressional decisions.
At the bottom of the cartoon, Andrew Johnson is represented as a snake charmer, who controlled the snake, which represents the Southern states. This causes the sufferings of an African American man. This illustrates how during his presidency, Andrew Johnson’s vetoing of the pro-civil right laws effectively encouraged the Southern Democrats to become more radical in their racist attitudes. This can be seen by their uncooperative response to the laws passed by the Congress. For example, states like Alabama were unwilling to accept African American suffrage and these states used their rights to determine their own affairs within the state to restrict the rights of African Americans through Black Codes, so the effectiveness of the Reconstruction Act became very limited in the South.
The South demonstrated their anti-Republican beliefs again after the 14th Amendment in 1868, as they were willing to sacrifice the size of the representation of the state within the Congress in exchange for continuing to restrict the rights of African Americans. The increasingly radical leanings of the Southern states were also depicted by Nast through the illustration of the violence towards African Americans at the top of the cartoon. This was a reminder of the anti-African American riots in 1866, and the violence of slavery. This demonstrates how the lives of African Americans during Johnson’s term did not improve a great deal compared to that before the Civil War.
Following the disastrous Johnson presidency, the Grant presidency (1869-77) had positive but limited impact on African Americans during the civil rights movement, which can be highlighted by his efforts in promoting black rights and enfranchisement, and his campaign against brutal, racists organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. On assuming the presidency, compared to Johnson, Grant lacked political experience, however, a significant change made during the Grant presidency was the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. Historian Eric Foner described it as ‘the “crowning” act of a Radical conspiracy to promote black equality’ and it transformed America ‘from a confederation of states into a centralized nation’ (p446). By the Fifteenth Amendment, all American citizens were guaranteed the right to vote regardless of one’s ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’. However, many questioned if it was enough to support black rights. There were states which manipulated the terms and created various tests knowing that many ex-slaves could not meet the requirements. Pennsylvania demanded state taxes to be paid for access to the polls, while Connecticut designed literacy tests. This effectively prohibited many African Americans from voting. This showed that Grant had failed to bring suffrage through the Fifteenth Amendments.
Apart from this, Grant showed his commitment to the cause by signing the Enforcement Acts in 1870-71 and the Civil Rights Act in 1875. The Enforcement Acts were passed against groups like the Ku Klux Klan. States who did not take action against such violence would be prosecuted. Around 600 members were arrested and tried, which reduced the power of the Klan, but members still continued to conduct racist acts. Furthermore, there was the gradual formation of other racist groups like the White League. In 1875, the Civil Rights Act was signed by Grant and it forbade discrimination in all public places, but it failed to address segregation in schools. This act also had little impact as only a few people were brave enough to go against the majority. Overall, Grant failed to make a huge impact to the status and rights of African Americans, as there were many issues with the laws passed during his presidency. He was only able to achieve a degree of de jure equality but not de facto equality.
This was because the political structure of America made it easy for states to find loopholes in the law, which made it hard to ensure the enactment of laws. Therefore, it was unfair to criticize the weaknesses of Grant’s efforts as any other President in his position would have struggled. Also, despite the limitations, the purpose of the acts themselves had good intentions. This demonstrated Grant had good intentions and was open minded regarding racial inequality, but he failed to use his political power to bring positive change. Still, compared to the Johnson presidency, the fight for civil relations during the Grant presidency seemed more promising.
After Grant’s presidency, Rutherford B Hayes became President from 1877 to 1881. Compared to the Grant presidency, limited progress was linked to the President’s lack of commitment to the cause, causing Hayes to give up civil relations to pacify the South, rather than the lack of political skill that hindered Grant in expressing his intentions. During the presidential elections, in order to win the votes of Southern Democrats, Hayes initiated the Hayes Compromise in exchange for the rights of African Americans. By the Hayes Compromise, it meant that federal forces removed themselves from the former southern slave states which meant they could no longer protect the African Americans and this allowed those states to pass Jim Crow laws.
Historian Ari Hoogenboom acknowledged Hayes’s desire to appease the South by commenting that Hayes was eager to ‘aid’ and ‘abet’ ‘the triumph of white supremacy in the South’, but Hayes was still aware from the ‘strong racist propensities’ so this made him more cautious than he would have wanted. This could explain why Hayes showed support for meritocracy and employed his workers based on their ability rather than their race. His strong passion in promotion education also increased opportunity for African Americans to be educated, as he believed that ‘universal suffrage should rest upon universal education’. There were educational funds for African Americans who had potential, such as W E B Du Bois. Moreover, after his presidency, Hayes continued to increase educational opportunities for African Americans through the John F. Slater Education Fund for Freedmen in 1882. This may imply that privately, Hayes was still a supporter for civil rights, and that his unenthusiastic behaviour while he was President was solely to consolidate his position through maintaining support. This revealed that overall, Hayes did have a positive impact on civil rights.
However, it could be argued that he could have done more. His efforts were largely focused on increasing educational opportunities of African Americans only and did not address other aspects of racial discrimination and segregation. Moreover, the Hayes Compromise revealed that Hayes did not fully devote himself to the cause and was still willing to forfeit his fight for civil rights in exchange for personal gains. Hayes’s lack of passion and commitment for civil rights was possibly what caused his presidency to bring about limited positive impact.
It was a similar case for James A Garfield and Chester A Arthur, who both acted on a good purpose but did not have a large impact. Before they became presidents, they both displayed their support for civil rights through expressing opposition towards slavery. During his presidency, Garfield appointed African American leaders to his administration. Garfield even passionately defended American civil right in his inaugural address, describing ‘the elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship’ as ‘the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787’, but he was unable to fulfill the expectations considering he was assassinated 199 days after his accession. As for Arthur, although he expressed his disapproval for the abolishment of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, he failed to convince the Congress of his opinions. This was an example of how Presidents operating within the same political system during this period struggled to improve African American civil rights, due to the State and the Supreme Court wanting to bring in Jim Crow laws. This showed that although all three Presidents during the period of 1877 to 1885 were generally supportive of civil rights, they did not go far enough to lead to any great positive impact in racial equality. This may be due to the lack of political skill and the political system at the time.
President Benjamin Harrison was another example of a President with good intentions, but lacked the political skill to push for an effective impact under the American system of checks and balances. Throughout his presidency, from 1889-1893, Harrison had been in favor of African American civil rights. He showed his support for civil rights by the appointment of African Americans into high positions in government. For example, in 1889, Harrison appointed Frederick Douglas, a civil rights leader, as the US minister of Haiti. According to Michael Perman, the Federal Elections Bill of 1890 was ‘a high point of the Harrison administration’s initiative to strengthen federal election supervision’, in which Harrison displayed his dedication for racial equality. The Bill declared the rights of African Americans and promoted fairness in elections. Despite the Fifteenth Amendments, white juries in the South were unreliable in convicting those who violated voting rights, so Harrison urged the Congress to pass a law that declared the universal right of suffrage.
However, the Federal Elections Bill was defeated at the Senate, and it eventually fell to rest. Although Harrison was supportive of the bill, it failed to gain sufficient support and it even led to division within the Republicans as some ‘regarded’ the bill as a distraction ‘that kept the party from addressing the urgent issues of the industrial age’. Furthermore, in American, the founding fathers of the constitution deliberately created this system of checks and balances, which made it difficult for any President during this period to pass controversial laws. It was hard for Harrison to act against the will of the Congress, due to the separation of power and the system of checks and balances. Even with a sympathetic President like Harrison, bills could not have been passed easily if it did not convince the Congress, the Supreme Court or the State. This demonstrates how Harrison’s honorable motives in favor of civil rights failed to bring about a great positive impact to African Americans during his presidency. Furthermore, during Harrison’s term segregation was starting to gain momentum, with Plessy v Ferguson around the corner, and there was little the President could do in the Southern states, despite his passion for the cause.