Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In April 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Vice President Andrew Johnson inherited the mantle of leadership. With the nation reunited, the process of reintegrating the South into the larger whole had to be accomplished. Which branch of government would establish the rules for the Reconstruction of the South was at stake when Congress opened their regular session. In order to play the role its leaders believed was proper for the legislative branch, Congress appointed a Joint Committee to investigate the actions taken by Johnson and the leaders of the Southern states. After six months of study, this Report was written and delivered to both houses of Congress. The Report was a major challenge to President Johnson and a repudiation of virtually all he had done. The appointing of this Committee was the opening volley in the struggle between Congress and President Johnson as to whether the legislative or executive branch would hold the power in the postwar era.

Summary Overview

In April 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Vice President Andrew Johnson inherited the mantle of leadership. With the nation reunited, the process of reintegrating the South into the larger whole had to be accomplished. Which branch of government would establish the rules for the Reconstruction of the South was at stake when Congress opened their regular session. In order to play the role its leaders believed was proper for the legislative branch, Congress appointed a Joint Committee to investigate the actions taken by Johnson and the leaders of the Southern states. After six months of study, this Report was written and delivered to both houses of Congress. The Report was a major challenge to President Johnson and a repudiation of virtually all he had done. The appointing of this Committee was the opening volley in the struggle between Congress and President Johnson as to whether the legislative or executive branch would hold the power in the postwar era.

Defining Moment

The Civil War had devastated the nation. In addition, the assassination of President Lincoln had shocked the people in the Northern states, coming when all but one of the major Southern armies had surrendered and the war was virtually over. Although a Democrat from the seceded state of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson had been chosen as vice president, in order to demonstrate Lincoln's desire for national unity. From the beginning, Republicans in Congress were uneasy about Johnson being on the ticket. Coming into the presidency when Congress was not scheduled to be in session for almost eight months, Johnson unilaterally moved ahead with plans for the Reconstruction of the South, rather than calling a special session to get Congressional input. Congressional Republicans thought Johnson's plans for Reconstruction were too easy on the South, and so, as one of the first acts of the regular session in December 1865, they established a Joint Committee to study and report on Johnson's actions.

Although a major part of the split between Congress and President Johnson was the normal interparty/regional rivalry, the seriousness of the split went well beyond that. The effect of those differences should not be underestimated as to the division within the national government in 1865–66. However, in addition this split was a continuation of the problems created by the separation of powers established in the Constitution. During the Civil War, the executive branch, under President Lincoln, had acquired a substantial amount of power at the expense of Congress. Now that the war was over and the president's role as commander-in-chief was less important, members of Congress desired to reassert power over national programs and policy. This would have been true even if Lincoln were alive, but with the party and regional differences between Johnson and the majority of the members of Congress, it was magnified. Thus, the members of Congress wanted to make it clear that they would be in charge of Reconstruction and not the president.

The means for doing this was for a Joint Committee of the two houses (Senate and House of Representatives) to develop a basic plan, based on the situation seven months after the last hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy. This was the Committee charged with this important task. The report, with the attached proposal to amend the Constitution, was a step toward gaining control of the Reconstruction of the South. If Congress had not done this, Reconstruction would have been very different.

Author Biography

The Joint Committee on Reconstruction was composed of fifteen members, nine members of the House and six Senators. Republicans dominated the Committee, as they did each chamber, with seven House members and five senators from that party. These were the twelve men who signed the report. The other three members were Democrats, and they filed a minority report. The Committee itself was the result of a resolution introduced by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and passed by both houses thirteen days after the start of the first regular session of the Thirty-ninth Congress. Stevens was appointed to the Committee, although Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine was the chairman. In the House, Stevens was a leader of the Radical Republicans, who believed that full equality should be given to African Americans and that a structure should be put in place to assist in this becoming reality. This wing of the party, totally opposed to President Johnson's Reconstruction plan, was to dominate national politics for the next few years.

Document Analysis

The Congress of the United States was very upset with President Johnson, due to his lack of consultation regarding Reconstruction. The Joint Committee investigated what steps had been, and were being, taken to reintegrate the South. The majority (all Republican) was appalled at what had been done and the promises that had been made. After numerous pages outlining the Committee's investigative work, the report offered ten statements/resolutions stating that the steps taken by the president had exceeded his authority and had also been generally worthless. The report went on to recommend that Congress take full control of Reconstruction, especially deciding when and by whom vacant Congressional seats could be filled. The report ended with a proposal for a Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (eventually passed and ratified) to strengthen the rights of all citizens, as an attempt to block, in the Southern states, what became called Jim Crow laws.

The Committee's investigation began by requesting records from the president regarding his actions and the official responses of the Southern states. The report states that these were not received in a timely manner, and what the Southern states had given the president was generally worthless. Only Tennessee seemed to be making an attempt to meet the spirit of the Reconstruction process, from the Committee's point of view. While the Committee appreciated the president's steps to restore order in the defeated states, the Committee concluded that if the president's plans were followed, the South would be given what they could not win through rebellion. The Committee did recognize that there needed to be a balance between punishing treason and rehabilitating the South. However, for the Committee, “civil equality” had to be developed to assure the freed slaves they would not only be free, but safe.

The ten statements/proposals made by the Committee noted that all the problems faced by the South were of their own making. They had withdrawn their representatives in Congress, they had tried to secede from the Union, they had begun the military conflict, and quit only when all their forces were totally defeated. For the South to complain they were being treated unfairly had no foundation, from the Committee's perspective. The fact that there had not been documented changes among the people or leadership of the Southern states meant, to the Committee, that the states were “not, at present, entitled to representation.” The Committee believed only Congress could make this determination, and they would do so only when a secure society was in place for all citizens, North and South, white and African-American.

Essential Themes

Although the topic of the report was Reconstruction, a major portion of it dealt with the question of which branch of government had the authority and power to oversee and regulate the process. As might be expected, the Congressional Committee believed that this was Congress' right and responsibility. In outlining the weaknesses of President Johnson's Reconstruction plans, and their implementation, much of the focus was on the difference between the powers wielded by the president as commander-in-chief, versus the president as leader of a country at peace. In the latter circumstances, the Committee believed only Congress could set the rules for Reconstruction.

As to the structure of the Reconstruction process, the Committee dwelt at length on the role of the military provisional governors appointed by President Johnson. Congress accepted their presence as necessary to bring order to an area where the civilian government had been destroyed, but they did not accept as fact that the military governors (paid by the War Department; what would now be the Department of Defense) had the right to establish civilian government. This, in the Committee's view, could only be done by the nation's civilian leadership, Congress. Thus Congress had the responsibility for developing the regulations for Reconstruction and implementing them. This included a much stronger effort to create the conditions for the full equality of all people. If Congress accepted and acted on this report, they would have the responsibility of changing essential legal aspects of society to guarantee the “civil rights and privileges of all citizens in all parts of the republic.” Although this desire to have full equality for African Americans in the South by the end of Reconstruction did not come to pass, this report, the Fourteenth Amendment, and related legislation, not only shaped events during Reconstruction, but formed the foundation for much of the civil rights legislation in the twentieth century.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Franklin, John Hope and Eric Foner. Reconstruction after the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.
  • Kendrick, Benjamin B. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. New York: Columbia University, 1914. Google eBooks. n.d. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • Saxon, Rufus. “Testimony before Congress's Joint Committee on Reconstruction.” History of St. Augustine. Ed. Gil Wilson. Dr. Bronson Tours. n.d. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • Smith, John David. A Just and Lasting Peace: A Documentary History of Reconstruction. New York: Signet Classics, 2013. Print.
  • United States Congress Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Report. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1866. Online University of Pittsburgh Library System. 28 Feb. 2009. Web. 20 March 2014.
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