“The One Man Power vs. Congress” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson became president and oversaw Reconstruction in the South. Unlike many Republicans in Congress, President Johnson was in favor of loosening restrictions on former Confederate states and pushed to quickly return them to the Union. Republican legislators, such as Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, felt that Johnson had overstepped the authority of his office by involving himself in state constitutions of the former Confederacy and in federal legislation governing Reconstruction. They also felt that he was undoing the hard, bloody work of the Civil War by allowing increased participation from Southern states in national government before those states had proven themselves to be supportive of Republican demands, such as citizenship rights for former slaves.

Summary Overview

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson became president and oversaw Reconstruction in the South. Unlike many Republicans in Congress, President Johnson was in favor of loosening restrictions on former Confederate states and pushed to quickly return them to the Union. Republican legislators, such as Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, felt that Johnson had overstepped the authority of his office by involving himself in state constitutions of the former Confederacy and in federal legislation governing Reconstruction. They also felt that he was undoing the hard, bloody work of the Civil War by allowing increased participation from Southern states in national government before those states had proven themselves to be supportive of Republican demands, such as citizenship rights for former slaves.

President Johnson came into conflict with the Republican-led legislature over many issues, and Charles Sumner articulated a few of these in an 1866 address. Johnson directed the states of the former Confederacy to gather conventions and hold elections; when they did so, many states elected men who had been leaders of the Confederacy. Many of these states also passed harsh “Black codes” that stripped free African Americans of their rights. Charles Sumner foresaw disastrous consequences in Johnson's haste to allow Southern states back into national government so quickly.

Defining Moment

When Charles Sumner addressed the Music Hall in Boston in 1866, Andrew Johnson had been president for a year and a half, and his handling of the readmission to the Union of the states of the former Confederacy had set him squarely at odds with Republicans in Congress. Johnson issued a series of proclamations after the war instructing Southern states to hold elections and reconstitute their state governments. When these elections returned federal legislators, who were former leaders of the Confederacy, to power and states passed harsh laws to restrict the rights of former slaves, Congress refused to allow these Southern delegates to take office and drafted legislation that would override the actions of Southern state governments. Johnson vetoed this legislation, and Congress overrode his veto. This established a pattern of antagonism that lasted throughout Johnson's presidency, resulting in his impeachment in the House of Representatives in 1868. He was narrowly acquitted by the Senate.

Johnson opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship rights to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” saying he believed that voting rights and requirements should be set up by individual states. Since the executive branch has no formal role in the ratification of constitutional amendments, his opposition was particularly galling to members of Congress. Johnson was willing to allow the return of Southern states to full political power without requiring the sweeping changes that most Northern Republicans demanded. Though at first it seemed that Johnson's lenient attitude toward the South would help the former Confederacy accept their defeat and implement progressive Reconstruction laws, it had the opposite effect, emboldening Southern states to enact laws restricting the movement of former slaves, allowing them to be arrested with little cause, and permitting them to be rented to white landowners. It was a far cry from the equal rights and full citizenship demanded by Radical Republicans in Congress, and it seemed that Johnson's conciliatory positions would undo the progress made, at great cost, during the Civil War. Johnson's unwillingness to force the South to accept these changes enraged Republicans like Charles Sumner, who believed that Johnson was greatly overstepping his authority by involving himself in legislation. When Johnson refused to allow the Freedmen's Bureau to continue its work assisting former slaves in the South and also vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, even moderate Republicans broke with the president. The dislike was mutual. In 1866, Johnson gave a speech accusing several Republican senators, Sumner among them, of plotting his assassination and of being enemies of the Union.

Sumner's “The One Man Power vs. Congress” speech was given just one month before the pivotal election of 1866. Johnson was vigorously campaigning for Democrats and the few Republicans who still seemed to favor his policies, and Sumner embarked on a speaking tour to demand that the president leave the crafting of legislation to Congress. Speeches such as this one achieved their goal. Support for Johnson and his conciliatory attitude toward the former Confederacy gave way to widespread Republican control of Congress.

Author Biography

Charles Sumner was born on January 6, 1811, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was a lifelong abolitionist. Sumner was elected senator from Massachusetts in 1851, and he is perhaps best known for being beaten nearly to death on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in 1856, an act that further inflamed sectional tensions in the run up to the Civil War. Sumner continued to serve in the Senate throughout the war, championing emancipation, allowing black men to serve in the military, and advocating for creation of the Freedmen's Bureau, which would assist former slaves in finding housing and employment. During Reconstruction, Sumner proposed harsh restrictions on the former Confederacy, arguing that by being in a state of rebellion, they had given up their rights under the Constitution and should be treated as territories until they could prove themselves ready to rejoin the Union as states. Sumner continued to serve as a United States senator until his death in 1874.

Document Analysis

Charles Sumner was a lifelong advocate of abolition, then full citizenship for African Americans. He fully expected that after the Confederacy was defeated, laws would be passed that would protect newly freed slaves' rights and that the South would be made to accept a diminished role until they had proved themselves able to protect these rights. In his 1866 speech at the Music Hall in Boston, Sumner expressed his shock and disappointment that the president was willing to allow Southern states back into the Union while they returned former Confederate leaders to power and enacted laws that returned freedmen to a state of near-slavery.

Sumner began his speech by pitting the president against Congress: “The President insists upon installing ex-Rebels in political power.… Congress endeavors to exclude ex-Rebels from political power.” The exclusion of former Confederates is key to “security for the future,” in Sumner's opinion. The president, by disregarding the will of Congress in these matters, is disregarding the will of the people. To make matters worse, Sumner argues that the president is outmatched intellectually by Congress. He is not only overstepping his authority, but he is also “inferior in ability and character,” while the House of Representatives is “the best that has sat since the formation of the Constitution.”

Sumner states his belief that all of the gains made during the war are in imminent danger of being lost. “We are to secure by counsel what was won by war,” but if the president is allowed to continue his conciliatory policies toward the South, “the Rebel region will be handed over to misrule and anarchy.” If Congress prevails and is allowed to control the pace of Reconstruction, the South will become a model of peace and justice. The primary duty of the government is to protect the rights of former slaves. This can only happen if there are “provisions, sure, fundamental, and irrepealable, fixing forever the results of the war, the obligations of the Government, and the equal rights of all.” Southern states can only be allowed back into the Union when they can prove that they will behave themselves and be productive members of government, which to Sumner includes supporting the right of African American men to vote. Once the states of the former Confederacy are allowed back into the Union, they will not be removed again, and the chance that the government has to shape the future of the South and to protect the rights of all its citizens will be gone. Sumner therefore urges caution.

Essential Themes

Debate over the proper way to return Confederate states to the Union began while the war was still being fought. There were those in the South who felt that they should be allowed to rejoin just as they had left. On the other side, men like Charles Sumner believed that states in rebellion had given up their right to participate in national government until they could prove that they were committed to protecting the rights of black citizens. The primary theme of this speech is the outrage that many members of Congress felt at the way the South was being treated by President Johnson, whose leniency toward the former Confederacy had encouraged opposition to full citizenship rights for black men. If allowed to continue his “One Man Power,” said Sumner, Johnson would undo the gains made by a painful and protracted war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Donald, David H. Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War. 1960. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. 1988. New York: Harper, 2002. Print.
  • Gordon-Reed, Annette. Andrew Johnson. New York: Times Books, 2011. Print.
  • Sumner, Charles. “Charles Sumner on Reconstruction and the South, 1866.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.
  • ____________. The One Man Power vs. Congress! Address of Hon. Charles Sumner, at the Music Hall, Boston, October 2, 1866. Boston: Wright and Potter, 1866. Internet Archive.
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