“Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction and How it Works…”

September 1, 1866

Thomas Nast

“Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction and How it Works…”

Analogies, Shakespeare; Black Americans; Congress; Congressional Elections; Presidential Administration, Andrew Johnson; Reconstruction; Riots, Race Riots;

Johnson, Andrew;

American South; Louisiana; New Orleans; Tennessee;

Othello. Dost thou mock me?

Iago. I mock you! No, by Heaven: would you would bear your fortunes like a man.


With this attention-grabbing cartoon, Thomas Nast intended both to generate opposition to President Andrew Johnson's lenient Reconstruction plan and to gain support in the fall 1866 elections for Republican congressional candidates who endorsed a more radical Reconstruction policy.  At center stage, the artist applies a Shakespearean motif, as he often did, to cast Johnson as the evil Iago plotting against the heroic and innocent Othello, the Moor (African).  Nast portrays the main black character as a wounded Union veteran who is being denied his just and earned place in American political life.  Posters on the wall behind the two men remind viewers of the president’s past promises, vetoes of Reconstruction legislation, and pardons of former Confederates. 

President Johnson announced his Reconstruction plan soon after he became president, following Lincoln's assassination, and implemented it during the summer of 1865 when Congress was in recess.  Johnson’s Reconstruction program offered general amnesty to all who would take an oath of future loyalty.  The plan, however, called for high-ranking Confederate officials or any wealthy white Southerner to petition the president personally for individual pardons.  (Raised in poverty in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, Johnson, a War Democrat, resented the Southern planter aristocracy, and relished the idea of them begging him for pardons.)  In order to be readmitted, a state would have to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and repudiate Confederate war debts.  By the end of 1865, all the former Confederate states had complied with Johnson’s plan and were ready to reenter the Union on an equal status with all the other states. 

However, the Radical Republicans and a good number of other Northerners, too, did not want to see those former Confederate states reenter the Union so quickly and easily.  They were disturbed by:  1) the reluctance with which slavery was abolished in the South; 2) the refusal of all the states to grant voting rights to black men; 3) the election of former Confederate leaders to state or national office—e.g., Georgia elected former Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens to the U. S. Senate; and, 4) the enactment by southern legislatures of laws—known as Black Codes—that limited the rights and freedoms of blacks in the South (like slave codes did before the war).  

When Congress reconvened in December 1865, they refused to seat the representatives from the states reconstructed under Johnson’s plan, and they insisted that Congress must control the process.  In the spring and summer of 1866, the president further alienated the Republican majority in Congress by vetoing the Freedmen's Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act, although they eventually overrode the vetoes.  

In this cartoon, the scene depicting a slavery auction and lashing (upper-center) underlines the continuity between the pre-war and post-war South.  Nast incorporates images of race riots in Memphis (upper-left) and New Orleans (upper-right) as symbols of the sustained and extreme violence against blacks committed by some Southern whites. 

During the Civil War, the black population in Memphis quadrupled, and racial tensions were high.  The riot was sparked on May 1, 1866, when the horse-drawn hacks of a black man and a white man collided.  As a group of black veterans tried to intervene to stop the arrest of the black man, a crowd of whites gathered at the scene.  Fighting broke out, and then escalated into three days of racially motivated violence, primarily pitting the police (mainly Irish-Americans) against black residents.  When it was over, 46 blacks and two whites had been killed, five black women raped, and hundreds of black homes, schools, and churches had been vandalized or destroyed by arson. 

While the Memphis riot was a manifestation of the general hostility that many Southern whites felt toward blacks during the Reconstruction era, the New Orleans riot was related specifically to Reconstruction politics.  The reelection of the former Confederate mayor in New Orleans, John Monroe, and other signs of the increasing influence of erstwhile Confederates, led Louisiana Governor James Madison Wells to call a state constitutional convention.  He endorsed enfranchising black men, banning former Confederates from voting, and other Radical Republican goals. 

On July 30, 1866, 25 delegates and 200 black supporters assembled in New Orleans for the constitutional convention.  A fight began on the street outside the hall between opponents and supporters of the convention.  The arrival of the police, sympathetic to the Confederate cause, only worsened the conflict.  General Philip Sheridan, in charge of the Louisiana military district, was out of the state when the riot occurred, but later described it as “an absolute massacre.”  During the New Orleans riot, 34 blacks and three white Radicals were killed, and over 100 persons were injured.  Together, the Memphis and New Orleans riots provoked scornful opposition in the North to President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction agenda.

In the lower-center frame of this cartoon, Johnson-the-snake-charmer is joined by his top cabinet officials (l-r), Secretary of State William Henry Seward, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  (Johnson’s later attempt to oust Stanton for working behind the scenes with Congressional Radicals led to the president’s impeachment.)  The bottom side-panels contrast the situation in New Orleans during the Civil War and during the Johnson administration.  On the left (1862), a humbled Confederate soldier must bow to Union General Benjamin Butler; on the right (1866), General Philip Sheridan is forced to submit to the same former Rebel.

As cartoonist Nast hoped, so many Republican congressional candidates won in the fall of 1866 that their majority could easily override any presidential veto.  In the spring of 1867, the new Republican-controlled Congress began passing and implementing its own Reconstruction plan.

For more information, visit HarpWeek's Websites on Black American history and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction and How it Works…”
June 17, 2024

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