American History / Federal Gov'T During Civil War

Federal Gov'T During Civil War

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Autor:  anton  16 March 2011
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America’s republican form of representative government was premised upon the idea of three co-equal branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The three branches, in theory, operate independent of one another and serve as check upon one another. It is this structure of this government, the founders believed, that would retard any establishment of monarchial government that the American Revolution was fought upon. However the civil war, and more specifically the Reconstruction period following it tested these principles to the core. While it may be accurate to characterize governmental struggles that defined Reconstruction as ones that were inter-branch, a more detailed and nuanced survey reveals it was borne more so out of ideologies that were incumbent within each branch. This essay surveys the ideological battles between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, and evaluates its impact on the idea of American Federalism from the past going forward.

In order to have a coherent survey of the impact of the reconstruction era on federalism, it is first necessary to define what federalism and reconstruction meant to the nation. The structure of American government was widely debated during the time of this country’s founding. Specifically, following the several state’s victory during the Revolutionary War, two distinct factions formed in regards to the form of the new government of the victors. This debate was colored with strong resistance from a considerable portion of the country who wanted to keep the autonomy of the states. While another faction advocated for a strong central government with states maintaining some autonomy. In the end, a compromise was struck whereby a weak central government was formed giving near complete autonomy to the states. This relationship did not endure though.

Not long after the inception of the Articles of Confederation, it became clear that the several states functioning as independent units would not be able to provide a sufficient defense for the whole country. Following a constitutional convention, the present day Constitution was devised with a federal structure with three co-equal branches endowed with certain enumerated functions. During the period from the Revolution to the Civil war, America’s branches of government had always been in constant conflict. However, the period of reconstruction brought this strife to the forefront.

It is inaccurate per se, to characterize this strife as one solely of branches of government competing for supremacy; rather, it is better characterized as a struggle of competing political goals. To understand Reconstruction, it is important to understand how differing ideologies understood the goals of reconstructing this country following the Civil War.

This period was defined by the two party system that we know today: Democrats and Republicans. Following Reconstruction, the outer reaches of the Republican Party were defined by complete redefinition of the south. Specifically, many Republicans advocated for ridding the southern aristocracy of their property as well as their life styles. During this period bills were introduced by Republican congressman to redistribute the wealth of the southern aristocracy from wealthy slave owner planters to newly freed slaves. This effort was primarily carried into effect through legislation empowering the Freedman’s Bureau to confiscate lands conquered through war efforts and giving to newly emancipated slaves. While most legislative efforts in the end proved ineffective because of narrowing of statutes by the Supreme Court or through slim enforcement by the Executive branch, the Radical Republican Congress continued to pass bills and override vetoes in order to fully subordinate the Confederate states.

The Executive vision of Reconstruction was marked by two administrations: Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. While Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the end of the war, his vision of how to reconstruct the South and to bring them back within the Union set the tone for the future. Prior to Lee’s surrender, Lincoln had already begun to plan for how to deal with the south. Contrary to Radical Republicans that populated the Congress, Lincoln did not initially seek to completely punish the South in order to bring them back within Union. In fact, Lincoln never felt as though the South had ever legally seceded from the Union, because do so would be impossible under the Constitution.

To bring the South back within the Union, Lincoln proposed setting up provisional governments that upon a showing of allegiance would regain autonomy within the Union. These policies, which were seen as far to lenient to the Radical Republicans and viewed as disenfranchising to Democrats, endured for only a short period following Lincoln’s assignation.

In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson, changed the attitude of the Executive Branch toward reconstruction. Specifically, Johnson in the face of congressional bills to punish southern secessionist sought to limit the reach of bills as well as vetoed many bills dealing with Reconstruction. These battles between the Executive and Legislative Branch typified the intergovernmental battle of Reconstruction which would lead to later impeachment efforts.

The Supreme Court’s role in Reconstruction was somewhat limited. However, just like the Executive, they sought to somewhat limit the fervor of the Congressional Republicans efforts to remake the south. It is important to note, that this was the same institution that shortly before the Civil War declared slavery as a constitutional institution for all States as well as foreclosed the possibility African-American citizenship. Specifically, the Supreme Court narrowed the import of the Fourteenth Amendment to only protect the “privileges and immunities” of United States citizenship. This lessened the protections of the fourteenth amendment in that it did not guarantee protection to freedmen from State action that may be hostile towards them. Furthermore, the Supreme Court also invalidated certain legislative acts of Congress further thwarting the will of the Radical Republicans.

These struggles between all the branches of government, mainly between the Radical Republicans in the Congress and the more moderate individuals in the Executive and Judicial branches served to cause Constitutional chaos. The fervor of the Radical Republicans to implement strict requirements in order to re-enter the union and the resistance of the Executive and Judicial branches to comply, resulted in the severe disruption of our democracy.

In response to duly enacted legislation, the executive sought to blunt the reach and import of such legislation. To force the Executive to conform to their will, the Legislative branch sought to impeach the Executive. The Supreme Court was even brought into the sights of Congressional Republicans with efforts to limit the appellate jurisdiction of the Judiciary in order to prevent their interference with the legislative agenda.

The enduring impact of these struggles was a weakening of the branches of government. This was likely outside the scope of what the founders likely envisioned. Furthermore, these struggles also disenfranchised a whole section of the country for an extended period of time, and in turn brought about the antithesis of what American democracy was all about.

Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography ( New York, 1989), p. 197; D. Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents (Lawrence, Kansas, 1998), p. 68

James M.McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill 2001), p. 548-549.

James M.McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill 2001), p. 512-513.

James M.McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill 2001), p. 436

James M.McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill 2001), p. 425-426.

Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (U.S. 1857)



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