Created by the Thirty-ninth U.S. Congress, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction markedly altered the course of Reconstruction after the American Civil War.
On April 26, 1865, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the last major Confederate army in the field to William T. Sherman at Bennett Place, North Carolina, virtually ending major organized combat in the American Civil War. With Congress in recess, President Andrew Johnson turned his attention to reconstructing the Union. Like his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, Johnson advocated quickly healing the nation’s wounds by exercising leniency toward the South. Johnson well knew that Radicals in Congress favored harsher terms for the conquered Confederate states. He and other Democrats also knew that the Radical’s demands for black enfranchisement could mean the demise of his political party and the establishment of a Republican regime in the South. Thus, Johnson moved quickly, hoping to complete Reconstruction before Congress reconvened in December.
Congress had other ideas. When the legislature reconvened on December 4, 1865, both houses refused to seat representatives from Southern states reconstructed under Johnson’s policies (except for Tennessee). On the first day of the new session, Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens proposed:
That a joint committee of fifteen members shall be appointed, nine of whom shall be members of the House and six members of the Senate, who shall inquire into the condition of the States which formed the so-called Confederate States of America, and report whether they or any of them are entitled to be represented in either House of Congress, . . . .
On December 12, the Senate passed an amended version of Stevens’s proposal, which Rhode Island Senator Anthony introduced. The next day, December 13, 1865, the two houses agreed on the amended version and formed the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.
The Joint Committee on Reconstruction comprised six senators (five Republicans and one Democrat) and nine Representatives (seven Republicans and two Democrats).
- William P. Fessenden (R) of Maine
- James W. Grimes (R) of Iowa
- Ira Harris (R) of New York
- Jacob M. Howard (R) of Michigan
- Reverdy Johnson (D) of Maryland
- George H. Williams (R) of Oregon
- John A. Bingham (R) of Ohio
- George S. Boutwell (R) of Massachusetts
- Henry T. Blow (R) of Missouri
- Roscoe Conkling (R) of New York
- Henry Grider (D) of Kentucky
- Justin S. Morrill (R) of Vermont
- Andrew J. Rogers (D) of New Jersey
- Thaddeus Stevens (R) of Pennsylvania
- Elihu B. Washburne (R) of Illinois
Chairman William P. Fessenden called the committee together for the first time on January 6, 1866. The members quickly approved a motion by Thaddeus Stevens to form a three-member delegation to call on President Johnson, requesting him to “defer all further executive action in regard to reconstruction until this committee shall have taken action on that subject.”
After meeting with Johnson, the members of the delegation (Fessenden, Johnson, and Washburne) reported to the committee on January 10, 1866, that:
the President replied, substantially, that while he considered it desirable that this matter of reconstruction should be advanced as rapidly as might be consistent with the public interest, still he desired to secure harmony of action between Congress and the Executive, and it was not his intention to do more than had been done for the present.
During the same meeting on January 10, Thaddeus Stevens proposed a constitutional amendment to nullify the Three-fifths Compromise regarding apportionment (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution). An amended version of his proposal eventually became Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Two days later, on January 12, John A. Bingham introduced a proposal to amend the Constitution to establish that:
The Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper to secure to all persons in every state within this Union equal protection in their rights of life, liberty and property.
Bingham’s proposal subsequently became Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On the same day, the committee approved a motion by Stevens, “That the Chairman be instructed to introduce into the Senate a concurrent resolution authorizing this joint committee to send for persons and papers,” to report on:
- “the present condition of the States composing the late so-called Confederate States of America, and . . . what has been their action in relation to any amendments of the Federal or State constitutions”
- “what may be the present legal position of freedmen in the respective States”
- “in what manner the so-called ordinances of secession have been treated”
- “whether the validity of debts contracted for the support of the rebellion is acknowledged”
- “all evidence, documentary or otherwise, of the present loyalty or disloyalty upon the part of the people or governments of said States.”
As a result of Stevens’s motion, the committee heard testimony from 144 witnesses over the course of its existence.
Amending the Constitution
At a committee meeting on February 3, 1866, Jacob M. Howard proposed a constitutional amendment stating:
That the payment of every kind of indebtedness arising or growing out of the late rebellion . . . is forever prohibited to the United States and to each of the States; such indebtedness and all evidences thereof are hereby declared and in all courts and places shall be held and treated as in violation of this Constitution, and utterly void and of no effect.
An amended version of Howard’s proposal later became Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment.
During the winter and spring, subcommittees struggled to sort out the various recommendations for amending the Constitution that members had placed before the committee. On April 21, Stevens proposed combining several of the measures into one amendment. The committee approved Stevens’s plan, and its final report to the first session of the Thirty-ninth Congress, on June 6, 1866, recommended a measure that eventually became the Fourteenth Amendment.
Readmitting the Confederate States
The committee also recommended readmitting Senators and Representatives from former Confederate states to Congress only after:
- the states ratified the proposed amendment,
- the states revised their constitutions and laws in conformity with the proposed amendment,
- the senators and representatives duly elected and qualified to hold office, and
- the Senators and Representatives took the required oaths of office.
Excluding Confederates from Government
Finally, the committee recommended a bill “declaring certain persons ineligible to hold office under the Government of the United States.” Those persons included:
- the president and vice-president of the Confederate States of America, so-called, and the heads of departments thereof,
- those who in other countries acted as agents of the Confederate States of America, so-called,
- heads of Departments of the United States, officers of the Army and Navy of the United States, and all persons educated at the Military or Naval Academy of the United States, judges of the courts of the United States, and members of either house of the Thirty-sixth Congress of the United States who gave aid or comfort to the late rebellion,
- those who acted as officers of the Confederate States of America, so-called, above the grade of colonel in the army or master in the navy, and anyone who, as governor of either of the so-called Confederate States, gave aid or comfort to the rebellion, and
- those who have treated officers or soldiers or sailors of the Army or Navy of the United States, captured during the late war, otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war.
Following submission of its report on June 6, 1866, the committee adjourned for the final time during the first session of the Thirty-ninth Congress.
First Military Reconstruction Act
The second session of the Thirty-ninth Congress convened on December 3, 1866. Two days later, both houses agreed to reappoint the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Membership from the Senate remained intact. On the House side, Republican Representative John F. Farnsworth of Illinois replaced Elihu B. Washburne, and Democratic Representative Elijah Hise replaced Henry Grider, who had died in September.
The committee held its first meeting of the second session on February 2, 1867. On February 6, the members began considering the proposed legislation entitled “An act to provide for the more efficient government of the Rebel States.” After considerable deliberation, the committee sent the bill back to the House for approval. More commonly known as the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, or the First Military Reconstruction Act, Congress passed the bill into law on March 2, 1876, over President Andrew Johnson’s veto.
The Joint Committee on Reconstruction met for the last time on February 9, 1867. The Fortieth Congress, which convened on March 4, 1867, did not re-establish the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Although the committee existed for only slightly less than fifteen months, it markedly altered the course Reconstruction. By reversing Andrew Johnson’s lenient Presidential Reconstruction policies, the committee paved the way for constitutionally guaranteed civil and political rights for African Americans.