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The Political Cartoon That Explains the Battle Over Reconstruction

The end of the U. S. Civil War left the nation in shambles. President Abraham Lincoln faced the monumental tasks of re-integrating the South back into the Union, healing political wounds, and guiding freed slaves into a new life. But Lincoln was assassinated, and Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson's approach to postwar rebuilding was different from what Lincoln had in mind. Historian Michael Les Benedict and history professors Heather Richardson and Brooks Simpson explain what went on.

“He pardons all but about 1,500 of the leading Confederates,” Richardson says. “Those people who took the South out of the Union are now free and fair citizens again of the United States, less than a year after the end of the war.” The move infuriated northern Republicans, who rallied behind the message depicted in Nast’s cartoon, which Richardson describes as, “don’t put Johnson’s people in office because he’s going to give us back the world we had before the Civil War.”

Left to manage their own affairs, many of the former Confederate states passed Black Codes that stripped African-Americans of almost all rights and essentially returned them to a forced labor system. Republican legislators were appalled when they returned to Congress in December 1865, and immediately tousled with Johnson for the future of the country. “They’re worried about not fully solving the slavery problem and letting it fester, and that might cause instability and even civil war again in the future,” Benedict says.

And there's way more to the problems of Reconstruction. In the midst of the turmoil, illustrator Thomas Nast produced the above political cartoon, which skewers different aspects of Johnson's plans. Smithsonian has an interactive graphic that explains each panel in the political context of the day.


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