Since the end of the war, black political conventions had been taking place across the South. The central issue was black suffrage. "We simply ask that we be recognized as men," declared the South Carolina Convention of Colored People, "that the same laws which govern over white men shall govern black men." "We stood by the government when it wanted help," a delegate from Mississippi wrote President Johnson, "Now will it stand by us?" In New Orleans, hundreds of black men declared they were ready to fight for the right to vote. Militant whites in the city vowed to stamp out black agitators and Radical Republicans. President Johnson dismissed the growing signs of trouble. At midday on July 30th 1866, New Orleans exploded. At the state convention, a mob attacked white Radical Republican delegates and their black supporters. The Republicans were chased out of the convention hall and shot down. Black men were murdered in the streets. By the time federal troops restored order, thirty-four blacks and three white Radicals had been killed.
And the Radicals say, "We told you. We told you that unless you stamp out this serpent of white power in the South, unless you kill it, it's going to rise up again."
The growing violence in the South turned the mid-term elections of 1866 into a referendum on Presidential Reconstruction. With Union war hero Ulysses S. Grant at his side, Johnson barnstormed the Northeast and the Midwest. Dubbed "The Swing Around the Circle," the speaking tour was an unprecedented effort to sell his policies to northern voters. It was a disaster. At the podium, the president traded insults with hostile crowds. And blamed the slaughter in New Orleans on Congress.
He called the leadership of the Republican party traitors. He even referred to himself as a Jesus figure, being crucified on the cross of Radical Reconstruction, which to many Northerners was just a kind of pathetic political rhetoric.
Many Northerners felt that black people should receive minimal constitutional protections. And it is the South's intransigence, and the policy that President Johnson pursues by encouraging the South to reconstitute itself, that drives many Northerners away from his position.
The Atlantic Monthly called the president "egotistic to the point of mental disease.... Insincere as well as stubborn, cunning as well as unreasonable, vain as well as ill-tempered." That fall, Republicans won three-fourths of the seats in both houses of Congress, enough to override any Johnson veto. In only eighteen months, the Radicals had gone from a fringe minority to the center of Republican leadership. Now it was their turn to define the course of Reconstruction. Thaddeus Stevens was 75 years old, so frail that he had to be carried into the Senate by admirers. In a voice his colleagues could barely hear, the tireless Stevens made a final plea for federal intervention in the southern states.
V/O Thaddeus Stevens
"Congress has been sitting here, and while the South has been bleeding at every pore, Congress has done nothing to protect the loyal people there -- white or black -- either in their persons, in their liberty, or in their property."
In March 1867, both houses of Congress again rejected a veto by President Johnson, and passed the Radicals' Reconstruction plan. The former Confederate states were divided into five military districts, each commanded by a General with power to enforce law and administer justice. New southern governments would be created. They would have to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. And -- black men would have the right to vote.
This really was a remarkable leap in the dark for world history. It was the first large-scale experiment in interracial democracy that had existed anywhere.
When Tunis Campbell learned of the Radicals' bold plan, he immediately decided to run for office. Marshall Twitchell also went into politics, as a delegate to Louisiana's Constitutional Convention. It was like nothing he'd ever seen. More than half the delegates were black. Within a year, Andrew Johnson would be impeached by the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors. His presidency would survive, by a single vote.