What Was the Difference Between Presidential Reconstruction and Congressional Reconstruction?

Presidential Reconstruction, as envisioned by Abraham Lincoln and carried out by Andrew Johnson, was much more soft and forgiving than the vindictive and socially transformative measures of Congressional Reconstruction. Johnson’s more lenient approach to post-war policy continually put him at odds with the radical republicans that dominated Congress.

The University of Notre Dame describes Presidential Reconstruction as having had the intention of quickly restoring national unity and the viability of the South. Important elements of Presidential Reconstruction included the restoration of all property to former confederates who declared allegiance to the United States and the bestowal of greater economic opportunity to the yeomanry. Johnson also vetoed the bill for the renewal of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that aided distressed former slaves.

Under Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction, freedmen remained disenfranchised, blacks were driven out of the federal army, southern militias formed under ex-Confederate leadership and the highly discriminatory Black Codes were enacted in the South.

In response to the inefficacy of Johnson’s policies, Congress enacted its own Reconstruction legislation. Congressional Reconstruction was intended to punish the South and create a social revolution beneficial to blacks. In 1865, Congressional republicans refused to recognize Southern representatives. Both houses of Congress formed a joint committee to determine whether Southern states deserved representation. Congress also overrode President Johnson’s vetoes of the Freedman’s Bureau and the Civil Rights Act, a law that gave blacks full citizenship rights.