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The Civil War: The Senate's Story

Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction
Image of Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine

“It must not be forgotten that the people of these [Confederate] States, without justification or excuse, rose in insurrection against the United States,” concluded the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction in an 1866 report. After carefully documenting postwar social, political, and economic conditions in the Southern states—particularly for freedmen—the Joint Committee of Fifteen drafted the Fourteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Act of 1867, two bills that served as the foundation for congressional Reconstruction.

The committee’s origins were rooted in disputes that erupted during the final months of the Civil War between the executive and legislative branches. Anticipating a Union victory, Congress approved the Wade-Davis bill in 1864. It established conditions for the admission of rebel states, requiring 50 percent of white male residents to swear a loyalty oath to the Union and granting suffrage to African American men. President Abraham Lincoln favored more lenient requirements and pocket-vetoed the bill. When the 38th Congress adjourned in March 1865, the two branches of government had not yet reached agreement on the terms of Reconstruction. Lincoln was assassinated the following month and his successor, Andrew Johnson, began to implement his own Reconstruction policies.

When the 39th Congress convened on December 4, 1865, some states of the former Confederacy had organized under Johnson’s plan and were prepared to submit their credentials to Congress and be admitted for representation. A combative attitude prevailed among a Senate majority, however, who believed that only Congress had the constitutional power to set the terms of Reconstruction. On December 13, 1865, Congress created the Joint Committee of Fifteen composed of nine representatives and six senators (12 Republicans and three Democrats), chaired by Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, a moderate Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee. Senators James Grimes of Iowa, Ira Harris of New York, Jacob Howard of Michigan, Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, and George Williams of Oregon also served.

During the first half of 1866 the committee investigated conditions in the former Confederacy, hearing testimony from war generals, Southern politicians, and formerly enslaved persons. Based on these first-hand accounts, the committee concluded that Southern states were “disorganized communities, without civil government, and without constitutions or other forms, by virtue of which political relations could legally exist between them and the federal government.”

Believing that Congress alone possessed the constitutional authority to determine “political relations of the States to the Union” and determined to establish a legislative record before mid-term elections in the fall of 1866, the committee introduced a constitutional amendment to provide legal protections for newly freed persons. President Johnson opposed the measure, denounced the Joint Committee of Fifteen as “irresponsible,” and declared that Congress was not a “legal body” because “eleven reconstructed states of the South were not represented.” The president’s public statements strengthened the resolve among members of Congress to institute a congressional Reconstruction plan.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was a keystone of congressional Reconstruction. Senators began to debate the measure in late May 1866. Senator Fessenden, suffering from a bout of small pox, enlisted his colleague Jacob Howard to serve as the bill’s manager and ensure its passage in the Senate. Weeks of debate produced amendments that Howard skillfully incorporated into the final bill. On June 8, 1866, Senate galleries filled to overflowing with visitors eager to witness the historic vote. The Senate approved the Fourteenth Amendment by a roll-call vote of 33 to 11. The House approved the measure on June 13, 1866, and the amendment was ratified July 9, 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, including former slaves, barred former confederates from holding office, provided that all adults be counted for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives (negating the Constitution’s original three-fifths clause), and granted Congress the power to enforce these provisions. Among the first states to ratify the amendment, Tennessee regained congressional representation on July 24, 1866.

The committee’s second legislative accomplishment was the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The first of several bills to define the terms of congressional Reconstruction, it divided former Confederate states other than Tennessee into five military districts and placed them under the command of former Union generals. The bill also imposed a series of conditions on the former rebel states in order to regain representation in Congress. The bill became law on March 2, 1867, and congressional Reconstruction began. On June 22, 1868, Arkansas became the first state to be admitted to representation under those terms.

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