Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War

By Benjamin P. Thomas; Harold M. Hyman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVI
OFF THE SHARP HOOKS OF UNCERTAINTY

DURING March, Johnson opened a new battle line. His cabinet supporters asserted that Congress had designated the troops in the South a special corps, responsive only to the White House and therefore independent of the untrustworthy War Secretary and the uncertain commanding general. So far as the South was concerned, Johnson decided to ignore them both.

In bypassing the war office, Johnson plotted to thwart the clear intentions of Congress and to augment the powers of the presidency. His strategy assumed that Stanton and Grant had nothing to do with reconstruction beyond paying and supplying the soldiers assigned to occupation duties. By ordering the military governors to interpret the reconstruction law in a limited fashion, so far as the disfranchisement of former rebels and the status of Negroes were concerned, Johnson intended to soften the impact of the law on the South, and keep in office the men now controlling the Southern states. By appearing to execute the reconstruction act, however, Johnson could avoid dangers to himself. He might also, Welles suggested, establish control over the troops in the South and so have an obedient military force to act as a counterweight in the event of impeachment. In short, the President would employ the Republicans' laws for his purposes.1

He did not even pay Stanton the respect of concealing these intentions. Instead, Johnson displayed his plans at cabinet assemblies as though on signal flags. He should not have been surprised to find that Stanton read the message and took steps to counter the danger.

____________________
1
Morse, Welles Diary, III, 59-63; memo, March 5-11, 1867, Welles Papers, LC.

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