The Political Struggle, 1865–1866 | Facing History & Ourselves
 A photograph of Andrew Johnson.

The Political Struggle, 1865–1866

Students learn about President Andrew Johnson and the Congressional Republican's conflicting visions of how to rebuild the nation after the Civil War.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Racism


About This Lesson

The end of the Civil War led to conflicting visions within the United States government about how to rebuild the nation. Centered on The Political Struggle, Part Three of Facing History’s video series about Reconstruction, this lesson explains the struggle between President Andrew Johnson and Congressional Republicans over the provision of justice and efforts to bring about healing after the war. By watching the video and analyzing historical documents, students will understand that negotiating a society’s universe of obligation in times of crisis can be a significant source of conflict and reveal the fragility of democracy. Students will also reflect on deeper issues of healing and justice in the aftermath of both a devastating war and a profound transformation of society.

This lesson is part of Facing History’s work on the Reconstruction era and part of a series of lessons focused on our Reconstruction videos. Use this lesson to engage students in conversations about the political battles over the direction of Reconstruction between 1865 and 1867. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lesson 5, 6, and 7 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for more resources and background information about the struggle between President Johnson and the Republicans in Congress during Reconstruction.

  • How can a nation rebuild after a civil war?

Negotiating a society’s universe of obligation in times of crisis can be a significant source of conflict and reveal the fragility of democracy.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-minute class periods and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 video
  • 2 readings
  • 1 image

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

Before watching the video The Political Struggle, it is important to introduce students to one of the key dilemmas that fueled much of the political debate during this era: the tension between the demands of healing and the demands of justice. One way to introduce this tension is to examine a political engraving from the time.

As a class, look carefully at the two-panel Thomas Nast engraving Pardon/Franchise (Handout 5.5 in The Reconstruction Era). Follow the steps of the Analyzing Images strategy to think deeply about this image and the message that Nast intends to communicate.

After analyzing the Nast engraving, introduce students to the dilemma of healing and justice after the Civil War more explicitly. You can do this by asking the class to make connections between the perspective expressed by Nast and the analysis of a contemporary historian of this history.

Historian David Blight describes two central, and often conflicting, challenges of Reconstruction:

“One was healing and the other was justice. How do you have them both? What truly constitutes healing of a people, of a nation, that’s suffered this scale of violence and destruction, and how do you have justice? And justice for whom?” 1

Next, discuss the following questions with the class:

  1. How does the Nast image represent a tension between the ideas of healing and justice?  
  2. What could Americans do in the late 1860s, as they debated plans for Reconstruction, to balance the demands of healing and justice?
  • 1David Blight, “Andrew Johnson and the Radicals: A Contest over the Meaning of Reconstruction,” lecture presented at Yale University (iTunes U audio file), (accessed April 25, 2013).

Now that students have been introduced to the dilemma of how to balance healing and justice after the Civil War, they are ready to view the video The Political Struggle. This video provides an overview of how this dilemma fueled the political battle between President Andrew Johnson and Congressional Republicans over Reconstruction policy.

Show the video, pausing at the 9:00 mark. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note-taking:  

  1. What questions about Reconstruction remained unresolved as the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated?
  2. Who was Andrew Johnson? What details about his background seemed to influence his thinking about Reconstruction the most?
  3. What was Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction?
  4. What were the results of Johnson’s plan? What were the responses of different groups of Americans?

Debrief students’ responses as a class.

Day 2 Activities

The second part of The Political Struggle outlines how the policies we refer to as Radical Reconstruction emerged from the conflict between Congressional Republicans and President Johnson.

Share the rest of the video, from 9:00 to the end. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note-taking:

  1. How did Republicans initially respond to President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan? How did moderate and Radical Republicans differ in their response?  
  2. What specific position did Radical Republicans take that separated them from both the moderates and most other Americans in 1865?
  3. How did Republicans seek to modify Johnson’s plan?
  4. What happened to unite Republicans around a common vision for Reconstruction?
  5. What specific laws and amendments did Republicans in Congress enact to redefine the nation’s plan for Reconstruction? What did those laws and amendments do?

Debrief students’ responses as a class.

After students finish watching the video The Political Struggle, it will be helpful to ask them to carefully examine Andrew Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction and compare it with the Congressional plan that eventually replaced it. The Big Paper teaching strategy provides an effective structure to engage students in silent written conversations about texts. 

Share the following questions with students to guide their written discussions of both Presidential Reconstruction and Congressional Reconstruction/The Reconstruction Acts of 1867:

  1. Who benefits from this plan, and who is harmed?
  2. How does this plan propose to reunite and heal the country?
  3. How will this plan bring about justice after the war? Does it deny justice to any group of Americans?

Follow up the silent discussions with a brief class discussion about how Presidential and Radical Reconstruction addressed questions of healing and justice differently.

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