Once Johnson was in the White House, however, all of that changed, and the President and Congress became bitter antagonists. The constitutional prize at stake was the control of Reconstruction, but this alone does not explain the warlike quality of the power struggle that ensued. Certainly the national mood of disillusionment in the aftermath of the bloodiest war the nation has ever fought contributed to the bitterness, as did the reluctance of the South to admit ideological defeat. The assassination of Lincoln and the circumstances of Johnson’s succession played a part, and Johnson’s own personality and habits were factors, particularly when compared with those of Jackson, the only earlier President to take on Congress in a public duel with the veto and the override as weapons. Where Jackson could fight and win because he had a majority of the population backing his stand, Johnson from the outset lacked broad popular support.

He vetoed a total of 29 bills, nearly half of which were major Reconstruction measures. In the end 15 of his 21 regular vetoes were overridden, giving him the dubious distinction of having more overrides than any other President in history. More important, the net result was that Reconstruction passed from executive to congressional control.

Among the vetoes overridden were the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which conferred citizenship upon the blacks (later ruled unconstitutional in 1883); the New Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, which gave the bureau, already empowered to care for the freed slaves, certain judicial powers; the First Reconstruction Act of 1867, which divided the South into five military districts and established the conditions by which the Southern states would be restored to the Union; the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, which limited the President’s removal powers and the violation of which by Johnson subsequently led to his impeachment; and the Judiciary Act of 1869, which fixed the number of Supreme Court justices at nine.


Rutherford B. Hayes cast his first of 12 regular vetoes on February 28, 1878, and was promptly overridden. At issue was the Bland-Allison Bill, which required the Treasury to purchase a minimum of $2 million in silver each month. The bill had been introduced by free-silver advocates in the House and, though weakened in the Senate, played a key role in keeping the silver issue alive until the McKinley-Bryan campaign of 1896.

After this initial loss Hayes was not again overridden. In 1879 he established a precedent with his veto of an army appropriations bill, and later a general appropriations bill, on the ground that Congress had in both instances tacked on general legislation riders unconnected to the original provisions or intent of the bills. The riders would have repealed the Force Acts of 1865 and 1874, which gave the President authority to use federal troops to supervise congressional elections where fraud or intimidation of voters was feared. The riders’ appearance in the appropriations bills seemed an unwarranted interference with the discretionary powers of the President and a challenge to the separation of executive and legislative authority. Hayes informed Congress that he had no intention of using troops during elections but that Congress had no right to limit the President’s deployment of military forces where “such employment is necessary to enforce the Constitution and laws of the United States.” In any case, if Congress wished to consider the issue, it should do so openly in a general legislative bill and not under cover of a rider. Congress sustained both vetoes but attempted similar tactics in three other appropriation measures. Hayes vetoed all three and was not overridden.


When Grover Cleveland began his first administration, fourteen Presidents had cast 205 vetoes (118 regular, 87 pocket). In the next four years Cleveland easily doubled the total of all other Presidents with 414 vetoes (304 regular, 110 pocket). He was overridden only twice. He struck down 343 private relief and pension bills; the remainder were mostly construction projects of a limited kind: a bridge over the Arkansas River, for example, and a public road leading to a national cemetery in Corinth, Mississippi. In his second term, beginning in 1893, he added 170 vetoes (43 regular, 127 pocket) and was overridden five times. Ninety-eight of his vetoes in the second term were directed to private relief and pension bills. On one particularly busy day—March 4, 1895—he cast 57 pocket vetoes. Except for Franklin Roosevelt, Cleveland vetoed more bills than any other President, a grand total of 584 in eight years.


Franklin Roosevelt took to the veto power with a zest matched only by Cleveland. Old New Dealers tell the story that Roosevelt occasionally asked his aides for something he could veto in order to remind Congress not to get “uppity.” True or not, the story underscores Roosevelt’s record as “the vetoingest President” ever. By the time of his death in 1945 he had cast a total of 635 vetoes (372 regular, 263 pocket) and had been overridden only nine times.

Roosevelt’s vetoes ranged across public and private bills, pork-barrel construction projects, and what he took to be infringements of Presidential authority and, in a sense, reflect by themselves the history of the veto power. But one veto, in particular, is memorable both because it established a precedent and because the events surrounding it may have denied the Presidency to Alben W. Barkley, the majority leader of the Senate.