Reconstruction in the United States

Reconstruction era in Charleston, South Carolina
Reconstruction era in Charleston, South Carolina

The era of Reconstruction was from 1865 to 1877 when Americans tried to reunite a nation shattered by Civil War. It generated bitterness and controversy. The people who lived through Reconstruction viewed it from sharply different perspectives. Many white southerners saw it as a devastating experience, a time when vindictive northerners humiliated the South and delayed reunification.

Northerners argued that forcible federal intervention was the only way to stop the old southern aristocracy from returning and subjugating their former slaves and to keep die-hard Confederates from restoring southern society to the way it had been before the war.

Many considered Reconstruction significant for other reasons. They saw it as a small but important first step to putting former slaves on the path to claiming their civil rights and accumulating economic power.

Reconstruction did not bring African Americans enough legal protection or material resources to assure them anything resembling equality, and when it ended in 1877 the federal government abandoned the freed slaves to a system of economic serfdom and legal subordination. The African Americans who continued to live in what came to be called the New South could only produce token resistance to the new southern system for the remainder of the 19th century.

The Problems of Peace

Emancipation had stripped many white southerners of their slaves, and they had no capital and almost no personal property for rebuilding their lives and fortunes. Towns were gutted, plantations burned, fields grown to weeds, and bridges and railroads destroyed. Many white southerners faced starvation and homelessness.

More than 258,000 Confederate soldiers died in the war and thousands more came home wounded or sick. The Legend of the Lost Cause, romanticizing the South as its citizens remembered it in the days before the War, became a unifying point of hope for southerners.

Southern blacks faced the same stringent conditions as their white neighbors. Nearly 200,000 of them had fought for the Union, and 38,000 had died. These African Americans envisioned a life free from the injustices and humiliations of slavery with the same rights and protections as white people enjoyed.

African Americans disagreed among themselves on how to achieve freedom. Some demanded that economic resources like land be redistributed, and others just wanted legal equality, confident that if they had the same opportunities that white people had they would earn places in American society.

White southerners had a different view of freedom. To them, freedom meant the ability to control their own destinies without the North or the federal government interfering. In the aftermath of the Civil War, they tried to restore southern society to the way it had been in the antebellum period.

Leaders of both parties believed that readmitting the South to the Union would reunite the Democrats and weaken the Republicans. Republicans disagreed among themselves about the proper approach to Reconstruction. Conservative Republicans insisted that the South accept the abolition of slavery but did not suggest any other conditions for readmission of the states that had seceded.

Radical Republicans, following the lead of Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, demanded that Confederate civil and military leaders be punished, that many southern whites be disenfranchised, that black legal rights be protected, and that the property of wealthy white southerners be confiscated and distributed among the freedmen. Moderate Republicans rejected the vengeance of the Radicals, but desired some concessions from the South, including African-American rights.

Ten Percent Plan

Sympathizing with the moderate and conservative Republicans, President Abraham Lincoln pursued a lenient plan for Reconstruction that he announced in December 1863. He wanted to quickly readmit southern states into the Union in good standing and with a minimum of retaliation. He proposed what he called a 10 percent plan: whenever 10 percent of the number of voters in 1860 took the oath in any state, those loyal voters could set up a state government.

Using this formula, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee reestablished loyal governments in 1864. President Lincoln also wanted to extend suffrage to African Americans who were educated, owned property, and had served in the Union army.

He created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands and insisted that the new freedmen would have equal rights. African Americans in the Freedmen’s Bureau were sent to farming plantations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina that the army had seized, but they never became owners of the land that they worked.

History and Reconstruction would undoubtedly have taken a more positive turn if southerner John Wilkes Booth had not assassinated President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. The assassination extended and deepened the bitterness of the Civil War on both sides.

Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, did not fit the compromising or conciliatory pattern. A tactless and intemperate man, Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, resented the freed slaves and refused to support any plans that gave them civil or voting rights.

Soon after he took office, he revealed his Reconstruction plan, or as he called it, his Restoration plan, which he implemented in 1865 during the congressional recess. As Lincoln had done, he offered amnesty to southerners who would take the oath of allegiance.

He appointed a provisional governor for each state and instructed the governor to invite qualified voters to elect delegates to a constitutional convention. To be readmitted to Congress, a state had to revoke its ordinance of secession, abolish slavery, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and repudiate the Confederate and state war debts.

As a final restoration step, each state had to elect a state government and send representatives to Congress. By the end of 1865, all of the seceded states had formed new governments and were prepared to rejoin the Union when Congress recognized them.

Many northerners were disturbed at these Reconstruction results. They were dismayed that southerners were reluctant to free the slaves and astonished that states claiming to be loyal to the United States would elect leaders of the recent Confederacy.

The Democratic Party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, supported Johnson. In response to recalcitrance, the Radical Republicans blocked the readmission of the rebellious states to the Congress in fall 1865. Congress also renewed the Freedman’s Bureau, but Johnson vetoed it.

Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson’s plan, sometimes called presidential Reconstruction, progressed only until Congress reconvened in December 1865. After it reconvened, Congress refused to seat representatives of the “restored” states and created a new Joint Committee on Reconstruction to work out a new Reconstruction policy. This began the era of congressional, or Radical, Reconstruction.

Radical Reconstruction

Constitutional amendments, far-reaching legislation, and restrictive Black Codes were enacted during the next years of Reconstruction. In 1865 and 1866 the governments of white ex-Confederates quickly instituted Black Codes that limited freedmen to second-class civil rights and no voting rights. Southern plantation owners wanted to dominate their African-American labor force and prevent them from attaining equal rights.

The Mississippi and South Carolina Black Codes said in part that if African-American workers ran away from their tasks they forfeited their wages for the year and fugitives were to be arrested and carried back to their employers. Codes in other southern states prohibited African Americans from owning or leasing farms or taking any jobs other than plantation or domestic workers.

Three new constitutional amendments were adopted as a result of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified in 1865. Proposed by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in April 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment granted federal civil rights to every person born in the United States as well as to naturalized citizens, providing the first constitutional definition of American citizenship.

It guaranteed repayment of the American war debts and repudiation of the Confederate debts. The Fifteenth Amendment stipulated that the right to be vote could not be based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to create and protect black civil rights in the South. This led to a decisive break with President Andrew Johnson, who vetoed the bill. Congress overrode it.

The 1866 congressional elections were fought over the Reconstruction question. The southern states had not yet been readmitted to the Union and were not allowed to vote, so the Republicans gained solidly in Congress.

President Johnson actively campaigned for conservative candidates, but the voters overwhelming returned a Republican majority to Congress. Radical Republicans under Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner gained full control of Congress and formed a plan of their own and implemented it, even over President Johnson’s veto.

Early in 1867 the radical Republicans passed three Reconstruction bills, overriding President Johnson’s vetoes. Under the radical Reconstruction plan, after ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, Tennessee was readmitted to the Union, but Radical Republicans rejected the Lincoln-Johnson governments of ten other Confederate states and combined them into five military districts: Virginia; the Carolinas; Georgia, Alabama, and Florida; Arkansas and Mississippi; and Texas and Louisiana.

Martial Law

Under direct control of the U.S. Army, these military men and their soldiers reconstituted southern state governments with little or no fighting. A state of martial law existed where the military closely supervised local government, supervised the elections, and protected the officeholders from violence.

Blacks were enrolled as voters as well as white males who had not participated in the rebellion. These Republican governments met the congressional conditions for readmission to the Union, including ratifying constitutional amendments.

Republicans won every state except Virginia in the 1867 elections. They were organized into clubs called Union Leagues, and the Republican coalition in each state was made up of freedmen, African Americans who came from the North, recently arrived white Northerners, and local white Republican sympathizers called scalawags.

In most elections, the Republicans won the state government, the state was readmitted, the congressional delegation seated, and most soldiers were removed. The old political elite of the Democratic Party, mostly former Confederates, were left out of power.

Republicans took control of all southern state governorships and state legislatures, leading to the election of numerous African Americans to state and national office, as well as to the installation of African Americans into other positions of power.

By 1868 seven of the 10 former Confederate states had fulfilled the requirements and had been readmitted to the Union. Conservative whites delayed the return of Virginia and Texas until 1869 and Mississippi until 1870.

To check President Johnson, the Radical Republicans passed two laws in 1867, the Tenure of Office Act forbidding the president to remove civil officials, including his own cabinet, without Senate consent, and the Command of the Army Act, which stopped the president from issuing military orders except through the commanding General of the Army.

Impeaching President Johnson

The Radical Republicans wanted to impeach President Johnson, and in 1868 they found a reason to do so when President Johnson dismissed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over congressional objections. On March 5, 1868, senators formed a court of impeachment to hear the charges against the president, and they introduced a resolution containing 11 articles of impeachment. The Senate tried the case through April and May of 1868.

William M. Evarts served as President Johnson’s counsel, basing his defense on a clause in the Tenure of Office Act that stated that the current secretaries would hold their posts throughout the term of the president who appointed them. President Lincoln had appointed Stanton so the president’s counsel claimed that the applicability of the act had already run its course.

The Senate held three votes. On all three occasions, 35 of the senators voted “guilty” and 19 “not guilty.” Seven Republicans joined the Democrats and Independents to vote for acquittal. The vote was one short of the constitutional two-thirds majority to convict the president.

In 1868 voters were tired of the political turmoil of the Johnson administration and they turned to popular Civil War hero general Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had his choice of either the Democratic or Republican nomination.

He accepted the Republican nomination because he believed that Republican Reconstruction policies were more popular in the North. Grant’s victory over Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour of New York proved to be a narrow one. Without the 500,000 new African-American voters in the South, Grant would have lost the popular vote.

By 1870 all southern states had been readmitted to the United States, with Georgia the last on July 15, 1870. When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Amnesty Act of 1872, all but 500 sympathizers were pardoned.

The white southerners who lost power reformed themselves into conservative parties that battled the Republicans throughout the South. The party names varied somewhat, and by the late 1870s they called them-selves simply Democrats.

Despite his lack of political experience and scandals in his administration, President Grant won a substantial victory in 1872. One scandal after another marked his second administration.

End of Reconstruction

In some states, where African Americans were the majority or the populations of the two races were almost equal, whites used intimidation and violence to keep African Americans from voting. Started in 1866 and led by former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan gradually absorbed some of the smaller organizations and expanded to create terror in black communities across the South.

In 1870 and 1871 the Republican Congress passed two Enforcement Acts, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts. These acts empowered the federal government to supersede the state courts and prosecute violations of the law, the first time the federal government had ever claimed the power to prosecute crimes by individuals under federal law.

By 1870 the Democratic-Conservative leadership ended its opposition to Reconstruction as well as to black suffrage. The Democrats in the North concurred. They wanted to fight the Republicans on economic grounds rather than race. But not all Democrats agreed.

A group of hard-core Democrats wanted to resist Reconstruction to the bitter end. Finally a group of Democrats called Redeemers wrested control of the party in state after state by forming coalitions with conservative Republicans, emphasizing the need for economic modernization.

President Grant accepted responsibility for the panic of 1873, and state after state fell to the Redeemers. In the 1874 elections, the Republican Party lost 96 seats around the country, and President Grant decided not to run for reelection. Most Democrats and Northern Republicans agreed that the Civil War goals had been achieved and further federal military interference would be an undemocratic violation of historic republican values.

In 1875 Rutherford B. Hayes won a hotly contested Ohio gubernatorial election, indicating that his policy toward the South would become Republican policy. It became Republican policy the next year when he won the 1876 Republican nomination for president.

After Rutherford B. Hayes won the disputed presidential election of 1876, the South agreed to accept his victory if he withdrew the last federal troops from its territory. He did so in a political move called the Compromise of 1877, and the South was redeemed.

The end of Reconstruction marked the reduction of many civil, political, and economic rights and opportunities for African Americans. African Americans would legally and socially remain second-class citizens until change began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After the end of Reconstruction, the South reestablished a segregated society, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned much of the civil rights legislation. The Court suggested in the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases, then held in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, that the Fourteenth Amendment only gave Congress the power to outlaw public, rather than private, discrimination. In 1896 the Court announced in Plessy v. Ferguson that state-mandated segregation was legal as long as the law provided “separate but equal” facilities.