In the spring of 1865, the Civil War came to an end, leaving over 620,000 dead and a devastating path of destruction throughout the south. The North now faced the task of reconstructing the ravaged and indignant Confederate states. There were many important questions that needed to be answered as the nation faced the challenges of peace:
- Who would direct the process of Reconstruction? The South itself, Congress, or the President?
- Should the Confederate leaders be tried for treason?
- How would the south, both physically and economically devastated, be rebuilt? And at whose expense?
- How would the south be readmitted and reintegrated into the Union?
- What should be done with over four million freed slaves? Were they to be given land, social equality, education, and voting rights?
On April 11, 1865, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his last public address, during which he described a generous Reconstruction policy and urged compassion and open-mindedness throughout the process. He pronounced that the Confederate states had never left the Union, which was in direct opposition to the views of Radical Republican Congressmen who felt the Confederate states had seceded from the Union and should be treated like “conquered provinces.”
On April 14, Lincoln held a Cabinet meeting to discuss post-war rebuilding in detail. President Lincoln wanted to get southern state governments in operation before Congress met in December in order to avoid the persecution of the vindictive Radical Republicans. That same night, while Lincoln was watching a play at Ford’s Theatre, a fanatical Southern actor, John Wilkes Booth, crept up behind Lincoln and shot him in the head. Lincoln died the following day, leaving the South with little hope for a non-vindictive Reconstruction.
The absence of any provisions in the Constitution that could be applied to Reconstruction led to a disagreement over who held the authority to direct Reconstruction and how it would take place. Lincoln felt the president had authority based on the constitutional obligation of the federal government to guarantee each state a republican government.
Even before the war had ended, Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863, his compassionate policy for dealing with the South. The Proclamation stated that all Southerners could be pardoned and reinstated as U.S. citizens if they took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union and pledged to abide by emancipation. High Confederate officials, Army and Navy officers, and U.S. judges and congressmen who left their posts to aid the southern rebellion were excluded from this pardon. Lincoln’s Proclamation was called the “10 percent plan”: Once 10 percent of the voting population in any state had taken the oath, a state government could be put in place and the state could be reintegrated into the Union.
Two congressional factions formed over the subject of Reconstruction. A majority group of moderate Republicans in Congress supported Lincoln’s position that the Confederate states should be reintegrated as quickly as possible. A minority group of Radical Republicans--led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Ben Wade and Charles Sumner in the Senate--sharply rejected Lincoln’s plan, claiming it would result in restoration of the southern aristocracy and re-enslavement of blacks. They wanted to effect sweeping changes in the south and grant the freed slaves full citizenship before the states were restored. The influential group of Radicals also felt that Congress, not the president, should direct Reconstruction.
In July 1864, the Radical Republicans passed the Wade-Davis Bill in response to Lincoln’s 10 percent plan. This bill required that more than 50 percent of white males take an “ironclad” oath of allegiance before the state could call a constitutional convention. The bill also required that the state constitutional conventions abolish slavery. Confederate officials or anyone who had “voluntarily borne arms against the United States” were banned from serving at the conventions. Lincoln pocket-vetoed, or refused to sign, the proposal, keeping the Wade-Davis bill from becoming law. This is where the issue of Reconstruction stood on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, when Andrew Johnson became president.
In the 1864 election, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson as his vice presidential running mate as a gesture of unity. Johnson was a War Democrat from Tennessee, a state on the border of the north-south division in the United States. Johnson was a good political choice as a running mate because he helped garner votes from the War Democrats and other pro-Southern groups.
Johnson was born to impoverished parents in North Carolina, orphaned at an early age, and moved to Tennessee. Self-educated, he rose through the political ranks to be a congressman, a governor of Tennessee, and a United States senator. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson was the only senator from a seceding state who remained loyal to the Union. Johnson's political career was built on his defense of small farmers and poor white southerners against the aristocratic classes. He was heard saying during the war, “Damn the Negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.”
Unfortunately, Johnson was unprepared for the presidency thrust upon him with Lincoln’s assassination. The Radical Republicans believed at first that Johnson, unlike Lincoln, wanted to punish the South for seceding. However, on May 29, 1865, Johnson issued his own reconstruction proclamation that was largely in agreement with Lincoln’s plan. Johnson, like Lincoln, held that the southern states had never legally left the Union, and he retained most of Lincoln’s 10 percent plan.
Johnson’s plan went further than Lincoln’s and excluded those Confederates who owned taxable property in excess of $20,000 from the pardon. These wealthy Southerners were the ones Johnson believed led the South into secession. However, these Confederates were allowed to petition him for personal pardons. Before the year was over, Johnson, who seemed to savor power over the aristocrats who begged for his favor, had issued some 13,000 such pardons. These pardons allowed many of the planter aristocrats the power to exercise control over Reconstruction of their states. The Radical Republicans were outraged that the planter elite once again controlled many areas of the south.
Johnson also called for special state conventions to repeal the ordinances of secession, abolish slavery, repudiate all debts incurred to aid the Confederacy, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Suggestions of black suffrage were scarcely raised at these state conventions and promptly quashed when they were. By the time Congress convened in December 1865, the southern state conventions for the most part had met Johnson’s requirements.
On December 6, 1865, Johnson announced that the southern states had met his conditions for Reconstruction and that in his opinion the Union was now restored. As it became clear that the design of the new southern state governments was remarkably like the old governments, both moderate Republicans and the Radical Republicans grew increasingly angry.
The Black Codes
When Congress convened in December 1865, the legislative members from the newly reconstituted southern states presented themselves at the Capitol. Among them were Alexander H. Stephens--who was the ex-vice-president of the Confederacy--four Confederate generals, five colonels, and several other rebels. After four bloody years of war, the presence of these Confederates infuriated the Congressional Republicans, who immediately denied seats to all members from the eleven former Confederate states.
Adding to the controversy, the new southern legislatures began passing repressive “Black Codes.” Mississippi passed the first of these laws designed to restrict the freedom of the emancipated blacks in November 1865. The South intended to preserve slavery as nearly as possible in order to guarantee a stable labor supply.
While life under the Black Codes was an improvement over slavery, the codes identified blacks as a separate class with fewer liberties and more restrictions than white citizens. The details of the Codes varied from state to state, but some universal policies applied. Existing black marriages were recognized, blacks could testify in court cases involving other blacks, and blacks could own certain kinds of property.
In contrast, blacks could not serve on a jury and were not allowed to vote. They were barred from renting and leasing land and in many states could not carry firearms without a license. The Codes also had strict labor provisions. Blacks were required to enter into annual labor contracts and could be punished, required to forfeit back pay, or forced to work by paid “Negro catchers” if they violated the contract. Vagrants, drunkards, and beggars were given stiff fines, and if they could not pay them, they were sentenced to work on a chain gang.
Most former slaves lacked capital and marketable skills and had only manual labor as a means of support. The black activist Frederick Douglass explained: "A former slave was free from the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet."
Thousands of freedmen became sharecropper farmers, which led them to becoming indentured servants, indebted to the plantation owner and resulting in generations of people working the same plot of land.
The situation in the south left Northerners wondering what they had gone to war for, since blacks were essentially being re-enslaved. Even moderate Republicans started to adopt the views of the more radical party members. Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction plan, along with the South’s aggressive tactics, led Congress to reject Johnsonian Reconstruction and create the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.
A clash between President Johnson and Congress over Reconstruction was now inevitable. By the end of 1865, Radical Republican views had gained a majority in Congress, and the decisive year of 1866 saw a gradual diminishing of President Johnson’s power.
In June of 1866, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction determined that, by seceding, the southern states had forfeited “all civil and political rights under the Constitution.” The Committee rejected President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan, denied seating of southern legislators, and maintained that only Congress could determine if, when, and how Reconstruction would take place. Part of the Reconstruction plan devised by the Joint Committee to replace Johnson’s Reconstruction proclamation is demonstrated in the Fourteenth Amendment.
Northern Republicans did not want to give up the political advantage they held, especially by allowing former Confederate leaders to reclaim their seats in Congress. Since the South did not participate in Congress from 1861 to 1865, Republicans were able to pass legislation that favored the North, such as the Morrill Tariff, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act. Republicans were also concerned that the South’s congressional representation would increase since slaves were no longer considered only three-fifths of a person. This population increase would tip the congressional leadership to the South, enabling them to perpetuate the Black Codes and virtually re-enslave blacks.
The strained relations between Congress and the president became increasingly apparent in February 1866 when President Johnson vetoed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau had been established in 1865 to care for refugees, and now Congress wanted to amend it to include protection for the black population. Although the bill had broad support, President Johnson claimed that it was an unconstitutional extension of military authority since wartime conditions no longer existed. Congress did override Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping it last until the early 1870s.
Striking back, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill in March 1866. This Bill granted American citizenship to blacks and denied the states the power to restrict their rights to hold property, testify in court, and make contracts for their labor. Congress aimed to destroy the Black Codes and justified the legislation as implementing freedom under the Thirteenth Amendment. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, which prompted most Republicans to believe there was no chance of future cooperation with him. On April 9, 1866, Congress overrode the presidential veto, and from that point forward, Congress frequently overturned Johnson’s vetoes.
The Republicans wanted to ensure the principles of the Civil Rights Act by adding a new amendment to the Constitution. Doing so would keep the Southerners from repealing the laws if they ever won control of Congress. In June 1866, Congress sent the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which in the context of the times was a radical measure, to the states for ratification:
- It acknowledged state and federal citizenship for persons born or naturalized in the United States.
- It forbade any state to diminish the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, which was the section that struck at the Black Codes.
- It prohibited any state to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law.”
- It forbade any state to deny any person “the equal protection of the laws.”
- It disqualified former Confederates from holding federal and state office.
- It reduced the representation of a state in Congress and the Electoral College if it denied blacks voting rights.
- It guaranteed the federal debt, while rejecting all Confederate debts.
All Republicans agreed that no state would be welcomed back to the Union without ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment. In contrast, President Johnson recommended that the states reject it. Johnson’s home state of Tennessee was the first to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, while the other 10 seceded states rejected it. During this same time, bloody race riots erupted in several southern cities, adding fuel to the Reconstruction battle. Radical Republicans blamed the indiscriminate massacre of blacks on Johnson’s policies.
The congressional election of 1866 widened the divide between President Johnson and Congress. President Johnson embarked on a “swing around the circle” tour where he gave speeches at various Midwestern cities to rally the public around his policy of lenient Union recognition for the southern states. His tour was a complete failure as he exchanged hot-tempered insults with the critics in the crowd. To counter Johnson’s rhetoric, Congressional Republicans took to “waving the bloody shirt”--appealing to voters by reminding them of the sacrifices the Union made during the Civil War. When the congressional election was complete, the Republicans won more than the two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate that they needed to override any presidential vetoes.
If the southern states had been willing to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment, coercive measures might have been avoided. On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which became the final plan for Reconstruction and identified the new conditions under which the southern governments would be formed. Tennessee was exempt from the Act because it had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
This legislation divided the former Confederacy into five military districts, each occupied by a Union general and his troops, whom Southerners contemptuously called “bluebellies.” The officers had the power to maintain order and protect the civil rights of all persons. The southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and adopt new state constitutions guaranteeing blacks the right to vote in order for their representatives to be admitted to Congress and military rule to end (which paved the way for easy ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment later). However, the Act did not go as far as giving freedmen land or education at federal expense.
Although peacetime military rule seemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, the Supreme Court allowed it. The hated “bluebellies” remained until the new Republican regimes were firmly established in each state. It was not until 1877 that the last federal troops left the south.
Radical Republicans were still concerned that once the states were re-admitted to the Union, they would amend their constitutions and withdraw black suffrage. They moved to safeguard their legislation by adding it to the federal Constitution with the Fifteenth Amendment. The amendment prohibited the states from denying anyone the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1870, the required number of states had ratified the amendment, and it became part of the Constitution.
The Fifteenth Amendment did not guarantee the right to vote regardless of sex, which outraged feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Equally disappointing to feminists was the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment marked the first appearance of the word “male” in the Constitution. Efforts to include female suffrage in the Fifteenth Amendment were defeated, and 50 years passed before an amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote.
While most of the southern states had quickly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment under pressure from the federal government, Democratic Party dominance in those states assured the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were largely ignored. Literacy tests and poll taxes were often used to keep blacks from voting. Intimidation and lynching were also common means to keep blacks from the polls. Full suffrage for blacks was not realized until 1965.The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last congressional Reconstruction measure. It prohibited racial discrimination in jury selection, transportation, restaurants, and "inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement." It did not guarantee equality in schools, churches, and cemeteries. Unfortunately, the Act lacked a strong enforcement mechanism, and dismayed Northerners did not attempt another civil rights act for 90 years.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction Plans" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/presidential-and-congressional-reconstruction-plans/>.
Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
In what ways was Reconstruction a success? A failure? Explain.
Reconstruction was a success in that it restored the United States as a unified nation: by 1877, all of the former Confederate states had drafted new constitutions, acknowledged the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and pledged their loyalty to the U.S. government. Reconstruction also finally settled the states’ rights vs. federalism debate that had been an issue since the 1790s.
However, Reconstruction failed by most other measures: Radical Republican legislation ultimately failed to protect former slaves from white persecution and failed to engender fundamental changes to the social fabric of the South. When President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, former Confederate officials and slave owners almost immediately returned to power. With the support of a conservative Supreme Court, these newly empowered white southern politicians passed black codes, voter qualifications, and other anti-progressive legislation to reverse the rights that blacks had gained during Radical Reconstruction. The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered this anti-progressive movement with decisions in the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Civil Rights Cases, and United States v. Cruikshank that effectively repealed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
Meanwhile, the sharecropping system—essentially a legal form of slavery that kept blacks tied to land owned by rich white farmers—became widespread in the South. With little economic power, blacks ended up having to fight for civil rights on their own, as northern whites lost interest in Reconstruction by the mid-1870s. By 1877, northerners were tired of Reconstruction, scandals, radicals, and the fight for blacks’ rights. Reconstruction thus came to a close with many of its goals left unaccomplished.
Some historians have suggested that had Lincoln not been assassinated, Radical Republicans in the House might have impeached him instead of Andrew Johnson. Defend this argument.
Radical Republicans in Congress might have impeached President Lincoln after the Civil War, had he not been assassinated, because he and Congress had contrasting visions for handling postwar Reconstruction. Ultimately, however, Congress ended up impeaching President Andrew Johnson, who followed many parts of Lincoln’s blueprint for Reconstruction.
In 1863, Lincoln wanted to end the Civil War as quickly as possible. He feared that strong northern public support for the war would wane if the fighting continued and knew that the war was also taking an enormous toll on northern families and resources. Lincoln worried that if the war dragged on, a settlement would be reached that would leave the North and South as two separate nations. As it turned out, his fears were justified: by late 1863, an increasing number of Democrats were calling for a truce and peaceful resolution to the conflict.
As a result, in the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of 1863, Lincoln drafted lenient specifications for secessionist states for readmission into the Union—an attempt to entice Unionists and those tired of fighting in the South to surrender. His Ten-Percent Plan, part of the proclamation, called for southern states to be readmitted into the Union after 10 percent of the voting public swore a loyalty oath to the United States. In addition, he offered to pardon all Confederate officials and pledged to protect southerners’ private property. Lincoln did not want Reconstruction to be a long, drawn-out process; rather, he wanted the states to draft new constitutions so that the Union could be quickly restored.
Radical Republicans, on the other hand, wanted the South to pay a price for secession and believed that Congress, not the president, should direct the process of Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans saw serious flaws in Civil War–era southern society and were adamant that the South needed full social rehabilitation to resemble the North. Many Republican Congressmen also aimed to improve education and labor conditions to benefit all of the oppressed classes in southern society, black and white. To quicken this transformation of the South, Congress passed a series of progressive legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the First and Second Reconstruction Acts, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In the end, Radical Republicans in the House impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868 because he repeatedly blocked their attempt to pass radical legislation. For example, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau charter, and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, all of which were progressive, “radical” bills. Had Lincoln remained alive, he might have been in the same position himself: he wanted Reconstruction to end quickly and did not necessarily favor progressive legislation. Indeed, Lincoln had made it clear during the Civil War that he was fighting to restore the Union, not to emancipate slaves. It is likely that Lincoln thus would have battled with Congress over the control of Reconstruction, blocked key Reconstruction policies, and met as vindictive a House as Johnson did 1868.
Explain how three of the following shaped northern politics during Reconstruction: a) black codes b) the Depression of 1873 c) Crédit Mobilier d) the “Swing Around the Circle” speeches e) the Resumption Act of 1875
The Crédit Mobilier scandal, the Depression of 1873, and the Resumption Act of 1875 focused attention away from the South and onto political and economic woes in the North. All three thus played a role in ending Reconstruction.
In the 1860s, executives of the Union Pacific Railroad created a dummy construction company called Crédit Mobilier and then hired themselves out as contractors at high rates to earn large profits. The executives bribed dozens of Congressmen and cabinet members in Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, including Grant’s vice president, to allow the scam to work. The scheme was eventually exposed, and many politicians were forced to resign. Along with other scandals, such as the Fisk-Gould gold scandal and the Whiskey Ring, Crédit Mobilier distracted northern voters’ attention away from southern Reconstruction and toward corruption and graft problems in the North.
When the Depression of 1873 struck, northern voters became even less interested in pursuing Reconstruction efforts. Unemployment climbed to 15 percent, and hard currency became scarce. With pressing economic problems, northerners did not have time to worry about helping former slaves, punishing the Ku Klux Klan, or readmitting southern states into the Union.
Moreover, the Republican Party’s adherence to unpopular, strict monetary policies in response to the depression—such as the Resumption Act of 1875—opened the door for the Democratic Party to make large political gains, accelerating the end of Reconstruction. The Resumption Act reduced the amount of currency circulating in the economy in an effort to curb inflation caused by the depression. Although the act improved economic conditions in the long run, it made for harder times in both the North and South in the short run. The Act was Republican-sponsored, so Democrats were able to capitalize on its unpopularity to rally support for their party. This increased popularity translated into election victories that enabled Democrats to retake the South, bringing Reconstruction to a close.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Compare and contrast Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction, Presidential Reconstruction, and Radical Reconstruction.
2. What effect did Reconstruction have on blacks? Were they better off after Reconstruction than they were before the Civil War?
3. Was the impeachment of President Johnson justified? Why or why not? What were the consequences of his acquittal in the Senate?
4. What effect did the Compromise of 1877 have on politics in the North and South?