Joint Committee on Reconstruction

views updated


JOINT COMMITTEE ON RECONSTRUCTION was established by the Thirty-Ninth Congress on 13 December 1865 to investigate and report on conditions in the former Confederate states after the Civil War and to propose necessary legislation. Congress referred to this committee the credentials of senators and representatives from former Confederate states that had been reconstructed according to President Andrew John-son's mild Reconstruction program. The Senate initially rejected a provision barring the seating of any congressman from the former Confederacy until the committee reported, but both houses passed a concurrent resolution to this effect after Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill in February 1866. Chaired by the senior senator William Pitt Fessenden from Maine, a moderate Republican informally recognized as the Senate majority leader, the committee consisted of six senators and nine representatives, all but three of whom were Republicans. Although the senior representative was the Pennsylvania Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, Fessenden's counterpart in the House, Radical Republicans were a minority on the committee. Also important was Representative John A. Bingham, the leading moderate House Republican, who developed the committee's proposal to amend the Constitution to protect civil rights.

From January to May, but mostly in February, four subcommittees took testimony in Washington from U.S. military and Freedmen's Bureau officers; former Confederate political and social leaders, including General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens; northern immigrants and visitors to the South; southern Unionists, and a few black southerners. The testimony was designed both to gather information and to make a public record justifying congressional legislation. While former Confederates generally insisted that the southern states were peaceful and ready for restoration, the other witnesses indicated that the former slaves and those who had remained loyal to the Union were subject to violence and intimidation and that restored southern governments would deny African Americans' basic civil rights. In light of the testimony, the committee fashioned amendments to the Constitution to modify the apportionment of congressional representation in light of the emancipation of the slaves and to secure the rights of American citizens.

However, in February and March, Congress refused to agree to initial committee proposals, instead passing civil rights legislation emanating from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Congress finally agreed to the Reconstruction Committee's proposal of a multipart Fourteenth Amendment in June 1866, sending it to the states for ratification. The committee's report explaining why the amendment was necessary and its compilation of testimony, published in 1866, were two of the most effective documents justifying Republicans' Reconstruction policy. But Congress tabled the committee's Reconstruction Act, which would have recognized the restoration of former Confederate states to normal relations in the Union upon their ratification of the proposed amendment and its incorporation into the Constitution.

In February 1867, after every former Confederate state but Tennessee rejected the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, the Joint Committee proposed a bill to put all the other southern states under military authority. As amended by the House and Senate, this measure became the Reconstruction Act of 1867, under the terms of which the southern states were placed under military authority, reconstructed, and restored. The Joint Committee was not renewed by the Fortieth Congress and ceased to exist upon the expiration of the Thirty-Ninth Congress on 2 March 1867.


Kendrick, Benjamin B. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, 39th Congress, 1865–1867. New York: Columbia University Press, 1914. Reprint New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Lowe, Richard. "The Joint Committee on Reconstruction: Some Clarifications." Southern Studies 3 (Spring 1992): 55–65.

Wilbur, W. Allan. "Joint Committee on Reconstruction, 1865." In Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792–1974. Edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Roger Bruns. New York: Chelsea House, 1975.

Michael LesBenedict

See alsoReconstruction .