Reconstruction was the period in American history immediately after the Civil War. The physical rebuilding of Southern cities, ports, railroads, and farms that had been destroyed during the war was only a small part of the Reconstruction process. The major work of Reconstruction involved restoring the membership of the Southern states in the Union.
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The North's victory settled two important issues. First, it established that states were not allowed to leave, or secede from, the United States. Second, it put an end to slavery throughout the country. But the end of the war also raised a whole new set of issues. For example, federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves.
Because these complicated issues carried a great deal of importance for the future of the nation, Reconstruction was a time of great political and social turmoil. President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), who took office after Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was assassinated in 1865, controlled the earliest Reconstruction efforts. But the U.S. Congress felt that the president's Reconstruction policies were too lenient (easy) on the South. Led by members of the Republican Party, Congress enacted stricter Reconstruction policies beginning in 1866 and sent in federal troops to enforce them. The ongoing dispute between Johnson and Congress led to the president's impeachment (a trial to decide whether to remove him from office) in 1868.
Under Congressional Reconstruction, the Southern states adopted new constitutions and formed governments that allowed the participation of black people. These states were then permitted to rejoin the Union. But it did not take long for the process to begin to fall apart. Many Southern whites continued to believe that blacks were inferior to them and should not have equal rights. Violence erupted throughout the South as whites rebelled against Congress's Reconstruction policies. Blacks were intimidated and terrorized so that they would not vote, and political leadership in the South gradually returned to the hands of whites. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) withdrew federal troops from the South. But even though Reconstruction failed to ensure equality for black citizens in the United States, it set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement that would take place nearly a century later.
End of the war raises new issues
By winning the Civil War, the North achieved the two main things it had fought for—the Southern states remained part of the Union, and slavery was abolished throughout the land. But the end of the war also raised many difficult new questions. For example, Northern lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the leaders of the Confederate rebellion. Some people in the North wanted the Confederate leaders to face harsh punishment for committing treason (betraying the United States). They believed that the Confederates should go to prison, give up their property, and be prohibited from voting or holding public office. These feelings intensified after Lincoln was assassinated. Other people in the North just wanted things to return to normal as soon as possible. They worried that punishing Confederate leaders would only stir up additional anger and resentment in the South.
Northern leaders also had to decide how and when the Southern states should be readmitted to the Union. Some people wanted the North to establish strict conditions for the states to meet before they could rejoin the Union. They felt that this was the only way to ensure the states' loyalty and to protect the rights of former slaves and Union supporters in the South. Other people thought that the North had already achieved its main goals, and believed that the federal government should not interfere with the states' internal issues. These people wanted the Southern states to be readmitted as quickly as possible.
One of the most pressing issues to arise at the end of the Civil War involved race relations. This was particularly true in the South, because slavery was the only sort of black-white relationship that many Southerners had ever known. Under slavery, black people were considered inferior and were forced to work for whites. When slavery was suddenly eliminated, Southerners had to develop a new labor system to take its place. Many former slaves were no longer willing to submit to white rule and wanted equal rights. At the same time, many Southern whites expressed anger and fear about the changes taking place in their society. Some white people took their feelings out on blacks through violence.
"For most practical purposes slavery ended with the war. But emancipation [the freeing of slaves] raised new problems that were fully as great," Allen W. Trelease wrote in his book Reconstruction: The Great Experiment. "If the Negro freedman was no longer a slave, was he to be a full-fledged citizen with rights and privileges equal to those of any other citizen, or a dependent element in the population, free but not equal? This question was destined to torment the American people for generations to come."
Another problem that arose at the end of the Civil War concerned repairing the physical damage to the nation's cities, ports, railroad lines, bridges, and roads. Since most major battles took place in the South, the Southern states bore most of the physical damage of the war. Some cities—including Richmond, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina—were devastated. Half of the railroad lines in the South had been destroyed, several ports were damaged, and many people had lost their homes. In fact, nearly every house, barn, and fence had been torn down or burned in parts of Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. The federal and state governments had to provide food for hungry people and money to rebuild structures.
The South's main advantage was that its economy had depended on agriculture, and a great deal of land was still available for farming. Most of the physical damage to property was repaired within a few years. In addition, the new state governments in the South undertook many building projects after the war in order to provide people with jobs. As a result, the South actually ended up with more factories, railroads, businesses, and public facilities than it had before the war.
Lincoln's wartime reconstruction policies
Some of the earliest Reconstruction efforts began while the Civil War was still going on. As Union forces conquered Southern territory, they occupied several cities and eventually entire states. President Abraham Lincoln started to implement his own Reconstruction policies in these occupied areas.
Lincoln wanted to restore the Union quickly, so he was willing to be fairly lenient in dealing with the Confederate states. In December 1863, he announced his Ten Percent Plan for readmitting states to the Union. Whenever 10 percent of the citizens of a Southern state declared their loyalty to the Union, that state would be allowed to form a new civilian government. This was the first step toward rejoining the United States. Lincoln was also willing to pardon, or officially forgive, all but the highest Confederate leaders, meaning that they would not be prosecuted (brought to trial) for treason or other crimes committed during the war.
Some Northerners felt that Lincoln's plan was too easy on the Confederates. They worried that the safety of the country would be in jeopardy under his plan, because states could conceivably rejoin the Union even when 90 percent of their citizens still supported the Confederacy. They also worried about the safety of former slaves and Union supporters in Southern states. If the Confederate leaders were not punished, they could soon return to power and cause problems for blacks and Unionists.
The U.S. Congress responded to Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan by passing the Wade-Davis bill in July 1864. This bill required a majority of adult white males in any Southern state to take an oath to support the Constitution before that state could be readmitted to the Union. It also prohibited men who had willingly served the Confederacy from voting, and completely abolished slavery. Lincoln felt that the Wade-Davis bill was too strict and worried that it might prolong the war. He refused to sign it, and it never became law. But Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, just a few days after the end of the war, so his Reconstruction policies were never implemented fully.
President Johnson's reconstruction policies
Vice President Andrew Johnson took over as president after Lincoln's death. Johnson came from a poor white farming family in Tennessee. Even though he was from the South, he was against slavery and did not like wealthy slaveowners. Johnson had also opposed the idea of his state seceding from the Union when he was governor of Tennessee before the war (1853–57). But Johnson also supported states' rights to decide for themselves on issues within their borders. He was reluctant to impose the power of the federal government on the South in order to guarantee equality for blacks.
From the beginning of his term of office, Johnson made it clear that he intended to control the process of Reconstruction. He believed that restoring the Union was his job rather than that of the U.S. Congress. He began implementing his own Reconstruction programs during the summer of 1865, while Congress was in recess. (Congress often adjourns to let its members take time off between legislative sessions.)
First, Johnson accepted new state governments that had been formed in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia. He then appointed governors in the other Southern states and required each state to hold a convention to rewrite its constitution. Johnson insisted that these new constitutions meet certain conditions. For example, the states had to admit that they had been wrong to secede from the Union. They also had to abolish slavery and refuse to pay the debts of the Confederate government. Once the states had made these changes to their constitutions, they would be allowed to elect their own representatives to the federal government. Black people would not be allowed to vote or to serve as representatives under the president's plan. Once these steps were complete, Johnson believed that Congress would accept the Southern representatives and readmit their states to the Union.
The president also pardoned all Confederate officials who agreed to take an oath of loyalty to the United States. He made the wealthiest Confederates appear before him personally to plead their cases, and he pardoned the rest all at once as an official act. Once a former Confederate had received a presidential pardon, he regained his rights of citizenship in the United States, and all of his property was returned. Some Northerners wanted to see the Confederate leaders punished for their actions, but Johnson worried that punishing them would only stir up resentment in the South. Confederate president Jefferson Davis(1808–1889) and vice president Alexander Stephens (1812–1883) both spent some time in prison, but the charges against them were eventually dismissed. The only Confederate leader who was executed was Major Henry Wirz (1823–1865), who had mistreated Union prisoners of war as commander of the Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia. As Trelease noted, "Very few participants in unsuccessful revolutions were ever treated so leniently as the Southern participants in the Civil War."
Discrimination continues in the South
Within a few months, those Northerners who had complained that Johnson's policies were too lenient had evidence to support their claims. Former Confederates began rising to power again throughout much of the South. In fact, during the first elections after the war, the Southern states elected nine men who had served as officers in the Confederate Army and fifty-eight men who had served in the Confederate Congress to represent them in the U.S. Congress once they were readmitted to the Union. Even Confederate vice president Stephens was elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate (though the U.S. Congress refused to allow him to serve). Many other men who had supported the Confederacy were elected to positions in state and local governments. As people in the North learned of these election results, they began to wonder if the South had learned anything from its defeat.
Shortly after the Southern states established new governments, it became clear that they had no intention of giving black people equal rights as citizens. Instead, most Southern states passed a series of laws known as "Black Codes" to regulate the behavior of blacks and make sure that whites maintained control over them. For example, black people were not allowed to own weapons, purchase land in certain areas, conduct business in some towns, or testify in court. Schools and public transportation were segregated (divided into separate facilities for blacks and whites). Orphaned black children, as well as homeless black adults, could be leased out to work for whites against their will. In effect, the Black Codes often returned black people to a condition very close to slavery in Southern society.
"Slavery disappeared much faster than the race prejudice which had grown up with it," Trelease explained. "The firm conviction that God had created black men as an inferior race—possibly for the very purpose of serving white men—did not die so easily. . . . White supremacy reigned in every area of life, so far as the new state governments were concerned. There was no desire to help the former slaves make even a gradual transition to equality. The only significant help extended to the Negro was the aid coming from Northern charitable organizations and the Freedman's Bureau."
Southern farmers and plantation owners continued to depend on black laborers to work their fields. They replaced the old system of slavery with a new system called sharecropping. Most black people could not afford to buy land to start their own farms, so they arranged to use land that belonged to white people. In exchange for use of the land and farming equipment, the black laborers gave the white landowners a portion (or "share") of the crops they grew. Although sharecropping might seem like a fair arrangement, most black families ended up owing the landowners more than they were able to pay each year. They were forced to continue farming the same land year after year in order to pay their debts to the landowners. The landowners often used these debts as a way to control blacks and prevent them from exercising their rights. In some cases, therefore, sharecropping became like a new form of slavery.
As news of the Black Codes spread to the North, many Northerners became more convinced than ever that the South was not willing to change on its own. They believed that black people would never achieve equal rights without help from the federal government. Members of the U.S. Congress, particularly those belonging to the Republican Party, became determined to make changes in President Johnson's Reconstruction policies.
Congress takes control of Reconstruction
Congress came back in session in December 1865, more than six months after President Johnson had begun implementing his Reconstruction policies. Many members were not pleased that the president had proceeded without them. They believed that Congress should control Reconstruction rather than the president. After all, only Congress had the power to admit new states to the Union under the U.S. Constitution.
Republican members of Congress, in particular, worried that Johnson's soft policies toward the Southern states might be dangerous for the country. Their feelings grew stronger as many former Confederate leaders returned to power in the South and began passing laws that discriminated against blacks. They began to think that the president's plan was allowing the Union victory to slip away. "Northerners resented the South's cockiness," Trelease wrote. "Right after the war, Southerners, still dazed from their defeat, seemed ready to accept any peace terms the North might offer. But once Andrew Johnson became lenient, they began sitting up and demanding favorable treatment as their right. . . . Who won the war after all? Northerners demanded. And what was it all for? With unrepentant [without regret for past actions] rebels still in the saddle, what had four long years of death and sacrifice achieved?"
As fears increased that the South seemed to be returning to its pre-Civil War attitudes, Congress decided to take over control of Reconstruction from the president. First, Congress refused to allow any representatives from Southern states to take their seats until their states were formally readmitted to the Union. Next, they passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This act, which granted citizenship and equal rights to black people, was designed to put an end to the Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act because he felt it invaded the states' rights. But Congress overrode his veto, and the measure became law in 1866. (The president of the United States must sign bills passed by Congress before they can become laws. When the president refuses to approve a bill, he is exercising his veto power. A bill can become law without the president's signature if two-thirds of each chamber of Congress vote in favor of it. Such a vote is known as overriding the president's veto.)
Radical Republican members of Congress, led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner (1811–1874) of Massachusetts, wanted to place harsh restrictions on Southern states. But more moderate Republicans wanted to compromise with the president. Congress ended up forming a committee of fifteen members to examine the situation in the South. Dozens of witnesses appeared before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and told them about discrimination and mistreatment of blacks and loyal Unionists in Southern states.
The committee eventually decided to prepare an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in order to protect the rights of blacks forever. The Fourteenth Amendment granted equal rights to former slaves and protected them against discrimination by the states. Although the amendment expanded Johnson's Reconstruction policies to include protection for blacks, it left the state governments that he had formed intact. It also accepted nearly all of the pardons the president had granted to former Confederates. The amendment did not force the Southern states to grant blacks the right to vote. Instead, it allowed voting rights to be determined by the states. But the amendment limited each state's representation in Congress to a percentage of the total number of voters, rather than the total population, in that state. This way, Southern states that did not allow blacks to vote, or imposed restrictions that limited the number of black voters, would not have as much influence in the federal government.
In order to be ratified (approved), the Fourteenth Amendment needed the votes of three-fourths of the state governments. All twenty-five of the states that had supported the Union approved it, as did Tennessee. But the remaining ten Southern states did not. As a result, the amendment failed to be ratified by one vote. Since the Southern state governments that had been set up under President Johnson's Reconstruction plan refused to ratify the amendment and give basic rights to black people, the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress did not readmit these states to the Union. The failure to pass the Fourteenth Amendment ended up being a major turning point in the Reconstruction process, because it forced Congress to take more radical action toward the South.
New hopes of equality
Several other factors helped drive Congress toward a stricter Reconstruction policy. The growing tension between blacks and whites erupted into race riots in the Southern cities of Memphis and New Orleans during the summer of 1866. These riots received a great deal of publicity in the North and convinced many people that stronger action against Southern leaders was needed.
In addition, Congress held its regular midterm elections in the fall of 1866. The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate was up for reelection. Reconstruction policy became the main issue of debate among the candidates. President Johnson toured the country making speeches on behalf of the Democrats, who tended to support his lenient policies. But his rambling speeches, which often included personal insults toward his rivals, only made him the subject of ridicule. The Republicans ended up winning the elections in a landslide and increasing their majorities in both houses of Congress.
After the elections, the strongly Republican Congress considered three options for dealing with the South. First, they could refuse to readmit the Southern states to the Union and keep them under federal government control indefinitely. Second, they could take away the voting rights of so many former Confederates that white Union supporters would control the Southern state governments. Or third, they could grant black men the right to vote. All but the most radical members of Congress felt that the first two options were too drastic. But the third option seemed to have several positive elements. If blacks were allowed to vote, they would help organize loyal state governments and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. Then the Southern states could be readmitted to the Union safely. In addition, many Northerners believed that black people deserved voting rights in a democratic society. Of course, Republicans also had a political motive in granting black men the right to vote—they knew that black voters would be likely to support their party.
In March 1867, the U.S. Congress passed its Reconstruction Act over President Johnson's veto. This act separated the defeated Southern states into five military districts and sent federal troops to maintain order in each one. It also required each state to hold a new convention to rewrite the basic laws in its constitution. This time, however, all adult men—black and white—were allowed to vote for and serve as delegates (representatives) to the constitutional conventions. Congress did make an exception for former Confederate leaders, who were denied the right to vote or hold office. Under the new Congressional plan, the Southern states had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and guarantee black voting rights in order to be readmitted to the Union.
The policies set in motion by the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which came to be known as "Radical Reconstruction," led to a social revolution in the South. Black men jumped at the chance to vote and have a say in their state governments. In fact, more blacks than whites registered to vote in five Southern states. But many of these new voters showed a willingness to vote for white candidates. South Carolina was the only Southern state in which black delegates outnumbered white delegates at the constitutional convention.
In general, the delegates in the Southern states cooperated in making their constitutions more fair for all citizens. Most states guaranteed equal civil rights for whites and blacks, established fairer tax systems, reformed prisons and reduced the sentences for certain crimes, granted greater rights to women, reformed hospitals and institutions for the insane, and increased assistance for the poor. Every new state constitution created a public school system that was open to children of both races, although schools were still segregated. The Southern states also eliminated laws that required people to own property in order to vote or hold public office. Historians have remarked on the fairness of the new constitutions created by the delegates. "The constitutions drawn up by these bodies were revolutionary only by the standards of conservative white supremacy which had prevailed in the South," Trelease wrote. "Most of them were modeled on Northern state constitutions and, in many aspects, on earlier Southern documents."
According to Congress's formula, a majority of registered voters in each state had to approve the new constitution in order for it to take effect. Alabama was the first state to hold its election. Many white voters who opposed the changes decided not to vote as a form of protest. As a result, the new constitution was approved by a majority of the people who actually voted, but not by enough people to pass. Congress quickly changed its rule so that the new constitutions could take effect when they were approved by a majority of the people who cast votes. Elections for the new state governments were held at the same time as the votes on the new constitutions. Once again, the changes were less radical than some people anticipated. Black men played a role in the government of each state, but usually a minor one. Blacks became school principals, sheriffs, mayors, and legislators for the first time in much of the South. But there were still no black governors, only two black U.S. senators, and twenty black U.S. representatives during Reconstruction.
Most of the Southern states—with their new governments and constitutions—were readmitted to the Union in 1868. (Tennessee had been readmitted in 1866, after it had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas had trouble passing their new constitutions and were not readmitted until 1870.) To ensure that the new state governments would remain in power, the U.S. Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. This amendment guaranteed black voting rights and prohibited the states from restricting them. It was ratified by the states two years later.
Black people still lacked economic and social power in the South. For example, many black families could not afford land of their own and remained sharecroppers. But they finally held some political power. "For the first time in their lives, many felt they had a place in their state. They could vote for their leaders and thus have a say in laws and taxes," William Loren Katz wrote in his book An Album of Reconstruction. "But this democracy depended on cooperation between whites who had always been told they were superior, and black people who had always been told they were inferior. How long would it hold up?"
President Johnson faces impeachment
As Congress began implementing its Reconstruction program, some members were willing to compromise with President Johnson. But Johnson refused to accept any changes to his lenient policies toward the South. He believed that some of his Republican opponents were engaged in a conspiracy (plot) to overthrow him, and he grew more and more determined to resist. "Ironically, the conspiracy he feared was almost nonexistent until he fanned it to life by his own stubbornness," Trelease noted. Johnson used his veto power to fight Congress's Reconstruction efforts every step of the way. Over time, even the more moderate members of Congress began to believe that the president would do anything to destroy their plans.
Even though the Republicans increased their majority in Congress after the midterm elections of 1866—meaning that they could easily override Johnson's veto—they could not afford to ignore the president completely. Johnson remained the chief executive of the federal government. It was his job to carry out and enforce the laws made by Congress, and he could potentially refuse to do this. So Congress took steps to limit the president's ability to interfere with their plans. One of these steps was passing the Tenure of Office Act in March 1867. This act prevented the president from replacing federal officials without the consent of Congress. It was specifically designed to prevent Johnson from replacing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869), who was the only member of the cabinet who favored Congress's Reconstruction plans. Stanton basically acted like a spy, letting Congress know the president's next move. Congress also passed a law that required the president to issue all orders to the army through its commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant.
Johnson believed that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional, meaning that it conflicted with laws set forth in the U.S. Constitution and would not hold up in court. He fired Stanton in August 1867, shortly after Congress had adjourned. He then dismissed four of the five commanders that Congress had placed in charge of the military districts in the South. Johnson's actions infuriated the Republican-led Congress. Tired of arguing with Johnson, the Republicans decided to impeach the president.
The Constitution says that all federal officials can be impeached (brought up on legal charges) and removed from elected office if they are found guilty of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." All of the branches of the federal government have roles in an impeachment trial. The House of Representatives brings the charges and acts as prosecutor. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial as a judge. The Senate hears the case and votes as a jury. Two-thirds of the senators present must vote to convict in order to remove the impeached official from office.
Congress began the process of impeachment on February 22, 1868. It marked the first time in history that an American president had been impeached. Johnson was charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act and disgracing the office of the president. Even though the charges did not really meet the conditions for impeachment, Johnson was so unpopular that the outcome of the trial was uncertain. "Many Americans had such hatred for Andrew Johnson as a defender of the rebel South and a persistent thwarter [obstructer] of majority will that they had come to regard him as Public Enemy No. 1," Trelease explained. "In this outraged state of mind, the public good seemed to them to require that he be driven from office by any means legal." The trial before the Senate continued for more than two months and captured the attention of the entire country. Finally, the senators voted on the charges on May 16. Johnson was found not guilty by one vote and remained in office.
The remainder of Johnson's term in office was uneventful. Union general Ulysses S. Grant was elected to replace him as president later in 1868. By this time, Congress's Reconstruction program had been in place for two years. It was very unpopular among white Southerners. Many white people in the South hated the Reconstruction policies that allowed blacks to vote and hold positions in the government. They still believed that black people were inferior and should submit to white rule. White Southerners also resented the presence of federal troops in the South. They complained that the military rule violated their rights. But in most cases, the Northern troops did not use their full authority. "Military tyranny, against which Southerners protested so loudly and so often, simply did not exist," Trelease wrote. "It was nothing compared with the tyranny which Southerners continued to exercise over Negroes and Unionists, despite military efforts to prevent it. There were too few soldiers available and the commanders were too reluctant to interfere on the massive scale required to ensure really equal protection of the laws for all persons."
Anger over Congress's Reconstruction policies convinced many white Southerners to use any means necessary to reclaim control of their governments and society. Some people—known as "white supremacists" due to their belief that blacks were inferior—used violence and terrorism to intimidate blacks and any whites who helped them. These people bombed or set fire to black schools and churches. They terrorized black officeholders, successful black farmers and businessmen, and white teachers who worked at black schools. They were rarely punished for these crimes because juries were afraid to convict them.
One of the worst white supremacist groups was the Ku Klux Klan. This group was formed in 1866 by young Confederate veterans. They started out by playing practical jokes on each other, and later on black people. They rode around on horseback, dressed in white sheets, pretending to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. Before long, however, the Klan began using threats and violence to frighten their enemies and control their behavior. By 1868, Klan activities had spread throughout the South. Several states passed laws against them, but in most places the laws were not well enforced. The only state that waged a successful fight against the Klan was Arkansas, where Governor Powell Clayton (1833–1914) called out the state militia to restore order.
Violence against blacks increases
By 1870, violence against black people had increased to extreme levels in the South. Elected black members of the state governments were forced out of office in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. The new, white-controlled governments again began passing laws that discriminated against blacks. For example, one law prohibited black people from shopping at white stores. Another law required black workers to sign employment contracts in which they agreed not to participate in various political groups.
The federal government made a few attempts to restore order in the South and protect the rights of black citizens. Congress conducted an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations in 1871. Afterward, it passed several new laws designed to suppress the groups' terrorist activities. Racially motivated violence became a federal offense. This meant that anyone accused of such crimes would be put on trial in federal courts, where they would be more likely to be convicted than in Southern state and local courts. As a result, most white supremacist organizations disappeared by 1872, although less-organized violence continued.
As the situation in the South spun out of control, many people in the North became disgusted. They began pressuring President Grant to remove the remaining federal troops from the South. Some Northerners were willing to allow the South to return to white rule if it would put an end to the violence. Southern whites took advantage of this change in public opinion in the North. They used a variety of illegal methods to prevent black people from voting. As a result, the Democratic Party took control of many Southern state governments. In 1874, the Democrats captured a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War. The Republicans still held the presidency and a majority of the U.S. Senate, but they had considerably less power to protect the rights of blacks in the South.
Prior to the elections of 1875, white people in Mississippi openly admitted that they planned to use force to regain control of their state government from blacks. This announcement became known as the "Mississippi Plan." Democrats in the state formed armed militias (armies of regular citizens) and marched through black areas. They broke up meetings of Republican supporters and provoked riots with blacks. By the time the election took place, thousands of black voters were too afraid to go to the polls. White supremacists took over the government of Mississippi that year, and a similar pattern occurred in other Southern states in later years.
The election of 1876 ends Reconstruction
The presidential election of 1876 was a hotly contested one. Rutherford B. Hayes was the Republican candidate, and Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886) was the Democratic candidate. Most people in the North voted for Hayes, and most people in the South voted for Tilden. The election ended up being the closest in history. Tilden won the popular vote—4,284,020 people who submitted ballots voted for him, compared to 4,036,572 for Hayes. But the actual winner of presidential elections is determined by an institution known as the electoral college. Each state receives a certain number of electoral votes depending on its population. When the electoral votes were counted, Tilden had 184 and Hayes had 165, and 20 votes were in dispute. A candidate needed 185 electoral votes to win the presidency, so neither man could be declared the winner.
The controversy came down to three Southern states that still had their black-white Reconstruction governments intact—South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Hayes needed the electoral votes of all three states in order to become president. Congress set up a special committee to examine the election results in these states. But it was difficult to tell for certain which candidate had won because the elections had caused widespread violence.
Eventually, the two main political parties arranged a compromise. The Democrats would allow Hayes to become president if he agreed to remove federal troops from the South. This meant that Republicans would lose control of the last three Southern states to white supremacists. The arrangement became known as the Compromise of 1877. "In perspective, it appears that the Democrats first stole the election of 1876 by a systematic and deliberate campaign of terrorism and violence in the South. Then, as a result of the compromise between Republicans and Southern whites, the Republicans stole back the Presidency but allowed the Democrats to keep the South," Trelease explained.
Hayes became the nineteenth president of the United States in March 1877 and immediately removed federal troops from the South. This marked the end of the period of American history known as Reconstruction. From this time onward, the North left the South to settle its own racial issues. Unfortunately, many issues remained unresolved for generations. Discrimination against blacks was a way of life in much of the South for many years. The South was not completely to blame for the failure of Reconstruction, however. Some Northerners had never felt strongly about black equality in the first place. They had supported black voting rights primarily because it would help the Republican Party maintain power in the federal government. Republican policies had forced the South to give blacks greater political and legal rights, but had stopped short of providing former slaves with land, education, and jobs. Without these things, black people never had an opportunity to make political and legal rights permanent.
Even though Reconstruction failed to ensure equality for black citizens in the United States, it set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement that would take place nearly a century later. "To say that Reconstruction was a complete and utter failure would be a mistake," Trelease noted. "For one thing, it remained in the memories of Negroes and a minority of whites; they might be outnumbered and silenced for the present, but they would not always be. When the same dedication to equal rights arose in a later day, Reconstruction remained as a precedent and stimulus to further progress. For another thing, some of the enactments of the Reconstruction period were so basic and so fully accepted that they could never be entirely repealed or ignored. Three constitutional amendments remained as part of the basic law of the land; however neglected or nullified they might have been in practice, they were never abandoned in theory and they were later to be enforced again."
Words to Know
Black Codes series of harsh laws passed by white legislators in Southern states during Reconstruction that discriminated against black people; the Black Codes returned black people to a condition very close to slavery
Civil War conflict that took place from 1861 to 1865 between the Northern states (Union) and the Southern seceded states (Confederacy); also known in the South as the War between the States and in the North as the War of the Rebellion
Confederacy eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861
Discrimination unfair treatment of people or groups because of their race, religion, gender, or other reasons
Emancipation the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression
Federal national or central government; also refers to the North or Union, as opposed to the South or Confederacy
Impeachment formal accusation of wrongdoing made by Congress against an elected official in an attempt to remove him or her from office; the term usually includes both the bringing of charges by the House of Representatives and a trial by the Senate
Pardon to forgive and release from punishment
Reconstruction the period from 1865 to 1877 in which the Confederate states were readmitted into the United States
Secession the formal withdrawal of eleven Southern states from the Union in 1860–61
States' rights the belief that each state has the right to decide how to handle various issues for itself without interference from the national government
Union Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War
Veto a power held by the U.S. president to stop a legislative bill passed by Congress from becoming a law; a bill can become law without the president's approval only if two-thirds of each chamber of Congress vote again in favor of it; such a vote is known as overriding the president's veto
People to Know
Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) Union general who commanded all Federal troops, 1864–65; led Union armies at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Petersburg; eighteenth president of the United States, 1869–77
Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) nineteenth president of the United States, 1877–81
Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) seventeenth president of the United States, 1865–69
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) sixteenth president of the United States, 1861–65
The Freedmen's Bureau
There were some positive developments in race relations in the South immediately after the Civil War. Many of these changes took place under the guidance of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal government agency formed in 1865 and led by General Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909). The mission of the Freedmen's Bureau was to help former slaves make the transition to freedom. The bureau provided food, clothing, and other assistance to former slaves until they were able to provide for themselves. It also set up fair labor contracts between blacks and whites and tried legal cases.
Education was one of the most successful activities of the Freedmen's Bureau. It created over 4,300 schools, hired ten thousand teachers, and educated nearly 250,000 students throughout the South after the war. The bureau's efforts led to the founding of several prominent black universities that still exist today, including Howard and Fisk universities.
Probably the least successful efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau involved distributing land to former slaves. Many people believed that Southern blacks needed land of their own if they were to become independent and self-sustaining members of society. They wanted to provide "forty acres and a mule" to each black family so that they could grow their own food. Some Northerners wanted to take away the property of Confederate leaders and give it to former slaves. The Freedmen's Bureau did give out some land in the South, but much of it was later taken back when President Andrew Johnson pardoned, or officially forgave, Confederate leaders and returned their property after the war.
The Impeachment of President Bill Clinton
For more than one hundred years, Andrew Johnson was the only American president to be impeached. The U.S. Congress put Johnson on trial in an attempt to remove him from office in 1868. In 1998, Bill Clinton (1946– ) became the second president ever to face impeachment. After a lengthy investigation into Clinton's financial dealings and personal life, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against the president. They charged him with perjury (lying while under oath to tell the truth) and obstruction of justice (interfering with an official investigation). These charges had to do with Clinton's sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky (1973– ), and his alleged attempts to prevent information about that relationship from becoming public.
Throughout the impeachment hearings and Senate trial, Clinton remained popular with the public. Many Americans felt that the Republican-controlled Congress simply did not like the Democratic president and wanted any excuse to remove him from office. Most people agreed that Clinton was wrong to have an affair and to lie about it. But they also felt that the president's personal life should remain private and should not be used as grounds for impeachment.
Clinton's trial before the Senate lasted for several weeks and attracted a great deal of news coverage. The Senate finally voted on the two articles of impeachment in February 1999. The vote on the perjury charge was 55–45 in favor of acquittal (finding the president not guilty). The vote on the obstruction of justice charge was 50–50, far short of the twothirds majority (67 votes) needed to convict Clinton. Like President Johnson before him, Clinton survived impeachment and remained in office.