views updated May 18 2018


The Reconstruction era following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, like any postwar period, was a turbulent historical context for the production of a national literature. Until well into the twentieth century, literary artists, scholars, orators, and journalists grappled with the legacies of slavery and war within the uniquely American dynamics of race and democracy.


When the Civil War ended, the United States faced the challenge of reconstructing a newly expanded civil democracy amid the rubble of war. Reconstruction called on the energies of the entire nation but was most contested within the radically redefined legal and social relationships of the American South. Not surprisingly, there was intense political conflict over the terms under which Reconstruction would proceed in the region, and at times violent conflict erupted over who would define those terms.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited slavery in 1865 and freed close to 4 million people of African descent from chattel slavery, where they had been denied all rights of citizenship and prevented by law from learning to read and write. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) granted citizenship rights to black Americans and the Fifteenth (1870) guaranteed suffrage to all male U.S. citizens. The project of rebuilding a fractured nation began in the wake of these legal redefinitions of who was to be considered a citizen.

The term "Federal Reconstruction" (sometimes called "Radical Reconstruction") refers to the period between 1867 and 1877, when the federal government officially occupied the South and national policy focused on enforcing new civil rights and legal protections for black citizens in the former Confederate states. During this period, the Freedmen's Bureau was established to support free black communities in the South. Continuing the long labors of the black abolitionist movement, thousands of black activists, along with their white allies, worked to build schools, elect African American representatives to state legislatures, and build social institutions that were controlled by black citizens: colleges, businesses, newspapers, churches, civic organizations.

At the same time, some whites in both the North and South remained committed to racial segregation and white supremacy. They launched concerted efforts to suppress the black vote, to institute "black codes" that restricted the social and legal freedom of recently emancipated black citizens, and to reestablish the legal and social racial hierarchies of the slavery period through intimidation, resistance to federal authority, and violent aggression toward blacks.

This official Reconstruction ended in 1877 with a political compromise hammered out among white political leaders to settle the hotly contested 1876 presidential election, leading to the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states and to renewed political power for Southern whites. The formal end of Federal Reconstruction also relieved Southern whites of political pressure to honor the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and opened a new era of uninhibited white supremacy, political inequality, and racial segregation for black America.

The term "Reconstruction," however, is also used for the decades following 1877, when the project of rebuilding American democracy continued, sometimes along lines that advanced black freedom, sometimes along lines aimed at keeping democracy closed to millions of newly emancipated citizens. This longer period of Reconstruction, continuing well into the early decades of the twentieth century, was characterized both by substantial social and economic progress and by persisting racial, social, and economic conflict. Some American thinkers, in fact, argue that Reconstruction continued into the twenty-first century, though they differ about its relative purposes, successes, and failures.


From 1870 to 1920, a number of historical issues were both central to the Reconstruction context within which writers were working and symbolically important within the American literature being produced. These included the particular legacies of slavery and the Civil War: displaced communities; catastrophic damage to persons, landscapes, and towns; broken and separated families; psychological trauma; the struggle for literacy and education; redefined gender roles in the wake of war and emancipation; Christian churches struggling over different and often conflicting interpretations of the gospel during and after the slavery era; economic shifts from rural to urban economies and from agrarian to industrial labor; immigration and expanding cultural diversity; the emergence of greater religious pluralism in a nation that had been dominated by white Protestant Christianity; developments in science and philosophy that sharpened tensions—for some—between traditional religion and the resources of "modernity"; and westward expansionism, which under the ideology of Manifest Destiny continued to obliterate or displace American Indians.


For over two centuries, unpaid slave labor had built the U.S. economy, but in 1865 the 4 million newly freed slaves shared with poorer people of all races the reality of serious economic obstacles to personal and collective security. Literary treatments of race and democracy during Reconstruction were often closely intertwined with economic issues. The legacy of persisting material hardship for black Americans was a theme that emerged across genres, especially—but not exclusively—in the works of writers who were themselves African American.

For example, the ironic and highly symbolic stories in Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman (1899) repeatedly place black and white characters in situations where economic and political hierarchies are shifting along color lines. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892) and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) both weave explicitly economic themes into narratives set both before and after the Civil War. Important nonfiction works such as W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South (1892), and Booker T. Washington's "Atlantic Exposition Address" (1895) and Up from Slavery (1901) directly address the political economy of slavery and the impact on Reconstruction of economic relationships established during the slavery period. Economic themes in Reconstruction literature include the postwar challenges facing free black labor, racial conflict among the laboring classes generally, and white efforts to restrict and control black labor and black economic self-determination.

The broader topic of "slavery," as subject matter and as metaphor, also emerged as an important symbolic resource for a wide range of American authors during the Reconstruction era. American writers often offered sharply different images of the past and of what American life, democracy, and the nation's future should look like.

Poets such as Albery Allson Whitman (Not a Man and Yet a Man, 1877), Frances E. W. Harper (Sketches of Southern Life, 1872), Paul Laurence Dunbar (Lyrics of a Lowly Life, 1897; Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899), and Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1871–1872 edition; Democratic Vistas, 1871) use slavery figuratively in their work. Slavery was also a central theme for Reconstruction fiction writers as politically and culturally diverse as Joel Chandler Harris (Nights with Uncle Remus, 1883), Mark Twain (The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, 1894), Victoria Earle (Aunt Lindy: A Story Founded on Real Life, 1893), and Paul Laurence Dunbar (In Old Plantation Days, 1903; The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories, 1900).

Reconstruction-era playwrights who used slavery as a theme or setting include Bartley Campbell (The White Slave, 1882), Edward Sheldon (The Nigger, 1909), and Pauline E. Hopkins (Slaves' Escape: or, The Underground Railroad, 1880). In addition, during Reconstruction in the broader sense, hundreds of "Tom Troupes" toured the country, performing scenes adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and caricaturing black people and the slave experience in accordance with prevailing late-nineteenth-century white racist stereotypes.

In contrast, slave narratives published after the Civil War expanded on some of the narrative patterns characteristic of the genre in the antebellum years, but also portrayed African Americans looking back on slavery and placed new emphasis on the realities facing free black Americans during Reconstruction.

Writing in 1935, during the heyday of Jim Crow segregation, W. E. B. Du Bois concluded his ground-breaking historical study Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 with a chapter entitled "The Propaganda of History," in which he took American historians (and educators) to task for ignoring African American contributions to American democracy. American students, argued Du Bois, would complete their educations lacking any accurate sense of the realities of Reconstruction. But the problem was even deeper, as he showed by recounting his own experience as a writer:

Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:

"White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools."

This the editor refused to print. . . . I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.

After illustrating this deliberate exclusion of black perspective from the scholarly record, Du Bois added:

Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?

Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880, pp. 713–714.


Not surprisingly, the Civil War itself appears extensively as a topic, setting, and symbol in literature of the Reconstruction period. For example, a number of white writers lament the loss of the war by the Confederacy, in some cases by explicitly embracing old norms of white supremacy and in other cases by focusing on the loss of southern (white) community and identity. These include Jefferson Davis's nonfiction The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881); Constance Fenimore Woolson's For the Major, an 1883 novel sympathetic toward the Confederacy; Mary Boykin Chesnut's A Diary from Dixie (1905); and John William De Forest's 1881 The Bloody Chasm, a novel set in Charleston, South Carolina.

Other writers—poets, playwrights, fiction writers, essayists, and social theorists—from all regions of the country and across the cultural, racial, and political spectrum grappled with the legacy of the Civil War on its own terms or addressed the general problem of war as a philosophical and political problem: Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage, 1895), Walt Whitman (Drum-Taps and Sequel, 1865; Memorandum during the War, 1875; Specimen Days and Collect, 1882), Ethel Lynn Beers (All Quiet along the Potomac and Other Poems, 1879), Louisa May Alcott (Proverb Stories, 1882), George Wilbur Peck (How Private Geo. W. Peck Put Down the Rebellion, 1887), Ambrose Bierce (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1891, a collection including famous stories such as "Chickamauga" and "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"), Paul Laurence Dunbar (Lyrics of Love and Laughter, 1903), Augustus Thomas (Alabama, 1891; The Copperhead, 1918), William Dean Howells (The Undiscovered Country, 1880), and Grace Elizabeth King (Monsieur Motte, 1888; Tales of a Time and Place, 1892; Balcony Stories, 1893). Many of the writers who used slavery as a literary trope also used the Civil War as setting and symbol.

A number of themes related to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and to the legacy of slavery during Reconstruction emerged in both fiction and nonfiction between 1865 and 1920. These themes include: the importance of literacy and the need for schools controlled by newly freed black communities; the problems emerging within white communities—in the North and South—as new dynamics of civic equality and democratic access for black citizens sparked progressive change and a virulent white backlash; the rampant civic destruction during the war and the resulting struggle by communities to define themselves under new postwar social conditions; displaced populations and broken families (these two themes were especially prominent among African American writers during this period); redefined gender roles; the imperative for what might be called "theological Reconstruction," as American Christianity, sharply divided along racial lines in the antebellum era, entered the Reconstruction period with the problem of race still looming large and the reality of greater religious pluralism ahead; and finally, the persisting legacy of widespread social violence.


Many Reconstruction-era writers worked "the color line," as W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) called it, making use especially of skin color as a symbol for personal identity and the state of American democracy. Literary tropes related to race abound in Reconstruction writing, including "mixed race heritage," the "tragic mulatto," "blackness," "whiteness," "Indian-ness," and skin color used as a code for social and economic conflict within black communities. Interracial sexuality is a common theme among writers with dramatically different attitudes toward and artistic interests in race.

Within this complex symbolic matrix, many Reconstruction-era writers set stories and nonfiction within a "then" (slavery) and "now" (Reconstruction) conceptual framework. This technique often allowed them to illuminate the dynamics of racial progress or regress in Reconstruction America. Works by William Wells Brown (My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People, 1880) and James Weldon Johnson (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, 1912), as well as by the white writers Constance Fenimore Woolson (Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches, 1880) and George Washington Cable (John March, Southerner, 1895) make use of this method.

Similarly, the historical period of Reconstruction itself frequently appears as a symbol for America's glories or failures where race is concerned, presenting a wide range of perspectives on the American democracy's past, present, and future. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy uses Reconstruction as symbol, as do works by Charles Chesnutt (The Wife of His Youth, 1899; The House behind the Cedars, 1900; The Marrow of Tradition, 1901), Albion W. Tourgée (Fool's Errand, 1879; Bricks without Straw, 1880), George Washington Cable (The Grandissimes, 1880); The Silent South, 1885), Pauline Hopkins (Contending Forces: A Romance of Negro Life North and South, 1900), and W. E. B. Du Bois (Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil, 1920).

One aspect of Reconstruction often overlooked because of the tendency to focus on black/white dynamics is the increased occupation of Indian Country by white settlers and recently emancipated blacks fleeing white violence in the South. American Indian oratory was recorded in writing during this period. Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa; 1858–1939), displaying interesting philosophical parallels to W. E. B. Du Bois, grappled with cultural and religious "double consciousness" in The Soul of the Indian (1911) and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916). The apocalyptic voice of the Ghost Dance Songs composed by various tribes in the later nineteenth century exemplifies Native American resistance to forced displacement, which sometimes came at the hands of African American soldiers, for whom service in the American military offered professional opportunity after the Civil War.

The persisting problem in the United States of violent and institutionalized white supremacy was a frequent subject of Reconstruction-era literature. Many writers dealt directly with the theme, but two writers with profoundly different philosophies about race made it central to their work: Thomas Dixon (1864–1946) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931).

Notorious for his unapologetic embrace of white superiority and the Ku Klux Klan, Thomas Dixon celebrated white supremacist forms of Protestant Christianity and implicitly sanctioned white racial violence in his novels The Leopard's Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907). D. W. Griffith adapted The Clansman as the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, a "blockbuster" that drew long lines to theaters all around the country at a time when Ku Klux Klan membership in the United States surged for a second time since the Civil War.

In contrast, Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked as an activist and writer to confront Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and white race riots. Her now-famous pamphlets include: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), A Red Record (1895), and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900). Wells-Barnett exemplifies the refusal of black Americans and others to accept white supremacy as a national norm. Her use of the pen in combination with political activism was characteristic of the work of many social issue writers between 1870 and 1920.


Both Federal Reconstruction and the broader Reconstruction period presented significant challenges over the years for historians and literary critics.

Much initial historiography of the era was written by white scholars who were sometimes "unreconstructed" sympathizers with white southern segregationist thinking or were unsympathetic either to full black emancipation or to the complete restructuring of American democratic life based on racial equality. W. E. B. Du Bois's groundbreaking study Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 (1935) was an early—or belated, depending on one's perspective—break with this white bias in social analysis, offering an interpretation of Reconstruction grounded in black historical experience and perspectives.

In the years since the publication of Black Reconstruction in America, historical and sociological analysis has expanded to consider a much wider range of sources and points of view. Additionally, Black studies, Africana studies, and American Indian studies, all interdisciplinary traditions of scholarship, have provided more balance in the American historical, literary, and interpretive record. In fact, some literary historians of Reconstruction believe it is important to treat historiography and other forms of narrative social analysis as distinct literary genres and to investigate the literary history of "histories of Reconstruction."

Since the mid-twentieth century, scholars in literary criticism and literary history have availed themselves of previously undervalued primary sources from the Reconstruction era (oral traditions, pamphlets, journalism) and have also made available a more representative selection of works from traditional literary genres such as autobiography, novels, plays, poetry, and short fiction.

One interpretive framework that has proven helpful for American thinkers has been the placement of Reconstruction within international contexts for the purpose of comparison. For example, various approaches to postcolonial theory in history, sociology, and literary studies can illuminate the history and literature of Reconstruction in new ways, as can cross-national or comparative work that considers American Reconstruction in relation to the history and literature of other nations such as South Africa, where racially coded hierarchies are also entrenched. Interpreters from outside the United States often see American social and literary history in terms that put American interpretive habits into sharper relief and sometimes introduce a necessary tension.

American society often exhibits what scholars call "historical amnesia," the tendency to repress or forget the true complexity of history in the United States. Reconstruction, charged with postwar tension and the often violent racial legacies of slavery and Manifest Destiny, offers scholars and students of American history and literature ample opportunity to confront head-on and overcome this historical amnesia.

See alsoJim Crow; Ku Klux Klan; New South


Primary Works

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Dixon, Thomas, Jr. The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. 1905. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. 1935. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted. 1892. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. Edited by William Andrews. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1995.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Edited by Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Secondary Works

Burt, Daniel S., ed. The Chronology of American Literature: America's Literary Achievement from the Colonial Era to Modern Times. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2004.

Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 1865–1965. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.

Edwards, Laura F. Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Perennial Classics, Illustrated Edition, 2002.

Foner, Eric, and Olivia Mahoney. American Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Fredrickson, George. Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Nieman, Donald G., ed. African Americans and the Emergence of Segregation, 1865–1900. New York: Garland, 1994.

Packard, Jerrold M. American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin's, 2002.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919. New York: Norton, 1987.

Trelease, Allen W. Reconstruction: The Great Experiment. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Turkel, Studs. Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1993.

Sharon Carson


views updated Jun 08 2018



Nine million soldiers died in World War I, and some fifty-five million people perished in World War II, many of them civilians. Millions received physical and mental wounds that left permanent marks. The total wars of the twentieth century caused human suffering on an unprecedented scale, particularly in Europe. Reconstruction thus had to go far beyond repairing material damage; it had to encompass the societal fabric itself. This task could not be left to individuals alone. States had to accept new responsibilities as welfare states. International cooperation was to be the key to success.

While new countries were taking shape in Eastern Europe amid civil war and conflicts over borders and minority rights, reconstruction in Britain, France, and Germany after 1918 took place within a comparatively stable framework that rested on the cooperation of organized interests, among them the previously excluded trade unions. Their governments faced entirely new challenges as millions of returning soldiers had to find jobs; disabled veterans, war widows, and orphans needed financial support; and the debts that state budgets had incurred over the course of the war had to be brought under control. Absent functioning international cooperation, reconstruction ultimately remained shaky at best. After 1945 reconstruction took place against the backdrop of the emerging Cold War. Germany, heavily destroyed, politically powerless, and morally devastated, became the main site of the conflict between Western-style democracy and Soviet communism. As Europe west of the Iron Curtain, aided by the United States, developed much more successful mechanisms of economic growth and cooperation than its eastern counterpart, it entered an unprecedented era of stability and prosperity.


Reintegrating the soldiers into the economy proceeded remarkably smoothly in Britain, France, and Germany. Within only half a year, six million German soldiers were back home and at work again. The disintegration of the German army in fall 1918 sped up the process, and employers were eager to provide returning soldiers with their previous jobs. The employers also accepted the new eight-hour day that created the demand for additional jobs, as did the expansion of the public sector. Preventing an overthrow of the newly established republic by a Bolshevik revolution was given priority over making profits. A staggered system of demobilization, in which older workers with special skills were demobilized first and younger ones were kept under military discipline longer, helped streamline the process and defuse radicalism in Britain. In France, the huge agricultural sector absorbed many returning soldiers and reduced the burden on industry. Demobilization's swift success was only possible, however, because most women left, more or less voluntarily, the factory jobs they had taken over after the outbreak of the war in 1914. This should not be construed, however, as rollback of an alleged emancipation during the war, as some scholars have argued. Recent studies have shown that, while the long-term trend of giving women more access to clerical and administrative jobs was, if anything, sped up by the war, women remained cast, during and after it, primarily as wives and mothers whose skills and virtues were different from and complementary to those of men.

More than half a million German women lost their husbands and 1.2 million children lost their fathers in the war. About 1.5 million German soldiers returned home with permanent disabilities; this was more than a tenth of all males drafted. The figures for Britain and France were similar. Because private charities alone could not provide the needed financial support, governments had to step in and shoulder a substantial burden for the foreseeable future. From the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, a fifth of Germany's national budget went into war pensions—far more than was spent on unemployment relief. However, recipients in all countries, particularly the disabled, regarded their benefits as insufficient. In Germany, where disability was determined as reduction of average earning capacity, special protection in the labor market was granted to the severely disabled and payments were higher than in the other two countries, but even those payments barely reached subsistence level. British legislation focused on the degree of disablement with little regard for previous occupation and social status but offered vocational training. These courses, however, were cut back substantially when the government drastically reduced its expenditures in 1921–1922. France, in line with its republican tradition, privileged disabled veterans politically by recognizing every wound received during the war without further examination but did not establish any protection in the labor market before 1923.

Under these circumstances, reducing public debts turned out to be a difficult task that was to have harsh social consequences. As governments had been forced to issue bonds and to use the printing press to cover unprecedented war expenses, inflation was rampant at the end of the war, but it eased the transition to a peacetime economy. In Britain, it fueled a speculative postwar boom that came to an abrupt end in 1920, with prices peaking at two and a half times their prewar levels. The return to the gold standard in 1925 kept inflation at bay, but, by overvaluing the pound sterling, it also held British exports down. Although newer industrial sectors such as the electrical supply and motor vehicle industries showed remarkable growth and put Britain in a better position overall than France and Germany, unemployment doubled compared to the prewar level.

France saw its budget particularly burdened by the need for material reconstruction in the areas that had been occupied by Germany and destroyed by fighting. French industrial production was down to only 60 percent of its prewar level when war ended; in the north, 220,000 houses as well as seventeen thousand miles of roads and railroad tracks had to be rebuilt. To speed up reconstruction, the French government borrowed more money from its citizens after 1918 than during the war. As a result, the franc kept tumbling. By 1926 it had fallen to less than one-tenth of its prewar value; at that point the government sharply raised taxes and drastically cut down its expenditures.

The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Germany pay reparations to the victors for the costs of the war. This has often been described as the major reason why inflation in Germany, in contrast to Britain and France, ended in complete disaster. Moreover, it has been argued that reparations placed a huge economic and political burden on the German reconstruction effort that eventually resulted in the failure of the Weimar democracy. Historical research since the mid-1980s has cast doubt on this deterministic interpretation, however. While it is true that the Treaty of Versailles provided nationalist propaganda with a prime tool with which to discredit the republic, it did not prevent Germany from rising to the status of a major power again, as became painfully clear over the course of the 1930s. Employment and investments were held aloft until 1923 by an "inflationary consensus" that encompassed big business, labor, and the government. Due to differences among the Allies and German delaying tactics, a total was set on German reparations only in the spring of 1921.

When at an Allied conference in London it was finally announced that Germany had to pay 132 billion gold marks in annual installments of about three billion marks, the value of the currency began to decrease rapidly, falling to less than 1 percent of its prewar dollar value until the summer of 1922. The German government took steps to fulfill its obligations, only to state that full compliance was in fact impossible. Whether that was true remains an open question, but there is no doubt that making a sustained effort would have required the government to drastically raise taxes and cut public expenditures, thereby further undermining the shaky new republic. Such measures could no longer be avoided, however, after the collapse of the mark and German economy in the hyperinflation of 1923. This had come in the wake of Germany's announcement that it was suspending reparation payments, France's retaliatory occupation of the economically vital Ruhr region, and German resistance against that occupation.

The government reached a new agreement on reparations, drafted by a committee led by American expert Charles G. Dawes, that stipulated lower annual payments and provided Germany with an international loan of 800 million marks to get the economy started again. Although, in contrast to a widespread popular view, the German inflation did not wipe out the middle classes, since the inflationary effects on mortgages and bonds in many cases canceled each other out, its final stage left traumatic memories of a world turned upside down. That the consolidation of reparations should occur under American auspices demonstrated how dependent Germany as well as Britain and France had become on the United States as a result of the huge debts they had incurred during the war. This consolidation rested on shaky ground, however, as it was based on many short-term loans that flowed into Germany after 1924, comprising a large share of its foreign debt. When they were withdrawn in the wake of the "Black Friday" of 1929, it became apparent that economic reconstruction after World War I had been a hollow success.

Much less is known about how returning soldiers, their families, and the survivors of the fallen came to terms with the psychological turmoil of the war than about postwar social and economic policy. Fears that veterans would infect societies with violence proved, on the whole, to be unfounded. In Britain, violent crime actually declined after the war. Widespread violence was a feature of postwar politics in Germany and Italy, but those engaging in it made up only a minority of all veterans. Veterans' organizations, which attracted large followings in France and Germany, lobbied for higher pensions and broader political aims, but they may also have served as meeting grounds where veterans could converse about their war experiences and thereby cope with them more easily. Literature and movies about the war, regardless of their ideological messages, provided another medium for coming to terms with individual experiences, especially from the late 1920s on. The construction of thousands of war memorials in Britain, France, and Germany showed the need for public sites to mourn the dead and remember the war. Memorials in the two victorious countries emphasized the defensive aspects of their participation in the war, whereas German memorials often struck an aggressive posture. The inability of German politicians to agree on one concept for a national memorial demonstrated how deeply split Germans were over the meaning they should attribute to a war that had ended in defeat.


In contrast to its hesitation after 1918, the United States took the lead in reconstructing Europe after 1945. During the final phase of the war it helped establish international agreements and agencies to guarantee the success of the reconstruction process and the stability of the international order. While the United Nations was to solve international political crises, the Bretton Woods agreement, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was to create an international economic order based on free trade, with the U.S. dollar as leading currency. The underlying assumptions were that the Soviet Union as well as Britain and France would be cooperative and that international trade would pick up quickly after the end of the war. Within two years, however, it became clear that these assumptions had been too optimistic.

The United States responded in June 1947 by offering the European Recovery Program. This package of material and financial aid was proposed for countries in both Western and Eastern Europe, but those in the east were forced by Joseph Stalin to reject the offer. Devised and announced by U.S. secretary of state George C. Marshall, it came soon to be known as the Marshall Plan and has been the subject of considerable discussion. Until the 1980s the prevailing view was that the Marshall Plan saved a Western Europe on the brink of total collapse and put it on a path of steady growth, thereby consolidating a benign American hegemony that had been emerging since 1944–1945. Subsequent research has substantially modified this interpretation, however. It has shown that Europe—west and east—experienced strong domestic growth as early as in 1947. Imports to Western Europe, however, were severely hampered by the lack of dollars, and it was here, in averting a dangerous monetary crisis, that the Marshall Plan had its greatest economic impact. Equally important was its psychological impact, reassuring Western Europeans of U.S. support and giving them confidence in the future. Research since the mid-1980s has also demonstrated that Britain and France pursued nationalist agendas of European economic cooperation reminiscent of those after 1918. This cooperation eventually came in the form of agreements between a small number of states, beginning with France and Germany. The two countries approached each other and established a joint control body for coal and steel production in 1951 after French attempts to gain control over Germany's heavy industry had been met with stiff American and British resistance. Hence, contrary to American objectives, state planning, not the free market, became the founding principle of what would develop into the European Community over the next decade.

Inflation was again a problem in the immediate postwar years, particularly for France and even more so for Germany, but its negative effects were soon superseded by the unprecedented growth rates of the 1950s—around 4 percent annually—that paved the way for full employment and mass consumption at the end of the decade. In 1948 West Germany had introduced the new "Deutsche Mark," which was to become the symbol of its postwar prosperity. Reparations did not become a major political issue after 1945, nor did they slow down economic recovery for an extended period. They widened the economic gap, however, between West Germany and East Germany. Whereas West Germany was allowed to terminate its payments to the western Allies in 1952, East Germany had to provide reparations equal to a much higher share of its GDP (roughly 25 percent) to the Soviet Union until 1954. Economic reconstruction was furthermore facilitated by the fact that the aerial war had done less damage than it seemed. It had mainly affected housing and infrastructure but had left three-quarters of Germany's production capacity intact.

Immediately after the war, Europeans widely agreed that unfettered prewar capitalism had been a catastrophic failure and should be replaced by a combination of state ownership of key industries, central economic planning, and a comprehensive welfare system. As the oppressive consequences of the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe became apparent and the economic recovery attributed to the Marshall Plan began to show its luster, Western Europeans turned to conservative leaders, while remaining committed to the expansion of state functions. This was most notable in Britain, where Winston Churchill, after his return to power in 1951, kept key legislation enacted by the previous Labour government such as the nationalization of the coal mines and the tax-financed National Health Service. In France, which emerged from a four-year-long German occupation with a worn-down production apparatus, the state took control of 20 percent of the economy and used central planning to modernize the steel industry as well as electricity and the railroads. The social policy of Christian conservative Konrad Adenauer in West Germany started with housing construction, family allowances, and payments for the eight million expellees and refugees from the east; it was ambitiously expanded in 1957, when old age pensions were raised substantially and were tied to the rise of wages and salaries.

The reconstruction of European political systems began with the punishment of those deemed key figures, supporters, and collaborators of the Nazi regime. More brutal and pervasive in the east, where they turned into purges of all opponents of the newly emerging Communist order, these measures treated societal elites rather leniently in the west, sparing many civil servants, most notably the police. In West Germany, where particularly comprehensive efforts at denazification were made in the American zone of occupation, top members of the Nazi party were successfully excluded from further political influence, yet many less prominent figures escaped punishment. While this made it easier to integrate former Nazi supporters in the new democracy, it postponed a thorough reckoning with the crimes of the Nazi regime.

All over Western Europe parliamentary democracy was now successfully revived. Coalition building overcame the bitter cleavages between Left and Right that had torn apart countries in the interwar period, as the Cold War drew Social Democrats and their allies in the trade unions steadily away from the communists. France's Fourth Republic, shaky from the start, did not survive the turmoil of decolonization and gave way to a presidential system tailored to General Charles de Gaulle at the end of the 1950s. In West Germany, the three Allies supervised the creation of a viable democratic system that deviated from the Weimar Republic in crucial respects. It shifted power to the parliament and joined political Catholicism with conservative Protestantism and free market liberalism in the new and moderate Christian Democratic Union, which was to become the leading party on the right.

The mental wounds that World War II inflicted were much more diverse than those of World War I. In addition to the experiences of the returning soldiers there were those of the survivors of the death and the concentration camps, the former slave laborers, the civilians who had survived the bombardment of their cities, the expellees and refugees, and the many women who had been raped by enemy soldiers, particularly in eastern Germany. One reaction to this multitude of horrors was silence and the attempt to move on. World War II did not spawn a new generation of war memorials, writers did not produce literary accounts as powerful as the ones published after 1918, and veterans' organizations did not become a prominent feature of the postwar public sphere. Another reaction was the construction of national memories of the war that portrayed the nation as a community in suffering and resistance, thereby neglecting the extent of collaboration and active participation in the crimes of the Nazi regime. In particular, this reconstruction of national communities in many countries failed to explicitly include the Jews. Moreover, the Holocaust became the subject of public debate only after more than a decade of silence.


The collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s enabled Eastern Europeans to eventually revive parliamentary democracy themselves and, by entering the European Union, take the creation of a supranational Europe a crucial step further. But the end of the Cold War also spawned a new violent conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Atrocities against civilians in this war made postwar reconstruction a difficult endeavor that required tight international supervision akin to that imposed on Germany after 1945. In 2005, reconstruction was still an ongoing process there. Also, in the 1990s, Europeans began debating World War II and the Holocaust with renewed intensity, focusing on issues that immediately after the war had been treated either with silence or in a self-serving way. While Germans engaged in controversial discussions about the conduct of the Wehrmacht, slave labor, the air war, and a Holocaust memorial, in other countries collaboration with the Nazi regime and its share of responsibility for the Holocaust became the subjects of heated debates. Almost two generations after a successful material reconstruction, healing the mental wounds of World War II remained a painful and open-ended undertaking.

See alsoMarshall Plan; Versailles, Treaty of; World War I; World War II.


Primary Sources

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace. 1920. With a new introduction by David Felix. New Brunswick, N.J., 2003. Highly influential critique of the Treaty of Versailles, especially of reparations, by one of the key economic theorists of the twentieth century.

Secondary Sources

Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War. Oxford, U.K., 1993. Comprehensive account of demobilization and its social and cultural ramifications.

Bessel, Richard, and Dirk Schumann, eds. Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe During the 1940s and 1950s. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Bourke, Joanna. Dismembering the Male. Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. Chicago, 1996. Original study of masculinity and gender relations during and after the war.

Cohen, Deborah. The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914–1939. Berkeley, Calif., 2001.

Downs, Laura Lee. Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914–1939. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

Ellwood, David W. Rebuilding Europe: Western Europe, America, and Postwar Reconstruction. London, 1992. Overview of reconstruction after 1945 with particular focus on economic issues.

Feldman, Gerald D. The Great Disorder: Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, 1914–1924. New York, 1993. Magisterial and detailed account of the German inflation, centered on the decision-making among the political and economic elites.

Geppert, Dominik, ed. The Postwar Challenge: Cultural, Social, and Political Change in Western Europe, 1945–58. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Grayzel, Susan. Women's Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999. Shows the continuity between wartime and postwar debates.

Kuisel, Richard F. Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization. Berkeley, Calif., 1996. On economy and society after World War II.

Lagrou, Pieter. The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945–1965. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Maier, Charles S. Recasting Bourgeois Europe: Stabilization in France, Germany, and Italy in the Decade after World War I. Princeton, N.J., 1975. Describes "corporatist" reconstruction based on agreements between state, capital, and labor.

Moeller, Robert G., ed. West Germany under Construction: Politics, Society, and Culture in the Adenauer Era. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1997.

Pedersen, Susan. Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914–1945. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Roberts, Marie-Louise. Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927. Chicago, 1994. Analyzes the fears of national decline attributed to women's emancipation.

Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Wirsching, Andreas, and Dirk Schumann, eds. Violence and Society after the First World War. Munich, 2003. First issue of Journal of Modern European History. Compares key countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

Dirk Schumann


views updated May 23 2018


RECONSTRUCTION is the term applied to the restoration of the seceded states and the integration of the freedmen into American society during and especially after the Civil War.

The question of the restoration of the seceded states to the Union became an issue long before the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, on 9 April 1865. According to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolutions of July 1861, the object of the war was to restore the Union with "all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired." But as the conflict progressed, it became evident that this objective was impossible to achieve. Congress refused to reaffirm its policy, President Abraham Lincoln appointed military governors for partially reconquered states, and moderate and radical Republicans debated the exact status of insurgent communities.

Presidential Reconstruction

The president viewed the process of wartime reconstruction as a weapon to detach Southerners from their allegiance to the Confederacy and thus shorten the war. Consequently, on 8 December 1863, he issued a proclamation of amnesty that promised full pardon to all disloyal citizens except a few leaders of the rebellion, former officers of the United States, and perpetrators of unlawful acts against prisoners of war. Whenever 10 percent of the voters of 1860 had taken the oath of allegiance, they were authorized to inaugurate new governments. All Lincoln required was their submission to the Union and their acceptance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The president's plan encountered resistance in Congress. Perturbed by his failure to leave Reconstruction to the lawmakers and anxious to protect Republican interests in the South, Congress, on 2 July 1864, passed the Wade- Davis Bill, a more stringent measure than Lincoln's "ten-percent plan." Requiring an oath of allegiance from 50 percent, rather than 10 percent, of the electorate before new governments could be set up, the bill prescribed further conditions for prospective voters. Only those who were able to take an "iron-clad oath" of past loyalty were to be enfranchised, and slavery was to be abolished. When Lincoln pocket vetoed the measure, its authors bitterly attacked him in the Wade-Davis Manifesto. After the president's reelection, efforts to revive the Wade-Davis Bill in modified form failed. Congress refused to recognize the "free-state" governments established in accordance with Lincoln's plan in Louisiana and Arkansas, and so Lincoln's assassination of 14 April 1865 left the future of Reconstruction in doubt.

What Lincoln would have done if he had lived is difficult to establish. It is known that as soon as General Ulysses S. Grant had forced General Robert E. Lee to surrender, the president withdrew his invitation to members of the Confederate legislature to Virginia to reassemble: his wartime plans are evidently not necessarily a guide to his peacetime intentions. It is also clear that he was not averse to the enfranchisement of qualified blacks. He wrote to this effect to the governor of Louisiana and touched on the subject in his last public address on 11 April 1865. But, as he said in his second inaugural address, pleading for "malice toward none" and "charity for all," he was anxious for a speedy reconciliation between the sections.

With the end of the war, the problem of Reconstruction—both the restoration of the states and the integration of the freedmen—became more acute. If the seceded states were to be restored without any conditions, local whites would soon reestablish rule by the Democratic Party. They would seek to reverse the verdict of the sword and, by combining with their Northern associates, challenge Republican supremacy. Moreover, before long, because of the end of slavery and the lapse of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the South would obtain a larger influence in the councils of the nation than before the war.

The easiest way of solving this problem would have been to extend the suffrage to the freedmen. But in spite of an increasing radical commitment to votes for blacks, the majority of the party hesitated. Popular prejudice, not all of it in the South, was too strong, and many doubted the feasibility of enfranchising newly liberated slaves. Nevertheless, the integration of the blacks into American life now became one of the principal issues of Reconstruction.

Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, was wholly out of sympathy with black suffrage, especially if conferred by the federal government. A Southerner and former slave-holder, Johnson held deep prejudices against blacks, who, he believed, should occupy an inferior place in society. In addition, as a firm adherent of states' rights, he was convinced that voting rights were the exclusive concern of the states, not the federal government. He was willing to have the states concede the vote to very few educated or propertied African Americans, but only to stop radical agitation. Based on his Jacksonian conviction of an indestructible Union of indestructible states, his Reconstruction policies in time of peace resembled those of his predecessor in time of war. But they were no longer appropriate.

Johnson's plan, published on 29 May 1865, called for the speedy restoration of Southern governments based on the (white) electorate of 1861. His proclamation of amnesty offered pardons to all insurgents swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States except for certain exempted classes, including high officers of the Confederacy and those owning property valued at more than $20,000, but even they were eligible for individual pardons. Appointing provisional governors—executives who were to call constitutional conventions—first for North Carolina and then for the other states, Johnson expected the restored states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, nullify the secession ordinances, and repudiate the Confederate debt, although he did not even insist on these conditions.

In operation, the president's plan revealed that little had changed in the South. Not one of the states enfranchised even literate blacks. Some balked at nullifying the secession ordinances, others hesitated or failed to repudiate the Confederate debt, and Mississippi refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Former insurgent leaders, including Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, were elected to Congress. Several states passed Black Codes that in effect remanded the freedmen to a condition not far removed from slavery.

Congressional Reconstruction

The reaction of Northerners to these developments was not favorable. When Congress met in December, it refused to admit any of the representatives from the seceded states, even the most loyal ones, and created a Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction to which all matters pertaining to the restoration of the South were to be referred. It was clear that Congress would not acquiesce to Johnson's policy.

The president had to make a choice. As the Republican Party consisted of radicals, moderates, and conservatives, he could either cooperate with the moderate center of the party or, by opposing it, break with the over-whelming majority of Republicans and rely on the small minority of conservatives and the Democrats. Most Republicans were hoping to avoid a rift with Johnson, but the president left them little choice. When Lyman Trumbull, the moderate chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, framed a bill extending the powers and duration of the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency established during

Lincoln's administration to succor freedmen and refugees, he vetoed it and delivered a speech comparing the leaders of the radicals to Jefferson Davis. The veto was upheld, but when, unwilling to compromise on the subjects of race and federal relations—he also vetoed Trumbull's civil rights bill, a measure to protect African Americans—his veto was overridden, and Congress thereafter tended to override most of his vetoes.

Congress then developed a Reconstruction plan of its own: the Fourteenth Amendment. Moderate in tone, it neither conferred suffrage upon the blacks nor exacted heavy penalties from Southern whites. Clearly defining citizenship, it made African Americans part of the body politic, sought to protect them from state interference, and provided for reduced representation for states disfranchising prospective voters. If Johnson had been willing to accept it, the struggle over Reconstruction might have ended. But the president was wholly opposed to the measure. Believing the amendment subversive of the Constitution and of white supremacy, he used his influence to procure its defeat in the Southern states, an effort that succeeded everywhere except in Tennessee, which was readmitted on 24 July 1866. At the same time, he sought to build up a new party consisting of conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats. The rival plans of Reconstruction thus became an issue in the midterm elections of 1866, during which four conventions met, while Johnson, on a trip to a monument to Stephen Douglas in Chicago, campaigned actively for his program and once more denigrated the radical leaders. His claims of having established peace in the South were weakened by serious riots in Memphis and New Orleans.

The elections resulted in a triumph for the Republican majority. Since the president was still unwilling to cooperate—he continued his opposition to the amendment—Congress, overriding his veto or opposition, proceeded to shackle him by restricting his powers of removal (see Tenure of Office Act) and of military control (command of the army provisions of the Military Appropriations Act for 1867–1868). In addition, it passed a series of measures known as the Reconstruction Acts, which inaugurated the congressional, formerly called the "radical," phase of Reconstruction.

The first two Reconstruction Acts divided the South (except for Tennessee) into five military districts, enfranchised male African Americans, and required Southern states to draw up constitutions safeguarding black suffrage. The new legislatures were expected to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and certain Confederate officeholders were for a time barred from voting and holding office.

The president refused to concede defeat. After his vetoes of the Reconstruction Acts were not sustained, he sought to lessen their effect. His attorney general's lenient interpretation of the law led to the more stringent third Reconstruction Act (19 July 1867). Reaffirming that the Southern governments were only provisional and conferring

powers of removal of officers and alleged voters upon the commanding generals, the law only spurred Johnson to further resistance. On 12 August he suspended Edwin M. Stanton, his radical secretary of war. After appointing Grant secretary ad interim, he also removed some radical major generals in the South. Always believing that in the end the popular majority would sustain him, he was greatly encouraged by Democratic successes in the fall elections.

Johnson's intransigence resulted in a complete break with Congress and to efforts to remove him. Because the radicals lacked a majority, and because the charges against the president were too flimsy, the first attempt to impeach him, on 7 December 1867, failed. But when the Senate reinstated Stanton, and Johnson dismissed him again, this time in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, as Congress was in session, the House acted. Passing a resolution of impeachment on 24 February 1868, it put the president on trial before the Senate. Because of the defection of seven moderate Republicans and the weakness of the case, on 16 and again on 26 May he was acquitted by one vote. His narrow escape once more encouraged Southern conservatives, so that it was difficult for Grant, elected president in November 1868, to carry congressional Reconstruction to a successful conclusion.

During 1867 and 1868 congressional Reconstruction had been gradually initiated. Despite conservative opposition—Congress had to pass a fourth Reconstruction Act requiring a majority of voters rather than of registrants before the constitution of Alabama was accepted—the electorate ratified the new charters in all but three states: Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. Accordingly, in the summer of 1868 the compliant states were readmitted and the Fourteenth Amendment declared in force. Because Georgia later excluded African Americans from its legislature and because Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, for various local reasons, did not ratify their constitutions on time, those four states were subjected to additional requirements. These included ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting the denial of suffrage on account of race. After complying with the new demands, in 1870 these states too were restored to their place in the Union, and the amendment was added to the Constitution.

Historians have long argued about the nature of the governments Congress imposed upon the South. According to William A. Dunning and his school, they were characterized by vindictiveness, corruption, inefficiency, and ruthless exploitation of Southern whites. Northern Carpetbaggers, local scalawags, and their black tools supposedly trampled white civilization underfoot. Modern scholars have questioned these assumptions: pointing out that the governments imposed by Congress succeeded in establishing systems of public education, eleemosynary (charitable) institutions, and workable constitutions, they have discarded the concept of "black Reconstruction." Black legislators were in a majority only in South Carolina, and even there their white allies wielded considerable influence. Conceding the presence of corruption in the South, these historians have emphasized its nationwide scope. They have tended to show that the new governments deserved credit for making the first efforts to establish racial democracy in the South; that far from being vindictive, they speedily extended amnesty to former Confederates; and that many radical officeholders, black and white alike, did not compare unfavorably with their conservative colleagues. In addition, they no longer called congressional Reconstruction "radical," because the measures enacted by the moderate majority fell far short of radical demands. The Fourteenth Amendment did not

enfranchise African Americans, the Fifteenth did not protect them from interpretations designed to deprive them of the vote, and the Reconstruction Acts did not impose stringent restrictions on former Confederate leaders.

The Waning of Reconstruction

But the experiment could not last. The rapid disappearance, by death or retirement, of the radical Republicans, the granting of amnesty to former Confederates, the conservatives' resort to terror, and a gradual loss of interest by the North would have made Reconstruction difficult in any case. These problems were complicated by the blacks' lack of economic power—Johnson had gone so far as to return to whites lands already occupied by freedmen. Factionalism within the dominant party increased with the rise of the Liberal Republicans in 1872, and the panic of 1873 eroded Republican majorities in the House. The Supreme Court, which had refused to interfere with Reconstruction in Mississippi v. Johnson (1867) and Georgia v. Stanton (1867), began to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment very narrowly, as in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). Such a tendency foreshadowed the Court's further weakening not only of the Fourteenth but also the Fifteenth Amendment in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) and United States v. Reese (1876) and its invalidation of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in the Civil Rights Cases (1883).

The end of Reconstruction came at different times in several states. Despite the passage during 1870 and 1871 of three Force Acts seeking to protect black voting rights and to outlaw the Ku Klux Klan, the gradual collapse of the regimes imposed by Congress could not be arrested. In some cases terror instigated by the Klan and its violent successors overthrew Republican administrations; in others, conservatives regained control by more conventional means. By 1876 Republican administrators survived only in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, all of which returned disputed election results in the fall. After a series of economic and political bargains enabled Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, to be inaugurated president, he promptly withdrew remaining federal troops from the Southern statehouses, and Reconstruction in those states, already weakened by Northern unwillingness to interfere further, also came to an end. For a time, African Americans continued to vote, although in decreasing numbers, but by the turn of the century they had been almost completely eliminated from Southern politics.

Reconstruction thus seemed to end in failure, and the myth of radical misrule embittered relations between the sections. But in spite of their apparent lack of accomplishment, the radicals, spurring on the Republican majority, had succeeded in embedding the postwar amendments in the Constitution, amendments that were the foundation for the struggle for racial equality in the twentieth century.


Belz, Herman. Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy during the Civil War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Benedict, Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869. New York: Norton, 1974.

Cox, LaWanda, and John H. Cox. Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865–1866: Dilemma of Reconstruction America. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction, America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863– 1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

McKitrick, Eric L. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Perman, Michael. Reunion without Compromise: The South and Reconstruction, 1865–1868. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

———. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869–1879. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1989.

Hans L.Trefousse

See alsoCivil War ; Georgia v. Stanton ; Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson ; Mississippi v. Johnson ; Race Relations ; Slaughterhouse Cases ; United States v. Cruikshank ; United States v. Reese ; andvol. 9:Black Code of Mississippi, November 1965 ; President Andrew Johnson's Civil Rights Bill Veto ; Police Regulations of Saint Landry Parish, Louisiana .


views updated May 14 2018


The aftermath of a long, hard war can be as arduous as the fighting itself. Such is the case with Reconstruction, one of the most volatile peacetime periods in American history. Rebel armies may have surrendered, but the Confederate people did not. The Republican Party in the North may have triumphed, but its power was not unrivaled. Black slaves may have gained their freedom, but they did not enjoy equality. The often violent political, social, and economic struggles that came to characterize Reconstruction should compel any student to consider it an extension of the Civil War. The effects of Reconstruction contributed to segregation (Jim Crow laws) and intense race conflict through most of the twentieth century. Reconstruction, like the Civil War, left a deep imprint on American society and culture.

Reconstruction scholarship exemplifies the period's restlessness. Historians have gone from condemning Reconstruction as a harsh form of punishment to praising it as a noble, albeit failed, experiment in racial justice. In the early 2000s, scholars usually took the middle road, seeing Reconstruction as the product of countless participants whose motives reveal a complex mixture of idealism and self-interest.

Regardless of the various schools of thought, the general purpose of Reconstruction was twofold: The establishment of loyal governments in the former Confederacy, and the assimilation of over four million freed black slaves into American society. Achieving these objectives was no easy task. Republican politicians disagreed over means, while ex-Confederates in the South and Democrats in the North denounced the goals altogether. Power struggles between the president and Congress, between state and Federal authority, between whites and blacks, threatened to sabotage Reconstruction at every turn.

presidential reconstruction

An inchoate form of Reconstruction began shortly after the Civil War started. As Federal troops occupied Confederate territory, Unionists emerged to reorganize their states politically. On December 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln unveiled a more comprehensive plan for Reconstruction, the so-called Ten Percent Plan. Once ten percent of a rebellious state's prewar voting population had taken an oath of loyalty, then civil government could be restored. Radicals in Congress, however, considered Lincoln's plan too lenient and they insisted, via the Wade-Davis bill, that reorganization be contingent on the loyalty of no less than fifty percent of a state's electorate. Lincoln pocket-vetoed the Radical plan, and no definitive Reconstruction policy existed at the time of his assassination.

While the politicians wrangled over the scope of Reconstruction, southern blacks began to initiate their own reconstruction. Some freedmen volunteered their military services to the Union after emancipation. In 1865 many freed blacks sought to reunite their families or form their own churches. Aided by the Freedmen's Bureau, blacks throughout the South also pursued opportunities for education and land. For blacks, Reconstruction was a time of hope; behind them lay the shackles of slavery; before them lay the allure of citizenship and economic independence.

Under Andrew Johnson's presidency (1865–1869), Reconstruction took a less optimistic turn. Johnson always believed his Reconstruction policy was in keeping with Lincoln's concept of reunification, but where Lincoln was pragmatic, Johnson was dogmatic. An ardent foe of the southern planter class and slavery, Johnson was also a rigid states rights politician and white supremacist. In the summer of 1865, with Congress out of session, Johnson decided to effect Reconstruction on his own with a conciliatory plan. Ex-Confederates, save a select few, received general amnesty in exchange for an oath of loyalty. Once pardoned, Johnson required the former Rebel states to merely ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and to renounce their ordinances of secession. In a few states, such as Tennessee, Unionists controlled Reconstruction, but in most cases ex-Confederates seized political power and turned Reconstruction to their own ends. The new "Rebel" governments carried out Johnson's decrees, but they also elected former wartime leaders to Congress and organized militias comprised of rearmed Confederate soldiers. Moreover, they instigated an ominous program for race order, one embodied in Black Codes that were special laws designed to regulate the life and labor of the freedmen.

Many northerners were disappointed with Johnson's apparent mismanagement of Reconstruction. When Congress reconvened in December 1865, the Republican majority refused to seat the southern delegation and, instead, formed a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to consider alternatives to Johnson's approach. In effect, Congress assumed control over Reconstruction.

congressional reconstruction

An enduring myth about Reconstruction is that Radical Republicans dominated the process. To be sure, the Radicals, most notably Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, were dynamic personalities, but moderate Republicans, such as Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, exercised greater influence. The moderates shelved Radical demands to treat the South like a conquered territory and to seize and then redistribute plantation lands in behalf of the freedmen. Instead, they formulated what they thought were reasonable conditions for readmission. To counteract the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act (1866), which established racial equality before the law. When President Johnson vetoed this measure on the grounds that it overstepped the authority of the Federal government, Republicans were stunned.

Although Congress overrode the veto, members realized that lasting civil rights protection required a constitutional safeguard. The Fourteenth Amendment followed, which made the federal government, not the states, the final protector of a citizen's rights and due process of law. This amendment, which included other provisions that temporarily disfranchised certain Rebels and repudiated the Confederate war debt, became the centerpiece of the Congressional plan for Reconstruction in 1866; a state's readmission was contingent on ratification.

The Fourteenth Amendment triggered a bellicose response from the white South. Emboldened by President Johnson's defiance, every former Confederate state, except Tennessee, spurned the amendment as an affront to their sovereignty, their race, and their honor. Exacerbating the situation were summertime race riots in Memphis and New Orleans. To many observers, these events were indicative of a persistent sectional hostility. Consequently, in 1867 Congress gravitated toward a more forceful Reconstruction.

Convinced that only direct Federal intervention could properly reconstruct the South, Congress passed the first of four Reconstruction Acts in March 1867. These laws required the ten remaining Confederate states to reorganize their governments and rewrite their constitutions to include universal male suffrage; therefore, black men received the right the vote. To enforce these unprecedented measures, Congress placed the South under military jurisdiction, vesting army generals with discretionary powers to keep any ex-Confederate interference in check.


amendment xiii.

SECTION 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

amendment xiv.

SECTION 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

amendment xv.

SECTION 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

This extraordinary process of military Reconstruction did not go unchallenged. While white southerners protested, President Johnson embarked on a course of action that produced a dramatic showdown with Congress. Johnson exercised his authority as commander in chief to remove personnel whom he felt executed Reconstruction policy too aggressively. In response, claiming that Johnson was deliberately obstructing Reconstruction in violation of the law, Republicans in the U.S. House impeached the president in 1868. Johnson avoided conviction in the U.S. Senate by a single vote, but his trial ushered in an era of congressional supremacy.

Ultimately, the radicalism of Congressional Reconstruction proved too much for most northerners, many of whom were disturbed by the advent of black suffrage. The election of the popular Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency in 1868 signaled a return to moderation. By 1870, readmission of Southern states was complete and the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade disfranchisement on matters of race, went into effect. Reconstruction appeared to be over.

reconstruction in the south

Although each state experienced a unique Reconstruction, several general developments apply to them all. Politically, Reconstruction constituted a major realignment of power in the South. The new state governments initially bore the stamp of the Republican party. Grassroots political clubs (Union Leagues) arose to indoctrinate blacks into the party and mobilize them as voters. Eventually, in states where their numbers were large, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, blacks achieved considerable political success. Sixteen blacks served in Congress, while the freedmen in South Carolina briefly commanded a majority in the state legislature. Despite their crucial participation, blacks never dominated the party or Reconstruction. Instead, northern whites, known as Carpetbaggers, and southern whites, pejoratively referred to as Scalawags, tended to dictate Reconstruction policy. In competing for leadership and taking black support for granted, however, white Republicans engaged in factional quarrels which undermined effective government.

Economically, Reconstruction produced a compromise between white landowners and black farm laborers, a system known as sharecropping. Blacks never received the proverbial "forty acres and mule," but they did display noticeable savvy in labor negotiations. In exchange for farming plantation land on the tenuous promise of receiving a share of the crop, blacks enjoyed unsupervised labor and obtained the use of a small, private plot of land. Unfortunately, bad harvests coupled with exploitative creditors reduced most black farmers to a vicious cycle of debt peonage.

Socially, Reconstruction inaugurated a revolution in race relations. The Republican administrations enacted a great deal of progressive legislation, most notably programs for public education open to both races, the first in southern history. Other significant racial reforms included black access to public transportation and the right of black men to sit on juries. Interestingly, with the exception of politics, both races voluntarily segregated themselves in most social settings. Schools, churches, saloons, and other gathering places remained all-white or all-black.

white counter-reconstruction

For most white southerners, Reconstruction was little more than despotism. Repudiating the Republican administrations as illegitimate and insisting that blacks were unfit for citizenship, the ex-Confederate populace unleashed a campaign of counter-Reconstruction. The goals were simple (home rule and white supremacy) while the means took two forms: political and paramilitary. Politically, most southern whites marched under the banner of the Democratic party. In states where whites were in the majority, such as in Virginia, the Democrats were able to regain power legally at the polls. More often than not, however, counter-Reconstruction entailed substantial violence.

Paramilitary resistance was perhaps the most decisive factor in Reconstruction's demise. Disgruntled whites harassed freedmen throughout the post-war period, but following Congressional Reconstruction, southern violence became political as well as racial. The most notorious paramilitary challenge to Reconstruction was the Ku Klux Klan. A decentralized organization of Rebel vigilantes, the Klan conducted an erratic campaign of terror, roughly from 1867 to 1871. Indiscriminately attacking blacks and white Republicans, the Klan did much damage to Reconstruction at the grassroots level. While a few Republican governors managed to suppress the Klan with biracial militias, night-riding did not cease until Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts that enabled President Grant to use the army against it. By 1872, the Klan was finally eradicated.

In the 1870s, southern paramilitary activity became more sophisticated. Ex-Confederate officers enrolled virtually every white man into new, extra-legal militias and then instilled the kind of discipline lacking in the Klan. Combining public intimidation with shocking acts of violence, organizations such as the White League in Louisiana and the Redshirts in South Carolina gave the Democratic Party a powerful edge at election time. President Grant tried to punish the worst abuses, but his application of force was inconsistent. In 1874, he used troops to thwart White League usurpation in New Orleans, but in 1875, the president ignored the widespread political violence in Mississippi that helped bring down the Republican administration in that state. By 1877, every southern state had been recaptured by the Democrats. The Rebels, more so than the Republicans, understood that the politics of Reconstruction was the politics of force.

the end of reconstruction

Following the official readmission of southern states, the North's commitment to Reconstruction gradually waned. Given that southern black men had the right to vote, white northerners expected them to stand on their own. Other post-war issues began taking on greater importance, including industrialization and westward expansion. Problems arising from labor unrest, immigration, and American Indian warfare seemed more urgent than perpetuating the Reconstruction process. In 1873, the nation succumbed to a severe economic depression. In 1874, Democrats won control of the U.S. House, thereby breaking Republican control over Reconstruction policy. During these years, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the new Reconstruction amendments conservatively, returning national protection of citizens' rights to the states.

The traditional end of Reconstruction came with the so-called Compromise of 1877. During the presidential election of 1876, paramilitary fraud and violence left in dispute the electoral votes of three southern states. A bipartisan Federal investigation ruled in favor of the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. The new president soon appeased the white South by permanently withdrawing the army. Political-economic stability, even under ex-Confederate leadership, had become preferable to ensuring social justice at the point of a bayonet. By 1900, the South may have lost the Civil War, but in certain respects, Confederates won the peace by disempowering black citizens through Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and by laws barring blacks from voting.

In evaluating Reconstruction, the failures are more obvious than the successes. The Republicans failed to establish a viable two-party system and blacks failed to achieve equality. This outcome suggests that Reconstruction was too mild. Perhaps the Federal government should have confiscated land for the freedmen, or punished Confederate leaders for treason, or maintained indefinitely a standing army over the South. But America in the nineteenth century was a white man's country where property rights were sacrosanct and where notions of federalism (strong state's rights and a weak national government) still prevailed.

In the long run, however, Reconstruction should be viewed as a success. Blacks did exercise their freedom and, regardless of how that freedom is qualified, the post war world for black Americans was a more promising place than slavery. Furthermore, with the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, the nation did "reconstruct" its constitution so as to reflect its highest ideals. The new amendments may have been trampled on for many years after Reconstruction, but they provided the legal foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.


Benedict, Michael Les. The Fruits of Victory: Alternatives in Restoring the Union, 1865–1877. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Olsen, Otto H. ed. Reconstruction and Redemption in the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Perman, Michael; Franklin, John H., ed.; and Eisenstadt, Abraham S., ed. Emancipation and Reconstruction, 1862–1879. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1987.

Rable, George C. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984.

Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Trefousse, Hans L. Reconstruction: America's First Effort at Racial Democracy. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971.

Ben H. Severance

See also:Constitutional Amendments and Changes; Education; Freedmen's Bureau; Grant, Ulysses S.; Johnson, Andrew; Ku Klux Klan; Occupation of the South.


views updated Jun 27 2018



Continuity. A few faiths had organizational systems that were not torn apart before the Civil War and therefore did not suffer a difficult period of reunion. Jews, for example, had a congregational polity in which each synagogue or temple usually shared the morality of its location. Catholicism had a different polity but the same outcome. Its unity, centered in Rome and not on American nationalism, survived the war. The Protestant Episcopal Church had an organizational structure which seemed to put it at risk because it was led by a national body of bishops. When the Civil War began, it followed the division between the two nations. However, right after the war ended, the reunited Protestant Episcopal Church met, receiving delegates from the former Confederate

States of America without problem. Thereafter, the Episcopalians did not divide over sectional issues, but over the degree of ritualism to be permitted in their denomination.

The Impossible Return. The Methodists found reunification impossible. Instead of reuniting with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the Northern Methodists tried to colonize the South, bringing in northern ministers as pastors for southern (especially black) congregations. In June 1865 Missouri Methodists responded with the Palmyra Manifesto, calling for the Southern Methodists to take action to preserve the denomination. In 1866 Southern Methodist bishops met at New Orleans, rejected the possibility of reunion with others of the same faith, and laid out plans for a complete denominational structure. In 1873 Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a New Yorker married to a Southerner, gave $500,000 to Southern Methodists for the establishment of a denominational college and seminary (now Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee). By this time only one link with Northern Methodism remained. Beginning in 1848 the Southern Methodists had sent a fraternal delegate to attend annual meetings of the Northern Methodists; they continued to do so even as the denominations developed separate structures. In 1872 this became a reciprocal arrangement, with the Northern Methodists sending their own fraternal delegate to the Southerners annual meetings.

Presbyterians. In other denominations, forces combined with Reconstruction to shape church structure. The Presbyterians, for example, were still struggling with a split caused by differences over slavery, and in 1865 they remained divided into four groups: Southern and Northern Old and New Schools. During the Civil War, Southern Presbyterians had concluded that unity over slavery was more important than differences over polity and education, and they united. Similarly the Northern New and Old Schools merged in 1869, but the Northern and Southern Presbyterians remained separate.

Baptists. The Baptists had their own doctrinal differences. Prior to the Civil War, Hard Shell Baptists had refused to join with other Baptists in national organizations for the purposes of sending missionaries to places where the Gospel was not yet preached. During the 1850s, the Southern Baptists were more or less held together by the Southern Baptist Convention and by shared support of slavery, but they were divided by a controversy known as Landmarkism. The basic issue was common to every Christian denomination. Biblical scholars generally agreed that early Christians intended that there should be only one Christian church. While the Mormons claimed that this one true church stemmed from the new revelation given to Joseph Smith, most Christian denominations tried to trace their particular faith back in an unbroken line to apostolic times. This was particularly difficult for the Baptists, since there was a long period during which infant baptism, rather than the Baptists use of baptism as a sacrament of adult commitment to faith, prevailed. But Southern Baptist leader James R. Graves insisted it could be done, and in 1851 he got a Baptist meeting at Bolivar, Tennessee, to adopt the Cotton Grove Resolution, proclaiming the Baptist denomination to be the one true faith and refusing to accept any other church as an equal. The movement got the name of Landmarkism from an 1854 pamphlet titled Old Landmark Re-Set, written by one of Gravess colleagues, James M. Pendleton. Proclaiming Baptism to be the one true faith made it impossible to continue cooperation with other denominations in the matter of foreign missions and difficult even to work with denominations that shared the Baptist name but not this particular doctrine. Moreover, there was some doubt about Gravess and Pendletons historical accuracy. (The evidence against the Landmark theory of Baptist origins was not published until the 1890s.) Another conflict besetting the Baptists was ethnic, as exhibited by the creation of the North American Baptist Conference by German Baptists in 1865.


The Lord by Moses to Pharoah said: O let my people go! If not, Ill smite your firstborn dead, Then let my people go!

Chorus: O! go down, Moses, Away down to Egypts land, And tell King Pharoah, To let my people go!

No more shall they in bondage toil, O let my people go! Let them come out with Egypts spoil, O let my people go!

Haste, Moses, till the sea youve crossed, ? let my people go!

Pharoah shall in the deep be lost, O let my people go!

The sea before you shall divide, O let my people go! Youll cross dry-shod to the other side, O let my people go!

Fear not King Pharoah or his host, O let my people go! They all shall in the sea be lost, O let my people go!

Theyll sink like lead to rise no more, O let my people go! And youll hear a shout on the other shore, O let my people go!

The fiery cloud shall lead the way, O let my people go! A light by night, a shade by day, O let my people go!

Jordan shall stand up like a wall, O let my people go! And the walls of Jericho shall fall, O let my people go!

Your foes shall not before you stand, O let my people go! And youll possess fair Canaans land, O let my people go!

O let us all from bondage flee, O let my people go! And let us all in Christ be free, O let my people go!

This worlds a wilderness of woe, O let my people go! O let us all to glory go, O let my people go!

Source: Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 367-370.

African American Evangelization. In theory, American faiths had a new field for evangelization among the four million blacks whose legal status had been changed from that of property to that of persons in 1865. Roman Catholic bishops urged evangelization among African Americans in their 1866 plenary council. The Congregationalists went further, using the AMA to provide charitable and spiritual aid to African Americans. Nevertheless, membership in these and other denominations did not increase, as was seen with AMA work among free people at Port Royal, South Carolina. A coalition of reformers under AMA auspices developed an ambitious program to assimilate former slaves into American society economically, politically, and spiritually. The reformers turned out to have conflicting approaches. Some thought they were assimilating freed people to a self-sufficient agricultural economy, which would ultimately lead to black ownership of land. Others thought they were assimilating blacks to the emerging capitalist economy, in which the blacks worked for wages and then used their wages to play the role of consumers. A more serious

problem was that neither faction of reformers reached common ground with the freed people they were trying to help. Former slaves wanted to own land, and they took advantage of the education offered, but they tried to distance themselves from too much white involvement in their community and they did not join the Congrega-tionalists. The project came to an end when it became clear that the federal government was not going to redistribute land to freed blacks.

Racism. Race, politics, economics, and religion all had a hand in the outcome of the Port Royal experiment. The experiences of Sara G. Stanley, an AMA missionary teacher, showed the primacy of race. Stanley was born a free black in North Carolina. She graduated from Ober-lin College with a teachers certificate and taught in Ohio from 1857 until 1864, when she volunteered for AMA service. She and the other blacks with whom she taught had many unpleasant experiences with white men and women who came south to teach and convert blacks but who did not accept their black colleagues as their equals. They also made the black teachers lives harder, assigning them to isolated rural schools with inadequate supplies and equipment. In Stanleys case, the hard work and lack of support may have contributed to a breakdown in her physical health. In 1865 she left the mission field for a two-year rest. She returned in 1867 but ran into more racism when she became engaged to a colleague, a white Civil War veteran named Charles Woodward. She was at the time living in a house for AMA teachers, and when she expressed her desire to be married at this home, her colleagues were so opposed to the interracial romance that they unsuccessfully tried to make her marry elsewhere.

The Irony of Separatism. Racism, combined with some sincere efforts to shield blacks from prejudice and discrimination, produced a situation in which the greater the distance between blacks and whites in religious organizations, the more space there was for blacks to exercise religious self-government. For example, in 1866, as part of their effort to expand to the South, Northern Methodists organized a separate black conference, headed by a black bishop. Southern Methodists countered the Northern challenge and thus took responsibility for southern black faith. They exercised it by releasing all black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to form their own denomination. The result was the 1870 creation of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. Similarly, a Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church was organized in 1869, and a Colored Presbyterian Church was organized by the Southern Presbyterians in 1874. Like the black Presbyterian organizations, black Baptist institutions were shaped not only by racism but by doctrinal differences within the faith. In 1866 the Colored Primitive Baptists organized, as did the North Carolina state convention of regular black Baptists, the first in the nation.

African American Religious Traditions. There was another reason that denominations made little headway among former slaves, which was that even during the years of slavery African Americans had developed their own religious organizations. Many slaveholders could not bring themselves to deny their slaves humanity so thoroughly as to deny them religion. They tried to regulate that religion, gathering slaves for owner-approved sermons on scriptural injunctions regarding obedience to masters, but, again, a sense of what religion was led them to leave their slaves some freedom to conduct their own funerals and prayer services. In these settings, African Americans combined various elements to create their own religious culture. That culture was characterized by some practices brought over from Africa, although none of those practices were preserved in their original setting. Instead, a combination of familiarity with Scripture, some common elements of Christianity, and African heritage shaped a particular understanding of religion. One important element of that understanding was the correlation between slavery and racism. Both were sins, that is, violations of Gods will. Scripture promised that Gods will would prevail, which meant that, by some means, slavery and racism would end. Scripture also promised that God would punish sinners, so that those afflicted by slavery and racism could depend on divine power to eventually mete out a deserved fate to everyone. Thus, while the churches were not necessarily advocates of active opposition to slavery and racism, they were advocates of faith in biblical promises and in watchful waiting for opportunities to cooperate with divine will.

African American Denominations. Two entirely black denominations existed at the beginning of Reconstructionthe African Methodist Episcopal Church (founded in 1816) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion (1821). Between 1864 and 1868, the two denominations discussed cooperation in the mission field, but they were unable to reach a plan of union. Unity might have been more in accord with Christian ideals or with the goal of efficient, economic evangelization, but competition among the various black Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians had the advantage of bringing more people into contact with the church more quickly. The Protestant ministry became the profession in which black men could rise the fastest and farthest, and it became a starting point from which they could reach out toward political leadership. For example, in 1870 Richard Henry Boyd, son of a slave mother and white father, converted to the Baptist faith and entered its ministry. He made a career for himself as superintendent of its Sunday schools and later became leader of the American National Baptist Convention. Few denominations permitted the ordination of women, but the black church provided limited opportunities for female leadership in church-affiliated self-help and philanthropic organizations.

Lack of Theological Support. Both before and after Reconstruction, great events in American history were accompanied by theological reflection. The era of 1865-1877, however, did not produce such insight. Few people struggled with the morality of Reconstruction the way many had struggled with the morality of slavery. As it turned out, the theologians attention was elsewhere, on the rise of corporate capitalism and the challenge of Darwin. Racism remained unstudied, just when religious people most needed to understand the nature and extent of this sin.


C. Eric Lincoln, Race, Religion and the Continuing American Dilemma (New York: Hill & Wang, 1984);

Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978);

Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).


views updated May 18 2018



Alternatives. The main tendencies of Reconstruction might be appreciated by comparing the process to scenarios that some observers predicted, or recommended, but that did not in fact take place after the war. For example, while many Northerners argued that justice demanded severe punishment for the leaders of an insurrection that had cost over six hundred thousand lives and millions of dollars, little retribution took place. The federal government did not systematically confiscate planters lands. Jefferson Davis spent two years waiting in federal prison for a trial that was dismissed shortly after it began, but commandant Henry Wirz of the notorious Andersonville prison was the only Confederate executed for his role in the war. Similarly, some Confederates suggested that the rebellion might be sustained as a guerrilla movement in the hills and mountains of the South, while others fled to Mexico and Brazil. Most returned home, however, and tried to rebuild their lives. Although the armed resistance of the Ku Klux Klan and other white Southern groups would be an important part of Reconstruction, there was no coordinated campaign to wear down federal authority by force. The campaign of violence to subordinate blacks also differed markedly from the race war that many white Southerners regarded as the likely outcome of emancipation. The fact that these scenarios did not come to pass suggests the strength of the desire for a peaceful reconciliation and the limits of the upheaval that took place in Reconstruction. Yet it should also be noted that in other parts of the world the end of slavery during the nineteenth century had led to the establishment of separate political castes. The progress of former slaves not only to freedom but to full rights of citizenship, however imperfectly enforced, was an extraordinary revolution.


In January 1865 Gen. William T. Sherman ordered the setting aside of land abandoned by planters in the lowcountry of South Carolina for distribution to former slaves. Each family would receive a homestead of forty acres, and Sherman indicated that the army could lend them the use of mules. This promise, likely the basis for the phrase forty acres and a mule associated with Reconstruction, was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson in September 1865. When Gen. Oliver O. Howard, head of the Freedmens Bureau, informed freedmen of the policy reversal, they presented a formal response:

General, we want Homesteads, we were promised Homesteads by the government. If it does not carry out the promises its agents made to us, if the government having concluded to befriend its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between its self and us its allies in the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and their all time enemies we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former. You will see this is not the condition of really freemen.

Source: Eric Foner, Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, 18631877 (New York: Harper & Row, 198S), p. 160.

Presidential Reconstruction. Because the Civil War ended while Congress was not in session, and not scheduled to return to Washington for almost eight months, President Andrew Johnson was in a strong position to define Reconstruction policy during the crucial period after he took office upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The former tailors apprentice from Tennessee had achieved his national political reputation as a spokesman for Southern yeomen and as a firm Unionist, and observers expected his policies to be guided by his oft-quoted declaration that treason must be made odious, and traitors must be punished and impoverished. To the contrary, however, he did little to interfere with the political structure of the states that had seceded. He did not use federal patronage, one of his most important resources, to broaden Southern political leadership. He appointed provisional governors in each state who were committed to the Union but not to genuine reform. Even his boldest choice, North Carolina governor William W. Holden, had unqualified opposition to what is called negro suffrage. More generally, Johnson extended amnesty to almost all participants in the rebellion. His other plans similarly sought little change. He overruled policies providing for at least limited redistribution of land to former slaves, and he did not attempt to interfere with the adoption of the Black Codes by which Southern whites sought to limit the meaning of emancipation. Requiring Southern states only to nullify their ordinances of secession, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and repudiate

the state debts incurred in the rebellion, he notified Congress shortly after it assembled in December 1865 that Reconstruction was finished.

Congress and the President. Johnsons Reconstruction policy did not satisfy the Republican majority in Congress, including moderates as well as those committed to a radical restructuring of Southern society. In the eyes of many Northerners, the folly of the Presidents approach was most clearly illustrated when the Georgia legislature elected Alexander H. Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, to represent the state in the Senate. Congress denied the seating of the Southern delegations and set up a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to formulate a more meaningful political expression of the outcome of the war. This process resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and reorganization of the Freedmens Bureau, the federal agency chartered at the end of the war to facilitate the transition from slavery to freedom for African Americans. When Johnson unexpectedly vetoed these bills, Congress overrode his objections. The first time in American history that Congress had passed significant legislation after a presidential veto, this confrontation marked the outbreak of open hostilities between Johnson and the Republicans in Congress. Johnson attacked Republicans, especially the radical members, in a highly publicized speaking tour and urged Southern states not to ratify the proposed Fourteenth Amendment. Congress responded by reducing the size of the Supreme Court to prevent Johnson from filling vacancies and by passing a Tenure of Office Act that required the president to seek congressional approval before he appointed or removed cabinet members. When Johnson tested the restriction by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a supporter of the congressional radicals, the House of Representatives impeached him in the spring of 1868. Although the vote acquitting the president showed that he had come within a single vote of removal from office, several Republican moderates had expressed a willingness to block the impeachment process because they were wary of a triumph for the radical wing of the party and because they were satisfied by reassurances that he would no longer try to undermine Republican policy.

Radical Reconstruction. The extension of the Freedmens Bureau and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 were preludes to adoption of the principal framework for congressional policy, the Military Reconstruction Act of 2 March 1867. This legislation divided the former Confederacy into five military districts until each state held a constitutional convention. To obtain read-mission to the Union, the states were required to provide for black male suffrage and to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. One important guide to the ideas underlying this Reconstruction program was the emphasis on the guarantee of suffrage and the absence of any provision for redistribution of land. In part the failure of land redistribution reflected the sanctity of property rights in American thought, but the Republican priorities also expressed a judgment about the relative importance of political and economic power. Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio declared that if I were a black man, with the chains just stricken from my limbs and you should offer me the ballot, or a cabin and forty acres of cotton land, I would take the ballot. Republicans called for the elimination of legal barriers that prevented African Americans from participating in public life on an equal footing with whites, and the Fourteenth Amendment provided for a strengthening of the federal government to enforce this political equality and to provide equal opportunity for economic advancement. The radicalism of conservative Republicans did not envision a society divided into sharply defined, antagonistic classes by the ownership of property.

Southern Political Leadership. The Republican governments that emerged in the South during Reconstruction drew on several different bases of support. By far the most important was the enfranchised freedmen. African Americans comprised a majority of the population in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana; almost half of the population in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida; approximately 40 percent of the population in Virginia and North Carolina; and about one-quarter of the population in Arkansas and Texas. African Americans not only provided the core of votes for the Republican Party but also some of its most important leaders, including Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, both of whom served in the United States Senate; Robert B. Elliott and Robert Smalls of South Carolina, who served in the House of Representatives; and P. B. S. Pinchback, who became governor of Louisiana. Reconstruction could not be sustained without white support as well, which the Democratic opponents of reform divided into two groups. The more frequently excoriated were settlers

from the North, derided as carpetbaggers because they supposedly brought with them no more than the contents of a small suitcase made from old carpet and sought to make their fortune by corruptly exploiting the South. In fact, transplanted Northerners varied widely in background and motives and included such thoughtful newcomers as Albion Tourgée, who drew on his experiences in North Carolina in his novel A FooFs Errand (1879). The bulk of white supporters were native Southerners, whom Democrats preferred to pretend did not exist but acknowledged when necessary as scalawags, a term for low-grade livestock. These Republicans were particularly concentrated in the hill country that in many states had long fought political domination by the plantation districts. Other scalawags were planters or entrepreneurs, particularly former Whigs who felt more at home in the Republican than in the Democratic Party. Democratic hatred for scalawags is well illustrated by the postwar career of Gen. James Longstreet, one of the leading commanders in the Confederate army. To most Southerners his military record could not overcome his lapse into Republicanism, and he became the highest-ranking figure not to be honored by a monument when he died.

Republican Achievement. For the constitutional conventions required by Congress and the Republican leaders that came into power under the new governments, the chief priority was the establishment of public school systems. Their efforts in this direction established a principle of state responsibility for education that promised to transform the South. More controversial were attempts to make the new public schools racially integrated, a point of overlap between the emphasis on education and the attention of Republican legislatures to civil rights issues. Reconstruction governments enacted a variety of antidiscrimination laws governing access to railroads, theaters, and other public accommodations, but many of these would remain unenforced from the outset, and almost all would be displaced with the hardening of segregation at the end of the century. Republicans in the South also sought strenuously to promote economic development, especially through aid to railroad construction. The rail lines running through the region multiplied rapidly, but as in the Midwest, the dream of general prosperity through public investment in transportation usually proved an illusion. The promotion of railroads in the end undercut Republican governments because many associated them with the taxes necessary to pay unsuccessful bonds, the corruption that accompanied railroad construction everywhere in the country, and the loss of independence felt by hill-country farmers as they became enmeshed in wider commercial markets.


Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss Jr., eds., The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991);

Michael Les Benedict, A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 18631869 (New York: Norton, 1974);

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, 18631877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).


views updated May 29 2018

Reconstruction. When the Confederate forces surrendered in April 1865, the U.S. Army embarked on a mission unparalleled in its history: the postwar occupation of a rebellious section of its own country as the enforcer of a politically determined process of reconstruction. No previous war had required such duty. During the Civil War, reconstruction had begun haltingly in 1862 in those parts of Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Virginia under Union military control. However, Abraham Lincoln's “ten percent” plan for the restoration of individual loyalty and government functions was at best experimental. Military efforts remained focused on victory rather than post‐war expectations.

Confederate surrender changed the picture entirely. Many parts of the South had by now experienced the presence of Union troops. Neither soldiers nor civilians knew how long that presence might last, nor what policies would govern the relationship between victor and vanquished. The Constitution, not having anticipated a breakup of the Union by force, gave little specific guidance for the aftermath of such an effort. Federal statutes were equally uninformative on the peacetime use of military power in support of federal political processes. The American tradition of civil control of military institutions was well developed, yet that tradition would not provide clear answers to the many specific questions of power soon to arise. Other complicating factors were the clamor of volunteer troops to go home as soon as possible; the legislative need to establish a peacetime size for the regular army; the resumption of patrol and Indian‐fighting duties in the West; and the need for troops to support diplomatic moves against the French presence in Mexico.

During the twelve years of Reconstruction (1865–77), the army's experience in the South evolved significantly as its powers, functions, and problems changed. Five distinct phases can be identified. An initial period of six weeks extended from mid‐April 1865 to the end of May. The Confederate national government had collapsed and in many states there were no civil governments functioning. Legislators, governors, judges, aldermen, sheriffs, and other local officials were not at their posts. Thus the army, by default, assumed the task of local government.

Applying to civil government its familiar pattern of military administration, the army established departments, districts, and subdistricts throughout the South. Commanding officers of troops doubled as executive officers of government, or sought to find loyal and trustworthy civilians whom they could temporarily appoint to vacant positions. Considerations of workload as well as personal ability led army officers to prefer a pattern of civilian officeholders working under military orders.

The broad category of regulation called the police power, focusing on the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the community, came under military supervision. Specific subjects varied widely depending on local conditions. Typical regulations applied to collection of garbage, disinfecting alleys and streets with lime, naked children in public, dogs running at large, public profanity, speed limits for carriages, whitewashing of tree trunks, vagrancy, prostitution, distribution of food relief, and reopening of schools. Some commanders required proof of having taken the loyalty oath as a qualification for certain services, including receipt of mail or obtaining a marriage license. Approximately 250,000 troops remained in the South in the weeks immediately following the surrender. They performed a wide variety of different duties without adequate training. Commanding generals, some of whom were not regulars, often had to act on their own judgment or a highly general letter of instruction from superiors. The war had ended with a military surrender, not a treaty of peace, and the future policy of the government was initially unsettled.

On 29 May 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued two proclamations that would begin a period of “presidential Reconstruction.” One prescribed a loyalty oath, established the terms of a general amnesty, and specified a process whereby those excluded from the general amnesty could apply for individual pardon. The second appointed a provisional governor for North Carolina and set forth a process for the reestablishment of a permanent state government and election of local officials. Thus began the second phase of the army's role in the South, which would extend until December 1865. Johnson shortly issued proclamations establishing provisional governments in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. In Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Virginia, the provisional governments established during the war continued.

The army's presence in the South now had a specific focus. The provisional governors were to reestablish civil government by the participation of loyal voters. The army was to “aid and assist the said provisional governor in carrying into effect this proclamation.” Johnson also ordered soldiers “to abstain from in any way hindering, impeding, or discouraging the loyal people from the organization of a State government.” Yet much remained unclear. A provisional governor of a state appointed by the president was an anomaly in American constitutional practice. A military force placed to whatever degree at the call of such an official was equally anomalous.

Controversies were bound to occur. Governors wrote to President Johnson complaining about military interference. Officers wrote to the Commanding General, Ulysses S. Grant, asking for instructions about the limits of their authority. In Mississippi, Governor William L. Sharkey and Gen. Henry W. Slocum clashed over the governor's desire to form a state militia independent of military control. A widespread subject of controversy was military arrests: Could commanders arrest civilians on their own initiative, or only in pursuance of a request from civilian officials for aid in effecting an arrest in a dangerous area? Law enforcement was made more complex by jurisdictional conflicts among (a) military commissions, (b) special Freedmen's Bureau courts designed to resolve labor contract disputes, and (c) local courts reopened by provisional governors. General Grant and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton supported the army in these conflicts, while President Johnson often sided with his political appointees, the provisional governors.

By September 1865, the number of troops in the South was down to 187,000. Distribution varied from 8,700 in Florida to 16,000 in Tennessee to 24,000 in Louisiana to 45,000 in Texas. A growing problem was the desire of white volunteer regiments to be mustered out, which left an increasing proportion of black regiments, organized late in the war, with a year or more left on their enlistments. By the end of 1865, when total troop strength had dropped to 88,000, black regiments outnumbered white ones by 11 to 1 in Mississippi, 6 to 1 in Tennessee, and 9 to 5 in Louisiana. There was a slight preponderance of black troops in Arkansas and Florida, and equal numbers in Alabama and Texas. Complaints from governors about mutual racial antipathy as well as negative reports about discipline from some commanding generals led to an increased discharge rate for black volunteer regiments during 1866.

In December 1865, Congress (which had been out of session since March) met for its new term, expressed dissatisfaction with the results of Johnson's program, and refused to readmit any seceded states to representation. This initiated a legislative struggle with Johnson over control of policy that lasted until March 1867. In consequence of the confusion in Washington, the army's role entered its third phase. The provisional governments remained in place, but congressional Republicans wanted more military supervision of them. Conflict with governors over appointment and removal of local officials increased. Passage of the Freedmen's Bureau Act meant continued military aid for that agency. Passage of the Civil Rights Act, signifying a congressional desire to supersede discriminatory state legislation and judicial practices, meant greater use of military courts, or at least military protection, for former slaves and white unionists. All the while numbers declined, from 39,000 troops in the South in April to 20,000 at year's end. In 1866, the total peacetime strength of the regular army was set at 58,000.

On 2 March 1867, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto, thus establishing a program of “congressional Reconstruction.” The army's role entered its fourth phase, which would continue in each state until such time, between the summer of 1868 and the spring of 1871, as the particular state gained readmission to Congress. During this phase, the army's direct power over civil affairs and southern politics reached its greatest extent. The First Reconstruction Act superseded all of the existing state governments, required the election of conventions to rewrite state constitutions, and mandated a new registration of voters under specified qualifications and the election of new governors and legislators. This political process occurred under total military supervision. Congress established five military districts and required the president to assign an army general to the command of each district.

That officer had the duty “to protect all persons in their rights of persons and property, to suppress insurrection, disorder, and violence, and to punish, or cause to be punished, all disturbers of the public peace and criminals.” In a clarification of previous uncertainties, the commanding generals had specific permission to try civilians by military commission. Subsequent legislation allowed the generals to appoint the registration boards and control other aspects of the electoral process. They could also remove any civil official and need not accept the U.S. Attorney General's interpretation of their powers under the law.

Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in Louisiana and Gen. John Pope in Georgia removed governors as well as lesser officials. Pope gerrymandered electoral districts in order to control the results and sought to regulate the press by requiring official notices to be published only in papers that did not oppose congressional Reconstruction. The administration of Gen. John Schofield in Virginia was by comparison much less contentious.

By this legislation as well as other contemporary provisions, Congress had assigned the army an overtly political function. It had also made certain that the army would implement its views on Reconstruction and not those of the president. During the summer of 1867, Johnson removed Generals Sheridan, Pope, and Dan Sickles from their commands. His subsequent efforts to get Edwin M. Stanton out of the War Department led to his impeachment.

Congress readmitted several states to representation in the summer of 1868. Others followed in 1870 and 1871. Readmission began the fifth and last phase of army duties in the South, which would continue until the inauguration of Rutherford Hayes in the spring of 1877. Troop strength dropped from 18,000 in October 1868 (one‐third on the Texas frontier) to 6,000 in the fall of 1876 (half in Texas). In 1869, a retrenchment‐minded Congress once again cut the size of the regular army to less than 40,000 men.

Duties were more intermittent than continuous. Detachments went out to accompany federal revenue officers in search of illicit whiskey stills. General suppression of crime was also a task for the army, but now only at the request of civil authorities, federal or state. The amount of discretion left to the army in honoring these requests caused controversy; often the requests ended up in Washington for review and approval. In 1871, Gen. Alfred H. Terry reported that in the six states of his command, there had been more than 200 expeditions in aid of law enforcement that year. The army also provided the force behind a major effort to break the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina during 1870–72. Around election time, military activity increased as small detachments visited troubled areas of the state to guard polls and discourage intimidation of voters. Congressional Reconstruction brought Republican state regimes to power, which often called for military aid in the period following readmission. The most continuous use of troops for this purpose was the protracted party struggle in Louisiana from 1872 to 1877.

The twelve years of Reconstruction saw frequent changes in policy, and with them, changes in the army's legal powers and functions. As an institution, the army was able to adjust to these changes, largely because officers saw themselves as administering policy rather than establishing it. This fit the established American tradition in civil‐military relations, in spite of the executive‐legislative conflict over army control in the Johnson years. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, reflecting the Reconstruction experience, further limited military enforcement of civil law. On the whole, military administration of federal policy was creditable to the institution of the U.S. Army despite errors of judgment and highly unusual circumstances.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Army, U.S.: 1866–99; Civil‐Military Relations; Colored Troops, U.S.]


Otis Singletary , The Negro Militia and Reconstruction, 1957.
Max L. Heyman , Prudent Soldier: A Biography of Major General E. R. S. Canby, 1959.
Benjamin P. Thomas and and Harold Hyman , Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War, 1962.
James E. Sefton , The United States Army and Reconstruction, 1865–1877, 1967.
Jack D. Foner , The United States Soldier Between Two Wars: Army Life and Reforms, 1865–1898, 1970.
James E. Sefton , Andrew Johnson and the Uses of Constitutional Power, 1980.
Joseph G. Dawson III , Army Generals and Reconstruction: Louisiana, 1862–1877, 1982.
William L. Richter , The Army in Texas During Reconstruction, 1865–1870, 1987.

James E. Sefton


views updated May 21 2018


Reconstruction (18651877) was one of our most controversial political eras. It followed the American Civil War (18611865), the bloodiest war in U.S. history, and saw the South's transformation from a slave to a free society. The U.S. government had to decide how to reintegrate the Confederate states into the union and how to assimilate almost four million freed slaves into the war-torn and hostile society of the South. Its economy was in shambles at the end of the Civil War, with manufacturing and transportation systems in disarray, banks insolvent, and Confederate currency worthless. The agricultural labor pool of slaves, who represented the most valuable asset that the South had possessed prior to the warmore valuable even than all the land in the South, was no longer legally available and the planters had little on-hand cash to pay wages. The freed slaves faced destitution.

President Abraham Lincoln (18611865) was anxious to get the Confederate states back into the union. As early as December 1863 he had issued a "Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction" which detailed a lenient approach that he felt would receive wide acceptance in the South and hasten reunion of the eleven Confederate states. Prompted by considerations of how to smooth over the process of reunification of the nation, as well as by long-term political considerations for himself and the newly founded Republican Party, Lincoln's Reconstruction plan was called the "10 percent plan." Only ten percent of a state's electorate who had voted in 1860 had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States before its citizens could be granted pardons, their property restored, and their state governments recognized. Lincoln's plan did not include much in the way of provisions for post-war recovery of the South or safe-guards to protect the newly freed slaves from their former masters.

In July of 1864 Congress adopted a compromise Reconstruction plan which increased the requirements for reentry of the Southern states into the Union. Lincoln, however, vetoed this Wade-Davis bill, which proposed raising the 10 percent voter oath requirement to 50 percent and limiting participation of former Southern leaders in state constitutional conventions. Realizing that few safeguards existed to protect the new found liberty of former slaves, Congress also established the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865 to help feed, protect, and educate them.

Fearing that rebel leaders would regain control of the South, some "Radical Republicans" in Congress (Congressmen who advocated strong measures against the former Confederacy) sought to grant voting rights to former slaves and even spoke of confiscating the wealthy Southern planters' property. A precedent existed for this land reform idea: in a few cases during the war union troops had allowed former slaves to occupy and farm the plantations of rebel planters, including the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. A rumor arose among the former slaves that the federal government was going to redistribute the land and give each slave family "forty acres and a mule."

But after the surrender of the southern armies and in the wake of the uncertainty that accompanied Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, a dispute arose between Lincoln's successor, former Vice President Andrew Johnson, and the Radical Republicans in Congress. Johnson, a small farmer and slave owner from Tennessee, believed blacks were inferior and envisioned a South economically dominated by white farmers holding property redistributed from wealthy planter's land. He seemed to believe that a conspiracy existed between the large plantation owners and the slaves against the small white farmers. Johnson adopted contradictory policieson the one hand formally declaring that the Confederate military leadership would be executed and that slave holders would be denied the vote, and on the other, pardoning an unending line of petitioners from the southern planter class who flattered him and received full exoneration.

During this period of confusion, the southern political elite adopted make-shift constitutions that abolished slavery and elected the surviving members of the pre-war political elite to Congress. At the same time, however, in their own state legislatures the former planter aristocracy was passing "black codes" that re-subjugated the former slaves to conditions that approximated slavery. Ex-slaves could were restricted to farming jobs, they could be rounded up, charged with vagrancy, and put to work without compensation. They had to carry passes. They lived under curfew laws. Major race riots instigated by whites broke out in 1866 in Memphis and New Orleans with blacks receiving little protection from local law authorities. As these conditions became known in the first months after the southern surrender, the Radical Republicans successfully led a movement to exclude the southern congressmen who were being elected and sent to serve in Congress. A prolonged struggle erupted between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government pitting the president and his conservative program of restoring pre-Civil War conditions in the South against the Radical demands for extensive social and political change in the South.

Angered by the South's persistent and violent resistance to restructuring and disappointed with Johnson's views, Congress adopted a Radical Reconstruction strategy. First, over Johnson's veto, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which recognized blacks as citizens and guaranteed equal protection under the law. Congress included the Act's key provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment, which was approved in 1866 despite rejection by most Southern states. The amendment granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and directed that states could not deprive citizens of due process of law and equal protection of the laws. Next came the Reconstruction Acts between 1866 and 1868, also over Johnson's veto. The acts firmly established military control over the South with the eleven Southern states divided into five military districts. State governments that were recognized under Lincoln and Johnson were thrown out and the black codes eliminated. A Major General controlled each district by holding extensive authority over state officials. Between 1868 and 1870 all states were readmitted to the Union with new governments that were controlled by blacks, carpetbaggers (Northerners who came to the South to carry out Reconstruction programs), and scalawags (Southern collaborators). Though violence temporarily ceased and a number of postwar recovery measures were instituted (including a lasting public school system for both races), most Southerners viewed the governments as artificially contrived.

In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from restricting voting rights on the basis of race. Congress followed with a series of enforcement acts until 1871. However, Northern support for Reconstruction measures began to fade in the 1870s as a national economic recession captured attention. President Rutherford B. Hayes (18771881) withdrew the last federal troops in 1877 and Southern states once again assumed full control. Racism flourished. State Jim Crow laws established a racial caste system in the South during the last years of the nineteenth century. Some historians attributed the failure of Reconstruction to the failure to redistribute southern lands to poor farmers, both black and white. In any case, a new labor system involving sharecropping and crop liens replaced slavery. Black families farmed assigned portions of plantations in return for a share of the crop and necessary food and supplies. The new system, in which the new Southern ruling class of planters and merchants were subservient to Northern financiers, did not reestablish the prosperity seen before the war.

See also: Civil War (Economic Impact of), Confederate Dollar, Fourteenth Amendment, Freedman's Bureau, Jim Crow Laws, Sharecropping


Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Harris, William C. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Kennedy, Stetson. After Appomattox: How the South Won the War. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995.

Schmidt, James D. Free to Work: Labor Law, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, 18151880. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

in the end . . . the vast majority of southern blacks remained propertyless and poor. but exactly why the south, and especially its black population, suffered from dire poverty and economic retardation in the decades following the civil war is a matter of much dispute.

eric foner, american heritage, october/november 1983


views updated May 17 2018


The Framers of the Constitution did not anticipate a civil war or contemplate the constitutional problems in rebuilding the Union after such a conflict. From abraham lincoln's first proposal for restoring the Union in 1863 to the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South in 1877, Reconstruction was at heart a series of constitutional questions involving the power of the federal government vis-à-vis the states and the relations among the various branches of the national government.

The key issue from the very beginning centered on the nature of the Union. The South claimed that as a compact of states, the Union could be dissolved by the single expedient of the sovereign states choosing to withdraw. The North saw the Union as indissoluble. As Chief Justice salmon p. chase later wrote in texas v. white (1869), "The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States." The northern view had prevailed by force of arms, and the Union had been preserved. But if the states had never left the Union, as Lincoln had claimed throughout the civil war, then why would a reconstruction be necessary to put them back in a status they had never left?

Lincoln approached this question in the same commonsense manner he had approached the war. The Constitution did not specifically authorize the federal government to deal with a civil war, but it was inconceivable that the Framers had not intended for the government to have all the adequate powers to preserve and defend itself. Throughout the war, Lincoln relied on the "adequacy of the Constitution" theory to justify actions that could not be grounded on a specific constitutional clause.

Common sense told him that if theoretically the states could not leave the Union, in initiating the war they had at least left their proper role in that Union, and some actions would have to be taken to make theory and reality whole again. The Ten-Percent Plan, whereby one-tenth of a state's 1860 voters would swear support of the Constitution and "reestablish" state government in return for presidential recognition, must be seen not as Lincoln's final word on the subject but as a wartime measure designed to draw the southern states back with the promise of leniency. Moreover, Lincoln wanted to retain his flexibility; if the Ten-Percent Plan worked, well and good, but if not, then he would try something else. The President vetoed the wade-davis bill not because he disagreed with its provisions but because it left him too little room for maneuver. The three state governments set up under Lincoln's plan proved failures, and there is evidence that the President and Congress were moving toward agreement on a new plan at the time of his assassination.

Where Lincoln had shown flexibility and open-mindedness in approaching the problem, his successor took a rigid and uncompromising position: the States had never left the Union, and therefore the federal government had no business telling them what they had to do in order to return to the Union. In andrew johnson's mind, Reconstruction amounted to little more than a brief period of readjustment, with oversight over this readjustment completely a presidential function. Just as Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, had the constitutional authority for directing the war, so now he, as commander-in-chief, would have similar power in tidying up the last few problems of that war. In taking this view, Johnson completely misunderstood how Lincoln had worked closely with congressional leaders to have Congress support his policies.

Over the summer of 1865 the southern states, at Johnson's direction, held conventions to revise their constitutions (primarily to abolish slavery) and to elect representatives to Congress. In the President's mind, when these representatives joined the Thirty-ninth Congress in December 1865, the Union would be whole and the readjustment process at an end. He did not believe then or later that Congress had any power to force the southern states to do anything they did not freely choose to do themselves. The former Tennessee senator, unlike many of his southern colleagues, had been a strong defender of the Union, but like them he shared a strong commitment to states ' rights.

Congress obviously did not share Johnson's view and recognized that if it seated the southern representatives, Reconstruction would be at an end before the legislators could examine the situation or frame their own plan. Moreover, they believed that the people of the North wanted assurances that the fruits of their victory—the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery—would be protected in the peace to follow. With congressional refusal to seat the southerners, two conflicts began, one between the national government and the former Confederate states and the other between Congress and the President, both revolving around the question of what powers the national government had over the states.

Congress passed several bills in early 1866 to assist the newly freed blacks and to create legal protections for their rights. Supporters of these measures relied on what they considered the broad mandate of the thirteenth amendment, ratified in December 1865, which included the first enforcement clause in any amendment. Some scholars have suggested that it is the Thirteenth, and not the Fourteenth, Amendment that recast relations between the states and the national government by giving Congress power over what had hitherto been an internal state matter.

When Congress discussed Reconstruction in early 1866, many Republicans believed that the Thirteenth Amendment by itself gave Congress sufficient power to carry out the broad aims of giving the former slaves full rights as citizens of the United States. Freedom, as they saw it, involved not just the formal abolition of slavery but also the eradication of any signs of inferior status. According to this view, Congress had all necessary power to enact whatever legislation it thought necessary and proper to secure these goals.

Andrew Johnson, however, claimed that the amendment did little more than formally abolish slavery, and although the evidence is strong that its framers meant more than that, the Republican leadership in Congress worried that the Supreme Court might adopt his view. One can therefore see the fourteenth amendment as an effort to clarify the original intent of the Thirteenth and as Congress's Reconstruction plan. By making its goals explicit through a constitutional amendment, Congress intended to quiet all concerns about the legitimacy of its plan.

One should also note that aside from invalidation of the Confederate debt and restrictions on some leaders of the rebellion, the Fourteenth Amendment was not punitive. Congress, as well as Johnson, wanted to see the southern states back in their proper role as quickly as possible. This is clear in the June 1866 report of the joint committee on reconstruction, which, while documenting southern intransigence and oppression of the freedom, is moderate in tone. Ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, the report implies, and welcome back. In fact, Tennessee, which had always had a large Unionist faction, promptly ratified and Congress admitted it back into the Union in 1866.

The committee report is also noteworthy for its discussion of the constitutional issues involved in Reconstruction. Aside from repudiating Johnson's view of Reconstruction as solely a presidential function, it examined the constitutional status of the former Confederate states. In talking about "forfeited rights," it struck a position halfway between those who claimed that the states had never left the Union and therefore had retained all their rights and the radical view of "state suicide," in which the states had ceased to exist as legal entities. Rather, the states had as a result of their rebellion forfeited basic political rights as members of the Union and, until restored fully to the Union, could enjoy only those rights granted to them by the Congress. The report relied on the fact that the Constitution assigned the power for creating new states to Congress, not the President; by implication the task of refixing the states in the Union also belonged to Congress.

The report is a commonsensical effort to deal with practical problems, but its theoretical basis is inconsistent. The states had forfeited all rights and existed as states only at the sufferance of Congress, yet they were being asked to exercise one of the most important political powers under the Constitution—changing the organic framework of government through amendment.

At Johnson's urging, the other southern states refused to follow Tennessee's example, and this refusal raised the question of whether ratification of the amendment required three-fourths of those states still in the Union or three-fourths of all the states—including the southern states now in a constitutional limbo. Here again one can only contrast Johnson's rigid adherence to a theoretical premise that flew in the face of the reality and Congress's efforts to reach a workable solution of a problem fraught with constitutional bombshells.

The election of 1866 ought to have made clear to Johnson that the North overwhelmingly favored the congressional Republican position, but he continued his efforts to thwart Congress. The events of 1867, with continuing tensions between President and legislature, led to a political impasse unforeseen by the Framers—a chief executive who, repudiated at the polls, refused to accept that judgment and who did his best, not to execute duly passed laws of Congress, but to thwart their implementation. There is an ongoing debate over what the Framers intended as grounds for impeachment, but a number of scholars believe that the device serves as an instrument of last resort for resolving a political deadlock that would otherwise paralyze the government. Although the Senate failed to convict by a single vote, the impeachment proceeding had the desired effect: while Johnson still refused to cooperate with Congress, he no longer attempted to obstruct its will. By then, however, the damage had been done; the intransigence of the southern states, encouraged by Johnson, led to a prolonged Reconstruction and a legacy of bitterness.

Hovering in back of much of the congressional debate in 1866 and 1867 was a concern over what the Supreme Court would say in regard to the Reconstruction statutes. By then, no one questioned the power of the Court to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, and if the Justices should adhere to the traditional view of limiting federal interference in state affairs, then the entire congressional program might be voided. The Court's decision in ex parte milligan (1866) and in two cases striking down loyalty oaths alarmed Congress, which quickly passed a law narrowing the Court's jurisdiction in certain areas. But in the only case in which the Court directly addressed the constitutional question of Reconstruction, Texas v. White (1869), the Court confirmed the congressional view that whatever the theoretical relationship of the states to the Union, the war had at least temporarily suspended that relationship and its associated rights.

While Reconstruction was no doubt a political disaster for all concerned, constitutionally it has confirmed the approach taken initially by Lincoln and later by the Congress that in extreme situations one has to interpret the document not in a narrow theoretical light but in a commonsense reponse to real problems. The intransigence of Johnson and the South required Congress to go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment, but one can argue that at least in terms of the freedmen, a liberal reading of the Thirteenth Amendment would have been sufficient to achieve the goals of full equality before the law. The Fourteenth Amendment and fifteenth amendment, passed in response to unnecessary objections, had their greatest constitutional impact not during Reconstruction but in later years.

Melvin I. Urofsky


Hyman, Harold M. and Wiecek, William M. 1982 Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835–1875. New York: Harper & Row.

Kutler, Stanley I. 1968 Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Nelson, William E. 1988 The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


views updated May 18 2018


Reconstruction refers to the era following the American Civil War (1861–65) when the nation struggled to recreate a union of states. The U.S. government had to establish guidelines for reintegrating the Southern states that made up the Confederate States of America . Their acts of secession , or splitting from the Union, had been regarded as betrayal. Their loyalty to the United States needed to be affirmed, and the old, seceding state governments needed to be replaced by new, loyal ones.

The war had destroyed the economy in the South, so a lot of anger and resentment remained there. The abolition of slavery , on which much of the area's production depended, was difficult for Southern economies. Assimilating freed African Americans into hostile Southern societies began during Reconstruction but would take many decades more to complete.

Lincoln's intentions

The Civil War still raged in 1863, but President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) was anxious for the Confederate states to come back to the Union. Hoping to lure states away from the

Confederacy, Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which outlined a lenient approach for readmitting states to the Union. It is sometimes called the Ten Percent Plan because it required only 10 percent of a state's voters in the 1860 presidential election to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. When 10 percent took the oath, citizens could be granted pardons, property restored, and state governments recognized and included again in the United States.

In the summer of 1864, Congress passed a compromise to Lincoln's plan, the Wade-Davis Bill. It raised the voter oath requirement from 10 to 50 percent and limited the participation of former Southern leaders in the formation of new state governments. Recognizing that no provisions had been made to protect freed slaves, Congress also established the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865 to help feed, protect, and educate them.

President Lincoln vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill. After he was reelected in 1864, a modified form of the bill was proposed, but efforts to pass it failed. The Confederate Army surrendered in early April 1865, and a few days later President Lincoln was assassinated. The future of Reconstruction remained undefined, yet surrender made the issue of reintegration urgent.

Johnson's plan

Upon Lincoln's assassination, Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) became president. President Johnson was not a Northern Republican like Lincoln; he was a Southern Democrat who disagreed passionately with the South's choice to secede, but he also had deep Southern prejudices against African Americans. His Reconstruction policies were similar to Lincoln's, but they were no longer appropriate to the complex situation presented by the South's surrender.

With the end of the war, Reconstruction terms became more important. What would the rebellious states be required to do before being brought back into the Union? How would they prove their loyalty? What changes to their political systems would they have to make? As slavery had been abolished, what would be the legal, political, and social status of African Americans?

If states were readmitted with few or no conditions, then new local governments might make few changes to their politics and societies. The combined political power of Southern and Northern Democrats threatened to challenge Republican rule in Congress. The politics of a Northern Democratic president and a Republican Congress made Reconstruction an extremely difficult process.

Congress was on break and not scheduled to return for nearly eight months when Johnson presented his plan for Reconstruction. It required little change from the Southern states. He appointed temporary governors to call and oversee constitutional conventions. The states were required to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution , which abolished slavery, and to nullify (invalidate) their secession ordinances. Though Johnson encouraged giving African Americans the right to vote, he did not require it, and no state embraced the idea when they reorganized.

Johnson had to deal with the possibility that people in the rebelling states might face charges of treason against the U.S. government. Johnson offered general pardons for all Southerners except the highest-ranking Confederate officials and those owning property valued at more than $20,000. In practice, however, the president extended individual pardons to officials and property owners at such a rate that their exclusion from general pardons was meaningless. When Congress reconvened in December, Johnson announced that Reconstruction was finished.

Congressional involvement

Johnson's Reconstruction efforts had changed very little. Many of the states balked at the requirements of either ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment or nullifying their secession ordinances. Because President Johnson was granting pardons so easily, many of the former rebel leaders were elected again to leadership positions, including to Congress. New state governments were passing Black Codes , laws that restricted former slaves to near slavery.

Both moderate and Radical Republican members of Congress were dissatisfied with Johnson's efforts. When it reconvened in December 1865, Congress refused to acknowledge the Southern delegates recently admitted through Johnson's plan. Congress formed a Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction to handle all matters pertaining to the restoration of the South. It was a direct challenge not only to Johnson's Reconstruction policy but also to his authority as president. It marked the beginning of a long and complex political battle between the president and Congress.

Johnson was unwilling to cooperate with Congress. He vetoed many measures that Congress passed. Congress, for the first time in history, overrode the vetoes. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 recognized African Americans as citizens and guaranteed equal protection of the laws. It contained the basic components of what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting citizenship to all people born in the United States and guaranteeing due process of law. Congress also renewed the Freedmen's Bureau.

The framework for Congress's Reconstruction policy was contained in a series of legislation known as the Reconstruction Acts . The acts included laws that divided the former Confederacy into five military districts until each state held a new constitutional convention to replace state governments previously recognized by Lincoln and Johnson. To obtain readmission to the Union, the states were required to provide voting rights to black males and to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. The acts also temporarily barred certain Confederate officeholders from voting or holding office in the new governments.

President Johnson attempted to veto much of this legislation too, but Congress continued to override his objections. Johnson actively campaigned against the Fourteenth Amendment and worked for the election of Reconstruction rivals during the congressional elections of 1866, all unsuccessfully. Congress passed several measures to reduce Johnson's presidential powers, and finally impeached him in 1868. Though he narrowly escaped conviction and maintained his presidency, his presidential power was practically worthless. Congress maintained control of Reconstruction.

Last measures

Between 1868 and 1870, all former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union with new governments. Though Congress continued Reconstruction with a series of enforcement acts through 1871, support for Reconstruction faded in the midst of economic concerns. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; 1877-–81) withdrew the last federal troops from Confederate states in 1877, and Southern states once again assumed full control.

Although there were some successful measures, Reconstruction essentially failed to create a democratic South. The vast majority of African Americans and many small farmers remained poor, without property and practically without enforceable rights. A system of sharecropping replaced slavery, making it almost impossible for families to work for their own success. The economy was slow to recover, and discrimination and resentment against blacks raged. Life under oppressive state governments was made worse by the terrorist acts of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan . The federal government would have to return to the South in the middle of the twentieth century to compel integration of African Americans into Southern society.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic