Reconstruction Acts

views updated May 23 2018

Reconstruction Acts

Daniel W. Hamilton

Well before the Civil War was over, even before a Union victory appeared imminent, politicians in the Union debated how to treat the defeated South after the war. Abraham Lincoln's dream of a ninety-day war dissolved into years of terrible bloodshed and total war. With every major battle and every passing year, a quick return to peace and a restoration of political ties between the North and the South became increasingly improbable, and for many northerners, undesirable. While leading Democrats wanted to restore the Union as it had been before the war, powerful voices within the Republican Party argued that not only must the rebellion be put down, the South itself must be fundamentally refashioned, or reconstructed. Republicans, especially those in the party's radical wing, argued that the leaders of the Confederacy must be forever kept out of political power in the states and the federal government. Southern states, they asserted, should not be allowed representation in Congress until they abolished slavery. As the war went on, Republicans began also to demand adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and black male suffrage as a condition for reunion. Further, some radicals argued that the federal government must protect the civil and political rights of the millions of freed slaves in the South.

A great debate over reconstruction was underway. In response to those calling for fundamental change, President Lincoln offered a much milder program. Lincoln, who was very much involved in strategic decisions and day-to-day battle plans, was pained by the relentless bloodshed and became a forceful advocate for the quick resumption of political reunion without political upheaval. On December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction and outlined his reconstruction program in his message to Congress. Lincoln offered a general amnesty to all southern whites, excluding certain high-ranking officials, who took an oath pledging loyalty to the United States and to support the Emancipation Proclamation and laws passed by the Congress that concerned slavery. Lincoln did not demand immediate, universal emancipation within a state as a condition for readmission, but instead provided that slaves freed during the war could not be enslaved again. Once 10 percent of the number of voters in the 1860 election had taken the oath, a state could establish a new government. Confederate political, judicial, and military officers could apply for individual pardons. Lincoln's reconstruction policy was part of his military strategy and he hoped that a lenient reconstruction program, adopted during the war, would prompt southern whites to reject the Confederacy.

As some southern states bean to reorganize according to Lincoln's plan, congressional opposition to the plan's leniency emerged. Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Henry Winter Davis in the House rejected Lincoln's plan and replaced it with a program detailed in a new bill. The Wade-Davis bill put the Confederate states under a military governor, and required a majority of a state's 1860 voters to pledge loyalty to the United States before they could form a new state government. The "iron clad oath" of the Wade-Davis bill was considerably more stringent than the one provided for by Lincoln. It was to be offered only to those who swore they had never voluntarily supported the Confederacy. The Wade-Davis bill required also that slavery be abolished in reconstructed states and barred Confederate officials from holding office. The bill drew widespread Radical Republican support and passed on July 2, 1863, a few days before adjournment. Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill by refusing to sign it after Congress adjourned.

Lincoln's pocket veto enraged the Congress, and Wade and Davis soon responded with a blistering Manifesto in August 1864, asserting that reconstruction policy was entirely within the authority of Congress. The fight over the Wade-Davis bill was the first battle in a decade-long war between Congress and the president over control of reconstruction. Reconstruction legislation, the central piece of the most dramatic and significant dispute between Congress and the president in American history, led to the near-removal of a president from office and plunged the South into political chaos.

This power struggle intensified with the assassination of Lincoln and the succession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency in April 1865. Johnson, a southerner from Tennessee, hated intensely the powerful planter aristocracy that, in his mind, had duped southern yeoman into war. Johnson rejected calls for reconstruction and soon declared his own plan of "restoration." He offered a pardon to all those taking a loyalty oath, with the important exception that he would individually determine the status of those owning property valued more than $20,000. States seeking readmission also needed to abolish slavery, and each was required to repeal its ordinance of secession. This plan rejected the approach of the Wade-Davis bill and set the president and Congress on the road to another, more decisive, confrontation.

Events in the South dramatically affected debates over reconstruction. With the end of the war in April 1865, former Confederate states began to tightly restrict the freedoms afforded the millions of freed slaves. Several states soon passed "Black Codes," prohibiting blacks from, among other things, serving on juries, testifying against whites, or owning guns. The codes also created oppressive vagrancy laws that subjected those without work to arrest and prison. In 1865 the Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee as a secret society designed to terrorize blacks.

For many Republicans in Congress, the passage of the Black Codes and the reemergence of ex-Confederate leaders meant that the Union victory was being undermined. In December 1865 the thirty-ninth Congress convened for the first time after Lincoln's death. By that time, all of the Confederate states except Mississippi had met Johnson's requirements for readmission. In the House, Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens successfully prevented recognition of the southern representatives during the roll call, effectively denying them admittance.

Republicans in the House and Senate created a Joint Committee on Reconstruction, consisting of nine representatives and six senators. Soon, Congress began to pass powerful new legislation directing the course of reconstruction, including the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, both designed to protect the rights and improve the conditions of blacks in the South. Johnson vetoed both measures, but Congress overrode both vetoes and the bills became law. Most importantly, in June 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, explicitly granting blacks state and federal citizenship, prohibiting any state from depriving "any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law" and further prohibiting states from denying any person "the equal protection of the laws." In the election of 1866 Republicans campaigned largely on their support of the new amendment and increased their majority in Congress, forming anti-Johnson majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Congress soon took a decisive lead in directing the course of reconstruction. On March 2, 1867, on the last day of the session, Congress overrode Johnson's veto and passed the first of four Military Reconstruction Acts. The first act invalidated, but did not immediately disperse, the governments established under Johnson's plan. The ten Confederate states (all but Tennessee) that had refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment were divided into five military districts. Each military district was put under the direction of a military governor authorized to appoint and remove state officials. Voters were registered, and suffrage was extended to freedmen. State constitutional conventions were called, and elected delegates were charged with drafting new constitutional provisions providing for black suffrage. Finally, states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before readmission.

Congress passed the second Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto in March 1867, directing military commanders to register voters, call conventions, and organize elections, rather than wait for state officials to act. In the face of recalcitrance from Johnson's executive branch and white southerners attempting to subvert the law, Congress in July 1867 passed a third Reconstruction Act, declaring the existing state governments in the South illegal and subject to military control and the U.S. Congress. In an attempt to delay the creation of new state governments, some southern whites turned to a provision of the first Reconstruction Act requiring that a majority of registered voters was necessary to ratify a new constitution and called for a boycott of the ratifying election. On March 11, 1868, Congress passed a fourth and final Reconstruction Act that allowed a majority of those voting to ratify a new constitution, regardless of the size of the turnout. President Johnson, as commander in chief, worked to delay and obstruct the army from enforcing these laws. Conflicts over the direction of reconstruction reached the boiling point in the spring of 1868, when the House of Representatives impeached Johnson. On May 26, 1868, the president escaped conviction by the Senate and removal from office by a single vote.

These acts have evoked intense scholarly controversy. To some important early historians of Reconstruction, they were emblematic of the Republican Party, captured by a radical wing, bent on taking vengeance against the South. More recent works take the opposite position, that these acts did not go nearly far enoughthat their passage and implementation showed a Congress that ultimately abandoned any long-term, meaningful protection of freed slaves in the South. Still others argue that the Reconstruction Acts were the product of compromise within the Republican Party, reflecting the dominance of neither radicals nor conservatives, but all factions of the Republican Congress. Republicans, in this interpretation, seized control of reconstruction only after collaboration with President Johnson became impossible.

Reconstruction continues to be controversial because it remains, in the words of Eric Foner, "America's unfinished revolution." In both the North and South, reconstruction ended not with racial equality, but rather with decades of discriminationonly haltingly reversed by the modern Civil Rights movement.

See also: civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1871; Force Act of 1871; Freedmen's Bureau Act.


Benedict, Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction. New York: Olympic Marketing Corporation, 1975.

Donald, David H., et al. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 18631877. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Gienapp, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2002.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Reprint, New York: Ballentine Books, 1989.

U.S. Presidents
George Washington 178997
John Adams 17971801
Thomas Jefferson 180109
James Madison 180917
James Monroe 181725
John Adams 182529
Andrew Jackson 182937
Martin Van Buren 183741
William Henry Harrison 1841
John Tyler 184145
James Polk 184549
Zachary Taylor 184950
Millard Fillmore 185053
Franklin Pierce 185357
James Buchanan 185761
Abraham Lincoln 186165
Andrew Johnson 186569
Ulysses S. Grant 186977
Rutherford B. Hayes 187781
James Garfield 1881
Chester Arthur 188185
Grover Cleveland 188589
Benjamin Harrison 188993
Grover Cleveland 189397
William McKinley 18971901
Theodore Roosevelt 190109
William H. Taft 190913
Woodrow Wilson 191321
Warren Harding 192123
Calvin Coolidge 192329
Herbert Hoover 192933
Franklin D. Roosevelt 193345
Harry Truman 194553
Dwight Eisenhower 195361
John F. Kennedy 196163
Lyndon Johnson 196369
Richard Nixon 196974
Gerald Ford 197477
Jimmy Carter 197781
Ronald Reagan 198189
George H. W. Bush 198993
William J. Clinton 19932001
George W. Bush 2001+

Reconstruction Era

Alfred L. Brophy

As the Civil War drew to a close in the spring of 1865, President Abraham Lincoln began to lay plans for reuniting the American people. The United States military had already begun experimenting with plans for providing newly freed slaves with land and an opportunity for education. Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, however, led to a division within the government. The new president, Andrew Johnson, was sympathetic to the South and wanted to permit white southerners to be granted political rights quickly, while Republicans in Congress wanted to ensure that newly freed slaves' political rights were guaranteed and they were wary of granting voting rights to white southerners.

Congress and President Johnson sparred over how to restore the Union. The period from 1865 until 1877 is known as the "Reconstruction Era." The major legislation included the Freedman's Bureau Act, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1871, the Reconstruction Acts, the Force Act, and three constitutional amendmentsthe thirteenth, which outlawed slavery; the fourteenth, which ensures equal political rights regardless of race; and the fifteenth, which ensures equal voting rights regardless of race.

The Reconstruction Era ended with the Compromise of 1877, which settled the disputed presidential election of 1876. The Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the southern states in return for allowing Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, to become President.

Reconstruction Acts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Reconstruction Acts

The Reconstruction Acts were a series of legislation passed by Congress in 1867, after the American Civil War (1861–65). Together they outlined the Republican Party 's plan for reintegrating into the Union the Southern states that made up the Confederate States of America and for protecting basic rights for the newly freed slaves. The acts represented the wishes of a strong Republican Congress and were passed over the vetoes of President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69).

A political struggle

The time after the Civil War was difficult for the United States. Americans passionately debated how to reintegrate the rebelling Confederate states and people into the Union. Northern opinions were divided between the Radical Republicans , who wanted the Southerners to suffer for their actions, and those who wanted to welcome the states back into the Union quietly.

Racial issues complicated the discussions. Although the Thirteenth Amendment officially prohibited slavery in 1865, it did not define the rights of the freed slaves. Properly recognized, their rights would change Southern culture as it had existed for well over a century. If freed slaves were to be counted as full citizens, rather than using the three-fifths compromise for slaves in the original U.S. Constitution , the political balance in Congress could be altered considerably.

Political disagreement on these important questions characterized the relationship between President Johnson and the Republican Congress after the Civil War. Johnson, a Southern Democrat who was elected vice president under Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in 1860, became president after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. Although Johnson supported the Union during the Civil War, he crafted a very moderate Reconstruction policy after it ended in 1865. Under his plan, rebellious states would be required to repeal their secession ordinances, have 10 percent of their population take a loyalty

oath, and not hold the federal government responsible for their war debts.

The plan was a continuation of one set forth by Lincoln, a Republican, before he died. The Republican Congress, however, generally rejected it. Many congressmen were concerned that it gave just mild discipline to the rebelling states and contained no plan to guide postwar recovery or to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. In an effort to take greater control of Reconstruction, Congress passed its own plan through radical legislation, including the Reconstruction Acts of 1867.

The acts' objectives

The Reconstruction Acts were introduced in 1867, after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Both pieces of preceding legislation had attempted to define national and state citizenship and to guarantee equal protection under the law for black Americans. The legislation was difficult to enforce, however, and Southern states were ignoring it. As a result, the Radical Republican Congress turned to passing more legislation in an effort to carry out its policies.

The first Reconstruction Act was passed on March 2, 1867. It eliminated the Southern state governments created immediately after the war and divided the rebelling territory into five military districts. General officers were to oversee constitutional conventions in which new state constitutions could be written that included a guarantee of black suffrage, the right to vote. With congressional approval of the state's new constitution and the state's vote to support the Fourteenth Amendment, the state would be readmitted to the Union. As punishment for their participation in the rebellion, insurgents were denied the right to vote during this process.

Congress passed another Reconstruction Act to support the first on March 23, 1867. Southerners were refusing to call constitutional conventions. The second act transferred that power to the commanding generals of the military districts. Another supplementary act was passed on July 19 after broad interpretations of the previous acts were causing complications. The third act declared that state governments were strictly subordinate to the military commanders. Generals were given the right to remove state officers. These two measures passed over vetoes by President Johnson. The last Reconstruction Act, of March 11, 1868, became law with President Johnson's signature. It changed the process of ratifying the state constitutions.

The Reconstruction Acts greatly enhanced the power of the Republican Party. All Southern states were readmitted to the Union between 1868 and 1870 with newly established, Republican-dominated governments. These governments, however, were somewhat artificial. With white Southern voting rights limited by the acts, politicians did not necessarily earn their positions through popular support. For a time, Republicans easily controlled Southern politics with the legitimate votes of newly freed blacks and the influence of carpetbaggers (Northerners who came to the South to carry out Reconstruction programs) and scalawags (Southerners who supported Reconstruction but often for their own gain).

Although Republicans managed to exert their influence during the initial phases of Reconstruction, it proved to be only temporary. As Southern voting rights were restored fully for whites, they resumed control of their governments and elected representatives from the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats generally protected the interests of white Southerners over the interests of Northern Republicans and Southern black Americans.

Wade-Davis Bill

views updated Jun 08 2018


WADE-DAVIS BILL, passed by Congress 2 July 1864, was a modification of Abraham Lincoln's plan of Reconstruction. It provided that the government of a seceded state could be reorganized only after a majority of the white male citizens had sworn allegiance to the United States and approved a new state constitution that contained specified provisions. Rep. Henry W. Davis of Maryland and Sen. Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, sponsors of the bill, believed, along with other Radical Republicans, that Lincoln's policy was inadequate because it allowed white southern Unionists to determine the status, rights, and conditions for freed persons in their states. Abraham Lincoln's pocket veto of this bill on 4 July angered the radicals and presaged the contest over Reconstruction between President Andrew Johnson and Congress.


Hyman, Harold H. A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.

Willard H.Smith/c. p.

See alsoRadical Republicans ; Reconstruction .

About this article

Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 (Draft)

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic