Military Reconstruction Acts 15 Stat. 2 (1867) 15 Stat. 14 (1867)
MILITARY RECONSTRUCTION ACTS 15 Stat. 2 (1867) 15 Stat. 14 (1867)
The first Military Reconstruction Act established procedures for the resumption of self-government and normalized constitutional status for ten states of the former Confederacy. Though it preserved extant governments intact for the time being, it authorized military peacekeeping and required adoption of new state constitutions. It also mandated black suffrage.
By February 1867, congressional Republicans realized that the fourteenth amendment, even if ratified, constituted an insufficient program of reconstruction. They were unwilling to accept the forfeited-rights theory of southern state status propounded by Rep. thaddeus stevens, or to sanction indefinite military governance. However, the intransigence of President andrew johnson and the Machiavellian politics of congressional Democrats, who both demanded immediate and unconditional restoration of white rule in the South, convinced the Republicans that federal supervision of the process of recreating state governments was essential if the freedmen and Republican war objectives were not to be abandoned.
The first Military Reconstruction Act divided the ex-Confederate states (Tennessee excepted) into five military districts each under the command of a regular brigadier general, who was charged with peacekeeping responsibilities. He was empowered to use either ordinary civilian officials or military commissions to accomplish this objective. Though the commissions were authorized to overrule civilian authorities if necessary, the act did not replace the state governments previously created under presidential authority. Rather, under the first and subsequent Military Reconstruction Acts (1867–1868), the commanding general was required to call for the election of delegates to constitutional conventions. In these elections, blacks were entitled to vote, and whites disfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment were excluded. The new state constitution had to enfranchise blacks. When it was ratified by a majority of eligible voters, elections were to be held under it for new state governmental officials. Only then would the existing governments cede authority. The new legislature had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and present its state constitution to Congress. Congress would then complete the process by admitting the state's congressional delegation to their seats.
President Johnson vetoed the first measure, asserting several grounds for its unconstitutionality. First, it imposed an "absolute domination of military rulers" whose "mere will is to take the place of all law," subjecting the southern people to "abject slavery." Second, Congress lacked power to impose governments on the southern states, particularly because those states remained part of the Union. Third, the act would deny individual liberties, including the requirements of trial by jury, warrants, due process, and habeas corpus. Johnson also opposed the measure because the requirements of black suffrage would "Africanize the southern part of our territory," and, finally, because the anomalous status of the ten states which had been denied representation in Congress since 1865 cast a cloud over legislation affecting them. Congress immediately overrode the veto.
Under the procedure specified by the Military Reconstruction Acts, all southern states were reorganized and readmitted between 1868 and 1870. The military presence remained for nearly another decade, however, because of turbulence caused by antiblack and anti-Unionist terrorism. The Republican governments established under congressional Reconstruction were overthrown by "Conservative" or "Redeemer" white-supremacist Democratic regimes by 1877, when the process of Reconstruction was effectively terminated.
William M. Wiecek
(see also: Constitutional History, 1865–1877.)