Reconstruction Era (U.S.)

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Reconstruction Era (U.S.)






The Reconstruction Era refers to the period following the Civil War from 1865 to 1877, during which the victorious North reorganized, or reconstructed, the Southern states that had formed the Confederacy. This reorganization was carried out under the requirements of the Military Reconstruction Act passed by the U.S. Congress on March 2, 1867, hence the term Reconstruction. But the attempt to reorganize the Souths political system in order to move the region in a new direction, away from the priorities and practices of the slavery regime, ran into difficulties. By the early 1870s, governments formed under the provisions of the Reconstruction Act were encountering such opposition and hostility from the former Confederates that they were unable to stay in power. After the contested presidential election of 1876, the federal government withdrew its political support and its troops from the South, bringing the Reconstruction experiment to an end.


The Civil War was precipitated by the decision of the Southern states to secede from the Union in 1860-1861, but it was caused by the Southerners long-term fear that their valuable and profitable institution of slavery was endangered by a hostile majority in the North. This fear came to a head with the election of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to the presidency and his Northern partys capture of Congress. As a result of the war, secession was defeated and slavery abolished. Alarmingly, however, the successful resolution of the long-term cause of the war (slavery) and of the short-term cause (secession) did not end the matter. Rather, it gave rise to new problems. First, what was to be the future status of the emancipated slaves? How free would they be and did freedom involve equality of some kind? Would they obtain land, as several Union government actions during the war had hinted? Second, what was to be the future status of the rebels who had been defeated on the battlefield? Would they be allowed to return to the Union they had broken up four years earlier and, if so, under what terms? Terminating slavery and Southern independence had solved one set of problems, but emancipation and reunion immediately presented another, as massive and vexing as the first. Even more was at stake, however, because failure to handle emancipation and reunion satisfactorily would raise doubts about how much the Unions victory had ultimately achieved. The North had won the war, but it might lose the peace.


After the war, the federal government was embroiled in a struggle over the terms for readmitting the South to the Union. Instead of collaborating, the president and Congress found themselves dangerously at odds over the appropriate course to pursue. The conflict centered on the fundamental issues of what policy would be adopted and which branch of government would prevail. But it was exacerbated by the personality of Andrew Johnson who had succeeded to the presidency when Lincoln was assassinated just a few days after the Confederacys surrender on April 9, 1865. A stubborn and combative man, Johnson was a Southern Democrat who had stayed with the Union after his state had seceded in 1861 and who had practiced politics in Tennessee as the art of confrontation, rather than compromise.

Promulgated in May 1865, Johnsons plan for the South required that new governments be formed in each state, elected by voters who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the United States. But Johnsons conciliatory scheme soon encountered difficulties because even its minimal requirements were questioned and sometimes rejected by the Southern states, and the voters sent prominent Confederates to Congress, among them the former vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens. Simultaneously, reports of mistreatment and violence toward the freed slaves (the freedmen) were pouring into Washington and began appearing in the newspapers. Not surprisingly, the Republican majority in Congress rejected the Souths congressmen-elect.

Rather than adapting to the emerging realities in the South and changing course, as Lincoln would almost certainly have done, Johnson stood his ground. He proceeded to thwart the efforts of the Republicans to formulate alternative proposals for the South, resorting to his veto power on every possible occasion. This extremely dangerous confrontation continued until 1868 when, after several attempts had been defeated by a veto-wielding president, Congress managed to enact and implement a reconstruction policy that readmitted the South to Congress and established a Republican-controlled government in each of the ex-Confederate states.


After taking the initiative in December 1865, Congress proposed three different approaches for dealing with the South. The first took the form of two measures, introduced in early 1866, to protect the freedmen who, although no longer slaves, were still vulnerable and in need of physical and legal protection. One measure extended the life of the Freedmens Bureau, a wartime agency created to supervise the transition from slavery to freedom and provide relief for the destitute of both races in the war-torn South. The other was a civil rights bill that defined citizenship as a national, not state, matter, and therefore extended citizenship to 4.5 million African Americans, all but 500,000 of whom had been slaves. The statute also provided federal protection for the civil rights of all citizens, that is, equality before the law, ensuring equal access to the courts and prohibiting legal discrimination. Although the Civil Rights Act marked a major expansion of federal jurisdiction, it was still limited in scope because it did not ban private discrimination, and the federal government could only intervene when a state failed to provide formal legal protection. Nevertheless, to most Republicans surprise, the president rejected both bills, accompanying his vetoes with hostile messages that pronounced them unconstitutional. Although the vetoes were soon overridden, Johnson clearly intended to oppose Congress. Furthermore, by vetoing the Republicans proposals and declaring them unconstitutional, he was obviously provoking a fight.

Congresss second initiative was a set of terms for readmission in the form of a constitutional amendment to be submitted to the Southern legislatures elected in 1865 under Johnsons plan. The Fourteenth Amendment, as it became known after its ratification in 1868, consisted of three basic propositions. First, a federal guarantee of citizenship and civil rights, incorporating the provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution. Second, a reduced representation in Congress for the South if African Americans were denied the vote. And third, the disqualification of leading Confederates from holding office. The civil rights clause became the enduring contribution of this amendment, especially its equal protection feature, but it was the third clausekeeping former Confederates out of powerthat made the proposal unacceptable to the South in 1866. Accordingly, the Southern legislatures rejected the amendment decisively, following the presidents earlier and predictable veto. In the congressional elections of 1866, Johnsons determination to defeat his former Republican allies and their proposed amendment had led him to create a party of his own called the National Union party, with the Northern Democrats as its primary source of support. But it had been defeated overwhelmingly, allowing the Republicans to increase their majority.

With the president still defiant and the South emboldened, the Republicans moved quickly to produce yet another plan before the Thirty-ninth Congress expired in March 1867. The outcome was a law, the Military Reconstruction Act, the terms of which would be mandatory, unlike an amendment that needed to be ratified by the states. As first introduced by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the leading radical Republican in the House, the bill was conceived as a program for keeping the South under federal military supervision, for several years perhaps, until loyalty returned and changes were under way democratizing the regions political system and modernizing its economy. The radical wing of the party saw the postwar moment as a critical opportunity to move the South in a new direction, but Republican moderates amended Stevenss bill so thoroughly that it became instead a formula for immediate readmission.

Under the terms of the law, the eleven Southern states were divided into five military districts, each of them under the command of a U.S. general. The troops stationed in each district were to supervise the creation and registration of a new electorate that was to include all adult male African Americans. Black suffrage was a radical innovation never even contemplated by other slave societies in the Americas, although none of them had been forced to end slavery after defeat in a massive civil war. The new electorate included just under a million African Americans, but not the leading Confederates who were now disfranchised by the Act. These former Confederates were also barred from holding office under the Fourteenth Amendment, which the reconstructed states were required to ratify.

The Reconstruction Act became lawover Johnsons veto, of course. Immediately, the process of reconstructing the South began and it required that new governments be created and Congressmen elected. As a result, a Republican party was formed in the South and the Republicans proceeded to gain control of every Southern state and its Congressional delegation. This outcome was achieved, despite constant opposition from President Johnson who used his authority as chief executive and commander in chief to obstruct the implementation of the complicated political process laid down by the Reconstruction Act. Also presenting a problem was the Souths political class whose members opposed, not only the idea of enfranchising their ex-slaves, but also the creation of a new political order from which they were to be excluded. As the South was being reconstructed, Johnson was impeached for his persistent obstruction, although the Senate failed to produce the two-thirds majority needed to convict and remove him from office. Meanwhile, the former Confederates, who were now out of office but actively organizing an opposition party, lived to fight another day.


The newly created Republican party managed to win control of every Southern state between 1868 and 1870. The success of Reconstruction now depended on how well the party governed and how long it could stay in power. This task was enormously difficult, not only because the party was new to the region and most of its elected officials were inexperienced, but also because it was faced by a relentless foe determined to see it fail. In the eyes of the conservative opposition that consisted of former Confederate officeholders and most of the regions political class, the Republican-controlled state governments were unworthy of their support, and therefore they were deemed illegitimate. The federal government had created the party, and the state governments that the party controlled had been imposed upon the South. Moreover, the partys constituency and leadership were drawn from elements that were alien and unacceptable, namely, Northerners whom they called derisively carpetbaggers, Southern whites dismissed as scalawags and, of course, blacks, most of them ex-slaves.

Besides ridiculing and vilifying these Republican governments, the opposition employed every means possible for attacking, destabilizing, and ultimately overthrowing them, one by one, during the early 1870s. They resorted to electoral fraud and intimidation. They frustrated the operation of these state governments by withholding taxes. They broke up the Republican coalition by encouraging dissidence among the racial and sectional groups within it and then offering to give electoral support to any faction prepared to leave and run an independent campaign. And when the masked and secret Ku Klux Klan emerged in 1868, intimidating Republican supporters and assassinating some of the partys leaders, the conservatives did nothing to discourage this insurgency until the federal government intervened in 1871-1872. By 1872, many of the states with white majorities had slipped from Republican control, a result of favorable electoral conditions for the opposition, supplemented by pressure, fraud, and violence.

Although the Klan was subsequently dispersed, the violence soon assumed a different and more deadly form as the paramilitary White Leagues appeared in Louisiana in 1873 and various other overtly violent organizations arose in the Deep South that was still under rather precarious Republican control. The Republicans opponents, who were at that time aligning with the Democrats and determined to regain control of their states, officially sanctioned these forces that styled themselves Rifle Clubs or Red Shirts. Accordingly, they unleashed virulent and violent race-based campaigns aimed at rousing white voters and discouraging blacks and carrying elections peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must. Faced by this onslaught, the last remaining Republican governments located in the heavily black states of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana were overthrown between 1874 and 1876. A few months later, federal troops were withdrawn, allowing the Democrats to take over throughout the region.

Painfully aware at the outset that the opposition was going to be fierce, the Republican state governments were caught in a dilemma. They had to provide for and protect their supporters who were, for the most part, former slaves and less advantaged whites. Simultaneously, the governments they controlled had to govern for the state as a whole, while defusing the criticism of the conservatives and fending off their attacks. Pulled in these two different directions and under constant attack, the party began to collapse. Nevertheless, the Republicans began well. In 1868, they drew up a new constitution for each state, as required by the Reconstruction Act. Liberal and democratic in thrust, these constitutions reduced privilege and increased political participation, and also provided government services previously lacking in most Southern states. They made adult male suffrage a constitutional right, lowered or removed age- and property-qualifications for holding office, and ensured that most offices were elective rather than appointive. Government assumed responsibility for creating and funding institutions to care for orphans, the insane, and the deaf and dumb, as well as for building penitentiaries and systems of public schools. Because government was to be more active than before, the powers of the executive branch were increased.

But the Republican framers of these constitutions proved unwilling to push much further. They did not provide for any redistribution of land to the landless, in particular the freed slaves who felt they deserved a portion of the land that had gained value from their unpaid labor (the possibility of making land available to the former slaves was all but eliminated by earlier developments at the national level, first, by Johnsons executive proclamation of August 1865 allowing the rebels to regain their lands and, then by the Republican partys general lack of enthusiasm for pursuing such a policy). The public schools were to be racially separate, a decision actually favored by black delegates because they feared losing the entire system if white parents refused to send their children to schools attended by blacks. And the constitutions usually removed the ban on former Confederates holding office, because the Republicans who wrote them favored equal rights, even though this liberality would allow the Souths political class to reenter politics.

Cautious and moderate rather than extreme, these new constitutions provided the framework for Republican rule. Although the party leaders hoped that this constitutional foundation would satisfy their supporters and reassure their opponents, they knew that successful programs were needed if the party was to consolidate its power and acquire legitimacy. To this end, the Republicans promoted three initiatives in particular: the creation of a viable school system, the protection of civil rights, and the development of the regions railroad system. Of these three, the railroads were considered critical in the Republicans attempt to prove that they could govern efficiently and effectively. Accordingly, the Republican legislatures moved forcefully to encourage economic development by offering state aid to builders of railroads in the hope that they would create vital infrastructure and develop the localities that their roads penetrated and opened up. Had these ventures succeeded, the Republicans expected to gain considerable political capital. But, for a variety of reasons, they failed. The states were left holding the debt of these enterprises and, somewhat unfairly, the Republicans were accused of mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility, but not the railroad companies that had actually failed to build the lines.

This serious setback was compounded by the partys inability to raise the necessary revenue to fund the public schools adequately, a direct result of the taxpayers unwillingness to pay and of the precipitous decline in the value of the land on which the school tax was levied. Also disappointing was the partys record on race relations. Despite legislation to end racial discrimination on transportation and in other public places, the patterns of separation established under slavery remained the norm. Whites were unwilling to break with the past, and blacks themselves were hesitant to challenge these customs, believing it was safer and more constructive to develop their own institutions, a calculation similar to the one they had made earlier over mixed schooling. Nevertheless, most black and many white children attended school during and after Reconstruction, and a significant cadre of African Americans were trained as teachers. In addition, hundreds of African Americans held office under the Republicans. Two hundred sixty-seven were delegates to the constitutional conventions in 1868; nearly 800 served in the state legislatures during Reconstruction; and 18 held national office as members of Congress. Meanwhile, hundreds more served in lower-level positions, such as sheriff, county commissioner, justice of the peace, and even an occasional mayor. Although inexperienced, these officials were usually literate and their visible presence in public life was evidence that race relations were improving, somewhat dramatically in fact.

Unfortunately, African Americans, and most of the white population who also stood to gain from the Republicans new initiatives, depended upon the Republican partys ability to remain in power. But the Democrats relentlessly opposed the Republicans. They subverted and attacked the Republicans and were quick to exploit their mistakes and aggravate their difficulties. By the mid-1870s, less than a decade after the South had been politically reconstructed, the Republican party had lost control, either through its inability to hold its diverse coalition together or by losing elections because of force or fraud.

SEE ALSO Confederate States of America; Lincoln, Abraham; Slavery; U.S. Civil War


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Benedict, Michael Les. 2006. Preserving the Constitution: Essays on Politics and the Constitution in the Reconstruction Era. New York: Fordham University Press.

Foner, Eric. 1983. Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Foner, Eric. 1988. Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row.

Perman, Michael. 1984. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Perman, Michael. 2003. Emancipation and Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson.

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

Schwalm, Leslie A. 1997. A Hard Fight for We: Womens Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Stanley, Amy Dru. 1998. From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Summers, Mark W. 1984. Railroads, Reconstruction and the Gospel of Prosperity: Aid under the Radical Republicans, 1865-1877. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Michael Perman

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Reconstruction Era (U.S.)

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