Reconstruction Era In the history of the United States, the term Reconstruction Era

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Reconstruction Era

In the history of the United States, the term Reconstruction Era has two senses: the first covers the complete history of the entire country from 1865 to 1877 following the Civil War; the second sense focuses on the transformation of the Southern United States from 1863 to 1877, as directed by Congress, with the reconstruction of state and society.

From 1863 to 1865, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson took moderate positions designed to bring the South back to normal as quickly as possible, while the Radical Republicans (as they called themselves) used Congress to block their moderate approaches, impose harsh terms, and upgrade the rights of the freedmen (former slaves). Klose and Lader argue that Johnson "favored a moderate policy ... He proceeded, therefore, to carry out a policy similar to Lincoln's." Klose also compares African American freedmen to "children," however, and claims the Radical Republicans "unwisely and revengefully sought to give full and immediate equality to the former slaves."[2] In fact, Lincoln's last speeches show that he was leaning toward supporting the enfranchisement of freedmen, whereas Johnson was opposed to this. Also, Johnson's leniency toward ex-Confederates assuming positions of power and getting their lands back went far beyond anything Lincoln had envisioned.

Johnson's interpretations of Lincoln's policies prevailed until the Congressional elections of 1866 in the North, which enabled the Radicals to take control of policy, remove former Confederates from power, and enfranchise the freedmen. A Republican coalition came to power in nearly all the southern states and set out to transform the society by setting up a free labor economy, using the U.S. Army and the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau protected the legal rights of freedmen, negotiated labor contracts, and set up schools and even churches for them. Thousands of Northerners came South, as missionaries, teachers, businessmen and politicians; hostile elements called them "Carpetbaggers". Rebuilding the rundown railroad system was a major strategy, but it collapsed when a nationwide depression (called the Panic of 1873) struck the economy in 1873. The Radicals, frustrated by Johnson's opposition to Congressional Reconstruction, filed impeachment charges but the action failed by one vote in the Senate.

President Ulysses S. Grant supported Radical Reconstruction and enforced the protection of African Americans in the South through the use of the Force Acts passed by Congress. Grant suppressed the Ku Klux Klan, but was unable to resolve the escalating tensions inside the Republican party between the Carpetbaggers and the Scalawags (native whites in the South). Meanwhile self-styled Conservatives (in close cooperation with Democrats) strongly opposed Republican rule.[3] They alleged widespread corruption by the Carpetbaggers, excessive state spending and ruinous taxes. The opposition violently counterattacked and regained power in each "redeemed" Southern state by 1877. Meanwhile public support for Reconstruction policies faded in the North, as voters decided the Civil War was over and slavery was dead. The Democrats, who strongly opposed Reconstruction, regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874; the presidential electoral vote in 1876 was very close and confused, forcing Congress to make the final decision. The deployment of the U.S. Army was central to the survival of Republican state governments; they collapsed when the Army was removed in 1877 as part of a Congressional bargain to elect Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president.

Reconstruction was a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States, but most historians consider it a failure because the South became a poverty-stricken backwater attached to agriculture, white Democrats re-established dominance through violence, intimidation and discrimination, forcing freedmen into second class with limited rights and utterly excluding them from politics. Historian Eric Foner argues, "What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure."[4]

Dating the Reconstruction era

In the different states Reconstruction began and ended at different times; federal Reconstruction finally ended with the Compromise of 1877. In recent decades most historians follow Foner (1988) in dating the Reconstruction of the South as starting in 1863 (with emancipation) rather than 1865; the usual ending has always been 1877. Reconstruction policies were debated in the North when the war began, and commenced in earnest after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863.


As Confederate states came back under control of the US Army, President Abraham Lincoln set up reconstructed governments in several southern states during the war, including Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana. He experimented by giving land to former slaves in South Carolina. By fall 1865, the new President Andrew Johnson declared the war goals of national unity and the ending of slavery achieved and reconstruction completed. Republicans in Congress, refusing to accept Johnson's terms, rejected new members of Congress, some of whom had been high Confederate officials a few months before. Johnson broke with the Republicans after vetoing two key bills that supported the Freedman's Bureau and provided federal civil rights to the Freedmen. The 1866 Congressional elections turned on the issue of Reconstruction, and produced a sweeping Republican victory in the 1866 Congressional elections in the North. It gave the Radical Republicans enough control of Congress to override Johnson's vetoes and began what is called "Radical Reconstruction" in 1867.[5] Congress removed civilian governments in the South in 1867 and put the former Confederacy under the rule of the U.S. Army.[6] The army conducted new elections in which the freed slaves could vote, while whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were temporarily denied the vote and were not permitted to run for office.

In ten states,[7] coalitions of freedmen, recent black and white arrivals from the North (carpetbaggers), and white Southerners who supported Reconstruction (scalawags) cooperated to form Republican biracial state governments. They introduced various reconstruction programs including: funding public schools, establishing charitable institutions, raising taxes, and offering massive aid to support improved railroad transportation and shipping. Conservative opponents called the Republican regimes corrupt and instigated violence toward freedmen and whites who supported Reconstruction. Much of the violence was carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret terrorist organization; this led to federal intervention by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1871 that suppressed the Klan. White Democrats, calling themselves "Redeemers", regained control state by state, sometimes using fraud and violence to control state elections. A deep national economic depression following the Panic of 1873 led to major Democratic gains in the North, the collapse of many railroad schemes in the South, and a growing sense of frustration in the North.

The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process, and the period of Republican control ended at different times in different states. With the Compromise of 1877, Army intervention in the South ceased and Republican control collapsed in the last three state governments in the South. This was followed by a period that white Southerners labeled Redemption, in which white-dominated state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws and after 1890 disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through a combination of constitutional amendments and electoral laws. The white Democrat Southerners' memory of Reconstruction played a major role in imposing the system of white supremacy and second-class citizenship for blacks, known as the age of Jim Crow.[8]


Reconstruction addressed how the eleven seceding states would regain what the Constitution calls a "republican form of government" and be reseated in Congress, the civil status of the former leaders of the Confederacy, and the Constitutional and legal status of freedmen, especially their civil rights and whether they should be given the right to vote. Intense controversy erupted throughout the South over these issues.[9]

The laws and constitutional amendments that laid the foundation for the most radical phase of Reconstruction were adopted from 1866 to 1871. By the 1870s, Reconstruction had officially provided freedmen with equal rights under the constitution, and blacks were voting and taking political office. Republican legislatures, coalitions of whites and blacks, established the first public school systems and numerous charitable institutions in the South. White paramilitary organizations, especially the Ku Klux Klan and also the White League and Red Shirts formed with the political aim of driving out the Republicans. They also disrupted political organizing and terrorized blacks to bar them from the polls.[10] President Grant used federal power to effectively shut down the KKK in the early 1870s, though the other, smaller, groups continued to operate. From 1873 to 1877, conservative whites (calling themselves "Redeemers") regained power in the Southern states. They joined the Bourbon wing of the national Democratic Party.

In the 1860s and 1870s the terms "radical" and "conservative" had distinctive meanings. "Conservative" was the name of a faction, often led by the planter class. Leaders who had been Whigs were committed to economic modernization, built around railroads, factories, banks and cities.[11] Most of the "radical" Republicans in the North were men who believed in free enterprise and industrialization; most were also modernizers and former Whigs.[12] The "Liberal Republicans" of 1872 shared the same outlook except they were especially opposed to the corruption they saw around President Grant, and believed that the goals of the Civil War had been achieved so that the federal military intervention could now end.

Passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments is the constitutional legacy of Reconstruction. These Reconstruction Amendments established the rights that led to Supreme Court rulings in the mid-20th century that struck down school segregation. A "Second Reconstruction", sparked by the Civil Rights Movement, led to civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965 that ended segregation and opened the polls to blacks.

Material devastation of the South in 1865

Reconstruction played out against an economy in ruin. The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with a total population of 835,000 people; of these 162 with 681,000 people were at one point occupied by Union forces. Eleven were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta (with an 1860 population of 9,600), Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond (with prewar populations of 40,500, 8,100, and 37,900, respectively); the eleven contained 115,900 people in the 1860 census, or 14% of the urban South. The number of people who lived in the destroyed towns represented just over 1% of the Confederacy's combined urban and rural populations. The rate of damage in smaller towns was much lower—only 45 courthouses were burned out of a total of 830.[13]

Farms were in disrepair, and the prewar stock of horses, mules and cattle was much depleted; two-fifths, or 40%, of the South's livestock had been killed.[14] The South's farms were not highly mechanized, but the value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million and was reduced by 40% by 1870.[15] The transportation infrastructure lay in ruins, with little railroad or riverboat service available to move crops and animals to market.[16] Railroad mileage was located mostly in rural areas and over two-thirds of the South's rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were in areas reached by Union armies, which systematically destroyed what they could. Even in untouched areas, the lack of maintenance and repair, the absence of new equipment, the heavy over-use, and the deliberate relocation of equipment by the Confederates from remote areas to the war zone ensured the system would be ruined at war's end.[13] Restoring the infrastructure — especially the railroad system — became a high priority for Reconstruction state governments.

The enormous cost of the Confederate war effort took a high toll on the South's economic infrastructure. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenditures, and physical destruction from the war totaled $3.3 billion. By 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to high inflation, and people in the South had to resort to bartering services for goods, or else use scarce Union dollars. With the emancipation of the southern slaves, the entire economy of the South had to be rebuilt. Having lost their enormous investment in slaves, white planters had minimal capital to pay freedmen workers to bring in crops. As a result, a system of sharecropping was developed where landowners broke up large plantations and rented small lots to the freedmen and their families. The South was transformed from an elite minority of landed gentry slaveholders into a tenant farming agriculture system.

The end of the Civil War was accompanied by a large migration of new freed people to the cities.[17] In the cities, African Americans were relegated to the lowest paying jobs such as unskilled and service labor. Men worked as rail workers, rolling and lumber mills workers, and hotels workers. The large population of slave artisans during the antebellum period had not been translated into a large number of freemen artisans during Reconstruction.[18] Black women were largely confined to domestic work employed as cooks, maids, and child nurses. Others worked in hotels. A large number became laundresses.

Over a quarter of Southern white men of military age — the backbone of the South's white workforce — died during the war, leaving countless families destitute.[14] Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the South was locked into a system of poverty. How much of this failure was caused by the war and by previous reliance on agriculture remains the subject of debate among economists and historians.[19]

Restoring the South to the Union

During the Civil War, the Radical Republican leaders argued that slavery and the Slave Power had to be permanently destroyed, and that all forms of Confederate nationalism had to be suppressed. Moderates said this could be easily accomplished as soon as Confederate armies surrendered and the Southern states repealed secession and accepted the 13th Amendment – most of which happened by December 1865.[20]

President Lincoln was the leader of the moderate Republicans and wanted to speed up Reconstruction and reunite the nation painlessly and quickly. Lincoln formally began Reconstruction in late 1863 with his Ten percent plan, which went into operation in several states but which Radical Republicans opposed. Lincoln pocket vetoed the Radical plan, the Wade–Davis Bill of 1864, which was much more strict than the Ten-Percent Plan.[5][21]

The opposing faction of Radical Republicans was skeptical of Southern intentions and demanded stringent federal action. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts led the Radicals. Sumner argued that secession had destroyed statehood but the Constitution still extended its authority and its protection over individuals, as in existing U.S. territories. Stevens and his followers viewed secession as having left the states in a status like new territories. The Republicans sought to prevent Southern politicians from "restoring the historic subordination of Negroes". Since slavery was abolished, the three-fifths compromise no longer applied to counting the population of blacks. After the 1870 census, the South would gain numerous additional representatives in Congress, based on the population of freedmen.[22] One Illinois Republican expressed a common fear that if the South were allowed to simply restore its previous established powers, that the "reward of treason will be an increased representation".[23]

Upon Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had been elected with Lincoln in 1864 as vice president, became president. Johnson rejected the Radical program of Reconstruction and instead appointed his own governors and tried to finish reconstruction by the end of 1865. Thaddeus Stevens vehemently opposed President Johnson's plans for an abrupt end to Reconstruction, insisting that Reconstruction must "revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners ... The foundations of their institutions ... must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain."[24] Johnson broke decisively with the Republicans in Congress when he vetoed the Civil Right Bill in early 1865. While Democrats cheered, the Republicans pulled together, passed the bill again, and overturned Johnson's repeat veto.[25] Full-scale political warfare now existed between Johnson (now allied with the Democrats) and the Radical Republicans.[26]

Congress rejected Johnson's argument that he had the war power to decide what to do, since the war was over. Congress decided it had the primary authority to decide how Reconstruction should proceed, because the Constitution stated the United States had to guarantee each state a republican form of government. The Radicals insisted that meant Congress decided how Reconstruction should be achieved. The issues were multiple: who should decide, Congress or the president? How should republicanism operate in the South? What was the status of the Confederate states? What was the citizenship status of the leaders of the Confederacy? What was the citizenship and suffrage status of freedmen?[27]

The election of 1866 decisively changed the balance of power, giving the Republicans two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, and enough votes to overcome Johnson's vetoes. They moved to impeach Johnson because of his constant attempts to thwart Radical Reconstruction measures, by using the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson was acquitted by one vote, but he lost the influence to shape Reconstruction policy.[28]

The Republican Congress established military districts in the South and used Army personnel to administer the region until new governments loyal to the Union could be established. Congress temporarily suspended the ability to vote of approximately 10,000 to 15,000 white men who had been Confederate officials or senior officers, while constitutional amendments gave full citizenship and suffrage to former slaves.[29]

With the power to vote, freedmen started participating in politics. While many slaves were illiterate, educated blacks (including escaped slaves) moved down from the North to aid them, and natural leaders also stepped forward. They elected white and black men to represent them in constitutional conventions. A Republican coalition of freedmen, southerners supportive of the Union (derisively called scalawags by white Democrats), and northerners who had migrated to the South (derisively called carpetbaggers) — some of whom were returning natives, but were mostly Union veterans - organized to create constitutional conventions. They created new state constitutions to set new directions for southern states.[30]


The issue of loyalty emerged in the debates over the Wade–Davis Bill of 1864. The bill required voters to take the "ironclad oath", swearing they had never supported the Confederacy or been one of its soldiers. Pursuing a policy of "malice toward none" announced in his second inaugural address,[31] Lincoln asked voters only to support the Union.[32] The Radicals lost support following Lincoln's veto of the Wade–Davis Bill but regained strength after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865.

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