Reconstruction actually began in December 1863, when announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union. Lincoln granted amnesty to most Confederates so long as they accepted the abolition of slavery, but said nothing about rights for freed blacks. Rather than a blueprint for the postwar South, this was a war measure, an effort to detach whites from the Confederacy. On Reconstruction, as on other questions, Lincoln’s ideas evolved. At the end of his life, he called for limited black suffrage in the postwar South, singling out the “very intelligent” (prewar free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy.
Lincoln did not live to preside over Reconstruction. That task fell to his successor, . Once lionized as a heroic defender of the Constitution against Radical Republicans, Johnson today is viewed by historians as one of the worst presidents to occupy the White House. He was incorrigibly racist, unwilling to listen to criticism and unable to work with Congress. Johnson set up new Southern governments controlled by ex-Confederates. They quickly enacted the Black Codes, laws that severely limited the freed people’s rights and sought, through vagrancy regulations, to force them back to work on the plantations. But these measures aroused bitter protests among blacks, and convinced Northerners that the white South was trying to restore slavery in all but name.
There followed a momentous political clash, the struggle between Johnson and the Republican majority (not just the Radicals) in Congress. Over Johnson’s veto, Congress enacted one of the most important laws in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, still on the books today. It affirmed the citizenship of everyone born in the , regardless of race (except Indians, still considered members of tribal sovereignties). This principle, birthright citizenship, is increasingly rare in today’s world and deeply contested in our own contemporary politics, because it applies to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants.
The act went on to mandate that all citizens enjoy basic civil rights in the same manner “enjoyed by white persons.” Johnson’s veto message denounced the law for what today is called reverse discrimination: “The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Indeed, in the idea that expanding the rights of nonwhites somehow punishes the white majority, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race.
Soon after, Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the 14th Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups — most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the 14th Amendment changed a Constitution “for white men” to one “for mankind.” It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states.
In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, again over Johnson’s veto. These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation.
The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.
Most offices remained in the hands of white Republicans. But the advent of African-Americans in positions of political power aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction’s opponents. They spread another myth — that the new officials were propertyless, illiterate and incompetent. As late as 1947, the Southern historian E. Merton Coulter wrote that of the various aspects of Reconstruction, black officeholding was “longest to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.”
There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President ’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed. In fact, the new governments had a solid record of accomplishment. They established the South’s first state-funded public school systems, sought to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable and outlawed racial discrimination in transportation and public accommodations. They offered aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike.
Reconstruction also made possible the consolidation of black families, so often divided by sale during slavery, and the establishment of the independent black church as the core institution of the emerging black community. But the failure to respond to the former slaves’ desire for land left most with no choice but to work for their former owners.
It was not economic dependency, however, but widespread violence, coupled with a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality, that doomed Reconstruction. The and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism. Meanwhile, as the Northern Republican Party became more conservative, Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.
One by one, the Reconstruction governments fell. As a result of a bargain after the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South.
By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the , a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South. At the same time, the supposed horrors of Reconstruction were invoked as far away as and to demonstrate the necessity of excluding nonwhite peoples from political rights. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois, in his great 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America,” saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe.
While violated with impunity, however, the 14th and 15th Amendments remained on the books. Decades later they would provide the legal basis for the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.
Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.Continue reading the main story
By the end of the Civil War, the South was in a state of political upheaval, social disorder, and economic decay. The Union’s tactics of total war destroyed southern crops, plantations, and entire cities, and hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves rushed to Union lines as their masters fled the oncoming Union army. Inflation became so severe that by the end of the war a loaf of bread cost several hundred Confederate dollars. Thousands of southerners starved to death, and many who did not starve lost everything they owned: clothing, homes, land, and slaves. As a result, by 1865, policymakers in Washington had the nearly impossible task of southern Reconstruction.
Reconstruction encompassed three major initiatives: restoration of the Union, transformation of southern society, and enactment of progressive legislation favoring the rights of freed slaves. President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction—issued in 1863, two years before the war even ended—mapped out the first of these initiatives, his Ten-Percent Plan. Under the plan, each southern state would be readmitted to the Union after 10 percent of its voting population had pledged future loyalty to the United States, and all Confederates except high-ranking government and military officials would be pardoned. After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, President Andrew Johnson adopted the Ten-Percent Plan and pardoned thousands of Confederate officials. Radical Republicans in Congress, however, called for harsher measures, demanding a loyalty oath from 50 percent of each state’s voting population rather than just 10 percent. Although such points of contention existed, both presidents and Congress agreed on one major point—that the southern states needed to abolish slavery in their new state constitutions before being readmitted to the Union.
The Radical Republicans also believed that southern society would have to be completely transformed to ensure that the South would not try to secede again. The Radicals therefore attempted to reshape the South by enfranchising blacks, putting Unionist and pro-Republican governments in southern legislatures, and punishing southern planter elites, whom many politicians held responsible for the Civil War. As “carpetbaggers” (northerners who moved to the South after the war) and “scalawags” (white Unionists and Republicans in the South) streamed into the South, southerners denounced them as traitors and falsely accused many of corruption. However, through organizations like the congressionally approved Freedmen’s Bureau, the U.S. government did manage to distribute confiscated lands to former slaves and poor whites as well as help improve education and sanitation and foster industrial growth in rebuilt southern cities.
Ultimately, the most important part of Reconstruction was the push to secure rights for former slaves. Radical Republicans, aware that newly freed slaves would face insidious racism, passed a series of progressive laws and amendments in Congress that protected blacks’ rights under federal and constitutional law. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment granted blacks citizenship, the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 attempted to ban racial discrimination in public places.
Reconstruction was a mixed success. By the end of the era, the North and South were once again reunited, and all southern state legislatures had abolished slavery in their constitutions. Reconstruction also laid to a rest the debate of states’ rights vs. federalism, which had been a pressing issue since the late 1790s. But Reconstruction failed in most other ways. When President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered federal troops to leave the South in 1877, former Confederate officials and slave owners gradually returned to power. Southern state legislatures quickly passed “black codes,” imposed voter qualifications, and allowed the sharecropping system to thrive, ensuring that the standard of living did not improve for freed slaves. A conservative Supreme Court aided southern Democrats by effectively repealing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. By 1877, northerners were tired of Reconstruction, and violations of blacks’ civil rights were essentially going ignored. Ultimately, the rights promised to blacks during Reconstruction would not be granted fully for almost another century.