In terms of United States history, Reconstruction refers both to an era and a process. The Reconstruction Era is the period immediately following the American Civil War, and lasted until approximately 1877. It was during this time that the process of Reconstruction took place (which should not be surprising).

The process of Reconstruction was first begun by Abraham Lincoln before the end of the Civil War. He wanted to bring seceded states back into the Union as quickly as possible in order to gain a military advantage in the South. He wished to respect Southerner’s private property (excluding slaves), and opposed punishing the South too harshly.

To accomplish this, Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in December 1863. This proclamation offered a full pardon and restoration of property (again, excluding slaves) to white Southerners, provided that they swore a loyalty oath to the Union and its laws, including the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln then stated that if the number of voters in a Confederate state that took the loyalty oath reached ten percent of the number of that state’s voters who voted in the election of 1860, those Southerners could establish a state government recognized by the Union. This so-called Ten Percent Plan angered Congress’ Radical Republicans, who wished to punish the Confederacy more severely. So in July 1864, senators Benjamin Wade and Henry Davis proposed a bill that required fifty percent of a state’s white male citizens to take the oath. Lincoln pocket-vetoed this bill. Southern land redistribution was another issue that was never adequately addressed while Lincoln was president.

Lincoln and his Congress were able to agree on some issues. In March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, which helped former slaves in social and political life, and provided the basics to the freedmen who needed it. Congress also passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The amendment was ratified December 18, 1865.

Lincoln had yet to lay down the specifics of postwar Reconstruction when he was assassinated. With no clear agenda to follow, various parties attempted to create their own. The postwar Reconstruction Era can be broken down into three parts: Presidential restoration, Congressional reconstruction, and Democratic redemption.

Presidential Restoration

Andrew Johnson was Lincoln’s successor to the presidency. He was a Democrat and former slaveholder, and was Lincoln’s running mate solely to broaden Lincoln’s appeal during the election of 1864. He took Reconstruction in a completely different direction when he became president.

Johnson felt that the southern planter elite was responsible for secession and war. It was because of this belief that Johnson focused most of his Reconstruction policy on that group. In the spring of 1865, Johnson pledged to grant amnesty and return property (excluding slaves, of course) to all Confederates who swore loyalty to the Union and supported emancipation. Fourteen classes of Southerners (basically, members of the planter elite) were excluded from this offer, but could be pardoned on an individual basis if they applied for it. Johnson pardoned about ninety percent of those who applied. To him, it was just a show of power, something to prove his superiority over those that he despised. He was not very interested in punishing the South. Significantly, this plan was instituted when Congress was not in session.

Johnson also appointed provisional governors for seven formerly Confederate states, and instructed them to hold elections for state constitutional conventions. He only allowed white males to vote in these elections. By the fall of 1865, ten of the eleven Confederate states had gone through with this process, and Johnson told Congress the “restoration” of the Union was nearly complete.

The Radical Republicans in Congress disliked Johnson’s mild treatment of the South and his racist attitude. Once Congress was back in session, a power struggle began that ended in impeachment hearings, and signaled the beginning of Congressional reconstruction.

Congressional Reconstruction

The Radical Republicans who dominated Congress believed in a complete restructuring of Southern society. They wished to redistribute land from the wealthy to poor yeoman farmers (black and white). They were outraged by the South’s “black codes”, which severely restricted the civil rights of blacks to the point of virtual slavery.

While the Radical Republicans were not a majority in Congress, they had the support of moderate Republicans as well. This power allowed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1866. This bill stated that all persons born in the United States (except for the Indians) were citizens, and as such, guaranteed certain rights. Congress also voted to expand the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau, allowing it to establish schools and courts for former slaves.

President Johnson vetoed both of these bills, and in doing so, attacked the Radical Republicans, referring to them as traitors. These attacks further united the Republicans in Congress, and they overrode the vetoes. They were directly challenging the President, and asserting the power of the federal government to define and protect citizens’ rights.

Afraid that the Civil Rights Bill might be declared unconstitutional, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the rights of “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, and prohibited the states from infringing upon these rights without due process of law. Furthermore, it allowed Congress to reduce the representation of a state in Congress if that state denied suffrage to males over twenty-one.

In the mid-term elections of 1866, Republicans gained an even larger majority in Congress. This allowed them to completely take control of Reconstruction. In March 1867, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act, overriding Johnson’s veto. This act split the South into five military districts, each subject to martial law. To rejoin the Union, the states had to assemble new constitutional conventions elected by universal manhood suffrage. After drafting a new constitution, a state also had to guarantee African-American voting rights and ratify the 14th Amendment before they could be re-admitted into the Union. Related legislation did away with Johnson’s provisional governments, allowed the military to register voters, and required an oath of loyalty to the United States. This legislation was also passed over Johnson’s veto.

Fed up with all the vetoes, Congress then tried to limit Johnson’s power. The Tenure of Office Act stated that any president-appointed, Senate-approved officeholder could not be removed from office until the Senate had approved a successor. Congress hoped to protect Republican officeholders, especially Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Nevertheless, in August 1867, while Congress was adjourned, Johnson suspended Stanton and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant. In January 1867, the Senate overruled this suspension, and Grant broke with the president. Johnson tried to remove Stanton again. Congress moved to impeach the president, whose obstructionism had been bugging them anyway, using his violation of the Tenure of Office Act to do so. Politics intervened, and the vote was for acquittal (by one vote!). This set a precedent that a president could not be removed from office over political disagreements, only criminal actions. (Funny, don't you think? A Democratic president at odds with his Republican dominated Congress barely avoids being convicted after being impeached. Sounds familiar. Of course, when you look at the difference in issues, it shows you how silly our society's become.)

Later, after Johnson’s term had ended, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited denial of suffrage because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It was a way for Republicans to cement their political power, because blacks overwhelmingly voted for the Republican Party. The three states still not in the Union at this time-Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia-had to ratify this amendment as well to re-enter the Union. The amendment was ratified in February 1870. In spirit, it was meant to ensure the right of blacks to vote. However, loopholes in the amendment allowed southern states to continue their discrimination by enacting property or literacy requirements for suffrage. Southern blacks generally lacked at least one of these things as a result of their slavery, and they were not prohibited in the amendment.

Once the Confederate states had all rejoined the Union, Republicans were faced with the challenge of gaining political support in those states in order to maintain the power that they had gained during the war. It was a challenge they were unable to meet, and one by one, the southern states became affiliated with the Democratic Party. The process of the South returning to the Democrats was known as Democratic “redemption”.

Democratic Redemption

After the war, the Republicans had a tenuous hold on the South. Their idea of Reconstruction threatened the average Southerner’s way of life. Republican support consisted mainly of three groups of people: Former slaves, carpetbaggers, and scalawags. Carpetbaggers were generally Northern whites in search of political power in the South. Scalawags were a more diverse group that supported the Republican Party for a variety of reasons. Most Southerners looked down on all three groups.

Republicans did control the state governments at first, and this meant that many in the South did not respect state authority. They voted Democrat in their elections, and used unsavory tactics to make sure that few voted Republican. The Ku Klux Klan emerged around 1870, interfering in elections through violence. They intimidated blacks, who nearly always voted Republican, and kept them from voting. In elections that Republicans won, Klan violence generally followed. Congress passed several laws to attempt to stop this, culminating in the Ku Klux Klan Act of April 1871, which made violent infringement of others civil and political rights a federal crime.

None of this was enough to keep the Republicans in power. Democrats had “redeemed” all of the southern states by 1877. Also during the 1870’s, the Supreme Court handed down several rulings that limited the interpretation of the 14th and 15th Amendments in such a way as to keep the federal government from actually enforcing them effectively. This meant that the Democrats were back to their position of power in the South, and could effectively challenge the Republicans.

The election of 1876 brought an end to Reconstruction. The Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, received 250,000 more votes than the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. The Republicans contested the vote counts in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon. If the Republicans won the Electoral College votes from these states, Hayes would win by one electoral vote. Congress set up an Electoral Commission of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. In a party-line vote, the commission awarded the electoral votes to Hayes. (This is another interesting parallel between history and more recent events, I think.) The Democrats were upset, and so a compromise was reached. The Compromise of 1877 allowed Hayes to become president. In return, Congress would appropriate more money for internal improvements in the South, a Southerner would be appointed to Hayes’s cabinet, and Congress would not mess around in the South’s affairs. Hayes ordered the removal of all federal troops in the South. This military presence had been the only thing keeping the Republican Party alive in the South, and without it, the remaining Republicans in the South soon lost their power.

Reconstruction underwent several changes in direction, and suffered from lingering sectionalism. In the end, little had changed in the South, and the federal government would not attempt to protect civil rights there for almost a century afterwards.

Information found in Out of Many: A History of the American People (Combined, Third Edition), by John Mack Faragher, Mari Jo Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan H. Armitage. It was my AP US History book.

Re`con*struc"tion (-str?k"sh?n), n.


The act of constructing again; the state of being reconstructed.

2. U.S. Politics

The act or process of reorganizing the governments of the States which had passed ordinances of secession, and of reestablishing their constitutional relations to the national government, after the close of the Civil War.


© Webster 1913.

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