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Reconstruction,1865–77, in U.S. history, the period of readjustment following the Civil War. At the end of the Civil WarCivil War,
in U.S. history, conflict (1861–65) between the Northern states (the Union) and the Southern states that seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.
..... Click the link for more information. , the defeated South was a ruined land. The physical destruction wrought by the invading Union forces was enormous, and the old social and economic order founded on slavery had collapsed completely, with nothing to replace it. The 11 Confederate states somehow had to be restored to their positions in the Union and provided with loyal governments, and the role of the emancipated slaves in Southern society had to be defined.
Even before the war ended, President Lincoln began the task of restoration. Motivated by a desire to build a strong Republican party in the South and to end the bitterness engendered by war, he issued (Dec. 8, 1863) a proclamation of amnesty and reconstruction for those areas of the Confederacy occupied by Union armies. It offered pardon, with certain exceptions, to any Confederate who would swear to support the Constitution and the Union. Once a group in any conquered state equal in number to one tenth of that state's total vote in the presidential election of 1860 took the prescribed oath and organized a government that abolished slavery, he would grant that government executive recognition.
Lincoln's plan aroused the sharp opposition of the radicals in Congress, who believed it would simply restore to power the old planter aristocracy. They passed (July, 1864) the Wade-Davis Bill, which required 50% of a state's male voters to take an "ironclad" oath that they had never voluntarily supported the Confederacy. Lincoln's pocket veto kept the Wade-Davis Bill from becoming law, and he implemented his own plan. By the end of the war it had been tried, not too successfully, in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia. Congress, however, refused to seat the Senators and Representatives elected from those states, and by the time of Lincoln's assassination the President and Congress were at a stalemate.
Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, at first pleased the radicals by publicly attacking the planter aristocracy and insisting that the rebellion must be punished. His amnesty proclamation (May 29, 1865) was more severe than Lincoln's; it disenfranchised all former military and civil officers of the Confederacy and all those who owned property worth $20,000 or more and made their estates liable to confiscation. The obvious intent was to shift political control in the South from the old planter aristocracy to the small farmers and artisans, and it promised to accomplish a revolution in Southern society.
With Congress in adjournment from April to Dec., 1865, Johnson put his plan into operation. Under provisional governors appointed by him, the Southern states held conventions that voided or repealed their ordinances of secession, abolished slavery, and (except South Carolina) repudiated Confederate debts. Their newly elected legislatures (except Mississippi) ratified the Thirteenth Amendment guaranteeing freedom for blacks. By the end of 1865 every ex-Confederate state except Texas had reestablished civil government.
The control of white over black, however, was restored, as each of the newly elected state legislatures enacted statutes severely limiting the freedom and rights of the blacks. These laws, known as black codesblack codes,
in U.S. history, series of statutes passed by the ex-Confederate states, 1865–66, dealing with the status of the newly freed slaves. They varied greatly from state to state as to their harshness and restrictiveness.
..... Click the link for more information. , restricted the ability of blacks to own land and to work as free laborers and denied them most of the civil and political rights enjoyed by whites. Many of the offices in the new governments, moreover, were won by disenfranchised Confederate leaders, and the President, rather than ordering new elections, granted pardons on a large scale and showed little interest in protecting black civil rights and protecting blacks from violence and intimidation.
Early Congressional Legislation
An outraged Northern public believed that the fruits of victory were being lost by Johnson's lenient policy. When Congress convened (Dec. 4, 1865) it refused to seat the Southern representatives. Johnson responded by publicly attacking Republican leaders and vetoing their Reconstruction measures. His tactics drove the moderates into the radical camp. The Civil Rights Act (Apr. 9, 1866), designed to protect African Americans from legislation such as the black codes, and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill (July 16), extending the life of that organization (see Freedmen's BureauFreedmen's Bureau,
in U.S. history, a federal agency, formed to aid and protect the newly freed blacks in the South after the Civil War. Established by an act of Mar. 3, 1865, under the name "bureau of refugees, freedmen, and abandoned lands," it was to function for one year
..... Click the link for more information. ), were both passed over Johnson's veto. Doubts as to the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act led the radicals to incorporate (June, 1866) most of its provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868).
The newly created Joint Committee on Reconstruction reported (Apr. 28, 1866) that the ex-Confederate states were in a state of civil disorder, and hence, had not held valid elections. It also maintained that Reconstruction was a congressional, not an executive, function. The radicals solidified their position by winning the elections of 1866. When every Southern state (except Tennessee) refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and protect the rights of its black citizens, the stage was set for more severe measures.
The Reconstruction Acts
On Mar. 2, 1867, Congress enacted the Reconstruction Act, which, supplemented later by three related acts, divided the South (except Tennessee) into five military districts in which the authority of the army commander was supreme. Johnson continued to oppose congressional policy, and when he insisted on the removal of the radical Secretary of War, Edwin M. StantonStanton, Edwin McMasters,
1814–69, American statesman, b. Steubenville, Ohio. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1836 and began to practice law in Cadiz. As his reputation grew, he moved first to Steubenville (1839), then to Pittsburgh (1847), and finally to Washington, D.
..... Click the link for more information. , in defiance of the Tenure of Office ActTenure of Office Act,
in U.S. history, measure passed on Mar. 2, 1867, by Congress over the veto of President Andrew Johnson; it forbade the President to remove any federal officeholder appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate without the further approval of
..... Click the link for more information. , the House impeached him (Feb., 1868). The radicals in the Senate fell one vote short of convicting him (May), but by this time Johnson's program had been effectively scuttled.
Under the terms of the Reconstruction Acts, new state constitutions were written in the South. By Aug., 1868, six states (Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida) had been readmitted to the Union, having ratified the Fourteenth Amendment as required by the first Reconstruction Act. The four remaining unreconstructed states—Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia—were readmitted in 1870 after ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the black man's right to vote.
The Radical Republican Governments in the South
The radical Republican governments in the South attempted to deal constructively with the problems left by the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Led by so-called carpetbaggerscarpetbaggers,
epithet used in the South after the Civil War to describe Northerners who went to the South during Reconstruction. Although regarded as transients because of the carpetbags in which they carried their possessions (hence the name carpetbaggers
..... Click the link for more information. (Northerners who settled in the South) and scalawagsscalawags
, derogatory term used in the South after the Civil War to describe native white Southerners who joined the Republican party and aided in carrying out the congressional Reconstruction program. A Republican who came from the north was called a carpetbagger.
..... Click the link for more information. (Southern whites in the Republican party) and freedmen, they began to rebuild the Southern economy and society. Agricultural production was restored, roads rebuilt, a more equitable tax system adopted, and schooling extended to blacks and poor whites. The freedmen's civil and political rights were guaranteed, and blacks were able to participate in the political and economic life of the South as full citizens for the first time.
The bitterness engendered by the Civil War remained, however, and most Southern whites objected strongly to the former slaves' new role in society. Organizations such as the Ku Klux KlanKu Klux Klan
, designation mainly given to two distinct secret societies that played a part in American history, although other less important groups have also used the name.
..... Click the link for more information. arose. Their acts of violence kept African Americans and white Republicans from voting, and gradually the radical Republican governments were overthrown. Their collapse was hastened by the death of the old radical leaders in Congress, such as Thaddeus StevensStevens, Thaddeus,
1792–1868, U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania (1849–53, 1859–68), b. Danville, Vt. He taught in an academy at York, Pa., studied law, and was admitted to the bar in Maryland.
..... Click the link for more information. and Charles SumnerSumner, Charles,
1811–74, U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1851–74), b. Boston. He attended (1831–33) and was later a lecturer at Harvard law school, was admitted (1834) to the bar, and practiced in Boston. He spent the years 1837 to 1840 in Europe.
..... Click the link for more information. , and by the revelation of internal corruption in the radical Republican governments; the Grant administration was compelled to lessen its support of them because of growing criticism in the North of corruption in the federal government itself.
By 1876 only Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana remained under Republican domination. The Republican presidential candidate that year, Rutherford B. HayesHayes, Rutherford Birchard,
1822–93, 19th President of the United States (1877–81), b. Delaware, Ohio, grad. Kenyon College, 1843, and Harvard law school, 1845. He became a moderately successful lawyer in Cincinnati and was made (1858) city solicitor.
..... Click the link for more information. , promised to alleviate conditions in the South, but the feeling there had already led to the formation of the "solid South" in support of his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. TildenTilden, Samuel Jones,
1814–86, American political figure, Democratic presidential candidate in 1876, b. New Lebanon, N.Y. Admitted to the bar in 1841, Tilden was an eminently successful lawyer, with many railroad companies as clients.
..... Click the link for more information. . In those three states the presidential contest was the occasion for a determined effort to throw off Republican rule, and on their electoral votes (and on one disputed electoral vote in Oregon) hung the fate of the famous disputed election of 1876. It is practically certain that at least one of the three gave a majority, and thus the presidency, to Tilden, but two sets of returns were sent in from each of the three states. A specially constituted electoral commission (composed of eight Republicans and seven Democrats) accepted the Republican returns, and Hayes was given the presidency.
Reconstruction officially ended as all federal troops were withdrawn from the South. White rule was restored, and black people were over time deprived of many civil and political rights and their economic position remained depressed. The radicals' hopes for a basic reordering of the social and economic structure of the South, beyond the abolition of slavery, died. The results, instead, were the one-party "solid South," entrenched black segregation, and increased racial bitterness. The nearly complete elimination in the lengthy post-Reconstruction years (late 1870s to early 1950s) of the advances made by African Americans during Reconstruction has led many to argue that it had few ramifications, but others have countered that the ideal of racial equality formed during Reconstruction set an important goal that the country is still striving to reach.
Bibliography and Historical Interpretation
The literature on the Reconstruction is extensive and has shown sharp changes in interpretation. The first major historical writing on the period was done early in the 20th cent. It reflected the rising tide of nationalism that followed the Spanish-American War and incorporated the then current assumptions of black racial inferiority. Reconstruction was portrayed as a tragic era during which vindictive, scheming, radical Republicans imposed harsh military rule on a vanquished South and supported corrupt state governments dominated by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, scalawags, and uneducated freedmen. Typical examples of this school of historiography are J. W. Burgess, Reconstruction and the Constitution (1902, repr. 1970); W. A. Dunning. Reconstruction, Political and Economic (1907, repr. 1962); W. L. Fleming, The Sequel of Appomattox (1919, repr. 1921); C. G. Bowers, The Tragic Era (1929, repr. 1962); and E. M. Coulter, The South during Reconstruction (1947).
The first major attack upon this interpretation came from W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction (1935, repr. 1969). It stimulated a complete rethinking of the meaning of Reconstruction. The old Burgess-Dunning school of thought was revised and to a large extent discredited. The moral idealism of the radicals has been recognized and their sincere concern for the rights of the freedmen applauded. Historians now agree that the radical state governments were no more corrupt than their predecessors and successors, and that they made notable contributions toward restoring a devastated Southern economy, protecting the rights of freedmen, and extending public education to whites and blacks alike.
Some of the best examples of revisionist writing are C. V. Woodward, Reunion and Reaction (2d ed. 1956, repr. 1966); J. H. Franklin, Reconstruction (1961); W. R. Brock, An American Crisis (1963); W. L. Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, (1964); K. M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction (1965); J. P. Shenton, ed., The Reconstruction (1963); K. M. Stampp and L. F. Litwack, ed., Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings (1969); R. Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (1969); H. L. Trefousse, Reconstruction: America's First Effort at Racial Democracy (1971); E. L. Thornbrough, comp., Black Reconstructionists (1972); and L. and J. H. Cox, Reconstruction, the Negro, and the New South (1973). See also E. L. McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960, repr. 1988); R. N. Current, Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation (1989); E. Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988), Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (2005), and The Second Founding (2019); P. Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (2008); A. C. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012); D. R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction (2014); H. L. Gates, Jr., Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (2019).