Debating Reconstruction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the end of the Civil War, about the only thing that had been resolved definitively was that slavery was over. Beyond that there was still much to be decided. Where would the freed slaves fit in the new society of the South? Were whites and blacks to be regarded as equals in every respect, or would things go more smoothly if, initially at least, former slaves were granted legal rights and protections but less than full citizenship? Should those rights and protections include, for example, the right to vote and to hold elective office? How would such matters be decided, given that most of the former Confederate states had yet to be readmitted to the Union? The issue of whether these states were ready and able to be readmitted needed to be examined, many argued, before the U.S. Congress simply threw open its doors and allowed former rebel representatives to hold forth. In contrast, others argued that any delay would only breed resentment and complicate matters further: the Southern states should all be readmitted posthaste.

At the end of the Civil War, about the only thing that had been resolved definitively was that slavery was over. Beyond that there was still much to be decided. Where would the freed slaves fit in the new society of the South? Were whites and blacks to be regarded as equals in every respect, or would things go more smoothly if, initially at least, former slaves were granted legal rights and protections but less than full citizenship? Should those rights and protections include, for example, the right to vote and to hold elective office? How would such matters be decided, given that most of the former Confederate states had yet to be readmitted to the Union? The issue of whether these states were ready and able to be readmitted needed to be examined, many argued, before the U.S. Congress simply threw open its doors and allowed former rebel representatives to hold forth. In contrast, others argued that any delay would only breed resentment and complicate matters further: the Southern states should all be readmitted posthaste.

In this section we take a look at these questions and others, focusing on the early shaping of the landscape of Reconstruction. There were matters of legal rights and governance to be debated, along with questions regarding the enforcement of those rights and the creation of those (state) governments. How were these to be accomplished? Would the individual states bear the brunt of the costs and other responsibilities, or were these best left to the federal government (whose plan included “reconstruction” in the first place)? Some questions asked at the time might not even occur to us today, given our present understanding. People in the mid-nineteenth century needed to be reassured, for example, that blacks were capable of managing their own affairs and working toward their own betterment. What, people wondered, were the short- and long-term prospects in that regard? What role did education play, and what role did honest toil and practical experience play?

The period was also one of continued political conflict inside the halls of government. President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, was of a mind to speed Reconstruction along and yield power to the states in getting the task done. One of his fiercest opponents (although he had many), the great Thaddeus Stevens, was a leading radical Republican who favored a strong federal role in Reconstruction and a careful, managed approach. (Clearly these were different parties from those of today.) Another of Johnson's opponents, Charles Sumner, pointed to the emergence of so-called “black codes” in the postwar South as evidence that defeated Southerners were going to do everything in their power to resist change, particularly when it came to the freed slaves, or freedmen. Frederick Douglass, speaking on behalf of his own strong constituency as a public intellectual and former slave, feared that without the federal government a not-so-subtle process of “re-enslavement” would occur. In many cases questions continued to be asked even as Reconstruction policies took shape and, more importantly, got under way on the ground.

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