Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Reconstruction refers, of course, to the period in U.S. history immediately following the Civil War, extending from 1865 to 1877. Some historians suggest that the Reconstruction era began earlier, in 1863, with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (Foner 1988). In any case, by the end of the war the South was in a state of ruin and changes of historic proportions were required of it. Battles with Union forces, and the advance of the Union Army across the region, had produced massive physical damage throughout the land. Slavery had been abolished, and with it the old social and economic order sustaining the South. Although the North was by no means unaffected by the war, the most urgent problems lay with the Confederate states. Those states now had to be brought back into the Union; functioning state governments had to be established, under wholly new conditions. Moreover, millions of former slaves–freedmen–had to be accommodated within Southern society.

Given the grand scope of this undertaking, it is not surprising that Reconstruction has been viewed differently by different observers over the course of time. When the first scholarly histories of the subject came out in the early 20th century, the prevailing view was that the radical Republicans of the winning side (i.e., the most liberal faction of the party of Lincoln) had imposed a punitive military regimen on the South. Republican-led state governments set up during Reconstruction were said to exhibit unconcealed hostility toward Southern Democrats and Southern ways and traditions. They set out a Northern-style rule across the South that promoted corrupt practices and did not properly address underlying social and economic problems. Reconstruction, in this view, was regarded as a tragic blunder, a big mistake. The South, in turn, was portrayed as fighting again for a noble cause, the preservation of its heritage. Instead of healing wounds left by the war, these writers argued, Reconstruction only caused further rifts between the North and the South (Baker 2007; Smith and Lowery 2013).

Another school of thought, emerging in the mid- to late-20th century and largely accepted today, states that it was, above all, the racism of the South that prevented Reconstruction from succeeding. The radicals and their idealism, it is argued, should be acknowledged as having struggled to advance the rights of the freedmen and as contributing to the restoration of the Southern economy. Most historians writing today hold that the radical state governments produced some worthy legislative achievements, including provisions for the education of blacks as well as poor whites. It is believed that Republican governments were no more corrupt than the governments preceding or succeeding them (whether Democratic or not). Lingering racism is identified as the principle reason why Reconstruction faltered–and why, once federal troops were pulled out at the end of Reconstruction, the rights of blacks were immediately extinguished (ibid.; Foner 1988).

Reconstruction Plans under Lincoln

After proclaiming the emancipation of slaves in January 1863, President Lincoln began planning for the postwar period. Later that year, for example, he developed a basic Reconstruction plan for the defeated Confederate state of Louisiana. Similar plans were introduced the following year in Tennessee and Arkansas. In beginning this process, Lincoln hoped to start the work of healing the damage done to the Union and to the South, and also to build up the Republican party in the former Confederate states. Thus, in a December 1863 decree, Lincoln offered amnesty and assistance toward reconstruction for all Confederate areas occupied by Union forces. Referred to as the Ten-Percent Plan, the decree provided a pardon to any Confederate who pledged allegiance to the Constitution and loyalty to the Union. It stated that a Confederate state could return to the Union when 10 percent of its voters (as of 1860) took the required oath and established a government that accepted emancipation.

Lincoln's Ten-Percent Plan caused the radicals in Congress to worry publically that it would grant the Southern aristocracy–the old planter society–a victory, of sorts, in that the bar for re-entry to the Union had been raised too low and ways would be found to get around or soften the requirements and lower expectations. In response, the radicals passed the Wade-Davis Bill (in July 1864), requiring 50 percent of a state's voters to take a solemn oath stating that they had not voluntarily acceded to the Confederate cause. Lincoln used the gambit of a pocket veto–a delay in signing a bill that causes it to expire–to prevent the Wade-Davis Bill from becoming law. Instead, he pursued his own plan, without great success. Several states (Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia) undertook the required course of action, but when the time came Congress refused to accept the Senators and Representatives elected from those states. Matters were at an impasse when news came of Lincoln's assassination.

Reconstruction Plans under Johnson

Andrew Johnson, successor to Abraham Lincoln, initially satisfied the radicals with talk of breaking up the planter class and punishing the Confederate states. In an amnesty proclamation of May 1865, Johnson instituted harsher retributions than did his predecessor. He sought to make the property of owners of large plantations subject to confiscation, and to disenfranchise both those owners and all former military and civil officers of the Confederacy. The main objective was to unseat the planter class, destabilize its control of politics, and return state government to small farmers, traders, and artisans.

Johnson took advantage of a congressional recess (April to December, 1865) to roll his plan out in the South. He appointed a series of provisional governors, under whom the Southern states held conventions to set up new governments and new government policies. They elected new legislatures, voided or repealed their prewar ordinances of secession, abolished slavery, and did away with Confederate debts (except South Carolina). They ratified the Thirteenth Amendment guaranteeing freedom for African Americans (except Mississippi, which only ratified it in 1995). By the end of 1865, every former rebel state except Texas had reconstituted their governments.

On the societal front, however, things were a little different. Whites reasserted their dominance over blacks, principally by enacting Black Codes, or statutes meant to severely restrict the rights of the blacks and the freedoms they could enjoy. Such laws, for example, limited the ability of blacks to own land and to work as free laborers. They denied African Americans most of the civil and political liberties enjoyed by whites. Worse yet, many of these laws came about because offices in the new governments had been won by ostensibly disenfranchised Confederate leaders, i.e., those who were supposed to have been barred from office. Rather than ordering new elections, however, President Johnson granted blanket pardons.

In the North, an outraged public came to feel that Johnson was squandering his chance to impose a victor's justice. When Congress reconvened in early December 1865, it declined to admit the newly elected Senators and Representatives from the South. Not able to abide this, Johnson openly attacked Republican leaders and turned to vetoing their subsequent Reconstruction measures. Johnson's efforts had the effect of pushing moderate Republicans toward the side of the radicals. Thus, legislators passed, over the president's veto, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, intended to protect African Americans against harmful legislation such as black codes; and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, granting that organization (the Freedman's Bureau) more time to do its work. When questions arose regarding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, the radicals worked to incorporate many of its provisions into the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868), making them permanent.

Relatively early on in the process (April 1866) the Joint Committee on Reconstruction issued a report stating that the ex-Confederate states were in no condition to conduct their own legislative affairs or to represent their citizens in the national government. These states had not held, nor could they be expected to hold, valid elections. The committee also proposed that Reconstruction was a matter for Congress to attend to, not the executive branch. Elections held in 1866 served to solidify the radicals' hold in Congress. Thus, when the Fourteenth Amendment failed to be ratified by the rebel states (except Tennessee), the time had come in the radicals' eyes for sterner measures to be introduced.

Reconstruction in Practice

The reconstruction of the South got under way on a large scale following the enactment, in March 1867, of the Reconstruction Act. According to it, and to three supplemental acts, the South (except Tennessee) was to be divided into five military districts, each led by an army commander whose authority reined over most matters of state. President Johnson, balking at this and other congressional measures, sought to remove the radical Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, even though such a maneuver violated the Tenure of Office Act. The latter was itself authorized by Congress over a presidential veto. Thus, when Johnson aimed his guns at Stanton, the House of Representatives moved to impeach him (February 1868). In the end, the vote in the Senate for conviction of the president fell one short, but by then Johnson's ability to rule was virtually nil.

One of the first priorities under the Reconstruction Acts was the writing of new state constitutions in the South. This was done, and in mid-1868 six states (Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida) were readmitted to the Union, having duly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment as required by federal law. The four remaining, “unreconstructed” states (Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia) were readmitted in 1870, after ratifying both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, the latter of which guaranteed the right to vote for adult African American males.

In Southern state capitals, radical Republican governments worked to address the grave problems left by the Civil War and the destruction of slavery. These state legislatures were led by a mix of 1) Northerners who settled in the South, i.e., so-called carpet-baggers; 2) Southern whites in the Republican party, known as scalawags; and 3) freedmen (former slaves) along with free blacks. Together these men labored to reorganize the Southern economy and reconstitute Southern society. Trade was restored, the production of food and fiber (cotton) was brought back online, infrastructure was rebuilt, the financial system (including a redistributive tax) was revised, and educational programs were established for blacks and impoverished whites. For the first time, blacks were allowed to participate in the civil and economic life of the South, now that their political rights were guaranteed.

The majority of Southern whites continued in the postwar period, however, to reject the idea of treating former slaves as full and equal members of society. This is the period when the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante or hate group, arose. Its threats and acts of violence kept African Americans and many white Republicans from enjoying their civil liberties, including the right to vote. Revelations of corruption in the radical Republican governments further fueled animosities, and eventually caused the fall of those governments. Now gone from the scene, too, were many of the old-guard radicals in Congress, such as Thaddeus Stevens, who died while in office. In relatively short order, the administration of Ulysses S. Grant was implicated in a corruption scandal of its own and could no longer devote its attention to a flagging Reconstruction effort in the South.

The End of Reconstruction

Eighteen seventy-six was an election year. At that time, only three states–Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana–remained under Republican control. The Republican presidential candidate that year, Rutherford B. Hayes (Ohio), proclaimed that the South would fare better under his administration. His Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden (New York), was winning support in the South, as were other Democrats on the ballot. Inside the three holdout states concerted efforts were afoot to overturn the Republicans. Come the election, one of the most controversial in history, the results were indeterminate. Tilden won in the popular vote, but in the electoral vote both candidates claimed victory based on state tallies. To resolve the matter a compromise was struck, the Compromise of 1877, which awarded the disputed electoral votes–and the presidency–to Hayes in return for withdrawing federal troops from the South.

The withdrawal order was given on May 1st, 1877. The action effectively ended Reconstruction and returned the Southern states to Southerners, principally to white Southerners. Whites once again became politically dominant, as a “solid South” formed around the Democratic party. Blacks were promptly disenfranchised through new “Jim Crow” laws and other means, thus losing most of the civil and political rights they had won along with their hopes for economic prosperity. For the next eighty or ninety years, African Americans remained, as Frederick Douglass characterized it, “not yet quite free.” Douglass wrote about the phenomenon in his autobiography:

Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were slaves, they were not yet quite free. No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thoughts, feeling, and actions of others, and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining that liberty. Yet the Negro after his emancipation was precisely in this state of destitution… He was free from the individual master but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet. He was free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to the rains of summer and the frost of winter. He was in a word, literally turned loose, naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky. (Douglass 1882, 458–59)

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Baker, Bruce E. What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • Current, Richard N. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1882.
  • Foner, Eric. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 2005.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
  • Ford, Lacy K. A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Smith, John David, and J. Vincent Lowery. The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
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