First Reconstruction Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following the Civil War, the United States of America and the former Confederate States of America began the process of reuniting. However, the states continued to disagree on many of the issues that led to the war in the first place; key among these was the abolition of slavery and the rights of former slaves. In 1866, Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which, among other provisions, guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law to anyone born in the United States–including, by implication, African Americans. However, most of the former Confederate states refused to ratify the amendment. In response, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act of 1867. This act outlined clear rules for the readmission of former Confederate states into the United States–one of which was ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment–and established martial law in the Southern states to oversee the entire process. While this heavy-handed approach was not well-received, it nonetheless ultimately secured ratification of the amendment in all states of the Union.

Summary Overview

Following the Civil War, the United States of America and the former Confederate States of America began the process of reuniting. However, the states continued to disagree on many of the issues that led to the war in the first place; key among these was the abolition of slavery and the rights of former slaves. In 1866, Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which, among other provisions, guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law to anyone born in the United States–including, by implication, African Americans. However, most of the former Confederate states refused to ratify the amendment. In response, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act of 1867. This act outlined clear rules for the readmission of former Confederate states into the United States–one of which was ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment–and established martial law in the Southern states to oversee the entire process. While this heavy-handed approach was not well-received, it nonetheless ultimately secured ratification of the amendment in all states of the Union.

Defining Moment

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (ratified in 1865) formally abolished slavery in the United States and its territories. However, in the years that followed the end of the Civil War, many former slave states enacted laws and codes designed to disenfranchise blacks–especially former slaves–and restrict other rights to which they were entitled under US law.

Finally, after much intense debate, Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1866. The amendment featured two critical components: All people born or naturalized in the United States were citizens entitled to equal protection under the law, and no one who had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the United States could hold federal or state office. However, all of the Southern states, except for Tennessee, initially refused to ratify the amendment.

In response to this widespread refusal, Congress passed several Reconstruction acts to direct the reformation of Union-approved state governments in the South. The First Reconstruction Act, passed on March 2, 1867, required states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment–in legislative bodies elected by all adult men irrespective of race–as a condition of full readmission to the United States and restoration of representation in Congress. It also established federal military rule within the former Confederate states, dividing them into five military districts. The Second Reconstruction Act, passed three weeks later on March 23, 1867, as a supplement to the first act, provided additional details regarding the readmission process; it also established a key requirement for constitutional approval: All eligible voters–including newly enfranchised black voters–must have the opportunity to participate in all relevant elections without any impedance, and states would not be readmitted until Congress was satisfied that the elections complied with all of the Acts' requirements.

Notably, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts without the support of President Andrew Johnson, who rose to the presidency following Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Originally from the South, Johnson disapproved of the Confederate states' secession prior to the Civil War. However, after the war ended, he lobbied heavily for full pardoning of Confederate officials and immediate restoration of legislative representation for former Confederate states. He also vocally opposed the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress repeatedly overrode Johnson's presidential vetoes to pass the Reconstruction Acts, along with numerous other legislative acts to facilitate black suffrage and Southern reconstruction. This created significant tension between the legislative and executive branches during this period, but Congress argued that the dramatic social and economic changes wrought by the Civil War warranted a slow and deliberate approach to reuniting the country.

Author Biography

The Republican-dominated Thirty-ninth Congress held office from March 4, 1865, to March 4, 1867, during the last six weeks of President Abraham Lincoln's presidency before his assassination and the first two years of President Andrew Johnson's term. During this period, Congress and President Johnson disagreed vehemently on important matters related to Reconstruction in the South. In particular, President Johnson favored pardoning former Confederate officers and quickly restoring Southern states' representation in Congress, while Congress favored a slower, more deliberate approach to readmission.

The Thirty-ninth Congress had the difficult task of beginning to reunite a war-torn country and continuing to govern effectively while establishing the terms under which Confederate states were to rejoin the Union. During its term, Tennessee gained readmission to the United States, the first member of the former Confederacy to do so. In spite of these challenges, the Thirty-ninth Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, establishing the citizenship of former slaves, and the first of the four Reconstruction Acts, designed to reestablish Union-loyal governments in the South. It also oversaw the ratification in 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States, and in 1866, it passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which enshrined in the Constitution the citizenship provisions of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, during the term of the Fortieth Congress.

Document Analysis

The First Reconstruction Act first establishes the United States' plan for enforcing laws and suppressing rebellion in the former Confederate states. Sections one and two divide the states into five military districts and allow the US president to assign an army officer to each district. These officers and the troops assigned to them have the authority to “suppress insurrection, disorder, and violence” within their district, as well as to punish “all disturbers of the public peace and criminals.”

To further this goal, section three allows the district officer to engage local civil tribunals to handle offenders, or to establish military tribunals as necessary. This section specifies that any interference in this process “under color of State authority”–in other words, by the former Confederate state's government–shall be “null and void.” This essentially prohibits the state from trying to exercise any power over the US-appointed military leader. In an effort to keep some of this power in check, section four establishes that anyone placed under military arrest shall be tried “without unnecessary delay” and not subject to “cruel or unusual punishment.”

Section five defines the steps each state must follow to be granted full readmission to the United States. First, all men aged twenty-one and older who have resided in the state for at least one year (except those disenfranchised due to rebellion or felony) are eligible to vote to establish a constitutional convention to draft a new state constitution. Significantly, men of any “race, color, or previous condition” are entitled to vote for delegates to this convention. Next, the delegates must frame a new constitution that specifically allows men of all races, colors, and previous conditions to vote. Once the delegates ratify the proposed constitution, it must be approved by the US Congress. Then the state can elect its legislature per the rules established by its constitution, and must adopt the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Only then may the state send representatives to the US Congress and Senate; once they take their oath of office, readmission is complete, and the military-rule provisions of the act no longer apply in that state.

The final section reinforces that, until all of these conditions are met in full, any civil government that may exist within the state are considered “provisional only.” The act reserves for the United States the power to “abolish, modify, control, or supersede” any such government, and affirms once again that all men must be allowed to vote, even in these provisional government elections.

Essential Themes

From the very beginning, the full title of the First Reconstruction Act–“An act to provide for the more efficient Government of the Rebel States”–set the tone for the rest of the act, and highlights the distrust the US government felt toward the “rebel states.” Likewise, the opening paragraph of the act states that it is necessary to enforce “peace and good order” in the rebel states until “loyal and republican State governments can be legally established.” This reinforces the United States' refusal to accept the former Confederate states back into the Union without significant reforms.

The Act defines a very strict procedure for readmission to the United States. Most significantly, it imposes martial law in ten Southern states and requires that any state seeking readmission (and the lifting of federal military control) ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment indirectly establishes the citizenship of African Americans and their equal protection under the law. This amendment was bitterly opposed by the Southern states, so requiring them to ratify it as a condition of lifting US military rule was perceived as a heavy-handed decision by the Republican-led Congress.

Additionally, section three of the Fourteenth Amendment effectively prohibited any person who had held a government position within the Confederacy from becoming an elected representative–either state or federal–upon readmission to the United States (unless a supermajority in Congress lifts this prohibition). Section five of the First Reconstruction Act specifically mentions this provision when describing the election procedures states must follow to select their legislative representatives and further establishes that such persons are not to participate in any part of the readmission process, including framing the state constitution or voting for convention members.

In the wake of the Civil War, Radical Republicans pushed Congress to exert as much influence over the former Confederate states as possible, to ensure that readmission would take place only on terms that punished the rebels and secured the rights of former slaves. Congress also wanted to take all conceivable precautions against future rebellion by establishing strict rules for the reunited country. However, the resentment this fostered within the former Confederate states led to the eventual reassertion of racial injustices that would persist far into the twentieth century.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Black Americans in Congress.” History, Art & Archives. US House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.
  • Donald, David Herbert, Jean Baker, and Michael Holt. Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” The American Experience. PBS Online, 2005. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.
  • Richter, William L. The ABC-CLIO Companion to American Reconstruction, 1862–1877. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1996. Print.
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