Postwar: Politics of Race and Reconstruction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Immediately following the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Civil War, the question of how freed slaves would be treated in the newly reunited nation was swiftly addressed by Congress. In the Fourteenth Amendment, African Americans were made whole, legally speaking. Under slavery, and even though they had no voting rights or representation, slaves counted as three-fifths of a person when calculating a state’s number of seats in Congress. Now African Americans were full citizens with voting rights, although the voting laws were left in the hands of the states. Two years later, the Fifteenth Amendment forbade voting discrimination based on race or former servitude, and a number of acts following that increased protection for African American voters against force, intimidation, or other means of coercion to keep them from voting. It also greatly broadened the federal government’s authority to intervene in elections.

Immediately following the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Civil War, the question of how freed slaves would be treated in the newly reunited nation was swiftly addressed by Congress. In the Fourteenth Amendment, African Americans were made whole, legally speaking. Under slavery, and even though they had no voting rights or representation, slaves counted as three-fifths of a person when calculating a state’s number of seats in Congress. Now African Americans were full citizens with voting rights, although the voting laws were left in the hands of the states. Two years later, the Fifteenth Amendment forbade voting discrimination based on race or former servitude, and a number of acts following that increased protection for African American voters against force, intimidation, or other means of coercion to keep them from voting. It also greatly broadened the federal government’s authority to intervene in elections.

Some states in the former Confederacy were very reluctant to agree with these new terms, and even after they had been readmitted to the Union, violence designed to intimidate voters was rampant and unchecked by some officials. In some cases, judges and local officials sympathetic to African American rights were murdered outright by the Ku Klux Klan. The outrageously violent actions of the Klan stood in sharp contrast to the support and protections promised to newly enfranchised African Americans in the South by the federal government. Witnesses to the whipping, rapes, torture, and murder of black Americans, Republican officials, and anyone seen to be aiding Reconstruction, including teachers, pleaded with the federal government to intervene. Though the Klan was eventually crushed, the brutality of their attacks, their hatred of the federal government, and the stripping away of the new rights of black citizens all flavored the new South after Reconstruction.

The Supreme Court, in United States v. Cruikshank (1876), made it clear that the balance was once again shifting toward states’ rights, and declared it unconstitutional to pursue federal action against individuals charged with criminal acts linked to voting. In other words, if, as was the case with Cruikshank, an armed mob interfered with an election, it was a state issue. In some states, where the right of African Americans to vote was hotly contested, the state could decline to intervene on their behalf. This enabled paramilitary groups to continue to intimidate black voters, and turned the course of Reconstruction, which began with a promise of civil rights, away from guaranteeing full civil rights to African Americans living in the South. In addition, the Constitution was narrowly read to address only who could not be prevented from voting, rather than enforcing the right to vote. This decision was as confusing and convoluted then as now, and opened the door for many states to strip black voters of their rights.

Cartoon showing Jefferson Davis looking over his shoulder at Hiram Revels seated in the United States Senate. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-108004

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