Reconstruction Acts of 1867 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Post–Civil War America was a hotbed of economic, social, and political turmoil. Although the Northern army had succeeded in maintaining the Union, at the end of the war the North and South were far from unified. The post-war presidency was faced with challenges that ranged from defining the status of newly freed slaves in the South, to grappling with how to deal with the Southern states that had formally seceded. While these issues undoubtedly found their roots in the end of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the real struggle to establish rights for black freedmen and to define the new South gained momentum during Andrew Johnson’s tenure (1865–1869).

While the period of American Reconstruction would reach through the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s, the questions surrounding black rights and the status of the former Confederacy essentially had their foundation in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. It was these acts which would cause great tension between the Republican North and Democratic South, ultimately defining what it meant to be a postwar United States citizen.

Summary Overview

Post–Civil War America was a hotbed of economic, social, and political turmoil. Although the Northern army had succeeded in maintaining the Union, at the end of the war the North and South were far from unified. The post-war presidency was faced with challenges that ranged from defining the status of newly freed slaves in the South, to grappling with how to deal with the Southern states that had formally seceded. While these issues undoubtedly found their roots in the end of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the real struggle to establish rights for black freedmen and to define the new South gained momentum during Andrew Johnson’s tenure (1865–1869).

While the period of American Reconstruction would reach through the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s, the questions surrounding black rights and the status of the former Confederacy essentially had their foundation in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. It was these acts which would cause great tension between the Republican North and Democratic South, ultimately defining what it meant to be a postwar United States citizen.

Defining Moment

As a former Democratic representative from Tennessee (the only Southern state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 and be restored to representation in Congress), Johnson was immediately at odds with the heavily Republican postwar Congress. The aftermath of a war between opposing factions in the same nation had raised unprecedented questions about how to deal with the states that had attempted to secede from the Union. What necessary changes were needed in order for the South to be able to re-acclimate to American life? In particular, what did this mean for newly freed blacks in Southern states?

Initial approaches to Reconstruction in the later years of the war had included lofty goals such as the total abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union–neither of which were easily fixed in the wake of a long, bloody national conflict. It became the task of Johnson and the 40th Congress to implement a plan of action that would allow the Southern states to rejoin the Union in a way that would both reaffirm a state-by-state commitment to reunification, and put policies in place to establish the rights of freed black slaves as equal U.S. citizens.

These noble goals for postwar America proved to be much more challenging in practice than in theory, and were met with consternation from all sides. As the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 show, Johnson and his Congress would never see eye to eye on Reconstruction legislation, which ultimately contributed to his impeachment in 1868. Likewise, new legal parameters were met with mixed feelings in the South, where strict regulations would impede the former Southern states’ control over their local governments. Democratic Southern fears also abounded with regard to the impact that the newly sanctioned black vote could have on the future of American politics, as black voters tended to side with their Republican backers, potentially adding serious weight to an already strong Republican ticket. As a result, Reconstruction would continue for another decade, with each new wave of legislation attempting to correct old imbalances.

Author Biography

The Fortieth Congress of the United States met from 1867 to1869 after being called by the Thirty-Ninth Congress into immediate action so as to take control of the Reconstruction away from the presidency. Comprised of forty-seven elected Democrats and one hundred and seventy-seven Republicans, the Congress was responsible for the institution of the four Military Reconstruction Acts in 1867 and 1868 (three of which are discussed here), as well as the impeachment and subsequent Senate acquittal of President Andrew Johnson.

The initial disproportion in party power within the Congress was in part due to the inability of formerly seceded Southern states to hold formal representational power in government. It would become the responsibility of these states to regain their independence, and with it, their congressional presence. Prior to the readmission of Southern states to the Union, disparities in Congress were often between Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate, and Moderate Republicans and Democrats. The former were considered to be radical in both their views on race (especially with regard to the equality of freed blacks in America), and in their belief that the rebel states of the South had forfeited their rights by seceding, and thus should become territories under congressional rule.

It was the efforts of this Congress that pushed forward legislation on Southern restructuring and called for a return to social order–even when these efforts were in opposition to Johnson’s proposals for Reconstruction. This congressional platform would call for black suffrage in addition to the disenfranchisement of some members of former Confederate states, with specific stipulations for how rebel states were to reenter the Union. It was these actions that would result in the reunification of the North and South, and the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Document Analysis

For many Americans, particularly those in the South, efforts to repair a broken post–Civil War nation raised concerns about social freedoms and the future of the American political system. For former slave owners, who equated the loss of their slave labor force with a loss of economic strength, the congressional push for abolition and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment also prompted fears about the future economic conditions of an already impoverished postwar South. While newly freed blacks questioned their shifting role in society, white Northerners and Southerners alike wondered how the widespread impact of emancipation would affect American life. In an attempt to deal with these issues and the myriad other questions that arose at this time President Andrew Johnson and the Fortieth Congress worked in the postwar years to establish new systems of government and federal legislations on abolition in an effort to ease the nation from war to peacetime. The challenges raised by Reconstruction would create many points of contention between Congress and the president, as is particularly evident in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 outlined below.

First Reconstruction Act

The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 were put into place by the Fortieth Congress of the United States to deal with the aftermath of the American Civil War. The first of these four legislations, also known as the Military Reconstruction Act, was passed on March 2, 1867 and divided rebel Southern states into five military districts (with the exclusion of Tennessee, which had already been readmitted to the Union upon passing the Fourteenth Amendment). The remaining ten former Confederate states were divided into the following districts: Virginia; North and South Carolina; Georgia, Alabama, and Florida; Mississippi and Arkansas; and Louisiana and Texas. Each of these districts was to be temporarily overseen by a commanding general who would be appointed by the president of the United States with the approval of Congress.

After postwar race riots and the refusal of Southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, the introduction of military leadership in the South seemed inevitable in the minds of many Republicans. There were Northerners and Southerners from both ends of the political spectrum however who were concerned about the use of military occupation on American soil. This raised questions about the extent to which the federal government should be allowed to control its citizens at the state level. From the perspective of Congress, the establishment of federally enforced military leadership would provide the Southern rebel states with stability, in order to combat the social and political unrest left in the wake of the war. The postwar South was particularly unsettled with regard to freed black slaves, who had struggled to find a place in Southern culture since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. While President Lincoln’s declaration had in essence freed slaves in the rebel Southern states, many slaveholders did not recognize federal authority at that time. Life was equally difficult for former slaves who had gained their freedom, but lacked a formal education and necessary means for survival, in addition to facing a hostile Southern culture that had long depended upon slave labor for economic cogency.

With these issues in mind, the First Reconstruction Act allowed for the eventual readmission of rebel states into Congress, with the stipulation that said states would follow the protocols for abolition and loyalty to the Union laid out for them. In this moderate approach the Southern states were expected to form their own “convention of delegates elected by…male citizens,” aged twenty-one or older, without restrictions on race. This was a conscious effort by Congress to establish a precedent for black suffrage in the Southern states, despite the legislation only calling for a temporary right for blacks to vote.

The act also stipulated that disenfranchisement was enacted in any cases in which an individual was convicted of “participation in the rebellion or for felony at common law.” This was meant to preclude Confederate leadership from having a voice in the Reconstruction process. When delegations were formed another election was to take place on the issue of the ratification of the fourteenth article to the United States Constitution–the Amendment calling for equal rights and legal protection for all American citizens, regardless of race. The act promised Southern states that ratified the Amendment and agreed to abolition their readmission to the Union as fully participatory states with congressional representation.

Although President Johnson agreed that the Southern states should have the ability to rejoin the Union, he felt that the congressional mandates for reunification set forth in the Reconstruction Acts were too harsh. Perhaps it was the President’s own Southern roots, or perhaps it was his desire to fulfill Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction that ultimately led him to veto Congress’ legislation. President Johnson proposed instead a counter-plan for Reconstruction in which the former Southern states would automatically be restored to their prewar status, with the exception of slavery, and in which provisional civil governments would be granted leadership. In a move that would be repeated with regard to future Reconstruction Acts, Congress overrode the President’s veto, enacting further legislation to control postwar power in the Southern states.

Second Reconstruction Act

In response to Johnson’s attempt to overturn the legislation of the First Reconstruction Act, Congress put forth a second act on March 23 of the same year. This act served in many ways as an addendum to the first, addressing the gaps and ambiguities of the initial regulations that had been brought to light by Johnson’s resistance. The Second Act became a platform from which the role of imposed Southern military leadership would be reiterated, and in some ways, restructured as a reaction to Southern resistance to the First Act.

Whereas the First Reconstruction Act had laid the groundwork for military control in the South, the Second Act was more concerned with reaffirming the role of military leaders. Generals placed in governing positions were to act as the enforcers of legitimate voter registration in the formation of congressional delegations and the Southern election process. Most notably, military leadership was granted the authority to remove those in power who were not following the provisions for legal postwar Southern government structures as outlined in the First Reconstruction Act.

Central to this process was a formal oath to be taken by all Southern voters in the presence of a witness so as to ensure the legality of Southern elections. In addition to the conditions for legal voting rights outlined in the First Act (male, U.S. citizens over the age of twenty-one, with no record of crime or history of rebellion against the Union), the Second Act included a solemn swearing “in the presence of Almighty God” that one had “not been disenfranchised for participation in any rebellion or civil war against the United States,” nor taken oath for a position of congressional or state leadership after which they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States.” Congress hoped that, through the strict enforcement of the new regulations, Southern delegations would not be comprised of rebellious Southern war leaders. The intended outcome of a cooperative delegation was to create an election atmosphere in which the Southern convention would create new constitutions and civil governments based on loyalty to the Union and to abolition, leading to Southern-wide ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Johnson refused the measures outlined in the Second Reconstruction Act much as he had the first. In his estimation Southern dissenters should be required to take an oath of loyalty to the Union with the exclusion of those who had been in prewar positions of power, who he felt should have to be directly pardoned by the president. In another power struggle between the Senate and the presidency Congress once again overrode Johnson’s attempts to veto the act.

Third Reconstruction Act

The Second Reconstruction Act, though more detailed than the First, was ultimately restricted in the extent to which military leadership was able to enforce its power. On July 19, 1867 Congress passed a Third Reconstruction Act, emphasizing that, “the rebel states” of the South that had been provisionally set up by Johnson “were not legal State governments; and that thereafter, if continued, were to be continued subject in all respects to the military commanders of the respective districts” under the “paramount authority of Congress.” In other words, Congress was to have the final say in matters of Southern Reconstruction, with congressionally approved military leadership at the helm.

The Third Reconstruction Act, like the Second, reiterated the qualifications for Southern voting privileges, with the additional condition that “no person shall, at any time, be entitled to be registered or to vote by reason of any executive pardon or amnesty for any act or thing which, without such pardon or amnesty, would disqualify him from registration or voting,” officially overruling Johnson’s intentions after the Second Reconstruction Act to offer presidential forgiveness on a case by case basis. According to Congress the legality of the Southern voting body was to be determined only by military leadership. Johnson vetoed the legislations outlined in the Third Reconstruction Act, with the same Congressional response that he had received after his attempts to prohibit the passage of the preceding acts.

Conflicts addressed by the first three congressional pieces of legislation culminated in the Fourth (and final) Reconstruction Act in 1868. This final statute was created by Congress in reaction to the refusal of ratification by Alabama voters who were against congressional Reconstruction efforts. When less than half of eligible voters in Alabama took part in the election to ratify the new constitution, Congress mandated that a majority vote (regardless of voter turnout) was sufficient for ratification. This went against the earlier Reconstruction efforts of Congress to maintain a majority vote with regard to the number of eligible voters participating in an election. It was nonetheless a successful venture, reaffirming the legislative role that Congress played in Reconstruction during Johnson’s administration.

Essential Themes

Congressional debates over restrictions on presidential power would also remain. Citing the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the president from removing individuals in federal positions of power without Senate approval, Congress fought Johnson’s desire to replace Lincoln’s war secretary, Edwin M. Stanton, with someone who more closely shared his own views on Reconstruction. The Congressional response to this incident, in combination with Johnson’s repeated refusals of the Reconstruction Acts led to his impeachment. In the subsequent trial in which the Senate acquitted Johnson by one vote, it was citied that the president should not be subject to impeachment merely because of differences of opinion with Congress.

The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 established a military-based Reconstruction that lasted until 1870, at which point all Southern states gained readmission to the Union by eliminating the institution of slavery and ratifying either the Fourteenth of Fifteenth Amendments. While the new constitutions of the Southern states helped freed blacks to gain political and legal rights, racially based social inequalities would linger for decades, as echoes of Reconstruction tensions continued to reverberate in the South.

Bibliography
  • Dickerson, Donna L. The Reconstruction Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1865-1877.
  • Westport: Greenwood, 2003. Print.
  • Dunning, William A. Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.
  • Ferrell, Claudine L. Reconstruction. Westport: Praeger, 2003. Print.
  • White, John. Reconstruction after the American Civil War. London: Longman, 1977. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Blum, Edward J. and W. Scott Poole. Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction. Macon: Mercer UP, 2005. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Perennial, 2002. Print.
  • Richter, William L. The ABC-CLIO Companion to American Reconstruction, 1862-1877. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1996. Print.
  • Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1998. Print.
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Historical Dictionary of Reconstruction. New York: Greenwood, 1991. Print.
  • Turkel, Stanley. Heroes of the American Reconstruction: Profiles of Sixteen Educators, Politicians, and Activists. Jefferson: McFarland, 2005. Print.
  • Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. Produced by Elizabeth Deane for WGBH Boston, 2004. DVD.
Categories: History Content