Second Reconstruction Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of the Civil War, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts to establish a formal procedure for readmitting the former Confederate states into the Union. The First Reconstruction Act gave a rough outline for this process; the Second Reconstruction Act–passed twenty-one days later as a supplement to the previous act–provided more explicit details. Like its predecessor, the Second Reconstruction Act granted sweeping authority over elections and voter registration to US-appointed military officers. It also required oaths of loyalty from anyone participating in the state constitution-writing process, whether as a convention delegate or mere voter. Congress designed the Act's provisions to keep officers and representatives of the former Confederate government as far away from the readmission process as possible, but many states resented the distrust they felt from the federal government and the level of control they were subject to under the Acts' provisions.

Summary Overview

In the wake of the Civil War, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts to establish a formal procedure for readmitting the former Confederate states into the Union. The First Reconstruction Act gave a rough outline for this process; the Second Reconstruction Act–passed twenty-one days later as a supplement to the previous act–provided more explicit details. Like its predecessor, the Second Reconstruction Act granted sweeping authority over elections and voter registration to US-appointed military officers. It also required oaths of loyalty from anyone participating in the state constitution-writing process, whether as a convention delegate or mere voter. Congress designed the Act's provisions to keep officers and representatives of the former Confederate government as far away from the readmission process as possible, but many states resented the distrust they felt from the federal government and the level of control they were subject to under the Acts' provisions.

Defining Moment

With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, the United States formally abolished slavery in its states and territories. However, many former slave states enacted laws designed to disenfranchise black voters–especially former slaves–and restrict other rights to which they had become entitled under US law.

In 1866, Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment contained two important components: All people born or naturalized in the United States were accorded US citizenship and equal protection under the law, and no one who had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the United States could hold a government office. However, all of the Southern states, except for Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendment. In response to this refusal, the Republican-led Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 and 1868, giving itself significant control over every step of the process to reestablish loyal state governments in the former Confederacy.

The First Reconstruction Act, passed on March 2, 1867, required states seeking readmission to the Union to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, after extending the vote to all adult men, including African Americans, but not including government officials involved in the rebellion. To oversee this process, the Act established martial law in the former Confederate states by granting Union-appointed military leaders the authority to enforce US laws in these territories.

The Second Reconstruction Act, passed three weeks later on March 23, 1867, more specifically defined these requirements, providing a detailed timeline of the procedures the former Confederate states had to follow before Congress would even consider readmission and restoration of the states' representation in Congress. Congress even included a provision that allowed it to deny readmission if it were not satisfied that a state had allowed all qualified individuals, including newly registered black voters, adequate opportunity to vote in every step of the process. These provisions highlight the distrust Congress felt toward the Southern states: It was not enough to simply pass laws allowing black men to vote; Congress also had to be convinced that the newly enfranchised voters were not threatened, intimidated, or otherwise kept away from the polls by either official or unofficial means.

Significantly, Congress did not have the support of President Andrew Johnson when passing these laws. Johnson rose to the presidency following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, and he lobbied heavily for the immediate restoration of congressional representation for the former Confederate states following the war, while vocally opposing the Fourteenth Amendment. However, Congress overrode Johnson's vetoes and enacted a number of laws to facilitate black suffrage and Southern Reconstruction. Many members of Congress believed that the significant social and economic changes brought about by the Civil War could not easily be overlooked and felt it was necessary to carefully control the process of reuniting the country.

Author Biography

The Republican-dominated Fortieth US Congress held office from March 4, 1867, to March 4, 1869, during the third and fourth years of President Andrew Johnson's term. This Congress oversaw both his impeachment and acquittal–the first of any sitting president in United States history–on charges of violating the Tenure of Office Act (1867). During this period, Congress and the president disagreed vehemently on important matters related to post–Civil War 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 Fortieth Congress had the difficult task of reuniting a war-torn country and continuing to govern effectively as former Confederate states rejoined the Union. During its term, Arkansas, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia were readmitted to representation; Tennessee had already been readmitted during the Thirty-Ninth Congressional term. In spite of these challenges, it passed three of the four Reconstruction Acts (the first having been passed at the end of the preceding term), designed to reestablish loyal governments in the South; oversaw ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment; and passed the Fifteenth Amendment, establishing voting rights for black men (ratified during the Forty-First Congress).

Document Analysis

The Second Reconstruction Act supplements the instructions defined in the First Reconstruction Act and provides additional details on voter registration and election procedures. Section one reiterates who is qualified to vote, and it establishes that the commanding general of each district has ultimate authority over the registration process and subsequent elections. Each potential voter must take an oath prior to registration. Aside from addressing the basic qualifications of gender (male), age (twenty-one or older), citizenship, and residence, the oath also requires the applicant to affirm that he has not “been disfranchised for participation in any rebellion or civil war against the United States.” He must also affirm that he will “faithfully support the Constitution and obey the laws of the United States” as well as “encourage others so to do.”

Sections three and four give each state's registered voters the power to decide whether to assemble a constitutional convention and begin the readmission process. The Act requires both a majority of registered voters to vote in the election and a majority of the ballots cast to be in favor of holding such a convention. If the voters decide in favor of a convention, delegates, in turn, are elected by the same process and draft a proposed state constitution, which itself must be ratified by the voters. The commanding general appointed to each district retains control over the entire process and can appoint additional officers as necessary to carry out his responsibilities. Section six further requires that any such officers must take an official “oath of office,” swearing allegiance to the United States, and section six also provides for “pains, penalties, and disabilities” for any officer who violates the oath.

Section five lists the conditions under which Congress will approve a state's proposed constitution. First, Congress must be satisfied that all registered and qualified voters within the state “had an opportunity to vote freely and without restraint, fear, or the influence of fraud.” Then they must be satisfied that a majority of all qualified voters within the state approve of the proposed constitution. Finally, they must declare that the proposed constitution is “in conformity with” the provisions of both Reconstruction Acts. Once these conditions are met, Congress will approve the constitution, declare that the state is “entitled to representation,” and allow that state's senators and representatives to rejoin the Congress.

Finally, sections seven and eight establish that the United States will pay any expenses the commanding generals incur while carrying out their responsibilities under the Act. The states must determine how to compensate their delegates and pay for any additional expenses not specifically provided for under the Act.

Essential Themes

In the wake of the Civil War, the United States wanted to keep anyone affiliated with the former Confederate government as far away from the Reconstruction process as possible. Because of the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, such individuals not only were prohibited from holding government offices in the newly reunited United States, they were also forbidden to vote in any elections related to the establishment of new state constitutions and representatives.

The Second Reconstruction Act gave full control over the entire process to the commanding generals of each military district, and decisions required the approval of a majority of qualified voters. Some perceived the latter provision as the United States trying to help each state's citizens regain control and choose their own destiny; others perceived it as a heavy-handed attempt by Congress to punish the states for their “insurrection and rebellion” by disqualifying their former leaders from future service.

The act also established strict conditions under which Congress would approve a state's proposed constitution and grant readmission to the Union. The first two requirements directly address the election process itself: Congress will not even evaluate the contents of the proposed document until it is satisfied that all qualified individuals were allowed to vote in the election–free from threats and undue influence–and that a majority of those individuals approve of the draft. Only then will Congress review the contents to ensure that they conform to the requirements of the two Reconstruction Acts and other US provisions. These strict rules, along with the requirement that all election officers take an oath of office, demonstrate the distrust the United States still felt toward the former Confederate states. In particular, Congress did not trust that the Southern states would not try to disenfranchise black voters by using threats and intimidation to keep them away from the polls, even though they were officially granted the right to vote in the elections–and this is, indeed, what would later happen in those states for many decades.

Even the sections of the Second Reconstruction Act, addressing the expense of readmission, reflect the Union's attitude toward readmission. Congress sets the required procedure, but with only a few exceptions, the states had to foot their own bill for the process by collecting taxes from their citizens–a potentially challenging task, given that many states' economies had collapsed because of war expenses and the end of slavery.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • American Experience: Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. PBS Online, 2004. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.
  • “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.
  • Richter, William L. The ABC-CLIO Companion to American Reconstruction, 1862–1877. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1996. Print.
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