Reconstruction, in U.S. history, the period (1865–77) that followed the American Civil War and during which attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy and to solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war. Long portrayed by many historians as a time when vindictive Radical Republicans fastened black supremacy upon the defeated Confederacy, Reconstruction has since the late 20th century been viewed more sympathetically as a laudable experiment in interracial democracy. Reconstruction witnessed far-reaching changes in America’s political life. At the national level, new laws and constitutional amendments permanently altered the federal system and the definition of American citizenship. In the South, a politically mobilized black community joined with white allies to bring the Republican Party to power, and with it a redefinition of the responsibilities of government.
The national debate over Reconstruction began during the Civil War. In December 1863, less than a year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Pres. Abraham Lincoln announced the first comprehensive program for Reconstruction, the Ten Percent Plan. Under it, when one-tenth of a state’s prewar voters took an oath of loyalty, they could establish a new state government. To Lincoln, the plan was an attempt to weaken the Confederacy rather than a blueprint for the postwar South. It was put into operation in parts of the Union-occupied Confederacy, but none of the new governments achieved broad local support. In 1864 Congress enacted (and Lincoln pocket vetoed) the Wade-Davis Bill, which proposed to delay the formation of new Southern governments until a majority of voters had taken a loyalty oath. Some Republicans were already convinced that equal rights for the former slaves had to accompany the South’s readmission to the Union. In his last speech, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln, referring to Reconstruction in Louisiana, expressed the view that some blacks—the “very intelligent” and those who had served in the Union army—ought to enjoy the right to vote.
When the Civil War ended, leaders turned to the question of how to reconstruct the nation. One important issue was the right to vote. Hotly debated were rights of black American men and former Confederate men to vote.
In the latter half of the 1860s, Congress passed a series of acts designed to address the question of rights, as well as how the Southern states would be governed. These acts included the act creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and several Reconstruction Acts. The Reconstruction Acts established military rule over Southern states until new governments could be formed. They also limited some former Confederate officials’ and military officers’ rights to vote and to run for public office. (However, the latter provisions were only temporary and soon rescinded for almost all of those affected by them.) Meanwhile, the Reconstruction acts gave former male slaves the right to vote and hold public office.
Congress also passed two amendments to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment made African-Americans citizens and protected citizens from discriminatory state laws. Southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before being readmitted to the union. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote.
Most of the documents in this section are related to the right to vote and how voting actually occurred in Southern states. Other rights are also discussed in some of the documents. As you read the documents, weigh the various arguments that are made. Also, look for similarities with issues or concerns that have been raised in more recent U.S. history.
RECONSTRUCTION refers to the period following the Civil War of rebuilding the United States. It was a time of great pain and endless questions. On what terms would the Confederacy be allowed back into the Union? Who would establish the terms, Congress or the President? What was to be the place of freed blacks in the South? Did Abolition mean that black men would now enjoy the same status as white men? What was to be done with the Confederate leaders, who were seen as traitors by many in the North?
Although the military conflict had ended, Reconstruction was in many ways still a war. This important struggle was waged by radical northerners who wanted to punish the South and Southerners who desperately wanted to preserve their way of life.
This drawing of African American soldiers returning to their families in Little Rock, Arkansas, after the war captures the exhuberant spirit of many former slaves upon gaining their freedom. They were soon to find out that freedom did not necessarily mean equality.
Slavery, in practical terms, died with the end of the Civil War. Three Constitutional amendments altered the nature of African-American rights. The THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT formally abolished slavery in all states and territories. The FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT prohibited states from depriving any male citizen of equal protection under the law, regardless of race. The FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT granted the right to vote to African-American males. Ratification of these amendments became a requirement for Southern states to be readmitted into the Union. Although these measures were positive steps toward racial equality, their enforcement proved extremely difficult.
The period of PRESIDENTIAL RECONSTRUCTION lasted from 1865 to 1867. Andrew Johnson, as Lincoln’s successor, proposed a very lenient policy toward the South. He pardoned most Southern whites, appointed provisional governors and outlined steps for the creation of new state governments. Johnson felt that each state government could best decide how they wanted blacks to be treated. Many in the North were infuriated that the South would be returning their former Confederate leaders to power. They were also alarmed by Southern adoption of Black Codes that sought to maintain white supremacy. Recently freed blacks found the postwar South very similar to the prewar South.
The CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIONS OF 1866 brought RADICAL REPUBLICANS to power. They wanted to punish the South, and to prevent the ruling class from continuing in power. They passed the MILITARY RECONSTRUCTION ACTS OF 1867, which divided the South into five military districts and outlined how the new governments would be designed. Under federal bayonets, blacks, including those who had recently been freed, received the right to vote, hold political offices, and become judges and police chiefs. They held positions that formerly belonged to Southern Democrats. Many in the South were aghast. President Johnson vetoed all the Radical initiatives, but Congress overrode him each time. It was the Radical Republicans who impeached President Johnson in 1868. The Senate, by a single vote, failed to convict him, but his power to hinder radical reform was diminished.
Not all supported fire damage reconstruction the Radical Republicans. Many Southern whites could not accept the idea that former slaves could not only vote but hold office. It was in this era that the was born. A reign of terror was aimed both at local Republican leaders as well as at blacks seeking to assert their new political rights. Beatings, lynchings, and massacres, were all in a night’s work for the clandestine Klan. Unable to protect themselves, Southern blacks and Republicans looked to Washington for protection. After ten years, Congress and the radicals grew weary of federal involvement in the South. The WITHDRAWAL OF UNION TROOPS IN 1877 brought renewed attempts to strip African-Americans of their newly acquired rights.