Reconstruction (U.S. history), the process of rebuilding (I'm going to take some issue with this term.) that followed the American Civil War (1861-1865). Since the United States had never before experienced civil war, the end of hostilities left Americans to grapple with a set of pressing questions over what to do with the South after the defeat of the Confederacy and the overthrow of slavery. These questions included:
1) What was the relationship between the former Confederate states and the federal Union? What should be demanded of those states before they were regarded as reconstructed?
2) Who was responsible for the Confederate rebellion? Who, if anyone, should be punished for it?
3) What should be the position of the newly-freed slaves? What responsibility did the government have to extend basic rights to them? Which rights?
4) How should the Southern economy be converted from one based on slave labor to one based on free labor?
Although the debate over these questions began during the war and continued for decades, the time period traditionally assigned to Reconstruction is 1865 to 1877. This period began with the onset of an intense national struggle over the shape of society and government in the postwar South; it ended with the collapse of the last Southern state governments under Republican control and the tacit acknowledgment that the federal attempt to remake the South was over.
II Debate over Reconstruction
Reconstruction emerged as an inevitable issue early in the war, and attracted increased attention as Northern victory neared. As Union forces gained control of large areas of the South, both Union commanders and the federal government were forced to make decisions about how those areas should be administered. These decisions were made first for the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, for southern Louisiana, for northern Virginia, and then for much of the South. Federal officials supervised experiments in which Northern missionaries arrived to set up schools for blacks, former slaves were employed as contract labor, and whites loyal to the Union organized new state governments under federal control. By January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves in rebel-held areas, the North's war aims had shifted from preserving the Union to remaking the South.
Central to this shift was the conviction of increasing numbers of Northerners that the South should be remade into a society based on free labor, equal rights, and the republican form of government guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. This view was especially widespread within the Republican Party, which dominated national politics, in part because the Southern states, where the Democratic Party was dominant, had withdrawn their representatives from the Congress of the United States after secession. Those Republicans who took the lead in pressing for a far-reaching restructuring of the South came to be known as Radicals. Among the most prominent Radical Republican leaders were Senators Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, and Representatives Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and George W. Julian of Indiana.
During the second half of the war, several plans were proposed for the political organization of states captured from Confederate control. A proposal that enjoyed considerable support among Radicals was the Wade-Davis bill, which was proposed by Senator Wade and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. It would have required one-half of a state's white male citizens to swear loyalty to the Constitution before a new state government could be formed; an alternative was President Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan, which allowed a government to be based on the loyalty of one-tenth of the white males. Although Lincoln vetoed the Wade-Davis bill in 1864, he regarded his Ten Percent Plan as experimental, and as a Republican who opposed slavery, he shared with Radicals the goal of establishing free labor in the South.
Early in 1865, before the war's end, three developments hinted at the depth of this emerging Northern commitment. In January Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in December of the same year. The 13th Amendment expanded the scope of the Emancipation Proclamation by abolishing slavery throughout the United States. Also in January, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, setting aside abandoned lands on the sea islands and coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia for exclusive use of the region's freed population. And in March, in order to help former slaves throughout the South in their transition to freedom, Congress established a new federal agency, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau. Designed as a relief agency for needy refugees, it provided food, clothing, and fuel for both blacks and whites. Its primary services, however, were for blacks; it established schools, supervised labor relations, and worked to protect blacks from intimidation and violence.
A Presidential Reconstruction
Despite these measures, the precise nature of the Reconstruction settlement remained undetermined when the war ended. Complicating the situation was the assassination of Lincoln, whose death on April 15, 1865, moved Vice President Andrew Johnson into the presidency. A Tennessee Democrat, Johnson soon made it clear that he did not share the Republican commitment to remaking the South. Blaming a small number of wealthy aristocrats for the Confederate rebellion, Johnson pursued a policy of leniency toward former rebels and one of neglect toward former slaves. He offered amnesty to all who would take the oath of allegiance, except for those with a post-war wealth valued at more than $20,000, who had to apply to him personally for pardon, which he almost always gave. In conjunction with these pardons, he abruptly reversed General Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 and ordered that abandoned plantations be returned to their former owners. Meanwhile, he sought to restore political rights to the Southern states as quickly as possible. For each state he appointed a provisional governor who was required to call a constitutional convention that would draft a new constitution outlawing slavery and disavowing secession. No further changes would be required.
Cheered by the unexpected presence of an ally in the White House, Southern whites quickly reorganized their governments according to Johnson's plan. The new state governments also passed a series of acts known as black codes, which sharply restricted the rights of the newly freed slaves. The codes varied somewhat from state to state, but they typically included vagrancy laws, under which blacks who were viewed as unemployed could be hired out as forced labor; apprenticing laws, under which children without proper care, as defined by the courts, could be bound out to white employers; and severe limitations on black occupations and property holding. Because they seemed to represent an effort to provide blacks with a status in-between that of slave and free, the codes aroused dismay in a Northern public already unhappy with what increasingly appeared to be the president's sell-out of Union victory.
B Congressional Reconstruction
When Congress convened from a long recess in December 1865, President Johnson regarded his restoration policy as complete. Republican leaders in Congress wasted little time in revealing their disagreement. Determined that Union victory must stand for more than simply restoration of the status quo, the Republican majority in Congress refused to seat the representatives sent by the Southern states or to accept the legitimacy of the Southern state governments formed under Johnson's requirements.
Instead, Congress began a lengthy debate over Reconstruction policy. The program eventually enacted resulted from a series of compromises among Republican factions; the Radicals were never powerful enough to gain everything they sought. Still, fueled by anger at the president's refusal to compromise and at the appearance of former Confederates returning to power throughout the South, members of Congress moved increasingly toward the Radicals. The key Reconstruction measures enacted aimed to produce far more sweeping changes in the former Confederacy than had appeared likely at the war's end.
Instrumental in convincing Republicans that it was futile to seek a compromise with the president were his vetoes in early 1866 of two measures that won overwhelming Republican support and were eventually enacted over his vetoes. The first of these was the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which continued the agency's operations for another year. The second was the Civil Rights Bill, which extended citizenship to blacks by defining all persons born in the United States as citizens. In denouncing these measures as illegal interference within the states by the federal government, Johnson clung to basic Democratic beliefs rooted in a pre-Civil War vision of states' rights, weak central government, and white supremacy.
The heart of the Reconstruction plan was laid out in two measures: the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the Reconstruction Act. The 14th Amendment was passed in June 1866 and ratified in 1868. It was designed to protect the rights of Southern blacks and restrict the political power of former Confederates. It added into the Constitution the definition of U.S. citizenship that was enacted in the Civil Rights Bill; barred states from abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens or depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; encouraged Southern states to allow blacks to vote, without actually requiring it, by reducing the congressional representation of states that disfranchised male citizens; barred former officials who had rebelled against the Union from holding public office; and repudiated both Confederate war debts and claims of former slaveholders to compensation for the loss of their slaves.
The Reconstruction Act was passed in March 1867 over President Johnson's veto and was strengthened by three supplemental acts passed later the same year and in 1868. It provided for the organization of loyal governments in all former Confederate states except Tennessee, which, having ratified the 14th Amendment, was regarded as already reconstructed. The ten remaining states were divided into five military districts, each headed by a military commander. The military commander was responsible for seeing that each state under his command wrote a new constitution that provided for voting rights for all adult males, regardless of race. Only when the state had ratified its new constitution and the 14th Amendment would the process of political reorganization be complete.
Congressional Reconstruction activity continued after 1867. Among the most important acts were the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, who in 1868 was spared conviction and removal from office by one vote in the Senate. Republicans in Congress disapproved of Johnson's dismissal of radical politicians and generals active in Reconstruction, and felt that he was obstructing implementation of the government's Reconstruction policy. In 1869 Congress passed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1870. It broadened the 14th Amendment's protection of black suffrage by providing that no citizen could be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Another important act was the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred discrimination by hotels, theaters, and railroads. In 1883, however, it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. Despite this continuing legislative activity, the basic course of Reconstruction was set with the passage of the Reconstruction Act in March 1867. Although this course constituted a major new departure for both the South and the country as a whole, it represented a compromise carefully pieced together by competing factions in Congress rather than a total Radical victory. Radical Republicans lacked the political power to secure two of their most cherished goals: redistribution of plantation lands to former slaves and poor whites, and a prolonged federal supervision of the former Confederate states. According to the Reconstruction compromise, those states would be required to provide equal civil and political rights to blacks, but once they complied with those requirements, the states would be free to govern themselves.
III Implementation of Reconstruction
As Reconstruction was implemented, an intense struggle was underway in the South over the nature of the new social order. On opposite sides were the freed people (former slaves), who sought to make sure that the freedom they now enjoyed included more than token benefits, and their former owners, who sought to preserve as many of their old privileges as possible. Many, although not all, whites who had not owned slaves also found it difficult to imagine a society in which blacks had the same rights as they did. Representatives of the federal government, including army officers and Freedmen's Bureau officials, typically took a position between the two sides. These representatives insisted that blacks be treated as free people with the same legal rights as whites, but they often found it difficult to understand, let alone endorse, all the aspirations of the freed people.
At the heart of these aspirations was the desire to get as far from slavery as possible. Determined to make freedom real, freed people resisted relationships reminiscent of slave-like dependence, for example working under overseers, and struggled to maximize their social autonomy. Well before the establishment of the new state governments mandated by the Reconstruction Act, black Southerners made it clear that they were determined not to accept the establishment of a system in which they would be free in name but slave in fact.
Although they did not achieve all of their goals, the freed people were successful in securing some of the independence they sought. In the process, they also forced fundamental changes in Southern social relations. In the crucial area of labor relations, these changes included the speedy disappearance throughout most of the South of elements of supervised control, such as slave quarters, gang labor, and overseers, that had characterized life under slavery. Instead, many blacks became family farmers, often working land they rented through various sharecropping arrangements. Meanwhile, unwilling to be second-class members of white churches, most blacks seceded from those institutions and set up their own black churches, headed by black ministers. Throughout the South, blacks eagerly sought the educational opportunities that had been denied to them as slaves, and enthusiastically supported numerous freed people's schools opened by Northern philanthropic organizations, often with Freedmen's Bureau assistance.
From 1865 to 1867, freed people struggled for their rights in a hostile political environment. Beginning in 1867, that environment changed substantially, as one state after another, in conformity with the Reconstruction Act, rewrote its laws to provide for black suffrage. The result was the establishment in the Southern states of new Reconstruction governments dominated by the Republican Party.
A Republican State Governments
These Republican governments, which varied from state to state in composition, accomplishments, and endurance, were based on shaky coalitions of three main groups. The smallest, although its members often occupied key government positions, were Northerners called carpetbaggers; these were frequently, although not always, Freedmen's Bureau officials or other army officers who entered Southern politics. More numerous were the so-called scalawags, the minority of Southern whites who, whether out of principle or pragmatism, supported the Reconstruction process. (Both carpetbaggers and scalawag were originally terms of derision used by political opponents, but are now widely used by historians in a neutral sense.)
By far the most important participants in the Republican coalitions, however, were Southern blacks. Firmly committed to the party of Lincoln, blacks provided the bulk of Republican votes. They were increasingly active in Republican Party politics, and served at almost every level of government, from the U.S. Congress (two senators and 14 representatives) to state legislatures, city councils, and county commissions. In general, black officeholders were more numerous in the Deep South than in the upper South, and more prevalent in state and local than in national government. The largest number of black officeholders was in South Carolina, where throughout Reconstruction they formed a majority in the state house of representatives. Although elsewhere in the South blacks did not hold political office in numbers equal to their proportion of the population, the image of blacks helping to govern states that had until recently held them in bondage was an indication of the changes that had swept the South, and a powerful symbol to both supporters and opponents of those changes.
Supporters of the new Reconstruction administrations saw them as bringing to the South the kind of republican government guaranteed by the Constitution. They typically enacted laws providing civil and political rights regardless of race and sponsored economic development, including the construction of new railroads, that would modernize a region long degraded by slavery. Among the most important accomplishments of the Republican governments in the South was the establishment of public school systems (racially segregated, except in parts of Louisiana). Until Reconstruction few Southerners, white or black, had access to public schools.
B Opposition to Reconstruction
Despite these accomplishments, Reconstruction aroused intense opposition. Former slaveholders were bitter over the loss of their slaves, and former Confederates, slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike, were equally bitter over the loss of their war. Angry and humiliated, they lashed out at the Reconstruction imposed upon them and denounced white Republicans as traitors to their race. Uniting most Southern whites in opposition to the Reconstruction governments was not only shared racism, but also hostility to the steep rise in taxation to pay for newly enacted Reconstruction programs. This rise seemed doubly burdensome in the wake of economic hardships caused by the war.
Most white Southerners were also convinced that Reconstruction politicians were hopelessly corrupt. In fact, the era's corruption was not limited to either a particular ideology or geographic region: it was widespread among members of both parties and in both North and South. Many white Southerners, however, came to associate this corruption with Reconstruction itself and with black politicians. These Southerners argued that overthrowing Reconstruction would bring an end to the tyranny, oppression, and corruption and reestablish orderly, responsible government.
IV The End of Reconstruction
The process of overthrowing Reconstruction governments varied. Everywhere, however, Reconstruction's opponents called for white racial unity and denounced scalawags as traitors to their race and region, and appealed to these scalawags to come home to the white man's party. In states with substantial white majorities, mainly those in the upper South, convincing most whites to vote Democratic was enough to defeat Reconstruction, a process that white Southerners called redemption. By 1871 Republican governments had yielded to conservative Democratic rule in the upper South states of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, as well as in Georgia, where Republican mismanagement undercut what should have been a more promising political environment for Republicans, given the large black population.
In the lower South, however, even the defection of virtually all scalawags was not enough to ensure Republican defeat; there, conservatives could win only by convincing some blacks either to vote Democratic or to stay home on election day. In those states black voters were subjected to an unprecedented level of fraud, intimidation, and violence. Terrorist organizationsthe Ku Klux Klan, which was formally suppressed in 1871, and other Klan-like bodies that emergedplayed a major role in this campaign. Most blacks continued to vote Republican, but in states where blacks formed about half the population, the loss of even a small fraction of black voters, combined with fraud at the ballot box, could be decisive. Throughout the lower South, Democrats returned to power in the mid-1870s. In the last three states to be redeemed, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, Reconstruction ended as part of an apparent political compromise. Both Democrats and Republicans claimed victory in those states in the elections of 1876, but leaders of the national Republican Party agreed to recognize Democratic claims to state offices after receiving the electoral votes of those states for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who thereby won the election.
As Republicans had feared, Democratic victory in the South led to a massive scaling back of Reconstruction's accomplishments. Taxes were slashed; so too was spending on education, especially for black schools. Throughout the South, a campaign ensued to put blacks in their place, which culminated around the turn of the century when one state after another passed laws providing for the rigid segregation of the races and for the disfranchisement of blacks through such devices as literacy tests, poll taxes, and political primaries that were open only to whites. These devices prevented almost all Southern blacks and some poor whites from voting or choosing candidates. During the first half of the 20th century, the South became a rigidly segregated society dominated by an all-white Democratic Party.
The Reconstruction effort to transform the South and turn freed people into citizens, although not entirely successful, was remarkable for its time. Even an unequal freedom was very different from slavery; the free-labor South that emerged in the late 19th century was not the South that blacks wanted, but it was not the South that their former masters wanted either. Despite its overthrow, Reconstruction left an important legacy: commitment to a republican society based on equality under the law, as exemplified in the Reconstruction-era legislation that remained on the books even when unenforced. A century later, during the civil rights movement, Americans, both black and white, would build on that legacy, as they renewed their struggle for equality.
Peter Kolchin, Ph. D.