Era of Reconstruction

A common myth is that the Civil Rights Movement gave African Americans the right to vote for the first time. Actually, the Civil Rights Movement is better described as a restoration of these rights. It was during Reconstruction (1865 - 1877) that African Americans were first given the right to vote. Many held positions in office, such as Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black Senator elected in 1870 in Mississippi. 

Era of Reconstruction Era of Reconstruction

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    Reconstruction was a radical period where many former slaves rose to positions of government and authority. However, by 1877 Reconstruction was all but dead, giving way to Jim Crow. How did this shocking turn of events come about? And what were the benefits of the Reconstruction era?

    Reconstruction Timeline

    Reconstruction was the name of the period between 1865-77 after the American Civil War, during which the Southern states broke off from the United States and were later readmitted after their defeat.

    The purpose of Reconstruction was to try to solve the issues the Civil War had brought to the forefront, as well as, most notably, tackling the legacy of slavery. The abolition of slavery had been a key point of conflict between the North and South of the country. Reconstruction was divided into two periods - Presidential and Radical.

    DateEvent
    1861 - 1865The US Civil War.
    1865Assassination of President Lincoln. Vice President Andrew Johnson became President.Freedmen's Bureau established to help former slaves and poor whites in the South. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
    1865 - 1867Presidential Reconstruction under Johnson.Black Codes passed by Southern states, establishing slavery in all but name.
    1866Civil Rights Act defined all persons born in the United States as citizens regardless of race. It also established equality before the law regardless of race.
    1867Radical Reconstruction began under Congress. Reconstruction Acts placed federal troops in the South.
    1868Fourteenth Amendment forced all states to protect rights regardless of race. States would later be forced to approve the Fourteenth Amendment if they wanted to re-enter the Union.
    1870All formerly Confederate states had rejoined the Union. The Fifteenth Amendment forbade voter restrictions based on race.
    1872Congress, pressured by white Southerners, disbanded the Freedmen's Bureau.
    1873The Supreme Court and the Slaughterhouse Cases. These Cases reduced the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. Economic depression.
    1875Civil Rights Act passed which forbade discrimination on public transport and in restaurants. It was poorly enforced.
    1876All but 2 Southern states had Democratic governments restored. They pressured Northern Republicans to withdraw federal troops from the South.Controversial Presidential election where results were disputed.
    1877Compromise of 1877 where Republican Presidential candidate Hayes agreed to withdraw troops from the South in exchange for the Presidency.This signalled the end of Reconstruction.

    What was the USA like after the Civil War?

    The American Civil War, 1861-65, was fought between the Union in the North, and the Confederacy in the South. Causes for the war stemmed from differences between the North and South. These differences led to the secession of southern states.

    Secession

    Breaking away from a larger political entity to form your own political group. In this case, the South broke away from the Union to form the Confederacy, a group of Southern states allied to protect Southern interests such as slavery.

    For instance, the North's economy was based on industry, while the South was based on agriculture and was utterly dependent on slavery. Southern states also felt excluded from the North's political decision-making and wanted greater states rights.

    Historiography of the American Civil War

    The above explanation is a very simplified version of an ongoing and complex historical debate. When it comes to the causes of the Civil War, there are two schools of historical thought, which developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

    The first school of thought argues that the war stemmed from economic and social reasons; a modern, industry-focused North versus a traditional, agricultural South. The second school of thought argues that the war stemmed from the divisive nature of politics during the 1850s. Though there is still a lack of consensus on Civil War causation, historians strongly agree that slavery divided the North and South more than any other issue.

    Although the war was not primarily motivated by the urge to abolish slavery, this soon became the basis for the war. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln's win in the 1860 presidential election, based on his message of being against the expansion of slavery, southern states began to break off from the US to form the Confederacy. This escalated rapidly into a four-year war.

    Era of Reconstruction President Abraham Lincoln Image StudySmarterFig. 1: President Abraham Lincoln in 1863

    After the war ended, slavery was officially abolished in the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). The abolition of slavery freed 3.5 million African Americans in the South. For the South, this Amendment destroyed its labour system. Without slave labour, production fell drastically, intensifying economic difficulties. However, the Thirteenth Amendment did not end the suffering of African Americans who were economically subjugated through a system of sharecropping, which replaced the plantation system.

    Sharecropping

    A labour system where tenants were tied to land they did not own. The poor wages and lack of alternative sources of work meant that sharecropping greatly resembled slavery.

    Effects of the Civil War

    Though the North had won the Civil War, many of the problems dividing the country persisted.

    The Republicans on the side of the Union wished to see the expansion of national government and the protection of the newly freed slaves. But on the other side, the impoverished and defeated South, resented Northern military and political control and wished to see the protection of their state's rights. The integration of African Americans into society was not well-received in the South, and led to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organisation that sought to promote white supremacy.

    Purpose of the Reconstruction Era

    In 1863 the North reversed the tides of the war and increasingly won victory after victory. It now had to plan for the future, especially the problem of reintegrating both the rebellious South and the formerly enslaved population. Reintegrating these two groups was the main purpose of the Reconstruction era.

    How did President Lincoln believe Reconstruction should happen?

    In 1863 Abraham Lincoln came up with the first Reconstruction plan. This was called the Ten Percent Plan. The idea was simple: southern states could establish new state governments after the war if one-tenth of their pre-war voters took an oath of loyalty to the Union. There were some attempts to put this into practice, but none of the governments that were formed had popular support.

    Lincoln had different opinions on Reconstruction than some of his fellow Republicans. He argued that only African Americans who were ‘very intelligent’ or ex Union-army soldiers should be allowed to vote, whilst other Republicans believed that Reconstruction should involve equal rights for all former slaves.

    President Lincoln was assassinated on 15 April 1865, and Democrat vice-president Andrew Johnson took over the presidency. He was in charge of the first period of Reconstruction.

    Did you know? Before the two parties switched in the 1930s, the Democrats were the party of the South. Though Lincoln was a Republican, he had chosen a Southern Democrat as Vice-President. He did this to demonstrate that the Union was meant for everyone. Johnson had been one of the few Southerners to not join the Confederacy, thus proving his loyalty to the Union.

    What was Presidential Reconstruction?

    Presidential Reconstruction (1865-7) was the period when President Johnson led the Reconstruction program. Johnson was continually opposed by Congress for his leniency towards the Southern states.

    Era of Reconstruction President Andrew Johnson Image StudySmarterFig. 2: Photograph of President Andrew Johnson, date unknown. Johnson is frequently dubbed one of the United States' worst presidents.

    Johnson’s policies focused on reunifying the United States but he did not particularly care for the anti-slavery cause. Indeed, he was quite merciful to the members of southern states. Although he disapproved of their secession, he was ultimately from the South himself and did not have much interest in protecting African American rights.

    The key elements of Johnson's Presidential Reconstruction included:

    • Southern whites were offered a pardon if they took an oath of loyalty to the Union. All their rights and property were restored, except slaves.

    • The Confederate leaders and wealthy planters (those who owned a lot of slaves) had to apply directly to Johnson for a pardon. Almost all of these were granted.

    • The states could be completely restored as long as they made new constitutions, which rejected secession, accepted the abolition of slavery, and paid back their war debts. The creation of these constitutions did not have to include African Americans.

    The new state governments in the South therefore enjoyed a relative amount of freedom in terms of their laws. They wanted to maintain white supremacy and re-establish a labour system similar to slavery. They did through a set of laws called the Black Codes.

    What were the Black codes?

    The Black Codes were laws that restricted the activities and labour of African Americans. Many states required black people to sign yearly labour contracts which forced black families to remain at a single plantation. Those who refused to sign, risked being arrested, fined, or even being forced to do unpaid labour.

    In South Carolina, for example, African Americans were not allowed to be anything other than farmers or servants. If African Americans attempted to find other employment, they were forced to pay extortionate taxes of anywhere from $10 - $100 dollars.

    It was not just labour that the Black codes restricted. African Americans were not allowed to leave their neighbourhood or preach to their congregations without explicit permission from their employer or the police. As such, the Black codes heavily resembled slavery.

    The Codes caused outrage in the North and led to conflict between Johnson and Congress. It led to Congress forcing Johnson to abandon his vision for Reconstruction and promoting a more radical Reconstruction of the nation.

    How did Congress Take Control of Reconstruction?

    The Republican-dominated Congress clashed with the Democratic and pro-South Johnson. In 1866, they introduced the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, which extended the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau.

    Freedmen's Bureau An agency whose purpose was to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom. They provided guidance and support to newly freed African Americans. Many agents were northerners who had come from abolitionist backgrounds. They moved to the south to establish schools and hospitals for African Americans.

    But this was Bill was vetoed by Johnson, signifying the end of relations between Congress and the President. The two powers came to a head in the 1866 Civil Rights Act which guaranteed equality to all before the law regardless of race. President Johnson vetoed this, arguing that rights for African Americans amounted to discrimination against whites. Congress, for the first time in American history, overrode this veto through a 2/3 majority.

    But even the Civil Rights Act did not go far enough for Congress. They wanted equal rights to be enshrined in the Constitution and so they drafted the Fourteenth Amendment. This Amendment defined citizenship, guaranteed equal protection, and forced all states to provide protection to all of its citizens. The Amendment had no Democratic support but Congress had a Republican majority. In 1868 it was passed, despite the wishes of President Johnson.

    Reconstruction Era President Johnson’s Impeachment

    In 1868 a presidential crisis broke out and the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, making him the first President in American history to be impeached. However, the vote to remove him from office failed by one single vote. Nonetheless, Johnson’s power was essentially gone. He had very little support and Congress became the driving force of the next era of Reconstruction: Radical Reconstruction.

    What was Radical Reconstruction?

    Radical Reconstruction was a different vision for how the nation would be united. Rather than appeasing the South like President Johnson had, Radical Reconstruction was a commitment to the rights of newly freed slaves and the expansion of the national government.

    The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 marked a key point in Reconstruction and divided the South into five military districts under martial law. The states were also required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in order to re-enter the Union. The 1867 Acts also forbade ex-Confederate leaders from voting because of their past treasonous activities. These Acts outlined how southern governments should be run, rather than giving the states the freedom that Johnson had previously given them. It was once again passed despite Johnson's veto.

    By 1870, all former Confederate states had rejoined the Union, with the vast majority controlled by the Republican party. The support base of southern republicanism was made up of three groups:

    • Carpetbaggers: Recent arrivals from the North, including soldiers, teachers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and businessmen.

    • Scalawags: Native-born white Republicans, mainly small farmers, who were loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

    • African Americans: African Americans made up the majority of Republican voters in the South.

    It is important to note that carpetbaggers and scalawags were terms used by opponents of Reconstruction. They used these derogatory terms to portray these groups as traitorous and corrupt whites.

    Radical Reconstruction Ulysses Grant

    The Republican Ulysses Grant was elected President in 1868 and took over the Reconstruction efforts in 1869. Despite his victory, his margin was small. Republicans believed that the key to bolstering their power was through the black vote.

    In 1870 Republicans passed the Fifteenth Amendment which prohibited states from restricting voting rights based on race. However, it did not prohibit voting based on literacy. This would later give Southern states a loophole to stop African Americans from voting.

    Era of Reconstruction President Ulysses Grant Image StudySmarterFig. 3: Photograph of President Grant, c.1870-80.

    Grant also signed legislation to tackle the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, which used violence to prevent African Americans from voting. This initiative was successful at severely limiting the Klan’s activities.

    President Grant also introduced a series of acts that authorised federal action to suppress political violence. At multiple times throughout his presidency, Grant stationed federal troops in the South. This caused outrage from many Southerners, who declared this violated the states’ rights. Despite this, Grant was re-elected in 1872 and remained President until 1877, when Reconstruction came to an abrupt end under his successor, President Hayes.

    Benefits of the Reconstruction Era

    Reconstruction obviously had huge benefits. It offered African Americans political rights and opportunities to vote in the South for the first time. Many were even elected to state legislature's or became mayors of large cities. This had been unthinkable before Reconstruction.

    Did you know? America's first black state governor was elected during Reconstruction in 1872. America's second black governor would only be elected in 1989 - more than a hundred years later.

    But as we know, Reconstruction was followed by a period of devastating violence and disenfranchisement of African Americans. Jim Crow, the reversal of gains made during Reconstruction, forces us to question how successful Reconstruction really was. You may come across a question like this in an exam. To answer this question, consider the following:

    Successes of ReconstructionFailures of Reconstruction
    The creation of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865 ensured that new schools, orphanages, and hospitals were set up in the South. They helped newly freed slaves move to the North or receive an education in the South.The Bureau was often short of funds and Congress failed to pass the Bill granting them greater power. Bureau agents often faced violence from the KKK. In 1872, Congress, pressured by white Southerners, disbanded the Bureau.
    1866 Civil Rights Act guaranteed equality of all under the law, regardless of race. President Johnson pardoned many Confederate leaders, restored the property and land of southern whites, and did not require African American participation in the southern states' new constitutions.
    1867 Reconstruction Acts placed federal troops in the South. States would be forced to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to re-enter the Union. Southern states passed the Black Codes. These fined and jailed African Americans if they did not work for white employers.
    1868 Fourteenth Amendment constitutionally forced all states to protect rights regardless of race. The Supreme Court ruling in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) reduced the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment.
    By 1870 all formerly Confederate states had rejoined the Union. Divisions from the Civil War remained; slavery was legalised in all but name with sharecropping.
    1870 Fifteenth Amendment which declared voter restrictions based on race unconstitutional. 1870 Fifteenth Amendment did not prevent voter restriction by literacy or property ownership. During Jim Crow, this would become the basis of African American disenfranchisement.
    President Grant signed legislation to shut down the KKK. The KKK later re-emerged stronger than ever.
    During Reconstruction, 2,000 African Americans held office in the South.White Southern mythology portrayed these African American governors, senators, and law-makers as corrupt puppets of the North. Racist propaganda circulated the South such as Gone with the Wind. This propaganda was used to justify denying African Americans the vote during Jim Crow.
    Black Republicans established public school systems that educated both white and black children.Public school systems were segregated by colour.
    1875 Civil Rights Act forbade discrimination on public transport and in restaurants.It was the last act of Reconstruction and was poorly enforced.
    Increasing integration of the North and South. In the 1880s, northern capitalists invested in textile mills in the Carolinas and Georgia. This increased trade between the North and South. Factories in the North grew due to cotton supplied by the South. The rise of the 'redeemers', white Southerners who wished to redeem the South by ridding it of black Republicans. By 1876, all but 2 Southern states had Democratic governments restored. Arguably, reintegration came at the expense of African Americans.

    Reconstruction was both a success and a failure. It was a success in that the Union was successfully reconstructed, with all formerly Confederate states rejoining by 1870. But on the issue of reintegrating former slaves, it was largely a failure. African American rights during Reconstruction were met with opposition at every turn and these rights were not granted in full for almost another century.

    End of Reconstruction Era

    Reconstruction met its downfall with the rise of the Jim Crow era after 1877. But how did this come about? And why did Northern Republicans agree to led Reconstruction fail?

    ReasonExplanation
    President Ulysses Grant political reluctanceGrant's political will for Reconstruction declined as the 1870s continued. In 1872 he passed the Amnesty Act which allowed many ex-Confederates to return to political life, quickening the collapse of Reconstruction.
    Violence from the KKKThe increasing violence of the KKK prevented African Americans from voting, leading to the elections of white Southerner Democrats. These Democrats called themselves 'Redeemers' as they had redeemed the South from black Republican influence. They pressured the North to stop interfering with the South.
    President Grant financial scandalsGrant's second term as President was marked by financial scandals which affected Republican support in the South. The economic depression in 1873 did not help the situation.
    Northern weariness at Southern violenceThe Northern Republicans were weary of fighting the aggressive and militant South. They were reluctant to keep the costly 20,000 troops that had been stationed in the South to keep law and order.
    The 1877 CompromiseThe 1876 election had produced a crisis where neither the Democratic or the Republican candidate produced a clear majority. To make matters worse, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida all had disputed election results. The Republican candidate Hayes made a deal with these states: if they supported his Presidential bid, he would pull out federal troops from the South and the North would no longer interfere with the South. The southern States quickly agreed and Hayes was sworn in as President. Reconstruction was well and truly dead. States were now free to pass Jim Crow laws, restricting the vote and enforcing racial segregation

    Reconstruction Era Summary

    To summarise why Reconstruction ended, we can turn to the historian Blum:

    Racial justice had been crucified at the altar of white reunion."

    - Historian Edward J. Blum1

    What this means is that Northern Republicans backed down from their commitment to African American rights so as to avoid clashing with the South. This explains why some aspects of Reconstruction were successful (all states joining the Union, advances in the economic integration of North and South) while other aspects were a failure (the KKK, the rise of Jim Crow, voter restrictions, lynching). Blum's quote hints that though Reconstruction had largely failed, a different type of Reconstruction may have succeeded. Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s is sometimes dubbed 'the second Reconstruction.'

    Below you can find the key points summarising the Reconstruction.

    The Era of Reconstruction - Key Takeaways

    • The era of Reconstruction followed the American Civil War. It aimed to integrate two populations: the newly freed slaves and the rebellious South.
    • Presidential Reconstruction was led by Andrew Johnson. His vision for reconstructing the nation was conservative and lenient towards the South.
    • The Republican-controlled Congress took over Reconstruction with the passing of the 1866 Civil Rights Act over Johnson’s veto.
    • Radical Reconstruction imposed stricter measures for how new southern governments should be run and improved the rights of African Americans.
    • Reconstruction ended when Radical Republicanism lost its popularity.
    • The 1870s saw a decline in the rights that African Americans had recently gained.
    • By 1877 President Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South, in effect withdrawing support and safety of African Americans there. This marked the start of Jim Crow.

    References

    1. Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic, 2006, p.16
    Frequently Asked Questions about Era of Reconstruction

    What was the main purpose of the Era of Reconstruction?

    The main purpose of the Era of Reconstruction was, unsurprisingly, to ‘reconstruct’ the United States. Its aim was to ‘re-unite’ the North and South of the country after the Civil War. They wanted to build a new society no longer based on slavery, and that protected the new rights of African Americans.

    What happened during the Reconstruction Era?

    There were two periods of Reconstruction: Presidential and Radical. During the first period, the US was reunified, but the rights of African Americans were not well protected. This changed during the Radical Reconstruction, when stricter measures were imposed on the South in order to protect African Americans and reform society.

    What was one of the failures of the Reconstruction Era?

    The Reconstruction Era ultimately failed to protect African Americans from subjugation in the South. It ended in 1877 due to a shift back to conservatism, and many of the measures introduced during it were substantially limited.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these did not contribute to the first decline of the KKK?

    What was the KKK’s peak membership count?

    How many military districts was the South divided into under the 1867 Reconstruction Acts? 

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