Abraham Lincoln

1865 and Beyond

In order to enforce such radical legislation against the hostility of a defeated South, the federal government created five military districts to enforce principles of reconstruction. Polling places were placed under special controls, and as a result sixteen blacks were elected to Congress in the 1870s. By the Civil Rights Act of 1875, all hotels, restaurants and theaters were officially integrated, although this particular law proved particularly difficult to enforce, and was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883 on the premise of states' rights.

Heavy federal strictures on southern sovereignty naturally created a backlash. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866, later enjoying a strong following in states such as Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas after its early twentieth-century revival. As the southern states slowly reacquired the power to determine their own affairs, they instituted a series of black codes to limit the rights that had been extended to blacks by the federal government.

Johnson recognized the potentially damaging and mean-spirited nature of many reconstruction policies, and vetoed several bills in an effort to heal the still festering regional fracture. But time and again his vetoes were overridden. Would Lincoln have allowed such domination by the Radical Republicans? It is a question for all time.

Succeeding Johnson as President in 1868, U.S. Grant spent two unremarkable terms dodging scandal and allowing reconstruction to be directed by an increasingly powerful Congress. True to his military background, Grant reinforced the decrees of reconstruction by imposing a fierce brand of martial law where needed and ordering several arrests in places where federal civil rights laws were not adhered to.

Finally, in the scandalous presidential election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes narrowly defeated Samuel Tilden after an inconclusive election was decided by a Congressional committee. When the southern states indignantly threatened to secede yet again, Hayes capitulated with the Compromise of 1877, which allowed him to accede to the presidency in exchange for an effective end to reconstruction with the withdrawal of all federal troops from the southern states. And with this, after almost two decades of violent bloodshed and rhetoric, civil rights reform would remain dormant as an issue of national importance for the next eighty years.

No one knew better than Lincoln that a Civil War fought to preserve the Union, if successful, could only end with a return to divisiveness. As he remarked in his First Inaugural Address: "Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you." Somehow, over the fiercest opposition, slavery was in fact abolished, but the rights of blacks were slow in coming. Temporary reforms could only last for as long as the federal government was willing to commit forces to the southern states. With the end of reconstruction, southerners quickly reverted to the local rule of law, which equaled terror for many blacks during the decades to come.