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Reconstruction (1865–1877)

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Study Questions & Essay Topics

The End of Reconstruction: 1873–1877

Quiz

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

In what ways was Reconstruction a success? A failure? Explain.

Reconstruction was a success in that it restored the United States as a unified nation: by 1877, all of the former Confederate states had drafted new constitutions, acknowledged the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and pledged their loyalty to the U.S. government. Reconstruction also finally settled the states’ rights vs. federalism debate that had been an issue since the 1790s.

However, Reconstruction failed by most other measures: Radical Republican legislation ultimately failed to protect former slaves from white persecution and failed to engender fundamental changes to the social fabric of the South. When President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, former Confederate officials and slave owners almost immediately returned to power. With the support of a conservative Supreme Court, these newly empowered white southern politicians passed black codes, voter qualifications, and other anti-progressive legislation to reverse the rights that blacks had gained during Radical Reconstruction. The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered this anti-progressive movement with decisions in the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Civil Rights Cases, and United States v. Cruikshank that effectively repealed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Meanwhile, the sharecropping system—essentially a legal form of slavery that kept blacks tied to land owned by rich white farmers—became widespread in the South. With little economic power, blacks ended up having to fight for civil rights on their own, as northern whites lost interest in Reconstruction by the mid-1870s. By 1877, northerners were tired of Reconstruction, scandals, radicals, and the fight for blacks’ rights. Reconstruction thus came to a close with many of its goals left unaccomplished.

2.

Some historians have suggested that had Lincoln not been assassinated, Radical Republicans in the House might have impeached him instead of Andrew Johnson. Defend this argument.

Radical Republicans in Congress might have impeached President Lincoln after the Civil War, had he not been assassinated, because he and Congress had contrasting visions for handling postwar Reconstruction. Ultimately, however, Congress ended up impeaching President Andrew Johnson, who followed many parts of Lincoln’s blueprint for Reconstruction.

In 1863, Lincoln wanted to end the Civil War as quickly as possible. He feared that strong northern public support for the war would wane if the fighting continued and knew that the war was also taking an enormous toll on northern families and resources. Lincoln worried that if the war dragged on, a settlement would be reached that would leave the North and South as two separate nations. As it turned out, his fears were justified: by late 1863, an increasing number of Democrats were calling for a truce and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

As a result, in the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of 1863, Lincoln drafted lenient specifications for secessionist states for readmission into the Union—an attempt to entice Unionists and those tired of fighting in the South to surrender. His Ten-Percent Plan, part of the proclamation, called for southern states to be readmitted into the Union after 10 percent of the voting public swore a loyalty oath to the United States. In addition, he offered to pardon all Confederate officials and pledged to protect southerners’ private property. Lincoln did not want Reconstruction to be a long, drawn-out process; rather, he wanted the states to draft new constitutions so that the Union could be quickly restored.

Radical Republicans, on the other hand, wanted the South to pay a price for secession and believed that Congress, not the president, should direct the process of Reconstruction. The Radical Republicans saw serious flaws in Civil War–era southern society and were adamant that the South needed full social rehabilitation to resemble the North. Many Republican Congressmen also aimed to improve education and labor conditions to benefit all of the oppressed classes in southern society, black and white. To quicken this transformation of the South, Congress passed a series of progressive legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the First and Second Reconstruction Acts, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In the end, Radical Republicans in the House impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868 because he repeatedly blocked their attempt to pass radical legislation. For example, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau charter, and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, all of which were progressive, “radical” bills. Had Lincoln remained alive, he might have been in the same position himself: he wanted Reconstruction to end quickly and did not necessarily favor progressive legislation. Indeed, Lincoln had made it clear during the Civil War that he was fighting to restore the Union, not to emancipate slaves. It is likely that Lincoln thus would have battled with Congress over the control of Reconstruction, blocked key Reconstruction policies, and met as vindictive a House as Johnson did 1868.

3.

Explain how three of the following shaped northern politics during Reconstruction: a) black codes b) the Depression of 1873 c) Crédit Mobilier d) the “Swing Around the Circle” speeches e) the Resumption Act of 1875

The Crédit Mobilier scandal, the Depression of 1873, and the Resumption Act of 1875 focused attention away from the South and onto political and economic woes in the North. All three thus played a role in ending Reconstruction.

In the 1860s, executives of the Union Pacific Railroad created a dummy construction company called Crédit Mobilier and then hired themselves out as contractors at high rates to earn large profits. The executives bribed dozens of Congressmen and cabinet members in Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, including Grant’s vice president, to allow the scam to work. The scheme was eventually exposed, and many politicians were forced to resign. Along with other scandals, such as the Fisk-Gould gold scandal and the Whiskey Ring, Crédit Mobilier distracted northern voters’ attention away from southern Reconstruction and toward corruption and graft problems in the North.

When the Depression of 1873 struck, northern voters became even less interested in pursuing Reconstruction efforts. Unemployment climbed to 15 percent, and hard currency became scarce. With pressing economic problems, northerners did not have time to worry about helping former slaves, punishing the Ku Klux Klan, or readmitting southern states into the Union.

Moreover, the Republican Party’s adherence to unpopular, strict monetary policies in response to the depression—such as the Resumption Act of 1875—opened the door for the Democratic Party to make large political gains, accelerating the end of Reconstruction. The Resumption Act reduced the amount of currency circulating in the economy in an effort to curb inflation caused by the depression. Although the act improved economic conditions in the long run, it made for harder times in both the North and South in the short run. The Act was Republican-sponsored, so Democrats were able to capitalize on its unpopularity to rally support for their party. This increased popularity translated into election victories that enabled Democrats to retake the South, bringing Reconstruction to a close.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Compare and contrast Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction, Presidential Reconstruction, and Radical Reconstruction.

2. What effect did Reconstruction have on blacks? Were they better off after Reconstruction than they were before the Civil War?

3. Was the impeachment of President Johnson justified? Why or why not? What were the consequences of his acquittal in the Senate?

4. What effect did the Compromise of 1877 have on politics in the North and South?

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