The process of reconstructing the Union began in 1863, two years before the Confederacy formally surrendered. After major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in which he outlined his Ten-Percent Plan. The plan stipulated that each secessionist state had to redraft its constitution and could reenter the Union only after 10 percent of its eligible voters pledged an oath of allegiance to the United States.
Many Radical Republicans believed that Lincoln’s plan was too lenient: they wanted to punish the South for secession from the Union, transform southern society, and safeguard the rights of former slaves. As an alternative to the Ten-Percent Plan, Radical Republicans and their moderate Republican allies passed the Wade-Davis Bill in 1864. Under the bill, states could be readmitted to the Union only after 50 percent of voters took an oath of allegiance to the Union. Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill, however, effectively killing it by refusing to sign it before Congress went into recess. Congress did successfully create the Freedmen’s Bureau, which helped distribute food, supplies, and land to the new population of freed slaves.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. Presidential Reconstruction under Johnson readmitted the southern states using Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan and granted all southerners full pardons, including thousands of wealthy planters and former Confederate officials. Johnson also ordered the Freedmen’s Bureau to return all confiscated lands to their original owners. While Congress was in recess, Johnson approved new state constitutions for secessionist states—many written by ex-Confederate officials—and declared Reconstruction complete in December 1865.
Although Johnson vetoed Congress’s attempt to renew the charter of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866, Congress was successful in overriding Johnson’s veto on its second try, and the bureau’s charter was renewed. They also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 , which granted newly emancipated blacks the right to sue, the right to serve on juries, and several other legal rights. Although Johnson vetoed this bill as well, Congress was able to muster enough votes to override it. The Radical Republicans also passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which made freed slaves U.S. citizens.
Many southerners reacted violently to the passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the two amendments. White supremacists in Tennessee formed the Ku Klux Klan, a secret organization meant to terrorize southern blacks and “keep them in their place.” Race riots and mass murders of former slaves occurred in Memphis and New Orleans that same year.
Johnson blamed Congress for the violence and went on what he called a “Swing Around the Circle,” touring the country to speak out against Republicans and encourage voters to elect Democrats to Congress. However, many of Johnson’s speeches were so abrasive—and even racist—that he ended up convincing more people to vote against his party in the midterm elections of 1866.
The Congress that convened in 1867, which was far more radical than the previous one, wasted no time executing its own plan for the Radical Reconstruction of the South. The First Reconstruction Act in 1867 divided the South into five conquered districts, each of which would be governed by the U.S. military until a new government was established. Republicans also specified that states would have to enfranchise former slaves before readmission to the Union. To enforce this order, Congress passed the Second Reconstruction Act, putting the military in charge of southern voter registration. They also passed the Fifteenth Amendment, giving all American men—including former slaves—the right to vote.
In an effort to limit Johnson’s executive powers, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which required the president to consult with the House and Senate before removing any congressionally appointed cabinet members. Radicals took this measure in an attempt to protect Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a carryover from Lincoln’s cabinet and a crucial figure in military Reconstruction. When Johnson ignored the Tenure of Office Act and fired Stanton, Republicans in the House impeached him by a vote of 126–47. After a tense trial, the Senate voted to acquit the president by a margin of only one vote.
Despite sweeping rights legislation by Radical Republicans in Congress, southern whites did everything in their power to limit the rights of their former slaves. During Presidential Reconstruction, white supremacist Congressmen passed a series of laws called the black codes, which denied blacks the right to make contracts, testify against whites, marry white women, be unemployed, and even loiter in public places. Violence by the Ku Klux Klan became so common that Congress had to pass the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871 to authorize military protection for blacks.
Countless carpetbaggers (northerners who moved to the South after the war) and scalawags (white Unionists and Republicans in the South) flocked to the South during Reconstruction and exerted significant influence there. Although in many respects they achieved their goals of modernizing and Republicanizing the South, they eventually were driven out by Democratic state politicians in the mid-1870s.
Most former slaves in the South, meanwhile, became sharecroppers during the Reconstruction period, leasing plots of land from their former masters in exchange for a percentage of the crop yield. By 1880, more than 80 percent of southern blacks had become sharecroppers.
To the Radicals’ delight, Johnson finally left the White House in 1868, when Republican Ulysses S. Grant was elected president. Grant’s inexperience, however, proved to be a liability that ultimately ended Radical Reconstruction. Because Grant had difficulty saying no, many of his cabinet posts and appointments ended up being filled by corrupt, incompetent men who were no more than spoils-seekers.
As a result, scandal after scandal rocked Grant’s administration and damaged his reputation. In 1869, reporters uncovered a scheme by millionaires Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to corner the gold market by artificially inflating gold prices. Schuyler Colfax, vice president at the time, was forced to resign for his complicity in the Crédit Mobilier scandal in 1872. The president lost even more credibility during his second term, when his personal secretary helped embezzle millions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury as a member of the Whiskey Ring.
The discovery of new scandals split the Republican Party in 1872, as reform-minded Liberal Republicans broke from the ranks of moderates and radicals. The Liberal Republicans wanted to institute reform, downsize the federal government, and bring a swift end to Reconstruction. They nominated New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley as their party’s presidential candidate (he agreed to run on the Democratic Party’s ticket as well). Though already marred by scandal, Grant easily defeated Greeley by more than 200 electoral votes and 700,000 popular votes.
In 1873, the postwar economic bubble in the United States finally burst. Overspeculation in the railroad industry, manufacturing, and a flood of Americans taking out bad bank loans slid the economy into the worst depression in American history. Millions lost their jobs, and unemployment climbed as high as 15 percent. Many blacks, landless whites, and immigrants from both North and South suffered greatly, demanding relief from the federal government. Republicans, refusing to give in to demands to print more paper money, instead withdrew money from the economy by passing the Resumption Act of 1875 to curb skyrocketing inflation. This power play by Republicans prompted northerners to vote Democrat in the midterm elections of 1876, effectively ending Radical Reconstruction.
By the mid-1870s, Democrats had retaken the South, reseating themselves in southern legislatures by driving blacks and white Unionists away from the polls and employing violence and other unethical tactics to win state elections. Most northerners looked the other way during this period, consumed by their own economic hardships.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, a conservative Supreme Court also struck down much of the civil rights legislation that Radical Republicans had passed. In the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment safeguarded a person’s rights only at a federal level, not at a state level (in rulings ten years later, the court further stipulated that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial discrimination only by the U.S. government, not by individuals). In 1876, the Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that only states and their courts—not the federal government—could prosecute Ku Klux Klan members under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
As the election of 1876 approached, Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden, a lawyer famous for busting corrupt New York City politician William “Boss” Tweed in 1871. Tilden campaigned for restoration of the Union and an end to government corruption. The Republican Party, on the other hand, chose the virtually unknown Rutherford B. Hayes. Many Northern voters, tired of Reconstruction and hoping for more federal relief because of the depression, voted Democrat. Ultimately, Tilden received 250,000 more popular votes than Hayes, and 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed to become president.
With the election result hanging in the balance, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act in early 1877, creating a fifteen-man commission—eight Republicans and seven Democrats—to recount disputed votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. Not surprisingly, the commission determined by an eight-to-seven vote that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had carried all three states. Resentment and political deadlock threatened to divide the country, but both parties were able to avoid division and strike a deal with the Compromise of 1877 . Democrats agreed to concede the presidency to the Republicans in exchange for the complete withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Hayes became president, withdrew the troops, and ended Reconstruction.