Reconstruction
Reconstruction
More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other conflict before or since. The war was particularly disastrous for the South, where one in twenty white men were killed or wounded, and the land lay in ruins. After the Union victory, the nation faced the complex tasks of reintegrating the damaged South into the Union and helping heal the nation’s wounds.
Presidential Reconstruction Under Lincoln
Unlike the Radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to severely punish the Confederate states, Lincoln proposed a more forgiving and flexible plan for Reconstruction. In December 1863, before the war had ended, Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, also known as the “Ten Percent Plan,” which offered pardon to any former Confederates who would take an oath to support the Constitution. This pardon was not extended to officers in the Confederate armed forces above certain ranks, or to those who had resigned Union government posts to aid in the rebellion. When one-tenth of a state’s voting population had taken the oath of loyalty to the Union and established a new government, Lincoln would recognize that government.
Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction, known as the “Ten Percent Plan,” allowed a state to reenter the Union when 10 percent of its voters pledged allegiance to the Union.
Radical Republicans in Congress denounced the plan for being too lenient on the South and for not securing any rights for freed slaves. Moreover, these Republicans believed that Congress, not the president, should dictate the terms by which the nation would reunite. In July 1864, Congress proposed its own plan for Reconstruction by passing the Wade-Davis Bill, which declared that each Confederate state would be run by a military governor. After half of each state’s eligible voters took an oath of allegiance to the Union, a state convention could be called to overturn secession and outlaw slavery. Lincoln, however, vetoed the bill by leaving it unsigned for more than ten days after the adjournment of Congress. With Congress and the president in a deadlock over the terms of the Confederate states’ readmission, reconstruction stalled.
Radical Republicans opposed Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan,” and instead proposed a more stringent and punitive plan calling for military rule of the South.
The Radical Republicans in Congress did succeed in dictating some terms of Reconstruction. To help former slaves adjust to their new lives, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, which offered education, employment, economic relief, and legal aid to freed slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped build hospitals and supervised the founding of black schools throughout the South, including Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to the Freedmen’s Bureau, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The Amendment was ratified by twenty-seven states in December 1865, though Lincoln did not live to see that day.
In April 1865, soon after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and supporter of the Confederacy. Vice President Andrew Johnson became president.
Presidential Reconstruction Under Johnson
A Southern Democrat who opposed secession, Johnson had been added to the presidential ticket in 1864 to broaden Lincoln’s support. When Johnson became president, Congress was in recess, so Johnson forged ahead with a slight modification of Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan without facing any opposition from Congress.
Under Johnson’s plan, nearly all Southerners would be pardoned who took an oath of allegiance to the Union, with the exception of high-ranking Confederate officials and powerful plantation owners, who would be forever barred from government. His plan further required reconstructed state governments to denounce secession and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Even so, Johnson pardoned many powerful ex-Confederates and allowed reconstructed Southern governments to be dominated by pro-slavery forces—by Confederate army officers, plantation owners, and former government officials.
Governed by these Confederate forces, many of the “reconstructed” Southern governments refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment and further enforced black codes in an attempt to create a subjugated black workforce. Most states outlawed interracial marriage and jury service by blacks, and banned blacks from the right to testify against whites. Most codes also imposed a curfew on blacks and limited their access to public institutions. South Carolina further required licenses for blacks wishing to enter nonagricultural employment. When Radical Republicans attacked the black codes, Johnson defended the codes along with his overall plan for reconstruction.
Andrew Johnson presented a weak plan for Reconstruction, liberally pardoning ex-Confederates and allowing reconstructed governments to be dominated by pro-slavery forces, which passed black codes to keep the freedmen subjugated.
Congressional Reconstruction
Congress reconvened in December 1865 and immediately expressed displeasure with Johnson’s Reconstruction plan. Radical Republicans, led by Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens, set out to dismantle Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and to dictate Reconstruction on Congress’s terms. They called for black voting rights, confiscation of Confederate estates, and military occupation of the South.
Congress then passed two bills by overriding Johnson’s veto: the Civil Rights Act, which granted blacks full citizenship and civil rights, and an act to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Johnson’s attempt to veto these two bills prompted many moderates to ally themselves with the Radicals against his plan.
To give the Civil Rights Act constitutional protection, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, which declared all persons born or naturalized in the United States to be citizens of their states and of the nation, and prohibited states from denying citizens equal protection and due process of the law. Congress thus reversed the Dred Scott decision, which had denied blacks citizenship. Not surprisingly, Johnson opposed the amendment and every Southern state except Tennessee rejected it, leaving the radicals without enough support to ratify the amendment.
After an overwhelming victory in the 1866 Congressional election, Radicals gained the power they needed to push for passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and military occupation of the South. With a two-thirds majority in the House and a four-fifths majority in the Senate, Republicans charged ahead with Reconstruction on their own terms. In March 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867 over Johnson’s veto, which invalidated state governments formed under presidential Reconstruction and imposed martial law on the ex-Confederate states. Only Tennessee, which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, escaped invalidation and military subjugation. The other ten states were reorganized into five military districts run by Union generals. The act also expedited passage of the Fourteenth Amendment by requiring that Southern states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in order to be eligible for readmission into the Union. In June 1868, seven ex-Confederate states voted to ratify the amendment, and the amendment finally passed.
Under the stringent terms of congressional Reconstruction, ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment was made a condition of readmission to the Union.
Impeachment Crisis
In March 1867, the same month Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, Congress passed two bills to limit President Johnson’s authority. The Tenure of Office Act prohibited the president from removing civil officers without Senate approval, while the Command of the Army Act prevented the president from issuing military orders except through the commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant (who could not be removed without the Senate’s approval). In August 1867, with Congress out of session, Johnson suspended Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and replaced him with Grant. Republicans in Congress refused to approve Johnson’s change, and called for impeachment on the grounds that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act. In truth, Johnson’s violation served as a mere excuse for Congress to launch impeachment proceedings; Congress’s real motivation was to remove a president hostile to Reconstruction.
Johnson’s impeachment trial began in March 1868 and lasted nearly three months. Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote but was left effectively powerless. His acquittal set a precedent against impeachment based on political rivalry, lasting until the Clinton impeachment crisis of the late 1990’s.
Congressional Reconstruction Continues
The Fifteenth Amendment, proposed in 1869 and passed in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote to any citizen regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The amendment aimed to promote black suffrage in the South, and to guarantee it in the North and West. (Much of the North had not yet extended suffrage to blacks, even though the South had been required to do so by Congress.) The last Southern states awaiting readmission—Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia—were required to ratify the new amendment as a precondition for readmission.
Working to undermine the Fifteenth Amendment was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), founded in 1866 in Tennessee and operating in all Southern states by 1868. The Klan conducted raids to intimidate black voters as part of its campaign to assert white supremacy in the South. Along with these raids, the Klan orchestrated lynchings and floggings of blacks. In May 1870, to counter the Klan’s impairment of black suffrage and to bolster the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, which protected black voters. Congress also passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871 to authorize the president to use federal troops and emergency measures to overthrow the Klan. Although incidences of vigilantism declined, the Klan maintained a strong presence in many areas.
Reconstructed Governments in the New South
Because of the enfranchisement of blacks, the disfranchisement of ex-Confederates, and the influx of Northern opportunists, the Republican Party dominated Reconstruction governments in the South. All Southern Reconstruction constitutions guaranteed universal male suffrage, and Louisiana and South Carolina even opened public schools to blacks. To fund these schools and other new social programs, state governments raised state taxes and accumulated exorbitant debt.
Opponents of Reconstruction accused these new governments of being unsound and corrupt—and, indeed, many involved in these new governments did take bribes and exchanged favors for votes. Democrats called the Southern moderates who cooperated with Republicans scalawags, and labeled the Northern opportunists carpetbaggers (an unsavory title meant to suggest that the Northerners came to the South just to gain easy political power and wealth through bribes). Led by Democratic politicians, the Ku Klux Klan attacked and even murdered many of these “scalawags,” “carpetbaggers,” and other political leaders.
Reconstruction Wanes
During the 1870s, the Radical Republicans lost influence in Congress when two key leaders, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, died, and many others turned moderate. The Radicals’ demise, along with reports of corruption in “reconstructed” governments, sapped Northerners’ enthusiasm for Reconstruction. At the same time, economic panic and political scandal diverted the nation’s attention. Another factor contributing to the end of Reconstruction were the rulings of the Supreme Court. In a series of decisions, the Court reversed many of the trends the Radicals had begun.
The Supreme Court Repudiates Reconstruction
In a series of cases in the 1860s and 1870s, the Supreme Court established a narrow reading of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment only protected the rights of national citizenship, not state citizenship, and therefore allowed for a number of restrictions on state voting privileges. In the years following this decision, many Southern states imposed literacy tests, poll taxes, property requirements, and grandfather clauses (which allowed only those men to vote whose grandfathers had voted) in an effort to limit voting among blacks. Since many blacks were poor and uneducated, and their grandfathers had not voted, they could not pass these new voting requirements. The Court also limited the scope of the Fifteenth Amendment, ruling that the amendment did not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone, but merely prohibited the barring of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Since the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 served to reinforce the Fifteenth Amendment, the Court declared key parts of the acts invalid.
Corruption and Dissent in the Grant Administration
In 1868, the Union Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant defeated the Democratic candidate for president, Horatio Seymour. Grant’s two terms in office were laden with scandal, including the 1869 “Black Friday” scandal, the 1875 “Whiskey Ring,” and the 1876 “Belknap scandal.” In “Black Friday,” Grant’s brother-in-law conspired with two powerful industrialists to corner the gold market; in the “Whiskey Ring,” Grant’s personal secretary was proven to have taken bribes from a group of distillers seeking to evade millions of dollars in taxes; and in the “Belknap scandal,” Grant’s secretary of war, William E. Belknap, was impeached for accepting bribes to sell Native American trading posts in Oklahoma. The widespread corruption in Grant’s administration weakened the Republican Party and diverted the nation’s attention from Reconstruction.
Approaching the election of 1872, dissident Republicans split off from the party in protest of Grant’s corruption and formed a new political party called the Liberal Republicans. Liberal Republicans opposed corruption and favored sectional harmony. The new party joined with the Democrats and nominated Horace Greeley for president. Greeley, though a determined campaigner, lost convincingly to Grant. Despite Grant’s victory, the division in the Republican Party was a clear sign of the loss of momentum for Congressional Reconstruction.
The division of the Republican Party during the election of 1872 demonstrated the weakening of support for Reconstruction. The solid core in Congress, which had pushed Reconstruction measures through, disintegrated in the wake of the Grant administration’s corruption.
The Panic of 1873
In Grant’s second term in office, the nation faced serious economic woes. As a result of over-expansion by railroad builders and businessmen, the nation’s economy collapsed, in what is known as the Panic of 1873. The stock market crashed, the largest bank in the nation failed—as did many smaller banks and firms—and 25 percent of railroads shut down. This economic panic, coupled with Grant’s many political scandals, distracted the nation from Reconstruction.
The End of Reconstruction
The 1872 split in the Republican Party hastened the collapse of Republican rule in the South. Moderates in Congress pushed through Amnesty Acts allowing almost all ex-Confederate officials to return to politics and hold office. Using tactics such as promising tax cuts and engaging in outright violence and intimidation, Democrats took control of one state after another. Some Republicans gave up and moved back North, while others defected to the Democratic Party. By 1877, Democrats gained enough votes to win state elections in every one of the former Confederate states.
Democrats called their return to power Redemption. Once under Democratic control, every state in the South cut expenses, ended social programs, and revised their tax systems to grant relief to landowners. Many blacks migrated northward to escape the discriminatory policies of the Redeemed South. In 1879, 4,000 blacks from Mississippi and Louisiana reached Kansas to settle on land outside the grasp of southern Democrats.
In the 1876 presidential election, Republicans nominated the moderate Rutherford B. Hayes, and Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden. Although Tilden won the popular vote, Republicans challenged the election returns from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Republicans still controlled the political machinery in these states, and threw out enough votes to ensure Hayes’s victory. To prevent Democrats from obstructing Hayes’s path to the White House, Republicans promised that in return for the Presidency, Hayes would remove federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana. After he assumed office, Hayes abided by this so-called Hayes-Tilden Compromise, and removed federal troops from the last two occupied states in the South. By January 1877, Democrats had won control of all Southern state governments and Redemption was complete. Southern governments, under Democratic rule, reimposed laws severely restricting black suffrage and civil rights. Reconstruction was officially over.
Reconstruction died in January 1877, after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise removed troops from the last two occupied states in the South and allowed Democrats in those states to take control of the legislature.
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