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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.