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Reconstruction (1865–1877)


Key Terms

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Black Codes

Laws that were passed across the South in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, restricting blacks’ freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and legal rights, and outlawing unemployment, loitering, vagrancy, and interracial marriages. The codes were one of many techniques that southern whites used to keep blacks effectively enslaved for decades after the abolition of slavery. Some black codes appeared as early as 1865.


A nickname for northerners who moved to the South after the Civil War, named for their tendency to carry their possessions with them in large carpetbags. Though some carpetbaggers migrated to strike it rich, most did so to promote modernization, education, and civil rights for former slaves in the South. Some carpetbaggers had influential roles in the new Republican state legislatures, much to the dismay of white southerners.

Civil Rights Act of 1866

A bill that guaranteed blacks the right to sue, serve on juries, testify as witnesses against whites, and enter into legal contracts. The act did not give blacks the right to vote, because most Radical Republicans in 1866 remained unconvinced that black suffrage was a necessity. When more Radicals were elected to Congress that autumn, however, they did consider making black suffrage a requirement for a state’s readmission into the Union. The act eventually led to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Civil Rights Act of 1875

A bill that forbade racial discrimination in all public places. The act was the Radical Republicans’ last legislative effort to protect the civil liberties of former slaves. Democrats in the House opposed the bill from the outset and consequently made sure it remained largely ineffectual.

Civil Rights Cases of 1883

A series of Supreme Court cases that countered Radical Republican legislation passed during Reconstruction and severely restricted blacks’ civil liberties. The Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875was unconstitutional, citing the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial discrimination by the U.S. government but not by individuals. The decision was used to justify racist policies in both the South and the North.

Compromise of 1877

A political agreement that made Rutherford B. Hayes president (rather than Samuel J. Tilden) in exchange for a complete withdrawal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. When neither Hayes nor Tilden won enough electoral votes to become president, the election fell into dispute, and Congress passed the Electoral Count Act to recount popular votes in three contested states. The special counting committee determined by just one vote that Hayes had received more votes in the three states and was therefore the next president of the United States. Democrats accused the Republican-majority committee of bias, so the Compromise of 1877 was struck to resolve the political crisis.

Crédit Mobilier

A dummy construction company formed in the 1860s by corrupt Union Pacific Railroad officials who hired themselves as contractors at inflated rates to gain huge profits. The railroad executives also bribed dozens of congressmen and members of Ulysses S. Grant’s cabinet, including Vice President Schuyler Colfax. Eventually exposed in 1872, the affair forced many politicians to resign and became the worst scandal that occurred during Grant’s presidency.

Depression of 1873

An economic depression—caused by bad loans and overspeculation in railroads and manufacturing—that turned the North’s attention away from Reconstruction. Poor whites and blacks were hit hardest, and unemployment soared as high as 15 percent. The depression helped southern Democrats in their quest to regain political prominence in the South and diminished the reelection prospects for Republican candidates, who advocated hard-money policies and little immediate economic relief. Indeed, Democrats swept the congressional elections of 1874 and regained the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1856, effectively ending Radical Reconstruction.

Fifteenth Amendment

A constitutional amendment, ratified in 1870, that gave all American men the right to vote, regardless of race or wealth. The amendment enfranchised blacks and poor landless whites who had never been able to vote. Radical Republicans required southern states to ratify the amendment in order to be readmitted into the Union. The amendment’s ratification angered many suffragettes who were fighting for a woman’s right to vote.

First Reconstruction Act

A bill, passed by Radical Republicans in Congress in 1867, that treated Southern states as divided territories. Sometimes called the Military Reconstruction Act or the Reconstruction Act, the First Reconstruction Act divided the South into five districts, each governed by martial law. It was the first of a series of harsher bills that the Radicals passed that year.

Fourteenth Amendment

A constitutional amendment, drafted by Radical Republicans in 1866 and ratified in 1868, that ensured that the liberties guaranteed to blacks in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 could not be taken away. Like the Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all Americans regardless of race (except Native Americans, who did not gain full citizenship until the twentieth century). The amendment consequently reversed the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sanforddecision of 1857.

Freedmen’s Bureau

A government agency established by Congress in 1865 to distribute food, supplies, and confiscated land to former slaves. Although the bureau’s worth proved questionable because of corruption within the organization and external pressure from southern whites (including President Andrew Johnson), it successfully established schools for blacks throughout the South.

Ku Klux Klan (KKK)

A secret society formed in Tennessee in 1866 to terrorize blacks. Racist whites formed the KKK as a violent reaction to Congress’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Within a few years, the Klan had numerous branches in every southern state. Klansmen donned white sheets and threatened, beat, and even killed “upstart” blacks. Congress finally passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871 to curb Klan activity and restore order in the South.

Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871

A congressional bill passed in response to widespread Ku Klux Klan violence throughout the South. The Klan had been intimidating, beating, and murdering blacks in every southern state since 1866, and many blacks, though newly enfranchised, avoided the polls out of fear for their lives. Although violence spiraled out of control by the late 1860s and early 1870s because state legislatures turned a blind eye, the Ku Klux Klan Act restored order in the South in time for the elections of 1872.

Liberal Republicans

A political party that was formed prior to the elections of 1872 by Republicans who disagreed with moderate and Radical Republican ideologies. The Liberal Republicans campaigned on a platform of government reform, reduced government spending, and anti-corruption measures. They also wanted to end military Reconstruction in the South and bring about a swift restoration of the Union.

Military Reconstruction Act

See First Reconstruction Act.

Presidential Reconstruction

President Andrew Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction, which lasted from 18651867. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, allowed southern states to reenter the Union, but only after 10 percent of the voting population took loyalty oaths to the United States. Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction was similar to Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan, though Johnson pardoned thousands of high-ranking Confederate officials. Johnson was also a critic of the Freedmen’s Bureau and attempted to do away with the program. Presidential Reconstruction ended when Radical Republicans took control of Congress in 1867 in the wake of Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle” speeches.

Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Reconstruction proposal to boost support for the war in the North and persuade the South to surrender. The proclamation outlined Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan, which declared that secessionist states could be readmitted into the Union after 10 percent of voters swore their allegiance to the U.S. government.

Radical Reconstruction

The period from 18671877 when Radical Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate, advocating for civil liberties and enfranchisement for former slaves. The party, known for its harsh policies toward the secessionist South, passed progressive legislation like 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.

Radical Republicans

A Reconstruction-era political party known for its progressive legislation and harsh policies toward the South. The Radical Republicans passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the First Reconstruction Act, the Second Reconstruction Act, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Radical Republicans in the House also impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868 but were unable to secure enough votes for a conviction in the Senate.

Reconstruction Act

See First Reconstruction Act.

Resumption Act

An act that was passed in 1875 to reduce the amount of currency circulating in the economy during the Depression of 1873. Although the Resumption Act proved beneficial in the long run, its short-term effects on many Americans were detrimental. Democrats used these hard times to gain votes: Samuel J. Tilden ended up receiving more popular votes than Rutherford B. Hayes in the disputed election of 1876.


White Unionist Republicans in the South who participated in efforts to modernize and transform the region after the Civil War. Though many scalawags had influential roles in the new state governments, southern whites deemed them traitors.

Second Reconstruction Act

An act passed by Radical Republicans in 1867 that put federal troops in charge of voter registration in the South.


An agricultural production system in the South through which wealthy landowners leased individual plots of land on plantations to white and black sharecroppers in exchange for a percentage of the yearly yield of crops. Blacks preferred this system to wage labor because it gave them a sense of independence and responsibility. Ironically, though, sharecroppers had less autonomy than wage laborers, because high debts bound them to the land, and most former slaves worked on plots owned by their former masters. By 1880, most southern blacks had become sharecroppers.

Slaughterhouse Cases

A series of Supreme Court cases (involving a New Orleans slaughterhouse) that effectively rendered the Fourteenth Amendment useless. The justices ruled that the amendment protected citizens from rights infringements only on a federal level, not on a state level. This decision allowed state legislatures to suspend blacks’ legal and civil rights as outlined in the Constitution.

“Swing Around the Circle”

The name for a group of speeches in which President Andrew Johnson blamed Radical Republicans for the slowness of Reconstruction and race riots in the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Johnson traveled across the country, speaking out against Republicans, pro-war Democrats, blacks, and anyone else who challenged him. Consequently, his often-abrasive speeches further tarnished the Democratic Party’s already scarred reputation and persuaded many northerners to vote Republican in the congressional elections of 1866.

Ten-Percent Plan

Abraham Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction, under which secessionist states could be readmitted to the Union only after 10 percent of their voting population took a loyalty oath to the Union. Lincoln agreed to pardon most Confederates but made no provision for safeguarding the rights of former slaves. Many Radical Republicans believed his plan was too lenient.

Tenure of Office Act

A bill that Congress passed during Andrew Johnson’s presidency that required Johnson to consult Congress before dismissing any congressionally appointed government official. When Johnson ignored Congress and fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the Radical Republicans in the House impeached Johnson on the grounds that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act. Although Johnson technically did violate the act, the Radicals impeached him primarily out of revenge, angry that he had excluded Congress from the Reconstruction process. The Senate later acquitted Johnson, so he was not removed from office.

Thirteenth Amendment

A constitutional amendment, ratified in 1865, that abolished slavery in the United States. Southern states were required to acknowledge and ratify the amendment before they were readmitted to the Union.

United States v. Cruikshank

An 1876 Supreme Court case that severely restricted Congress’s ability to enforce the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The Court ruled that only states, not the U.S. government, had the right to prosecute Klansmen under the law. Without the threat of federal prosecution, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist whites had free reign to terrorize blacks throughout the South.

Wade-Davis Bill

An 1864 bill that stipulated that southern states could reenter the Union only after 50 percent of their voters pledged allegiance to the United States. Radical Republicans passed the bill in response to Abraham Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan, which they believed was too lenient. Lincoln ultimately pocket-vetoed the bill, so it did not come into effect. The Wade-Davis Bill was the first of many clashes between the White House and Congress for control over the Reconstruction process.

Whiskey Ring

A group of government officials who embezzled millions of dollars of excise tax revenue from the U.S. Treasury. The Whiskey Ring scandal damaged President Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation and affected central figures in the White House—the president’s own personal secretary was indicted in the conspiracy but was acquitted after Grant testified to his innocence.

Reconstruction (1865–1877): Popular pages