Reconstruction is a name often given to the era immediately following the American Civil War. After the Northern states had defeated the Confederacy, the Union government developed policies to reconstruct the nation. Government officials debated how the Southern states that seceded from the United States would be readmitted to the nation. These debates and implementation of the actual policies would take from 1865, the Civil War's end, to 1877, the year that President Rutherford B. Hayes assumed office. In the end, the federal government permitted Southern states to rejoin the Union as equals with the Northern states.
Abraham Lincoln was the first president to present a plan for Reconstruction. He proposed a lenient policy that would allow Southerners to rejoin the Union quickly. In December 1863, he offered full pardons to Confederates, other than a few high-ranking leaders. To receive the pardons, Southerners would have to swear their allegiance to the United States and agree to the end of slavery. Once ten percent of the voting population of a seceded state took the oath of allegiance, Lincoln authorized these individuals to form a state government that was loyal to the United States government. States like Louisiana and Arkansas, where Union troops had firm control, quickly applied for readmission to the Union. By pursuing a relatively lenient policy towards the seceded states and former Confederates, Lincoln tried to persuade reluctant Confederates to return to the United States. He hoped to bring the Civil War to an early conclusion.
The United States Congress was less forgiving than Lincoln was. Radical Republicans wanted to give African-American men the right to vote. The Radicals, as well as more moderate Republicans in Congress, did not want to give former Confederates an equal voice in the government. Benjamin Wade, a senator from Ohio, proposed the Wade-Davis Bill. Under this bill, fifty percent of Southern voters would have to swear allegiance to the United States before a seceded state could form a new state government. Only people who could swear that they never willingly supported the rebellion would be permitted to vote and have a say in the formation of the new state government. Lincoln refused to sign the bill, effectively vetoing it. As a result of this split between the president and the Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate refused to accept Unionist representatives and senators from Louisiana and Arkansas in 1864. Before a compromise between the President and the Congress could be reached, Lincoln died from an assassin's bullet on April 15, 1865.
Andrew Johnson, the Vice President of the United States, took control of Reconstruction after Lincoln's death. Johnson's administration was contentious primarily because of his Reconstruction plans. Upon assuming office, Johnson retained all of Lincoln's cabinet officials. He at first followed a harsh policy toward the defeated Southerners, denying political rights to anyone who had supported the Confederacy in a military or governmental role during the rebellion. He also agreed to the arrest of several prominent Confederate officials. Johnson pursued this course at the urging of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Radical Republicans in the United States Congress.
Johnson, however, did not want to punish all Southerners for the Civil War. He blamed wealthy and powerful planters for the conflict. Johnson wanted to reunite the nation as quickly as possible while punishing the leaders of the rebellion. He granted political rights to all Southerners who swore allegiance to the United States except for wealthy landowners and Confederate officials. Those Southerners that Johnson excluded from political rights could attain them by seeking a pardon directly from him. During late 1865, Johnson pardoned hundreds of applicants every day. He granted pardons to roughly ninety percent of the people who asked for them. By December 1865, Johnson also had allowed ten of the eleven seceded states back into the Union. His only conditions were that the states adopt a constitution that repudiated secession, acknowledged the end of slavery, and repudiated any debts that the states had entered into during the Civil War.
The Radical Republicans in Congress were angered by Johnson's actions. They refused to allow Southern representatives and senators to take their seats in Congress. In 1866, the Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which granted African Americans equal protection under the law with whites. The Congress also renewed the Freedmen's Bureau in 1866. President Johnson vetoed both of these bills, but the Congress overturned both vetoes. Following the congressional elections of 1866, the Republican Party controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of Congress. As a result of the Republican election victory in 1866, the Congress now dictated how the reconstruction of the Union would proceed.
The first action that the Republican majority took was to enact the First Reconstruction Act in spite of Johnson's veto. This act split the South into five districts. In each district soldiers of the United States would enforce martial law. To gain admittance to the Union, the Congress required Southern states to draft new constitutions guaranteeing African American men the right to vote. The constitutions also had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted African Americans equal protection under the law. In effect, the Congress rejected Johnson's plan for Reconstruction and implemented a much harsher policy toward white Southerners.
While Congress repudiated Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, Johnson sought to destroy the Congressional plan as well. The Congress relied on Secretary of War Stanton to carry out its policies. Johnson decided to defeat Congressional Reconstruction by firing Stanton. By doing so, Johnson violated the recently passed Tenure of Office Act. This act stated that the president could not fire any officeholder who had received Senate approval before being hired until the Senate approved a successor. Johnson violated this act by firing Stanton and replacing him with Ulysses S. Grant. The House of Representatives immediately began impeachment proceedings. The President was impeached by a vote of 126 in favor of impeachment to forty-seven opposed on February 24, 1868. James Ashley, a representative from Toledo, Ohio, introduced the impeachment resolution. The Senate then tried the president on the impeachment charges. A guilty verdict would have removed Johnson from office. Salmon P. Chase, an Ohioan and the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, presided over the trial. In a vote of thirty-five to remove the president and nineteen opposed, Johnson remained president. The vote fell one vote short of having the necessary two-thirds vote necessary to remove Johnson.
Johnson remained as president primarily because he privately had agreed to Congressional Reconstruction. More moderate Republicans also feared Johnson's successor if the Congress removed the president from office. Benjamin Wade, the president pro tem of the Senate, stood next in line for the presidency. Wade, an Ohioan, was a Radical Republican. Moderate Republicans feared that Wade would trample white rights to secure African Americans equality with whites. They also were uncertain on the political and economic agendas that Wade would pursue. Johnson's willingness to work with the Congress convinced the Senate to keep Johnson as president.
Johnson failed to receive the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency in the election of 1868. He finished his term in March 1869, and returned to Tennessee.
Running as the candidate of the Republican Party, Ulysses S. Grant won the presidential election of 1868. He was reelected to the presidency in 1872. Grant favored the Radical Republicans' plan for Reconstruction. He enforced the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted adult African-American men the right to vote. As Southern states applied for readmission to the Union, they were required to submit state constitutions that ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Grant also kept soldiers in the former Confederacy. The principal duty of these men was to protect African Americans from the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups.
Despite these efforts, some Southern state governments created literacy tests and poll taxes that denied African American men the right to vote. Many Southern blacks could only find employment as sharecroppers. In return for permission to live on a landowner's property and farm part of the land, sharecroppers provided the owner a portion of the crop. Commonly, sharecroppers had to turn over seventy percent of their crop as payment for rent. With little education and few job skills beyond farming, many former slaves had no choice but to turn to sharecropping. African Americans who sought better opportunities for themselves faced violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. While Southern blacks had gained their freedom under the Thirteenth Amendment, most of these people had limited opportunity to enjoy the constitutional rights granted to them with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
During Grant's term in office, some Northerners began to oppose Reconstruction. Many of these people still had loved ones in the army. They did not want their family members occupying the South. They wanted them to come home. Many Northerners also gave up hope that African Americans would ever achieve true equality. Violence was increasingly common in the South. Many Northerners believed that nothing could be done to prevent the bloodshed from continuing. Other Northerners believed that there was nothing left for the federal government to do. The Northern military had defeated the South, and the federal government had provided African Americans equal rights under the United States Constitution.
Reconstruction came to an end in 1877. A primary reason for this was the presidential election of 1876. In this election, the Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, an Ohioan, while the Democratic Party ran Samuel Tilden, a New Yorker. Tilden won the popular vote, but a dispute arose in the Electoral College. The voting returns from South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon were contested. If Hayes received the Electoral College votes from these states, he would win the election although he had lost the popular vote. Congress appointed a special committee to determine how the disputed votes were to be counted. Initially, seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent served on the committee. The independent withdrew, and the Congress selected a Republican to replace him. The special committee voted to give Hayes all of the disputed Electoral College votes. The House of Representatives and Senate had to confirm the committee's decision. The Republican-dominated Senate quickly ratified the committee's report. The Democrats in the House planned to filibuster, refusing to let the issue come to a vote.
To ensure Hayes's election, Republican leaders negotiated an agreement with Southern Democrats in the House. The Republicans agreed to remove federal troops in the South as soon as Hayes became president. Hayes also agreed to have at least one Southerner appointed to his cabinet. Southern Democrats welcomed this agreement and permitted Hayes to win all of the disputed Electoral votes. With the removal of Northern soldiers from the South, African Americans were denied their rights more easily. Southern Democrats also succeeded in "redeeming" their state governments from Republican control. The "Compromise of 1877" brought Reconstruction to an end.
- Salmon P. Chase
- James Ashley
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- Andrew Johnson
- Abraham Lincoln
- American Civil War
- African Americans
- Radical Republicans
- Democratic Party
- Republican Party
- Benjamin F. Wade
- Edwin M. Stanton
- Fourteenth Amendment
- Andrew Johnson's Impeachment
- Abraham Lincoln's Assassination
- Fifteenth Amendment
- Ku Klux Klan
- Toledo, Ohio
- Wade-Davis Bill
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