Reconstruction is the period from the end of the Civil War until 1877, when the people of the U.S. worked to put the country back together again after the divisive and bloody war. Because there were so many different views about how Reconstruction should be accomplished, and because so much was at stake, this was a period of tremendous conflict -- between different groups in the South, between different branches of and political factions in the federal government, and between the federal government and the states of the former Confederacy.
In the South, the primary battle was between the Planters – who were a minority of the population but who dominated the South economically, politically, and socially – and the Freedmen, 3 ˝- 4 million of them, who wanted legal and political equality and land. The South also was home to millions of white yeomen (small independent farmers) who desired more political say in how their states were run, and who were eager to get back on their feet economically following the devastation of the war. In the federal government, the Republican Party was dominant, and the most outspoken group within the Republican Party were known as the Radical Republicans. They were the northerners who were most bitter toward the planters and the most dedicated to winning equality for the freedmen. A minority of the Republican Party in 1865, the Radicals nevertheless came to dominate Congress with their calls for significant political and legal change in the South.
One of the central conflicts within the federal government concerned who was to set the terms of Reconstruction, Congress or the President. Upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1965, Andrew Johnson, a native of Tennessee who had himself owned slaves, became president. He tried to take charge of Reconstruction, offering a plan by which the southern states would write new state constitutions and re-enter the Union without having to change very much and without having to allow political rights to the freedmen. When Johnson’s plan was put into effect, many northerners were appalled by the results. Former Confederate leaders were elected to high positions, and Black Codes drawn up by the new states severely restricted the freedom of the freedmen and seemed in some ways to continue slavery. Congress refused to accept the new southern governments, producing a showdown between Johnson and Congress that each side hoped would be settled by the November 1866 Congressional elections. The elections produced a Republican landslide, placing the Radicals more or less in charge of Reconstruction.
When it convened in early 1867, the new Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867 over President Johnson’s veto. The Act imposed a plan on the South that was much more in line with the ideas of the Radical Republicans. Delegates to new constitutional conventions would be elected under the principle of Universal Male Suffrage (with the exception of high Confederate officers and government officials), and the resulting constitutions would be required in turn to guarantee universal male suffrage as well. Once a state’s constitution was accepted by the state’s voters and by Congress, and once the state ratified the 14th Amendment (which stated that anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. was a citizen of the U.S., and that all citizens were entitled to the "equal protection of the laws"), then that state could become a functioning part of the Union.
By June of 1868, all but three states (Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia) had completed this process. The 14th Amendment was ratified in July. The three reluctant states (plus Georgia, which was kicked back out soon after reentry), fulfilled Congressional requirements and were readmitted in 1870.
Bitterly opposed to the Reconstruction Acts and to Congress’ calling the shots on Reconstruction, President Johnson attempted to thwart the plan in any way he could. As a result, he was impeached by the House of Representatives in the spring of 1868, and tried before the Senate. He avoided conviction (and removal from office) by one vote, but he more or less promised to sit out the rest of his term (which would end in March 1869) and stop obstructing Reconstruction in the South. In November 1868 Ulysses S. Grant – a Republican and the great northern hero of the Civil War – was elected president. But the election was closer than expected, and Grant would not have won without the votes of freedmen in the South. To protect these votes in the future, Congress approved the 15th Amendment, which was ratified by the states and became part of the Constitution in 1870. Under the terms of this amendment, no one could be denied the right to vote because of race.
Congress’ Reconstruction plan dramatically changed politics in the South. More than 700,000 black voters were enfranchised, and about 15% of potential white voters were disqualified. As a result, Republican governments came to power in each southern state. Southern states were considered to be under reconstruction so long as they had Republican governments (the time that Republicans held power varied by state). The new state constitutions brought revolutionary change to the South. They were established on the principle that all men are created equal, and under them for the first time blacks were to be treated as equals before the law. The constitutions also provided social services (hospitals and orphanages, for example), and put money into railroad expansion. Most importantly, for the first time in the South, these constitutions established free statewide public school systems, open to blacks as well as to whites.
Crucially, however, there was no redistribution of land, which remained overwhelmingly in white hands. Some Radicals had favored dividing up planters’ land to give to the freedmen, but in the end the government was not willing to go this far, fearing that such action would alienate northern and southern property owners, violate notions of self-help, and undermine the drive for equal rights. As a result, in an overwhelmingly agricultural region like the South, freedmen who didn’t own land had to work for those who did, making them vulnerable to economic and political intimidation.
Planters despised the new constitutions and Republican governments created under the congressional plan. They resented having to pay the high taxes that the new schools, social services, and railroad-building programs required. They were also appalled by the idea of educating African Americans, seeing this as a waste of resources that only spoiled good workers. Above all, planters were horrified by the prospect of black political participation. They saw the freedmen as ignorant, incapable, and inferior, and could not conceive of their responsibly voting or holding office.
Outraged by such developments, the planters launched a counterattack against Reconstruction. In part this attack was verbal, carried out in speeches and newspaper editorials. Planters made two main charges against Reconstruction. First, they claimed that Reconstruction had brought "Black Domination" to the South, that whites had been forced under the control of uneducated, irresponsible freedmen. This was a wild exaggeration, but an effective one, given the racism of the white southerners and northerners whom the planters hoped would respond angrily to such charges. Second, the planters claimed that Reconstruction governments were extremely corrupt, that Republican politicians sought office solely to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense. In particular, planters criticized Carpetbaggers, northerners who came South after the war. Although many of these men and women came South for legitimate economic or humanitarian reasons, planters saw them all as ruthless vultures, picking the bones of a defeated South. Even worse than the carpetbaggers in some ways were the Scalawags, native southerners who supported the Republican Party. Again, there were many legitimate reasons that yeomen farmers might support Reconstruction (the schools, the railroads, etc.), but in the planters’ eyes they were traitors to their region, selling out their kin and neighbors for money and power.
It is true that there was some corruption in Reconstruction governments, but this was a very corrupt period in American political history. Corruption was not confined to Republican governments in the South, nor did it end with the end of Reconstruction. Like the charge of black domination, this was an exaggeration, a distortion designed to convince white supporters of Reconstruction North and South to abandon it and to allow the planters to reassume power.
Planters were willing to go beyond propaganda and verbal welfare – they employed violence as well. Almost from the beginning of its existence, the Ku Klux Klan (founded 1866) was a terrorist organization, willing to go to any length to prevent black and white Republicans from voting and to put conservative Democratic planters back into control. The activities of the Klan and other similar organizations grew so bad by 1870 that the federal government passed a series of Enforcement Acts (1870-1) which outlawed Klan tactics and empowered the president to declare martial law in portions of the South where local authorities couldn’t or wouldn’t control the Klan. This government crackdown worked, and the Klan was temporarily crippled, showing that the federal government could protect Reconstruction in the South if it was willing to use force. Trouble was, the government became less and less willing to use such force as time went on.
At the same time that political conflict raged in the South, economic conflict between the planters and freedmen simmered as well. The planters owned land but needed labor, and the freedmen possessed the ability to labor but needed land. A compromise evolved known as Sharecropping, in which freedmen (and, especially later, poor whites), worked sections of a planter’s land independently, and paid planters a share of the crop at the end of the year. This arrangement was not so bad at first, but, as we shall see, it ultimately turned into an economic nightmare for the South. It also helped preserve the economic and political power of the landowning elite.
By the mid 1870s, most Americans were beginning to tire of Reconstruction. Other problems faced the nation – westward expansion and Indian wars, economic change, and a major depression which began in 1873 – and people increasingly wished to put the problems of the Civil War and Reconstruction behind them. Many northern whites felt that the nation had done enough for the freedmen, that the former slaves should now be able to fend for themselves. So when another wave of anti-black and anti-Republican terrorism swept the South in 1875-6, President Grant didn’t feel that it was politically possible for the federal government to intervene. One by one, Republican governments in the South fell to Democrats, calling themselves Redeemers, who were willing to use fraud and violence to seize power.
By the fall of 1876, only three Southern states maintained Republican governments – South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. As a result of the disputed Presidential election of that year and the resulting Compromise of 1877, President Hayes pulled federal troops from these states and allowed the Redeemers to take control. The entire South was now under the sway of conservative, white-supremacist Democrats, and Reconstruction was ended. The real losers in the collapse of Reconstruction were the freedmen.
So, in some ways, Reconstruction was a failure. It was brief, and, as we shall see, many of its accomplishments were eventually stripped away. But it did produce three very important Constitutional Amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th), and it gave the freedmen rights they had never had before (the right to marry and own property, for example) as well as a taste of political and legal equality that they would never forget.