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Reconstruction was the attempt from 1865 to 1877 in American history to resolve the issues of the American Civil War, when both the Confederacy and slavery were destroyed. Reconstruction addressed the return of the Southern states that had seceded, the status of ex-Confederate leaders, and the Constitutional and legal status of the African-American Freedmen (newly freed ex-slaves). Violent controversy arose over how to accomplish those tasks, and by the late 1870s Reconstruction had failed to equally integrate the Freedmen into the legal, political, economic and social system. "Reconstruction" is also the common name for the entire history of the era 1865 to 1877.

Reconstruction came in three phases. Presidential Reconstruction, 1863-66, was controlled by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, with the goal of speedily reuniting the country. Their moderate programs were opposed by the Radical Republicans, a political faction that gained power after the 1866 elections and began Radical Reconstruction, 1866-1873, emphasizing civil rights and voting rights for the Freedmen. A Republican coalition of Freedmen, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags controlled most of the southern states. In the so-called Redemption, 1873-77, white supremacist Southerners (calling themselves "Redeemers") defeated the Republicans and took control of each southern state, marking the end of Reconstruction.

Policy Issues

There were conflicting theories of what the national government could and should do to restore the South to a normal status. The key constitutional provision was the national government must guarantee to every state a "republican form of government." Exactly what that meant was the issue. Radical Republican Charles Sumner argued that secession had destroyed statehood alone but the Constitution still extended its authority and its protection over individuals, as in the territories. Thaddeus Stevens and his followers viewed secession as having left the states in a status like newly conquered territory.

Congress rejected President Andrew Johnson's argument that he had the war power to decide what to do, since the war was now over. Congress decided it had the primary authority to decide because the Constitution said the Congress had to guarantee each state a republican form of government; the issue became how the core political values of republicanism should operate in the South.

President Abraham Lincoln was the leader of the moderate Republicans and wanted to speed up Reconstruction and reunite the nation as soon as possible. Lincoln formally began Reconstruction in late 1863 with his Ten percent plan, which went into operation in several states but which Radicals opposed. Lincoln vetoed the Radical plan, the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864. The opposing faction of Radical Republicans were much more skeptical of Southern intentions and demanded far more stringent federal action. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner led the Radical Republicans. After Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson switched from the Radical to the moderate camp. He too favored voting rights for the 170,000 black veterans.

Republican leaders agreed that slavery and the Slave Power had to be permanently destroyed, and that all forms of Confederate nationalism had to be suppressed. Moderates said this could be easily accomplished as soon as Confederate armies surrendered and the Southern states repealed secession and ratified the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery); all of which happened by September 1865, when Johnson felt Reconstruction was finished.

By 1866, however, Johnson, with no party affiliation, broke with the moderate Republicans and aligned himself more with the Democrats who opposed equality and the Fourteenth Amendment. Radicals attacked the policies of Johnson, especially his veto of the Civil Rights Bill for the Freedmen.

The House elections of 1866 decisively changed the balance of power, giving the Radicals control of Congress and enough votes to overcome Johnson's vetoes and even to impeach him. Johnson was acquitted by one vote, but he remained almost powerless regarding Reconstruction policy. Radicals used the Army to take over the South and give the vote to black men, and they took the vote away from an estimated 10,000 or 15,000 white men who had been Confederate officials or senior officers. The Radical stage lasted for varying lengths in the different states, where a Republican coalition of Freedmen, Scalawags, and Carpetbaggers took control and promoted modernization through railroads and public schools. They were charged with corruption by their opponents, the conservative–Democratic coalition, calling themselves "Redeemers" after 1870. Violence sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan was overcome by federal intervention.

By 1877, however, Redeemers regained control of every state, and President Rutherford Hayes withdrew federal troops, causing the collapse of the remaining three Republican state governments. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were permanent legacies. Bitterness from the heated partisanship of the era lasted well into the 20th century.

Loyalty and Suffrage

Allow Rebels to vote?

Everyone agreed that only loyal Americans should be allowed to vote. Nearly all white southerners were willing to pledge future loyalty after the surrender; could they be trusted, and forgiven for their past support of the confederacy?

The loyalty issue emerged in the debates over the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864. Wade-Davis required voters to take the "Ironclad Oath," swearing that in the past they never had supported the Confederacy or been one of its soldiers. Lincoln ignored the past and asked voters to swear that in the future they would support the Union. The Radicals lost support following Lincoln's veto, but they regained strength in the mood of vengeance that followed Lincoln's assassination in April 1865.

Suffrage (voting rights) for ex-Confederates was one of two main issues. First, both sides tried to keep the other from voting. It was a question of allowing some or all ex-Confederates to vote. The moderates wanted virtually all of them to vote, but the Radicals repeatedly tried to impose the Ironclad oath, which would allow none to vote. Thaddeus Stevens proposed, unsuccessfully, that all ex-Confederates lose the vote for five years. The compromise that was reached disenfranchised many ex-Confederate civil and military leaders; no one knew how many temporarily lost the vote, but one estimate was 10,000 to 15,000.[1]

Allow Freedmen to vote?

Second was the issue of whether blacks should vote. Northern states that had referenda on the subject rejected allowing their own small number of blacks to vote, but that was not the issue. More germane was the issue of creating a loyally pro-American electorate in the South. Radicals said that the ex-Confederates could not be trusted. Conservatives (including most white Southerners, Northern Democrats, and some Northern Republicans) opposed black voting. Lincoln and Johnson took a middle position that would allow some black men to vote, especially army veterans. Lincoln proposed giving the vote to "the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks",[2] while, in 1864, Tennessee's Governor Andrew Johnson said, "The better class of them will go to work and sustain themselves, and that class ought to be allowed to vote, on the ground that a loyal negro is more worthy than a disloyal white man".[3] As President in 1865, Johnson wrote to the man he appointed as governor of Mississippi, recommending, "If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution in English and write their names, and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars, and pay taxes thereon, you would completely disarm the adversary [Radicals in Congress], and set an example the other states will follow."[4]

Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens, leaders of the Radical Republicans, were initially hesitant to enfranchise the largely illiterate ex-slave population. Carl Schurz in his Radical phase said the ignorance of the freedmen did not matter because "practical liberty is a good school". Don't wait for the schools to be built said Schurz because the freedmen will need the ballot first in order to get schools.[5] Sumner and Stevens finally decided it was necessary for blacks to vote for three reasons:[6]

  1. for their own protection;
  2. for the protection of white Unionists (scalawags);
  3. for the peace of the country.

The Radicals said the only way to get experience was to get the vote first, and they passed laws allowing all male freedmen to vote. In 1867, black men voted for the first time and, over the course of Reconstruction, more than 1,500 African Americans held public office in the South. (The question of women's suffrage was also debated but was rejected, causing a split in the woman's movement.)

The South's postwar white leaders renounced secession and slavery, but they were angered in 1867 when their state governments were ousted by federal military forces and replaced by Republican lawmakers elected by blacks, Scalawags and Carpetbaggers.

Presidential Reconstruction, 1863-66

Lincoln's plan

Planning for Reconstruction began in 1861, at the onset of the war. The Radical Republicans, seeking strict policies, used as their base the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction.

In 1863, Lincoln began the task of restoration. Motivated by a desire to build a strong Republican Party in the South and to end the bitterness engendered by war, on December 8, 1863, he issued a proclamation of amnesty and reconstruction for those areas of the Confederacy occupied by Union armies. It offered pardon, with certain exceptions, to any Confederate who would swear to support the Constitution and the Union. Once a group in any conquered state equal in number to one tenth of that state's total vote in the presidential election of 1860 took the prescribed oath and organized a government that abolished slavery, he would grant that government executive recognition. This was the ten percent plan.

Thus, Lincoln pursued a lenient plan for reconstruction, especially in Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, which were partly occupied by Union forces. However, he was unable to get Congress to support his plans, leaving the situation unsettled at the time of his death.[7]

Lincoln's 1863 plan aroused the sharp opposition of the radicals in Congress, who believed it would simply restore to power the old planter aristocracy. In July 1864, they passed the Wade-Davis Bill, which required 50% of a state's male voters to take an “ironclad” oath that they had never voluntarily supported the Confederacy. Lincoln's veto kept the Wade-Davis Bill from becoming law, the Radicals lost momentum, and he implemented his own plan. By the end of the war it had been tried, not too successfully, in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia. Congress, however, refused to seat the senators and representatives elected from those states, and by the time of Lincoln's assassination the President and Congress were at a stalemate.

Observers at the time of the Wade-Davis bill—and historians since—agree that probably no state would have qualified, leaving them under military control indefinitely. By vetoing the bill, Lincoln blocked the Radicals from a dominant role in government. (They rose to power again in 1866.) Historian William Gienapp explains Lincoln's veto:[2]

Lincoln, in contrast, shrank from inaugurating a fundamental upheaval in southern society and mores, and by stressing future over past loyalty, he was willing to allow recanting Rebels to dominate the new southern governments. Moreover, Lincoln believed that the best strategy was to introduce black suffrage in the South by degrees in order to accustom southern whites to blacks voting. How far he was willing to go in extending rights to former slaves remained unclear, but his gradualist approach to social change remained intact, just as when he had tried to get the border states in 1862 to adopt gradual emancipation. Finally, the radicals and Lincoln held quite different views of the relationship of Reconstruction to the war effort. By erecting impossibly high standards that no Southern state could meet, the Wade–Davis bill sought to postpone Reconstruction until the war was over. For Lincoln, in contrast, a lenient program of Reconstruction would encourage Southern whites to abandon the Confederacy and thus was integral to his strategy for winning the war.

On April 11, 1865, Lincoln delivered his last public address, in which he continued to uphold a generous and lenient reconstruction policy.

Lincoln thus wanted to bring the Southern states back into good standing as soon as possible and with a minimum of vengeance. Insisting, as well, that there be new rights for the Freedmen, he created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in January 1865, known as the Freedmen's Bureau. In one experiment in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Freedmen were allowed to farm plantations seized by the Army; they never received ownership.[8]

Andrew Johnson's presidential reconstruction: 1865–66

Northern anger over the assassination of Lincoln and the immense human cost of the war led to demands for harsh policies. Vice President Andrew Johnson had taken a hard line and spoke of hanging rebel Confederates, but when he succeeded Lincoln as President, Johnson took a much softer line, pardoning many Confederate leaders and allowing ex-Confederates to maintain their control of Southern state governments, Southern lands, and black people.[9] Jefferson Davis was held in prison for two years, but not the other Confederate leaders; there were no treason trials. Only one person—Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of the Andersonville prison prison camp —was executed for war crimes.

Devastated region

The economic calamity suffered by the South during the war affected every family. Except for land, most assets and investments had vanished with slavery, but debts were left behind. Worst of all were the human deaths and amputations. Most farms were intact but most had lost their horses, mules and cattle; fences and barns were in disrepair. Prices for cotton had plunged. The rebuilding would take years and require outside investment because the devastation was so thorough. One historian has summarized the collapse of the transportation infrastructure needed for economic recovery:[10]

One of the greatest calamities which confronted Southerners was the havoc wrought on the transportation system. Roads were impassable or nonexistent, and bridges were destroyed or washed away. The important river traffic was at a standstill: levees were broken, channels were blocked, the few steamboats which had not been captured or destroyed were in a state of disrepair, wharves had decayed or were missing, and trained personnel were dead or dispersed. Horses, mules, oxen, carriages, wagons, and carts had nearly all fallen prey at one time or another to the contending armies. The railroads were paralyzed, with most of the companies bankrupt. These lines had been the special target of the enemy. On one stretch of 114 miles in Alabama, every bridge and trestle was destroyed, cross-ties rotten, buildings burned, water-tanks gone, ditches filled up, and tracks grown up in weeds and bushes. Sherman's men had destroyed all railroad equipment within reach -- 136 of 281 miles of the Central of Georgia, alone -- and added the novelty of twisting heated rails around trees. In Alabama nearly all of its 800 miles of railway was useless. One Mississippi line reported fit for use, though damaged, a total of one locomotive, two second-class passenger cars, one first-class passenger car, one baggage car, one provision car, two stock cars, and two flat cars. Communication centers like Columbia and Atlanta were in ruins; shops and foundries were wrecked or in disrepair. Even those areas bypassed by battle had been pirated for equipment needed on the battlefront, and the wear and tear of wartime usage without adequate repairs or replacements reduced all to a state of disintegration. Not for a generation were the railroads properly restored, and then largely by Northern capital.

Black codes

(PD) Drawing: Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly
A political cartoon denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and White League opposition to Reconstruction

The Johnson governments quickly enacted the restrictive "black codes". They gave freedmen more rights than free blacks had before the war, but they still had only a limited set of third-class civil rights, and no voting rights. The freed slaves were not considered citizens. Southern plantation owners feared extensive black vagrancy would mean loss of the essential labor force. Many Southern whites feared equality with Southern blacks. Two states, Mississippi and South Carolina, had full fledged Black Codes. Among other provisions, they stringently limited blacks' ability to control their own employment.[11] The Black codes outraged northern opinion, but in practive they had limited effect because the Freedman's Bureau protected the blacks legally.[12] The Black Codes were abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Moderate responses

Moderates feared that the South was trying to create a form of semi-slavery, and that Confederate nationalism was not dead but simmered under the surface. Therefore Republicans blocked the readmission of the 11 states to the Congress in fall 1865. Congress also tried to renew the Freedman's Bureau, but Johnson vetoed the legislation in February 1866. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, leader of the moderate Republicans, took affront at the black codes. He proposed the first Civil Rights Law, because the abolition of slavery was empty if "laws are to be enacted and enforced depriving persons of African descent of privileges which are essential to freemen.... A law that does not allow a colored person to go from one county to another, and one that does not allow him to hold property, to teach, to preach, are certainly laws in violation of the rights of a freeman....The purpose of this bill is to destroy all these discriminations."[13]

The key to the bill was the opening section:

"All persons born in the United States ... are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery ... shall have the same right in every State make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to the Contrary notwithstanding."

Congress quickly passed the Civil Rights bill; the Senate on February 2 voted 33–12; the House on March 13 voted 111–38.

President Andrew Johnson vetoes; Republicans rally against him

(PD) Drawing: Unknown (from a Library of Congress collection)
The debate over Reconstruction and the Freedman's Bureau was nationwide, as seen in this 1866 Pennsylvania election poster showing Bureau money lavished on lazy freedmen at the expense of white workers.

Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. His veto message objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the Freedmen at a time when eleven out of thirty-six states were unrepresented and attempted to fix by Federal law "a perfect equality of the white and black races in every State of the Union." Johnson said it was an invasion by Federal authority of the rights of the States; it had no warrant in the Constitution and was contrary to all precedents. It was a "stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government."[13]

The Democratic Party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, north and south, supported Johnson.[9] However the Republicans in Congress overrode his veto (the Senate by the close vote of 33:15, the House by 122:41) and the Civil Rights bill became law. Congress also passed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill over Johnson's veto.

The last moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment, also authored by moderate Trumbull. It was designed to put the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution, but it went much further. It extended citizenship to everyone born in the United States (except visitors and Indians on reservations), penalized states that did not give the vote to Freedmen, and most importantly, created new federal civil rights that could be protected by federal courts. It guaranteed the Federal war debt (and promised the Confederate debt would never be paid). Johnson used his influence to block the amendment in the states since three-fourths of the states were required for ratification. (The amendment was later ratified.) The moderate effort to compromise with Johnson had failed, and a political fight broke out between the Republicans (both Radical and moderate) on one side, and on the other side, Johnson and his allies in the Democratic party in the North, and the conservative groupings (which used different names) in each southern state.

Radical Reconstruction: 1866–73

Constitutional amendments

Three new Constitutional amendments were adopted. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and was ratified in 1865. The 14th Amendment was rejected in 1866 but ratified in 1868, guaranteeing citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, except Native Americans, and granting them federal civil rights. The 15th Amendment passed in 1870, decreeing that the right to vote could not be denied because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The amendment did not declare the vote an unconditional right and only prohibited these specific types of discrimination while specific electoral policies were determined within each state. Notably, the 15th Amendment did not mention the right of women to vote.

Re-admission to Congress

  • Tennessee - July 24, 1866
  • Arkansas - June 22, 1868
  • Florida - June 25, 1868
  • North Carolina - July 4, 1868
  • South Carolina - July 9, 1868
  • Louisiana - July 9, 1868
  • Alabama - July 13, 1868
  • Virginia - January 26, 1870
  • Mississippi - February 23, 1870
  • Texas - March 30, 1870
  • Georgia - July 15, 1870

Military reconstruction

The first Reconstruction Act placed ten Confederate states under military control, grouping them into five military districts:[1]

Tennessee and the border states were not controlled by Congress.

The ten Southern state governments were re-constituted under the direct control of the U.S. Army. There was little or no fighting, but rather a state of martial law in which the military closely supervised local government, supervised elections, and protected office holders from violence. Blacks were enrolled as voters; former Confederate leaders were excluded.[1] Every state was somewhat different; this is what happened in Texas:[14]

The first critical step … was the registration of voters according to guidelines established by Congress and interpreted by Generals Sheridan and Griffin. The Reconstruction Acts called for registering all adult males, white and black, except those who had ever sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and then engaged in rebellion.… Sheridan interpreted these restrictions stringently, barring from registration not only all pre-1861 officials of state and local governments who had supported the Confederacy but also all city officeholders and even minor functionaries such as sextons of cemeteries. In May Griffin … appointed a three-man board of registrars for each county, making his choices on the advice of known Unionists and local Freedman's Bureau agents. In every county where practicable a freedman served as one of the three registrars.… Final registration amounted to approximately 59,633 whites and 49,479 blacks. It is impossible to say how many whites were rejected or refused to register (estimates vary from 7,500 to 12,000), but blacks, who constituted only about 30 percent of the state's population, were significantly overrepresented at 45 percent of all voters.

All Southern states were readmitted to the Union by the end of 1870, the last being Georgia. All but 500 top Confederate leaders were pardoned when President Grant signed the Amnesty Act of 1872.

Black officeholders

Republicans took control of all Southern state governorships and state legislatures, leading to the election of numerous African-Americans to state and national offices, as well as local offices. About 137 black officeholders lived outside the South before the Civil War.[1]

Race of delegates to 1867
state constitutional conventions[13]
State White Black % White
Virginia 80 25 76%
North Carolina 107 13 89%
South Carolina 48 76 39%
Georgia 133 33 80%
Florida 28 18 61%
Alabama 92 16 85%
Mississippi 68 17 80%
Louisiana 25 44 36%
Texas 81 9 90%

Public schools

(PD) Drawing: Unknown
1868 Republican cartoon identifies Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour (right panel) with KKK violence and with Confederate soldiers (left panel).

As modernizers, the Republicans believed that education was a long-term solution to the economic poverty and ignorance of the South. They created a system of public schools, which were segregated by race everywhere except New Orleans, Louisiana. Most blacks approved the segregated schools because they provided jobs for black teachers. In general, elementary and a few secondary schools were built in the cities. But the South had few cities, and in the rural areas the public school was a one-room affair that attracted about half the younger children. The teachers were poorly paid, and their pay was often in arrears.[1] Conservatives contended the rural schools were too expensive and unnecessary for a region where the vast majority of people were cotton or tobacco farmers. One historian found that the schools were not very effective because of "poverty, the inability of the states to collect taxes, and inefficiency and corruption in many places prevented successful operation of the schools."[15]

Numerous private academies and colleges for Freedmen were established by northern missionaries. Every state created state colleges for Freedmen, such as Alcorn State University in Mississippi; in 1890, the black state colleges started receiving federal funds as land grant schools.[16] They received state funds after Reconstruction ended because, as Lynch explains, "there are very many liberal, fair-minded and influential Democrats in the State who are strongly in favor of having the State provide for the liberal education of both races."[17]

Railroad subsidies and payoffs

Every Southern state subsidized railroads, which modernizers felt could haul the South out of isolation and poverty. Millions of dollars in bonds and subsidies were fraudulently pocketed. One ring in North Carolina spent $200,000 in bribing the legislature and obtained millions in state money for its railroads. Instead of building new track, however, it used the funds to speculate in bonds, reward friends with extravagant fees, and enjoy lavish trips to Europe.[1] Taxes were quadrupled across the South to pay off the railroad bonds and the school costs, leading to intense complaints among taxpayers.[18] Nevertheless thousands of miles of lines were built as the Southern system expanded from 11,000 miles (17,700 km) in 1870 to 29,000 miles (46,700 km) in 1890. The lines were owned and directed overwhelmingly by Northerners. Railroads helped create a mechanically skilled group of craftsmen and indeed broke the isolation of much of the region. Passengers were few, however, and apart from hauling the cotton crop when it was harvested, there was little freight traffic.[19] As Franklin explains, "numerous railroads fed at the public trough by bribing legislators...and through the use and misuse of state funds." The effect, according to one businessman, "was to drive capital from the State, paralyze industry, and demoralize labor."[15]

Taxpayer revolt

The new spending on schools and especially on railroad subsidies, combined with fraudulent spending and a collapse in state credit because of huge deficits, forced the states to dramatically increase tax rates—up to ten times higher—despite the poverty of the region. Angry taxpayers revolted, and the conservatives shifted their focus away from race to taxes.[1] Former Congressman John Lynch, a black Republican leader from Mississippi, concluded, "The argument made by the taxpayers, however, was plausible and it may be conceded that, upon the whole, they were about right; for no doubt it would have been much easier upon the taxpayers to have increased at that time the interest-bearing debt of the State than to have increased the tax rate. The latter course, however, had been adopted and could not then be changed."[17]

Views of conservatives in the South

The white Southerners who lost power reformed themselves into "Conservative" parties that battled the Republicans throughout the South. The party names varied, but by the late 1870s, they simply called themselves "Democrats." Historian Walter Lynwood Fleming describes mounting anger of Southern whites: "The Negro troops, even at their best, were everywhere considered offensive by the native whites.... The Negro soldier, impudent by reason of his new freedom, his new uniform, and his new gun, was more than Southern temper could tranquilly bear, and race conflicts were frequent."[20]

Fleming described the first results of the Ku Klux Klan movement as "good" and the later ones as "both good and bad." According to Fleming (1907) the KKK "quieted the Negroes, made life and property safer, gave protection to women, stopped burnings, forced the Radical leaders to be more moderate, made the Negroes work better, drove the worst of the Radical leaders from the country and started the whites on the way to gain political supremacy." The evil results, Fleming said, was that lawless elements "made use of the organization as a cloak to cover their misdeeds....the lynching habits of today [1907] are due largely to conditions, social and legal, growing out of Reconstruction."[20]

Ellis Oberholtzer (a northern scholar) in 1917 explained:[11]

Outrages upon the ex-slaves in the South there were in plenty. Their sufferings were many. But white men, too, were victims of lawless violence, and in all portions of the North as well as in the late "rebel" states. Not a political campaign passed without the exchange of bullets, the breaking of skulls with sticks and stones, the firing of rival club-houses. Republican clubs marched the streets of Philadelphia, amid revolver shots and brickbats, to save the negroes from the "rebel" savages in Alabama.... The project to make voters out of black men was not so much for their social elevation as for the further punishment of the Southern white people—for the capture of offices for Radical scamps and the entrenchment of the Radical party in power for a long time to come in the South and in the country at large."

Reaction by conservatives included the formation of violent secret societies, especially the Ku Klux Klan. Violence occurred in cities and in the countryside between white former Confederates, Republicans, African-Americans, representatives of the federal government, and Republican-organized armed Loyal Leagues.

Redemption 1873-77

Republicans split nationally: Election of 1872

By 1872, President Grant had alienated large numbers of leading Republicans, including many Radicals by the wanton corruption of his administration and his use of federal soldiers to prop up Radical state regimes in the South. The opponents, called "Liberal Republicans," included founders of the Republican Party who expressed dismay that the party had succumbed to corruption or had resorted to military rule of the south. Charles Sumner, who was embittered by the corruption of the Grant administration, defected. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who, like Sumner, was a leading radical during the war, decried the Republicans' use of military government over the southern states and its limitations on suffrage, also joined the Liberal Republicans.[21] Other Liberal Republican leaders included editors of some of the nation's most powerful newspapers and important Democrats. The party nominated editor Horace Greeley for president. The badly disorganized Democratic Party also supported Greeley.

Grant made up for the defections by new gains among Union veterans, as well as strong support from the "Stalwart" faction of his party (which depended on his patronage), and the Southern Republican parties. Grant won a smashing landslide, as the Liberal Republican party vanished and many former supporters—even ex-abolitionists—abandoned the cause of Reconstruction.[22]

Republican coalition splinters in South

In the South, political–racial tensions built up inside the Republican party. In 1868, Georgia Democrats, with support from some Republicans, expelled all 28 black Republican members (arguing blacks were eligible to vote but not to hold office.) In several states the more conservative scalawags fought for control with the more radical carpetbaggers and usually lost. Thus, in Mississippi, the conservative faction led by scalawag James Lusk Alcorn was decisively defeated by the radical faction led by carpetbagger Adelbert Ames. The party lost support steadily as many scalawags left it; few new recruits were acquired. Meanwhile, the Freedmen were demanding a much bigger share of the offices and patronage, thus squeezing out their carpetbagger allies.[1] Finally some of the more prosperous Freedmen were joining the Democrats, angered at the failure of the Republicans to help them acquire land.[1] Although some Marxist historians, especially W.E.B. Du Bois, looked for and celebrated a cross-racial coalition of poor whites and poor blacks, such coalition rarely formed. Congressman Lynch explains that,

"While the colored men did not look with favor upon a political alliance with the poor whites, it must be admitted that, with very few exceptions, that class of whites did not seek, and did not seem to desire such an alliance."

Lynch explains that poor whites resented the job competition from Freedmen. Furthermore, the poor whites: "with a few exceptions, were less efficient, less capable, and knew less about matters of state and governmental administration than many of the ex-slaves.… As a rule, therefore, the whites that came into the leadership of the Republican party between 1872 and 1875 were representatives of the most substantial families of the land."[17]

Thus, the poor whites became Democrats and bitterly opposed the black Republicans. Snay (2004) explores the failure of the Republican Party to appeal to the white yeomanry of the South--a recurring puzzle in the historiography of Reconstruction. Acknowledging the important role of white resistance, racism, and economic depression, Snay instead locates the roots of its failure in its ideology. The Southern Republican appeal to the yeomanry was inherently weakened by yoking together Whiggish appeals of economic development (which appealed to the middle class) with the yeoman-class appeals of Jacksonian democracy. The coupling of these clashing tendencies brought to the surface the latent conflicts of Jacksonian politics in the South, driving still another wedge into the Southern Republican coalition.[23]

Democrats try a "New Departure"

By 1870, the Democratic–Conservative leadership across the South decided it had to end its opposition to Reconstruction as well as to black suffrage in order to survive and move on to new issues. The Grant administration had proven by its crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan that it would use as much federal power as necessary to suppress open anti-black violence. The Democrats in the North concurred. They wanted to fight the GOP on economic grounds rather than race. The New Departure offered the chance for a clean slate without having to refight the Civil War every election. Furthermore, many wealthy landowners thought they could control part of the newly enfranchised black electorate to their own advantage.

Not all Democrats agreed; a hard core element wanted to resist Reconstruction no matter what. Eventually, a group called "Redeemers" took control of the party in the states.[24] They formed coalitions with conservative Republicans, including scalawags and carpetbaggers, emphasizing the need for economic modernization. Railroad building was seen as a panacea since northern capital was needed. The new tactics were a success in Virginia where William Mahone built a winning coalition. In Tennessee, the Redeemers formed a coalition with Republican governor DeWitt Senter. Across the South Democrats switched from the race issue to taxes and corruption, charging that Republican governments were corrupt and inefficient, as taxes began squeezing cash-poor farmers who rarely saw $20 in currency a year but had to pay taxes in currency or lose their farm.

In North Carolina, Republican Governor William Woods Holden used state troops against the Klan, but the prisoners were released by federal judges. Holden became the first governor in American history to be impeached and removed from office. Republican political disputes in Georgia split the party and enabled the Redeemers to take over.[1] Violence was a factor in neutralizing Republican leaders in the Deep South, with its larger black Republican population. In the North, a live-and-let-live attitude made elections more like a sporting contest. But in the Deep South, it affected the lives of the citizens. As an Alabama scalawag explained, "Our contest here is for life, for the right to earn our bread...for a decent and respectful consideration as human beings and members of society."[1]

Panic of 1873 weakens GOP

The Panic of 1873 hit the Southern economy hard and disillusioned many Republicans who had gambled that railroads would pull the South out of its poverty. The price of cotton fell by half; many small landowners, local merchants and cotton factors (wholesalers) went bankrupt. Sharecropping, for both black and white farmers, became more common as a way to spread the risk of owning land. The old abolitionist element in the North was aging away, or had lost interest, and was not replenished. Many carpetbaggers returned to the North or joined the Redeemers. Blacks had an increased voice in the Republican Party, but across the South it was divided by internal bickering and was rapidly losing its cohesion. Many local black leaders started emphasizing individual economic progress in cooperation with white elites, rather than racial political progress in opposition to them, a conservative attitude that foreshadowed Booker T. Washington.[1]

Nationally, President Grant took the blame for the depression; the Republican Party lost 96 seats in all parts of the country in the 1874 elections. The Bourbon Democrats took control of the House and were confident of electing Samuel J. Tilden president in 1876. President Grant was not running for re-election and seemed to be losing interest in the South. States fell to the Redeemers, with only four in Republican hands in 1873, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina; Arkansas then fell after the Brooks-Baxter War in 1874. Political violence was endemic in Louisiana, but efforts to seize the state government were repulsed by federal troops who entered the state legislature and hauled away several Democratic legislators. The violation of tradition embarrassed Grant, and some of his cabinet recommended against further intervention.[1] By now, all Democrats and most northern Republicans agreed that Confederate nationalism and slavery were dead—the war goals were achieved—and further federal military interference was an undemocratic violation of historic Republican values. The victory of Rutherford Hayes in the hotly contested Ohio gubernatorial election of 1875 indicated his "let alone" policy toward the South would become Republican policy, as indeed happened when he won the 1876 GOP nomination for president. The last explosion of violence came in Mississippi's 1875 election, in which Democratic rifle clubs, operating in the open and without disguise, threatened or shot enough Republicans to decide the election for the Redeemers. Republican Governor Adelbert Ames asked Grant for federal troops to fight back; Grant refused, saying public opinion was "tired out" of the perpetual troubles in the South. Ames fled the state as the Democrats took over Mississippi.[1]

1876 election

Reconstruction continued in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida until 1877. After Republican Rutherford Hayes won the disputed U.S. Presidential election of 1876, the Compromise of 1877 was reached whereby the white South agreed to accept Hayes's victory if he withdrew the last Federal troops. By this point, everyone had agreed that Reconstruction was finished. However, the African-Americans who wanted their legal rights guaranteed by the Federal government were repeatedly frustrated for another 75 years; they considered Reconstruction a failure.[1]

Redeemers in the South

The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of a period, 1877–1900, that saw the steady reduction of many civil and political rights for African-Americans and the imposition of a system of racial segregation and intimidation known as Jim Crow. The process and system varied by states and towns. In Virginia, for example, the Redeemers gerrymandered cities to minimize Republican seats, reduced the number of polling places in black precincts, made local officials appointees of the state legislature (to ensure that they'd be filled by whites), and disfranchised felons and to people who failed to pay an annual poll tax.

Much of the Reconstruction civil rights legislation was overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Most notably, the court held in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), that the 14th amendment only gave Congress the power to outlaw public, rather than private, discrimination. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the court went even further, announcing that state-mandated segregation was legal as long as the law provided for "separate but equal" facilities.

Legacy and historiography

The interpretation of Reconstruction has swung back and forth several times. Nearly all historians, however, have concluded it was a failure.[25] In the 1865-75 period, most writers took the view that the ex-Confederates were traitors and Johnson was their ally who threatened to undo the Union's Constitutional achievements. In the 1870s and 1880s many writers argued that Johnson and his allies were not traitors but blundered badly in rejecting the 14th Amendment and setting the stage for Radical Reconstruction.[26]

Among black scholars Booker T. Washington, who grew up in West Virginia during Reconstruction, concluded that, "the Reconstruction experiment in racial democracy failed because it began at the wrong end, emphasizing political means and civil rights acts rather than economic means and self-determination."[27][28] His solution was to concentrate on building the economic infrastructure of the black community.

In popular literature two novels by Thomas Dixon—The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden — 1865–1900—romanticized white resistance to Northern/black coercion, hailing vigilante action by the Ku Klux Klan. Other authors romanticized the benevolence of slavery and the happy world of the antebellum plantation. These sentiments were expressed on the screen in D.W. Griffith's anti-Republican 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation.

The Dunning School of scholars based at the history department of Columbia University analyzed Reconstruction as a failure, at least after 1866, for quite different reasons. They claimed that it took freedoms and rights from qualified whites and gave them to unqualified blacks who were being duped by corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. As one scholar notes, "Reconstruction was a battle between two extremes: the Democrats, as the group which included the vast majority of the whites, standing for decent government and racial supremacy, versus the Republicans, the Negroes, alien carpetbaggers, and renegade scalawags, standing for dishonest government and alien ideals. These historians wrote literally in terms of white and black."[29]

In the 1930s, "revisionism" became popular among scholars. As disciples of Charles A. Beard, revisionists focused on economics, downplaying politics and constitutional issues. They argued that the Radical rhetoric of equal rights was mostly a smokescreen hiding the true motivation of Reconstruction's real backers. While conceding that a few men like Stevens and Sumner were thoroughly idealistic, Howard Beale argued Reconstruction was primarily a successful attempt by financiers, railroad builders and industrialists in the Northeast, using the Republican Party, to control the national government for its own selfish economic ends. Those ends were to continue the wartime high protective tariff, the new network of national banks, and to guarantee a "sound" currency. To succeed the business class had to remove the old ruling agrarian class of Southern planters and Midwestern farmers. This it did by inaugurating Reconstruction, which made the South Republican, and by selling its policies to the voters wrapped up in such attractive vote-getting packages as northern patriotism or the bloody shirt. Historian William Hesseltine added the point that the Northeastern businessmen wanted to control the South economically, which they did through ownership of the railroads.[29] However, historians in the 1950s and 1960s refuted Beale's economic causation by demonstrating that Northern businessmen were widely divergent on monetary or tariff policy, and seldom paid attention to Reconstruction issues.[30]

In the 1960s, neoabolitionist historians emerged, led by John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner. Strongly aligned with the Civil Rights Movement, they rejected the Dunning school and found a great deal to praise in Radical Reconstruction. Foner, the primary advocate of this view, argued that it was never truly completed, and that a Second Reconstruction was needed in the late 20th century to complete the goal of full equality for African-Americans. The neo-abolitionists followed the revisionists in minimizing the corruption and waste created by Republican state governments, saying it was no worse than Boss Tweed's ring in New York City.[29] Instead they emphasized that poor treatment of Freedmen was a worse scandal and a grave corruption of America's republican ideals. They argued that the real tragedy of Reconstruction was not that it failed because blacks were incapable of governing, but that it failed because the civil rights and equalities granted during this period were but a passing, temporary development. These rights were suspended in the South from the 1880s through 1964, but were restored by the Civil Rights Movement that is sometimes referred to as the "Second Reconstruction."

More recent work by Nina Silber, David Blight, Cecelia O'Leary, Laura Edwards, LeeAnn Whites, and Edward J. Blum, has encouraged greater attention to race, religion, and issues of gender while at the same time pushing the "end" of Reconstruction to the end of the nineteenth century, while monographs by Charles Reagan Wilson, Gaines Foster, W. Scott Poole have offered new views of the southern "Lost Cause."

Significant dates

State Seceded from Union Joined Confederacy Readmitted into Union Democratic Party Establishes Control
South Carolina December 20, 1860 February 4, 1861 July 9, 1868 April 11, 1877
Mississippi January 9, 1861 February 4, 1861 February 23, 1870 January 4, 1876
Florida January 10, 1861 February 4, 1861 June 25, 1868 January 2, 1877
Alabama (U.S. state) January 11, 1861 February 4, 1861 July 14, 1868 November 16, 1874
Georgia January 19, 1861 February 4, 1861 July 15, 1870 November 1, 1871
Louisiana January 26, 1861 February 4, 1861 June 25 or July 9, 1868 January 2, 1877
Texas February 1, 1861 March 2, 1861 March 30, 1870 January 14, 1873
Virginia April 17, 1861 May 7, 1861 January 26, 1870 October 5, 1869
Arkansas (U.S. state) May 6, 1861 May 18, 1861 June 22, 1868 November 10, 1874
North Carolina (U.S. state) May 21, 1861 May 16, 1861 July 4, 1868 November 28, 1876
Tennessee June 8, 1861 May 16, 1861 July 24, 1866 October 4, 1869


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Foner, Eric (1988) Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 Pulitzer-prize winning synthesis from neoabolitionist perspective
  2. 2.0 2.1 William Gienapp (2002) Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America
  3. Patton; James Welch (1934) Unionism and Reconstruction in Tennessee, 1860-1869 online edition
  4. Franklin, John Hope (1961) Reconstruction after the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 280 pages. Short survey by leading black scholar. Quotes a letter from President Andrew Johnson to Gov. William L. Sharkey, August 1865.
  5. Carl Schurz (1865), "Considerations of Negro Suffrage" Arthur H. Clarke Company. Online version (see p 97)
  6. Randall, J. G. (1953. The Civil War and Reconstruction. Long the standard survey. Updated by David Donald in 1961.
  7. William C. Harris (1997), With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union
  8. Willie Lee Rose (1967), Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment
  9. 9.0 9.1 Trefousse, Hans L. (1989). Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989) Online edition
  10. John Samuel Ezell (1963), The South since 1865 pp 27-28
  11. 11.0 11.1 Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson (1917). A History of the United States since the Civil War. Volumes 1 and 2. Online (volume 1, 1865-68)
  12. Donald, David H. et al (2001. Civil War and Reconstruction (a textbook)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Rhodes, James G. (1920) History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 Highly detailed narrative by Pulitzer prize winner; argues was a political disaster because it violated the rights of white Southerners
  14. Campbell, Randolph B. (1998). Grass-Roots Reconstruction in Texas, 1865-1880
  15. 15.0 15.1 Franklin, John Hope (1961) Reconstruction after the Civil War, University of Chicago Press
  16. McAfee, Ward (1998). Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Lynch, John R. (1913). The Facts of Reconstruction. Full text online. Memoir by black congressmen from Mississippi during Reconstruction.
  18. Summers, Mark Wahlgren (1984). Railroads, Reconstruction, and the Gospel of Prosperity: Aid Under the Radical Republicans, 1865-1877 pp. 141-48
  19. Stover, John F. (1955). The Railroads of the South, 1865-1900: A Study in Finance and Control
  20. 20.0 20.1 Walter Lynwood Fleming, ed. (1907). Documentary History of the Reconstruction
  21. As early as 1868 Chase concluded that "Congress was right in not limiting, by its reconstruction acts, the right of suffrage to whites; but wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens and all unable to take its prescribed retrospective oath, and wrong also in the establishment of despotic military governments for the States and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions; no classes excluded from suffrage; and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the Constitution and laws, and of sincere attachment to the constitutional Government of the United States." Salmon P. Chase to August Belmont, May 30, 1868, in J. W. Schuckers, The Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (1874), 585.
  22. James M. McPherson, The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP (1975).
  23. Snay, Mitchell (2004). "Freedom and Progress: the Dilemma of Southern Republican Thought During Radical Reconstruction." American Nineteenth Century History 5(1): pp.100-114. ISSN: 1466-4658
  24. Perman, Michael (1984). The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879. Online edition
  25. McPherson, James M. (1966). "Coercion or Conciliation? Abolitionists Debate President Hayes's Southern Policy." New England Quarterly 39(4): 474-497. In Jstor. Argues Hayes had been convinced since 1875 that Grant's approach toward the South had to be abandoned and hoped to substitute conciliation for coercion, believing that the good will of Southern upper class whites would provide better protection for Blacks than the hated Federal troops. A majority of abolitionists disagreed, but about 36% of abolitionists supported Hayes, thereby causing a decided division in their ranks.
  26. Green, Fletcher M. (November, 1936). "Walter Lynwood Fleming: Historian of Reconstruction," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 2, No. 4. pp. 497-521.
  27. Harlan, Louis R. (1988). Booker T. Washington in Perspective p. 164
  28. Taylor, A. A. (January 1938). "Historians of the Reconstruction," The Journal of Negro History Vol. 23, No. 1. pp. 16-34.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Williams, T. Harry (November 1946). "An Analysis of Some Reconstruction Attitudes" The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 12, No. 4. pp. 469-486. In Jstor
  30. Foner, Eric (1982) "Reconstruction Revisited" in Reviews in American History, Vol. 10, No. 4, The Promise of American History: Progress and Prospects (Dec., 1982), pp. 82-100. Review of the historiography, available online in Project MUSE