|Date||January 1, 1863
to March 31, 1877|
(14 years, 2 months and 30 days)
|Location||United States, Southern United States|
|Also known as||Reconstruction; Radical Reconstruction|
The term Reconstruction Era, in the context of the history of the United States, has two senses: the first covers the complete history of the entire country from 1865 to 1877 following the American Civil War (1861 to 1865); the second sense focuses on the attempted transformation of the Southern United States from 1863 to 1877, as directed by Congress, with the reconstruction of state and society. With the three Reconstruction Amendments, the era saw the first amendments to the U.S. Constitution in decades.
Three visions of Civil War memory appeared during Reconstruction: the reconciliationist vision, which was rooted in coping with the death and devastation the war had brought; the white supremacist vision, which included terror and violence; and the emancipationist vision, which sought full freedom, citizenship and Constitutional equality for African Americans.
Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson both took moderate positions designed to bring the South back into the union as quickly as possible, while Radical Republicans in Congress sought stronger measures to upgrade the rights of African Americans, including the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, while curtailing the rights of former Confederates, such as through the provisions of the Wade-Davis Bill. Johnson followed a lenient policy toward ex-Confederates. Lincoln's last speeches show that he was leaning toward supporting the enfranchisement of all freedmen, whereas Johnson was opposed to this.
Johnson's interpretations of Lincoln's policies prevailed until the Congressional elections of 1866 in the North, which enabled the Radicals to take control of policy, remove former Confederates from power, and enfranchise the freedmen. A Republican coalition came to power in nearly all the southern states and set out to transform the society by setting up a free labor economy, using the U.S. Army and the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau protected the legal rights of freedmen, negotiated labor contracts, and set up schools and churches for them. Thousands of Northerners came south as missionaries, teachers, businessmen and politicians. Some also entered politics. Hostile whites called them "carpetbaggers". In early 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills and sent them to Johnson for his signature. The first bill extended the life of the bureau, originally established as a temporary organization charged with assisting refugees and freed slaves, while the second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens with equality before the law. After Johnson vetoed the bills, Congress overrode his veto, making the Civil Rights Act the first major bill in the history of the United States to become law through an override of a presidential veto. The Radicals in the House of Representatives, frustrated by Johnson's opposition to Congressional Reconstruction, filed impeachment charges. The action failed by one vote in the Senate.
Elected in 1868, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant supported Congressional Reconstruction and enforced the protection of African Americans in the South through the use of the Enforcement Acts passed by Congress. Grant used the Enforcement Acts to effectively combat the Ku Klux Klan, which was essentially wiped out (although a new incarnation of the Klan eventually would again come to national prominence in the 1920s), but was unable to resolve the escalating tensions inside the Republican party between the northerners on the one hand, and those Republicans originally hailing from the South on the other (this latter group would be labelled "Scalawags" by those opposing Reconstruction). Meanwhile, "Redeemers", self-styled Conservatives (in close cooperation with a faction of the Democratic Party) strongly opposed reconstruction. They alleged widespread corruption by the Carpetbaggers, excessive state spending and ruinous taxes. Meanwhile, public support for Reconstruction policies, requiring continued supervision of the South, faded in the North, largely due to concerns over the Panic of 1873. The Democrats, who strongly opposed Reconstruction, regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874. In 1877, as part of a Congressional bargain to elect Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president following the close 1876 presidential election, U.S. Army Troops were removed from the South, ending Reconstruction and allowing Democrats to return to power.
Reconstruction was a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States, and in economic history. After Reconstruction ended, the South remained a poverty-stricken "backwater" dependent on agriculture. White Southerners soon succeeded in re-establishing legal and political dominance over blacks through violence, intimidation and discrimination. Historian Eric Foner argues, "What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure."
In the different states Reconstruction began and ended at different times; federal Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877. In recent decades most historians follow Foner in dating the Reconstruction of the south as starting in 1863 (with Emancipation and the Port Royal experiment) rather than 1865. The usual ending has always been 1877. Reconstruction policies were debated in the North when the war began, and commenced in earnest after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863.
As Confederate states came back under control of the U.S. Army, President Abraham Lincoln set up reconstructed governments in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana during the war. He experimented by giving land to blacks in South Carolina. By fall 1865, the new President Andrew Johnson declared the war goals of national unity and the ending of slavery achieved and reconstruction completed. Republicans in Congress, refusing to accept Johnson's lenient terms, rejected new members of Congress, some of whom had been high-ranking Confederate officials a few months before. Johnson broke with the Republicans after vetoing two key bills that supported the Freedmen's Bureau and provided federal civil rights to the freedmen. The 1866 Congressional elections turned on the issue of Reconstruction, producing a sweeping Republican victory in the North, and providing the Radical Republicans with sufficient control of Congress to override Johnson's vetoes and commence their own "Radical Reconstruction" in 1867. That same year, Congress removed civilian governments in the South, and placed the former Confederacy under the rule of the U.S. Army. The army conducted new elections in which the freed slaves could vote, while whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were temporarily denied the vote and were not permitted to run for office.
In ten states, coalitions of freedmen, recent black and white arrivals from the North (carpetbaggers), and white Southerners who supported Reconstruction (scalawags) cooperated to form Republican biracial state governments. They introduced various reconstruction programs including: funding public schools, establishing charitable institutions, raising taxes, and funding public improvements such as improved railroad transportation and shipping. Conservative opponents called the Republican regimes corrupt and instigated violence toward freedmen and whites who supported Reconstruction. Most of the violence was carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secretive terrorist organization closely allied with the southern Democratic Party. Klan members attacked and intimidated blacks seeking to exercise their new civil rights, as well as Republican politicians in the south favoring those civil rights. One such politician murdered by the Klan on the eve of the 1868 presidential election was Republican Congressman James M. Hinds of Arkansas. Widespread violence in the south led to federal intervention by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1871, which suppressed the Klan. Nevertheless, white Democrats, calling themselves "Redeemers", regained control of the south state by state, sometimes using fraud and violence to control state elections. A deep national economic depression following the Panic of 1873 led to major Democratic gains in the North, the collapse of many railroad schemes in the South, and a growing sense of frustration in the North.
The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process, and the period of Republican control ended at different times in different states. With the Compromise of 1877, military intervention in Southern politics ceased and Republican control collapsed in the last three state governments in the South. This was followed by a period which white Southerners labeled "Redemption", during which white-dominated state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws and, beginning in 1890, disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through a combination of constitutional amendments and electoral laws. The white Democratic Southerners' memory of Reconstruction played a major role in imposing the system of white supremacy and second-class citizenship for blacks, known as the age of Jim Crow.
Reconstruction addressed how the eleven seceding rebel states in the south would regain what the Constitution calls a "republican form of government" and be reseated in Congress, the civil status of the former leaders of the Confederacy, and the Constitutional and legal status of freedmen, especially their civil rights and whether they should be given the right to vote. Intense controversy erupted throughout the South over these issues.
The laws and constitutional amendments that laid the foundation for the most radical phase of Reconstruction were adopted from 1866 to 1871. By the 1870s, Reconstruction had officially provided freedmen with equal rights under the constitution, and blacks were voting and taking political office. Republican legislatures, coalitions of whites and blacks, established the first public school systems and numerous charitable institutions in the South. White paramilitary organizations, especially the Ku Klux Klan and also the White League and Red Shirts formed with the political aim of driving out the Republicans. They also disrupted political organizing and terrorized blacks to bar them from the polls. President Grant used federal power to effectively shut down the KKK in the early 1870s, though the other, smaller, groups continued to operate. From 1873 to 1877, conservative whites (calling themselves "Redeemers") regained power in the Southern states. They joined the Bourbon wing of the national Democratic Party.
In the 1860s and 1870s the terms "radical" and "conservative" had distinctive meanings. "Conservative" was the name of a faction, often led by the planter class. Leaders who had been Whigs were committed to economic modernization, built around railroads, factories, banks and cities. Most of the "radical" Republicans in the North were men who believed in integrating African Americans by providing them civil rights as citizens, along with free enterprise; most were also modernizers and former Whigs. The "Liberal Republicans" of 1872 shared the same outlook except they were especially opposed to the corruption they saw around President Grant, and believed that the goals of the Civil War had been achieved so that the federal military intervention could now end.
Passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments is the constitutional legacy of Reconstruction. These Reconstruction Amendments established the rights that led to Supreme Court rulings in the mid-20th century that struck down school segregation. A "Second Reconstruction", sparked by the Civil Rights Movement, led to civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965 that ended segregation and re-opened the polls to blacks.
Reconstruction played out against an economy in ruin. The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with a total population of 835,000 people; of these 162 with 681,000 people were at one point occupied by Union forces. Eleven were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta (with an 1860 population of 9,600), Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond (with prewar populations of 40,500, 8,100, and 37,900, respectively); the eleven contained 115,900 people in the 1860 census, or 14% of the urban South. The number of people who lived in the destroyed towns represented just over 1% of the Confederacy's combined urban and rural populations. The rate of damage in smaller towns was much lower--only 45 courthouses were burned out of a total of 830.
Farms were in disrepair, and the prewar stock of horses, mules and cattle was much depleted; two-fifths, or 40%, of the South's livestock had been killed. The South's farms were not highly mechanized, but the value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million and was reduced by two-fifths, or 40%, by 1870. The transportation infrastructure lay in ruins, with little railroad or riverboat service available to move crops and animals to market. Railroad mileage was located mostly in rural areas and over two-thirds of the South's rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were in areas reached by Union armies, which systematically destroyed what they could. Even in untouched areas, the lack of maintenance and repair, the absence of new equipment, the heavy over-use, and the deliberate relocation of equipment by the Confederates from remote areas to the war zone ensured the system would be ruined at war's end. Restoring the infrastructure--especially the railroad system--became a high priority for Reconstruction state governments.
The enormous cost of the Confederate war effort took a high toll on the South's economic infrastructure. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenditures, and physical destruction from the war totaled $3.3 billion. By 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to high inflation, and people in the South had to resort to bartering services for goods, or else use scarce Union dollars. With the emancipation of the southern slaves, the entire economy of the South had to be rebuilt. Having lost their enormous investment in slaves, white planters had minimal capital to pay freedmen workers to bring in crops. As a result, a system of sharecropping was developed where landowners broke up large plantations and rented small lots to the freedmen and their families. The South was transformed from an elite minority of landed gentry slaveholders into a tenant farming agriculture system.
The end of the Civil War was accompanied by a large migration of new freed people to the cities. In the cities, African Americans were relegated to the lowest paying jobs such as unskilled and service labor. Men worked as rail workers, rolling and lumber mills workers, and hotel workers. The large population of slave artisans during the antebellum period had not been translated into a large number of freemen artisans during Reconstruction. Black women were largely confined to domestic work employed as cooks, maids, and child nurses. Others worked in hotels. A large number became laundresses. The dislocations had a severe negative impact on the black population, with a large amount of sickness and death.
Over a quarter of Southern white men of military age--the backbone of the South's white workforce--died during the war, leaving countless families destitute. Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the South was locked into a system of poverty. How much of this failure was caused by the war and by previous reliance on agriculture remains the subject of debate among economists and historians.
During the Civil War, the Radical Republican leaders argued that slavery and the Slave Power had to be permanently destroyed. Moderates said this could be easily accomplished as soon as Confederate armies surrendered and the Southern states repealed secession and accepted the 13th Amendment - most of which happened by December 1865.
President Lincoln was the leader of the moderate Republicans and wanted to speed up Reconstruction and reunite the nation painlessly and quickly. Lincoln formally began Reconstruction in late 1863 with his Ten percent plan, which went into operation in several states but which Radical Republicans opposed. Lincoln pocket vetoed the Radical plan, the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864, which was much more strict than the Ten-Percent Plan.
By late 1866, the opposing faction of Radical Republicans was skeptical of Southern intentions. White reactions included outbreaks of mob violence against blacks, such as the Memphis riots of 1866 and the New Orleans riot. Radical Republicans demanded a prompt and strong federal response to protect freed-people and curb southern racism. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts led the Radicals. Sumner argued that secession had destroyed statehood but the Constitution still extended its authority and its protection over individuals, as in existing U.S. territories. Stevens and his followers viewed secession as having left the states in a status like new territories. The Republicans sought to prevent Southern politicians from "restoring the historic subordination of Negroes". Since slavery was abolished, the three-fifths compromise no longer applied to counting the population of blacks. After the 1870 census, the South would gain numerous additional representatives in Congress, based on the population of freedmen. One Illinois Republican expressed a common fear that if the South were allowed to simply restore its previous established powers, that the "reward of treason will be an increased representation".
Upon Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had been elected with Lincoln in 1864 as vice president, became president. Johnson rejected the Radical program of Reconstruction and instead appointed his own governors and tried to finish reconstruction by the end of 1865. Thaddeus Stevens vehemently opposed President Johnson's plans for an abrupt end to Reconstruction, insisting that Reconstruction must "revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners ... The foundations of their institutions ... must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain." Johnson broke decisively with the Republicans in Congress when he vetoed the Civil Rights Act in early 1865. While Democrats cheered, the Republicans pulled together, passed the bill again, and overturned Johnson's repeat veto. Full-scale political warfare now existed between Johnson (now allied with the Democrats) and the Radical Republicans.
Congress rejected Johnson's argument that he had the war power to decide what to do, since the war was over. Congress decided it had the primary authority to decide how Reconstruction should proceed, because the Constitution stated the United States had to guarantee each state a republican form of government. The Radicals insisted that meant Congress decided how Reconstruction should be achieved. The issues were multiple: who should decide, Congress or the president? How should republicanism operate in the South? What was the status of the former Confederate states? What was the citizenship status of the leaders of the Confederacy? What was the citizenship and suffrage status of freedmen?
The election of 1866 decisively changed the balance of power, giving the Republicans two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, and enough votes to overcome Johnson's vetoes. They moved to impeach Johnson because of his constant attempts to thwart Radical Reconstruction measures, by using the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson was acquitted by one vote, but he lost the influence to shape Reconstruction policy.
The Republican Congress established military districts in the South and used Army personnel to administer the region until new governments loyal to the Union--that accepted the 14th Amendment and the right of freedmen to vote--could be established. Congress temporarily suspended the ability to vote of approximately 10,000 to 15,000 former Confederate officials and senior officers, while constitutional amendments gave full citizenship to all African Americans, and suffrage to the adult men.
With the power to vote, freedmen started participating in politics. While many slaves were illiterate, educated blacks (including escaped slaves) moved down from the North to aid them, and natural leaders also stepped forward. They elected white and black men to represent them in constitutional conventions. A Republican coalition of freedmen, southerners supportive of the Union (derisively called scalawags by white Democrats), and northerners who had migrated to the South (derisively called carpetbaggers)--some of whom were returning natives, but were mostly Union veterans - organized to create constitutional conventions. They created new state constitutions to set new directions for southern states.
The issue of loyalty emerged in the debates over the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864. The bill required voters to take the "ironclad oath", swearing they had never supported the Confederacy or been one of its soldiers. Pursuing a policy of "malice toward none" announced in his second inaugural address, Lincoln asked voters only to support the Union. The Radicals lost support following Lincoln's veto of the Wade-Davis Bill but regained strength after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865.
Congress had to consider how to restore to full status and representation within the Union those southern states that had declared their independence from the United States and had withdrawn their representation. Suffrage for former Confederates was one of two main concerns. A decision needed to be made whether to allow just some or all former Confederates to vote (and to hold office). The moderates in Congress wanted virtually all of them to vote, but the Radicals resisted. They repeatedly imposed the ironclad oath, which would effectively have allowed no former Confederates to vote. Historian Harold Hyman says that in 1866 Congressmen "described the oath as the last bulwark against the return of ex-rebels to power, the barrier behind which Southern Unionists and Negroes protected themselves." Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens proposed, unsuccessfully, that all former Confederates lose the right to vote for five years. The compromise that was reached disenfranchised many Confederate civil and military leaders. No one knows how many temporarily lost the vote, but one estimate was that it was as high as 10,000 to 15,000 out of a total white population of roughly eight million.
Second, and closely related, was the issue of whether the roughly four million freedmen should be allowed to vote. The issue was how to receive the four million Freedmen as citizens. If they were to be fully counted as citizens, some sort of representation for apportionment of seats in Congress had to be determined. Before the war, the population of slaves had been counted as three-fifths of a corresponding number of free whites. By having four million freedmen counted as full citizens, the South would gain additional seats in Congress. If blacks were denied the vote and the right to hold office, then only whites would represent them. Many conservatives, including most white southerners, northern Democrats, and some northern Republicans, opposed black voting. Some northern states that had referenda on the subject limited the ability of their own small populations of blacks to vote.
Lincoln had supported a middle position to allow some black men to vote, especially army veterans. Johnson also believed that such service should be rewarded with citizenship. Lincoln proposed giving the vote to "the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks." In 1864, Governor 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." 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 least 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."
Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, leaders of the Radical Republicans, were initially hesitant to enfranchise the largely illiterate Freedmen. Sumner preferred at first impartial requirements that would have imposed literacy restrictions on blacks and whites. He believed that he would not succeed in passing legislation to disfranchise illiterate whites who already had the vote.
In the South, many poor whites were illiterate as there was almost no public education before the war. In 1880, for example, the white illiteracy rate was about 25% in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia; and as high as 33% in North Carolina. This compares with the 9% national rate, and a black rate of illiteracy that was over 70% in the South. By 1900, however, with emphasis within the black community on education, the majority of blacks had achieved literacy.
Sumner soon concluded that "there was no substantial protection for the freedman except in the franchise." This was necessary, he stated, "(1) For his own protection; (2) For the protection of the white Unionist; and (3) For the peace of the country. We put the musket in his hands because it was necessary; for the same reason we must give him the franchise." The support for voting rights was a compromise between moderate and Radical Republicans.
The Republicans believed that the best way for men to get political experience was to be able to vote and to participate in the political system. They passed laws allowing all male freedmen to vote. In 1867, black men voted for the first time. Over the course of Reconstruction, more than 1,500 African Americans held public office in the South; some of them were men who had escaped to the North and gained educations, and returned to the South. They did not hold office in numbers representative of their proportion in the population, but often elected whites to represent them. The question of women's suffrage was also debated but was rejected.
From 1890 to 1908, southern states passed new constitutions and laws that disfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites with new voter registration and electoral rules. When establishing new requirements such as subjectively administered literacy tests, in some states, they used "grandfather clauses" to enable illiterate whites to vote.
The Five Civilized Tribes that had been relocated to Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma) held black slaves and signed treaties supporting the Confederacy. During the war, a war among pro- and anti-Union Indians had raged. Congress passed a statute that gave the President the authority to suspend the appropriations of any tribe if the tribe is "in a state of actual hostility to the government of the United States ... and, by proclamation, to declare all treaties with such tribe to be abrogated by such tribe"(25 USC Sec. 72).
As a component of Reconstruction, the Interior Department ordered a meeting of representatives from all Indian tribes which had affiliated with the Confederacy. The Council, the Southern Treaty Commission, was first held in Ft. Smith, Arkansas in September 1865, was attended by hundreds of Indians representing dozens of tribes. Over the next several years the commission negotiated treaties with tribes that resulted in additional relocations to Indian Territory and the de facto creation (initially by treaty) of an unorganized Oklahoma Territory.
President Lincoln signed two Confiscation Acts into law, the first on August 6, 1861, and the second on July 17, 1862, safeguarding fugitive slaves from the Confederacy that came over into Union lines and giving them indirect emancipation if their masters continued insurrection against the United States. The laws allowed the confiscation of lands for colonization from those who aided and supported the rebellion. However, these laws had limited effect as they were poorly funded by Congress and poorly enforced by Attorney General Edward Bates.
In August 1861, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, Union commander of the Western Department, declared martial law in Missouri, confiscated Confederate property, and emancipated their slaves. President Lincoln immediately ordered Frémont to rescind his emancipation declaration stating, "I think there is great danger that ... the liberating slaves of traitorous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us - perhaps ruin our fair prospect for Kentucky." After Frémont refused to rescind the emancipation order, President Lincoln terminated him from active duty on November 2, 1861. Lincoln was concerned that border states would bolt from the Union if slaves were given their freedom. On May 26, 1862, Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter emancipated slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida stated all "persons ... heretofore held as slaves ... forever free." Lincoln, embarrassed by the order, rescinded Hunter's declaration and canceled the emancipations.
On April 16, 1862 Lincoln signed a bill into law outlawing slavery in Washington D.C. and freeing the estimated 3,500 slaves in the city and on June 19, 1862 he signed legislation outlawing slavery in all U.S. territories. On July 17, 1862 under the authority of the Confiscation Acts and an amended Force Bill of 1795, he authorized the recruitment of freed slaves into the Union army and seizure of any Confederate property for military purposes.
In an effort to keep border states in the Union, President Lincoln as early as 1861 designed gradual compensated emancipation programs paid for by government bonds. Lincoln desired Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to "adopt a system of gradual emancipation which should work the extinction of slavery in twenty years." On March 26, 1862 Lincoln met with Senator Charles Sumner and recommended that a special joint session of Congress be convened to discuss giving financial aid to any border states who initiated a gradual emancipation plan. In April 1862, the joint session of Congress met, however, the border states were not interested and did not make any response to Lincoln or any Congressional emancipation proposal. Lincoln advocated compensated emancipation during the 1865 River Queen steamer conference.
In August 1862, President Lincoln met with African-American leaders and urged them to colonize some place in Central America. Lincoln planned to free the Southern slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation and he was concerned that freedmen would not be well treated in the United States by whites in both the North and South. Although Lincoln gave assurances that the United States government would support and protect any colonies, the leaders declined the offer of colonization. Many free blacks had been opposed to colonization plans in the past and wanted to remain in the United States. President Lincoln persisted in his colonization plan believing that emancipation and colonization were part of the same program. Lincoln was successful by April 1863 at sending black colonists to Haiti and 453 to Chiriqui in Central America; however, none of the colonies was able to remain self-sufficient. Frederick Douglass, a prominent 19th-century American civil rights activist, criticized that Lincoln was "showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy." African Americans, according to Douglass, wanted citizen rights rather than to be colonized. Historians debate if Lincoln gave up on African-American colonization at the end of 1863 or if he actually planned to continue this policy up until 1865.
Starting in March 1862, in an effort to forestall Reconstruction by the Radicals in Congress, President Lincoln installed military governors in certain rebellious states under Union military control. Although the states would not be recognized by the Radicals until an undetermined time, installation of military governors kept the administration of Reconstruction under Presidential control, rather than that of the increasingly unsympathetic Radical Congress. On March 3, 1862, Lincoln installed a loyalist Democrat, Senator Andrew Johnson, as Military Governor with the rank of Brigadier General in his home state of Tennessee. In May 1862, Lincoln appointed Edward Stanly Military Governor of the coastal region of North Carolina with the rank of Brigadier General. Stanly resigned almost a year later when he angered Lincoln by closing two schools for black children in New Bern. After Lincoln installed Brigadier General George F. Sheply as Military Governor of Louisiana in May 1862, Sheply sent two anti-slavery representatives, Benjamin Flanders and Michael Hahn, elected in December 1862, to the House which capitulated and voted to seat them. In July 1862, Lincoln installed Colonel John S. Phelps as Military Governor of Arkansas, though he resigned soon after due to poor health.
In July 1862, President Lincoln became convinced that "a military necessity" was needed to strike at slavery in order to win the Civil War for the Union. The Confiscation Acts were only having a minimal effect to end slavery. On July 22, he wrote a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in states in rebellion. After he showed his cabinet the document, slight alterations were made in the wording. Lincoln decided that the defeat of the Confederate invasion of the North at Sharpsburg was enough of a battlefield victory to enable him to release the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that gave the rebels 100 days to return to the Union or the actual Proclamation would be issued.
On January 1, 1863, the actual Emancipation Proclamation was issued, specifically naming ten states in which slaves would be "forever free". The proclamation did not name the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states. Eventually, as the Union Armies advanced into the Confederacy millions of slaves were set free. Many of these freedmen joined the Union army and fought in battles against the Confederate forces. Yet hundreds of thousands of freed slaves died during emancipation from illness that devastated army regiments. Freed slaves suffered from smallpox, yellow fever, and malnutrition.
President Abraham Lincoln was concerned to effect a speedy restoration of the Confederate states to the Union after the Civil War. In 1863, President Lincoln proposed a moderate plan for the Reconstruction of the captured Confederate State of Louisiana. The plan granted amnesty to Rebels who took an oath of loyalty to the Union. Black Freedmen workers were tied to labor on plantations for one year at $10 a month pay. Only 10% of the state's electorate had to take the loyalty oath in order for the state to be readmitted into U.S. Congress. The state was required to abolish slavery in its new constitution. Identical Reconstruction plans would be adopted in Arkansas and Tennessee. By December 1864, the Lincoln plan of Reconstruction had been enacted in Louisiana and the legislature sent two Senators and five Representatives to take their seats in Washington. However, Congress refused to count any of the votes from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee, in essence rejecting Lincoln's moderate Reconstruction plan. Congress, at this time controlled by the Radicals, proposed the Wade-Davis Bill that required a majority of the state electorates to take the oath of loyalty to be admitted to Congress. Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill and the rift widened between the moderates, who wanted to save the Union and win the war, and the Radicals, who wanted to effect a more complete change within Southern society. Frederick Douglass denounced Lincoln's 10% electorate plan as undemocratic since state admission and loyalty only depended on a minority vote.
Before 1864, slave marriages had not been recognized legally; emancipation did not affect them. When freed, many made official marriages. Before emancipation, slaves could not enter into contracts, including the marriage contract. Not all free people formalized their unions. Some continued to have common-law marriages or community-recognized relationships. The acknowledgement of marriage by the state increased the state's recognition of freedpeople as legal actors and eventually helped make the case for parental rights for freedpeople against the practice of apprenticeship of black children. These children were legally taken away from their families under the guise of "providing them with guardianship and 'good' homes until they reached the age of consent at twenty-one" under acts such as the Georgia 1866 Apprentice Act. Such children were generally used as sources of unpaid labor.
On March 3, 1865 the Freedmen's Bureau Bill became law, sponsored by the Republicans to aid freedmen and white refugees. A federal Bureau was created to provide food, clothing, fuel, and advice on negotiating labor contracts. It attempted to oversee new relations between freedmen and their former masters in a free labor market. The Act, without deference to a person's color, authorized the Bureau to lease confiscated land for a period of three years and to sell it in portions of up to 40 acres (16 ha) per buyer. The Bureau was to expire one year after the termination of the War. Lincoln was assassinated before he could appoint a commissioner of the Bureau. A popular myth was that the Act offered 40 acres and a mule, or that slaves had been promised this.
With the help of the Bureau, the recently freed slaves began voting, forming political parties, and assuming the control of labor in many areas. The Bureau helped to start a change of power in the South that drew national attention from the Republicans in the North to the conservative Democrats in the South. This is especially evident in the election between Grant and Seymour (Johnson did not get the Democratic nomination), where almost 700,000 black voters voted and swayed the election 300,000 votes in Grant's favor.
Even with the benefits that it gave to the freedmen, the Freedmen's Bureau was unable to operate effectively in certain areas. Terrorizing freedmen for trying to vote, hold a political office, or own land, the Ku Klux Klan was the antithesis to the Freedmen's Bureau.
Other legislation was signed that broadened equality and rights for African Americans. Lincoln outlawed discrimination on account of color, in carrying U.S. mail, in riding on public street cars in Washington D.C., and in pay for soldiers.
Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward met with three southern representatives to discuss the peaceful reconstruction of the Union and the Confederacy on February 3, 1865 in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The southern delegation included Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, John A. Campbell, and Robert M. T. Hunter. The southerners proposed the Union recognition of the Confederacy, a joint Union-Confederate attack on Mexico to oust dictator Maximillian, and an alternative subordinate status of servitude for blacks rather than slavery. Lincoln flatly rejected recognition of the Confederacy, and said that the slaves covered by his Emancipation Proclamation would not be re-enslaved. He said that the Union States were about to pass the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. Lincoln urged the governor of Georgia to remove Confederate troops and "ratify this Constitutional Amendment prospectively, so as to take effect--say in five years ... Slavery is doomed." Lincoln also urged compensated emancipation for the slaves as he thought the North should be willing to share the costs of freedom. Although the meeting was cordial, the parties did not settle on agreements.
Lincoln continued to advocate his Louisiana Plan as a model for all states up until his assassination on April 14, 1865. The plan successfully started the Reconstruction process of ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment in all states. Lincoln is typically portrayed as taking the moderate position and fighting the Radical positions. There is considerable debate on how well Lincoln, had he lived, would have handled Congress during the Reconstruction process that took place after the Civil War ended. One historical camp argues that Lincoln's flexibility, pragmatism, and superior political skills with Congress would have solved Reconstruction with far less difficulty. The other camp believes the Radicals would have attempted to impeach Lincoln, just as they did to his successor, Andrew Johnson, in 1868.
Northern anger over the assassination of Lincoln and the immense human cost of the war led to demands for punitive 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 position, pardoning many Confederate leaders and former Confederates.Jefferson Davis was held in prison for two years, but other Confederate leaders were not. There were no treason trials. Only one person--Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of the prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia--was executed for war crimes. Andrew Johnson's conservative view of Reconstruction did not include blacks or former slaves involvement in government and he refused to heed Northern concerns when southern state legislatures implemented Black Codes that set the status of the freedmen much lower than that of citizens.
Smith argues that, "Johnson attempted to carry forward what he considered to be Lincoln's plans for Reconstruction." McKitrick says that in 1865 Johnson had strong support in the Republican Party, "It was naturally from the great moderate sector of Unionist opinion in the North that Johnson could draw his greatest comfort." Billington says, " One faction, the Moderate Republicans under the leadership of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, favored a mild policy toward the South." Lincoln biographers Randall and Current argued that:
Historians agree that President Johnson was an inept politician who lost all his advantages by his clumsy moves. He broke with Congress in early 1866 and then became defiant and tried to block enforcement of Reconstruction laws passed by the U.S. Congress. He was in constant conflict constitutionally with the Radicals in Congress over the status of freedmen and whites in the defeated South. Although resigned to the abolition of slavery, many former Confederates were unwilling to accept both social changes and political domination by former slaves. In the words of Benjamin F. Perry, President Johnson's choice as the provisional governor of South Carolina: "First, the Negro is to be invested with all political power, and then the antagonism of interest between capital and labor is to work out the result."
However, the fears of the mostly conservative planter elite and other leading white citizens were partly assuaged by the actions of President Johnson, who ensured that a wholesale land redistribution from the planters to the freedman did not occur. President Johnson ordered that confiscated or abandoned lands administered by the Freedmen's Bureau would not be redistributed to the freedmen but be returned to pardoned owners. Land was returned that would have been forfeited under the Confiscation Acts passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862.
Southern state governments quickly enacted the restrictive "black codes". However, they were abolished in 1866 and seldom had effect, because the Freedmen's Bureau (not the local courts) handled the legal affairs of freedmen.
The Black Codes indicated the plans of the southern whites for the former slaves. The freedmen would have more rights than did free blacks before the war, but they would still have only a limited set of second-class civil rights, no voting rights and no citizenship. They could not own firearms, serve on a jury in a lawsuit involving whites or move about without employment. The Black Codes outraged northern opinion. They were overthrown by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that gave the freedmen full legal equality (except for the right to vote).
The freedmen, with the strong backing of the Freedmen's Bureau, rejected gang-labor work patterns that had been used in slavery. Instead of gang labor, freedpeople preferred family-based labor groups. They forced planters to bargain for their labor. Such bargaining soon led to the establishment of the system of sharecropping, which gave the freedmen greater economic independence and social autonomy than gang labor. However, because they lacked capital and the planters continued to own the means of production (tools, draft animals and land), the freedmen were forced into producing cash crops (mainly cotton) for the land-owners and merchants, and they entered into a crop-lien system. Widespread poverty, disruption to an agricultural economy too dependent on cotton, and the falling price of cotton, led within decades to the routine indebtedness of the majority of the freedmen, and poverty by many planters.
Northern officials gave varying reports on conditions for the freedmen in the South. One harsh assessment came from Carl Schurz, who reported on the situation in the states along the Gulf Coast. His report documented dozens of extra-judicial killings and claimed that hundreds or thousands more African Americans were killed.
The number of murders and assaults perpetrated upon Negroes is very great; we can form only an approximative estimate of what is going on in those parts of the South which are not closely garrisoned, and from which no regular reports are received, by what occurs under the very eyes of our military authorities. As to my personal experience, I will only mention that during my two days sojourn at Atlanta, one Negro was stabbed with fatal effect on the street, and three were poisoned, one of whom died. While I was at Montgomery, one negro was cut across the throat evidently with intent to kill, and another was shot, but both escaped with their lives. Several papers attached to this report give an account of the number of capital cases that occurred at certain places during a certain period of time. It is a sad fact that the perpetration of those acts is not confined to that class of people which might be called the rabble. Carl Schurz, "Report on the Condition of the South", December 1865 (U.S. Senate Exec. Doc. No. 2, 39th Congress, 1st session).
The report included sworn testimony from soldiers and officials of the Freedmen's Bureau. In Selma, Alabama, Major J.P. Houston noted that whites who killed twelve African Americans in his district never came to trial. Many more killings never became official cases. Captain Poillon described white patrols in southwestern Alabama
who board some of the boats; after the boats leave they hang, shoot, or drown the victims they may find on them, and all those found on the roads or coming down the rivers are almost invariably murdered. The bewildered and terrified freedmen know not what to do--to leave is death; to remain is to suffer the increased burden imposed upon them by the cruel taskmaster, whose only interest is their labor, wrung from them by every device an inhuman ingenuity can devise; hence the lash and murder is resorted to intimidate those whom fear of an awful death alone cause to remain, while patrols, Negro dogs and spies, disguised as Yankees, keep constant guard over these unfortunate people.
Much of the violence that was perpetrated against African Americans was shaped by gendered prejudices regarding African Americans. Black women were in a particularly vulnerable situation. To convict a white man of sexually assaulting black women in this period was exceedingly difficult. The South's judicial system had been wholly refigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites. Trials were discouraged and attorneys for black misdemeanor defendants were difficult to find. The goal of county courts was a fast, uncomplicated trial with a resulting conviction. Most blacks were unable to pay their fines or bail, and "the most common penalty was nine months to a year in a slave mine or lumber camp." The South's judicial system was rigged to generate fees and claim bounties, not to ensure public protection. Black women were socially constructed as sexually avaricious and since they were portrayed as having little virtue, society held that they could not be raped. One report indicates two freedwomen, Frances Thompson and Lucy Smith, describe their violent sexual assault during the Memphis Riots of 1866. However, black women were vulnerable even in times of relative normalcy. Sexual assaults on African-American women were so pervasive, particularly on the part of their white employers, that black men sought to reduce the contact between white males and black females by having the women in their family avoid doing work that was closely overseen by whites. Black men were construed as being extremely sexually aggressive and their supposed or rumored threats to white women were often used as a pretext for lynching and castrations.
During fall 1865, out of response to the Black codes and worrisome signs of Southern recalcitrance, the Radical Republicans blocked the readmission of the former rebellious states to the Congress. Johnson, however, was content with allowing former Confederate states into the Union as long as their state governments adopted the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. By December 6, 1865, the amendment was ratified and Johnson considered Reconstruction over. Johnson was following the moderate Lincoln Presidential Reconstruction policy to get the states readmitted as soon as possible.
Congress, however, controlled by the Radicals, had other plans. The Radicals were led by Charles Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives. Congress, on December 4, 1865, rejected Johnson's moderate Presidential Reconstruction, and organized the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, a 15-member panel to devise reconstruction requirements for the Southern states to be restored to the Union.
In January 1866, Congress renewed the Freedmen's Bureau; however, Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill in February 1866. Although Johnson had sympathies for the plights of the freedmen, he was against federal assistance. An attempt to override the veto failed on February 20, 1866. This veto shocked the Congressional Radicals. In response, both the Senate and House passed a joint resolution not to allow any Senator or Representative seat admittance until Congress decided when Reconstruction was finished.
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.
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 ... to 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.
The bill did not give Freedmen the right to vote. Congress quickly passed the Civil Rights bill; the Senate on February 2 voted 33-12; the House on March 13 voted 111-38.
Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27, 1866. 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."
The Democratic Party, proclaiming itself the party of white men, north and south, supported Johnson. 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 a toned-down Freedmen's Bureau Bill; Johnson quickly vetoed as he had done to the previous bill. Once again, however, Congress had enough support and overrode Johnson's veto.
The last moderate proposal was the Fourteenth Amendment, whose principal drafter was Representative John Bingham. 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 would be paid (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.
Concerned that President Johnson viewed Congress as an "illegal body" and wanted to overthrow the government, Republicans in Congress took control of Reconstruction policies after the election of 1866. Johnson ignored the policy mandate, and he openly encouraged southern states to deny ratification of the 14th Amendment (except for Tennessee, all former Confederate states did refuse to ratify, as did the border states of Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky). Radical Republicans in Congress, led by Stevens and Sumner, opened the way to suffrage for male freedmen. They were generally in control, although they had to compromise with the moderate Republicans (the Democrats in Congress had almost no power). Historians refer to this period as "Radical Reconstruction" or "Congressional Reconstruction."
The South's white leaders, who held power in the immediate postwar era before the vote was granted to the freedmen, renounced secession and slavery, but not white supremacy. People who had previously held power were angered in 1867 when new elections were held. New Republican lawmakers were elected by a coalition of white Unionists, freedmen and northerners who had settled in the South. Some leaders in the South tried to accommodate to new conditions.
Three Constitutional amendments, known as the Reconstruction Amendments, were adopted. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified in 1865. The 14th Amendment was proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868, guaranteeing United States citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and granting them federal civil rights. The 15th Amendment, proposed in late February 1869 and passed in early February 1870, decreed 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; it prohibited these types of discrimination. States would still determine voter registration and electoral laws. The amendments were directed at ending slavery and providing full citizenship to freedmen. Northern Congressmen believed that providing black men with the right to vote would be the most rapid means of political education and training.
Many blacks took an active part in voting and political life, and rapidly continued to build churches and community organizations. Following Reconstruction, white Democrats and insurgent groups used force to regain power in the state legislatures, and pass laws that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites in the South. From 1890 to 1910, southern states passed new constitutions that completed disfranchisement of blacks. U.S. Supreme Court rulings on these provisions upheld many of these new southern constitutions and laws, and most blacks were prevented from voting in the South until the 1960s. Full federal enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not occur until after passage of legislation in the mid-1960s as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.
For details, see:
The Reconstruction Acts as originally passed, were initially called "An act to provide for the more efficient Government of the Rebel States" the legislation was enacted by the 39th Congress, on March 2, 1867. It was vetoed by President Johnson, and the veto overridden by two-thirds majority, in both the House and the Senate, the same day. Congress also clarified the scope of the federal writ of habeas corpus to allow federal courts to vacate unlawful state court convictions or sentences in 1867 (28 U.S.C. §2254).
With the Radicals in control, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts on July 19, 1867. The first Reconstruction Act, authored by Oregon Sen. George H. Williams, a Radical Republican, placed ten Confederate states under military control, grouping them into five military districts:
20,000 U.S. troops were deployed to enforce the Act.
The four border states that had not joined the Confederacy were not subject to military Reconstruction. West Virginia, which had seceded from Virginia in 1863, and Tennessee, which had already been re-admitted in 1866, were not included in the military districts.
The ten Southern state governments were re-constituted under the direct control of the United States Army. One major purpose was to recognize and protect the right of African Americans to vote. There was little or no combat, but rather a state of martial law in which the military closely supervised local government, supervised elections, and tried to protect office holders and freedmen from violence. Blacks were enrolled as voters; former Confederate leaders were excluded for a limited period. No one state was entirely representative. Randolph Campbell describes what happened in Texas:
The first critical step ... was the registration of voters according to guidelines established by Congress and interpreted by Generals Sheridan and Charles 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 scalawags and local Freedmen'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.
The eleven Southern states held constitutional conventions giving black men the right to vote., where the factions divided into the Radical Conservative, and in-between delegates. The Radicals were a coalition: 40% were Southern white Republicans ("scalawags"); 25% were white Carpetbaggers, and 34% were black. Scalawags wanted to disfranchise all of the traditional white leadership class, but moderate Republican leaders in the North warned against that, and black delegates typically called for universal voting rights. The carpetbaggers inserted provisions designed to promote economic growth, especially financial aid to rebuild the ruined railroad system. The conventions set up systems of free public schools funded by tax money, but did not require them to be racially integrated.
Until 1872, most former Confederate or prewar Southern office holders were disqualified from voting or holding office; all but 500 top Confederate leaders were pardoned by the Amnesty Act of 1872. "Proscription" was the policy of disqualifying as many ex-Confederates as possible. It appealed to the Scalawag element. For example, in 1865 Tennessee had disfranchised 80,000 ex-Confederates. However, prescription was soundly rejected by the black element, which insisted on universal suffrage. The issue would come up repeatedly in several states, especially in Texas and Virginia. In Virginia, an effort was made to disqualify for public office every man who had served in the Confederate Army even as a private, and any civilian farmer who sold food to the Confederate army. Disfranchising Southern whites was also opposed by moderate Republicans in the North, who felt that ending proscription would bring the South closer to a republican form of government based on the consent of the governed, as called for by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Strong measures that were called for in order to forestall a return to the defunct Confederacy increasingly seemed out of place, and the role of the United States Army and controlling politics in the state was troublesome. Increasingly, historian Mark Summers states, "the disfranchisers had to fall back on the contention that denial of the vote was meant as punishment, and a lifelong punishment at that ... Month by month, the unrepublican character of the regime looked more glaring."
During the Civil War, many in the North believed that fighting for the Union was a noble cause - for the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery. After the war ended, with the North victorious, the fear among Radicals was that President Johnson too quickly assumed that slavery and Confederate nationalism were dead and that the southern states could return. The Radicals sought out a candidate for President who represented their viewpoint.
In 1868, the Republicans unanimously chose Ulysses S. Grant to be the Republican Presidential candidate. Grant won favor with the Radicals after he allowed Edwin Stanton, a Radical, to be reinstated as Secretary of War. As early as 1862, during the Civil War, Grant had appointed the Ohio military chaplain John Eaton to protect and gradually incorporate refugee slaves in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi into the Union War effort, and pay them for their labor. It was the beginning of his vision for the Freedmen's Bureau. Grant opposed President Johnson by supporting the Reconstruction Acts passed by the Radicals.
Immediately upon Inauguration in 1869, Grant bolstered Reconstruction by prodding Congress to readmit Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas into the Union, while ensuring their constitutions protected every citizen's voting rights. Grant met with prominent black leaders for consultation, and signed a bill into law that guaranteed equal rights to both blacks and whites in Washington D.C.
In Grant's two terms he strengthened Washington's legal capabilities to directly intervene to protect citizenship rights even if the states ignored the problem. He worked with Congress to create the Department of Justice and Office of Solicitor General, led by Attorney General Amos Akerman and the first Solicitor General Benjamin Bristow. Congress passed three powerful Enforcement Acts in 1870-71. These were criminal codes which protected the Freedmen's right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. Most important, they authorized the federal government to intervene when states did not act. Grant's new Justice Department prosecuted thousands of Klansmen under the tough new laws. Grant sent federal troops to nine South Carolina counties to suppress Klan violence in 1871. Grant supported passage of the Fifteenth Amendment stating that no state could deny a man the right to vote on the basis of race. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 giving people access to public facilities regardless of race.
To counter vote fraud in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, Grant sent in tens of thousands of armed, uniformed federal marshals and other election officials to regulate the 1870 and subsequent elections. Democrats across the North then mobilized to defend their base and attacked Grant's entire set of policies. On October 21, 1876 President Grant deployed troops to protect black and white Republican voters in Petersburg, Virginia.
Grant's support from Congress and the nation declined due to scandals within his administration and the political resurgence of the Democrats in the North and South. By 1870, most Republicans felt the war goals had been achieved, and they turned their attention to other issues such as economic policies.
On April 20, 1871, the U.S. Congress launched a 21-member investigation committee on the status of the Southern Reconstruction states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Congressional members on the committee included Rep. Benjamin Butler, Sen. Zachariah Chandler, and Sen. Francis P. Blair. Subcommittee members traveled into the South to interview the people living in their respective states. Those interviewed included top-ranking officials, such as Wade Hampton, former South Carolina Gov. James L. Orr, and Nathan B. Forrest, a former Confederate general and (alleged) prominent Ku Klux Klan leader (Forrest denied in his Congressional testimony being a member). Other southerners interviewed included farmers, doctors, merchants, teachers, and clergymen. The committee heard numerous reports of white violence against blacks, while many whites denied Klan membership or knowledge of violent activities. The majority report by Republicans concluded that the government would not tolerate any Southern "conspiracy" to resist violently the Congressional Reconstruction. The committee completed its 13-volume report in February 1872. While Grant had been able to suppress the KKK through the Enforcement Acts, other paramilitary insurgents organized, including the White League in 1874, active in Louisiana; and the Red Shirts, with chapters active in Mississippi and the Carolinas. They used intimidation and outright attacks to run Republicans out of office and repress voting by blacks, leading to white Democrats regaining power by the elections of the mid-to-late 1870s.
Republicans took control of all Southern state governorships and state legislatures, except for Virginia. The Republican coalition elected numerous African Americans to local, state, and national offices; though they did not dominate any electoral offices, black men as representatives voting in state and federal legislatures marked a drastic social change. At the beginning of 1867, no African American in the South held political office, but within three or four years "about 15 percent of the officeholders in the South were black--a larger proportion than in 1990." In 1860 blacks were the majority of the population in Mississippi and South Carolina, 47% in Louisiana, 45% in Alabama, and 44% in Georgia and Florida, so their political influence was still far less than their percentage of the population.
About 137 black officeholders had lived outside the South before the Civil War. Some who had escaped from slavery to the North and had become educated returned to help the South advance in the postwar era. Others were free blacks before the war, who had achieved education and positions of leadership elsewhere. Other African-American men who served were already leaders in their communities, including a number of preachers. As happened in white communities, not all leadership depended upon wealth and literacy.
|Race of delegates to 1867
state constitutional conventions
|State||White||Black||% White||Statewide white
(% in 1870)
There were few African Americans elected or appointed to national office. African Americans voted for both white and black candidates. The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed only that voting could not be restricted on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. From 1868 on, campaigns and elections were surrounded by violence as white insurgents and paramilitary tried to suppress the black vote, and fraud was rampant. Many Congressional elections in the South were contested. Even states with majority African-American population often elected only one or two African-American representatives to Congress. Exceptions included South Carolina; at the end of Reconstruction, four of its five Congressmen were African American.
|African Americans in Office 1870-1876|
Freedmen were very active in forming their own churches, mostly Baptist or Methodist, and giving their ministers both moral and political leadership roles. In a process of self-segregation, practically all blacks left white churches so that few racially integrated congregations remained (apart from some Catholic churches in Louisiana). Four main groups competed with each other across the South to form new Methodist churches composed of freedmen. They were the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (which was sponsored by the white Methodist Episcopal Church, South) and the well-funded Methodist Episcopal Church (Northern white Methodists). By 1871 the Northern Methodists had 88,000 black members in the South, and had opened numerous schools for them.
Blacks in the South were a core element of the Republican Party and their ministers had powerful political roles that were distinctive since they did not depend on white support, in contrast to teachers, politicians, businessmen, and tenant farmers. Acting on the principle as stated by Charles H. Pearce, an AME minister in Florida: "A man in this State cannot do his whole duty as a minister except he looks out for the political interests of his people," over 100 black ministers were elected to state legislatures during Reconstruction, as well as several to Congress and one, Hiram Revels, to the U.S. Senate.
In a highly controversial move, the Northern Methodists used the Army to seize control of Methodist churches in large cities, over the vehement protests of the Southern Methodists. Historian Ralph Morrow reports:
Across the North most evangelical denominations, especially the Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, as well as the Quakers, were strong supporters of Radical policies. The focus on social problems paved the way for the Social Gospel movement. Matthew Simpson, a Methodist Bishop, played a leading role in mobilizing the Northern Methodists for the cause. His biographer calls him the "High Priest of the Radical Republicans." The Methodist Ministers Association of Boston, meeting two weeks after Lincoln's assassination, called for a hard line against the Confederate leadership:
The denominations all sent missionaries, teachers and activists to the South to help the Freedmen. Only the Methodists made many converts, however. Activists sponsored by Northern Methodist Church played a major role in the Freedmen's Bureau, notably in such key educational roles as the Bureau's state superintendent or assistant superintendent of education for Virginia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.
Many Americans interpreted great events in religious terms. Historian Wilson Fallin contrasts the interpretation of Civil War and Reconstruction in white versus black Baptist sermons in Alabama. White Baptists expressed the view that:
In sharp contrast, Black Baptists interpreted the Civil War, emancipation and Reconstruction as:
Historian James D. Anderson argues that the freed slaves were the first Southerners "to campaign for universal, state-supported public education." Blacks in the Republican coalition played a critical role in establishing the principle in state constitutions for the first time during congressional Reconstruction. Some slaves had learned to read from white playmates or colleagues before formal education was allowed by law; African Americans started "native schools" before the end of the war; Sabbath schools were another widespread means that freedmen developed to teach literacy. When they gained suffrage, black politicians took this commitment to public education to state constitutional conventions.
The Republicans created a system of public schools, which were segregated by race everywhere except New Orleans. Generally, elementary and a few secondary schools were built in most cities, and occasionally in the countryside, but the South had few cities.
The rural areas faced many difficulties opening and maintaining public schools. In the country, the public school was often a one-room affair that attracted about half the younger children. The teachers were poorly paid, and their pay was often in arrears. Conservatives contended the rural schools were too expensive and unnecessary for a region where the vast majority of people were cotton or tobacco farmers. They had no vision of a better future for their residents. One historian found that the schools were less effective than they might have been because "poverty, the inability of the states to collect taxes, and inefficiency and corruption in many places prevented successful operation of the schools." After Reconstruction ended and the whites disfranchised the blacks and imposed Jim Crow, they consistently underfunded black institutions, including the schools.
After the war, northern missionaries founded numerous private academies and colleges across the South for freedmen. In addition, every state founded state colleges for freedmen, such as Alcorn State University in Mississippi. The normal schools and state colleges produced generations of teachers who were integral to the education of African-American children under the segregated system. By the end of the century, the majority of African Americans were literate.
In the late 19th century, the federal government established land grant legislation to provide funding for higher education across the United States. Learning that blacks were excluded from land grant colleges in the South, in 1890, the federal government insisted that southern states establish black state institutions as land grant colleges to provide for black higher education, in order to continue to receive funds for their already established white schools. Some states classified their black state colleges as land grant institutions. Former Congressman John Roy Lynch wrote, "there are very many liberal, fair-minded and influential Democrats in the State [Mississippi] who are strongly in favor of having the State provide for the liberal education of both races."
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. Taxes were quadrupled across the South to pay off the railroad bonds and the school costs. There were complaints among taxpayers, because taxes had historically been low, since there was so little commitment to public works or public education. Taxes historically had been much lower than in the North, reflecting a lack of government investment by the communities. 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 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. 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."
Reconstruction changed the means of taxation in the South. In the U.S. from the earliest days until today, a major source of state revenue was the property tax. In the South, wealthy landowners were allowed to self-assess the value of their own land. These fraudulent assessments were almost valueless, and pre-war property tax collections were lacking due to property value misrepresentation. State revenues came from fees and from sales taxes on slave auctions. Some states assessed property owners by a combination of land value and a capitation tax, a tax on each worker employed. This tax was often assessed in a way to discourage a free labor market, where a slave was assessed at 75 cents, while a free white was assessed at a dollar or more, and a free African American at $3 or more. Some revenue also came from poll taxes. These taxes were more than poor people could pay, with the designed and inevitable consequence that they did not vote.
During Reconstruction, the state legislature mobilized to provide for public need more than had previous governments: establishing public schools and investing in infrastructure, as well as charitable institutions such as hospitals and asylums. The needed to increase taxes which were abnormally low. The planters had provided privately for their own needs. There was some fraudulent spending in the postwar years; a collapse in state credit because of huge deficits, forced the states to increase property tax rates. In places, the rate went up to ten times higher--despite the poverty of the region. The planters had not invested in infrastructure and much had been destroyed during the war. In part, the new tax system was designed to force owners of large plantations with huge tracts of uncultivated land either to sell or to have it confiscated for failure to pay taxes. The taxes would serve as a market-based system for redistributing the land to the landless freedmen and white poor. Mississippi, for instance, was mostly frontier, with 90% of the bottomlands in the interior undeveloped.
The following table shows property tax rates for South Carolina and Mississippi. Note that many local town and county assessments effectively doubled the tax rates reported in the table. These taxes were still levied upon the landowners' own sworn testimony as to the value of their land, which remained the dubious and exploitable system used by wealthy landholders in the South well into the 20th century.
|1869||5 mills (0.5%)||1 mill (0.1%) (lowest rate between 1822 and 1898)|
|1870||9 mills||5 mills|
|1871||7 mills||4 mills|
|1872||12 mills||8.5 mills|
|1873||12 mills||12.5 mills|
|1874||10.3-8 mills||14 mills (1.4%) "a rate which virtually amounted to confiscation" (highest rate between 1822 and 1898)|
|Source||J. S. Reynolds, Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865-1877 (Columbia, SC: The State Co., 1905), p. 329.||J. H. Hollander,Studies in State Taxation with Particular Reference to the Southern States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1900), p. 192.|
Called upon to pay taxes on their property, essentially for the first time, angry plantation owners revolted. The conservatives shifted their focus away from race to taxes. Former Congressman John R. Lynch, a black Republican leader from Mississippi, later wrote,
|"||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 unless of course they wanted to change them.||"|
While the "Scalawag" element of Republican whites supported measures for black civil rights, the conservative whites typically opposed these measures. Some supported armed attacks to suppress black power. They self-consciously defended their own actions within the framework of an Anglo-American discourse of resistance against tyrannical government, and they broadly succeeded in convincing many fellow white citizens says Steedman.
The opponents of Reconstruction formed state political parties, affiliated with the national Democratic party and often named the "Conservative party." They supported or tolerated violent paramilitary groups, such as the White League in Louisiana and the Red Shirts in Mississippi and the Carolinas, that assassinated and intimidated both black and white Republican leaders at election time. Historian George C. Rable called such groups the "military arm of the Democratic Party." By the mid-1870s, the Conservatives and Democrats had aligned with the national Democratic Party, which enthusiastically supported their cause even as the national Republican Party was losing interest in Southern affairs. Historian Walter Lynwood Fleming, associated with the Dunning School, 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.
Often, these white Southerners identified as the "Conservative Party" or the "Democratic and Conservative Party" in order to distinguish themselves from the national Democratic Party and to obtain support from former Whigs. These parties sent delegates to the 1868 Democratic National Convention and abandoned their separate names by 1873 or 1874.
Most [white] members of both the planter/business class and common farmer class of the South opposed black power, carpetbaggers and military rule, and sought white supremacy. Democrats nominated blacks for political office and tried to steal other blacks from the Republican side. When these attempts to combine with the blacks failed, the planters joined the common farmers in simply trying to displace the Republican governments. The planters and their business allies dominated the self-styled "conservative" coalition that finally took control in the South. They were paternalistic toward the blacks but feared they would use power to raise taxes and slow business development.
Fleming described the first results of the insurgent 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 result, Fleming said, was that lawless elements "made use of the organization as a cloak to cover their misdeeds ... the lynching habits of today  are largely due to conditions, social and legal, growing out of Reconstruction." Historians have noted that the peak of lynchings took place years after Reconstruction ended as whites were imposing Jim Crow laws and that they were more often used to keep black men down, with a rate associated with settlement of sharecropper accounts at the end of the season, than for any other reason.
Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer (a northern scholar) in 1917 explained:
Outrages upon the former 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 and 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.
As Reconstruction continued, whites accompanied elections with increased violence in an attempt to run Republicans out of office and suppress black voting. The victims of this violence were overwhelmingly African American, as in the Colfax Massacre of 1873. After federal suppression of the Klan in the early 1870s, white insurgent groups tried to avoid open conflict with federal forces. In 1874 in the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League entered New Orleans with 5,000 members and defeated the police and militia, to occupy federal offices for three days in an attempt to overturn the disputed government of William Kellogg, but retreated before federal troops reached the city. None were prosecuted. Their election-time tactics included violent intimidation of African-American and Republican voters prior to elections while avoiding conflict with the U.S. Army or the state militias and then withdrawing completely on election day. Conservative reaction continued in both the north and south; the "white liners" movement to elect candidates dedicated to white supremacy reached as far as Ohio in 1875.
As early as 1868 Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, a leading Radical during the war, 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.
By 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant had alienated large numbers of leading Republicans, including many Radicals, by the 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 party who expressed dismay that the party had succumbed to corruption. They were further wearied by the continued insurgent violence of whites against blacks in the South, especially around every election cycle, which demonstrated the war was not over and changes were fragile. Leaders included editors of some of the nation's most powerful newspapers. Charles Sumner, embittered by the corruption of the Grant administration, joined the new party, which nominated editor Horace Greeley. The badly organized Democratic party also supported Greeley.
Grant made up for the defections by new gains among Union veterans and by strong support from the "Stalwart" faction of his party (which depended on his patronage), and the Southern Republican parties. Grant won with 55.6% of the vote to Greeley's 43.8%. The Liberal Republican party vanished and many former supporters--even former abolitionists--abandoned the cause of Reconstruction.
In the South, political-racial tensions built up inside the Republican party as they were attacked by the Democrats. In 1868, Georgia Democrats, with support from some Republicans, expelled all 28 black Republican members from the state house, arguing blacks were eligible to vote but not to hold office. In most states, the more conservative scalawags fought for control with the more radical carpetbaggers and their black allies. Most of the 430 Republican newspapers in the South were edited by scalawags - only 20 percent were edited by carpetbaggers. White businessmen generally boycotted Republican papers, which survived through government patronage. Nevertheless, in the increasingly bitter battles inside the Republican Party, the scalawags usually lost; many of the disgruntled losers switched over to the conservative or Democratic side. 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 recruits were acquired. The most bitter contest took place inside the Republican Party in Arkansas, where the two sides armed their forces and confronted each other in the streets; no actual combat took place in the Brooks-Baxter War. The carpetbagger faction led by Elisha Baxter finally prevailed when the White House intervened, but both sides were badly weakened, and the Democrats soon came to power.
Meanwhile, in state after state the freedmen were demanding a bigger share of the offices and patronage, squeezing out carpetbagger allies but never commanding the numbers equivalent to their population proportion. By the mid-1870s, "The hard realities of Southern political life had taught the lesson that black constituents needed to be represented by black officials." The financial depression increased the pressure on Reconstruction governments, dissolving progress.
Finally, some of the more prosperous freedmen were joining the Democrats, as they were angered at the failure of the Republicans to help them acquire land. The South was "sparsely settled"; only 10% of Louisiana was cultivated, and 90% of Mississippi bottomland were undeveloped in areas away from the riverfronts, but freedmen often did not have the stake to get started. They hoped government would help them acquire land which they would work. Only South Carolina created any land redistribution, establishing a land commission and resettling about 14,000 freedmen families and some poor whites on land purchased by the state.
Although historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois celebrated a cross-racial coalition of poor whites and blacks, such coalitions rarely formed in these years. Writing in 1915, former Congressman Lynch, recalling his experience as a black leader in Mississippi, explained 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 reported 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 former 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.
By 1870, the Democratic-Conservative leadership across the South decided it had to end its opposition to Reconstruction and black suffrage 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. Democrats in the North concurred with these Southern Democrats. They wanted to fight the Republican Party on economic grounds rather than race. The New Departure offered the chance for a clean slate without having to re-fight the Civil War every election. Furthermore, many wealthy Southern landowners thought they could control part of the newly enfranchised black electorate to their own advantage.
Not all Democrats agreed; an insurgent element continued to resist Reconstruction no matter what. Eventually, a group called "Redeemers" took control of the party in the Southern states. 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, some Democrats switched from the race issue to taxes and corruption, charging that Republican governments were corrupt and inefficient. With continuing decrease in cotton prices, taxes squeezed cash-poor farmers who rarely saw $20 in currency a year but had to pay taxes in currency or lose their farm. But major planters, who had never paid taxes before, often recovered their property even after confiscation.
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.
In the North, a live-and-let-live attitude made elections more like a sporting contest. But in the Deep South, many white citizens had not reconciled with the defeat of the war or the granting of citizenship to freedmen. As an Alabama scalawag explained,
The Panic of 1873 (a depression) 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 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.
Nationally, President Grant was blamed 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 violent Brooks-Baxter War in 1874 ripped apart the Republican party there.
In the lower South, violence increased as new insurgent groups arose, including the Red Shirts in Mississippi and the Carolinas, and the White League in Louisiana. The disputed election in Louisiana in 1872 found both Republican and Democratic candidates holding inaugural balls while returns were reviewed. Both certified their own slates for local parish offices in many places, causing local tensions to rise. Finally, Federal support helped certify the Republican as governor.
Slates for local offices were certified by each candidate. In rural Grant Parish in Red River Valley, freedmen fearing a Democratic attempt to take over the parish government reinforced defenses at the small Colfax courthouse in late March. White militias gathered from the area a few miles outside the settlement. Rumors and fears abounded on both sides. William Ward, an African-American Union veteran and militia captain, mustered his company in Colfax and went to the courthouse. On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, the whites attacked the defenders at the courthouse. There was confusion about who shot one of the white leaders after an offer by the defenders to surrender. It was a catalyst to mayhem. In the end, three whites died and 120-150 blacks were killed, some 50 that evening while being held as prisoners. The disproportionate numbers of black to white fatalities and documentation of brutalized bodies are why contemporary historians call it the Colfax Massacre rather than the Colfax Riot, as it was known locally.
This marked the beginning of heightened insurgency and attacks on Republican officeholders and freedmen in Louisiana and other Deep South states. In Louisiana, Judge T. S. Crawford and District Attorney P. H. Harris of the 12th Judicial District were shot off their horses and killed from ambush October 8, 1873, while going to court. One widow wrote to the Department of Justice that her husband was killed because he was a Union man and "... of the efforts made to screen those who committed a crime ..."
Political violence was endemic in Louisiana. In 1874 the white militias coalesced into paramilitary organizations such as the White League, first in parishes of the Red River Valley. The new organization operated openly and had political goals: the violent overthrow of Republican rule and suppression of black voting. White League chapters soon rose in many rural parishes, receiving financing for advanced weaponry from wealthy men. In the Coushatta Massacre in 1874, the White League assassinated six white Republican officeholders and five to twenty black witnesses outside Coushatta, Red River Parish. Four of the white men were related to the Republican representative of the parish, who was married to a local woman; three were native to the region.
Later in 1874 the White League mounted a serious attempt to unseat the Republican governor of Louisiana, in a dispute that had simmered since the 1872 election. It brought 5000 troops to New Orleans to engage and overwhelm forces of the Metropolitan Police and state militia to turn Republican Governor William P. Kellogg out of office and seat John McEnery. The White League took over and held the state house and city hall, but they retreated before the arrival of reinforcing Federal troops. Kellogg had asked for reinforcements before, and Grant finally responded, sending additional troops to try to quell violence throughout plantation areas of the Red River Valley, although 2,000 troops were already in the state.
Similarly, the Red Shirts, another paramilitary group, arose in 1875 in Mississippi and the Carolinas. Like the White League and White Liner rifle clubs, to which 20,000 men belonged in North Carolina alone, these groups operated as a "military arm of the Democratic Party", to restore white supremacy.
Democrats and many 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 happened when he won the 1876 Republican nomination for president.
An explosion of violence accompanied the campaign for the Mississippi's 1875 election, in which Red Shirts and Democratic rifle clubs, operating in the open, threatened or shot enough Republicans to decide the election for the Democrats. Hundreds of black men were killed. Republican Governor Adelbert Ames asked Grant for federal troops to fight back; Grant initially refused, saying public opinion was "tired out" of the perpetual troubles in the South. Ames fled the state as the Democrats took over Mississippi.
The campaigns and elections of 1876 were marked by additional murders and attacks on Republicans in Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Florida. In South Carolina the campaign season of 1876 was marked by murderous outbreaks and fraud against freedmen. Red Shirts paraded with arms behind Democratic candidates; they killed blacks in the Hamburg and Ellenton SC massacres; and one historian estimated 150 blacks were killed in the weeks before the 1876 election across South Carolina. Red Shirts prevented almost all black voting in two majority-black counties. The Red Shirts were also active in North Carolina.
Reconstruction continued in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida until 1877. The elections of 1876 were accompanied by heightened violence across the Deep South. A combination of ballot stuffing and intimidating blacks suppressed their vote even in majority black counties. The White League was active in Louisiana. After Republican Rutherford Hayes won the disputed 1876 presidential election, the national Compromise of 1877 was reached.
The white Democrats in the South agreed to accept Hayes's victory if he withdrew the last Federal troops. By this point, the North was weary of insurgency. White Democrats controlled most of the Southern legislatures and armed militias controlled small towns and rural areas. Blacks considered Reconstruction a failure because the Federal government withdrew from enforcing their ability to exercise their rights as citizens.
On January 29, 1877 President Grant signed the Electoral Commission Act which set up a 15-member commission to settle the disputed 1876 election of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats. The Electoral Commission awarded Rutherford B. Hayes the electoral votes he needed; Congress certified he had won by one electoral vote. The Democrats had little leverage--they could delay Hayes' election but they could not put their man (Tilden) in the White House. However they agreed not to block Hayes' inauguration based on a "back room" deal. Key to this deal was the understanding that federal troops would no longer interfere in southern politics despite substantial election-associated violence against blacks. The Southern states indicated that they would protect the lives of African Americans although this obviously turned out to be far from reliable. Hayes's friends also let it be known that he would promote Federal aid for internal improvements, including help for a railroad in Texas (this never happened) and name a Southerner to his cabinet (this did happen). With the end to the political role of Northern troops, the President had no method to enforce Reconstruction, thus this "back room" deal signaled the end of American Reconstruction.
After assuming office on March 4, 1877, President Hayes removed troops from the capitals of the remaining Reconstruction states, Louisiana and South Carolina, allowing the Redeemers to have full control of these states. President Grant had already removed troops from Florida, before Hayes was inaugurated, and troops from the other Reconstruction states had long since been withdrawn. Hayes appointed David M. Key from Tennessee, a Southern Democrat, to the position of Postmaster General. By 1879, thousands of African-American "Exodusters" packed up and headed to new opportunities in Kansas.
The Democrats gained control of the Senate, and had complete control of Congress, having taken over the House in 1875. Hayes vetoed bills from the Democrats that outlawed the Republican Enforcement Acts; however, with the military underfunded, Hayes could not adequately enforce these laws. Blacks remained involved in Southern politics, particularly in Virginia, which was run by the biracial Readjuster Party.
Numerous blacks were elected to local office through the 1880s, and in the 1890s in some states, biracial coalitions of Populists and Republicans briefly held control of state legislatures. In the last decade of the 19th century, southern states elected five black U.S. Congressmen before disfranchising constitutions were passed throughout the former Confederacy.
The interpretation of Reconstruction has been a topic of controversy. Nearly all historians hold that Reconstruction ended in failure but for very different reasons.
The first generation of Northern historians believed that the former Confederates were traitors and Johnson was their ally who threatened to undo the Union's constitutional achievements. By the 1880s, however, Northern historians argued that Johnson and his allies were not traitors but had blundered badly in rejecting the 14th Amendment and setting the stage for Radical Reconstruction.
The black leader Booker T. Washington, who grew up in West Virginia during Reconstruction, concluded later 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." His solution was to concentrate on building the economic infrastructure of the black community, in part by his leadership and the southern Tuskegee Institute.
The Dunning School of scholars were trained at the history department of Columbia University under Professor William A. Dunning analyzed Reconstruction as a failure after 1866 for different reasons. They claimed that Congress took freedoms and rights from qualified whites and gave them to unqualified blacks who were being duped by corrupt "carpetbaggers and scalawags." As T. Harry Williams (who was a sharp critic of the Dunning school) notes, the Dunningites portrayed the era in stark terms:
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.
In the 1930s, historical revisionism became popular among scholars. As disciples of Charles A. Beard, revisionists focused on economics, downplaying politics and constitutional issues. The central figure was a young scholar at the University Wisconsin, Howard K. Beale, who in his PhD dissertation, finished in 1924, developed a complex new interpretation of Reconstruction. The Dunning School portrayed Freedmen as mere pawns in the hands of the Carpetbaggers. Beale argued that the Carpetbaggers themselves were pawns in the hands of northern industrialists, who were the real villains of Reconstruction. These industrialists had taken control of the nation during the Civil War, and set up high tariffs to protect their profits, as well as a lucrative national banking system and a railroad network fueled by government subsidies and secret payoffs. The return to power of the southern whites would seriously threaten all their gains, and so the ex-Confederates had to be kept out of power. The tool used by the industrialists was the combination of the Northern Republican Party and sufficient Southern support using Carpetbaggers and black voters. The rhetoric of civil rights for blacks, and the dream of equality, was rhetoric designed to fool idealistic voters. Beale called it "claptrap," arguing, "Constitutional discussions of the rights of the negro, the status of Southern states, the legal position of ex-rebels, and the powers of Congress and the president determined nothing. They were pure sham."
President Andrew Johnson had tried, and failed, to stop the juggernaut of the industrialists. The Dunning school had praised Johnson for upholding the rights of the white men in the South and endorsing white supremacy. Beale was not a racist, and indeed was one of the most vigorous historians working for black civil rights in the 1930s and 1940s. In his view, Johnson was not a hero for his racism, but rather for his forlorn battle against the industrialists. Charles A. Beard and Mary Beard had already published The Rise of American Civilization (1927) three years before Beale, and had given very wide publicity to a similar theme. The Beard-Beale interpretation of Reconstruction became known as "revisionism," and replaced the Dunning school for most historians, until the 1950s.
The Beardian interpretation of the causes of the Civil War downplayed slavery, abolitionism, and issues of morality. It ignored constitutional issues of states rights and even ignored American nationalism as the force that finally led to victory in the war. Indeed, the ferocious combat itself was passed over as merely an ephemeral event. Much more important was the calculus of class conflict, as the Beards explained in The Rise of American Civilization (1927), the Civil War was really a:
Social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers, and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South.
The Beards were especially interested in the Reconstruction era, as the industrialists of the Northeast and the farmers of the West cashed in on their great victory over the southern aristocracy. Historian Richard Hofstadter paraphrases the Beards as arguing that in victory:
the Northern capitalists were able to impose their economic program, quickly passing a series of measures on tariffs, banking, homesteads, and immigration that guaranteed the success of their plans for economic development. Solicitude for the Freedman had little to do with northern policies. The Fourteenth Amendment, which gave the Negro his citizenship, Beard found significant primarily as a result of a conspiracy of a few legislative draftsman friendly to corporations to use the supposed elevation of the blacks as a cover for a fundamental law giving strong the protection to business corporations against regulation by state government.
Wisconsin historian William Hesseltine added the point that the Northeastern businessmen wanted to control the Southern economy directly, which they did through ownership of the railroads. The Beard-Beale interpretation of the monolithic Northern industrialists fell apart in the 1950s when it was closely examined by numerous historians, including Robert P. Sharkey, Irwin Unger, and Stanley Coben. The younger scholars conclusively demonstrated that there was no unified economic policy on the part of the dominant Republican Party. Some wanted high tariffs and some low. Some wanted Greenbacks and others wanted gold. There was no conspiracy to use Reconstruction to impose any such unified economic policy on the nation. Northern businessmen were widely divergent on monetary or tariff policy, and seldom paid attention to Reconstruction issues. Furthermore, the rhetoric on behalf of the rights of the Freedman was not claptrap but deeply held and very serious political philosophy.
The black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, in his Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, published in 1935, compared results across the states to show achievements by the Reconstruction legislatures and to refute claims about wholesale African-American control of governments. He showed black contributions, as in the establishment of universal public education, charitable and social institutions and universal suffrage as important results, and he noted their collaboration with whites. He also pointed out that whites benefited most by the financial deals made, and he put excesses in the perspective of the war's aftermath. He noted that despite complaints, several states kept their Reconstruction constitutions for nearly a quarter of a century. Despite receiving favorable reviews, his work was largely ignored by white historians of his time.
In the 1960s neoabolitionist historians emerged, led by John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, Leon Litwack, and Eric Foner. Influenced by 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.
Instead, they emphasized that suppression of the rights of African Americans was a worse scandal and a grave corruption of America's republican ideals. They argued that the tragedy of Reconstruction was not that it failed because blacks were incapable of governing, especially as they did not dominate any state government, but that it failed because whites raised an insurgent movement to restore white supremacy. White elite-dominated state legislatures passed disfranchising constitutions from 1890 to 1908 that effectively barred most blacks and many poor whites from voting. This disfranchisement affected millions of people for decades into the 20th century, and closed African Americans and poor whites out of the political process in the South.
Re-establishment of white supremacy meant that within a decade African Americans were excluded from virtually all local, state and federal governance in all states of the South. Lack of representation meant that they were treated as second-class citizens, with schools and services consistently underfunded in segregated societies, no representation on juries or in law enforcement, and bias in other legislation. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement and the passage in 1964 and 1965 of Federal legislation that outlawed segregation and restored the suffrage under what is sometimes referred to as the "Second Reconstruction."
In 1990 Eric Foner concluded that from the black point of view, "Reconstruction must be judged a failure." Foner stated Reconstruction was "a noble if flawed experiment, the first attempt to introduce a genuine inter-racial democracy in the United States". The many factors contributing to the failure included: lack of a permanent federal agency specifically designed for the enforcement of civil rights; the Morrison R. Waite Supreme Court decisions that dismantled previous congressional civil rights legislation; and the economic reestablishment of conservative white planters in the South by 1877. Historian William McFeely explained that although the constitutional amendments and civil rights legislation on their own merit were remarkable achievements, no permanent government agency whose specific purpose was civil rights enforcement had been created.
More recent work by Nina Silber, David W. 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 19th century, while monographs by Charles Reagan Wilson, Gaines Foster, W. Scott Poole and Bruce Baker have offered new views of the Southern "Lost Cause".
Economists and economic historians have different interpretations of the economic impact of race on the postwar Southern economy. In 1995, Robert Whaples took a random survey of 178 members of the Economic History Association, who studied American history in all time periods. He asked whether they wholly or partly accepted, or rejected, 40 propositions in the scholarly literature about American economic history. The greatest difference between economics PhDs and history PhDs came with questions on competition and race. For example, the proposition originally put forward by Robert Higgs, "in the postbellum South economic competition among whites played an important part in protecting blacks from racial coercion" was accepted in whole or part by 66% of the economists, but by only 22% of the historians. Whaples says this highlights, "A recurring difference dividing historians and economists. The economists have more faith in the power of the competitive market. For example, they see the competitive market as protecting disfranchised blacks and are less likely to accept the idea that there was exploitation by merchant monopolists."
Reconstruction is widely considered a failure, though the reason for this is a matter of controversy.
Historian Donald R. Shaffer maintained that the gains during Reconstruction for African Americans were not entirely extinguished. The legalization of African-American marriages and families and the independence of black churches from white denominations were a source of strength during the Jim Crow era. Reconstruction was never forgotten within the black community and it remained a source of inspiration. The system of sharecropping granted blacks a considerable amount of freedom as compared to slavery.
However, in 2014 historian Mark Summers argues that the "failure" question should be looked at from the viewpoint of the war goals; in that case, he argues:
If we see Reconstruction's purpose as making sure that the main goals of the war would be fulfilled, of a Union held together forever, of a North and South able to work together, of slavery extirpated, and sectional rivalries confined, of the permanent banishment of the fear of vaunting appeals to state sovereignty, backed by armed force, then Reconstruction looks like what in that respect it was, a lasting and unappreciated success.
The journalist Joel Chandler Harris, writing as "Joe Harris" for the Atlanta Constitution (mostly after Reconstruction), tried to advance racial and sectional reconciliation in the late 19th century. He supported Henry Grady's vision of a New South during Grady's time as editor from 1880 to 1889. Harris wrote many editorials encouraging southern acceptance of the changed conditions and some Northern influence, although he also asserted his belief that it should proceed under white supremacy.
In popular literature, two early 20th-century novels by Thomas Dixon--The Clansman (1905) and The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden - 1865-1900 (1902)--romanticized white resistance to Northern/black coercion, hailing vigilante action by the Ku Klux Klan.D. W. Griffith adapted Dixon's The Clansman for the screen in his anti-Republican movie The Birth of a Nation (1915); it stimulated the formation of the 20th-century version of the KKK. Many other authors romanticized the benevolence of slavery and the élite world of the antebellum plantations in memoirs and histories published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy promoted influential works by women in these genres.
Only Georgia has a separate article about its experiences under Reconstruction. The other state names below link to a specific section in the state history article about the Reconstruction era.
in each State
|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||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||May 6, 1861||May 18, 1861||June 22, 1868||November 10, 1874|
|North Carolina||May 20, 1861||May 21, 1861||July 4, 1868||November 28, 1870|
|Tennessee||June 8, 1861||May 16, 1861||July 24, 1866||October 4, 1869|
For much more detail see Reconstruction: Bibliography