group rates for schools and districts

Politics in Reconstruction

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Politics

A Clean Getaway

Few losing sides in a war have ever come away with so little retribution as the former Confederacy after the Civil War. General Sherman and his force of 60,000 wreaked a path of destruction across Georgia and up through South Carolina, and the entire region and its infrastructure had been devastated by the conflict. Yet the political component of the victory was almost entirely aimed at reestablishing a united nation with two central conditions: the abolition of slavery and the repudiation of Confederate debt.

The important and politically powerful positions of postmaster, revenue assessor, and tax collector were supposed to be reserved for southerners who took the so-called "Ironclad Oath" that they had never voluntarily aided the Confederacy. Yet the Johnson administration quickly ignored this provision. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years but never put on trial; he lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one. Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, was in prison for less than half a year; upon his release, he was notoriously reelected to serve in Congress for the government he had just committed treason against. Although the Republican majority refused to seat him, Stephens was elected again in 1873. Georgia voters provided further indication of southern white recalcitrance when they subsequently elected Stephens as their governor. He died in office in 1883.

The Amnesty Act of 1872 restored the right to hold office to almost all former Confederates who were still barred from doing so under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment; yet President Grant had sought even more generous language than that which the bill contained. The very lack of trials for treason, let alone convictions, disproves the old historiographical claim—prevalent until the 1960s—that white southerners "literally were put to torture" under Reconstruction. If anything, it was the black southern population that was tortured: 156 black officials were victimized by white terrorist groups across the South; 34 of them, including 12 legislators, were murdered.

Lincoln's 10 Percent Plan

In late 1863, Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which came to be known as his 10 Percent Plan. Union forces were advancing into the South after the critical victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the government turned its attention to a plan that would resurrect the Union and ensure the loyalty of the former Confederacy. Any rebel state could form a Union government if a number equal to ten percent of its white males who had voted in 1860 took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union and had received a presidential pardon. High-ranking members of the Confederacy were excluded from the pardon, and those participating also had to swear their support for laws and proclamations that addressed emancipation.

Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana all formed governments under this plan, but Congress never recognized them by representation or by electoral votes cast in 1864. Lincoln had claimed the right to direct the course of Reconstruction by virtue of his presidential pardon power; yet Republicans in Congress countered that the federal government's constitutional obligation to guarantee a republication government for each state implied that Reconstruction was the responsibility of the legislative branch.

Wade-Davis Bill

Passed by Congress in 1864 as a more stringent means of dealing with the South, the bill required that a majority of a state's white male citizens—as opposed to Lincoln's 10 percent—declare their allegiance to the Union. Only those men who took the "Ironclad Oath" could vote or serve in the state constitutional convention. To be readmitted to the Union, the state convention would have to exclude high-ranking Confederacy members from office, abolish slavery, and repudiate all Confederate debts. Because Lincoln refused to sign the bill, it never became law.

Lincoln issued a statement that he would accept any state that chose to readmit itself under the terms of the bill, but this was highly unlikely, as Wade-Davis was much more disagreeable to most white southerners than the 10 percent plan had been. The executive and legislative branches stood at this impasse when Lincoln was shot in April of 1865.

Presidential Reconstruction

Andrew Johnson was a "War Democrat" who had spent most of his life in Tennessee, one of the few southern members of the party who sided with the Union in the Civil War and who was selected as Lincoln's running mate in the 1864 election as a symbol of unity. After he became president upon Lincoln's assassination in the spring of 1865, he called for general amnesty and restoration of property—except for slaves—to all southerners who would swear loyalty to the Union. But those whose pre-war property value exceeded $20,000 (the equivalent of more than $400,000 in today's money) had to personally seek a pardon from the president.

Initially, Congress and the public welcomed this provision of Johnson's plan as a sign that he was going to be more rigorous with the Confederate elite than his predecessor. Yet, as noted in the timeline, Johnson began issuing pardons by the hundreds over the summer of 1865; so many that the White House secretary office could not keep up in typing them all. When fall rolled around, the president had issued some thirteen thousand pardons, the southern states had held elections and drafted the notorious Black Codes in an attempt to return African-Americans to a state of quasi-slavery, and it was becoming very apparent to northerners and Republicans in Congress that Johnson's Reconstruction Plan was hardly a slap on the wrist for the unrepentant and defiant South.

Why the change of heart?

The reasons for Johnson's surprising complicity in granting the pardons remain something of a mystery; but Johnson may have had his own personal reasons. He had grown up a member of the impoverished non-slaveowning class of whites in North Carolina and Tennessee, and had learned to read as a teenager with the help of his wife. He shared the racial prejudices against blacks that were held by most yeomen farmers; he told friends during the war that he was siding with the Union against the slave masters, "those traitorous aristocrats" whom he had so long resented for all of the accumulated wealth and power which they possessed at the expense of his own class. Yet the sudden reversal of power brought about by the end of the war and his ascension to the presidency may have made Johnson much more forgiving when he enjoyed the perspective of the authority to whom the wealthy and powerful now appealed.

Republicans begin "waving the bloody shirt"

By the end of the year, more than sixty former Confederates arrived to take their seats in Congress, including four generals, four colonels and six Confederate cabinet officers—even Alexander H. Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy. To many northerners, this represented a betrayal of everything their sons, husbands, and brothers had fought and died for on the battlefield; as one put it, the southern representatives were "expecting to govern the union they had tried to destroy." The Clerk of the House refused to include the southern representatives in his roll call, and they were denied their elected seats. A Congressional Committee on Reconstruction concluded that southern governments were incapable of keeping law and order. In the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens commenced the effective Republican-party tactic that came to be known as "waving the bloody shirt": to win public support for a more effective and aggressive Reconstruction policy, he reminded northern voters of the sacrifices their men had made on the battlefield and the need to command the respect of the defeated Confederacy.

Johnson's Unsuccessful Retort: the "swing around the circle"

As Republicans waved the bloody shirt in the summer and fall of 1866, Johnson commenced his "swing around the circle." With Congress demanding that southern states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to gain re-admittance to the Union, the president began a disastrous speaking tour of the North to gain public endorsement of his policies, most of which contrasted with Congress. He compared to himself as a Jesus figure being crucified on the cross of Radical Reconstruction; a pathetic image in the eyes of most northerners. The passage of the notorious Black Codes and violent massacres of blacks in Memphis and New Orleans in the months just before Johnson's campaign trip proved that southern defiance was alive and thriving.

The president's Reconstruction policies had clearly failed to bring about real postwar change in the defeated Confederacy, and may have—as many Radicals argued—actually served to bring about the miscarriages of justice that followed. Crowds heckled the president, and Johnson's furious responses hurt what was left of his popularity. The mid-term elections became a referendum on Presidential Reconstruction, and the Republicans obtained well over a majority of two-thirds in both houses; they could now push their own Reconstruction program forward without regard to the opposition of the president, whose vetoes they could easily override.

Congressional, or "Radical" Reconstruction

Towards the end of the Civil War, even Radical Republicans were primarily concerned with guaranteeing blacks equality before the law, not suffrage or other rights. Yet, in the face of white southern racial terror, opposition from President Johnson, and their commitment to ensuring a just resolution to the war they had won militarily, even the moderate Republicans became more "radical," in nineteenth-century terms; that is, they became increasingly committed to the concept of black social equality and of the government's responsibility to uphold and protect the newfound rights of the freed people.

Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Bill of April 1866 was the first major law to be passed over a presidential veto in the history of the United States. It conferred citizenship upon black Americans and guaranteed them equal rights with whites. It sought to imbue emancipation with more concrete and substantial meaning than simply an absence of slavery, and to ensure its perpetuity, Republicans went on to pass one of the most important amendments ever ratified: the fourteenth. Additionally, the Republican Congress extended the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, an understaffed and underfunded but nonetheless pivotally important aspect of the federal presence in the postwar South, and a symbol of the government's commitment to safeguarding the freedoms of the emancipated slaves.

The Reconstruction Acts

In the spring of 1867, Republicans passed three laws of congressional Reconstruction over Johnson's veto. The first of them stipulated the new terms under which southern governments had to apply for readmission to the Union, essentially starting all over again after Johnson had tried to proclaim the Reconstruction process completed. Every southern state with the exception of Tennessee (which probably had more Unionists than any of the other ten Confederate states, and had already ratified the Fourteenth Amendment) was to be divided into five military districts, each with a commanding officer empowered to protect the rights of persons and property and to keep order. These officers could use military tribunals instead of courts to achieve stability in the region. This was actually a watered-down version of what true Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens had wanted; initially, the Reconstruction Committee had recommended that the military commanders be granted ultimate control over law enforcement, and for an indefinite time period.

Each state could hold a constitutional convention, provided that male citizens over the age of 21, of any race, color, or previous condition of servitude, could vote. A majority of voters had to ratify each constitution, and Congress had to accept it. Then the state legislature had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment; once that amendment became part of the Constitution, the states were entitled to Congressional representation. Anyone barred from holding office under the proposed Fourteenth Amendment could not participate in the process. Subsequent Reconstruction Acts in March and July instructed the commanders to register all adult males who swore they were qualified for the vote, and then to go beyond the loyalty oath and determine who was actually eligible to take it. By the end of 1867, every state but Texas had adhered to the terms of Radical Reconstruction.

Consolidating Republican Power

The Radicals ensured that their Reconstruction program would endure by removing the power of the Supreme Court to review cases arising under the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867, and the Court accepted this restriction while affirming the inviolability of the union in Texas v. White. At the same time, Congress also sought to restrain presidential opposition by commencing an impeachment trial against Johnson, claiming he had violated the provisions of the recently passed Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate consent for the firing of any officials who had required Senate confirmation in the first place. Yet the resulting Senate trial failed to convict Johnson, and may have diluted the level of popular support for the Radicals. Johnson nonetheless agreed to allow the Radical Reconstruction process to continue unabated, and the Senate set a precedent that presidents would not be removed from office unless they had committed the most serious offenses.

Radical Reconstruction ended at different times in different states throughout the next decade. Although all three branches of the federal government had ultimately turned away when blacks needed them most, in hindsight, the Radicals in Congress had tested the limits of federal commitment and power. In the end, the country was simply unprepared to commit itself to a vision of racial equality that most white citizens did not believe in.

The Freedmen's Bureau

The Bureau was created in March 1865 to smooth the transition from slavery, providing some four million freed people with immediate shelter and medical services, help in negotiating labor contracts with landowners, disputes among the freed people, and more. The Bureau was initially authorized for just one year, but thanks to legislative extensions that the Republican Congress passed over the president's veto, it remained in operation until 1872. The agents appointed by the Bureau were too few in number—fewer than 1,000 at the organization's peak, in a region of twelve million people—and their daunting tasks also entailed setting up schools (often with the help of missionary societies and northern philanthropies), aiding the aged, and supervising trials involving blacks, as well as the labor and land title disputes that took place within their own courts.

Yet the Bureau entered into controversy where land and labor disputes were concerned. Bureau director Oliver O. Howard, a veteran of the war, was charged with the task of informing freed people in the South Carolina Sea Islands that President Johnson had pardoned the landowners who had so recently been their slave masters. Upon being informed that they would have to return their parcels of land, the blacks reacted with anger, disbelief, and protest.

Additionally, throughout the South, the Bureau attempted to solve labor disputes with the objective of getting freed people back to work, and they sometimes sided with white landowners to persuade blacks to sign labor contracts. They nonetheless made some substantial achievements, establishing almost 3,000 schools in the South in four years. Over 150,000 students received an education because of the Bureau; this was the first public school system in most of the South, for whites and blacks, although most of the education remained segregated because of the public opposition to integration. The Bureau took control of the region's hospitals and dispensed medicine and medical care to blacks and whites.

Black Leadership

Some 2,000 African-Americans held public office during Reconstruction. After Reconstruction was over, many whites North and South portrayed the period as one of brutal black dictatorship over a defenseless and war-torn white population, with illiterate, ignorant, and lustful black men running roughshod over the once hallowed halls of state governments. But only in South Carolina—where the rich land had been owned by the wealthiest planters, who had the largest plantations and the highest numbers of slaves—did blacks compose 60% of the population and form a majority in the state legislature.

Fourteen black men were elected to the House of Representatives; two served in the Senate (both Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, a former slave, were elected from Mississippi). Since then, only three African-Americans have served in the Senate: Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, 1967-78; Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, 1993-98—the first black Democrat in the Senate; and Barack Obama of Illinois, 2005. Pinckney B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana—the son of a free black woman and a white planter—became the first black governor when he served briefly from 1872-3 after his predecessor was removed for corruption. It took over one hundred years for Americans to elect another black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, in 1989.

Black leadership also extended beyond the realm of political office. The traditional pillars of the black community were the religious figures, both prior to and after the widespread conversion of slaves to Christianity. Baptist and Methodist ministers, Episcopal preachers, and others often composed the heads of the community who met with Union Generals as they advanced through the South; they organized written appeals to the government for land and redress of grievances, and were frequently elected to office. About 180,000 black men achieved a substantial measure of respect, dignity, and empowerment by donning the Union blue and serving in the military; the vast majority were from the South.

The few African-Americans who managed to obtain an education or a craft, such as blacksmithing or carpentry, often eked out a small modicum of independence or savings and often emerged as figureheads after the war. The same was true for the small number of free blacks in the South—about 250,000, or one-seventeenth of the total black population in the region—who often resided in urban centers like New Orleans and Charleston. Nearly half of the twenty-two black men who served in Congress between 1869 and 1900 had been free before the Civil War. Yet these were not uncomplicated relationships within the black community; some free blacks themselves had actually owned slaves, while others worked to save the money necessary to buy their loved ones out of slavery. And many of the black men who served as soldiers were ordered to forcibly evict freed slaves from plantation land that had been returned to the former masters.

Next Page: Gender
Previous Page: Society

Need help with College?