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Reconstruction Terms

Corrupt Bargain, Compromise Of 1877

Also known as the "Compromise of 1877," and not to be confused with the first "Corrupt Bargain," as the election of 1824 was also known (this was an entirely unrelated and separate issue that we won't delve into here). The 1876 presidential election between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was extremely close. Voting irregularities—from violent intimidation of voters to widespread corruption—occurred in the chaotic southern states where federal troops were still stationed (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, for example). Tilden had won the popular vote, but the electoral college was supposed to decide the winner. Congress created what was supposed to be a bipartisan Electoral Commission to resolve the crisis by deciding on the electoral vote counts for each state that had been in dispute. The Commission had fifteen members, eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The last Republican named to the Commission actually supported Tilden, but then he caved to party pressure and voted for Hayes. The Commission voted on party lines for each state, thereby handing Hayes the election by a margin of one electoral vote. The Senate still had to confirm this decision. Southern congressmen were initially outraged, but they went along with the selection of Hayes after Republicans privately promised them several key concessions in return for their acquiescence. As historian C. Vann Woodward enumerated in his 1951 book Reunion and Reaction, Republicans guaranteed that they would provide the South with funds to build the Texas and Pacific Railroad, a southerner would receive the important position of Postmaster General, and the South would receive additional funds for rebuilding. Most importantly, Hayes would remove federal troops from the South and thus end Reconstruction, leaving the "race problem" up to the white-controlled state legislatures.

Freed People, Freedmen

Refers to the emancipated slaves; "freedmen" was used at the time and subsequently by historians; it has also been expanded to "people" to indicate the women and children who were involved in the experience of emancipation.

Freedmen's Bureau

Formally known as The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Congress created the Bureau as a subsidiary of the War Department in March 1865 to handle all matters pertaining to the four million freed slaves of the South, as they transitioned from bondage into freedom. Thanks to extensions from the Republican Congress, the Bureau survived until 1872, though scholars like W.E.B. DuBois have argued that its effects extended until 1876. Under the direction of Major General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau tried its best to handle an impossibly difficult situation amidst a hostile population of southern whites and a chaotic postwar atmosphere in the devastated ruins of the Confederacy. The Bureau worked with northern benevolent associations to bring funding and schoolteachers to the South. It presided over marriages amongst the black population and resolved domestic and labor contract disputes between former masters and their former slaves. The Bureau did not always side with the freedmen in these matters, and its overall priority was to return the South to order by ensuring that its inhabitants were working and earning income again. But the Bureau did have a profound effect on black lives in the postwar South, even if its overall mission was gravely undermined by President Johnson's demand (in 1866) that the Bureau oversee the return of confiscated lands to the many confederate planters that he had pardoned. The Bureau was pressed into the uncomfortable position of forcing freedmen and women off lands they had been told were theirs, and which they had been counting on to cultivate and gain some financial independence, so that the government could return those lands to the freedmen's former masters. In the end, a lack of adequate funding or staffing and widespread southern antipathy (as well as northern fatigue) ended the Bureau's short tenure.

Redemption And Redeemers, Redemption, Redeemers, Redeemer

White southerners who regained power in their states towards the end of Reconstruction; this amounted to Democratic control of the legislature and governorship, since the Reconstruction governments were all Republican. Redemption set in across the South by 1877 but occurred earlier in some places than others (as early as 1869 in Tennessee, as late as 1876 in Florida, South and North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana). Usually this white supremacist rule was enforced through intimidation, such as the "shotgun elections" in which whites monitored ballot boxes with shotguns and threatened to shoot any blacks (or white Republicans) who dared to vote. White legislators also organized to pass legislation that circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment and the federal Civil Rights bills. Such laws required voters to pass a literacy test—which most blacks could not pass, having been denied an education, and white voting registrars would fail them anyway. Alternately, states charged voters poll taxes, thus disenfranchising poor blacks and whites alike. The notorious "grandfather clause" was blatantly racist, as it ruled that only men whose grandfathers had voted (before the Civil War, when slavery was still legal) could vote in current elections. Though it was the shortest-lived of these political schemes, it still lasted a long time (until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1915). These acts did not happen overnight, but by the 1880s and '90s, they had reduced black political activity significantly, to the point where African-Americans barely participated in the process at all.

Radical Republicans, Radical Republican

A subset of the Republican Party, usually members of Congress who were outspoken on behalf of black civil rights and social equality. Though they differed among themselves in terms of their positions on Reconstruction issues, they were a minority within the party and gained influence only when Andrew Johnson alienated the moderate Republicans, thus enabling the Radicals' plans to go forward.


Reconstruction was the government-led effort to transform Southern society following the Civil War. With the South under military occupation, Reconstruction governments sought to ensure civil rights for formerly enslaved blacks. The North abandoned Reconstruction after 1876, allowing southern whites to regain power and reimpose a social system based on white supremacy.

The historical time period after the Civil War and before the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Reconstruction is usually dated from 1865-1877, but it technically ended earlier in several southern states where conservative white "Redemptionist" rule took hold after the state had already been readmitted to the union and whites had organized to prevent blacks from voting or exercising their other newfound rights. During Reconstruction, the government passed a series of laws establishing the criteria by which the former Confederacy could reenter the Union. When the Congressional (or "Radical") phase of Reconstruction commenced in 1867, the criteria became more stringent and states had to accept several new federal requirements for readmission. The Radical Republican Congress sought to safeguard the rights and liberties of African-Americans, and for a time, it succeeded at least in part. Black men held public office at the local, state, and federal levels. Black communities established their own churches, schools, and associations. The South as a whole received some of its first public hospitals and public schools. Reconstruction did not last longer than a decade in most places, but it was a critically important time that would be remembered for generations by blacks and whites alike (though usually in very different ways).

Suffrage, Black Suffrage, Suffragist, Suffragists

The right or chance to express an opinion or participate in a decision, or an activist who seeks that right. Usually referred to women seeking the vote (as in "woman suffrage" or "suffragettes") or, during this time period, black men ("black suffrage" or "suffragists").

Carpetbagger, Carpetbaggers, Carpetbagging

A derogatory term used by southerners to describe northerners who moved into the South during Reconstruction. Southerners resented the carpetbaggers, whom they suspected of intending to loot or exploit the defeated Confederacy. Carpetbaggers were blamed for creating alliances with occupying Union troops and freedmen, supposedly to hold down native southern whites.

Scalawags, Scalawag

A derogatory term used by southerners to describe other southerners who cooperated with Union officials during Reconstruction.

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