Before being elected president, Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature and lost an election for the U.S. Senate to Stephen A. Douglas. Nevertheless, his fierce campaign earned him a nomination for the presidency. The first Republican president ever, Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War and ended slavery in America. On April 14th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., only days after the end of the Civil War.
In the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Lincoln made a brilliant political move by framing the abolition of slavery as a military necessity to the Union cause. The legalistic document only applied to parts of the South still in rebellion, but it forever re-defined the Civil War itself and the American perception of liberty. Lincoln subsequently pushed for the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery or involuntary servitude anywhere in the United States.
Later that same year, he issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which came to be known as his 10 Percent Plan. Under its terms, any rebel state could form a Union government if a number equal to 10% of its white males who'd voted in 1860 took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union and received a presidential pardon. Those participating also had to swear their support for laws and proclamations that addressed emancipation. In effect, Lincoln claimed the right of the executive to direct the course of Reconstruction, but Republicans in Congress countered that this obligation belonged to the legislative branch. They proposed the more stringent Wade Davis Bill in 1864, which Lincoln pocket-vetoed.
Two days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865, Lincoln made a speech that included the tentative suggestion that literate Blacks and African-American Union veterans might be given the right to vote. According to some accounts, actor John Wilkes Booth heard the suggestion and declared, "That means n----r citizenship. [...] That is the last speech he'll ever make." Booth assassinated Lincoln three days later. Some historians have called it the first shot in the longer struggle for Black equality.
Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) became America's 17th president in April 1865, upon the death of Abraham Lincoln. Though most people recognize that Congress fabricated the charges against him, Johnson was the first ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives, and missed removal from office by one Senate vote. He's generally identified as one of the worst presidents in American history.
A spokesman for the non-slaveholding white majority in Tennessee, Johnson was the only Southern representative to remain in Congress after his state seceded in June 1861. He vigorously supported the Lincoln administration and was named Lincoln's running mate on a unity platform in the election of 1864. After he ascended to the presidency, Johnson seemed poised to enact retribution on the slaveholding aristocracy that he'd long resented. Instead, his lenient Presidential Reconstruction program merely issued thousands of pardons to the wealthiest landowners and infuriated Congress, which rejected his plan and refused to seat the newly elected Southern representatives.
In February 1868, the Republican majority in Congress impeached Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson had rightly suspected Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton of conspiring with congressional leaders, and had forced him out of office, but the Tenure of Office Act mandated that he seek the advice, consent, and approval of the Senate to remove a federal officeholder. The Supreme Court later declared the act unconstitutional in 1926.
Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909) served as Chief Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau—formally established as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands—at the request of President Johnson in May 1865. He was a Union general in the Civil War, and in 1867, he founded Howard University.
Howard was committed to improving opportunities and education for Black people, but his efforts were hampered by an under-staffed and under-funded Bureau. Further, his credibility with the freed slaves was substantially undercut when President Johnson ordered him to seize the plantation land back from the Blacks and return it to their former masters. The Bureau was discontinued in July 1869 after new Southern state governments had organized under Congressional Reconstruction.
In a somewhat paradoxical change of course for a man who'd just been struggling for minority rights, Howard went on to become commander of the Dept. of the Columbia, where he directed several campaigns against the Native Americans. His forces pursued Nez Percé Chief Joseph to the Canadian border in 1877 and forced him to relocate along with his people to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state. In 1886, Howard was promoted to major general and assigned to command the Division of the East, where he served until his retirement in 1894.
Hiram Revels (1822–1901) was the first Black citizen to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Born to free parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Revels had to go to Indiana and Illinois to obtain an education. He became an African Methodist Episcopal church pastor and the principal of a school for Blacks in Baltimore, Maryland.
After the Civil War began, Revels helped organize two volunteer regiments of Blacks in the Union Army. In 1863, he served as a chaplain to a Black regiment stationed in Mississippi. He settled there after the war and preached to a large congregation. In 1868, the military governor appointed Revels alderman and the next year, he was elected to the state senate.
Revels was a Republican, but he wanted to avoid friction with Southern whites, so he supported legislation that would have allowed disenfranchised members of the former Confederacy to vote and hold office once again. In January 1870, he was elected to the United States Senate to fill the unexpired term of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. During his year in office, Revels advocated desegregation in the schools and on the railroads.
Blanche K. Bruce (1841–1898) was a Black senator representing Mississippi during Reconutruction, becoming the first African-American politician ever to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate (1875–1881).
Bruce was a light-skinned mulatto, born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to an enslaved Black mother and a white planter father. After the Civil War broke out and their master moved his plantation to Missouri, Bruce and his two brothers escaped to the city of Hannibal and unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the Union Army.
He became supervisor of Mississippi elections in 1869, and held a number of state positions through which he earned enough money to purchase a plantation in Floreyville, Mississippi. The Republican-controlled state legislature elected Bruce to the Senate in 1874.
During his single term, Bruce advocated equal treatment for both Blacks and Native Americans, opposed the movement to exclude Chinese immigrants, and sought better navigation on the Mississippi River. At the end of his term, he realized that he couldn't get reelected since Reconstruction had ended and whites were reclaiming control over the southern states. He spent the rest of his life in Washington, D.C. with his wife, serving in a series of federal posts. Bruce's achievement wouldn't be equaled until 1972, nearly 100 years later, when Edward William Brooke III (R-MA) finished his first term in the Senate.
Pinckney B.S. Pinchback (1837–1921) was the first Black governor in the United States, serving as chief executive of Louisiana in 1872 and 1873. There wouldn't be another Black governor of any American state until 1989, when Virginian Lawrence Douglas Wilder (an Independent) won office. Pinchback's term was brief—from December 9th, 1872 to January 13th, 1873—but historic.
Pinchback, who was a "quadroon" (a person of one-fourth African descent), was raised in a world of privilege extremely rare for most Blacks, until his father's death left him destitute. Pinchback was forced to find a job as a cabin boy on the Ohio River to support his family. Although he was light-skinned enough to pass for a white person—and therefore obtain better jobs—he decided to recognize his African heritage, settling for lower paying, menial jobs.
When the Civil War broke out, he ran the Confederate blockade on the Mississippi River and raised a Black regiment in New Orleans (the "Corps d'Afrique") to fight for the Union. Pinchback returned to New Orleans after the war, became active in Republican politics, and ascended to the state governorship after his predecessor, Henry Clay Warmoth, was impeached. He was also elected to Congress twice, but was denied his seats for spurious reasons (in reality, likely due to his skin color).
Soon after, Pinchback became disillusioned amidst the failure of Reconstruction, starting anew as a lawyer at the age of 50.
Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) was the most famous Radical Republican in the House of Representatives (1849–1853, 1859–1868). Together with Charles Sumner in the Senate, the Pennsylvania native opposed President Lincoln's Reconstruction plan as too lenient. He served as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and determined to treat the defeated southern states as "conquered provinces."
After their congressional election victory in 1866, Stevens and the Republicans nullified Andrew Johnson's Presidential Reconstruction plan and passed groundbreaking civil rights legislation and the 14th Amendment over his veto. Stevens was also instrumental in the congressional Reconstruction plan to place the South under military occupation, and to grant Black men the vote. He was genuinely committed to Black social equality, but also admitted that enfranchising them would ensure the continued dominance of the Republican Party.
Near the end of his life, Stevens led the congressional movement to impeach Johnson, but the political battles of Reconstruction had taken their toll on him. He asked to be interred in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania cemetery with African Americans, rather than in a burial ground from which Blacks were forbidden, a testament to his firm belief in racial equality.
Charles Sumner (1811–1874), a senator from Massachusetts for more than 20 years (1851–1874), was the leader of the Radical Republicans in the Senate and a lifelong proponent of social equality for Blacks. He also supported prison reform and educational reforms.
Sumner's 1856 antislavery speech in the Senate assailed both the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Southern representatives who supported it. In one of the most shocking incidents in American history, Sumner was consequently attacked on the Senate floor and beaten with a cane by South Carolinian Preston Brooks, whose uncle was one of the men Sumner had criticized. It took Sumner more than three years to recover from the assault, a display of violence which galvanized the North.
After his return, Sumner strongly supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and claimed that the Confederate states had "committed suicide" by seceding, thereby forfeiting their constitutional rights. Together with Thaddeus Stevens in the House, Sumner led the fight for the congressional (or "Radical") Reconstruction program that sought to ensure liberty and equality for Blacks and enfranchisement for Black men. He also led the movement to impeach Andrew Johnson.
Sumner's relationship with the next president, Ulysses S. Grant, deteriorated over Grant's notion to annex Santo Domingo. Sumner was subsequently removed from his chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations. Two years after helping organize the short-lived Liberal Republican party in 1872, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
William T. Sherman (1820–1891) was a Union general in the American Civil War and one of the greatest of the Civil War generals. His middle name was Tecumseh, for the famous Shawnee chief.
Prior to the Civil War, Sherman fought the Seminole Indians in Florida and spent the Mexican-American War years stationed out in California on an administrative post. After a failed attempt at becoming a gold rush banker, he returned to the army when the Civil War began, and by March 1864, he was Supreme Commander in the West. After his force of 60,000 took Atlanta in September, Sherman began his infamous March to the Sea, leaving a wide swath of burned land and destroyed railroad lines behind him. He and his men wreaked even more devastation in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union.
In 1865, he issued Field Order 15, which gave Black families 40 acres of confiscated South Carolina land to farm as their own, in addition to one of the old requisition mules from the army. President Johnson rescinded that order a few months later, but the legend of "40 acres and a mule" survived long after in the betrayed hopes and long memories of Black families.
Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) served as Commander in Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War, leading the North to victory over the Confederacy. Grant later became the 18th President of the United States, serving from 1869 to 1877. After fighting in the Mexican-American War, Grant left the army, only to rejoin at the outbreak of the Civil War.
His victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga convinced Lincoln to promote him to head all Union Armies. After a bloody campaign in Richmond, Grant accepted Lee's surrender on April 9th, 1865. Grant's subsequent presidency was mired in corruption, and he became caught up in several political scandals.
Looking back on his life, Grant was most proud of his military career. Known for his adept selection of officers, that very skill deserted him when it came time to pick the men he would entrust with elite government posts during his presidency. His tenure in office was marred by the corruption and fraud that surrounded him, yet there was no evidence to suggest that Grant himself was guilty of anything but poor judgment.
During Reconstruction, Grant pursued the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina and effectively disabled the organization until the 1920s, but racism still abounded in the South. With the conviction that business supported the national interest, he signed legislation that protected entrenched business interests. This set the stage for more monopoly, public unrest over the accumulation of wealth, and increased corruption. Grant was unanimously renominated in 1872 and won reelection, but more scandal plagued his close associates, like his Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, and his private secretary, Orville E. Babcock, who were both involved in graft schemes.
He left office in disgrace and struggled to complete his memoirs while dying of cancer, so that his family would have some means of support after his death. Grant finished his two-volume work, one of the finest presidential memoirs ever, four days before he died.
Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was a runaway slave, a supporter of women's rights, and probably the most prominent abolitionist and human rights leader of the 19th century.
A renowned orator, Douglass favored the use of political tactics to work for abolition. During the Civil War, he advised President Lincoln to let former slaves fight for the North, and helped organize two Black regiments in Massachusetts. Douglass worked zealously to make the war a direct confrontation with slavery.
In 1866, Douglass led a Black delegation to the White House to meet with President Andrew Johnson and advocate for Black suffrage. The president was opposed to such an idea, and the meeting ended in controversy. When Black men did finally receive the vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Douglass' longtime support of female suffrage became subject to some controversy. Many women in the movement blamed him and other Black leaders for sacrificing their female comrades for the sake of gaining the franchise themselves.
In 1872, the Equal Rights Party convention nominated free love activist Victoria Woodhull and Douglass for president and vice president; Douglass declined the nomination. He remained active in the female suffrage movement for the remainder of his life.
In 1863, Anthony co-organized the Women's Loyal League to support Abraham Lincoln's government, especially his emancipation policy. Stanton and Anthony then established the American Equal Rights Association in 1866, dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage. Men, women, Blacks, and whites alike could be members, and both Stanton and Anthony opposed granting suffrage to freedmen without also giving it to women. This issue splintered the movement into two factions, one of which was the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) that the two women organized in 1869.
In 1872, Anthony was arrested in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote. She was sentenced to pay a fine, which she refused to do. In 1890, the NWSA united with its opposition group, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), of which Anthony was president from 1892 to 1900. She didn't live to see women enfranchised at the national level.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was co-leader of the American suffrage movement along with her good friend and colleague, Susan B. Anthony. Stanton was the more talented orator, while Anthony was her perfect counterpart as master tactician and organizer.
In 1866, Stanton and Anthony established the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and Black women and men dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage. Both women opposed granting suffrage to freedmen without also giving it to women. Stanton infamously appealed to several prevalent racial and ethnic stereotypes when she declared, after passage of the 15th Amendment, "Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic," could not make laws for educated women.blank">women's rights. She filled its pages with her passionate editorials for two years, until the paper went out of business.
Stanton published a number of books, including the first three volumes of the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, along with Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Sadly, she didn't live to see women enfranchised on the national level.
Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. After a distinguished career in national politics as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, Davis served as a congressman and then as a Mississippi senator.
After the South's defeat in the Civil War, he was stripped of his citizenship and took refuge in Europe, returning to the United States after a treason case against him was dropped. He died in New Orleans in 1889, and Congress posthumously reinstated his American citizenship in 1978.
In 1863, General Grant determined that the "Davis Bend" plantation in MIssissippi should become a "n**** paradise." The entire area, once owned by Jefferson Davis and his brother, was set aside for the exclusive settlement of freed slaves who had to pay for their own rations, mules, and tools. Davis Bend became a remarkable model of what might have been in Reconstruction; the self-reliant laborers there earned $160,000 in profits in 1865 from their cotton crop. Many of Mississippi's Black Reconstruction leaders came out of the plantation.
After the war, Davis was imprisoned for two years in Fortress Monroe, Virginia, but never put on trial. He later served as president of a Memphis, Tennessee insurance company and then retired to an estate near Biloxi, Mississippi, which was provided to him by an admirer.
Alexander Stephens (1812–1883) was a politician who served in the Georgia legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives before the American Civil War.
Throughout his career, Stephens defended slavery but opposed disunion, favoring sectional compromises instead. When his home state of Georgia voted in 1861 to secede from the Union, Stephens reluctantly followed. His fellow Southern leaders chose him to serve as Vice President of the Confederacy throughout the Civil War.
When the Confederacy fell in May 1865, Stephens was arrested and imprisoned for five months at Fort Warren, Massachusetts. He was an early proponent of peace but provoked Northern outrage when Georgia elected him to the Senate in 1866. Thanks to his high rank in the Confederacy, Stephens was a particularly symbolic example of the failure of Presidential Reconstruction. Many Northerners felt that to re-admit him to Congress was tantamount to betraying the memories of their sons, husbands, and brothers who had died for the Union. The Republican majority denied Stephens his seat because his state hadn't been properly reconstructed according to the congressional guidelines.
Stephens was nonetheless reelected to the House of Representatives from 1873 to 1882, and then served as Governor of Georgia from 1882 to 1883.
Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was a prominent American newspaper editor and founder of the New York Tribune. He was the first (and last) presidential candidate of the short-lived Liberal Republican party in 1872. Greeley was also officially endorsed by the Democrats, but many of them refused to support him in practice, since he'd long spoken out against many issues that their party embraced.
Initially ambivalent about the Civil War, Greeley soon became a vigorous Union supporter. He didn't think that Lincoln should be so conciliatory toward the border states and pushed for emancipation in the pages of his newspaper. During Reconstruction, he supported Black suffrage and total amnesty for all Southerners. When Greeley co-signed the bail bond to release Jefferson Davis from prison in May 1867, he lost half his subscribers to his Weekly Tribune.
Greeley initially supported President Ulysses S. Grant but came to resent him for his ties to corrupt associates, including Roscoe Conkling's political machine in New York. He campaigned strenuously to become president but was savaged as a traitor and a crank in the press. Driven insane by his overwhelming defeat and his wife's recent death, Greeley died just weeks after the election in November 1872.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) was the 19th President of the United States, from 1877 to 1881. His controversial and extremely close election became known as the Compromise of 1877, or alternately, the Corrupt Bargain.
Hayes served in Congress and as Governor of Ohio before accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 against Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. The election marked the resurgence of the Democratic Party and the reentry of white Southerners into the national voting process. The Hayes-Tilden election was extraordinarily close, and the ballot counts from several southern states were disputed. Congress created an electoral commission to decide the elections, which were plagued by reports of voting irregularities in the hotly-contested Reconstruction states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.
Although Tilden won the popular vote by a small majority, the commission awarded all disputed returns to Hayes, giving him a majority of one in the Electoral College. This was clearly a partisan decision; the Democrats' price for allowing Hayes to become president was a commitment from Republicans to abandon Reconstruction and defense of the welfare of the South's Black population. Hayes withdrew federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina shortly after taking office, ending the Reconstruction era.
Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886), a New York Democrat, ran against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes for the presidency in 1876 and won the popular vote by a very small margin. He was denied the office after a congressional commission voted along partisan lines to award all disputed electoral regions to Hayes.
Tilden was a successful lawyer with many railroad corporations as his clients. He was one of the few Free-Soil Democrats who didn't become a Republican upon the founding of the party in 1854. A native and resident of New York, he spent many years rooting out corruption and seeking reform, including dismantling the New York City political machine known as the Tweed Ring in 1866.
He was elected Governor of New York in 1874 and then made a successful attack on the corrupt "Canal ring," which derived illegal profits from the repair and extension of the state canal system. While corruption had reined during the previous Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Tilden was like a breath of fresh air to constituents. Additionally, whites in the South were just re-gaining power and wanted to showcase their support for the Democratic candidate, no matter who he was.
Lyman Trumbull (1813–1896) was a Republican Senator—originally a Democrat—from Illinois who helped lead the Liberal Republican Party in 1872. He then returned to being a Democrat.
Trumbull avidly supported the Lincoln administration and endorsed the radical Republicans on their Reconstruction measures. Yet he wouldn't support the movement to remove the president from office, and was one of a handful of senators who voted against the resolution.
He was co-counsel for Tilden in the contested Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.
Albion W. Tourgée (1838–1905) waged a courageous battle against the Ku Klux Klan during his term as a North Carolina judge during Reconstruction. In his judicial district, located in the central Piedmont region, Tourgée counted 12 murders, nine rapes, 14 cases of arson, and over 700 beatings, including the whipping of a 103-year-old woman.
A native of Ohio, Tourgée served in the Union Army and then became a carpetbagger lawyer and judge. He wrote several novels, including A Fool's Errand (1879) and Figs and Thistles (1879), which vividly illustrated the politics of the Reconstruction period. At the time, Tourgée complained of the self-interest exhibited by some Northern politicians who cared more about the predominance of the Republican Party than the welfare of Southern Blacks.
In 1896, the Citizens Committee of Black residents of New Orleans hired him to argue the Plessy v. Ferguson case before the Supreme Court. He was unsuccessful, and the resulting decision legalized segregation for the next 58 years.