Exam preparation materials

Chapter 15: Reconstruction and Its Aftermath, 1865–1896



Wade-Davis Bill passed by Congress but vetoed by Lincoln


Freedman’s Bureau established  • Andrew Johnson assumes the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination  • 13th Amendment ratified


Ku Klux Klan founded  • Johnson vetoes the Civil Rights Act  • Tennessee readmitted to the Union  • Radical Republicans override Johnson’s veto


Reconstruction Act passed, marking the beginning of Congressional (Radical) Reconstruction


President Johnson impeached; he is acquitted by the Senate  • Ulysses Grant elected president  • 14th Amendment ratified


15th Amendment ratified


Hayes and Tilden vie for presidency in disputed election race


Compromise awards Hayes the presidency and effectively ends Reconstruction


Plessy vFerguson decided


13th Amendment

Abraham Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan

Ulysses S. Grant


Wade-Davis Bill

14th Amendment

Civil Rights Act of 1865

Ku Klux Klan

Reconstruction Act of 1867

15th Amendment

Compromise of 1877

Plessy v. Ferguson

Hiram Revels

“40 acres and a mule”

Freedman’s Bureau

Radical Republicans

Thaddeus Stevens

“The whole fabric of Southern society must be changed and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. Without this, this government can never be, as it has never been, a true republic….”

—From a speech by Thaddeus Stevens, 1865


Radical Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens’s desire to see sweeping changes in the South, as evidenced by the above quote, was one of several approaches to a series of vexing questions that faced the United States when the Civil War ended. What accommodations should be made for freed men and women? How should the rebellious states be reintegrated into the Union? Should individuals who had participated in the Confederacy be considered criminals and be punished? The actual programs and legislation of the Reconstruction period grew out of political wrangling in Washington, but they were also shaped by the aspirations and actions of those most immediately affected—the freed men and women of the South.


Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan

President Abraham Lincoln wanted to bring the Union back together quickly and easily. It was his opinion that Southern states had never actually seceded. They had threatened to, but the federal government had prevented secession by winning the Civil War. Lincoln promised to approach the Reconstruction process “[w]ith malice toward none, with charity toward all.” Lincoln’s “10 percent plan” was designed to let states re-enter the Union if 10 percent of the state’s voters swore allegiance to the United States. Lincoln also intended to pardon all but the highest-ranking Confederate officers. The Radical Republicans, who wanted a more far-reaching Reconstruction plan, passed the Wade-Davis Bill. This bill, which was vetoed by Lincoln, would have made Reconstruction the responsibility of Congress rather than of the president.

Johnson’s Plan and the 13th Amendment (1865)

Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth before he could implement any form of Reconstruction. His successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson from Tennessee, lacked Lincoln’s political skills. Johnson’s plan allowed states to re-enter the Union if they ratified the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery, and pledged allegiance to the Union. Though Johnson excluded the old slaveholding class from political participation, he did little to help the freed men and women.

Failures of Presidential Reconstruction

Events in the South following the Civil War led most Republicans in Congress, and indeed a large portion of Northerners in general, to have doubts about President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan. As civil governments began to function in late 1865 and 1866, most Southern legislatures passed black codes, which represented an effort to define a new legal status for African Americans as subordinate to whites. The codes varied from state to state, but most restricted African Americans from carrying weapons, starting their own businesses, owning land, marrying whites, and traveling without a permit. Various codes provided for forced labor contracts for anyone found guilty of vagrancy. Black codes had the effect of restoring many aspects of slavery.

At the same time, some Southern whites used violence and terror to force freed men and women into an unequal status. The violence was most closely associated with the Ku Klux Klan, a secret organization formed in 1866, which often resorted to whippings, lynchings, and burning African American churches and schools. Klan members, wearing sheets to conceal their identity, targeted Republican organizations in the South and individual African Americans accused of not showing deference to whites.


Many Northerners, after reading about black codes, Klan terror, and race riots in Memphis and New Orleans, concluded that “the South may have lost the war, but it won the peace.” In response, Radical Republicans in Congress, with the support of many moderates, pushed through a series of measures that challenged the power of the White House and eventually led to Congressional control over Reconstruction.

Congress Challenges the President on Reconstruction

The first major action that the radicals in Congress took was to refuse to seat the recently elected Southern legislators, many of whom had participated in the Confederacy. In early 1866, Congress voted to continue and enlarge the Freedman’s Bureau, an agency created to help freed men and women adjust to their new lives, and to pass a Civil Rights Act guaranteeing African Americans citizenship. President Johnson saw these actions as a threat to his power and vetoed both. Tensions between Congress and the president intensified as Congress overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Radicals drafted the 14th Amendment (1866), which made “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” citizens of the country. Further, the amendment insisted that the states guarantee all people “equal protection under the law.” It did not guarantee African American suffrage, but it stipulated that a state would lose a percentage of its congressional seats if it denied male citizens the vote. Congress approved the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. Johnson urged states to reject it on the grounds that it was too harsh on ex-Confederates and that Southern legislators had had no hand in drafting it. The 14th Amendment and the larger question of the nature of Reconstruction became contentious issues in the midterm congressional election of 1866. The Radicals gained the mandate they needed, capturing a two-thirds majority in Congress, enough to override presidential vetoes.

Republicans, with their moderate allies, exercised their newfound muscle in 1867 by adopting the Reconstruction Act of 1867 over Johnson’s veto. The act presumed that the Southern states, with the exception of Tennessee, were without legal state governments. The ten remaining former Confederate states were divided into five military districts, each headed by a federal military commander. To be eligible for readmission into the Union, Southern states had to call new Constitutional conventions, ratify the 14th Amendment, and guarantee African American men the right to vote.

The relationship between the president and Congress rapidly disintegrated in 1867. Congressional Republicans had passed the Tenure of Office Act to protect its allies in Johnson’s cabinet. The Tenure of Office Act forbade the president from removing any official from office who had received Senate approval for the post without first receiving Senate approval for the dismissal. In August 1867, Johnson challenged the act by suspending Secretary of War and Radical sympathizer Edwin Stanton. Johnson’s challenge brought to a head the battle over Reconstruction. Radical Republicans in the House voted to impeach Johnson in 1868. The move to oust Johnson stalled in the Senate with one vote short of the necessary two-thirds. Johnson remained in office, but power over Reconstruction had shifted from the president to Congress.

Republican Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency in 1868, partly due to a half-million African American votes. Fearing—accurately—that white Southerners would try to disenfranchise African Americans, the Radicals drafted the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. The amendment, ratified in 1870, also affected some Northern states that previously had barred African Americans from voting.

Congressional (Radical) Reconstruction in Practice

Congressional Reconstruction, although short-lived, brought sweeping changes to the South. New state governments were formed as the Southern states rejoined the United States. African American families were reunited. Laws were passed that guaranteed equality, and new economic patterns emerged. An important task of the Reconstruction governments in the South was physically rebuilding the South. These governments expanded in size as they built roads, railroads, schools, and other institutions.

The tasks at hand were accomplished by an uneasy coalition of carpetbaggers (the derisive name for Northern whites who moved South), scalawags (Southern whites sympathetic to the new order), and African Americans. Some scalawags and carpetbaggers hoped to gain personally from participating in Reconstruction, while others were driven by a moral mandate.

For the first time, African Americans were elected to local office, state legislatures, and even Congress (notably Hiram Revels, a senator from Mississippi). In South Carolina, a state that had a majority African American population, they briefly comprised a majority in the legislature. Southern critics of Reconstruction have exaggerated the power of African Americans during the period and highlighted incidents of corruption. But Reconstruction governments, under the Republican banner, passed laws ending discrimination, built an infrastructure, and created an extensive educational system.

Economic change was slow in coming. Though four million slaves had become free, they couldn’t afford land, and jobs were virtually nonexistent. The government never implemented the idea of distributing “40 acres and a mule” to freed men and women. Most African Americans soon settled into the sharecropping system, where African Americans (and poor whites) would farm a few acres of a large estate and give a share (probably half) of the crops to the owner. Few became landowners.

The End of Reconstruction

Reconstruction ended gradually. Southern Democrats regained power—a process they called redemption—between 1869 and 1876. The final blow to Reconstruction came as a result of the disputed presidential election of 1876. Neither the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, nor the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, received the required number of electoral votes (20 votes were in dispute). The Democrats, even though they had carried the popular vote, agreed to let Hayes occupy the White House, if the Republicans, in turn, agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South. The Compromise of 1877 (also known as the Hayes-Tilden Compromise) thus ended Reconstruction.


With home rule in place, the so-called “redeemer governments” instituted a series of sweeping changes that again reduced African Americans to a subservient position in Southern society.

Denying African Americans the Vote

Despite the passage of the 15th Amendment, Southern governments created a series of obstacles that effectively denied African Americans the right to vote:

•  States levied poll taxes as an obstacle to voting; most African Americans could not afford to pay the tax.

•  Because African Americans were denied education during the period of slavery, they often could not pass the literacy tests required to be eligible to vote.

•  The grandfather clauses allowed men to vote if their grandfather was a voter before Reconstruction. This enabled uneducated whites to get around literacy tests.

Legal Segregation

Jim Crow laws segregated whites and African Americans in public facilities, such as train stations and schools. The laws were declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); public accommodations, the high court ruled, could separate the races if the facilities for both were equal (thus the “separate but equal” doctrine). The South remained a segregated society, with unequal facilities, until Jim Crow laws were declared unconstitutional in the 1950s.


The Ku Klux Klan remained active, intimidating African Americans from challenging white supremacy.


Reconstruction is generally considered a tragic failure, with the United States missing an opportunity to achieve full equality for African Americans. However, Reconstruction provided African Americans with such gains as public education and a degree of political participation. Many also see Reconstruction as inspiration for the civil rights movement almost a century later.


•  Black codes: Laws passed in the Southern states immediately after the Civil War to restrict the movements and limit the rights of African Americans

•  Carpetbaggers: Derisive term for Northerners who went to the South during Reconstruction to promote reform or to profit from it

•  Grandfather clauses: These were provisions in the voting laws in Southern states following Reconstruction designed to allow whites who could not pass literacy tests to vote. The grandfather clauses gave the right to vote to people whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote—a provision of little value to African Americans, because their grandfathers had been slaves.

•  Impeachment: This is an indictment or formal charge brought by the legislative body against a government official, especially the president, in an attempt to remove him or her from office. If the House of Representatives determines that a president has committed acts that may be “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the president is impeached, as in the case of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and President Bill Clinton in 1999. The Senate then conducts a trial to determine guilt; if the president is found guilty, he or she is removed from office.

•  Jim Crow: These were a series of laws designed to create separation between the races. They were by and large Southern state laws made constitutional by the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

•  Literacy tests: Reading tests required in some Southern states before people were allowed to register to vote; they were mainly intended to prevent African Americans from voting.

•  Poll tax: Tax paid by those wishing to vote in several Southern states after Reconstruction; designed to limit political participation by African Americans.

•  Scalawags: Derisive term for white Southerners who cooperated with the Reconstruction governments

•  Sharecropping: Agricultural labor system in the South following the era of slavery wherein a sharecropper could farm a piece of land in return for giving the landowner a share, usually half, of the crop

•  Tenant farming: Agricultural system in which farm workers supply their own tools, rent land, and have more control over their work than agrarian wage workers

•  Veto: The power of the president to reject legislation; the U.S. Congress can override a veto by the U.S. president if it can pass the legislation by a two-thirds majority.


1.   The Freedman’s Bureau was established to

(A)    help former slaves find jobs and protect them from discrimination.

(B)    help African Americans win election to public office.

(C)    help rebuild the transportation networks of the South.

(D)    protect African Americans from scalawags and carpetbaggers.

(E)    help former slave owners get back on their feet economically after Emancipation.

2.   Under the terms of the Compromise of 1877, Republicans maintained control of the White House and agreed to

(A)    transfer large sums of money to the Democratic Party.

(B)    withdraw federal troops from the South.

(C)    push for passage of the 15th Amendment.

(D)    give Democrats control of Congress.

(E)    raise tariff rates on imported goods.

3.   The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required that the former Confederate states, in order to gain readmission to the Union,

(A)    ratify the 14th Amendment and guarantee African American men the right to vote.

(B)    end slavery.

(C)    imprison former Confederate government officials.

(D)    have 10 percent of their people sign a loyalty oath to the Constitution of the United States.

(E)    nullify Jim Crow laws.

4.   Pick the correct order for the following events:

W)    Rutherford B. Hayes becomes president.

X)    The South surrenders to end the Civil War.

Y)    The act establishing Radical Reconstruction is passed.

Z)    The Emancipation Proclamation is issued.

Answer choices:

(A)    X, Z, Y, W

(B)    W, Z, X, Y

(C)    Z, X Y, W

(D)    Z, Y, X, W

(E)    X, Y, W, Z


1.    A

The Freedman’s Bureau helped freed men and women adjust to their new lives, including finding them jobs. No accommodations were made for former slave holders. Choices (B) and (C) were both part of Reconstruction but not the specific functions of the Freedman’s Bureau. Scalawags and carpetbaggers were, generally speaking, the allies of freed men and women.

2.    B

Withdrawing troops spelled the end of Reconstruction. The 15th Amendment had already been ratified. Power in Congress is determined by the number of seats each party wins in elections, not backroom haggling, so control of Congress could not be given to the Democrats. The Republicans supported higher tariff rates anyway; raising them would be no concession to the Democrats. Choice (A) simply never occurred.

3.    A

To be readmitted in to the Union, Confederate states had to ratify the 14th Amendment and guarantee African American men the right to vote. Slavery had already ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment. Radical reconstruction was not excessively harsh on ex-Confederates; there were no mass arrests or executions. The “10 Percent Plan” was Lincoln’s idea in 1864. Jim Crow laws had not yet come into effect; that happened after Reconstruction ended.

4.    C

There is a logic to the events, even if one does not know the exact dates of each event. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) was issued during the war, so it would have to come before the South surrendering (1865). Reconstruction (1865–1877) happened after the war, and Hayes came to power as part of the “Compromise of 1877,” which ended Reconstruction.

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