Modern history

National Reconstructions

Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson viewed Reconstruction as a process of national reconciliation. They sketched out terms by which the former Confederate states could reclaim their political representation in the nation without much difficulty. Southern whites, too, sought to return to the Union quickly and with as little change as possible. Congressional Republicans, however, had a more thoroughgoing reconstruction in mind. Like many African Americans, Republican congressional leaders expected the South to extend constitutional rights to the freedmen and to provide them with the political and economic resources to sustain their freedom. Over the next decade, these competing visions of Reconstruction played out in a hard-fought and tumultuous battle over the social, economic, and political implications of the South’s defeat and of the abolition of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln Plans for Reunion

In December 1863, President Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. He believed that the southern states could not have constitutionally seceded from the Union and therefore only had to meet minimum standards before they regained their political and constitutional rights. Lincoln declared that defeated southern states would have to accept the abolition of slavery and that new governments could be formed when 10 percent of those eligible to vote in I860 (which in practice meant white southern men but not blacks) swore an oath of allegiance to the United States. Lincoln’s plan granted amnesty to all but the highest-ranking Confederate officials, and the restored voters in each state would elect members to a constitutional convention and representatives to take their seats in Congress. In the next year and a half, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee reestablished their governments under Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan.”

Republicans in Congress had other ideas. They argued that the Confederates had broken their contract with the Union when they seceded and should be treated as “conquered provinces” subject to congressional supervision. In 1864 Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill, which established much higher barriers for readmission to the Union than did Lincoln’s plan. For instance, the Wade-Davis bill substituted 50 percent of voters for the president’s 10 percent requirement. Lincoln put a stop to this harsher proposal by using a pocket veto—refusing to sign it within ten days of Congress’s adjournment.

Although Lincoln and his fellow Republicans in Congress disagreed about many aspects of postwar policy, Lincoln was flexible, and his actions mirrored his desire both to heal the Union and to help southern blacks. For example, the president supported the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, which passed Congress in January 1865 and was sent to the states for ratification. In March 1865, Lincoln signed the law to create the Freedmen’s Bureau. That same month, the president also expressed his sincere wish for reconciliation between the North and the South. “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address, “let us strive on to finish the work . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Lincoln would not, however, have the opportunity to shape Reconstruction with his balanced approach. When he was assassinated in April 1865, it fell to Andrew Johnson, a very different sort of politician, to lead the country through the process of national reintegration.

Andrew Johnson and Presidential Reconstruction

The nation needed a president who could transmit northern desires to the South with clarity and conviction and ensure that they were carried out. Instead, the nation got a president who substituted his own aims for those of the North, refused to engage in meaningful compromise even with sympathetic opponents, misled the South into believing that he could achieve restoration quickly, and subjected himself to political humiliation. Like his mentor, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson was a staunch Union man. He proved his loyalty by serving diligently as military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee from 1862 to 1864. In the 1864 election, Lincoln chose Johnson, a Democrat, as his running mate in a thinly veiled effort to attract border-state voters. The vice presidency was normally an inconsequential role, so it mattered little to Lincoln that Johnson, a southern Democrat, was out of step with many Republican Party positions.

As president, however, Johnson’s views took on profound importance. Born into rural poverty, Johnson had no sympathy for the southern aristocracy. Johnson had been a slave owner himself for a time, so his political opposition to slavery was not rooted in moral convictions. Instead, it sprang from the belief that slavery gave plantation owners inordinate power and wealth, which came at the expense of the majority of white Southerners who owned no slaves. He saw emancipation as a means to “break down an odious and dangerous [planter] aristocracy,” not to empower blacks. Consequently, he was unconcerned with the fate of African Americans in the postwar South. He saw no reason to punish the South or its leaders because he believed that the end of slavery would doom the southern aristocracy. He hoped to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible and then let Southerners take care of their own affairs.

Johnson’s views, combined with a lack of political savvy and skill, left him unable to work constructively with congressional Republicans, even the moderates who constituted the majority, such as Senators Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, and John Sherman of Ohio. Moderate Republicans shared the prevalent belief of their time that whites and blacks were not equal, but they argued that the federal government needed to protect newly emancipated slaves. Senator Trumbull warned that without national legislation, ex-slaves would “be tyrannized over, abused, and virtually reenslaved.” They expected southern states, where 90 percent of African Americans lived, to extend basic civil rights to the freedpeople, including equal protection and due process of law, and the right to work and hold property.

Nearly all Republicans shared these positions. The Radical wing of the party, however, wanted to go still further. Led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, this small but influential group advocated suffrage, or voting rights, for African American men as well as the redistribution of southern plantation lands to freed slaves. Stevens called on the federal government to provide freedpeople “a homestead of forty acres of land,” which would give them some measure of economic independence. Nonetheless, whatever disagreements the Radicals had with the moderates, all Republicans believed that Congress should have a strong voice in determining the fate of the former Confederate states. From May to December 1865, with Congress out of session, they waited to see what Johnson’s restoration plan would produce, ready to assert themselves if his policies deviated too much from their own.

At first, it seemed as if Johnson would proceed as they hoped. He appointed provisional governors to convene new state constitutional conventions and urged these conventions to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, revoke the states’ ordinances of secession, and refuse to pay Confederate war debts, which the victorious North did not consider legitimate because repayment would benefit southern bondholders who financed the rebellion. He also allowed the majority of white Southerners to obtain amnesty and a pardon by swearing their loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, but he required those who had held more than $20,000 of taxable property—the members of the southern aristocracy—to petition him for a special pardon to restore their rights. Republicans expected him to be harsh in dealing with his former political foes. Instead, Johnson relished the reversal of roles that put members of the southern elite at his mercy. As the once prominent petitioners paraded before him, the president granted almost all of their requests for pardons.

By the time Congress convened in December 1865, Johnson was satisfied that the southern states had fulfilled his requirements for restoration. Moderate and Radical Republicans disagreed, seeing few signs of change or contrition in the South. As a result of Johnson’s liberal pardon policy, many former leaders of the Confederacy won election to state constitutional conventions and to Congress. Indeed, Georgians elected Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens to the U.S. Senate. In addition, although most of the reconstituted state governments ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, South Carolina and Mississippi refused to repudiate the Confederate debt, and Mississippi rejected the Thirteenth Amendment.

Far from providing freedpeople with basic civil rights protection, the southern states passed a variety of black codes intended to reduce blacks to a condition as close to slavery as possible. Some laws prohibited blacks from bearing arms; others outlawed intermarriage and excluded blacks from serving on juries. Many of these laws were designed to ensure that white landowners had a supply of black labor now that slavery had ended. The codes made it difficult for blacks to leave plantations unless they proved they could support themselves. Many southern whites contended that they were acting no differently than their northern counterparts who used vagrancy laws to maintain control over workers.

Northerners viewed this situation with alarm. In their eyes, the postwar South looked very similar to the Old South, with a few cosmetic adjustments. If the black codes prevailed, one Republican proclaimed, “then I demand to know of what practical value is the amendment abolishing slavery?” Others wondered what their wartime sacrifices had been for if the South admitted no mistakes, was led by the same people, and continued to oppress its black inhabitants. The Chicago Tribune declared that Northerners would not allow the black codes to “disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.”

Mourning at Stonewall Jackson's Gravesite, 1866 Many Northerners were concerned that the defeat of the Confederacy did not lessen white Southerners' devotion to the "Lost Cause" of a society based on the domination of African Americans. Women, who led the efforts to memorialize Confederate soldiers, are shown at the gravesite of General Stonewall Jackson in Lexington, Virginia. Virginia military Institute Archives

Johnson and Congressional Resistance

Faced with growing opposition in the North, Johnson stubbornly held his ground. He insisted that the southern states had followed his plan and were entitled to resume their representation in Congress. Republicans objected, and in December 1865 they barred the admission of southern lawmakers, an action that Johnson denounced as illegitimate. Up to this point, it was still possible for Johnson and Congress to work together, if Johnson had been willing to compromise. He was not. Instead, Johnson pushed moderates into the Radical camp with a series of legislative vetoes that challenged the fundamental tenets of Republican policies toward African Americans and the South. In January 1866, the president refused to sign a bill passed by Congress to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau for another two years. A few months later, he vetoed the Civil Rights Act, which Congress had passed to protect freedpeople in the South from the restrictions placed on them by the black codes. These bills represented a consensus among moderate and Radical Republicans on the government’s responsibility toward former slaves.

Johnson justified his vetoes on both constitutional and personal grounds. Along with Democrats, he contended that so long as Congress refused to admit southern representatives, it could not legally pass laws affecting the South. The chief executive also condemned the Freedmen’s Bureau bill because it infringed on the rights of states to handle their internal affairs concerning education and economic matters. Johnson’s vetoes exposed his racism and his lifelong belief that the evil of slavery lay in the harm it did to poor white Southerners, not to enslaved blacks. Johnson argued that these congressional bills discriminated against whites, who would receive no benefits under them, and put whites at a disadvantage with blacks who received government assistance. Johnson’s private secretary recorded in his diary, “The president has at times exhibited a morbid distress and feeling against the Negroes,” including those like Jefferson Long, who spoke out for their full civil rights.

Johnson’s actions united moderates and Radicals against him. In April 1866, Congress repassed both the Freedmen’s Bureau extension and Civil Rights Act over the president’s vetoes. In June, lawmakers adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which incorporated many of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act, and submitted it to the states for ratification (see Appendix). Reflecting its confrontational dealings with the president, Congress wanted to ensure more permanent protection for African Americans than simple legislation could provide. Lawmakers also wanted to act quickly, as the situation in the South seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. The previous month, a race riot had broken out in Memphis, Tennessee. For a day and a half, white mobs, egged on by local police, went on a rampage, during which they terrorized black residents of the city and burned their houses and churches. “The late riots in our city,” the editor of a Memphis newspaper asserted, “have satisfied all of one thing, that the southern man will not be ruled by the negro.”

The Fourteenth Amendment defined citizenship to include African Americans, thereby nullifying the ruling in the Dred Scott case of 1857, which declared that blacks were not citizens. It extended equal protection and due process of law to all persons and not only citizens. The amendment repudiated Confederate debts, which some state governments had refused to do, and it barred Confederate officeholders from holding elective office unless Congress removed this provision by a two-thirds vote. Although most Republicans were upset with Johnson’s behavior, at this point they were not willing to embrace the Radical position entirely. Rather than granting the right to vote to black males at least twenty-one years of age, the Fourteenth Amendment gave the states the option of excluding blacks and accepting a reduction in congressional representation if they did so.

Johnson remained inflexible. Instead of counseling the southern states to accept the Fourteenth Amendment, which would have sped up their readmission to the Union, he encouraged them to reject it. Ironically, Johnson’s home state of Tennessee ratified the amendment, but the other states refused. In the fall of 1866, Johnson decided to take his case directly to northern voters before the midterm congressional elections. Campaigning for candidates who shared his views, he embarked on a swing through the Midwest. Clearly out of touch with northern public opinion, Johnson attacked Republican lawmakers and engaged in shouting matches with audiences. On election day, Republicans increased their majorities in Congress and now controlled two-thirds of the seats, providing them with greater power to override presidential vetoes.

Congressional Reconstruction

When the Fortieth Congress convened in 1867, Republican lawmakers charted a new course for Reconstruction. With moderates and Radicals united against the president, Congress intended to force the former Confederate states not only to protect the basic civil rights of African Americans but also to grant them the vote. Moderates now agreed with Radicals that unless blacks had access to the ballot, they would not be able to sustain their freedom. Extending the suffrage to African Americans also aided the fortunes of the Republican Party in the South by adding significant numbers of new black voters. By the end of March, Congress enacted three Military Reconstruction Acts. Together they divided ten southern states into five military districts, each under the supervision of a Union general and his troops (Map 14.1). The male voters of each state, regardless of race, were to elect delegates to a constitutional convention; only former Confederate officials were disfranchised. The conventions were required to draft constitutions that guaranteed black suffrage and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Within a year, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas had fulfilled these obligations and reentered the Union.

Having ensured congressional Reconstruction in the South, Republican lawmakers turned their attention to disciplining the president. Johnson continued to resist congressional policy and used his power as commander in chief to order generals in the military districts to soften the intent of congressional Reconstruction. In response, Congress passed the Command of the Army Act in 1867, which required the president to issue all orders to army commanders in the field through the General of the Army in Washington, D.C., Ulysses S. Grant. The Radicals had won over Grant and knew they could count on him to carry out their policies. Even more threatening to presidential power, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented Johnson from firing cabinet officers sympathetic to congressional Reconstruction. This measure barred the chief executive from removing from office any appointee that the Senate had ratified previously without returning to the Senate for approval.

MAP 14.1

Reconstruction in the South In 1867 Congress enacted legislation dividing the former Confederate states into five military districts. All the states were readmitted to the Union by 1870, and white, conservative Democrats (Redeemers) had replaced Republicans in most states by 1875. Only in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina did federal troops remain until 1877.

Johnson sincerely believed that the Tenure of Office Act violated his presidential prerogative to remove subordinates he considered disloyal or incompetent. He may have had a legitimate constitutional point. However, the quick-tempered Johnson chose to confront the Radical Republicans directly rather than find a way to maneuver around a congressional showdown. In February 1868, Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Lincoln appointee and a Radical sympathizer, without Senate approval. In response, congressional Radicals prepared articles of impeachment on eleven counts of misconduct, including willful violation of the Tenure of Office Act.

In late February, the House voted 126 to 47 to impeach Johnson, the first president ever to be impeached, or charged with unlawful activity. The case then went to trial in the Senate, where the chief justice of the Supreme Court presided and a two-thirds vote was necessary for conviction and removal from office. After a six-week hearing, the Senate fell one vote short of convicting Johnson. Most crucial for Johnson’s fate were the votes of seven moderate Republicans who refused to find the president guilty of violating his oath to uphold the Constitution, convinced that Johnson’s actions were insufficient to merit the enormously significant step of removing a president from office. Although Johnson narrowly remained in office, Congress effectively ended his power to shape Reconstruction policy.

Not only did the Republicans restrain Johnson but they also won the presidency in 1868. Ulysses S. Grant, the popular Civil War Union general, ran against Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York. Although an ally of the Radical Republicans, Grant called for reconciliation with the South. He easily defeated Seymour, winning nearly 53 percent of the popular vote and 73 percent of the electoral vote.

The Struggle for Universal Suffrage

In February 1869, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to protect black suffrage, which had initially been guaranteed by the Military Reconstruction Acts. A compromise between moderate and Radical Republicans, the amendment prohibited voting discrimination based on race, but it did not deny states the power to impose qualifications based on literacy, payment of taxes, moral character, or any other standard that did not directly relate to race. Subsequently, the wording of the amendment provided loopholes for white leaders to disfranchise African Americans and any other “undesirable” elements. The amendment did, however, cover the entire nation, including the North, where several states, such as Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin, still excluded blacks from voting.

The Fifteenth Amendment sparked serious conflicts not only within the South but also among old abolitionist allies. The American Anti-Slavery Society disbanded with abolition, but many members believed that important work still remained to be done to guarantee the rights of freedpeople. They formed the American Equal Rights Association immediately following the war. Members of this group divided over the Fifteenth Amendment.

Women’s rights advocates, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had earlier objected to the Fourteenth Amendment because it inserted the word male into the Constitution for the first time when describing citizens. Although they had been ardent abolitionists before the war, Stanton and Anthony worried that postwar policies intended to enhance the rights of southern black men would further limit the rights of women. Some African American activists also voiced concern. At a meeting of the Equal Rights Association in 1867, Sojourner Truth noted, “There is quite a stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

The Fifteenth Amendment ignored women. At the 1869 meeting of the Equal Rights Association, differences over supporting the measure erupted into open conflict. Stanton and Anthony denounced suffrage for black men only, and Stanton now supported her position on racial grounds. She claimed that the “dregs of China, Germany, England, Ireland, and Africa” were degrading the U.S. polity and argued that white, educated women should certainly have the same rights as immigrant and African American men. Black and white supporters of the Fifteenth Amendment, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Wendell Phillips, Abby Kelley, and Frederick Douglass, denounced Stanton’s bigotry. Believing that southern black men urgently needed suffrage to protect their newly won freedom, they argued that the ratification of black men’s suffrage would speed progress toward the achievement of suffrage for black and white women.

This conflict led to the formation of competing organizations committed to women’s suffrage. The National Woman Suffrage Association, established by Stanton and Anthony, allowed only women as members and opposed ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. The American Woman Suffrage Association, which attracted the support of women and men, white and black, supported ratification. Less than a year later, in the spring of 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and went into effect. However, the amendment did not grant the vote to either white or black women. As a result, women suffragists turned to the Fourteenth Amendment to achieve their goal. In 1875 Virginia Minor, who had been denied the ballot in Missouri, argued that the right to vote was one of the “privileges and immunities” granted to all citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment. In Minor v. Happersatt, the Supreme Court ruled against her.


• What was President Johnson's plan for reconstruction? How were his views out of step with those of most Republicans?

• What characterized congressional Reconstruction? What priorities were reflected in congressional Reconstruction legislation?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!