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Reconstruction Era


A profile of the Reconstruction Era which began a few years before the end of the American Civil War and extended about a decade after its end. From 1863 to 1877 the federal government intervened in the South to clarify and defend the rights of the newly freed as well as to set guidelines for readmitting Confederate states to the Union and their establishment of new governments. With the federal government under the control of Radical Republicans (aka Radical Reconstructionists) new amendments and progressive changes were made to clarify citizenship and expand civil rights.


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Show Notes

The Emancipation Proclamation

Colorized image depicting vignettes of the past enslavement and future freedom for Black people centered around emancipation.
Emancipation of the Negroes – The Past and the Future from Harper’s Weekly by Thomas Nast (Library of Congress)

Many people still erroneously promote the idea that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. The fact is that the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union after the Confederate states seceded. Abraham Lincoln did not free the enslaved out of the goodness of his heart or a commitment to equality. Instead, the Emancipation Proclamation was a strategic wartime measure that only freed those who were enslaved in the Confederate slaveholding states.

As these states were in full-on rebellion, Lincoln had no real means for enforcing his orders. But, because the Confederacy was heavily dependent on slave labor strategically freeing the slaves would likely decrease the number of people contributing to the Confederacy’s war effort. Since the start of the war, slaves had been running away to seek protection with the Union Army. Being declared free likely would have encouraged many more to escape.

Early Plans for Reuniting the Union

A cartoon depicts Vice President Andrew Johnson attempting to stitch together the United States while Abraham Lincoln uses a split rail to hold the globe in position.
Vice President Andrew Johnson and President Abraham Lincoln attempting to unify the United States. (Library of Congress)

Lincoln began outlining preliminary plans for Reconstruction during the Civil War. His Ten Percent Plan provided a path for allowing Confederate states to rejoin the Union. It generally pardoned and returned confiscated property to rebels who were not high-level leaders in the Confederacy. States could establish a new government when 10% of its prewar voters took an oath of loyalty to the Union. Having met those requirements states would be readmitted to the Union. They would also be asked to deal with the issue of the newly freed slaves but there would be no concrete requirements beyond recognizing their emancipation.

The goal of the program was not to outline a thorough plan for rebuilding the postwar South. But rather to weaken the rebel states so they could easily be kept in check. By developing this plan, Lincoln was also attempting to wrestle greater control of Reconstruction away from Congress. As was the case during the Civil War, some factions (Lincoln included), were only or primarily focused on the preservation of the Union. Thus they were willing to re-admit Confederate states into the Union under relatively forgiving terms.

Another faction, which came to be known as the Radical Reconstructionists felt the terms of re-admittance should be strict. This resulted in Congress passing the Wade-Davis Bill in 1864 which went further by requiring the majority of voters to take a past and present loyalty oath before new Southern governments could be formed. But, the bill did not go into effect because it was never signed by Lincoln, receiving a “pocket veto”. Thus at the end of the Civil War, there was no agreed-upon plan in place for readmitting the Confederate states to the Union.

Nor was there a strategy for integrating the newly freed slaves into regular society. Lincoln had come to agree that Black people should be given the right to vote but limited this to free Blacks, those he deemed “intelligent”, and veterans of the Civil War.

Presidential Reconstruction

With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln his vice president, Andrew Johnson assumed the office of President. A former Tennessee senator, Johnson had the distinction of being the only senator from a Confederate state to remain loyal to the Union. Once in power, Johnson implemented a variation of Lincoln’s plans for the South but went somewhat further in leniency. Under Johnson, Confederate states were required to recognize emancipation, take loyalty oaths, and repay debts accrued during the war.

But Johnson was a Southerner and Democrat who sought reconciliation with and political support from his neighbors. He was also a White supremacist who did not believe Black people were entitled to the same rights as White citizens. As a staunch supporter of states’ rights, Johnson held the belief that the Confederate states’ right to self-govern had remained intact. Also, the federal government had no jurisdiction over state voting requirements. And the land that had been captured by the Union Army during the war, some of which had since been distributed to freed slaves must be returned to its prior owners.

Confederate states were required to acknowledge emancipation but there were no provisions that required Black people to be allowed to vote. Nor were there rules to prevent the states from later changing their constitutions to deny Black people their liberty. Under Johnson’s plan, outside of having lost their slaves, the Confederate states would find themselves in relatively the same position they’d been in before the war. And so began the plan to essentially re-enslave the Black people of the South.

Constitutional Reconstruction

An illustration of the first Black senator and representatives elected during Reconstruction.
(Left to right) Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi, Representatives Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Robert DeLarge of South Carolina, Josiah Walls of Florida, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Joseph Rainey, and Robert B. Elliot of South Carolina. (Library of Congress)

Since its founding, America had been of multiple minds with regards to slavery and had taken piecemeal steps towards its complete abolition. While slavery is often spoken of as a Southern institution, the North also greatly profited from its savage inhumanity. As an agrarian society, the South certainly utilized slave labor to operate its farms, mills, plantations, and households. But, the North also built its wealth in banking, factory production, etc. in part through its participation in the slave trade. Not necessarily in bodies as was the case in the South but rather the commerce related to goods and products made, grown, and otherwise developed from the hands and efforts of the enslaved.

By the start of the Civil War, the North consisted of free states. Yet, Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital and a city built to house a government supposedly created on the foundations of freedom and democracy did not abolish slavery until a year after the start of the Civil War. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were technically but not enforceably free in the rebel states. Abolition had been fragmented with states for the most part making their own decisions along the way. The true abolishment of slavery would require an enforceable national law brought about through changes to the Constitution.

Congress pushed back against the proposed new Southern governments in response to the early machinations to return the South to business as usual. Radical reconstructionists worked to institute universal rights as citizens for all males. While Congress in general refused to acknowledge the newly created Southern governments by not allowing their representatives and senators to be seated.

In 1865, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency intended to help the newly freed transition into general society. The following year riots erupted in Memphis and New Orleans where Black people were indiscriminately attacked and murdered. This in part resulted in the 1866 Civil Rights Bill which granted equal rights and protection under the law to all natural-born citizens. Johnson vetoed the civil rights bill as well as a bill to extend the existence of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Congress wrote amendments to the Constitution to officially clarify the rights of the newly freed and set forth some of the terms required for a Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union. On December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified by the states officially abolishing slavery in the United States. Three and a half years later, the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting rights of citizenship and equal protection under the law to anyone born in the United States. Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment was intended to protect the newly created amendments and the rights of the newly freed by preventing states from abridging voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. Passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments granted the federal government the authority to protect the rights of citizens, even against states.

Radical Reconstruction

Moderate Republicans were initially open to working with Johnson but ultimately found his policies to be too sympathetic to the Confederacy and not supportive of equality for the newly freed. Northern voters also shared these views and made their disapproval known in the 1866 congressional elections. Now at odds with Johnson, the Republican Congress used its votes to override his vetos and passed both the 1866 Civil Rights and Freedmen’s Bureau Bills. With the passing of the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Congress vested itself with the authority to assume primary control of Reconstruction.

One of the first acts of business was Congress’ refusal to acknowledge the Southern governments created under Johnson. Instead, it placed the South back under federal control through the creation of five military districts. Guidelines for the formation of Southern governments required new state constitutions and voting rights for all males regardless of race. Johnson and several of the Southern states pushed back against these initiatives, taking issue with the 14th Amendment in particular.

Although Johnson was Commander in Chief, Congress required Ulysses S. Grant, general of the army, to issue military orders. The Tenure of Office Act was passed to avoid the possibility of the president removing appointees from office who did not support his plans. Things came to a head when Johnson removed the secretary of war from his Cabinet which Congress regarded as a violation of the Tenure of Office Act and grounds for impeachment. President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives but survived impeachment in the Senate by one vote.

The Black Experience During Reconstruction

A group of freedmen consisting of Black men, women, and children standing near a canal in Richmond, Virginia during Reconstruction.
A group of freedmen by a canal in Richmond, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Having lived for generations with the bulk of the Black population treated as chattel, many Southerners were unwilling to treat Black people as equals or even view them as human beings. Initially given free rein under Johnson and very limited parameters for self-governance, the newly created governments implemented black codes. These laws were intended to force Black people back into economic, social, and civil oppression on par with that which had existed during slavery. They would also inspire the future structure of the Jim Crow system.

For generations, Black people had been subjugated by slavery and its social and economic impact on the South. Having been granted freedom, Black people in the South now wanted equal rights, full civic participation, and a fair shot at economic advancement. After years of living under the authority of a White supremacy system, Black people wanted independence and self-determination. Reconstruction would see an influx of Black men participating in government with 16 congressmen, 600 state legislators, and countless more holding local offices throughout the South.

Black families had been torn apart during slavery which led to some searching for lost loved ones and others exercising their new right to legally marry. No longer restricted to only gathering under the watchful eye of a White person, Black people formed independent congregations and established churches. With learning to read or write no longer being a punishable offense the formerly enslaved hungered for education, if not for themselves then for their children. It was during this time that many of the Historically Black Colleges & Universities were established. Despite facing economic hardships, many Black churches and colleges received all or at least some of their initial funding from former slaves.

Freedmen’s Bureau

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands better known as the Freedman’s Bureau was established a few months before the end of the Civil War. It was created by Congress to provide basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care for the formerly enslaved Black people and poor White people of the South. Staffed with only about 900 agents at its peak, the agency was tasked with providing coverage for both the rebel and border states as well as Washington, D.C.

The formerly enslaved had little in the way of property or money and thus needed resources and assistance as they struck out on their own. Intended to be temporary, the organization was established to help ease the transition of the newly freed into a free society. The Freedmen’s Bureau was underfunded but managed to directly build hospitals and schools as well as provided funding to several of the Historically Black Colleges & Universities.

It also provided legal assistance for the former slaves in the form of negotiating labor contracts and disputes, helping to locate relatives, and providing guidance for legalizing marriages. On the economic front, the Freedmen’s Bureau attempted to help Black people acquire land through redistribution of land that had been captured by the Union during the war but these efforts failed. The Freedmen’s Bureau was dismantled in 1872 partially due to lobbying for its closure by White Southerners.

The Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, better known as The Freedmen’s Bank, was established on the same day as the Freedmen’s Bureau but the two organizations were separate though they worked together. The Freedmen’s Bank was created to help the formerly enslaved transition economically so they could begin building a solid financial foundation. Black people didn’t have a lot of assets at the time but the combination of their relatively small account balances made for a substantial amount of money. Unfortunately, fraud and mismanagement led to the bank’s collapse in 1874 causing tens of thousands of Black people who already didn’t have much to lose their savings.

End of Reconstruction

Illustration showing a Northerner who is missing a leg shaking hands with a Confederate soldier over a grave while Columbia cries beside the grave.
1864 Compromise with the South – Dedicated to the Chicago Convention by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)

In addition to serving as occupying peacetime soldiers and Freedmen’s Bureau Agents, some White Northerners (carpetbaggers) also journeyed to the South to help establish schools and teach. Some White Southern Republicans (scalawags) who lived in areas that had remained loyal to the Union and/or who had not owned slaves were willing to collaborate on a new path forward. But, in general, White individuals, especially those who had been members of the South’s slaveholding class were most resistant to progressive reforms.

Reconstruction was intended to have a tremendous impact on the quality of life for Black people in the South. But, some of it also had a positive impact on the lives of poor and middle-class White citizens. Substantial sums of money were spent to rebuild the South as a direct result of the war’s destruction. Yet, the South’s Reconstruction governments also established its first state-funded public school systems, gave workers increased bargaining power, and brought greater equality to taxation.

Unfortunately, the 1860s would continue to be tumultuous even after the end of the war. The South saw multiple violent riots in 1866 with violent resistance continuing through the rest of the decade. While this was a period of progress in some respects, it also spawned several White supremacist terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. For the time being, Southern governments remained under Republican control but the Southern Democratic Party was being rebuilt to stand in opposition to its reformations. And as often occurs, corrupt individuals involved themselves in various Southern and federal programs and took advantage of their positions to fill their pockets.

By 1870, President Johnson had been replaced by President Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate states had been re-admitted to the Union. President Grant’s combination of Enforcement Acts with legal and military offensives brought an end to the first iteration of the Klan. These maneuvers curtailed racist efforts to terrorize and infringe on the rights of Black people in the South. But, they also encouraged former and would-be members of these terrorist groups to join the Democratic party.

After a decade of war and its aftermath, support for Radical Reconstruction began to wane as its most fervent leaders died or were otherwise replaced with more conservative Republicans. At the same time, the North had grown tired of dealing with Reconstruction and problems in the South. It was no longer a given that federal troops would be stationed nearby or deployed to protect Black people or their rights when they were the victims of racial attacks. Control of the Southern states and their governments eventually shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats. The Democratic Party then gained control of the House of Representatives in 1874 after a depression ravaged the South.

1876 Presidential Election & 1877 Compromise

While it would have been possible for Grant to seek a third term, the Republican party decided to change course and selected Rutherford B. Hayes as its 1876 presidential candidate. Breaking from the radicalism that had come to define the Republican party, Hayes was a moderate from Ohio who sympathized with the South. The presidential election between Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden came down to returns from three Southern states.

In a twist of fate, the three states at the center of the dispute, (South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana) were the only Southern states that were still under Republican control. The Republicans and Democrats struck a bargain where the Southern Democrats would not contest Hayes’ election by Congress. In exchange, as President, Hayes would recognize the Democratic leadership of the three contested states. The deal thereby ceded the last remnants of Republican and federal control in the South.

The three amendments that were passed during Reconstruction promised equal rights and protections for Black people, with particular focus on the formerly enslaved living in the South. Yet, they continued to experience racially motivated terror that was intended to scare them away from exercising their rights and force them back into a position of subservience. The effect of these attacks was mitigated to a degree when federal troops were present.

But because Hayes’s presidential deal promised to return control of the South to the Democrats, it also required the withdrawal of federal troops. With the removal of the federal presence and protection, Black people in the South were left to their own devices. The federal government and the North would no longer intervene in the South to protect the lives, rights, or liberties of Black people.

Jim Crow

A young Black man drinking from a "colored" water fountain during the Jim Crow era.
The end of Reconstruction gave way to the establishment of Jim Crow. (Bettman Archive)

Reminiscent of the earlier black codes, new laws were introduced to stifle the Reconstruction amendments. The 15th Amendment’s prohibition of disenfranchising voters based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude was circumvented in several Southern states through the use of literacy and Constitutional interpretation tests that could be waived or enforced at the local registrars’ discretion. New versions of the grandfather clause no longer insisted that your grandfather could not have been a slave. But rather that you would be exempted from voter tests if your grandfather had the right to vote before suffrage was expanded in 1867. Lynching and other acts of violence were used to control communities where it was felt that Black people needed to be kept in line.

While some Black people managed to thrive during Reconstruction others found themselves unable to acquire the funds or resources needed to purchase land. With few options, they had no choice but to return to work on the old plantations as regular workers or sharecroppers. The new Southern governments put the interests of businessmen and large planters ahead of the needs of small farmers. With a greater focus on the needs of the middle and upper-class, programs that had been created for the newly freed and White poor people became less of a priority. By 1890, the public school system, public health, and resources for various wards of the state were severely neglected and underfunded.

Black people would continue to suffer from civic, social, and economic oppression. But now armed with the amendments and wins along the way they organized a continued struggle against being treated as second class citizens. Things would reach a fever pitch in the 1950s during the Second Reconstruction or what would come to be more widely known as the Civil Rights Movement.


  1. Editors. 2020. “Reconstruction.” A&E Television Networks. February 10, 2020.
  2. Weisberger, Bernard A., Oscar Handlin, and Others. 2020. “Reconstruction and the New South, 1865–1900.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. June 21, 2020.
  3. Editors. 2020. “Emancipation Proclamation.” A&E Television Networks. June 16, 2020.
  4. “Reconstruction.” 2017. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. August 11, 2017.
  5. “Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, & Fifteenth Amendments.” 2020. U.S. Senate. United States Senate. February 11, 2020.
  6. Editors. 2018. “Freedmen’s Bureau.” A&E Television Networks. June 3, 2018.
  7. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. “Freedmen’s Bureau.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 21, 2019.
  8. “Jun. 28, 1874: Freedmen’s Bank Fails, Devastating Black Community.” n.d. Equal Justice Initiative. Accessed June 23, 2020.

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