Overview of the Reconstruction Period in American History

Abraham Lincoln, portrait
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). FPG/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

The years following the Civil War between 1865-1877 are known as Reconstruction. The reason historians use the term Reconstruction is because this was the period when the federal government restored the seceded states to the Union. This proved to be a difficult and contentious process. The federal government had to deal with three main issues:

  1. How to deal with the states as they rejoined the Union
  2. How Southern whites should be treated.
  1. How to deal with the freed slaves.

Lincoln's Reconstruction Plan

Abraham Lincoln had created a plan for reconstruction that was opposed by Congress. His plan was based on the idea that the states never really seceded from the Union as this was not legally possible, and therefore they should not necessarily be "punished." It included two major provisions:

  1. Pardons of Southerners who participated in the war if they took an oath of allegiance to the United States.
  2. Readmission of a state if 10% of white voters in that state took the oath of allegiance to the United States, and it created a new government that guaranteed the end of slavery.

When Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, Andrew Johnson, decided to adopt Lincoln's plan. He not only pardoned all Southerners who took the oath except for a few key Confederate leaders, he also recognized the state governments of four states that Lincoln had created and appointed temporary governors for the other Southern states.

Great strides were made towards reconstruction by the end of 1865 as only one Southern state had not set up a new government that abolished slavery.

Congress Reacts to Johnson's Reconstruction Plan

Congress, especially a group called the Radical Republicans, did not agree with Johnson's actions. In fact, they would not allow the newly elected Southern representatives and senators from joining Congress in December 1865.

Instead, they decided to enact their own Reconstruction plan. It consisted of the following items:

  1. Creation of a Freedmen's Bureau to help newly freed slaves.
  2. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to help protect freedmen from laws such as the Black Codes that were being passed in many Southern states.
  3. Passage of the 14th Amendment, the purpose of which was to ensure that future legislatures could not revise the Civil Rights Act.
  4. Passage of Reconstruction Acts that made restoration to the Union more difficult.

States Readmitted

Seven states were readmitted to the Union in 1868. When Congress prepared the 15th Amendment in 1868, it required the rest of the states to ratify the amendment to be readmitted. All states were eventually readmitted by 1870. 

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson and Congress had numerous disagreements throughout his presidency. This began with Congress rejecting his plan followed by his attempts to veto the Congressional Reconstruction plans. One power that Congress tried to take from Andrew Johnson was to restrain his ability to remove federal appointees with the passage of the Tenure of Office Act. In 1867, Johnson went against the act when he removed the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office which led to his impeachment.

However, even though he was impeached in the House, the Senate failed to remove him from office by just one vote.

In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant was elected President and supported Congress' Reconstruction plans.

Compromise of 1877

Southern white Democrats were eventually able to regain control of state and local governments as more ex-Confederates were given the right to vote after the war and the fear of violence kept many freedmen away.

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes (R) and Samuel Tilden (D) ran against each other for president. Tilden won the popular vote, but the electoral vote was disputed. An electoral commission convened and gave all the votes to Hayes. Democrats agreed to support this decision if all federal troops were removed from the South. They agreed and military rule in the former Confederate states ended in 1877.

This as known as the Compromise of 1877.

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Kelly, Martin. "Overview of the Reconstruction Period in American History." ThoughtCo, Jun. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/reconstruction-104854. Kelly, Martin. (2017, June 3). Overview of the Reconstruction Period in American History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/reconstruction-104854 Kelly, Martin. "Overview of the Reconstruction Period in American History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/reconstruction-104854 (accessed February 21, 2018).