The Reconstruction Era (1865–1877)

The era was marked by thwarted progress and racial strife

Reconstruction Panorama: Reconstruction post-Civil War scene advertising poster
Reconstruction Panorama: Reconstruction post-Civil War scene advertising poster. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

The Reconstruction era was a period of healing and rebuilding in the Southern United States following the American Civil War (1861-1865) that played a critical role in the history of civil rights and racial equality in America. During this tumultuous time, the U.S. government attempted to deal with the reintegration of the 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union, along with 4 million newly freed enslaved people.

Reconstruction demanded answers to a multitude of difficult questions. On what terms would the Confederate states be accepted back into the Union? How were for former Confederate leaders, considered traitors by many in the North, to be dealt with? And perhaps most momentously, did emancipation mean that Black people were to enjoy the same legal and social status as White people?

Fast Facts: Reconstruction Era

  • Short Description: The period of recovery and rebuilding in the Southern United States following the American Civil War
  • Key Players: U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant; U.S. Senator Charles Sumner
  • Event Start Date: December 8, 1863
  • Event End Date: March 31, 1877
  • Location: Southern United States of America

In 1865 and 1866, during the administration of President Andrew Johnson, the Southern states enacted restrictive and discriminatory Black Codes—laws intended to control the behavior and labor of Black Americans. Outrage over these laws in Congress led to the replacement of Johnson’s so-called Presidential Reconstruction approach with that of the more radical wing of the Republican Party. The ensuing period known as Radical Reconstruction resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which for the first time in American history gave Black people a voice in government. By the mid-1870s, however, extremist forces—such as the Ku Klux Klan—succeeded in restoring many aspects of white supremacy in the South.

Reconstruction After the Civil War

As a Union victory became more of certainty, America’s struggle with Reconstruction began before the end of the Civil War. In 1863, months after signing his Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln introduced his Ten Percent Plan for Reconstruction. Under the plan, if one-tenth of a Confederate state’s prewar voters signed an oath of loyalty to the Union, they be would be allowed to form a new state government with the same constitutional rights and powers they had enjoyed before secession.

More than a blueprint for rebuilding the postwar South, Lincoln saw the Ten Percent Plan as a tactic for further weakening the resolve of the Confederacy. After none of the Confederate states agreed to accept the plan, Congress in 1864 passed the Wade-Davis Bill, barring the Confederate states from rejoining the Union until a majority of the state’s voters had sworn their loyalty. Though Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill, he and many of his fellow Republicans remained convinced that equal rights for all formerly enslaved Black persons had to be a condition of a state’s readmission to the Union. On April 11, 1865, in his last speech before his assassination, Lincoln express his opinion that some “very intelligent” Black men or Black men who had joined the Union army deserved the right to vote. Notably, no consideration for the rights of Black women was expressed during Reconstruction.

Presidential Reconstruction

Taking office in April 1865, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson ushered in a two-year-long period known as Presidential Reconstruction. Johnson’s plan for restoring the splintered Union pardoned all Southern White persons except Confederate leaders and wealthy plantation owners and restored all of their constitutional rights and property except enslaved persons.

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, 1860s
Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, 1860s. Print Collector/Getty Images

To be accepted back into the Union, the former Confederate states were required to abolish the practice of slavery, renounce their secession, and compensate the federal government for its Civil War expenses. Once these conditions were met, however, the newly restored Southern states were allowed to manage their governments and legislative affairs. Given this opportunity, the Southern states responded by enacting a series of racially discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes.

Black Codes

Enacted during 1865 and 1866, the Black Codes were laws intended to restrict the freedom of Black Americans in the South and ensure their continued availability as a cheap labor force even after the abolishment of slavery during the Civil War.

All Black persons living in the states that enacted Black Code laws were required to sign yearly labor contracts. Those who refused or were otherwise unable to do so could be arrested, fined, and if unable to pay their fines and private debts, forced to perform unpaid labor. Many Black children—especially those without parental support—were arrested and forced into unpaid labor for white planters.

The restrictive nature and ruthless enforcement of the Black Codes drew the outrage and resistance of Black Americans and seriously reduced Northern support for President Johnson and the Republican Party. Perhaps more significant to the eventual outcome of Reconstruction, the Black Codes gave the more radical arm of the Republican Party renewed influence in Congress.

Radical Republicans

Arising around 1854, before the Civil War, the Radical Republicans were a faction within the Republican Party who demanded the immediate, complete and permanent eradication of slavery. During the Civil War, they were opposed by the moderate Republicans, including President Abraham Lincoln, and by pro-slavery Democrats and Northern liberals until the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

After the Civil War, the Radical Republicans pushed for full implementation of emancipation through the immediate and unconditional establishment of civil rights for formerly enslaved persons. After the Reconstruction measures of President Andrew Johnson in 1866 resulted in the continued abuse of formerly enslaved Blacks in the South, the Radical Republicans pushed for the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights laws. They opposed allowing former Confederate military officers in the Southern states to hold elected offices and pressed for granting “freedmen,” people who had been enslaved before emancipation.

Influential Radical Republicans such as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts demanded that the new governments of the Southern states be based on racial equality and the granting of universal voting rights for all male residents regardless of race. However, the more moderate Republican majority in Congress favored working with President Johnson to modify his Reconstruction measures. In early 1866, Congress refused to recognize or seat representatives and senators who had been elected from the former Confederate states of the South and passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bills.

Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and Freedmen’s Bureau

Enacted by Congress on April 9, 1866, over President Johnson’s veto, the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 became America’s first civil rights legislation. The bill mandated that all male persons born in the United States, except for American Indians, regardless of their “race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude” were “declared to be citizens of the United States” in every state and territory. The bill thus granted all citizens the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.”

Believing the federal government should take an active role in creating a multiracial society in the postwar South, the Radical Republicans saw the bill as a logical next step in Reconstruction. Taking a more anti-federalist stance, however, President Johnson vetoed the bill, calling it “another step, or rather a stride, toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national Government.” In overriding Johnson’s veto, lawmakers set the stage for a showdown between Congress and the president over the future of the former Confederacy and the civil rights of Black Americans.

The Freedmen’s Bureau

In March 1865, Congress, at the recommendation of President Abraham Lincoln, enacted the Freedmen’s Bureau Act creating a U.S. government agency to oversee the end of slavery in the South by providing food, clothing, fuel, and temporary housing to newly freed enslaved persons and their families.

During the Civil War, Union forces had confiscated vast areas of farmland owned by Southern plantation owners. Known as the “40 acres and a mule” provision, part of Lincoln’s Freedmen’s Bureau Act authorized the bureau to rent or sell land this land to formerly enslaved persons. However, in the summer of 1865, President Johnson ordered all of this federally controlled land to be returned to its former White owners. Now lacking land, most formerly enslaved persons were forced to return to working on the same plantations where they had toiled for generations. While they now worked for minimal wages or as sharecroppers, they had little hope of achieving the same economic mobility enjoyed by White citizens. For decades, most Southern Black people were forced to remain propertyless and mired in poverty.

Reconstruction Amendments

Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had ended the practice of slavery in the Confederate states in 1863, the issue remained at the national level. To be allowed to reenter the Union, the former Confederate states were required to agree to abolish slavery, but no federal law had been enacted to prevent those states from simply reinstituting the practice through their new constitutions. Between 1865 and 1870, the U.S. Congress addressed passed and the states ratified a series of three Constitutional amendments that abolished slavery nationwide and addressed other inequities in the legal and social status of all Black Americans.

Thirteenth Amendment

On February 8, 1864, with the Union victory in the Civil War virtually ensured, Radical Republicans led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania introduced a resolution calling for the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865—the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The former Confederate states were required to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment as a condition of regaining their pre-secession representation in Congress.

Fourteenth Amendment 

Ratified on July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved persons. Extending the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states, the Fourteenth Amendment also provided all citizens regardless of race or former condition of enslavement with “equal protection under the laws” of the United States. It further ensures that no citizen’s right to “life, liberty, or property” will be denied without due process of law. States that unconstitutionally attempted to restrict their citizens’ right to vote could be punished by having their representation in Congress reduced.

Finally, in granting Congress the power to enforce its provisions, the Fourteenth Amendment enabled the enactment of landmark 20th-century racial equality legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Fifteenth Amendment

Shortly after the election of President Ulysses S. Grant on March 4, 1869, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting the states from restricting the right to vote because of race.

Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867
Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867. Bettmann/Getty Images

Ratified on February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited the states from limiting the voting rights of their male citizens “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, the amendment did not prohibit the states from enacting restrictive voter qualifications laws that applied equally to all races. Many former Confederate states took advantage of this omission by instituting poll taxes, literacy tests, and “grandfather clauses” clearly intended to prevent Black persons from voting. Though always controversial, these discriminatory practices would be allowed to continue until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Congressional or Radical Reconstruction

In the 1866 mid-term congressional elections, Northern voters overwhelmingly rejected President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, giving Radical Republicans nearly total control of Congress. Now controlling both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Radical Republicans were assured the votes needed to override any of Johnson’s vetoes to their soon-to-come Reconstruction legislation. This political uprising ushered in the period of Congressional or Radical Reconstruction.

The Reconstruction Acts

Enacted during 1867 and 1868, the Radical Republican-sponsored Reconstruction Acts specified the conditions under which the formerly seceded Southern states of the Confederacy would be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War.

Enacted in March 1867, the First Reconstruction Act, also known as the Military Reconstruction Act, divided the former Confederate states into five Military Districts, each governed by a Union general. The Act placed the Military Districts under martial law, with Union troops deployed to keep the peace and protect formerly enslaved persons.

The Second Reconstruction Act, enacted on March 23, 1867, supplemented the First Reconstruction Act by assigning Union troops to oversee voter registration and voting in the Southern states.

The deadly 1866 New Orleans and Memphis Race Riots had convinced Congress that Reconstruction policies needed to be enforced. By creating “radical regimes” and enforcing martial law throughout the South, the Radical Republicans hoped to facilitate their Radical Reconstruction plan. Though most Southern White people hated the “regimes” and being overseen by Union troops, the Radical Reconstruction policies resulted in all of the Southern states being readmitted to the Union by the end of 1870. 

When Did Reconstruction End?

During the 1870s, the Radical Republicans began to back away from their expansive definition of the power of the federal government. Democrats argued that the Republican’s Reconstruction plan’s exclusion of the South’s “best men”—the White plantation owners—from political power was to blame for much of the violence and corruption in the region. The effectiveness of the Reconstruction Acts and constitutional amendments was further diminished by a series of Supreme Court decisions, beginning in 1873.

An economic depression from 1873 to 1879 saw much of the South fell into poverty, allowing the Democratic Party to win back control of the House of Representatives and heralding the end Reconstruction. By 1876, the legislatures of only three Southern states: South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana remained under Republican control. The outcome of the 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, was decided by disputed vote counts from those three states. After a controversial compromise saw Hayes's inaugurate president, Union troops were withdrawn from all Southern states. With the federal government no longer responsible for protecting the rights of the formerly enslaved people, Reconstruction had ended.

However, unforeseen results of the period from 1865 to 1876 would continue to impact Black Americans and the societies of both the South and North for over a century.

Reconstruction in the South

In the South, Reconstruction brought a massive, often painful, social, and political transition. While nearly four million formerly enslaved Black Americans gained freedom and some political power, those gains were diminished by lingering poverty and racist laws such as the Black Codes of 1866 and the Jim Crow laws of 1887.

Though freed from slavery, most Black Americans in the South remained hopelessly mired in rural poverty. Having been denied educations under slavery, many formerly enslaved people were forced by economic necessity to

Despite being free, most southern black Americans continued to live in desperate rural poverty. Having been denied education and wages under slavery, ex-slaves were often forced by the necessity of their economic circumstances to return to or remain with their former White slave owners, working on their plantations for minimal wages or as sharecroppers.

A free Black man being sold to pay his fine, in Monticello, Florida, 1867.
A free Black man being sold to pay his fine, in Monticello, Florida, 1867. Interim Archives/Getty Images

According to historian Eugene Genovese, over 600,000 formerly enslaved persons stayed with their masters. As Black activists and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, the “slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

As a result of Reconstruction, Black citizens in the Southern states gained the right to vote. In many congressional districts across the South, Black people comprised a majority of the population. In 1870, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first popularly elected Black member of Congress. Though they never achieved representation proportionate to their total number, some 2,000 Black held elected office from the local to national level during Reconstruction.

In 1874, Black members of Congress, led by South Carolina Representative Robert Brown Elliot, were instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing discrimination based on race in hotels, theaters, and railway cars.

1870: Senator Hiram Revels (left) of Mississippi with some of the first black members of congress, (from left) Benjamin Turner, Robert De Large, Josiah Walls, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey and Robert Brown Elliot.
1870: Senator Hiram Revels (left) of Mississippi with some of the first black members of congress, (from left) Benjamin Turner, Robert De Large, Josiah Walls, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey and Robert Brown Elliot. MPI/Getty Images

However, the growing political power of Black people provoked a violent backlash from many White people who struggled to hold on to their supremacy. By implementing racially motivated voter disenfranchisement measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests, Whites in the South succeeded in undermining the very purpose of Reconstruction. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments went largely unenforced, setting the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Reconstruction in the North

Reconstruction in the South meant a massive social and political upheaval and a devastated economy. By contrast, the Civil War and Reconstruction brought opportunities for progress and growth. Passed during the Civil War, economic stimulus legislation such as the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act opened the Western territories to waves of settlers.

Debates over the newly acquired voting rights for Black Americans helped drive the women’s suffrage movement, which eventually succeeded with the election of Jeannette Rankin of Montana to the U.S. Congress in 1917 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The Legacy of Reconstruction

Though they were repeatedly either ignored or flagrantly violated, the anti-racial discrimination Reconstruction amendments remained in the Constitution. In 1867, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner had prophetically called them “sleeping giants” that would be awakened by future generations of Americans struggling to at last bring true freedom and equality to the descendants of slavery. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s—aptly called the “Second Reconstruction”—did America again attempt to fulfill the political and social promises of Reconstruction.

Updated by Robert Longley 

Sources

  • Berlin, Ira. “Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South.” Oxford University Press, 1981, ISBN-10 : 1565840283.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. “Black Reconstruction in America.” Transaction Publishers, 2013, ISBN:1412846676.
  • Berlin, Ira, editor. “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867.” University of North Carolina Press (1982), ISBN: 978-1-4696-0742-9.
  • Lynch, John R. “The Facts of Reconstruction.” The Neale Publishing Company (1913), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16158/16158-h/16158-h.htm.
  • Fleming, Walter L. “Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational, and Industrial.” Palala Press (April 22, 2016), ISBN-10: 1354267508.