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Reconstruction: Trying to Rebuild a Broken Nation

Reconstruction was hard – but it was the price to be paid for war between the states.

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The American Civil War was the bloodiest war the United States has ever fought – and few other incidents in American history have resulted in such a long-lasting hatred between two groups in the same culture. As the war neared its end, President Abraham Lincoln started planning for the rehabilitation of the Confederate South, a region now devastated by four years of war with an economy that had no foundation without the institution of slavery. Republicans in the federal government felt it was their duty to bring the rogue states back into the Union and rebuild them so that they would be better than before the war. Many also desired to punish the rebels, even after the end of the war. This began the period known as Reconstruction, which occurred in three phases.

Lincoln’s Plan

On December 8, 1863, President Lincoln announced his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. First, his proclamation allowed for a full pardon and restoration of property for everyone who had been a part of the rebellion, except for the Confederate leaders. It also allowed states to form new governments once 10% of voters had sworn allegiance to the United States. Once a state was readmitted through this process, the new state government was encouraged to come up with ways to mix the freed slaves into society – so long as those plans didn’t compromise their freedom.

Lincoln hoped for a quick reunification, but his assassination by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, complicated the issue. Lincoln, a Northern Republican, was replaced by the Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson as president.

Presidential Reconstruction and the Black Codes

Vice President Andrew Johnson was a Southern Democrat, but also a loyal Unionist. Many believe Lincoln chose him as running mate to make himself more acceptable to Southern voters. Johnson announced his plan for Reconstruction shortly after taking over as president. In his view, the Southern states had never given up the right to govern themselves. He returned all land confiscated by the Union Army to its previous owners. Other than swearing loyalty to the Union, paying war debt, and ratifying the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the South was free to rebuild itself under Johnson.

While Johnson’s hands-off approach respected liberty and states’ rights, the Confederate Democrats managed to regain power over much of the South and passed a series of laws known as the black codes. These restricted the freedoms of black people, forcing most of them to keep working for their former masters. They weren’t always paid, but when they were, they weren’t paid much. The black codes angered many in the North, including some members of Congress called the Radical Republicans. Congress passed a couple of bills to protect blacks in the South, but Johnson vetoed them. They passed the Civil Rights Act in 1864 and overrode Johnson’s veto, making it the first bill to become law despite a presidential veto. It would not be the last – not even the last in Johnson’s presidency.

Radical Reconstruction

The Radical Republicans won firm control of Congress in 1866, and with it, Reconstruction in the South. Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, again over Johnson’s veto. This divided the South into five military districts, each controlled by a general in the Union Army. To rejoin the Union after the end of the war, each Confederate state now had to send new representatives to Congress and form new state governments with new constitutions – and in most cases, only freed slaves and those white men known all along to be loyal to the Union were allowed to vote or to serve in office. Each state would also have to ratify the 14th Amendment. These new requirements were in addition to what already had to be done under Lincoln and Johnson. Eventually, the 15th Amendment would also have to be ratified, rounding out the three Reconstruction Amendments – additions to the Constitution that were adopted, quite literally in some states, under threat of military force.

Congress impeached President Johnson in 1868. This was the first impeachment of a president, and Johnson escaped being convicted in the Senate by a single vote. His political career had been damaged beyond repair. In the election of 1868, the Democrats chose to back Horatio Seymour but were soundly defeated by Republican and former Union General, Ulysses S. Grant.

The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction

Grant went on to win a second term in 1872, but by the 1876 election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, things weren’t quite so clear anymore. Each of the Confederate states had, by this point, rejoined the Union. In some of these states, Democrats had once again come to power. For the first time in American history – but not the last – one candidate won the popular vote, and the other won the Electoral College vote. Unsure how to proceed, Democrats and Republicans met in secret and created the Compromise of 1877. Hayes, who had won the electoral vote, would become president. In return, Republicans had to do four things. First, they had to pull all federal soldiers out of the South. Then Congress had to pass laws that would help the South rebuild its economy. Hayes would have to appoint Southern Democrats to important positions throughout the government. Finally, he would have at least one Democrat in his cabinet.

Once the military was no longer in place, Southern Democrats began, once again, passing laws that restricted the liberty of black people and kept them separate from whites. Reconstruction came to an end, and – despite all that had been done to ensure equality – the South stayed mostly segregated and enforced laws to keep black people from enjoying their God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness until the 1960s.

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