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On this date we remember Reconstruction, the historic period that began during and after the American Civil War.
One of the most controversial and misunderstood eras in American history, Reconstruction witnessed far-reaching changes in the country's political and social life. The United States government for the first time assumed the basic responsibility for defining and protecting American civil rights. In the South, Black men were for the first time given the right to vote and hold office, and a politically powerless African American community joined with white allies to bring the Republican Party (temporarily) to power.
In short, Reconstruction was America's first attempt at interracial democracy. For much of the 20th century, virtually all writings highlighted this era as one of constant filthy conditions politically and socially. Nearly all attempts by Abraham Lincoln and (to a much lesser degree) his successor Andrew Johnson were undermined by the vindictive political schemes of the (then) Democratic Party. Corruption followed, led by crooked Carpetbaggers (Northerners who pimped the surplus of the government), Scalawag voters in particular (Southerners who cooperated with the Republicans for personal gain), and ignorant and naive free black people who were incapable of exercising the new political power that had been granted to them.
Soon after Reconstruction began, the South's white community banded together in what they referred to as patriotic organizations like the Ku Klux Klan to overthrow these “black” governments and restore “home rule.” Popularized by films such as “Birth of a Nation,” this belief rested on the assumption that Black suffrage was the gravest error of the Civil War period. This helped justify the South's system of racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of Black voters in particular. Critical to the debate over Reconstruction were the complex reactions of Southerners, Black and white, to the end of slavery. To African Americans, freedom meant independence from white control and their families stood as the initial pillar of the post emancipation difference.
Under slavery, nearly all Blacks lived separated from relatives. Reconstruction provided the opportunity to solidify their family ties. One Northern reporter in 1865 encountered a freedman who actually walked more than 600 miles from Georgia to North Carolina, searching for the wife and children from whom he had been sold away. Control of their family life was essential to the former slaves’ definition of freedom. At the same time, African Americans almost entirely withdrew from white-controlled religious institutions, where they had been excluded from any role in church governance and were often required to sit in the back pews during services. The rise of the Black church (Methodist and Baptist mostly) played a key role in redrawing the religious map of the South, becoming a place of worship, housing schools, social events, and political gatherings.
Another striking example of Reconstruction’s effect on freed-peoples efforts to insert meaning into liberty was their rush toward education. Before the war, literally every Southern state prohibited the education of slaves. Now, adults and children flocked to the schools established during and after the Civil War. The desire for independence and self-improvement also shaped African Americans’ economic definition of freedom. Overwhelmingly, Blacks refused to work in gangs under the direction of an overseer and generally preferred renting land to working for wages. If former slaves saw Reconstruction as heralding in a new era of overdue autonomy and equality, most Southern whites reacted to military defeat and emancipation with dismay and anger.
Most whites needed to borrow money to resume farming and many small farmers fell into debt and were forced into growing cotton. The most arduous task facing former slave owners was adjusting to the world of paid labor. White planters complained that blacks wanted to work at their own pace, set their own hours, and conduct their personal lives as they saw fit. The Freedmen’s Bureau made countless attempts to mediate between both groups over those and numerous other issues. Some bureau officials believed that Blacks should sign labor contracts and go back to the plantations to work. Others-such as General Rufus Saxton sympathized strongly with Black aspirations to own land.
In the summer of 1865, however, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, ordered land in federal hands returned to its former owners. A series of confrontations followed, resulting in blacks being forcibly evicted from the land they had been settled on by General Sherman. The task of managing Reconstruction and the restoration of the Union fell on the shoulders of Johnson, who was not suited for the responsibilities of those times. A lonely, stubborn man, he lacked Lincoln’s political skills and sense of Northern public opinion. Moreover, he personally held deep racist views and believed that Blacks had no role to play in Reconstruction.
In May 1865, with Congress out of session until December, Johnson outlined his plan for reuniting the nation. He offered pardons to all Southern whites, then appointed provisional governors and ordered conventions held to which whites alone elected delegates. The conduct of these Southern governments elected under Johnson’s program turned most of the republican North against the president. White Southern voters largely returned members of the old elite to power. Angered by reports of violent reprisals against former slaves spilling onto white visitors from the North by the upper hand of “rebels” was the norm.
The summit of outrage came with the implementation of “Black Codes,” laws of the new Southern governments to regulate the lives of African Americans. In 1866, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois proposed two bills to moderate Johnson’s policy. The first extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau;, the second, the Civil Rights Bill, defined all persons born in the United States as citizens and spelled out rights they were to enjoy regardless of race.
The bill left the new Southern governments in place, but required them to accord blacks the same civil rights as whites. It made no mention of the right to vote. The president vetoed both bills, which made a complete breach between Johnson and Congress inevitable. In April 1866, the Civil Rights Bill became the first major law in American history to be passed over a presidential veto. Less than one year later, Congress adopted the Reconstruction Act, which divided the South into five military districts, temporarily barring many Confederates from voting or holding office, and called for the creation of new Southern governments with suffrage no longer restricted because of race.
The conflict between President Johnson and Congress continued. In 1868, the House of Representatives impeached Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, and the Senate came within one vote of removing him from office. Soon after, the Republicans nominated Ulysses S. Grant as the party’s presidential candidate and Reconstruction was the central issue of the 1868 campaign.
Grant’s victory was a vindication of Republican Reconstruction, and in 1869, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting the federal and state governments from depriving any citizen the right to vote because of race. By 1870, all former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, nearly all under control of the Republican Party. In the era of Reconstruction, though a number of African Americans held office, nowhere did Blacks control the workings of state governments, or hold office in numbers equal to their proportion of the total population.
Yet opposition to Black representation never stopped. Democrats joined with dissident Republicans to win control of Tennessee and Virginia and ended Reconstruction there. Elsewhere with tougher opposition politically, the old Southern merchants and planters turned to widespread violence mainly embodied by the Ku Klux Klan. Though Grant in 1871 authorized federal marshals, backed by some troops, to enforce the administration’s federal laws against such crimes, the North’s commitment waned. Democrats endorsed Horace Greeley for president in 1872 to run against Grant and his corruption within his White House.
Even with Grant’s overwhelming victory, an economic depression and an enactment by Congress of one final piece of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the Northern public was retreating from Reconstruction. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ electoral commission presidential victory in January 1977 and the “Bargain of 1877” that followed were Reconstruction’s final blow. Democrats still controlled the House and the bargain was to recognize the remaining Southern states (South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana) in Congressional matters and to pull out troops guarding those statehouses.
The collapse of Reconstruction deeply affected the future course of American development. The South remained a bastion of one-party reactionary rule, run by an old Southern white elite who used the same violence and fraud to suppress Blacks as they had for the four previous centuries. Not until the 1960s would America again try to come to terms with the political and social plan of Reconstruction.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York