Lesson 4: Reconstruction Abraham Lincoln, who had never been popular as a

Lesson 4: Reconstruction

Abraham Lincoln, who had never been popular as a president or as a war-time leader, had his job made much more difficult in 1864 as he faced another election season. Chances are that without the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, he would not have been re-elected. The Peace Democrats had been calling for Lincoln’s head on a platter for the first two years of the war, and they probably would have gotten it. After that fateful turning point of the war, however, the Union army began to make major advances and win important battles, and Lincoln’s popularity improved somewhat. Still, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that he would be re-elected in 1864. The Democrats ran former Union general George McClellan against Lincoln on a “peace plank;” that is to say, McClellan promised to end the war and allow the Confederate states to depart from the Union in peace. It was a close vote, but in the end, Lincoln prevailed.

Lincoln had no time to enjoy his electoral victory in November 1864, however, because the war still raged on at that time. He was re-inaugurated in March 1865. Again, there was no time for celebration. But within a month after Lincoln’s second inauguration, Lee had surrendered to Grant, and the war was over. Finally, Lincoln could relax for the first time in more than four years. His time of rest would be short lived. He himself would in fact be short lived. Four days after the surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln was sitting in the balcony of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C., watching a play, when a disgruntled Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth walked up behind him with a small caliber pistol in his hand, thrust it into the back of Lincoln’s head at point-blank range, and pulled the trigger. Lincoln collapsed. He was rushed to the nearest doctor, but he never regained consciousness. He soon bled to death. He became the first American president ever to be assassinated, but certainly not the last. (There have been four so far.)

Booth jumped from the balcony to the stage below yelling “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”, which is a Latin phrase that translates into English as “Thus always to tyrants” (meaning that he believed Lincoln was a tyrannical ruler who had forced the Confederate states to remain in the Union against their will and thus deserved to be murdered.) Booth broke his leg in the jump, but he managed to escape temporarily. He was ultimately caught and killed before standing trial, although several co-conspirators were caught, tried, and hanged publicly for their roles in planning the assassination of Lincoln.

Upon Lincoln’s death, his Vice-President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President. Johnson’s rise to the presidency is a strange development in American history. He was not Lincoln’s first Vice-President. The Republican party chose him as Lincoln’s running mate in the campaign of 1864 because they wanted to extend an olive branch of peace, so to speak, to the Confederacy. Johnson, you see, was a southerner. And he was a Democrat. He was thus of the same party and region of the country as the people who comprised the Confederate States of America. But there was one difference. Johnson was not a secessionist. He was a loyalist, or unionist. In 1861, when the secession of the southern states began, Johnson was a Senator from Tennessee. When his state seceded, he became the only southern senator among 22 southern senators representing Confederate states to take a public stand against secession. He refused to leave his seat in the Senate when all of the other southern senators walked out. He continued to represent Tennessee in the U. S. Senate throughout the Civil War. The Republican party thus rewarded him with the Vice-Presidency, hoping that by naming a southern Democrat as Vice-President it would be a gesture of goodwill that would persuade the Confederates to lay down their arms and negotiate peace. It was a noble idea, but it did not work. Now, after Lincoln’s assassination, this southern Democrat who was installed in power by Republicans had the job of running the U. S. government for the first three years after the war.

President Andrew Johnson’s job from day one of his administration was to figure out a way to put the torn nation back together. This would be known as “Reconstruction.” At that time, Reconstruction was seen as an ongoing process. No one knew how long it would last or whether it would prove successful. Today, looking back on it in history, we see it as an era of American history. We know it lasted for 12 years, from 1865 to 1877. The process of Reconstruction was going to be difficult at best and near impossible at worst. This process would include five components: 1) physical reconstruction of the South. Many parts of the South lay in absolute ruins as a result of the war. Houses, businesses, farms, cities, roads, bridges, railroad tracks, telegraph lines, and all other parts of the southern infrastructure had to be physically rebuilt. This rebuilding process would require a lot of money, some of which the already bankrupt southern states would have to come up with themselves, some of which the federal government would pay for, and most of which rich northern investors would pay for (in keeping with the best traditions of American capitalism). Many of these northern businessmen who invested money in rebuilding the South moved down to Dixie personally to start up new businesses or new plantations, and to run for political offices. These men were called “carpetbaggers,” and most of them were hated and despised by native white southerners.

2) racial reconstruction. The South’s traditional form of race relations was one of white superiority and black inferiority, or white freedom and black slavery. Now that would change. The process of converting the South’s black population of 4,000,000 people from slavery to freedom would be the most troublesome aspect of Reconstruction. It was easy to say simply to the slaves “you are now free,” but free to do what? Free to go where? Where would these “freedmen,” as the former slaves were called, live? Where would they get jobs? What could they realistically do within the American capitalistic economic system? The answer: basically only what they had been trained to do as slaves. If they were farm hands before, they would be farm hands now. But even finding jobs as farm hands would prove difficult.

3) political reconstruction. One of the goals of the Republican party after the war was to create a viable two-party political system in the South just as the North always had. In the years leading up to the Civil War in the 1850s, after the Whig party died out, there was only one major political party functioning in the South—the Democrat party. The fact that the Democrats had no notable opposition in the South was a major factor leading eleven states to the fateful decision of seceding from the Union. In a two-party system, one party checks the power of the other party. It serves as another “check and balance” in our constitutional system of government (even though the Founding Fathers never envisioned a two-party system). By 1865, experience had proven that a two-party system created the best safeguards to democracy, because it gave voters more of a choice in their political leadership. Thus, the northern Republican party which prevailed in the Civil War would now try to transplant itself into the South. Native white southerners, almost all of whom were Democrats, resisted this transplantation. They hated and despised Republicans. A few native white southerners embraced the Republican party, however. They were called the “scalawags.” The Republicans did succeed temporarily in creating a viable alternative to the Democratic party in the South, but the party owed its success to the vote of the freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags, all of whom native white southerners opposed and/or despised. The Democrats would ultimately destroy the Republican party in the South before Reconstruction was over.

4) economic reconstruction. Before the war, the South was predominantly an agricultural region whose wealth lay mainly in cotton plantations and slave labor. The North’s economy was meanwhile based on a combination of agriculture and industry. It had no money tied up in slave holding. Northern businessmen invested their money not in slaves but in various entrepreneurial enterprises. After the war, northern businessmen, most of whom were Republicans, invested in rebuilding the South. One of their main goals was to try to recreate the northern economy in the South; that is to say, give the South a diversified economy rather than merely an agricultural economy. This, too, would prove to be more difficult than it seems it should have been. The South was naturally suited to plantation agriculture because of the climate, topography, and soil. Besides that, it already possessed the best class of farm hands in the world—the freedmen—who needed jobs. All conditions were ripe to keep the South in a one-dimensional agricultural economy for many decades and well into the 20th century.

5) psychological reconstruction. Another major goal of the northern Republicans was to try to change the way white southerners thought about all of the issues mentioned above. The hope was to convince them that slavery was wrong, secession was wrong, fighting the United States in a civil war was wrong, having a one-dimensional economy was wrong, having a one-party political system was wrong, etc. In short, northern Republicans wanted white southerners to admit they were wrong, and basically to apologize for the war and all its catastrophic effects. It was a hope that was never realized. White southerners, as a whole, never did change their minds. In fact, over time they formed the legend of the “lost cause,” and took pride in the role they, their fathers, and their grandfathers played in the war.

Besides these five components of the Reconstruction process, there were essentially two big issues that had to be settled immediately in 1865: 1) How to get the eleven Confederate states readmitted to their proper status within the United States government’s federal system, and 2) What to do with, for, to, and about the freedmen. Let us take the issue of state readmission first.

The reason the readmission issue was so important is that after the war the eleven Confederate states were without representation in the federal government. They had sacrificed their representation in a failed attempt at independence. Now, in 1865, they lay prostrate as conquered belligerents. They had no senators or congressmen in Washington, D. C., and they had no federal courts. They simply existed under military occupation; martial law was in force. The job of the President and Congress was to reincorporate them somehow into the federal system which they had spurned for the past four years. This process of reincorporation would prove, like all processes in Reconstruction, quite troublesome. The immediate thing to do was for President Johnson to appoint temporary governors to act as go-betweens for the federal government and the southern people.

Before he was assassinated, President Lincoln had already begun formulating a plan to restore the Confederate states to their pre-secession status. His plan was called the “10% Plan.” It said that whenever ten percent of voters in any given Confederate state took an oath of loyalty to the United States government, then their state could be readmitted to the Union. Congress, under the leadership of the “Radical” wing of the Republican party, disapproved of Lincoln’s soft, conciliatory plan and wanted to make readmission more difficult. The Wade-Davis Bill passed by Congress said that whenever 50% of the voters in any Confederate state took an oath of loyalty to the U. S. government, then their state could be readmitted to the Union. Lincoln did not like this plan, and he refused to sign it into law. That is where the issue stood when Lincoln was gunned down. Andrew Johnson inherited this problem, and like virtually every issue that came between him and Congress, there was extreme disagreement. Johnson wanted to make it even easier than Lincoln did for the southern states to be readmitted. In the end, he and Congress basically compromised on a plan that was very similar to Lincoln’s original plan.

Each Confederate state also had to agree to repudiate its war debt or pay it back themselves; in other words, the U. S. government would not be responsible for paying off the debts of the southern states, which were enormous, as is always the case, in times of war. And each Confederate state had to agree not to re-enslave the freedmen. As each state worked out its own salvation with the federal government, the readmission process began, and military occupation ceased. Each state was readmitted one-by-one. In some states, such as Tennessee, the process was fairly painless. In others, such as Mississippi, it was very painful. The pain came from some southern states continuing to defy federal government authority; that is to say, they were determined to accomplish their own reconstruction in their own way. Because of that, Congress, over the objection of President Johnson, reinstated military occupation of the South from 1867 to 1870. This was basically to send a strong message to white southerners that the federal government would not tolerate continued defiance. The whole process of readmission took five years. By 1870, all eleven states had been readmitted and had their full representation in Congress and the federal courts restored, and military occupation ended again once and for all.

The second big issue of Reconstruction was how to handle the freedmen. The problem was that never in human history had such a large number of people who were slaves one day suddenly all been freed the next day. What would happen to them now that they did not have masters to feed, cloth, shelter and otherwise provide for them? The main fears among white Americans were that they would starve, become beggars or thieves, or try to get revenge on their former masters for years of bondage. None of these possibilities was good, of course. Since the federal government had set them free, the federal government had to take responsibility for the well-being of the 4 million freedmen. The problem was that the federal government had never before been in the business of providing for people’s welfare. Prior to the 1860s, the federal government had only taken responsibility for a few Indian tribes living on reservations. The number of people involved there was minuscule compared to the number of freedmen.

No one really questioned that the government would have to come to the rescue of these freedmen immediately; if the government did not do something to help them, they would starve. Even President Johnson and most southerners knew that. So, there was little opposition when Congress created the “Freedmen’s Bureau” in 1865 to provide for the welfare of the freedmen. The main question that Congress and the President disagreed on was how long this new federal government agency should last. This agency’s work of feeding, clothing, sheltering, doctoring, and educating the former slaves would cost a tremendous amount of taxpayer money at a time when the nation was already in extreme debt from fighting the Civil War. Plus, there was a fear that these former slaves would be spoiled and ruined by government hand-outs, and that they would not ever want to work again after getting a temporary free pass. Thus, President Johnson wanted the Freedmen’s Bureau to have a very short life. Basically, he wanted to give it to the end of the year 1865 to do its job. Congress disagreed, saying it must be an open-ended arrangement, and that it must be continued as long as the need remained.

Meanwhile, as the legislative and executive branches of the federal government were squabbling over the life expectancy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the people of the various southern states were springing into action themselves to find a more practical solution to the problem. Mississippi led the way by creating the first “Black Codes.” These codes were designed for two purposes: to help the white people keep control of the large black population just as they had done via slavery, and to ensure a steady labor supply for white employers. To accomplish the first aim, the black codes placed many restrictions upon the freedom of blacks, much the same as the old slave codes had done. To accomplish the second aim, the black codes required that every able-bodied adult black person sign a labor contract with some particular white employer before December 31, 1865. The contracts would guarantee that each laborer would have a steady job for one year, and that each employer would have a stable work force for one year. Although this seemed like a common-sense approach to a complex problem, Congress disapproved of it, saying that it looked too much like slavery by another name. So, Congress, over the objection of President Johnson, outlawed the black codes, and in response passed the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and any type of “involuntary servitude” in this country officially and permanently.

The problem of providing for the welfare of the slaves thus remained, along with the Freedmen’s Bureau, as the country headed into 1866. Eventually, Congress had to admit its mistake about the labor contracts, because no one came up with a more practical solution to the economic reconstruction of the South. Ultimately, the sharecropping system of southern agriculture arose from these labor contracts as a semi-permanent employer-employee arrangement. It remained as the predominant way of making a living for most blacks in the South (not to mention many poor whites) until the mid-20th century.

The problem of whites trying to control the black population also remained, but it changed forms. As the Confederate soldiers returned home after the Civil War, the southern states began to reorganize their militias, calling them “police” forces. Some of the police forces evolved into quasi-terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which was formed in 1866. Its purpose was to scare and intimidate blacks into being passive and submissive to white southerners just as they had been as slaves. When Congress found out about the existence of these subversive organizations, it passed laws forbidding them, and it held hearings and trials, in which the leaders of these groups were prosecuted. The KKK was abolished in 1870 after only four years of existence. (It would later be resurrected, which is discussed in EGSC History 2112.)

In 1868, partly to provide black southerners with better protection from such subversive groups and partly just to do the right thing from a humanitarian and egalitarian point of view, Congress, over the objection of President Johnson, passed the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which made all of the freedmen automatically citizens of the United States. The interesting thing here is that blacks, thanks to this amendment, actually became the very first “citizens of the United States.” That is to say, before this amendment was passed, white Americans were not considered citizens of the United States but merely citizens of their respective states within the United States. [They were citizens of Georgia or South Carolina or Tennessee, for instance, but not citizens of the United States as a whole.]

As a side-note to the issue of dealing with the freedmen, Johnson and Congress came to blows in 1868—a presidential election year—which led to Congress impeaching the President. The technical reason for the impeachment was that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over a policy disagreement. The real reason, however, was that the Radical Republicans in Congress could not stand Johnson personally or politically. Johnson had stood in their way time and time again, and they wanted to get him out of the way so they could pass their racial and economic agendas into law without a fight. Johnson thus had the dubious distinction of becoming the first president in American history to be impeached. The impeachment trial was held in 1868. It was a media circus. Spectators could even buy tickets to come watch the proceedings. In the end, Johnson was acquitted by just one vote. It did not matter as far as Johnson’s presidency was concerned, because he had

long since been a “lame-duck” president anyway, meaning a president without any power or influence over the federal government. The fact that he was acquitted was important for one reason, though: it set a valuable precedent for fairness in impeachment proceedings. If this Republican Congress had removed this Democratic president from office just because they disagreed with his policies and did not like him personally, it would have likely started a chain reaction of impeachments as soon as the roles of the two parties were reversed.

Meanwhile, the next presidential election was held as usual in 1868. War hero Ulysses S. Grant was nominated by the Republicans. The Democrats were still in disarray from supporting the Confederate cause in the war, so Grant—who had no political experience—won the election, becoming the 18th President.

To finish the story of the freedmen’s plight, in 1870, Congress passed the third of the so-called Reconstruction amendments to the U. S. Constitution. The 15th Amendment gave adult black males the same voting rights as white adult males enjoyed. This was supposed to be another step in the long process of making the United States live up to the egalitarian creed stated in the Declaration of Independence, but it had very different results. In 1872, the newly enfranchised freedmen got their first—and last—opportunity to vote en masse in the southern states. They lined up squarely on the side of the party of Lincoln and Grant—the party that had set them free from slavery and given them the right to vote—which came as no surprise to anyone. With their votes added to the votes of carpetbaggers and scalawags in the South, the Republican party was able to take control of some state governments and other local political offices, and to ensure a second term for the very controversial President Grant.

But native white southerners, who were former Confederates and life-long Democrats, resisted this encroachment on their power. They began plotting ways to retake or “redeem” their state and local governments from the Republicans. In 1875, Mississippi Democrats led the way with the “Mississippi Plan,” which became the blueprint for several other southern states to follow in redeeming their governments. The plan called for openly defying the 15th Amendment by intimidating black voters and scaring them into not voting, or not allowing their votes to be counted after the election, or by otherwise committing fraud at the ballot box to ensure Democratic victories. The plan was risky because, with Grant in the White House, there was a very real threat that the Republican President would send the U. S. Army back to the South to restore order. The Mississippians carried out their plan anyway, and to their delight, Grant did nothing. Grant said that the country was “tired” of this whole weary ordeal of Reconstruction. He said the United States needed to move on. So, he simply let the Mississippi Democrats get away with the “redemption.” Soon, other southern states did the same.

In the presidential election of 1876, Grant chose not to run for a third term. The Republicans nominated another Union Civil War general, Rutherford B. Hayes. The Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden. It was a close election and the most controversial in all American history. There were voting irregularities resulting from the redemption of three southern states: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. If the voting returns of these three states were taken at face value, Tilden won the election. Republicans, of course, cried “Foul!” They said the Democrats had stolen the election in those three states. If that were true, then Hayes won. Neither side was willing to concede defeat, which led to the worst crisis in a presidential election in American history [not unlike the 2000 election between Bush and Gore, but even worse than that].

To make a long and complicated story short, in order to resolve the conflict, the two sides agreed to a compromise. The Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to become President in exchange for 3 concessions: 1) Hayes must end the Reconstruction of the South and allow the southern states to handle their black-white race relations in their own way; 2) Hayes must appoint some southerners to high offices in the federal government, such as Supreme Court justices and other federal court judges; 3) Hayes and the Republicans must give the South a transcontinental railroad, which it was supposed to have gotten in 1853 but never got because of Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Hayes and the Republicans agreed to this deal, which became known as the Compromise of 1877, and Reconstruction officially ended. With the end of Reconstruction came the end of hope for black Americans to be incorporated into the mainstream of American society for the next 80-plus years. Thus ends the story of early American history.


1. Whom did Lincoln defeat in order to win re-election in 1864?

2. When and where was Lincoln assassinated, and by whom?

3. Who became president upon the death of Lincoln, which state was he from, and which party did he belong to?

4. Why did the Republican Party leaders choose him to be Lincoln’s vice-presidential running mate in 1864?

5. What was the major issue of his administration called?

6. What are the years of Reconstruction?

7. What were the main components of the Reconstruction process?

8. What were northerners called who moved to the South after the war to cash in on rebuilding projects and to serve in political offices as Republicans?

9. What were native white southerners called who converted to Republicans during Reconstruction?

10. What were former slaves called during Reconstruction?

11. What term did southern historians give to idea that the South was right to secede and to fight for its independence, and it was tragic that the North won the war?

12. What were the two main issues of Reconstruction?

13. What was Lincoln’s plan for readmitting the southern states called, and what did it stipulate?

14. What was Congress’s plan called, and what did it stipulate?

15. What nickname were Republicans who favored punishing the South given?

16. What new federal government agency was set up to provide for the needs of former slaves?

17. What government body set it up, and how did the president of the USA feel about it?

18. What did the southern states do to/for/about the former slaves in reaction?

19. What ulterior motives did southern states have for passing these laws?

20. How did Congress respond to these laws?

21. What constitutional amendment abolished slavery in America, and when was it passed?

22. What southern terrorist organization emerged in 1866 to keep free blacks “in their place?”

23. How did Congress respond to its existence?

24. What constitutional amendment made the freedmen citizens of the USA?

25. When and why was Johnson impeached?

26. How did the impeachment turn out?

27. Who was elected president in 1868?

28. What constitutional amendment gave black men voting rights?

29. What presidential election was decided partly by black votes?

30. What did white southern Democrats call the time when they took back their state governments from blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags?

31. What was the plan called in which white southern Democrats resolved to do whatever they had to do, including killing blacks and Republicans, to accomplish the Redemption?

32. Why did Grant allow the Redemption to occur?

33. Who was “selected” president in 1876?

34. What was the Compromise of 1877 and what were its three parts?

35. Write a discussion of about 250 words explaining the main idea and most important points or facts in this chapter.

36. Write a discussion of about 250 words explaining the main idea and most important points and facts in this whole unit.