America’s Reconstruction Period, what is it and what part did it play in shaping the values and laws that govern much of what we live and see in America today?
This article will highlight the values that led freedom-minded Americans to adopt amendments to the Constitution that sought equality for everyone, including slaves. It will summarize a time of immense soul-searching, political wrangling and attitudinal race dominance by many whites, eventually leading to the assassination of America’s 16th president–Abraham Lincoln.
The Reconstruction Period lasted 14 years–January 1, 1863 to March 31, 1877. After the bitterly fought Civil War ended in 1865, the Union sought to address the inequities of slavery, give social and economic equality to former slaves and the legal right of every person born in America to vote. Thus, on December 18, 1865, Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which legally abolished slavery. Now that the slaves were legally free, what was the country going to do with them? How were they going to function in a society where many considered and treated them less than animals? Where would they go? What would they do?
Not only were there millions of slaves in the South who had to be mainstreamed into society, southern states that had seceded from the Union had to be re-admitted, the South rebuilt and laws established to govern it. During the fourteen years of reconstruction, blacks and whites banded together to redefine laws and responsibilities of American government.
The Reconstruction debate began in 1863, well before the Civil War ended, with President Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” for southern states. It required ten percent of each state’s voters to commit to loyalty to the Union before they could establish a new state.
At the same time, Union supporters wanted equal rights for former slaves. Lincoln also proposed that the “very intelligent blacks” such as Union soldiers, should have the right to vote.
However, after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and presided over the Period of Reconstruction. Many saw Johnson as a racist and very lenient toward the South. He was born in North Carolina, which could explain his leniency and why his policies placed him at odds with Radical Republicans–Republicans who sought to establish equality for slaves.
Johnson gave pardons to southern whites and restored all properties except slaves. Southern states were also given a free hand in managing their state governments. The only things they were not allowed to do were: maintain slavery, continue separation from the Union and resist paying their debts. With such a free hand, southern states passed laws that required African Americans to sign yearly labor agreements, limited their freedom and re-established plantation discipline formerly used during slavery–harsh treatment. In affect, they were seeking to replicate slavery.
This was resisted by African Americans and fought legally. Northern states like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts fought for equality in the southern states, but moderate Republicans teamed up with Johnson to implement laws that were unequal to slaves. Once Radical Republicans obtained control of Congress, they overrode many of the policies of President Johnson and passed laws more conducive to equality. In 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills were passed by Congress. Even though it was vetoed by Johnson, Congress was able to override his veto and the Civil Rights Act became legal.
Shortly thereafter, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was approved by Congress, giving slaves birthright citizenship. This Amendment forbade southern states from denying blacks equal rights under the law. As more and more of Johnson’s policies were denied, Reconstruction began in 1866; he was stripped of much of his power and eventually impeached by Congress in 1868. However,the Senate refused to confirm his removal from office.
By 1870, all southern states had been re-admitted to the Union, and were controlled by the Republican Party, In every state, African Americans formed the majority of Republican voters. Southern whites tended to belong to the Democratic Party. Because the majority vote was Republican, the voting machine in the south pressed for elimination of the racial system and the economic uplifting of former slaves. Sixteen African Americans served in Congress, over 600 served in state governments and hundreds in local offices. Having blacks in positions of power fueled hostility and race hatred among southern whites.
The Freedman’s Act allowed land owed by the government to be rented or sold to blacks, but because Johnson had given the land back to whites, most African Americans never became land owners. Lacking land ownership, economic mobility for blacks did not materialize. Thus, many continued to work on plantations owned by whites, either receiving wages or becoming sharecroppers, thereby remaining economically poor.
In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant was elected President and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, prohibiting states from restricting the right to vote based on race.
President Ulysses S. Grant
The South, however, had fought all equality and economic growth for blacks with violence. Blacks holding offices were beaten, killed and black militias murdered and destroyed The Klu Klux Klan roamed the countrysides inflicting beatings and murders, but with Grant as President, laws were enacted to quell the political violence in the South and the Klan was destroyed by the military.
Sadly, by 1870, many Republicans had become more conservative and “backed away” from racial equality and enforcement of federal laws in the South. Many saw Reconstruction as a misguided attempt to uplift lower classes in society.
The presidential election of 1876 gave a stamp of approval that led to the end of the Reconstruction Period in 1877. The South had gained political strength and put forth a strong candidate to oppose Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes with Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Consequently, Republicans cut a deal with the Democrats to keep Hayes in office in exchange for allowing the South to be controlled by Democrats with no federal oversight. This effectively gave the South permission to put in place a system resting on disenfranchisement of black voters and rigid state laws of racial discrimination and segregation.
In 1877, Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow Laws ruled the South. It would take almost 100 years before the wheels of inequality and segregation began to turn in the right direction with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Why write about this period in history today? Many reasons, the main one being the stark similarity of the mood and values of the country after slavery was abolished and the mood and values of the country after the presidency of Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama
From the 1960s to the 2008 election, freedom-minded Americans sought to end racial segregation and Jim Crow Laws that ruled southern government and life, reshape their values and recognize that the rights of all citizens should not be contingent on race, color, religion, gender and sexual orientation…that all men and women are created equal. Much progress in race relations seemed to be evident…the nation elected its first African American President, Barack Hussein Obama.
However, the ingrain racism, bigotry, greed and hatred lay just beneath the surface of thought for too many Americans and consequently, during the Obama Administration, white supremacy groups grew at a rapid pace and overt racism spread throughout the country. By the time the 2016 Presidential Election rolled around, Donald J. Trump, whom many see as a racist and unfit to be President, eked out a win over Democratic opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Where are we today? We are a very divided country… Racism is overt and vocal, discrimination at its highest level in decades and many immigrants and people of color believe the policies put forth by the Republicans and Trump Administration are cruel and inhumane. Is it time for a twenty-first century “Reconstruction Period?”
This magazine has written many articles on the “State of America” in 2017- 2019 and will not address it in this article, but will refer you to the “Archives” at the bottom of the page.