American Reconstruction Period (1865-1877)

Subject: History
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Study level: College

Introduction

Reconstruction era is the period in US history that succeeded the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Reconstruction years between 1865 to 1877 were marked by several attempts to rectify the improprieties of slavery and the difficulties emanating from the readmission of the eleven states that had earlier seceded from the Union. Through historical perspective, the Reconstruction interval is portrayed as the time in which vengeful Republicans imposed black supremacy upon the defeated southern secessionist states. In all the political struggles within the American society, the Reconstruction era is viewed as an important milestone in interracial democracy. Within the national ranks, new policies and legislative amendments changed the federal system and provided new guidelines for American citizenship. In southern states, the politically mobilized American-Africans partnered with the poor whites to vote to the Republican government to power. This paper attempts to explain the Reconstruction period within the context of political developments to the end of that interesting historical moment.

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Andrew Johnson and the Presidential Reconstruction

Reconstruction history began with the US president at that time, Abraham Lincoln. Before his assassination, Lincoln referred to Reconstruction in Louisiana by opining that some black ex-soldiers from the American Union army needed the right to vote in the elections which were to be conducted later (Captivating History 19). After Lincoln died in 1865, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and instituted the chapter of presidential Reconstruction. He rendered clemency to all southern whites except the Confederate leaders and the wealthy plantation-owners (Guelzo 32). Later on, the Confederate officials and the rich planters obtained individual pardons. Johnson’s absolutions reinstated these people’s political rights and all property except the slaves (Boyer et al. 441). The president as well outlined the processes through which new states would be created. Aside from the condition that they eradicate slavery, reject secession, and abrogate the Confederate debt, the southern states were given independence in managing their internal affairs (Boyer et al 443). Confederate states responded then through the formulation of the Black codes, rules that required African-Americans to sign annual labour agreement and in other means sought to regulate the freedman’s economic options and reinvent plantation order (Boyer et al. 443). Clearly, this was the beginning of the African-American’s resentment of Johnson’s policies.

Johnson’s discriminatory measures not only angered many people but also rekindled radicalization among some Republican elected officials. At the time when Congress convened in December of 1865, Pennsylvania’s Senator Thaddeus Stephens and Massachusetts’s Senator Charles Sumner called for the establishment of new southern governments grounded on fairness and universal male suffrage (Guelzo 3). However, the more several tolerable Republicans desired to cooperate with the President while redesigning his plan. American legislature declined to seat the elected officials and senators from the Southern states and passed the two Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil rights Bills (Boyer et al.). The first bill was purposed to lengthen the term of Freedmen’s Bureau that was created in 1865 to manage the transition from enslavement to freedom (Boyer et al. 444). The second bill was intended to designate all individuals born in the US as national citizens, who were to enjoy impartiality before the law (Boyer et al. 444). Inarguably, President Johnson had now built enmity between him and the Republicans.

Rejection of the Freedman’s Bureau and the Civil Rights Bills severed the poor relationship that existed between President Johnson and Congress. A blend of personal intransigence, the impassioned dogma of states’ rights, and racist convictions are some of the perceived reasons why Johnson might have dissented to the bills (Guelzo 44-49). As a matter of fact, the Civil Rights Act became the first notable legislation in US history to become law atop a president’s veto (Boyer et al. 444). Soon afterwards, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which put the principle of birthright citizenship into the constitution and forbade the states from depriving the citizens of the right to equality before the law (Guelzo 12). Therefore, the federal government would assure all Americans of equality before the law and against state contravention.

Congressional Reconstruction

During the 1866 congressional elections, Northern states’ voters profusely rejected Johnson’s policies. The parliament chose to start Reconstruction afresh by the passage of some bills to strengthen it. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 split the Confederate states into five soldierly districts and outlined how new governments, grounded on manhood’s right to vote with no consideration to race, were to be instituted (Captivating History 58). Consequently, the era of Radical or Congressional Reconstruction began that continued till the end of the ultimate Southern Republican administrations in 1877 (Captivating History 60). With the Radical Reconstruction, it meant that the programs aimed at readmission of the Southern states were controlled by Congress.

Congressional Reconstruction had most of its successes but the notable achievement was the readmission of Southern states into the Union. By 1870, every single former Confederate states’ member had been reabsorbed to the Union, and almost all were managed by the Republican Party (Captivating History 74). Southern Republicanism was constituted of three groups of people. Firstly, there were “carpetbaggers”, or new arrivals from the North who were Union soldiers, tutors, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and businesspeople (Guelzo 33). The second group was comprised was “scalawags” or native-born white Republicans who were made up of planters, who were nonslaveholding from the Southern upcountry, and some businessmen (Boyer et al. 449). Thirdly, African-Americans formed the vast majority of the Southern Republican electorate (Boyer et al. 450). The aforementioned groups’ loyalty to the Republican Party emerged from the fact that they viewed the party as a mechanism for reclaiming the Confederate power.

One of the prominent accomplishments of Radical Reconstruction was that it aroused need for freedom among the Afro-Americans. Right from Reconstruction’s inception, political forums and local press throughout the South had demanded for the appendage of constitutional liberties to the marginalized blacks (Boyer et al. 450). Black rights activists included those who had been free pre-Civil War era, slave ministers, artisans, and Civil war veterans (Captivating History 58). The leadership of Blacks rights movements pressed for the abolition of the racial caste system and the economic emancipation of the former slaves (Guelzo 96). In essence, sixteen African-Americans served in Congress during the Reconstruction period, including Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels in the US senate (Guelzo 70). Certainly, the Political revolution in the South meant freedom of blacks from the white supremacists.

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Nevertheless, the political revolution of Reconstruction precipitated increasingly violent opposition from the Southern whites. Terror organizations like Ku Klux Klan sprung up with intentions of thwarting the existent revolution (Guelzo 74-79). Criminal acts such as beatings and assassinations were targeted at the local Republican leaders, African-Americans who asserted their rights in their workplaces, teachers, ministers, and those who sought to assist former slaves (Boyer et al. 451-452). For instance, at Louisiana’s Colfax in 1873, scores of Blacks militiamen were murdered after surrendering to the armed whites who were keen on taking control of the local government (Captivating History 78). With the rise in terrorism, however, the governments of the Southern states solicited help from the federal government headquartered in Washington D.C.

By 1969, the federal government of the US was controlled by Republican Party through its three arms. After the Senate failed to impeach President Johnson in 1868, a Republican Ulysses Grant was elected to be the president (Captivating History 68). Thereafter, Congress passed the fifteenth amendment that barred states from restricting the right to vote on account of race. A series of Enforcement Acts were then passed which allowed national action to repress political violence. Grant’s administration then launched a military offensive against the Klan in 1871 and destroyed the group completely. In 1872, Grant was reelected in a peaceful election ever witnessed in the period. Arguably, the two terms that Grant served can be seen as the historical time that Reconstruction started to slow down.

End of Reconstruction

Gradually, Reconstruction began to wane by the early 1870s because of different reasons. During this particular period, numerous Republicans retreated from both the racial equality and the wide definition of federal power as had been initiated by the Civil War (Captivating History 75). Some critics of the Reconstruction argued that the exclusion of the planters from the South from power was to be blamed for corruption and instability that bedeviled the states (Guelzo 74). As Northern states became more conservative, Reconstruction seemed to be a misguided attempt to uplift the living standards of the less privileged. Such notions gave rise to cases such as 1873’s Slaughterhouse Cases which limited the extent of Reconstruction laws and constitutional amendments. In reality, the pace with which Reconstruction was growing slowed down.

Key to the diminishing support for Reconstruction was the reducing political disapproval of the Republican Party across the Southern states. By 1876, only the three Southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were under the control of the Republican Party (Guelzo 85-89). The contestation of presidential results between the Republican’s Rutherford Hayes and the Democrat’s Samuel Tilden was pegged on the election outcomes from the three states. There came negotiations between Hayes representatives and political leaders from the South. The deal was struck for Hayes to recognize the Democrat’s control of the three states and the Democrats would not block his certification in Congress (Captivating History 83-88). After Hayes became the US President, the defense forces returned to military bases. President Hayes’ era ushered in a new dispensation in which the federal government accepted to protect the rights of the former slaves, therefore bringing Reconstruction to an end. As evident, Reconstruction brought a new form of conflict resolution in American politics, which was, negotiation.

Conclusion

In summary, America’s Reconstruction era was marked by political developments that shaped the period not only at its beginning but also at the end of the period. Following the American Civil War, the Reconstruction period created the need to readmit the Confederate States that had earlier seceded from the Union. Though President Abraham Lincoln had a plan for the Reconstruction of the Southern states, his untimely death dealt a setback to the program. On his side, President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, tried to implement the plan though he faced fierce opposition from Congress, culminating in impeachment attempts in 1868. The US leader who tried to effect some changes under Reconstruction was Ulysses Grant who ruled for two terms and annihilated the Ku Klux Klan. Remarkably, the Reconstruction period ended with the inauguration of President Rutherford Hayes in 1877. Despite being a period of political revolution in the US, the Reconstruction period became pivotal in the political stability of the nation.

Works Cited

Boyer, Paul, et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. 9th ed., Cengage Learning, 2017.

Captivating History. Reconstruction Era and Gilded Age: A Captivating Guide to a Period in US History that Greatly Impacted American Civil Rights and an Era of Rapid Economic Growth. Captivating History, 2021.

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Guelzo, Allen. Reconstruction: A Concise History. Oxford University Press, 2018.