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Lecture: Reconstruction 1865-1877

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This scene from DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation is a fictional recreation of South Carolina's House of Representatives, which achieved a black majority during Reconstruction. It portrays the black representatives as ignorant savages, unsuited to govern. The film glorified the KKK, which terrorized black voters to prevent them voting for black representatives. The movie was made in 1915, from the 1905 book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. Both are secondary sources for the Reconstruction era.

Document: Organization and Principles of the KKK

"KKK members with torches" kkk
timeline pics
Timeline © Copyright 2008 Eric Davis http://hopes-and-dreams.net

Civil War or War Between the States?

Although we refer to it as the Civil War, not everyone did at the time. Southerners in particular called it The War Between the States. They didn't mean the individual states, like Georgia or Massachusetts; rather they meant nation-states.
What this means is that the northerners, or Union, felt that they were fighting a civil war, a war between two factions within the same country. The southern secessionists, or Confederacy, felt that they were fighting for the independence of their country (The Confederate States of America) against a foreign power.
"Early Confederate Flag""33-stars U.S. Flag"
Despite what you may have heard, this war wasn't just about slavery. From the Confederate perspective, slaves were property. According to the Constitution, the federal government cannot deprive anyone of property without due process of law. This protection of private property was one of the founding values of the United States. When Lincoln was elected and Radical Republicans (many of them anti-slavery) gained control of the government, many Southerners realized that a long history of the federal government trying to destroy them (through tariffs and support of abolitionists) was going to culminate in the taking of their property.
Many northerners did not like slavery, but few wanted to destroy it in the South. Most wanted to prevent its spread into new western states, which would permit slaveholders to have greater power in Congress. Few northerners believed in equal rights for African-Americans, and many felt black people were inferior intellectually. Lincoln himself had entertained proposals of founding an African-American colony in the Caribbean or Africa, where freed slaves could set up their own government and not mix with whites. In the U.S., freed slaves might have trouble mixing with their former masters.
From the Union perspective, then, the war had been fought to preserve the Union, which had been torn asunder by the secession of the Southern states. Now that the war was over the question was how to "reconstruct" or "restore" the South. (From the Confederate perspective, of course, a war for independence had been lost to a foreign power which now intended to dominate them completely.) Some people, especially southerners and southern sympathizers, wanted to simply restore the South, with total amnesty to all. Others, especially the Radical Republicans in the North, wanted to reconstruct the South, only readmitting states to the Union when they conformed to certain standards.

Presidential vs. Congressional Reconstruction

"Photo of Abraham Lincoln"
So from the Union view, the Conferederacy had left and the war had conquered them to bring them back, so each state had to be readmitted to the United States. Even during the war, Lincoln was planning for Reconstruction. In 1863 he developed the Ten Percent Plan, decreeing that after the war a state could be integrated into the Union when 10% of the number who had voted in 1860 took a loyalty oath to the United States and agreed to the freeing of the slaves. The 10% Plan was thus designed to provide an easy readmission for the southern states. Prior to his assassination, Lincoln had readmitted three southern states on the basis of his plan: Radical Republicans in Congress, however, wanted reconstruction, not restoration. They opposed the plan as being too lenient, and wanted stricter requirements for readmission. What's ironic is that Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as part of a Confederate conspiracy. By killing him, Southerners killed their last best hope for an easy restoration, amnesty, and preservation of most of their way of life. Without him, the Radical Republicans controlled Reconstruction. That is, they did so at the same time as they fought the new President, Andrew Johnson, for power.
"Photo of Andrew Johnson"It is interesting to note that Johnson was really a mystery man when he became President. Despite the fact that he was from Tennessee and a Democrat, he was also a unionist. He hated the aristocratic planter class, having come from a poor farming family. His personality was offensive; one acquaintance described him as "belligerent, lacking in political tact, tempermental". Congress at first thought he would be better than Lincoln because he would be hard on the south. Then he took over the process of Reconstruction while Congress was out of session. He, like Lincoln, believed that Reconstruction was the President's job. He allowed states with Black Codes and destroyed the Freedman's Bureau, and Congress wanted to impeach him.
According to one history textbook, Faragher's Out of Many (2004), "Johnson's narrow acquittal established the precedent that only criminal actions by a president -- not political disagreements -- warranted removal from office". This is a key point. Can you imagine if the President were subject to impeachment every time Congress disagreed with him? Instead, what Congress learned to do through their battle with Johnson was what the Constitution insists on: override of a Presidential veto with two-thirds of the votes.

Freedom and Racism"Photo of freed people's children"

The Radical Republicans in Congress really were radical. There's a common misconception that all northerners were pro-union, anti-slavery, and in favor of civil rights for freed people. There's a similar misconception that all southerners were anti-union, pro-secessionist, pro-slavery, and against civil rights for freed people  . These are stereotypes. There were northerners who believed that the south had a right to secede and be left alone. There were southerners who were against slavery. There were pro-union southerners (like Andrew Johnson). Very few people, however, truly supported black equality.
There's a big difference between feeling that it is wrong to enslave a person, and wanting that person to become a full citizen. There's also a big leap in thinking that such a person ought to vote. After all, women and children were not included in any of this thinking, except by feminists. In this context, the Thirteenth Amendment (which forbade slavery or involuntary servitude) was relatively easy to pass.

The Fourteenth Amendment (declaring that former slaves were citizens) was more difficult, and the Fifteenth Amendment (giving freed adult males the vote) highly controversial. Forcing southern states to ratify all these before being readmitted guaranteed the support needed for these radical acts.


In a sense, they became constitutional amendments because of the make-up of Congress at the time. It was full of Radical Republicans frustrated by President Johnson, and the south wasn't yet a voting bloc.
While all this doesn't negate the importance of these amendments as a foundation for black civil rights (or for feminist opposition to them), it helps explain why the conservative Democrats were so eager to "redeem" the southern states. The Supreme Court also curtailed the breadth of these amendments, effectively leaving freed peoples unprotected despite the Constitution.
In the Election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes (the Republican candidate) agreed to keep federal interference out of the south if he could gain the electoral votes needed to become president (despite the fact that Democrat Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote). This is one of the biggest political deals in history. The Hayes victory not only marked the end of Reconstruction, but further abandoned freed peoples.

Freed Peoples and the Economy"Old Confederate Money"

While freedom was what most slaves wanted, it's been said that "freedom is all they got". Much of the problems facing freed slaves in the late nineteenth century were the same as those facing other southerners.
Much of the land in the south was worthless after the war. Agriculture had declined, and the Union's "scorched earth" policy left much of the soil unusable. The biggest capital investment in the south had been slaves, and they were now freed. For the planter class, it was like watching all their tools, appliances, investments literally walk away. Most southerners had been loyal to the Confederacy, and had used the money minted for their new country. This money was now worthless. The costs of war were immense. In 1866, one-fifth of all the revenue of the state of Mississippi was spent on artifical limbs for veterans. Many young men were dead. Former slaves, now freed, were no longer working 18-hour days.
In response to the post-war crisis, most farmers planted cash crops. Money was necessary to pay taxes and try to hold onto land, the only investment that could ever be made to pay. With everyone frantically planting cotton, tobacco and sugar, prices began to decline.
Plus, the soil was exhausted, since farmers planted the same cash crops over and over on the same land. Ultimately, not enough food was planted.
Although many freed slaves left immediately after the war to find family members, most returned to find jobs. Wage labor was what they wanted, but no one had cash to pay them. Besides, what they really wanted was to own their own land. Share-cropping appeared to be the answer. But share-croppers soon ended up in debt peonage, because they had to borrow money to get seed and equipment, and as crop prices declined they were increasingly unable to pay this money back.
Document: Interview with a Former Slave

Reconstruction Slideshow

Alternate link to video: Cartoons, Engravings and Etchings from Reconstruction

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The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
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The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.