ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

Review:  Reconstruction

 

*The surrender of Johnston on 26 April 1865, although a great victory for the North (although more symbolically than militarily at that point), was overshadowed by the great national tragedy of Lincoln’s death, a tragedy for both North and South.

 

*Two weeks earlier, on 14 July 1865, as the US celebrated the anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter, President and Mrs Lincoln went to the theatre.  John Wilkes Booth, an actor, knew they would be attending, and used this opportunity to put into action his plan to assassinate the president. 

 

*During Act III, scene 2, the funniest line in the play was guaranteed to get a laugh.  Hoping to use this to cover the sound of his gunshot, Booth sneaked into the Presidential box and fired his derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head.  The president collapsed immediately.  Booth leapt to the stage, catching his spur in the bunting and breaking his leg.  He cried ‘sic semper tyranis’ and limped from the theatre.  Doctors tried to help Lincoln (but probably made things worse).  He lived through the night, comatose, and died the next morning at 7.22.  Secretary Stanton said ‘now he belongs to the ages.’

 

*When Andrew Johnson became president he did not have a good reputation.  He had gone to his own inauguration as Vice-President drunk, perhaps partly because Hannibal Hamlin offered him too much to drink the night before.  After that Lincoln only spoke to him once, embarrassed and disgusted. 

 

*It is likely that no-one ever rose from humbler beginnings to become president than did Andrew Johnson.  His parents were poor farmers in North Carolina, and he was an illiterate tailor who never went to school until his wife taught him to read and cipher.  He had been a successful Tennessee politician, serving as mayor of Greeneville, governor, Congressman, Senator, and the military governor during much of the War before Lincoln chose him, the most prominent loyal Southern Democrat, as running mate in 1864.  He was famous for supporting the interests of poor whites against the big slave-owners.

 

*Like John Tyler, another principled Southerner chosen to balance a ticket who unexpectedly became president, Johnson was not successful.  He did not like Northerners or Blacks, and as a Democrat was not be popular with the Republican-dominated Congress.  As a Unionist Southerner and a man of poor background, the aristocratic South disliked him as well.  He was committed to the Constitution (and was buried with it for a pillow), but could not get along with anyone.  As President, Johnson had many enemies, few friends, and a lot of trouble.

 

*One of the first major actions of his presidency, of course, was the capture and execution of Booth and his accomplices, although this was largely directed by Edwin Stanton.  Booth himself was killed during the attempt to capture him.  Four of Booth’s accomplices, three men and one woman (Mary Suratt, the first woman executed by the US Government), were executed, and four others were imprisoned.

 

*The War left the South devastated, and the North relatively untouched, although still deeply bitter about the loss of lives and the murder of Lincoln.

 

*Half the Southern capitals had been captured or destroyed, along with many other cities, most of the South’s few factories, her cotton gins, her banking system, and large sections of her railroads.  Before the War, five railroads converged on Columbia, SC, but after the War she was 20 miles from the nearest functioning rail line.

 

*$2 billion worth of slaves had been lost to the South:  a vast investment vanished along with the investment in other improvements to the plantations over the years and in worthless Confederate paper money and bonds.  Livestock and crops had been stolen or destroyed.  Many Southerners also felt the Lost Cause had been a just one.  They might belong to the US again, but they did not have to like it.

 

*The freedmen did not just represent a huge financial loss for the South or the disruption of a social system dating to the foundation of most Southern states.  It also meant a loss of labour for planters who suddenly had no-one to plant or harvest their crops.  Furthermore, there were now an immense number of blacks without any clear idea what to do.

 

*Many freedmen were confused by freedom at first, but most liked the idea.  Many went travelling, either to look for family members, to look for work, to go up North or out West where they expected better opportunities, or just to see the world after a lifetime or legally restricted travel.  One large group (known as Exodusters) went to Kansas.  Others remained with their former masters their entire lives.

 

*Freedmen bought fancy clothes, formalised marriages, created their own churches with black ministers (especially in the Black Baptist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church), and built schools for themselves and their children, all things difficult to do and often illegal in the late antebellum period.  Sadly, due to their condition before the War, many blacks were ignorant, uneducated, illiterate, unskilled in most tasks, abysmally poor, and in many ways quite unprepared for freedom.

 

*Even before the war drew to a close, both Lincoln and Congress began to formulate plans to deal with the South and with Southerners, both black and white.  One of their first creations was the Freedmen’s Bureau, formed on 3 March 1865 and intended to help free blacks on their way to becoming productive citizens.

 

*The Freedmen’s Bureau was a sort of welfare agency.  It was meant to offer food, medical care, legal advice, and education to both freedmen and white refugees.  Later it would help blacks vote when they got that right

 

*The Bureau did offer education, and it was gladly accepted by freedmen of all ages.  Sherman had given tracts of up to 40 acres and occasionally the loan of Army mules to slaves freed during his march.  ‘Forty acres and a mule’ came to symbolise Federal willingness to help former slaves and even redistribute private property.  Congress wanted to offer this to more freedmen, and passed a forty acres and a mule law, but it was rarely implemented and later defeated by Johnson, who rescinded all its grants. 

*In some cases the bureau was corrupt, often using blacks to stuff the ballot boxes of the Republicans, but sometimes coercing or tricking blacks into signing labour contracts that made them very nearly slaves to local whites.  Overall the Bureau did good work, but it was limited by opposition in the South and apathy from the North, especially as the War receded into the past.

 

*As early as 1863 Lincoln created a plan for bringing the Southern states back into the Union.  According to his theory that they had never seceded in the first place, this was a fairly simple affair.  Lincoln’s plan required 10% of the voters registered in each Southern state in 1860 to swear allegiance to the Union, so it was called the Ten Per Cent Plan.  The state would then elect a new government and, once accepted by Lincoln, function as a state of the Union again.  Finally, Lincoln would pardon any Confederate who would swear an oath of allegiance to the Union and accept the federal policy on slavery, but it denied pardons to all Confederate military and government officials and anyone who had killed black prisoners of war.

 

*The Radical Republicans in Congress thought this was too soft on the South, and refused to seat elected representatives from Louisiana, Arkansas, or Tennessee after those states sent them to Congress under Lincoln’s Ten Per Cent Plan in 1864.

 

*The Radical Republicans instead created the Wade-Davis Bill, and passed it in 1864.  Many Radicals felt that the Southern states, by leaving the Union, no longer had equal rights and deserved to be treated as conquered provinces that might one day being the process of admission all over again.  Radical Republicans believed the South needed a complete Reconstruction of its society.  Among many tougher restrictions, the Wade-Davis Bill required fifty percent of ex-Confederate men to take an oath of allegiance and swear that they had never borne arms against the United States.  After all, they could be called traitors if they did—the Constitution defines treason as making war against the United States.  It also had stronger protections for emancipation than did Lincoln’s Ten Per Cent Plan.  Lincoln refused to sign this bill, thus using the pocket veto.

 

*At the time of Lincoln’s death, nothing was resolved, although Lincoln was known to still favour a mild plan for reunification, welcoming the Southerners back into the Union as brothers who had gone astray.  Some Radicals were actually glad of Lincoln’s death at first, as they hoped that Johnson, known to hate the planter aristocracy, would side with them.  In fact, Johnson’s plan was even more lenient than Lincoln’s, but it did exclude prominent Confederates from government unless they personally requested a pardon from the president.

 

*Radical Republicans in Congress initially liked Johnson’s plan, because it did take the right to vote and participate in politics away from many wealthy Southerners and seemed to give power to the small farmers who were more likely to restructure Southern society.  However, Johnson began pardoning wealthy Southerners, and soon almost all the Southern States had ratified the XIII Amendment, repudiated their debts, and re-established civil government, as Johnson required.

 

*The problem is, most Southerners did not act much differently.  Blacks were free, but they were still kept down.  Each Southern state created ‘black codes,’ laws that restricted the rights of freedmen.  These black codes contained oppressive provisions that included curfews (to keep blacks from gathering together after sunset), vagrancy laws (which let vagrants—blacks who did not work—be whipped, fined, or sentenced to a year’s labour and sold to a white man under a contract), labour contracts (obliging blacks to sign year-long contracts for which they were often paid at the end of the year so they could not quit), and land restrictions (allowing blacks to own or rent property only in rural areas, which essentially forced them to live on plantations).  Blacks could not vote, marry white people, own firearms, or exercise many other rights white people enjoy.

 

*About as bad, from the Radical Republican point of view, Southern states immediately re-elected old Confederates to Congress.  In 1865 Congress refused to let these rebels take their seats.  Johnson in return got angry, and began to veto Congressional actions. 

 

*Congress declared that Reconstruction was a job for the legislative branch rather than the executive.  As race riots, in which whites attacked blacks in major Southern cities (and New York), spread throughout the nation, a Congressional committee declared the Southern states to be in a state of disorder and that their elections had been invalid for that reason.

 

*To combat the black codes, Congress created the XIV Amendment, which did a number of things, but the main point was to ensure civil rights and equal protection under the law regardless of race.  Johnson condemned the amendment, but Congress overrode his veto and Southern states were required to ratify it, or Congress would take control of the states.

 

*Tennessee had a radical governor named Parson William Brownlow, a Methodist minister, newspaper editor, and staunch Unionist (but not an abolitionist until after the War).  Run out of the Confederacy during the war, he was elected governor during the brief period when most Confederates were disenfranchised.  He immediately brought Tennessee back into the Union (making us the last the leave and the first to return) and he got the XIV Amendment ratified.  Therefore, Tennessee was spared the harsher reconstruction measures of Congress, although Brownlow was as strict or stricter, and, though personally an honest man, his regime was characterised by corruption, by the use of force to prevent white attacks on blacks, and by growing unpopularity for Brownlow.

 

*All other Southern states refused to ratify the XIV Amendment, and were denied statehood by Congress, which passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867.  The South was divided into five military districts, each governed by a Union General.  Southern states were required to form new constitutions.  States had to allow all qualified male voters, including blacks, to vote.  Confederates were temporarily prevented from voting.  Southern states had to give equal rights to all citizens.  Southern states had to ratify the XIV Amendment.  These policies were enforced by military might.

 

*Life under Reconstruction was not easy for anyone.  Blacks had a measure of freedom, although it had been slow in coming thanks to disputes within Congress and between Congress and the President and the South.  The XIV Amendment was meant to put blacks in the same position as women—they were to be citizens but not be guaranteed the franchise by the Federal Government.  However, this was partly a compromise to satisfy moderate Republicans and the few Democrats in Congress. 

 

*The Radicals wanted to give the vote to blacks, at least in the South (and eventually did so through the XV Amendment).  They would do this, moreover, while preventing thousands of white Southerners from voting, due to their Confederate service records.

 

*With the army to protect them, black men in the South voted in great numbers. 

 

*With black votes behind them, black Southerners went to the conventions that created new state Constitutions and were elected to local, state, and even federal offices.  Between 1868 and 1876, 14 black Congressmen and 2 Senators (Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi) were sent to Washington from the South.

 

*Reconstructed governments did initiate many valuable reforms, some of which were kept around by the Redeemer governments that replaced them.  Among these were public schools, simpler tax systems, and new public works (although these often ended up putting Southern states deep in debt to carpetbaggers—in Tennessee, for example, Governor Brownlow issued far more bonds than the state could afford to Northern speculators promising to build turnpikes and railroads, and most of these bonds later were repudiated to save Tennessee from insolvency).  Women also got a few more rights, mainly the right to control their own property.

 

*Southerners curses the names of Yankees who came south to take part in Reconstruction and the new government, calling these people carpetbaggers, suggesting that they were poor, no-account people at home who carried everything around in a cheap suitcase made of carpet scraps.  The only thing worse than a carpetbagger was a scalawag, a Southerner who became a Republican after the Civil War.  Most of these men had been Whigs and Unionists before and during the war, but some did change parties when it became obvious who was running the show.

 

*The stereotype of these scalawags and carpetbaggers was that they were corrupt, opportunistic profit-seekers out to take advantage of the defeated South under a corrupt government.  In some cases that was true—the 19th Century after the Civil War was characterized by government corruption at almost all levels.  However, many were simply businessmen and even reformers who wanted to modernise the South, although most were, of course, not averse to making some money on the deal.  Some, of course, would treat Reconstruction as a period of imperial rule, which is why no West Virginian owns the mineral rights on his own lands.  Others would skim liberally from public funds, accept bribes, and use government money for private purchases, especially in South Carolina and Louisiana.  One carpetbagger governor with an $8,000 annual salary managed to make $100,000 in one year through graft.  However, this kind of corruption was common in all the United States, and generally even worse in the North, where there was more to steal.

 

*Former slave-owners are incensed to see their former slaves running their states, especially when they could not vote at all themselves, or hold office.  They resented being a conquered people prevented from even voting by an occupying army that could seize property and bully former rebels into obedience.

 

*To fight back, Southerners formed resistance organizations.  One of these had originally been formed as a club and mutual aid society for Confederate veterans, but it soon grew into more.  On Christmas Eve, 1865 the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski County, Tennessee.  The name came from the Greek ‘kyklos’ or ‘circle.’  They soon began playing tricks on black people in order to frighten them out of voting or taking a large role in public life or otherwise ‘getting above themselves.’  To do so, they wore bed sheets so they would resemble ghosts.  Early tricks were as simple as pretending to drink an entire bucket of water or claiming to be the ghost of a Confederate soldier.  To the superstitious blacks (and even poor whites) of the day, this could be very frightening.  Many blacks and carpetbaggers got the message and quit going out to vote or left town.

 

*Soon, though, pranks were not enough, and the Knights of the Invisible Empire turned to outright violence and terror.  The Ku Klux Klan attacked freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags in order to scare them away from things the Klan did not want them doing, especially voting or holding public office.  Enemies of the Klan were warned with fiery crosses, and, if nothing changed, they were harassed, kidnapped, and often murdered.  1,000 Louisianans alone were killed by the Klan in 1868.

 

*Congress was outraged.  In 1870 and 1871 Congress passed the Force Acts, which gave the US Army tremendous power to use against anyone suspected of participating in violence through the Klan or any similar group.  However, many of these groups just went underground, claiming to be dancing clubs or missionary societies.  Besides, they had already done their work.  Afraid to vote or seek office, many blacks were in much the same position they had been in before military reconstruction began.  This power, now back in the hands of white Southerners, would be used to flout the XIV and XV Amendments throughout the 19th and even well into the 20th centuries.  Afterwards, the Klan would be romanticised as a freedom-fighting organisation that saved the South from oppression by carpetbaggers and their black allies.  The most famous instance of this was the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation.  It will be one of many forces that brought the Klan back to prominence in the 1910s and ‘20s.

 

*Congress had problems besides the Klan.  The Radicals were increasingly frustrated by that drunken tailor Johnson.  The Radicals had an ally in the executive branch, though.  Secretary of War Stanton was on their side and often told them what Johnson was up to, essentially serving as a spy against the president on behalf of Congress.  This angered Johnson almost as much as Johnson angered Congress.  Furthermore, it gave Congress an idea for a pretext for impeachment.  Impeachment would benefit Congress because then the president pro tempore of the Senate (according to the custom of the day) would become President of the USA.  The president pro tem was the controversial, but Republican, Ben Wade of Ohio.

 

*In 1867 Congress declared that since the Senate had to confirm all Cabinet appointments, that also meant that the Senate had to confirm any removal from office of any Cabinet member during a president’s term.  This was called the Tenure of Office Act.  Congress knew Johnson, who badly wanted to fire Stanton, was likely to break this, and they turned out to be right.

 

*On 5 August 1867 Johnson requested Stanton’s resignation.  Stanton refused and the Senate backed him up.  Stanton barricaded himself in his office, even after Johnson named General Grant as his replacement.  Grant eventually turned the job down to show support for Stanton.

 

*This gave Congress what they needed.  For violating the Tenure of Office Act Johnson was impeached by the House.  During the Senate trial, however, Johnson behaved himself, was quiet, sober, and conciliatory, when he even appeared in the Senate chamber at all.  His defence suggested that the law was unconstitutional (and the Supreme Court would officially say so in 1926) and that Johnson was not guilty of any high crime or misdemeanor.

 

*The prosecutors had a fairly flimsy case, and Johnson was acquitted, although only by one vote.  This was partly because many Republicans did not trust Ben Wade, who they regarded as a dangerous radical because he supported soft money, the labour movement, and a high tariff, most of which scared the business community.  Some simply felt the charges were not strong enough; Johnson was certainly obnoxious, but that alone is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanour.  Other Congressmen were nervous about setting a precedent that would weaken the executive office too much.  Besides, Johnson would be out of office a few months after the end of the trial in 1868.  It is quite possible that the entire trial was rigged to yield this dramatic outcome for the sole purpose of breaking Johnson’s remaining power and prestige, and to show him just who was in charge.  Indeed, Congress would remain the most important part of the government for the rest of the century.

 

*The one triumph of Johnson’s presidency was seen as a great mistake at the time.  This was Seward’s purchase of Alaska in 1867 from the Tsar of all the Russias, Alexander II, who wanted America as an ally to counterbalance Britain.  Seward got all of Alaska for $7.2 million.  It was seen as useless and a waste of money at the time and was called ‘Seward’s Folly,’ but it has since proven to be valuable.

 

*One irony of the creation of new state constitutions by black legislators and Yankee carpetbaggers is that creating those constitutions allowed the Southern states to become part of the Union and allowed the white population to vote again, which meant that those black men and carpetbaggers lost most of their powers under the newly-elected state governments.  These Redeemer or Home-Rule governments had to be careful not to re-create de facto segregation too quickly, as they could be re-occupied, and some were during the presidency of US Grant.  Southern governments remained volatile, but they began to run themselves as soon as they could, and by 1870 most Southern states were back in the Union, and slowly.

 

*During the early 1870s, Democrats got more and more power in government again.  Although they did not completely control it, they could prevent the Radical Republicans from enacting anything too radical.  The Supreme Court also reached decisions in a number of cases that limited the power of the XIV and XV Amendments.

 

*In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican Governor of Ohio ran against Samuel Tilden, Democratic Governor of New York, for the presidency.  Hayes was a Civil War veteran, a fact his supporters mentioned often.  Tilden was more popular, however, and won a slight majority of the popular vote.

 

*In the electoral college, however, things were closer.  Several states--Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon--had one or more of their electoral votes questioned, so that twenty votes were unallocated at the end of 1876.  The election was close—if Tilden got even one of the disputed votes, or if Harrison got them all, that man would win.

 

*Tilden probably should have won, but the Democrats were afraid to complain too loudly, because they feared (unjustifiably) that Grant would set himself up as military dictator if pushed too far.  Republicans were upset, but some were willing to let Tilden in.  Some blacks were supposedly afraid that if Tilden did win, slavery would be re-established.  It was a very tense situation.

 

*Congress had to decide what to do, so they set up a special committee.  The committee had 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and one man who was thought to be neutral.  However, at the last minute, the neutral man, David Davis of the Supreme Court, was elected to the Senate and resigned his judgeship.  He was replaced by a Republican.  Not surprisingly, the commission voted 8 to 7 in favour of Hayes.

 

*The Democrats were furious.  However, rather than have a constitutional crisis, a bargain was reached:  the Compromise of 1877.  Tilden would let Hayes take office without complaint, but in return Reconstruction would end in the South, and some money would be spent to improve the Southern states in ways they wanted.

 

*Shortly after this, the Southern states found ways around the XIV and XV Amendments, and blacks lost most of their rights and privileges, including the ability to safely cast their votes most of the time.  They did still receive some education and some services, but by this point segregation was just beginning, and it might be separate, but it was rarely equal.




This page last updated 17 January, 2011.