Article Written: February 21, 2006

Civil War: Reconstruction
Moderate v. 'Radical' Plans for Reintegrating the South

By Phil Allard

The issue: In the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-65), should the U.S. government follow a course of Reconstruction favored by Radical Republicans, which would punish the South and which would involve strong federal intervention to overhaul the political and social structure of the South and ensure that the freed slaves would be granted full equality with whites? Or should it adhere to more lenient policies that did not seek to punish the South but rather to heal the nation, and which would limit the federal government's role in reshaping the South?

  • The case for "radical" Reconstruction: Without strict federal intervention, the South will foster the same political and social environment that had led to war in the first place. In particular, the federal government must ensure that the rights of the newly freed slaves are not violated. Also, the Southern states committed treason by seceding from the Union, and should be punished accordingly.
  • The case against "radical" Reconstruction: The focus of Reconstruction should not be on punishing the South, but on uniting and healing the nation. Federal intervention in the South that influences state governments in any way is essentially a continuation of the Civil War, trampling democracy with force. Radical Reconstruction is motivated by an irrational hatred of Southerners.
Charleston Civil War Destruction (1865)

Library of Congress

Charleston, South Carolina, lies in ruins following the war between the states.

Introduction

The American Civil War (1861-65) ended with a victory for the Union over the secessionist Southern states. But the end of the war was just the beginning of a new chapter in American history. The following period of Reconstruction (1865-77), during which the Confederate states were reintegrated into the Union, was one of the most controversial chapters in American history. Well before Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses Grant at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War, controversy raged in Congress and throughout the country concerning the terms under which the secessionist states would be allowed back into the Union.

Of paramount concern was what role the federal government should take in the shaping of the political, economic and social fabric of the South. Integrating the roughly four million newly freed slaves into life in the new South was a particularly contentious issue. It was the issue of slavery that in large part had spurred secession of the Southern states in 1860 and 1861, leading to the Civil War, and dealing with the newly freed slaves was no less problematic. The Civil War had left the South dramatically altered; newly freed slaves struggled to survive in the new economy while co-existing with an often bitter and resentful white populace. [See Civil War: Secession of the Southern States]

The national debate over Reconstruction centered on three main issues:

  • What were the terms under which the defeated Confederate states should be allowed to reenter the Union? What demands should be made upon them before they reentered? Should Congress or the president establish the terms?
  • Who should be punished for the rebellion and to what extent?
  • To what degree should the national government assist the newly freed slaves (often referred to as freedmen) in participating in the political and social life of the South?

The nation was bitterly divided over the best way to answer those questions. Democrats and moderate Republicans tended to favor more lenient policies toward the South, with limited federal intervention in the process. However, a faction of the Republican Party known as the Radical Republicans pushed for a harsher program that would both punish the South and ensure that the newly freed black slaves would have total equality with whites.

Abraham Lincoln Andrew Johnson

Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln (left) and Andrew Johnson (right)

President Abraham Lincoln (R, 1861-65) believed that the war-torn South had already been dramatically punished, and thus favored a fairly lenient approach of Reconstruction. Lincoln firmly believed that the sooner the nation healed its wounds and moved forward, the better off everyone would be. His plan called for a pardon to any Confederate who had not held civil office and would swear to support the Constitution and the Union; states would be readmitted to the union once 10% of their population took such an oath. He did not, however, adequately address how the newly freed slaves were to be absorbed into Southern society. That was soon to complicate matters.

On April 14, 1865, days after the war ended, Lincoln was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, and died the following morning. Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson (R1,1865-69), was an outspoken opponent of the rich slaveholders in the South, and as a Southern senator had refused to join the Confederacy, preferring to preserve the Union. Johnson said he intended to carry out Lincoln's Reconstruction policies, although unlike Lincoln, he believed that the South should be punished for its role in the war.

Indeed, Radical Republicans initially welcomed Johnson, believing that he would pursue harsher policies than Lincoln. "Mr. Johnson, I thank God that you are here," Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade (Ohio) said when Johnson assumed the presidency. "Lincoln had too much of the milk of human kindness to deal with these damn rebels. Now they will be dealt with according to their desserts."

Lincoln Funeral March (Washington, D.C., 1865) Ford Theater

Library of Congress

Washington, D.C. mourned its assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln, with a solemn parade (left). The Ford Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, also commemorated the event with funeral bunting (right).

However, once in office, Johnson adopted a more lenient policy than expected. For instance, he pardoned many Confederate leaders and allowed prominent former Confederates to keep their land and their official posts. He also argued that it was the responsibility of the states, not of the federal government, to set policies dealing with the newly freed slaves. That Southern autonomy helped foster an environment in which black rights were denied, and notorious "Black Codes" were enacted in the South, severely limiting the rights of the freedmen.

Johnson's plan (also referred to as "Presidential Reconstruction") was countered by Radical Republicans in Congress, whose Reconstruction policies became known as radical Reconstruction. Radical Republicans argued that a main goal of Reconstruction should be to secure the same rights as white citizens for the newly freed slaves. To ensure that their Reconstruction plan were carried out, the Radical Republicans proposed greater federal intervention in the South to oversee the process. For example, Congress's Reconstruction Act of 1867 divided the South into districts under military rule, and removed former Confederates from power.

Advocates of radical Reconstruction initially included mostly Radical Republicans. However, more-moderate Republicans began to join their ranks as the South showed its unwillingness to allow blacks to exercise their rights, and an increasingly adversarial relationship developed between Johnson and Congress. As debate in the U.S. grew over whether the government should adhere to radical Reconstruction policies or follow a more moderate course, the stage was set for a showdown that would not only span the next decade but would affect life in the South for more than a century.

Civil War Refugees (African-Americans in Ohio)

Ohio Historical Society

The condition of freed slaves and the destruction of Southern industry led Radical Republicans to call for greater federal intervention in the South.

Proponents of radical Reconstruction argued that Johnson's plans, which allowed many former Confederates to remain in power, did not go far enough. Without strict federal intervention, they reasoned, the South—where blacks had long been viewed merely as property—would revert to the same political and social environment that had led to war in the first place. They also argued that Reconstruction should punish the South for its "treason" in seceding. The government had the right to set such strict terms for the secessionist states to be readmitted to the Union because it had defeated the Confederacy in the war, they asserted.

Opponents of radical Reconstruction, on the other hand, argued that it was more important to heal the nation than punish the South. Furthermore, they maintained, policies dictating how the states should deal with the newly freed slaves were a violation of states' rights; the federal government could not dictate how the freed slaves would be treated by the South. Federal intervention in the South that influenced state governments in any way was essentially a continuation of the Civil War, replacing democracy with force, they asserted.

Lincoln's and Johnson's Plans for Reconstruction

On December 8, 1863, approximately 16 months before the North defeated the South in the Civil War, Lincoln issued a proclamation that laid out his vision of Reconstruction. Lincoln proposed a more lenient program of Reconstruction, which stemmed from his desire to heal the wounds of war as quickly as possible and put an end to animosity between North and South. [See Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (primary document)]

Civil War Refugees (Atlanta, 1865)

Library of Congress

Refugees of the Civil War atop a freight train in Atlanta.

Under his plan, the federal government would appoint governors to head the secessionist states. He also offered executive pardons to all Southerners (except for high-ranking Confederate officials, who had to get a special pardon from the president) who took an oath to support the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. government. For a state to rejoin the union, at least 10% of its qualified voters as of 1860 had to take an oath of allegiance. Once 10% of voters swore their allegiance, they could select delegates to go to a convention to adopt a new state constitution; the constitution had to repudiate secession and recognize the abolition of slavery. (On January 1, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves were "forever free.") Once those things happened, Lincoln said, states would be eligible for representation in Congress and for full recognition of statehood.

Lincoln also established the temporary Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or the Freedmen's Bureau, shortly before the war ended in 1865. The bureau was intended to provide food, medicine, clothing, shelter and education to blacks and war refugees. Established by the War Department, the Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, Border States, the District of Columbia and "Indian" Territory. Because the Freedmen's Bureau was an agency of the U.S. Army, white Southerners generally viewed it as an extension of the army of occupation imposed on them by the victorious North. Moreover, one of the bureau's objectives was to prepare blacks for a role in Southern society that whites had steadfastly maintained they were incapable of filling.

Many Northern Republicans in Congress argued that Lincoln was not being tough enough on the South. In 1864, Senator Wade and Representative Henry Winter Davis (R, Maryland) proposed a harsher plan. Their Wade-Davis Bill required that a majority of each Confederate state's white males swear their loyalty to the Union in an "ironclad" oath. It also prohibited Confederate officials from voting or holding office, and it required Southern states to allow blacks to vote. Lincoln refused to sign the bill, however, so the law never went into effect. When Lincoln was assassinated, he and Congress were still at odds over the Reconstruction issue. [See Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill, and Lincoln's Reaction to the Bill (primary document)]

Civil War Southern Reconciliation (illustration)

Library of Congress

In this illustration, published after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, reconciliation is offered in Lincoln's memory to the secessionist South.

When Johnson replaced Lincoln, Republicans expected him to follow a harsher policy toward the South. However, when he issued an amnesty proclamation on May 29, 1865, it was not as strict towards the South as expected. In many respects, it was a continuation of Lincoln's plans; the government would appoint governors for the Southern states to prepare them for reentry to the Union, and high-ranking Confederates and those owning more than $20,000 worth of property had to be personally pardoned by the president. In fact, Johnson eventually pardoned all but a few high-ranking and wealthy Confederates, and permitted the federally appointed state governors to appoint prominent former Confederates to office. [See Andrew Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation (primary document)]

Like Lincoln, Johnson left the issue of how to deal with the newly freed slaves to the state governments; he did not believe the federal government had the right to force states to give freedmen equal rights. Although as a condition for rejoining the Union Johnson's Reconstruction plan required Southern states to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, he chose not to use federal intervention to enforce black rights. "Outside of the Constitution we have no legal authority more than private citizens, and within it we have only so much as that instrument gives us. This broad principle limits all our functions and applies to all subjects," he explained. [See 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution (primary document)]

Johnson's decision virtually guaranteed that blacks would be forced to struggle to gain equality with Southern whites. Because Johnson did not enforce government control of the Southern lands, very little changed in terms of the treatment of African Americans. In fact, many Southern states established Black Codes, state laws that limited the rights of freedmen. For instance, the codes declared that blacks could work only as field hands, essentially assuring that they would be forced to continue working on Southern plantations, and could not work without signing a contract. According to Florida's Black Codes, African Americans who violated labor contracts could be whipped and forced to do hard labor. [See Louisiana's Black Code (primary document), Southern Opposition to Reconstruction and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan (sidebar)]

Congress Establishes 'Radical' Reconstruction

By the time Congress reconvened in December 1865, all former Confederate states except Texas had organized governments, ratified the 13th Amendment and elected members of Congress. Johnson declared Reconstruction complete.

Civil War Refugee

Ohio Historical Society

Many in Congress recognized that existing political, economic and cultural mores trapped blacks in the South in worse conditions than before the Civil War.

However, Radical Republicans were not satisfied with Johnson's Reconstruction. They called for more far-reaching social change in the South, and argued that only strict federal intervention could achieve it. The result of lenient Reconstruction policies, they said, was the passage of Black Codes and the election of former Confederates to public office. For instance, many of the newly elected Southern congressmen had been leaders of the Confederacy or high-ranking military officers; Georgia elected the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, to the Senate, even though Stephens was awaiting trial for treason at the time. Congress barred those Southern legislators from taking their elected seats in Congress, under a clause of the Constitution declaring that "each house shall be the judge of the qualifications of its own members."

Moderates initially said that Johnson's plan would be acceptable with only a few minor changes. For instance, they sought an extension for the Freedmen's Bureau to help protect Southern blacks, and also passed the Civil Rights Bill in March 1866. Designed to protect freed slaves from Southern Black Codes, the Civil Rights Bill declared that all persons born in the U.S. "of every race and color" were now citizens. As citizens, they could make and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, give evidence in court, and inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property. Persons who denied those rights to former slaves would be guilty of a misdemeanor. [See Civil Rights Bill of 1866 (primary document), Editorial on the 1866 Civil Rights Bill (primary document)]

But Johnson argued that those measures gave too much power to the federal government, and vetoed both, angering many moderates. Many Northerners became convinced that Johnson's policy, and the actions of the Southern governments he established, threatened to return blacks to a condition similar to slavery. They also argued that it would allow the former rebels to regain political power in the South.

The split between Johnson and the moderates became complete in April 1866, when Congress overrode Johnson's veto of the Civil Rights Bill, garnering the necessary two-thirds vote to pass the Civil Rights Bill. It was the first time Congress had ever overridden a presidential veto of major legislation. Three months later, Congress would again submit the Freedmen's Bureau Bill. When Johnson once again vetoed it, Congress overrode that veto as well. To make sure that the Civil Rights Bill was enforced, Congress approved the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing full citizenship rights to blacks. Congress made ratification of the 14th Amendment a condition to rejoining the Union.

As conditions in the South failed to improve for blacks, moderates were more and more inclined to agree with Radical Republicans that greater action was needed to protect the rights of the freedmen. As moderates were becoming more sympathetic to the Radical Republican cause, congressional elections in 1866 ousted many Johnson supporters, giving an edge to Radical Republicans. The new configuration of the House ensured support for radical Reconstruction, and ensured that Republicans had the numbers to override any legislation passed by Johnson.

The new session of Congress, with its Republican majority, was able to pass a stricter version of Reconstruction. Over Johnson's veto, the Radical Republicans pushed through Congress the First Reconstruction Act of 1867, "An Act to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel states." Under the act, the South was divided into five military districts that were subject to U.S. military authority. Approximately 20,000 U.S. military troops were stationed in the Southern states to oversee the process of Reconstruction, keep the peace and protect all persons. (Tennessee, which had been readmitted on July 24, 1866, was exempt.) [See First Reconstruction Act of 1867 (primary document), Johnson Explains his Veto of the 1867 Reconstruction Act (primary document)]

Furthermore, governments that had been established under Johnson's plan, many of which were headed by former Confederates, were removed, as the Reconstruction Act stated that "no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exist in the rebel States." Many were filled by a mix of Southern whites loyal to the Union (referred to contemptuously as "scalawags" in the South) and Northern reformers and settlers who migrated to the South soon after the war ended, called "carpetbaggers" in reference to the carpetbags in which many transported their belongings.

The laws also required Southern states to adopt new constitutions in conformity with the U.S. Constitution, and to ratify the 14th Amendment and grant blacks the right to vote. Only after those conditions were fulfilled would states be readmitted to the Union and allowed congressional representation. However, Southern resistance to the 14th Amendment was strong. Johnson urged states not to ratify the act, which he saw as a violation of states' rights. Congress subsequently approved several other Reconstruction acts to ensure that Reconstruction was carried out.

Johnson was completely opposed to Congress's radical Reconstruction, and relations between the president and Congress continued to deteriorate. They reached a final showdown in 1867, when Johnson sought to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who advocated Radical Reconstruction and whom Johnson saw as impeding his Reconstruction efforts. When Stanton refused to resign, Johnson fired him, and also began to replace radical generals whom the Republicans had placed in charge of the Southern districts.

Johnson's actions fueled efforts to impeach him. Those efforts failed in December 1867. But after Congress reinstated Stanton in January 1868, and Johnson again sought to remove him, the House in February passed a motion impeaching Johnson. However, he was spared removal from office when his Senate trial ended in acquittal on two counts, both times by one vote. While Johnson continued to strongly criticize radical Reconstruction, he no longer stood in its way.

The Case for 'Radical' Reconstruction

Supporters of radical Reconstruction argued for strict policies that would both punish the South for its role in the Civil War and ensure that it would not revert to its pre-war condition. Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R, Pennsylvania), one of the leaders of the push for radical Reconstruction, summed up the view of the majority of Northern legislatures, particularly after Lincoln was assassinated. "We hold it to be the duty of the government to inflict condign punishment on the rebel belligerents, and so weaken their hands that they can never again endanger the Union; and so reform their municipal institutions as to make them republican in spirit as well as in name," Stevens declared shortly after Lincoln's assassination. "The whole fabric of Southern society must be changed," he continued. [See Representative Stevens Speaks in Favor of Radical Reconstruction (primary document)]

Proponents of Radical Reconstruction believed that returning political and economic control of the South to the Democrats and Southern white males who had just rebelled would render the North's victory in the war fruitless. "Every state that seceded from the United States was a Democratic State.... Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat. Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat. The man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat," Republican political leader Robert Ingersoll pointed out. "Every man that raised bloodhounds to pursue human beings was a Democrat. Every man that clutched from shrieking, shuddering, crouching mothers, babes from their breasts, and sold them into slavery, was a Democrat."

Supporters argued that a strong federal presence in the South was the only way to ensure that blacks' rights were not violated. They pointed to the South's establishment of Black Codes, resistance to ratifying the 14th Amendment and violence against newly freed slaves as showing that the South could not be counted on to ensure their rights. In particular, supporters justified placing the South under military rule on the grounds that there were no lawful governments in the South. They expressed that belief in the first Reconstruction Act of 1867:

WHEREAS no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exists in the rebel States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas; and whereas it is necessary that peace and good order should be enforced in said States until loyal and republican State governments can be legally established...Be it enacted That said rebel States shall be divided into military districts and made subject to the military authority of the United States

Some, such as Representative George Funston Miller (R, Pennsylvania), acknowledged that the system of establishing military districts in the South involved "extraordinary power" that "should only be exercised in extreme cases." However, they said that the situation in the South was an extreme case, and warned that without strict Federal intervention, the South would revert to the same political and social environment that led to war in the first place. "It is...a universal rule among all civilized nations that, when the civil law is not strong enough to afford ample protection, the more powerful, to wit, that of martial, must be resorted to, and it is evident that these ten States present a case demanding such extreme measures," Miller stated. He further argued, "These pretended governments do not afford adequate protection to the persons and property of the loyal people resident therein, hence, the necessity of a more stringent procedure."

Other supporters justified harsher Reconstruction on the grounds that the Union had defeated the Confederacy, and therefore had the right to set the terms of the peace. "We have conquered them, and as a conquered enemy we can give them laws; can abolish all their municipal institutions and form new ones," Stevens said. Furthermore, he declared, it was necessary for the federal government to treat the South as a conquered enemy to achieve its objectives. "Reformation must be effected; the foundation of their institutions both political, municipal, and social must be broken up and relaid, or all of our blood and treasure have been spent in vain. This can only be done by treating and holding them as a conquered people," Stevens asserted.

Supporters also emphasized the benefits of Reconstruction. For the first time in American history, advocates pointed out, there existed in American law a principle that the rights of citizens could not be abridged because of race. Those laws led directly to the creation of new governments in the South elected by blacks as well as whites, they noted. Proponents also pointed out that Reconstruction brought the beginning of a public school system to the South, and attempted to revitalize the devastated Southern economy. Most of the fighting had taken place in the South, and large parts of major cities had been left in ruins; crops and livestock had also been destroyed.

To sum up radical Reconstruction's aims, Stevens observed that Reconstruction offered an opportunity to create a "perfect republic" based on the principle of equal rights for all citizens. "This is the promise of America. No More. No Less," he said. In the opinion of the majority of Northern Republicans, Johnson's plans did not go far enough, so they simply took matters into their own hands.

The Case Against 'Radical' Reconstruction

Critics of radical Reconstruction objected to strong federal intervention in the South. In particular, they opposed placing the South under military control, which they said amounted to martial law and essentially continued the Civil War. Johnson and other opponents disagreed with the Radical Republican premise that lawful governments did not exist in the South. "Over every State comprised in these five military districts, life, and property are secured by State laws and Federal laws, and the National Constitution is every where in force and every where obeyed. What, then is the ground on which the bill proceeds?" Johnson asked in a speech to the House explaining his veto of the 1867 Reconstruction Act.

Critics also argued that the federal government did not have the authority to force the South to adopt measures favored by the North. In his speech about the Reconstruction Act, Johnson asserted:

The military rule which it establishes is plainly to be used, not for any purpose of order or for the prevention of crime but solely as a means of coercing the people into the adoption of principles and measures to which it is known that they are opposed and upon which they have an undeniable right to exercise their own judgment. [The act is] in its whole character, scope, and object without precedent and without authority, in palpable conflict with the plainest provisions of the Constitution.

Furthermore, some asserted, the Southern states had never actually left the Union; the states had attempted to secede, they noted, but were foiled in that attempt by losing the Civil War. Rather than conquering a territory, Representative William Finck (D, Ohio) stated, the federal government "reestablished firmly the jurisdiction of the United States, not over any new territory, not over territory conquered from a foreign enemy, but we reestablished the jurisdiction of the United States over what had been and what continued to be during the war; a part of the territory comprised within the boundaries of the United States." Consequently, opponents argued, the South could not be treated as a conquered enemy.

Other critics argued that military rule was unnecessary in the South. For one thing, they said, the freedmen did not need to be "protected." Labor was so desperately needed to cultivate Southern lands, Representative John Leftwich (D, Tennessee) maintained, that the freedmen were better treated and received better wages than similar workers anywhere else in the world. Leftwich contended that conditions in the South were highly exaggerated by the North. "I desire distinctly to repeat there is no necessity for this or any other protection for loyal white or black people in the southern States beyond the laws already in practical operation there," he asserted. "These raw-head-and-bloody-bone stories that have imposed on the credulity of northern minds till they have become ridiculous in the estimation of the unprejudiced are in the main false, made of whole-cloth, and are concocted and promulgated for base and designing purposes."

Opponents of radical Reconstruction also objected to what they said was the punitive nature of Reconstruction. They maintained that the focus should be not on punishing the South but rather on healing the nation. They supported a more lenient policy, agreeing with the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his second inaugural address in 1865. "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds," Lincoln had said. [See President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (primary document)]

Overall, the Reconstruction policy put forth by Radical Republicans was motivated by irrational hatred of Southerners, opponents argued. They warned against legislating out of revenge against the South. "Legislation induced by passion should never be the legislation of a free people in a free republic," Representative Charles Sitgreaves (D, New Jersey) declared in House debate over the Reconstruction Act. He continued: [See Representative Sitgreaves Speaks in Opposition to Radical Reconstruction (Excerpts) (primary document)]

Suppose we should succeed in giving an ascendancy to party or in crippling the South in her resources; what is the life of a man or a party when compared with the life of an empire. Parties are ephemeral. The places that now know the men of the South, the actors in the late conflict, in a few years 'will know them no more forever,' but the Republic should and will (if sustained by wise legislation) endure forever.

Sitgreaves further argued that adopting a Reconstruction policy intended to punish the South was unconstitutional. He pointed out that the Constitution prohibited the passage of bills of attainder (defined as special acts "as inflict capital punishment upon persons supposed to be guilty of high offenses, such as treason or felony without any conviction in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings"), and argued that effectively disenfranchising white Southerners as punishment fit the "spirit and effect" of a bill of attainder.

Rather than "reconstruction," many critics of called for "restoration," with a focus on rebuilding the South economically. That would benefit both Southern blacks and whites, they asserted. In fact, Leftwich argued that if the freedmen were polled, the results would find that the vast majority would prefer the removal of a cotton tax, which directly affected their livelihoods, to being given the right to vote.

Some critics, Northern as well as Southern, were also opposed to the increased role of blacks that Northerners were forcing on the South. "White men alone must manage the South," Johnson declared. Sitgreaves warned against effectively disenfranchising Southern whites in favor of Southern blacks:

Yet with the knowledge of all this, that we cannot build a republic without intelligence, the radical would put the ballot in the hands of millions imbruted by slavery, with intelligence but little beyond the brute creation, possessing the vices of treachery and dissimulation, and by so doing give them the political power, in some States the actual numerical majority, in almost all, the balance of power, and yet profess that he does so 'to guaranty a republican form of government.'

Many white Southerners were also bitterly opposed to Reconstruction governments set up by "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags." Not only did their presence serve as a constant reminder of the South's defeat by the North, opponents asserted, but the added tax burden caused by "government and social improvements," such as new roads and schools, was not only uneconomically harmful but unconstitutional as well, since Southerners had no say in the matter.

Detractors also asserted that there was widespread corruption under the carpetbaggers, scalawags and ignorant freedmen who ruled state governments. Reconstruction foes pointed out that even Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Chamberlain admitted that the carpetbagger state governments were out of control. Chamberlain noted: "Corruption ran riot; dishonesty flourished in shameless effrontery; incompetency was the rule in public offices." That was in part, they said, because black politicians in the South became vulnerable to corruption and would follow the lead of the Northern politicians and do what the latter told them to do.

Reconstruction Comes to an End

The Republicans saw several of their goals accomplished by 1870. In February, the 15th Amendment was ratified, granting blacks the right to vote. Also that year, the first black men were elected to Congress; Hiram Roades Revels (R, Mississippi) to the Senate and Joseph Rainey (R, South Carolina) to the House. In July 1870, Georgia became the final former Confederate state to qualify for readmittance to the Union; by that time, most federal troops had been removed from the South.

The period of Reconstruction officially came to an end when newly elected President Rutherford Hayes (R, 1877-81) pulled the last of the federal troops out of the South in 1877. Hayes had become president in a disputed election; the vote was so close between him and his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, in three states—South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana—that a winner could not be determined. The Democrats and Republicans reached a deal whereby Hayes would be named president and, in return, the Republicans would not challenge Democratic victories in those states, which had been the only three remaining Republican states. It was also widely believed that Hayes had secretly promised the Democrats that he would end federal occupation of the South. However, by they time Hayes pulled the troops out, most members of Congress had little appetite left for continued conflict between North and South.

With the demise of Reconstruction, the South reestablished a segregated and white supremacist way of life. White Southern Democrats returned to Congress and much of the liberal civil rights legislation was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1896, in the pivotal Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled that state-controlled segregation was legal as long as "separate but equal" facilities were provided. Blacks remained second-class citizens until the mid-20th century, when the call for civil rights once again surfaced, highlighted by the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which reversed the Plessy ruling. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson (D, 1963-69), finally outlawed discrimination in "public accommodations." [See Brown v. Board of Education]

Opinions about Reconstruction varied, and continue to vary, widely. To those who opposed it, it was a time during which the North exercised complete control over the Southern governments and denied white men their rights as citizens. To proponents of Reconstruction, it was a time during which the government attempted to right the wrongs of slavery and oppression. However, one thing all historians agree on is that it was a pivotal era in the nation's history. [See Differing Interpretations of Reconstruction (sidebar)]


1 Johnson had been a War Democrat, but was nominated by the Republicans (which had officially adopted the name Union Party in 1864) for the vice presidency under Lincoln. When the Union Party broke apart in 1868, Johnson returned to the Democratic Party.

Discussion Questions & Activities

1. Should the South have been "punished" for seceding from the Union, or do you agree with Lincoln that "binding the nation's wounds" was more important? Explain.

2. Southerners claimed that the radical Reconstruction policies were motivated by hatred of the South. What reasons do you think were behind those claims? Do you think there was any truth to that statement?

3. What impact did Reconstruction have on race relations in the following century?

4. Did Reconstruction accomplish its goals? In what ways can it be considered a success or a failure?

5. Imagine that the government had followed a more moderate course of Reconstruction: Describe what you think life would have been like for African Americans in the following decades.

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