CONVERSATION / Legacy / Deep Dive

The Concrete Confederate Crisis
Part 10: Politics of Reconstruction

Well before the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln began formulating a plan to restore the Confederate states to the Union. His Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (December 1863) provided that if at least ten percent of a state's voters in the 1860 election accepted emancipation and took an oath of allegiance to the United States, then the state could form a new government and return to the Union. Blacks, who obviously had not voted in 1860, were excluded, as were most Confederate officials and army officers, who were disenfranchised unless they appealed for and received a presidential pardon.

The Radical Republicans considered the “Ten Percent Plan” far too generous. The reconstruction approach they preferred was embodied in the Wade‐Davis bill (July 1864), which called for the establishment of a military government in each state and required at least fifty percent of the eligible voters to swear allegiance to the United States. Only those who could take an “ironclad” oath that they had never willingly supported the Confederacy could vote or participate in the state constitutional conventions. Although Congress approved the Wade‐Davis bill, Lincoln did not sign it before Congress adjourned, and the bill died (pocket veto).


Following Lincoln's assassination, the task of implementing Reconstruction fell to his vice president, Andrew Johnson. A Democrat and the only senator from the South who remained loyal to the Union, Johnson at first seemed ready to take a hard line against the former Confederacy. He talked about punishing the traitors and breaking up the large plantations, but at the same time, he supported states' rights and had little sympathy for blacks. His policies after he became president were even more lenient than Lincoln's, and they caused a confrontation with the Radical Republicans in Congress that culminated in his impeachment.


In May 1865, with Congress out of session, Johnson began to implement his own Reconstruction program. Amnesty was granted to any southerner who took an oath of allegiance, with the exception of Confederate officials, officers, and wealthy landowners. Exclusion of the last group reflected Johnson's hatred of the planter aristocracy rather than some condition that had to do with restoring the former Confederate states. Those who were not eligible for amnesty could appeal for a pardon. Johnson appointed provisional governors and authorized them to set up state conventions, which in turn were charged with declaring secession illegal; repudiating Confederate debts; ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States; and scheduling elections. Once each convention's elections were held for governor, state legislators, and members of Congress, the states would be readmitted to the Union.

Several states refused to either repudiate the huge debt produced by the war or unconditionally accept the Thirteenth Amendment. Southern voters also elected to Congress high‐ranking Confederate officials and officers, some of whom had not received one of the thirteen thousand pardons Johnson issued during the summer of 1865. The new state legislatures adopted so‐called black codes to keep the newly freed African Americans, or freedmen, in their place. Blacks were required to either sign labor contracts or face arrest for vagrancy, and they were not allowed to serve on juries or testify in court. Despite these violations of both the letter and spirit of his program, the president announced that Reconstruction was complete in December 1865. However, Congress refused to seat the newly elected senators and representatives from the South.


Congress was divided among Radical, Moderate, and Conservative Republicans and Democrats. Rather than working with congressmen who might have supported his Reconstruction plan, Johnson alienated potential political allies by vetoing legislation intended to ensure civil rights for African Americans. A bill was introduced in February 1866 to reauthorize the one‐year‐old Freedmen's Bureau and allow it to try in military courts persons accused of depriving former slaves of their rights. Established in March 1865, the Bureau had provided blacks in the South with material assistance, schools, and guidance in settling on abandoned land. The new legislation was passed in July over Johnson's veto. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted blacks born in the United States the same rights as white citizens, also became law (in April) over the president's objection.

Because of doubts about the constitutionality of the new Civil Rights Act, the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It was approved by both houses in June 1866. Essentially repudiating the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the amendment clearly states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It provides for due process and equal protection under the law. The amendment also denies to anyone who had participated in rebellion against the United States or had given aid and comfort to those in rebellion the right to hold any national or state office, an exclusion intended to undercut Johnson's pardon policy and protect the rights of blacks, particularly those of former slaves and particularly their right to vote.

Johnson denounced the Fourteenth Amendment and urged the southern states not to ratify it. Adoption of the amendment was an issue in the 1866 congressional elections, but the president's campaign against it did not work. Republicans were in control of both the House and Senate, and they gave a ringing endorsement to the amendment and congressional, not presidential, Reconstruction.


The First Reconstruction Act (March 1867) invalidated the state governments established under Johnson's policies (except the government of Tennessee, which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment) and divided the former Confederacy into five military districts. State conventions, elected by universal male suffrage, were to draw up new constitutions, which had to give blacks the right to vote and had to be approved by Congress. In fact, African Americans took part in all the conventions and made up the majority of delegates in South Carolina. Finally, each state legislature had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. The Reconstruction Act was refined by subsequent legislation. In June 1868, Congress determined that Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina had met the requirements, and the states were admitted to the Union. When duly elected black representatives were expelled from the Georgia legislature, Georgia once again fell under military rule. Georgia, along with Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, had to satisfy an additional condition: ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited the states from denying a citizen the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The four states did not rejoin the Union until 1870.

Women's rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were incensed that the Fifteenth Amendment did not also list gender among the conditions that could not be used to deny a citizen the right to vote. The long alliance between the women's movement and the abolitionist cause broke, and women struggled on their own for another half century for the right to vote.

Congress enacted its Reconstruction program over Johnson's veto. Determined to prevent Johnson from interfering with their plan, Radical Republicans pushed through two pieces of legislation in March 1867 intended to severely limit presidential power. The Command of the Army Act prevented the president from issuing orders to the military except through the general of the army, who at the time was Ulysses S. Grant; additionally, the commanding general could not be removed without the Senate's consent. The Tenure of Office Act required the president to obtain approval from the Senate to remove any officeholder that the Senate had confirmed. Johnson and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were bitter enemies, and the president wanted to get rid of him. Stanton was suspended in August 1867 and replaced with Grant as an interim. This was all Congress needed to begin impeachment proceedings.


Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives acts as a grand jury in impeachment cases and determines whether there is enough evidence to bring an official to trial. In February 1868, after months of investigation, the House voted to impeach the president, largely on the grounds that Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act in firing Edwin Stanton. It was left to the Senate to try the president—with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding—and determine whether he should be removed from office. Enough Republican senators appreciated the fact that Johnson's offenses were political and that they did not fall under the “high crimes and misdemeanors” specified in the Constitution for presidential impeachment. The vote in the Senate was thirty‐five to nineteen in favor of conviction, one short of the necessary two‐thirds majority.

Part 11: Reconstruction in Practice

Reconstruction brought important social changes to former slaves. Families that had been separated before and during the Civil War were reunited, and slave marriages were formalized through legally recognized ceremonies. Families also took advantage of the schools established by the Freedmen's Bureau and the expansion of public education, albeit segregated, under the Reconstruction legislatures. New opportunities for higher education also became available with the founding soon after the Civil War of black colleges, such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The number of African‐American churches grew significantly and became social and political centers as well as houses of worship. Black ministers assumed a leadership role in the community and were among the first elected officials. The most fundamental concern of blacks through all of the changes, though, was economic survival.



Any hope of large‐scale black property ownership disappeared soon after the Civil War. Although Congress considered breaking up plantations as part of Reconstruction, Radical Republicans were more interested in securing suffrage for and protecting the civil rights of African Americans than in reforming southern land distribution. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 did provide 44 million acres to freedmen, but the land was marginal at best. Whites generally refused to sell land to former slaves, who, in any event, did not have the money to buy it or the farm implements needed to work it. The upshot for the large, poor, and landless black population was sharecropping. White landowners divided their plantations into thirty‐ to fifty‐acre plots; blacks leased the land, worked it, and paid half of the crop to the owner.

Sharecroppers needed credit to buy seeds, tools, and other supplies. Under the crop‐lien system, they put up the proceeds from the sale of their harvest as collateral. A poor harvest or a succession of bad years would plunge sharecroppers further into debt, leaving them unable to pay the merchant who had advanced the credit or make the in‐kind payment to the landowner. The system kept sharecroppers in a cycle of perpetual poverty from which they were unable to escape.


Reconstruction meant that blacks in the South participated in the political process for the first time. In addition to taking part in the state conventions, African Americans served in the state legislatures and were elected to Congress. During Reconstruction, fourteen black representatives and two black senators served in Congress; however, no African American became a governor of a southern state, and only in South Carolina did the number of black officeholders reflect their voting strength. Those elected were the African‐American elite: men who had been free before the Civil War, landowners, the educated, and clergy. The African‐American voters helped keep Republicans in control of the former Confederacy, and they consistently went to the “party of Lincoln” in national elections well into the twentieth century.

Although Reconstruction brought about a revolution in black political power (short‐lived though it was), African Americans did not have a voting majority throughout the South, so the Republicans needed white support as well. White Republicans, mainly yeoman farmers who had leaned toward the Union during the Civil War, were called scalawags by die‐hard Confederates; these southern Republicans backed such federal programs as public education, road construction, and rebuilding the economy. Another political force during Reconstruction were the northerners who went South after the war in search of lucrative government work—the so‐called carpetbaggers.The “coalition” between black Republicans, white Republicans, and northerners was fragile indeed. Relying primarily on the race issue, Democrats were able to regain control of state governments throughout the South during the 1870s.


The Ku Klux Klan, formed in Tennessee in 1866, was one of several secret societies that used intimidation and force, including murder, to advance white supremacy and bring an end to Republican rule. These organizations formed a tacit alliance with the Democratic party in the South and played a key role in bringing about “ Redemption,” the Democrats' term for their regaining control of the old Confederacy. Although the Klan was officially disbanded in 1869, Congress took action against its activities in a series of laws known collectively as the Enforcement Acts (1870–71). The legislation, which was intended to “enforce” the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and make it a crime for anyone to interfere with a citizen's right to vote, included the Ku Klux Klan Act, which outlawed conspiring, wearing disguises, and intimidating officials for the purpose of undermining the Constitution. President Grant used the law to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in parts of South Carolina, and he successfully prosecuted the Klan in that state. In the long run, however, federal officials found it as difficult to root out the Klan and other white supremacist groups as it was to make it possible for blacks to exercise their right to vote.


In 1872, Congress passed the General Amnesty Act, which removed all restrictions against former Confederate officials. The Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse cases in 1873. In a 5‐4 decision, the Court held that the amendment's rights applied only to a person's citizenship in the United States, not to citizenship in the states; the federal government had little recourse when state law violated the civil rights of individuals.

Congress prohibited discrimination based on race in public places and guaranteed the right of blacks to serve on juries through the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The legislation—really the last hurrah for the Radical Republicans—was not enforced, however. By 1876, both political parties were ready to abandon Reconstruction and its legacy, and in 1883, the eight‐year‐old Civil Rights Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Congress was ready to declare Rutherford B. Hayes the winner of the election, but the Democrat‐controlled House of Representatives threatened a filibuster that would delay final action. In return for an end to Reconstruction, the southern Democrats would abandon Tilden. The Compromise of 1877 made Hayes president in return for a Republican pledge to remove federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina, an action that would bring to a close the last vestige of military occupation of the South. The Democrats also wanted a southerner appointed to Hayes's cabinet and money for internal improvements, specifically a subsidy for a transcontinental railroad along a southern route through Texas. Hayes made David Key of Tennessee postmaster general, then a cabinet post that was a rich source of patronage. For their part, congressional southerners agreed to support the civil‐rights constitutional amendments.

With the end of Reconstruction, the Republicans effectively abandoned southern blacks. The years ahead saw segregation institutionalized and the civil rights of African Americans sharply curtailed by state law, particularly the right to vote. Politically, the Democrats controlled what became known as the “solid South,” until the federal government once again committed itself to protect all citizens, regardless of race.

Part 12: Legacy of the 19th Century South


In the first half of the nineteenth century, an American national literature was born. Naturally accompanying it was the first American reference work, Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. While Webster's work did not create American English, the dictionary did declare the independence of American usage. Webster insisted on using American spellings, such as “plow” for “plough”; taking the “u” out of such words as “labour” and “honour”; and writing definitions taken from American life.

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Another important literary milestone was Ralph Waldo Emerson's “American Scholar,” an address he gave at Harvard in 1837. At a time when many in the United States remained in awe of European culture, he argued that Americans were self‐reliant enough to develop a literature reflecting their own national character. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” he told his audience. Emerson espoused transcendentalism, which proclaimed that intuition and experience provided knowledge and truth just as effectively as did the intellect, that man is innately good, and that there is unity in the entire creation.

Emerson's “American Scholar” speech and transcendentalism both influenced and reflected an impressive flowering of American literature. The country's literary centers were New England and New York. From New England came the historical works of George Bancroft ( History of the United States, ten volumes, the first published in 1834), Francis Parkman ( The Oregon Trail, 1849), and William H. Prescott ( History of the Conquest of Mexico, 1843) as well as the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Emily Dickinson (although Dickinson did most of her writing after the Civil War). Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller were the region's most noted authors. New York produced Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman; Edgar Allen Poe, though bom in Virginia, did most of his writing in New York and Philadelphia.


Cooper was among the first writers to appreciate the value of the frontier as a distinctly American literary setting. Beginning with the Pioneers (1823), he created a body of work that celebrates the courage and adventuresomeness of the American character and explores the conflict between the wilderness and the advance of civilization. His five novels featuring the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, collectively known as the “Leatherstocking Tales” and including such classics as the Last of the Mohicans (1826) and the Deerslayer (1841), were all bestsellers. Cooper portrayed nature as something to be used but protected and not conquered.


Thoreau's fame rests on two works, neither of which received much attention during his lifetime. Walden (1854) is an account of two years he spent in his cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. The stay was an experiment in self‐sufficiency, a reaction to what the transcendentalists saw as growing commercialism and materialism in American society. Although Thoreau did not completely cut himself off from civilization during his stay, he believed that only in nature could individuals really understand themselves and the purpose of life.

In 1846, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War, which he, like many abolitionists, saw as nothing more than an attempt to expand slavery. He spent one night in jail before the tax was paid by a relative. To explain his actions, he wrote “Civil Disobedience” (1849), stating, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right,” a position that reflected the individualism of the transcendentalists taken to an extreme. Although ignored in the nineteenth century, Thoreau's discourse influenced Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for the independence of India and the American civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s.


In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which he continued to revise, rearrange, and enlarge until his death in 1892. A revolutionary work that greatly influenced American poetry, it expressed Whitman's love for his country in lusty and controversial free verse that included homoerotic images. While many critics at the time found Leaves crude and vulgar, Emerson found Whitman's poetry to be decidedly American, democratic and plain. Whitman shared Thoreau's abolitionist sentiments, but the two parted company on politics; Whitman had an unbridled faith in democratic government, despite its imperfections.


Nathaniel Hawthorne was fascinated by the dark side of the Puritan mind. His novels, especially the Scarlet Letter (1850) and the House of Seven Gables (1851), dealt with revenge, guilt, and pride. Although he had been involved with Brook Farm and wrote the Blithedale Romance (1852) based on his experiences there, Hawthorne did not share the transcendentalists' faith in the perfectibility of man.

Herman Melville, unlike many of the writers before the Civil War, did not receive recognition for his work while he was alive. His first novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were set in the South Pacific, where he had visited as a sailor. Moby‐Dick (1851), based on Melville's experiences on a whaling ship, was not appreciated as one of the great works of American fiction until the 1920s.

Edgar Allan Poe focused on literary genres different from those of his contemporaries: the short story and short poem. His work reflected his own pessimistic outlook on life and focused chiefly on the mental state of the characters. He is credited with pioneering detective fiction in such stories as the “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1843) and gothic horror in the “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and the “Tell‐Tale Heart” (1843).


In the decades before the Civil War, a distinctive style of American landscape painting attracted considerable attention. The Hudson River school, comprising such artists as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher Durand, captured on canvas the massive trees, sparkling water, and lush American environment, conveying a sense of the majesty and mystery of the wilderness that was quickly disappearing. Just as Emerson had claimed that Americans should write about themselves in their own place, Cole noted in an essay published in 1836 that it was not necessary for artists to go to Europe to find subjects for their paintings: “American scenery… has features, and glorious ones, unknown to Europe. The most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.”


The term antebellum, “before the war,” is often used by historians to refer to the decades before the Civil War in the United States. “Antebellum” creates an image of a time when slavery was not only legal but an integral part of life in the South, when the first spurt of industrialization occurred in the United States, and when Americans explored and settled the trans‐Mississippi West. The antebellum decades were also a period during which another religious revival swept the country, reformers sought to address many of the social questions that the politicians would not or could not, and American culture, defined through its literature and art, came into its own.

Beginning in the 1790s and continuing into the 1840s, evangelical Christianity once again became an important factor in American life. Revivalism began in earnest at the edge of the frontier with circuit riders, or itinerant preachers, bringing their message to isolated farms and small settlements. Open‐air camp meetings, which could last as long as four days and attract more than ten thousand people from the surrounding countryside, were often characterized by emotional outbursts—wild gestures and speaking in tongues—from the participants. The number of women who converted at these meetings was much larger than the number of men, an indication of women's increasing role as defenders of the spiritual values in the home. The Methodist denomination, which was the driving force behind this so‐called Second Great Awakening, grew from seventy thousand members in 1800 to more than one million in 1844, making it the largest Protestant group in the country.