Reconstruction Era - Reading Community Schools
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Reconstruction Era 1865-1877
What does Reconstruction mean?
Reconstruction refers to the period after the Civil War, when the United States government struggled to bring former Confederate states back into the Union, and also to bring citizenship to the former slaves of the South.
Key Terms Moderates- Republicans, who wished to make Reconstruction a quick and simple process. Radicals- Republicans who wished to make Reconstruction a difficult and stringent process, distrusting the ex-Confederates. Carpetbaggers-A derogatory term for Northerners who moved South during and immediately following the War. Many times these people were abolitionists who wished to protect the rights of freedmen. Some were business people who saw potential for development in the South. Many white Southerners resented them. Scalawags- A derogatory term for white Southerners who cooperated with the Union, the Republican party, and freedmen in business and politics. Usually these were whites of a modest background who sought to improve their standing in society through these alliances, and gain political power that had always been held by the former planter elite.
Key Terms Continued Freedmen- The freed slaves in the South. Some of these people gained power in the Reconstruction governments in the postwar South, working with the whites in the Republican party. They were bitterly resented by many white Southerners. Most freedmen worked on plantations as sharecroppers, doing the same work they had done as slaves, in exchange for residence on the property and a small share of profit. Redeemers- Southern white Democrats, who wished to end Reconstruction and return the political power in the South to whites, usually the former planter elite that had dominated the South prior to the war. To do so they worked to gain the allegiance of many Scalawags, and to intimidate freedmen, Republicans and others through violence. Black Codes- laws passed quickly by Southern whites in the 1860’s designed to discriminate against freedmen. While the Freedman’s bureau initially stopped these codes, they became the basis for Jim Crow laws that would later be enacted.
During the Civil War, there were 11 former states that had become members of the Confederate States of America. Even before the War was over, President Abraham Lincoln began to develop a plan to bring the Southern states back into the Union with as little turmoil as possible. He understood that if vengeance was the driving force in Reconstruction policy, it would only foster bitterness and resentment in the South. Lincoln, in his typical homespun fashion, said the U.S. should “Let ‘em up easy.”
As the vast majority of the war took place in the South, there was widespread destruction, especially in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The Southern economy was ruined by the war, unsettling the region’s finances, and perhaps even more importantly, the traditional social order.
During the war Lincoln established military governors in captured territory, to keep the territories under presidential authority. Lincoln approved the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau to aid freedmen and white refugees, and to protect contracts. In this bill people could lease confiscated land for 3 years, and had the right to purchase up to 40 acres.
Lincoln’s Reconstruction Continued
Lincoln made the Amnesty Proclamation, which gave amnesty to anyone who had not held civil office in the C.S.A., had not harmed Union P.O.W’s, and would sign a pledge of allegiance. Lincoln’s 10% Plan required Louisiana to abolish slavery, freedmen to be paid $10 a day on plantations for up to one year, and only 10% of the electorate to swear allegiance to be readmitted. Radicals rejected this plan in favor of the Wade-Davis bill which required a majority allegiance. Lincoln vetoed the bill. Controversially, Lincoln did propose colonizing freedmen to either Central America or Haiti, but this plan was never realized. Many people have felt this idea to have been hypocritical of Lincoln, and simply unfair to the freemen.
Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction
Johnson became president when Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson had made early speeches indicating that he wished to be hard on the ex-Confederates, but in most circumstances he was not, including when he called for the easy restoration of Southern States. Johnson ended up pardoning many former Confederate leaders. In 1865 he allowed restored states to hold elections, when they elected many ex-Confederate leaders (who the Senate refused to seat)
Andrew Johnson Continued
The governments of the South instituted Black Codes, prompting congress to block their readmission to the Union and to develop a Civil Rights Bill and re- new the Freedman’s Bureau. Johnson vetoed both of these measures, although the Republicans in congress were able to over-ride his veto of the Civil Rights Bill. Congress chose to over-ride Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited Johnson from removing officers without the consent of the Senate. This was simply a bait by the Radicals to get Johnson out of the way while they implemented their view of Reconstruction. Johnson took the bait, removed officers, and was impeached. He missed being removed from office by one vote in the Senate. (For the record, the T of O Act was ridiculous and unconstitutional)
Johnson had a very strong bias against the wealthy planter class in the South, but wanted to ensure white supremacy. As a result, he helped stop land redistribution, and made it possible for Redeemers to begin to regain power. Johnson worked to stop the ratification of the 14th Amendment. Because of his impeachment though, he had become virtually powerless. In the end, there is very little doubt that his leadership during Reconstruction was a total failure.
Radical Republicans, Grant, and Reconstruction As they gained more power in Congress, the Radicals, with Support from President Ulysses Grant, passed the Reconstruction Acts which:
Created five military districts in the seceded states not including Tennessee, which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and was readmitted to the Union Required congressional approval for new state constitutions (which were required for Confederate states to rejoin the Union) Demanded Confederate states give voting rights to all men. Dictated that former Confederate states must ratify the 14th Amendment
Reconstruction Amendments 13th Amendment- (1865) Abolished Slavery in the U.S. 14th Amendment- (1868) Ensured full citizenship, rights, and protection under the law for all people born or naturalized in the U.S. 15th Amendment- (1870) Guaranteed that no male citizen could be denied the right to vote based on their color or previous condition of servitude.
By 1870, all of the former Confederate States had been readmitted. Still, many in the South resented Reconstruction and attacked freedmen, Republicans and others, forming violent terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In 1871 Congress passed Civil Rights legislation against the Ku Klux Klan that allowed Grant to use troops to eliminate it. Despite removal of the Klan, Redeemers found other ways and groups such as the Night Riders, the White League, and the Red Shirts to adopt similar measures.
The Beginning of the End of Reconstruction
Grant personally felt sympathy for freed blacks, but as his administration became marred with corruption, he could not muster enough political support to keep troops active to protect them The Freedmen’s Bureau was dissolved in 1872, and some troops began to be removed for duty elsewhere. Many in the North were tired of the Reconstruction politics, and wished to end the period and reconcile with the South once and for all, regardless of the social implications. As the Radical policies were losing favor in the North, redeemers and the violent white groups such as the White League took advantage and became even more active.
The Compromise of 1877: The end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow
The election of 1876 was widely disputed. A 15 member special commission of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats were to decide the presidency. Most historians believe that the Democrats agreed to give the election to Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the removal of Federal Troops in the South. Grant began this process, by first removing troops from Florida. Hayes would remove the rest. Reconstruction was essentially over, and white Democrats in the South eventually established a system of racial segregation that came to be called Jim Crow.
Legacy of Reconstruction
For more than a century many Southern sympathizers have painted the period as a time when the devastation of the war, the Northern desire for vengeance, and political corruption by carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen plagued the South. This is often the popular idea of Reconstruction, even today, due in part to racist portrayals of the period in films such as Gone With the Wind, and Birth of a Nation. Though historians have found that Reconstruction governments were not especially corrupt, the racist memory of the period lives on . In fact, Reconstruction, especially the key Reconstruction Acts, along with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, was an important period in attempting to eliminate discrimination based on race and extend freedom. It was the behavior of the Redeemers that truly plagued the South, and set back the region for another 100 years both economically and socially.
Legacy of Reconstruction Continued
As Reconstruction ended, Southern Democrats regained power in the South, and, ignoring the Reconstruction Acts and new amendments, established a system of segregation and white supremacy which would exist in the region for more than 100 years.
Jim Crow South
As the Redeemers gradually regained control of governments in the South, they worked to strip the freedmen of their new political power and create a system of government that would ensure the second class citizenship of black Americans. The system of laws that segregated the South is usually called, “Jim Crow”, after a popular minstrel act of the period.
How Jim Crow worked.
The first and most important goal of the Jim Crow laws was to strip blacks of their political power. To do this, numerous laws were passed that would exclude most blacks, based on their precarious situation as newly freed slaves. Poll taxes, in which voters had to pay an expensive tax to be eligible to vote. As most of the black people in the South were poor sharecroppers, this would exclude them. Literacy tests, in which voters had to prove they were literate to be eligible to vote. As it had been illegal to teach slaves to read, and the public school system was virtually non-existent in the South at this time, very few blacks were literate, and thus, were excluded from voting (when it was discovered that illiterate poor whites were excluded too, a grandfather clause was often instituted that allowed anyone whose relative had been a voter to vote). Blacks were essentially eliminated from participating in government at all. In some states like Louisiana, where blacks made up close to a majority of the population, only 0.5% of the eligible black voters were registered.
Results of Political Segregation
With blacks essentially eliminated from playing any role in government they had no say in who any of the public officials would be. Thus, all of the representatives in government at the local and state level were white, Democrats. The representatives at the federal level were white Democrats. Presidential elections were influenced by the lack of almost any black voters in the South. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders and local sheriffs would all be white, as those up for election would not have to worry about black votes, and those appointed would be chosen by white Democratic politicians. Since juries were chosen from eligible voters, no blacks would be included on juries, even though a jury is supposed to be made up of your peers. The result of this disenfranchisement was that whites were free to pass any laws they wished, including laws that discriminated against blacks, with blacks having almost no recourse, since the legal system was also controlled by whites.
Segregation in the South was not just unwritten rules that everyone followed because “it was just that way”. The all white governments passed laws designed to ensure the separation of the races. African Americans were forced to eat at separate restaurants, work at separate jobs, live in separate neighborhoods, go to separate schools, separate churches, and separate stores. Marriage between the races was strictly forbidden, as was virtually any other friendly interaction.
Attempts to fight against Segregation and Jim Crow Many African Americans worked to bring an end to the racial injustice through advocacy, like W.E.B. Dubois, and Booker T. Washington. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 and worked against segregation. The often launched boycotts, held rallies, and filed law suits to fight Jim Crow.
Plessy v. Feguson
In 1892, a multi-racial man, Homer Plessy, working with a New Orleans based civil rights group, purposefully sat in the white section of a train car, after informing the driver of his heritage. He was subsequently arrested under state law that segregated transportation. Plessy argued his case and lost, appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court and lost, and finally appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that Louisiana was not violating the 13th or 14th Amendments, and that moreover, there was nothing derogatory implied by segregated facilities, as long as they were “separate but equal”. This “separate but equal” precedent would justify Jim Crow laws and segregation until the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Enforcing Jim Crow As all of the state and local governments* in the South were controlled by whites, blacks found it difficult to get fair trials, and legal decisions in their favor. Often times the police were corrupt, and would unfairly harass African Americans. When the police could not be used to enforce segregation, armed groups of whites, sometimes members of the Ku Klux Klan, or other white terrorist groups would form lynch mobs would attack blacks, or whites that were sympathetic to them. Many times this resulted in an unsanctioned killing, usually a hanging. *During most of the Jim Crow era, the federal government left states to decide most problems on their own. This just made it more difficult for opponents of Jim Crow, as appeals to the higher federal courts were often ignored.
The Civil Rights Struggle
As you will learn later in this course, after years of struggle against Jim Crow, African Americans succeeded in ending legal segregation in this country in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite many gains, the fight for equality continues to this day.