Reconstruction was the period after the Civil War that extended from roughly 1865-1877 in the span of American history immediately following the Civil War and involved the re-integration of states of the Confederacy. It was a highly volatile time because while many Northerners saw this as a chance to completely end slavery and have the South integrated back into the Untied States, many in the South saw this period as a further insult added to the injury of the loss of the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was president during the beginning era of Reconstruction and although he did have plans to free more slaves and grant more sweeping freedoms, some groups, such as the Radical Republicans, thought the process was moving along too slow. Eventually, there was some progress made but at the end of the Reconstruction era, the freedoms granted under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were not entirely effective. With Reconstruction, slaves were freed and although there were supposed to be radical reforms that would grant them equality, racism persisted and some argue that the anti-slavery goals of the Reconstruction were not fully realized until the Civil Rights era in the 1950s and 1960s when African Americans were finally granted full rights enjoyed by whites rather than the “separate but equal” clause that emerged from Plessy versus Ferguson.
While Reconstruction began with a positive push to grant freedom to blacks in the South, this was not an easy process and there were many complications. For instance, even thought Abraham Lincoln might have been moving too slow for some of the Radical Republicans. His efforts to peacefully reintegrate the Southwithout a great deal of hostility worked, albeit it a little slowly. After his assassination, Andrew Johnson took over and the process became confused and less efficient. Johnson forgave a number of ex-Confederates and did not take the same steady approach as his predecessor did. It was under Johnson that the “black codes” were allowed to be passed which only lowered the status of African Americans and did not give them the right to vote, even if they had fought in the war. It should also be noted that Johnson vetoed passage of a renewal of a new Freedman’s Bureau, which had served as a positive organization for African Americans, which would have allowed free black war veterans to vote. One can only wonder if Reconstruction might have been more successful if only Lincoln had been able to see his patient plan through.
It seems that Johnson had a devastating effect on the initial goals set forth by Lincoln’s vision of Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 would have guaranteed blacks protection and equality yet again; Johnson stepped in and vetoed this as well. Luckily, the veto was eventually blocked, but the fact remains that the leader of the United States had shown himself to not be committed to the ideas of his predecessor. This is a strange set of circumstances because while he was the Vice President for Lincoln, Johnson took a pushy (although not radical) approach to the Reconstruction efforts, yet under the political pressure, he did not carry through with the ideas about freedom that he initially touted.
Although Johnson’s efforts to block some of the bills and movements that might have significantly helped blacks failed, he did have success again when it came time to vote for the Fourteenth Amendment because he used his political influence to block a few of the states from ratifying it, thus blocking the majority and causing the proposal to stagnate. Finally, in 1867, the Reconstruction Act was passed and it seemed, at least for a while, as though there was going to be some success in achieving the goals of Reconstruction since one of the provisions of the Act eliminated some of Johnson’s plans. Reconstruction failed in 1877 as Hayes and the new order of government took over control. Many Confederates were granted amnesty and the many of the goals were no longer pursued. After this time there was no great movement that was politically successful for African Americans and it can easily be argued that Reconstruction died until it was revived again in the twentieth-century Civil Rights era.
The Radical Republicans generally thought that the Reconstruction efforts were moving along too slowly and that the freeing of slaves should take place instantly. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, wanted to preserve relations with the South after slavery and did not want to generate too much animosity by moving ahead with the plans too drastically. The Radical Republicans also were enemies of the Andrew Johnson and if it were left to them, the hardly anything he did would have passed (or been blocked, such as the Civil Rights Act). The regular Republicans during this time also advocated change with their plans of Reconstruction, but these changes were to meted out over a longer period of time and work harder to treat the South a little more gently. Eventually, the Radical Republicans became carpetbaggers and scalawags and they tried to bring their own politics to the South whereas the Republicans were a bit more conservative in their approach. It was the Radical Republicans who finally led the movement to impeach Johnson and after this time they gained greater numbers in Congress and were able to make some progress before the end of Reconstruction with the 13th, 14th, and the 15th Amendments that Johnson might have otherwise blocked or vetoed.
It does not seem that the United States was too much better off after the end of Reconstruction. While it was certainly positive that the slaves had been freed, even with the new Amendments, they still were treated like second-class citizens. For example, the 14th Amendment granted civil rights to every citizen, regardless of color, but this almost seems like empty words without the policies or actions to back them up and institutionalize them. In fact, it wasn’t until after the modern Civil Rights movement that these full rights that were supposed to be guaranteed were truly carried out as the “separate but equal” paradigm existed. With the election of Hayes and the move to politics that seemed more committed to helping America’s booming industrial sector, the Reconstruction ideas seemed to have lost some momentum. Again, as stated earlier, it is interesting to consider whether or not Reconstruction would have succeeded if only President Lincoln would have been alive to see it through. With the shift in power to Andrew Johnson, however, the efforts became confused and mired in politics as usual, thus the Reconstruction failed and was never seen to its conclusion. It was up to those fighting for civil rights in what came to be known as the Second Reconstruction, which finalized the ideas that were initially behind the first one after the end of the Civil War.
Other essays and articles in the History Archives related to this topic include : American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends • The Emancipation Proclamation: Savior or Rhetoric? • The Kansas-Nebraska Act Controversy • Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects
Fleming, Walter L. Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. New York: Peter Smith, 1949 (1905).
Carter, Dan T. When the war was over: the failure of self-reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.