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Reconstruction era (United States)

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In the history of the United States, Reconstruction was the period after the American Civil War when the southern states of the defeated Confederacy, which had seceded from the United States, were reintegrated into the Union.


Laws and legislation

Abraham Lincoln had endorsed a lenient plan for reconstruction, but the immense human cost of the war and the social changes wrought by it led U.S. Congress to resist readmitting the rebel states without first imposing preconditions. A series of laws, passed by the Federal government, established the conditions and procedures for reintegrating the southern states.

Much of the impetus for Reconstruction involved the question of civil rights for the freed slaves in the southern states. In response to efforts by southern states to deny civil rights to the freed slaves, Congress enacted a civil rights act in 1866 (and again in 1875). This led to conflict with President Andrew Johnson, who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866; however, his veto was overridden.

After solid Republican gains in the midterm elections, the first Reconstruction Act was passed on March 2, 1867; the last on March 11, 1868. The first Reconstruction Act divided ten Confederate states (all except Tennessee, which had been readmitted on July 24, 1866) into five military districts.

Culture clashes

During the period of Reconstruction there was considerable upheaval in Southern society. Northerners, known as carpetbaggers, moved south to participate in southern governments. Republicans assumed control of all state governments and began to pass numerous civil rights laws legalizing interracial marriage and ensuring black schools, and a variety of other ambitious proposals. In many cases former slaves were given very prominent ranks in the government, usually as state senators or state legislators. There were also numerous black judges, mayors, sheriffs, and deputy governors installed. Louisiana even had a black governor for a brief period. Most political "firsts" for African-Americans occurred during this period.

The rapid rise of the black population caused considerable racial tension. White southerners who joined the Republican party were derisively called scalawags. Disgruntled Southerners denounced what they called the "black mob rule" and formed violent organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The Republicans attempted to assist newly freed slaves by the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Another consequence of Reconstruction was that a significant number of white Southerners migrated to the neighboring border states to escape the effects of the occupation; this caused white Southern culture to implant and flourish in these states, especially in Kentucky. Many also moved to Tennessee as the latter state did not experience Reconstruction despite having seceded.

The constitutional amendments

Three constitutional amendments were passed in the wake of the Civil War: the Thirteenth, which abolished slavery; the Fourteenth, which granted civil rights to African Americans; and the Fifteenth, which granted the right to vote. The fourteenth amendment was opposed by the southern states, and as a precondition of readmission to the Union, they were required to accept it (or the fifteenth after passage of the fourteenth). All Southern states were readmitted by 1870 (Georgia was the last on July 15), and all but 500 Confederate sympathizers were pardoned when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Amnesty Act on May 22, 1872. However, Reconstruction continued until 1877, when the contentious Presidential election was decided in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, supported by Northern states, over his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. Some historians have argued that the election was handed to Hayes in exchange for an end to Reconstruction; this theory characterizes the settlement of that election as the Compromise of 1877. Not all historians agree with this theory; in any case, regardless of the circumstances, Reconstruction came to an end at this time.

Military reconstruction

Reconstruction-era military districts in the South
Reconstruction-era military districts in the South
First Military District : Virginia, under Gen. John Schofield
Second Military District: The Carolinas, under Gen. Daniel Sickles
Third Military District : Georgia, Alabama and Florida, under Gen. John Pope
Fourth Military District : Arkansas and Mississippi, under Gen. Edward Ord
Fifth Military District: Texas and Louisiana, under Gen. Philip Sheridan and several others.

Tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel were stationed in the U.S. Southern states to oversee the process of Reconstruction.

Governments that had been established under Abraham Lincoln's plan were abolished; the first Reconstruction Act stated that "no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exist in the rebel States".

The failure of Reconstruction

The end of Reconstruction essentially signaled the end of civil rights for African Americans; as the years passed after the end of the war, the North lost interest in continuing to pursue the matter and instead turned its attention towards other concerns.

The South was allowed to establish a segregated society in return for accepting its integration into the Union, and the initial flurry of civil rights measures were eroded over time. The South also swayed Congress to pass the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited federal military authorities from exercising localized civilian police powers. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, much of the civil rights legislation was later overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Most notably, the court suggested in the "Slaughterhouse Case" 83 US 36 (1873), then held in the Civil Rights Cases 109 US 3 (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment only gave Congress the power to outlaw public, rather than private discrimination. Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 (1896) went even further, providing that state-mandated segregation was legal as long as the statute or ordinance provided for "separate but equal" facilities.

The Supreme Court maintained "separate but equal" for many years until finally accepting that it was not in fact equal and abandoning it, reversing Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 (1954). It was not until the mid 1960s that the civil rights movement grew strong enough to win political reforms which weakened the system of private racial discrimination that had become entrenched in the shadow of state Jim Crow laws; the government finally passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in "public accommodations," i.e., restaurants, hotels and businesses open to the public, as well as in private schools and workplaces.

Significant dates

State Seceded Admitted C.S. Readmitted U.S. Local Control Reestablished
South Carolina December 20, 1860 February 4, 1861 July 9, 1868 November 28, 1876
Mississippi January 9, 1861 February 4, 1861 February 23, 1870 January 4, 1876
Florida January 10, 1861 February 4, 1861 June 25, 1868 January 2, 1877
Alabama January 11, 1861 February 4, 1861 July 14, 1868 November 16, 1874
Georgia January 19, 1861 February 4, 1861 July 15, 1870 November 1, 1871
Louisiana January 26, 1861 February 4, 1861 June 25 or July 9, 1868 January 2, 1877
Texas February 1, 1861 March 2, 1861 March 30, 1870 January 14, 1873
Virginia April 17, 1861 May 7, 1861 January 26, 1870 October 5, 1869
Arkansas May 6, 1861 May 18, 1861 June 22, 1868 November 10, 1874
Tennessee May 6, 1861 May 16, 1861 July 24, 1866 October 4, 1869
North Carolina May 21, 1861 May 16, 1861 July 4, 1868 November 28, 1876


  • This article incorporates public domain text from Twenty Years of Congress: From Lincoln to Garfield. With a review of the events which led to the political revolution of 1860, by James Blaine.

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