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Reconstruction

From Academic Kids

In the history of the United States, Reconstruction was the period after the American Civil War when the southern states of the breakaway Confederacy were reintegrated into the United States of America.

Contents

Laws and legislation

Abraham Lincoln had endorsed a lenient plan for reconstruction, which neither aided the recently freed slaves, nor imposed a Northern agenda on the restoration of the Southern economy. However, a powerful group of Radical Republicans within the U.S. Congress resisted readmitting the rebel states without first imposing conditions. 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 social and political status of 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, derisively called 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.

This upheaval resulted in new manifestations of 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 militant organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The Republicans attempted to assist newly freed slaves by the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau.

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 Negroes; 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. Reconstruction nevertheless 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; some see the election coinciding with a decreased desire for inter-elite conflict, an increased will to integrate the Southern social hierarchy with the larger American society, and a drive to redirect the military to campaigns against Native Americans. In any case, Reconstruction came to an end with Hayes.

Military reconstruction

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US_Reconstruction_military_districts.png
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

Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 when the South agreed to accept Rutherford B. Hayes's victory if the North withdrew federal troops from the South. The end of Reconstruction marked the demise of most civil, political, and economic rights and opportunities for African Americans. These would not see the light of day until the rise of the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. The end of Reconstruction also marked the end of the nascent interracial working peoples' alliances that had tentatively begun to form in the South. In exchange for its acceptance of reintegration into the Union, the South was allowed to reestablish a segregated, race-discriminatory society, and Congress was reorganized to give elite Southern legislators extraordinary power, lasting into the mid-twentieth century. By reestablishing a firm racial hierarchy, the one-party Southern elites maintained much more effective control of working people and working conditions; and non-elite whites received the satisfaction of knowing that their own lives would at least have more value than those of their dehumanized African-American neighbors. The initial flurry of Reconstruction civil rights measures was eroded and converted into laws that expanded racial dictatorship throughout American institutions and everyday life. The resurrection and expansion of the racist society provided a solid basis for both the pronounced limitations of the American labor movement and the associated paucity and frailty of democratic social entitlements in the U.S.

In response to Reconstruction, the South also swayed Congress to pass the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited federal military authorities from exercising localized civilian police powers.

In the demise of Reconstruction, much of the civil rights legislation was 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, announcing that state-mandated segregation was legal as long as the statute or ordinance provided for "separate but equal" facilities. By 1905, in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, the Supreme Court had retooled the fourteenth amendment into a law protecting the autonomy of corporations, rather than protecting the citizenship of African-Americans or similarly-oppressed people born or naturalized into the United States.

The Supreme Court maintained "separate but equal" for almost sixty years until finally admitting that its implementation was almost always highly unequal. The Court abandoned 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 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
North Carolina May 21, 1861 May 16, 1861 July 4, 1868 November 28, 1876
Tennessee June 8, 1861 May 16, 1861 July 24, 1866 October 4, 1869

Reference

  • 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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