By Eric Foner, Columbia University

The Civil Rights Act became the first major piece of legislation in American history to become law over a president's veto.

Engraving of Union officer administering Oath of Allegiance to Confederate soldiers
Administering the Oath of Allegiance to Confederate soldiers

Library of Congress Image

Reconstruction (1865-1877), the period that followed the American Civil War, is perhaps the most controversial era in American history. Traditionally portrayed by historians as a sordid time when vindictive Radical Republicans fastened black supremacy upon the defeated Confederacy, Reconstruction has lately been viewed more sympathetically, as a laudable experiment in interracial democracy. It was also a time when the entire nation, but especially the South, was forced to come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the consequences of emancipation.

Reconstruction witnessed far-reaching changes in America's political life. At the national level, new laws and constitutional amendments permanently altered the federal system and the definition of American citizenship. In the South, a politically mobilized black community joined with white allies to bring the Republican party to power, and with it a redefinition of the purposes and responsibilities of government.

The national debate over Reconstruction began during the Civil War. In December 1863, less than a year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln announced the first comprehensive program for Reconstruction, the Ten Percent Plan. This offered a pardon to all Southerners, except Confederate leaders, who took an oath affirming loyalty to the Union and support for emancipation. When 10 percent of a state's voters had taken such an oath, they could establish a new state government. To Lincoln, the plan was more an attempt to weaken the Confederacy than a blueprint for the postwar South. Although it was put into operation in parts of the Union-occupied South, none of the new governments achieved broad local support or were recognized by Congress. In 1864, Congress enacted and Lincoln pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, which proposed to delay the formation of new Southern governments until a majority of voters had taken a loyalty oath. Some Republicans were already convinced that equal rights for the former slaves must accompany the South's readmission to the Union. In his last speech, in April 1865, Lincoln himself expressed the view that some Southern blacks -- the "very intelligent" and those who had served in the Union army - ought to enjoy the right to vote.

Upon Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Andrew Johnson became president. In May, he inaugurated the period of Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67). Johnson offered a pardon to all Southern whites except Confederate leaders and wealthy planters (although most of these subsequently received individual pardons), restoring their political rights and all property except for slaves. He also outlined how new state governments would be created. Apart from the requirement that they abolish slavery, repudiate secession, and abrogate the Confederate debt, these governments, elected by whites alone, were granted a free hand in managing their affairs. They responded by enacting the Black Codes, laws that required blacks to sign yearly labor contracts, designated unemployed blacks as vagrants who could be hired out to white landowners, and in other ways sought to reestablish plantation discipline. African-Americans strongly resisted the implementation of these measures. The inability of the white South's leaders to accept emancipation undermined Northern support for Johnson's policies.

When Congress assembled in December 1865, Radical Republicans called for the abrogation of the Johnson governments and the establishment of new ones based on equality before the law and manhood suffrage. But the more numerous moderate Republicans hoped to work with Johnson, while modifying his program. Congress refused to seat the Congressmen and Senators elected from the Southern states, and in early 1866 passed and sent to Johnson the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills. The first extended the life of an agency Congress had created in 1865 to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom. The second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens, who were to enjoy equality before the law.

A combination of personal stubbornness, belief in states' rights, and deeply-held racist convictions led Johnson to reject these bills. His vetoes caused a permanent rupture between the president and Congress. The Civil Rights Act became the first major piece of legislation in American history to become law over a president's veto. Shortly thereafter, Congress approved the 14th Amendment, which put the principle of birthright citizenship into the Constitution and forbade states from depriving any citizen of the "equal protection of the laws." It also provided that the South's representation in Congress would be reduced if black men continued to be kept from voting.

The 14th Amendment, the most important addition to the Constitution other than the Bill of Rights, embodied a profound change in federal-state relations. Traditionally, citizens' rights had been delineated and protected by the states. Now, Congress provided that the federal government guarantee all Americans' equality before the law, regardless of race, against state violation. Yet Republican egalitarianism had its limits. Women's rights advocates insisted, without success, that the time had come to eliminate gender as well as race as a ground for legal distinctions among Americans.

In the fall 1866 congressional elections, Northern voters overwhelmingly repudiated Johnson's policies. Nonetheless, the Southern states, except Tennessee, rejected the 14th Amendment. Congress now decided to begin Reconstruction anew. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 divided the South into five military districts, and provided for the establishment of new governments, based on manhood suffrage. Thus began the period of Radical or Congressional Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877.

By 1870, Congress had recognized new governments, controlled by the Republican party, in all the former Confederate states. Three groups made up Southern Republicanism. "Carpetbaggers," or recent arrivals from the North, were former Union soldiers, teachers, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and businessmen. Most had come south before 1867, when the possibility of obtaining office was remote. But they leapt at the opportunity to help remake the "backward" region in the image of the North.

The second large group, "scalawags" or native-born white Republicans, included some businessmen and planters but most were non-slaveholding small farmers from the Southern upcountry. Loyal to the Union during the Civil War, they saw the Republican party as a means of keeping "rebels" from regaining power in the South and were willing to work with blacks toward that end.

In every state, African-Americans formed the overwhelming majority of Southern Republican voters. From the beginning of Reconstruction, black conventions and newspapers throughout the South had called for full civil and political rights. Composed mainly of those who had been free before the Civil War, and slave ministers, artisans, and Civil War veterans, a capable black political leadership emerged during Reconstruction to press for the elimination of the racial caste system and the economic uplifting of the former slaves. Some 16 African-Americans served in Congress during Reconstruction, including Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce in the U. S. Senate, over 600 in state legislatures, and hundreds more in local offices, from sheriffs to justices of the peace. "Black supremacy" never existed, but the advent of African-Americans to positions of political power was among the era's most revolutionary developments. It marked a dramatic break with the nation's traditions and aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction's opponents.

Serving an expanded citizenry and embracing a new definition of public responsibility, Reconstruction governments established the South's first state-funded public school systems, adopted measures designed to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable, and outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations. They also embarked on ambitious programs of economic development, offering lavish aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike. But the program of railroad aid spawned corruption and rising taxes, alienating increasing numbers of white voters.

Meanwhile, the social and economic transformation of the South proceeded apace. To blacks, freedom meant independence from white control, as well as autonomy both as individuals and as a community. This aspiration was reflected in the consolidation and expansion of the institutions of black life. Under slavery, most blacks had lived in nuclear family units, although they faced the constant threat of separation from loved ones by sale. Reconstruction provided the opportunity for African-Americans to solidify their family ties. They also created independent religious institutions, which became centers of community life. To blacks, economic freedom rested on ownership of land. But President Johnson in the summer of l865 ordered land in federal hands to be returned to its former owners. The dream of "40 acres and a mule" was stillborn, and most former slaves remained without property and poor.

Nonetheless, the political revolution of Reconstruction spawned increasing opposition from white Southerners. Increasingly, Reconstruction's opponents turned to violence. Terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan targeted local Republican leaders for beatings or assassination, as well as blacks who asserted their rights in dealings with white employers. Teachers, ministers, and others seeking to assist the former slaves also became targets. Sometimes, the violence escalated into wholesale assaults on black communities. At Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873, scores of black militiamen were killed after surrendering to armed whites intent on seizing control of local government. The Klan decimated the Republican organization in many localities. Increasingly, the new Southern governments looked to Washington for assistance.

By 1869, the Republican party was firmly in control of all three branches of the federal government. After attempting to remove Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, in apparent violation of the new Tenure of Office Act, Johnson had been impeached by the House of Representatives in l868. Although the Senate, by a single vote, failed to remove him from office, Johnson's power to obstruct the course of Reconstruction was gone. That fall, Republican Ulysses S. Grant was elected President. Soon afterwards, Congress approved the 15th Amendment, prohibiting states from restricting the franchise because of race. Then it enacted a series of Enforcement Acts authorizing national action to suppress political violence. In 187l, the administration launched a legal and military offensive that destroyed the Klan. Grant was reelected in 1872 in the most peaceful election of the period.

Nonetheless, Reconstruction soon began to wane. During the 1870's, many Republicans retreated from both the racial egalitarianism and the broad definition of federal power spawned by the Civil War. Southern corruption and instability, Reconstruction's critics argued, stemmed from the exclusion of the region's "best men" -- white planters - from power. As the Northern Republican party became more conservative, and northern thought became imbued with Social Darwinism -- the belief that the distribution of power and resources within society reflected a natural process of evolution, which government should not and could not alter -- Reconstruction came to symbolize both misgovernment and a misguided attempt to use national power to uplift the lower classes of society. Reflecting the shifting mood, a series of Supreme Court decisions, beginning with the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873, severely limited the scope of Reconstruction laws and constitutional amendments.

By 1876, only South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana remained under Republican control; the remaining Southern states had been "redeemed" by white Democrats. The outcome of that year's presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden hinged on the disputed returns from these states. Complex negotiations between Southern political leaders and representatives of Hayes resulted in the Bargain of 1877: Hayes would recognize Democratic control of the remaining Southern states and Democrats would not block the certification of his election by Congress. Hayes was inaugurated, federal troops returned to their barracks, and Reconstruction, defined as an era when the federal government accepted the responsibility for protecting the rights of the former slaves, came to an end.

By the turn of the century, a new racial system had been put in place in the South, resting on the disenfranchisement of black voters, a rigid system of racial segregation, the relegation of African-Americans to low-wage agricultural and domestic employment, and legal and extra-legal violence to punish those who challenged the new order. The North acquiesced in the new racial order. Nonetheless, while flagrantly violated, the Reconstruction amendments remained embedded in the Constitution, sleeping giants to be awakened by the efforts of subsequent generations to redeem the promise of genuine freedom for the descendants of slavery. Not until the 1960s, however, during the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the "second Reconstruction," would the nation again attempt to come to terms with the political and social agenda of Reconstruction.

This essay is taken from The Civil War Remembered, published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at

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Last updated: January 29, 2024