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Knowing the Era of American Reconstruction

Updated on September 19, 2012
President Andrew Johnson
President Andrew Johnson | Source

The American Civil War opened up many wounds, and showed us just how fragile the country can be. After the secession of the southern states, how were we supposed to deal with their reentrance into the Union? Some of the hardest decisions of the nation’s time were about to be made at the close of the civil war and it took years to work through different systems, and eventually decide to do away with what we now call the Reconstruction era. Reconstruction was a hot topic in the day though. How exactly would we treat the southern states after they left and how would we deal with the new found freedoms of the southern slaves? Many people tried to come up with answers to these kinds of questions, but it was hard to find a system that everyone agreed on, especially one that the people of the south were in agreement with. The southern states did not get a good say in how they would be treated though, and through the years we tried Johnson’s Reconstruction plan, the Radical Reconstruction plan, and eventually we let go of the ideas of reconstruction.

Johnson's Plans and Actions

Before we had even implemented the above mentioned Johnson plan, there had been the Lincoln plan. According to Lincoln’s plan, states that had seceded would only be readmitted after ten percent of their voters from 1860 announced their allegiance to the Union (as well as the Constitution), which would then allow them a presidential pardon from Abraham Lincoln. However, some people who had held important positions in the Union and had left in order to aid the rebellion were excluded, and those who did pledge the oath were agreeing to follow the law under the Emancipation Proclamation. Before Lincoln’s assassination some states had shown their allegiance, but congress had denied their recognition against the President’s plan of reconstruction. This theme of disunity between presidents and congress would carry on. After Lincoln’s death, his reconstruction plan shattered and congress moved on, hopeful that President Andrew Johnson could do better.

Though Johnson was in favor of slavery, he held great dislike for the planter elite and was faithful to the Union during the Civil War . While this made congress believe that he was a better fit for Reconstruction than Lincoln, they came to find that they were wrong on the matter. While some of aspects of Johnson’s plan were similar to the previous Lincoln plan, he still did things a little differently. First, Johnson issued a Proclamation of Amnesty in May of 1865 that would exclude from pardons those already listed under the Lincoln plan, but also the planter elites of the south. After this, he also instated Union governors in the southern states to oversee Reconstruction efforts in the south. Even with these and other parts of the plan being enforced, it was still difficult for the ex-unionists and the African-Americans from the south. Those who had left their positions in congress to join the Confederacy were not welcome back by the Unionist congress members during their first meeting after the war. On top of this, African-American efforts to spread their wings in their new found freedom was being crushed by “black codes.” These codes essentially formed a new kind of slavery by putting severe restrictions on African-Americans in the south.

Eventually, the Freedmen’s Bureau needed to be extended through congress. However, when the bill came to President Johnson, he struck it down with a veto. Johnson claimed that the Freedmen’s bureau violated the Constitution, and at the time, he still held enough backing in the senate that they upheld the decision. Shortly after this however, he lost congress’s confidence in his abilities and when he tried to veto their Civil Rights Act the senate overrode him. Following this they not only went on to pass a new Freedmen’s Bureau bill, but they also put into effect a new Constitutional amendment. The fourteenth amendment expanded upon the Civil Rights Act and it also went beyond that to determine that not only the central government of the United States was to be limited by the Bill of Rights, but that states were also fairly subjected to its terms.

Radical Republican Reconstruction

In the end, Johnson lost all power he had once held in the plans to reconstruct the south, and this left the path wide open for the Radical Republicans that led congress. Under the Radical Republican Reconstruction plans were the encouragement of newly free African-Americans to vote and to become more involved in politics. This was important to their efforts because if the south fell back into the hands of the Democrats, their Reconstruction plans would fall through. The Radical Republicans put through a series of acts in congress that spurred on their Reconstruction ideals. They’re goal was to punish the south for seceding, support freedmen’s rights, and maintain their parties control over the north and the south. First, the Command of the Army Act required the president to send all commands as the commander in chief to go through the army general. After this, congress put into action the Tenure of Office Act which required the senate’s approval in order to remove federal officeholders. Lastly, the Radical Republicans put through congress the Military Reconstruction Act, which stationed military personnel in the southern states to control law enforcement. After Radical Reconstruction had begun many changes had been enforced, but some were not as powerful as those exercised by the newly freed African-Americans. Many African-Americans now began to participate in politics, attend schools, join the army and navy, and establish churches and organizations. This all led up, however, to an even bigger change that the Radicals had hoped to put into action, but their attempts were unsuccessful.

In August of 1867, Johnson suspended Edwin Stanton from the office of Secretary of War. The Radicals had been trying to find reasons to impeach him in order to replace him with someone on their side, but up until now had no credible charges worthy of the impeachment. Now they were able to proceed with an impeachment trial. Johnson was charged with unlawful removal of a federal officeholder, issuing orders in violation of the Command of the Army Act, and criticizing congress along with devising to violate the Reconstruction Acts. The final ruling, however, was not enough to remove Johnson from office, and while he remained the president of the United States he did not trying wielding any more power over congress.

Reconstruction Coming to a Close

During the Grant years the Radical Republican support had started to wane. Faced with financial issues, scandals involving President Grant’s brother-in-law, and the formation of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, it became more and more difficult for the Radical Republicans to maintain their supporters. In the end, the republicans separated due to the “incompetence and corruption” of the Radical administration. These Republicans formed the Liberal Republicans and greatly affected the policy making ability of the Radicals. However, one more major event would help to completely crimple their efforts, the Panic of 1873. After all of their efforts it seemed that nothing was going to keep proceeding as planned.

In the election of 1876, no one could be certain of the exact outcome due to overlapping claims of disputed votes. Eventually, an agreement was met where Rutherford B. Hayes would become president if he would withdraw troops from the southern states in which they had still remained. Doing this allowed for the Republican governments in these areas to collapse, which in turned allowed for the Democrats to take back control in the south. The south soon forgot the hold up their end of the bargain though, and did not follow the laws under the Reconstruction amendments which led to racial tensions and segregation of African-Americans in every-day places and services. Effectively, the period of Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the actions taken by President Hayes to remove troops from southern states. While many of the aspects of Reconstruction were harsh and sometimes corrupt, they have left an important impact on our way of life today. Without Reconstruction, we would be without the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments and we may have never seen freed African-Americans be able to get on their feet.

This article is the work of myself, Alyssa Barron, and was completed previously as a class assignment. I am publishing it here because I feel that it makes a good and informative article and has information that others should be interested in and able to learn from.

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    • First Colony profile image

      First Colony 4 years ago

      Interesting Hub. I find it funny that you chose to say, ". . the final ruling, however, was not enough. . " ONE vote. He was acquitted by one vote. (and that vote makes for an interesting story) Your flair for the understatement is impressive.

      Johnson is an interesting figure, and I believe that being from the South hurt him on the national stage. He was right (as a question of law) to veto the Freedmen's Bureau bill, but that certainly wasn't a good move politically.

      And Grant. . . oh my. Proof that you can be successful in one area and a failure in another.