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What Is Reconstruction?

Reconstruction refers to the transformative period following the American Civil War, when the United States grappled with reintegrating Southern states and redefining newly freed African Americans' rights. This era was marked by political struggle and significant social change. How did these turbulent years shape modern America? Join us as we explore the lasting impact of Reconstruction.
B. Koch
B. Koch

The Reconstruction Era was the period in the United States immediately after the Civil War, lasting from 1865 to 1877. This period was marked by attempts to reintegrate the Confederate states into the Union. These efforts were not always easy, as social, political, and economic differences made compromise difficult.

There were a number of different theories as to how Reconstruction might take place. The first plan to be implemented was President Lincoln’s plan. Lincoln wished to make reaccession as easy as possible so that the Union could be reestablished and normality created as soon as possible. Lincoln’s plan for readmitting the Confederate states into the Union included a “10 percent plan,” which stated that for a state to be readmitted to the Union, 10 percent of white voters must pledge an oath of allegiance to the Union.

Reconstruction began under Abraham Lincoln.
Reconstruction began under Abraham Lincoln.

After Lincoln was assassinated, his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, tried to follow the same reconstruction philosophy as Lincoln. He supported the 10 Percent Plan. The extension of these moderate policies made him disliked by many who either wanted stronger or weaker policies.

Many in Lincoln and Johnson’s own party, especially a group called the Radical Republicans, thought the 10 Percent Plan was much too lenient. They wished to assure the loyalty of the former slaveholding classes and wanted to go to greater lengths to ensure racial equality in the former Confederacy. For example, the Radical Republicans wanted the land of former slaveholders be taken from them and given to their former slaves, redistributing the wealth of the rich in these areas.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments formally abolished slavery.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments formally abolished slavery.

It was the work of the Radical Republicans that allowed three amendments to the constitution to be ratified — the 13th, 14th, and 15th. These amendments formally abolished slavery, gave the rights of citizens to former slaves, and gave citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote.

In 1866 the Radical Republicans gained a strong majority in Congress. Their plan for Reconstruction was implemented soon afterwards and involved separating the southern states into military districts. They were reaccessioned after they agreed to ratify the 14th and 15th amendments. The hope was, that equality for former slaves would be assured in these states following their ratification of the amendments. Entirely new governments were established for each state, which largely consisted of African Americans as well as Republicans, originally from the northern states.

Andrew Johnson's presidency was in large part defined by reconstruction, a process he took over from Abraham Lincoln.
Andrew Johnson's presidency was in large part defined by reconstruction, a process he took over from Abraham Lincoln.

Opposition from the southern land owning classes as well as a national financial crisis made it difficult for the government to maintain these policies. By the mid 1870s Reconstruction policies were no longer being strictly maintained. By 1890 freed former slaves were finding it difficult to maintain their voting rights.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the main goal of the Reconstruction era in the United States?

The main goal of the Reconstruction era, which lasted from 1865 to 1877, was to rebuild and reintegrate the Southern states into the Union after the Civil War. This period aimed to address the legal status of the newly freed African Americans and to lay the foundations for their civil rights. According to the National Archives, Reconstruction involved implementing federal policies to establish new state governments that were loyal to the Union and supported civil rights.

How did Reconstruction policies affect African Americans?

Reconstruction policies had a profound impact on African Americans. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments abolished slavery, granted citizenship, and protected voting rights, respectively. Despite these advancements, African Americans faced significant challenges, including the rise of Black Codes and later Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation and disenfranchisement. The Library of Congress notes that during Reconstruction, African Americans began participating in politics, with some elected to public office.

What were the Black Codes, and how did they relate to Reconstruction?

The Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states after the Civil War, during the early years of Reconstruction, with the intent to restrict the freedoms of African Americans and ensure a labor force similar to slavery. These codes limited the rights of African Americans to own property, conduct business, and move freely. According to the History Channel, the Black Codes were a significant factor that led to the establishment of the Reconstruction Acts and the military occupation of the South to enforce civil rights.

Who were the Radical Republicans, and what was their role in Reconstruction?

The Radical Republicans were a faction within the Republican Party during the Civil War and Reconstruction who advocated for the complete abolition of slavery and full civil rights for freed slaves. They played a crucial role in shaping Reconstruction policy, often clashing with President Andrew Johnson's more lenient approach. The Radicals were instrumental in passing the Reconstruction Acts and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, as noted by the U.S. Senate's historical records, and they pushed for the impeachment of Johnson.

What led to the end of Reconstruction, and what were its long-term effects?

Reconstruction ended due to a combination of factors, including the Compromise of 1877, which resolved the disputed 1876 presidential election by withdrawing federal troops from the South, effectively ending federal enforcement of civil rights. The long-term effects of Reconstruction were mixed; while it failed to sustain the advances made for African Americans, it laid the groundwork for future civil rights movements. According to the National Park Service, the era's legacy is complex, as it set the stage for both progress and setbacks in the struggle for racial equality.

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Discussion Comments

Despite the best intentions of the leaders of reconstruction, the failure to come to an agreement on how best to implement it may have contributed to a long delay in racial integration in the United States.

Imagine how different things would have been if the reconstruction period had been more successful in giving rights to blacks as long ago as the 1870s.

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    • Reconstruction began under Abraham Lincoln.
      By: olavs
      Reconstruction began under Abraham Lincoln.
    • The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments formally abolished slavery.
      By: Andrii Salivon
      The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments formally abolished slavery.
    • Andrew Johnson's presidency was in large part defined by reconstruction, a process he took over from Abraham Lincoln.
      By: The British Library
      Andrew Johnson's presidency was in large part defined by reconstruction, a process he took over from Abraham Lincoln.