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What Is the Reconstruction Act?

Sandi Johnson
Sandi Johnson

The Reconstruction Act is not a single piece of legislation, but rather several acts and supplemental legislation enacted by the US Congress between the years 1867 and 1868, after the American Civil War. The first Reconstruction Act, placed into law on March 2nd, 1867, divided the Confederacy into five military districts, under the command of Union generals. By the end of 1868, a total of four Reconstruction Acts had been enacted, authorizing military leaders to organize, supervise, and assist with registration of African American male voters to help institute new governments within former Confederate states. Other stipulations were also set forth through the Reconstruction Acts, including requirements for rejoining the Union.

Between the years 1865 and 1867, Congress proposed various plans for the first Reconstruction Act. Then president, Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation in 1867, preferring his own plan for reconstruction developed in 1865. Under Johnson's plan, re-establishing state governments was left to white Southerners, offering African-Americans no voice in politics or voting. In effect, Johnson's Presidential Reconstruction plan placed former Confederate powers back in control of Southern governments, with formerly seized lands restored to such individuals. In March of 1867, Congress overruled Johnson's veto and the first Reconstruction Act passed into law.

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

Upon establishing the first Reconstruction Act and selecting military commanders for each southern district, Congress realized the difficulty commanders faced from resistant white leaders, farmers, and merchants. Each subsequent Reconstruction Act passed by Congress gave military commanders more responsibility and duties with regard to establishing new governments in southern states, as well as establishing requirements for reunification. In short, the four Reconstruction Acts established military districts in the South; demanded new state constitutions, approved by Congress, for all Southern states rejoining the Union; required that all men in all Southern states be granted the right to vote; and required that states ratify the 14th Amendment, which established African-Americans as legal citizens, as a condition of readmission to the Union.

Reconstruction was begun to rebuild and readmit the former Confederacy into the Union after the Civil War.
Reconstruction was begun to rebuild and readmit the former Confederacy into the Union after the Civil War.

As an era, Reconstruction actually began under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. The era came to an end in 1877. Between the years 1863 and 1869, numerous constitutional amendments and legislative acts abolished slavery, awarded citizenship to African Americans, and prohibited barring people from voting based on race or previous social station. Primary laws and amendments enacted included the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the four Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868.

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

Given the volatile and unprecedented era, each amendment and act built on freedoms, laws, and requirements for reunification set forth by Congress. New laws and acts were put in place to address various issues that arose during the Reconstruction Era. On both sides of the debate, the Reconstruction Act presented conflicts of interest and ideology, often resulting in further division rather than resolution between the North and South, Democrat and Republican.

Discussion Comments


The effects of Reconstruction still haunt the South. The way it was done was designed to subjugate people, rather than bring them back into the Union. Not that too many people in the North cared. They were keeping families of 12 in two-room firetrap tenements and chaining five year olds to cotton machines, but we were the traitors and slaveowners.

Nothing about slavery was right, but Congress did not take into account that Southern culture had evolved in isolation for a long time, with the North showing very little interest in anything going on down here, except for cotton. That resentment still simmers, some 150 years later. It may be crazy, but Southerners have long memories, and long family memories. Reconstruction could have been handled better. If it had been, Jim Crow laws, the atrocities committed against African-Americans -- it could have all been largely avoided, had Congress been interested in Reconstruction, not retribution.


The problem with so much of the way Reconstruction was handled is that it sought to punish people who had already lost everything. The vast majority of the men who fought for the South were not planters, and were not wealthy. Most were dirt farmers who went to war either to fight to keep their land, or because they were threatened with hanging and their families with being forced from their homes as the family of a traitor.

Only 2 percent of Southerners ever owned slaves. I've done a good bit of genealogy and I have to go back to my fourth great-grandparents to find any ancestors who owned slaves. That's way back down the line. Obviously, slavery was the spark that started the fire, but your average Southerner was a dirt farmer with a crowd of kids. Still, Reconstruction sought to take from these people what little they had left. People were starving to death and since the federal government considered them traitors, they were not interested in doing anything for them.

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    • Reconstruction began under Abraham Lincoln.
      By: olavs
      Reconstruction began under Abraham Lincoln.
    • Reconstruction was begun to rebuild and readmit the former Confederacy into the Union after the Civil War.
      By: Expert Infantry
      Reconstruction was begun to rebuild and readmit the former Confederacy into the Union after the Civil War.
    • The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments formally abolished slavery.
      By: Andrii Salivon
      The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments formally abolished slavery.