President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the waning days of Reconstruction.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
The effects of the Civil War and of Reconstruction—particularly in the South—continue to shape and to be a contentious subject in our politics today. This lesson plan will explore the social, economic and political conditions of the United States as Reconstruction drew to a close in the years leading up to the Compromise of 1877. With the assistance of original historical documents, students will consider the ways different perceptions from leading political figures about the outcomes of Reconstruction affected the political debate and the political future of the nation. With an interactive map that combines statistics with the thoughts and ideas of people living through this difficult period, students will consider the ways in which efforts at recovery were either successful or disappointing.
One thing students might consider, for example, is how the devastation of war and the slow pace of efforts to recover from that devastation kept the South in a subordinate economic position in comparison to the faster growing cities of the North. These expanding Northern cities were a draw for much of the dislocated workforce in the South—including newly freed slaves. How might a fact like this have affected opinions on questions such as civil rights, government contracts for major infrastructure improvements (such as railroads) and shaped views on questions such as education? While this lesson will not provide answers for all of these questions, the hope is that it will point students in the direction of seeking out such answers with the documents and the interactive provided and formulating their own similar kinds of questions.
Upon completing this lesson, students will begin to see the ways in which a political and constitutional crisis emboldened some lasting divisions within American society and, perhaps what is more important, the ways in which the crisis forged a new path for a stronger and more perfect Union.
How did the results of Reconstruction policy shape the politics of the reconstructed states and the nation at large?
After the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the ascendancy of Congress in directing Reconstruction policy, the realities of enforcing their well-meaning goals soon dimmed the enthusiasm of many Republicans. Though Republicans made quick and huge political gains in the South as newly enfranchised black voters rushed to their support, it was clear that the party and its ideals of peace through racial and sectional harmony on Republican terms remained unpopular with large segments of the population—particularly with those who were disenfranchised because they could not take the “oath” or otherwise prove their loyalty to the Union. This meant that the huge majorities Republicans then enjoyed were, so to speak, operating on borrowed time.
There were many reasons for the unpopularity of Congressional Reconstruction in the South. Certainly, there was deep resentment on the part of many white southerners who did not want to accept the idea of racial equality. But another clear reason was the often ineffective and incompetent governing that characterized many of the post-war Republican Southern governments. Again, there were many reasons for the poor government in the South, including violence and sabotage from groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the racial animosity that inspired them, a general unwillingness to accept the political and social implications of equality under the law, and a lingering deep resistance to the idea of the supremacy of the Constitution and Union to state and local authority in matters of national significance. In addition to racial animosity—and possibly a factor that fed into that animosity as it was exploited by demagogues—was the rule of ineffective and inexperienced state and local politicians in the wake of Southern defeat. This condition was inevitable given the disqualification of many of the region’s most experienced and able government officials because of their disfranchisement for participation in the late rebellion.
This meant that Southern governments frequently were in the hands of novices: for example, inexperienced (and sometimes illiterate) freedmen and—worse yet, from the point of view of many Southern loyalists—Northerners who had moved in the wake of war to assist in the recovery effort. In some cases these newcomers were motivated by noble sentiment, while others were merely out to seek their fortunes. In any event, these Northern “carpetbaggers” were viewed as outsiders and exploiters by many who formerly had been loyal to the Confederacy. These conditions made it quite difficult for the Republican Party to get much of a foothold in the South among any except black voters and those who had relocated from the North. It also made it difficult to enforce Republican plans for Reconstruction or the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
As resistance and violence continued to spread in the South, Republican resolve began to weaken. Maintaining a visible and active presence of Union troops in the South to facilitate the peaceful operation of government and Reconstruction was expensive and frustrating to many in Congress. Moreover, the horrors of the late war were alive in the memories of most Americans and the real or imagined threat of resumed and open hostilities operated with more persuasive force than the best of arguments. President Ulysses S. Grant had been elected partly because he seemed to show promise of strong executive leadership, but also because he was viewed in the afterglow of his wartime success. In Grant’s opposition to the Tenure of Office Act (passed during Johnson’s term in 1867), which required Senate approval of all presidential appointments and dismissals, many believed that Grant evinced the kind of political fortitude necessary to set things aright. But in his first showdown with Congress upon being elected, Grant backed down and accepted a compromise proposal with the Senate even after the House had voted to join him in his opposition to the Act. This show of weakness seemed to set the tone for Grant’s administration (1869-77) which, though it seemed to offer some promise to restore order and sanity to the South, actually accomplished very little in this realm.
In part, Grant’s administration suffered because of some real and some exaggerated charges of corruption—most of which did not directly involve Grant but tarnished him nonetheless. But charges of corruption were not limited to Grant’s administration. There were also a number of members in Congress who were involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, which involved the Union Pacific Railroad and federal contracts for the first Transcontinental Railroad. Corruption compromised the ability of the government and, frequently, of private interests to facilitate the reconstruction of the South. The end of the war brought with it much devastation and, of course, those who knew how to turn devastation into opportunity. While many of the efforts at reconstruction were legitimate and well-intentioned, a good number were not. There were those who used their positions for exploitation. Similarly, there were those in the South who turned their bitterness at losing the war into a default position of hostility to all efforts to move forward. This hostility gathered strength as scandals continued to supply evidence for its justification.
The impact of scandal on the national political debate was real. It contributed to a chastening of Republican ambitions in the South and forced the party to concentrate on maintaining its base of support in the North rather than growing the party in Dixie. This helped to shape the national political debate for generations. In the South, the failure of Republican state governments to make serious inroads on the politics of the region led to a weakening resolve to protect the civil and political rights of freedmen. Segregation of both the official and unofficial variety took root. While much progress could be seen in things like the exponential growth of railroads, even an optimistic reading of these barometers had to be tempered by an acknowledgement that “doubling” track mileage does not amount to much when the starting point was so low. Weighted against growth in the North, the South fared poorer by all economic gauges.
The “official” era of Reconstruction came to a close with the Compromise of 1877. In that “compromise,” Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won a tight race for the Presidency with just one electoral vote—on the condition that all federal troops be removed from the South and a southern Democrat be named to his cabinet.
In all, the history of Reconstruction was an object lesson in the limitations of persuasion in politics—as was the history of the Civil War that preceded it. The great political battles of the era were full of interesting reflections and assertions about the nature and purpose of America and American government. The passage of the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights legislation were great victories for the advocates of equality under the law. But in the end, events overpowered the best thinking on both sides of this divide and the impact of these great victories was left to be felt and interpreted by a new generation of Americans. Much of the legislation enacted in the name of racial equality was to be undone in the coming years by rulings coming from the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, The Civil Rights Cases, etc.) and then to be taken up again in the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. In many ways, we continue these struggles in our politics today.
For more detailed information on the process of Reconstruction, the teacher is encouraged to visit America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War; for a timeline of major events of Reconstruction during the war itself, of particular use is Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation.
In preparation for teaching this lesson, the teacher should review the entire lesson plan, including introductory background information. The teacher may also wish to visit the two EDSITEment-reviewed websites mentioned above for additional background material concerning reconstruction: America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War and Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation. In addition, the teacher should review the interactive maps included as part of this lesson and download the Text Document for Activity 1 and the Text Document for Activity 2, which will include all needed source material and worksheets. Print out all material from the Text Documents, and make the appropriate number of copies for the students. The teacher may also wish to begin thinking about how the class is to be divided into small groups (3-5 is suggested—but the teacher should judge the correct size based on the size of the class) as several of the activities in this lesson involve small group work.
This lesson involves using a number of primary source documents authored by a variety of people; some were highly educated, others were less so, and still others were recently freed slaves who were barely literate. The teacher may wish to review these documents so as to be able to explain any difficult vocabulary or unfamiliar vernacular. The teacher may also want to point out that original documents, such as these, retain their original spelling and syntax—even if incorrect. The teacher may also wish to explain to the students the use of the word “Negro” in some of these documents. While not generally used today, it was accepted usage (by both black and white writers) during this period and it is part of the historical record. While it could be used in a derogatory way, it did not—in every case—suggest racist attitudes or carry the stigma that it does today. The teacher will also want to discuss the vernacular and odd spellings that occasionally come through in diary entries and interviews with ordinary citizens and ex-slaves. Some of this language may be difficult for students to understand without some guidance.
If the teacher’s students have little experience evaluating primary source documents, there are several websites that include activities to help students develop these skills. The website Making Sense of Letters and Diaries is one such site. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of activities to develop primary document skills. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Maps."
For this activity, the students will use the interactive maps [temporarily located at http://civclients.com/nehint/recon/] as well as the documents specified below that can be found in the Text Document for Activity 1. Students will be organized into five small groups, each of which will be assigned a document and a set of worksheet questions. These groups will take on the role of special investigative committees reporting to a Congressional committee examining the effects of Reconstruction. Each document corresponds to one of the five “Topics” in the “After Reconstruction” section of the interactive. The worksheet provided in the Text Document for Activity 1 asks two sets of questions: one set relates to the document, and the other relates to the corresponding section of the interactive. After reading their assigned document, students should answer the document questions on their worksheet and then proceed to the interactive to answer those questions. After completing both sections of the worksheet, the group should discuss what they have learned about their topic through the interactive and the document. The objective is to show the students how the combination of facts, opinions, statistics, and pictures can broaden their understanding of a subject.
The authors of the documents were selected to show a variety of contrasting views and also to reflect the different ways that Reconstruction affected various populations. While one document cannot speak to the effects of the war on an entire group, it will give students an insight into what may have represented a common experience and reaction to Reconstruction policy.
When the groups have completed their worksheets and concluded their discussion, the teacher, as Committee chairman, should lead the groups in brief presentations to the class (the Congressional Committee) highlighting their findings. Following the presentations, the teacher may also wish to lead the class in a discussion of the methodology of this activity, asking students to examine the ways in which maps, pictures, and original documents expanded their understanding of the topic.
Group A: Excerpts from the testimony of Maddie Curtis from Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, North Carolina Narratives, 1937
Group B: Excerpt from Rev. Irving E. Lowery, Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-Bellum Days, 1911
Group C: Excerpt from the conclusion of Holland Thompson, From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill: A Study of the Industrial Transition in North Carolina, 1906
Group D: The Resources of North Carolina: Its Natural Wealth, Condition, and Advantages, as Existing in 1869. Presented to the Capitalists and People of the Central and Northern States, by Bannister, Cowan & Company
Group E: Excerpt from Albert T. Morgan, Yazoo, Or, On the Picket Line of Freedom, 1881
It is the year 1877 and, in the wake of the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, Union troops finally have been recalled from the South. In this activity, students will be asked to imagine that they are research assistants gathering evidence for a prominent historian (the teacher) during the years following Reconstruction. The historian’s aim is to write the first comprehensive history of the period. Right now, he is working on the chapter that examines the importance and impact of the Fourteenth Amendment. These research assistants will evaluate a series of documents (which in this activity will substitute for “live interviews”) representing a variety of views concerning the direction of Reconstruction policy regarding voting rights and the impact these views had or should have had on the politics of the nation. The teacher should divide the class into four small groups. In addition to reviewing the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, each group will be assigned to cover one additional (but short) document and make a presentation to the class summarizing the views presented in it. The historian (i.e., the teacher) will preside over the presentations and discussions and help the class distill the information gathered so that the class, together, can compose a two-page brief for the historian summarizing the impact of the Reconstruction debate over voting rights on the politics of the nation in 1877.
For all groups: The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution
Group A: Excerpt from Frederick Douglass, Address to the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, April 1865
Group B: Letter from President Ulysses S. Grant to the Hon. D. H. Chamberlain, Governor of South Carolina (on the occasion of riots in Hamburg, S.C.), August 1, 1876
Group C: Excerpt from Carl Schurz, speech in the Senate, January 30, 1872
Group D: Rutherford B. Hayes, letter of acceptance of the nomination for the Presidency, June 8, 1876
At the end of this lesson, each student should demonstrate his or her proficiency by doing one of the following:
1. Based on the documents reviewed in this lesson, list some of the leading and competing political interests in the South as Reconstruction was drawing to a close. For each group, briefly describe (in one paragraph) the primary motivations and objectives that moved them to action.
2. Compose a two-page essay explaining the ways in which the effects of Reconstruction may continue to affect our politics today.
Alternative means of assessment include asking the students to do either or both of the following:
1. Turn in their completed worksheets from Activities 1 and 2 for a grade.
2. Compose and turn in for a grade a 2-4 page “brief” for the “historian” in Activity 2 that more fully evaluates the views presented in the document covered by his or her group.
The EDSITEment-reviewed sites Digital History and Documenting the American South offer a wide variety of documents concerning the effects of Reconstruction on the newly freed black population and Southern society, in general. Teachers may wish to have students read several of the following, which illustrate the tension and uncertainty that existed along with the joy of liberty:
Students might then be asked to examine the painting “A Visit from the Old Mistress” from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Africans in America. The documents listed above in conjunction with an examination of the painting could be used to spark an in-class discussion of the difficulties facing the South as it moved from one kind of social structure to a new, more American, way of life.
3-4 class periods