The Battle Over Reconstruction

Print shows a grand allegory of the reconciliation of North and South through the federal program of Reconstruction.
Photo caption

Print shows a grand allegory of the reconciliation of North and South through the federal program of Reconstruction. 

As the Civil War drew to a close, the social, political and economic conditions within the rebellious southern states fueled discussion about how to restore them to the Union. This series of lesson plans will examine the nature and extent of some of these social, political and economic conditions and how they worked to shape the debate about restoring southern states to the Union as well as their lasting impact in shaping the national debate in the years following Reconstruction.

Beyond the obvious material destruction, there was more to reconstruct in the South than buildings, farms, manufacturing and railroads—there were social and political relationships to rebuild. Yet, it is impossible to understand Reconstruction fully without a grasp of the social and economic upheaval the war brought with it. For the people living through the times, this upheaval created a situation that demanded immediate attention. Economically, the South had been shattered, with much of its capital—formerly invested in slaves—lost. Fields remained untilled and fallow. Capital that during the war had been invested in manufacturing to a much larger extent than it had been before the war, was now laid to waste with many of the South’s factories in ruins. Beyond these tangible losses there was the devastating cost in human life. More than one-fifth of the South’s adult white male population (some 260,000) was lost fighting for the Confederacy. In addition, the great majority of black soldiers who had fought and died in the Union army were from the South. Its losses in manpower, therefore, was monumental.

Another consideration in post-bellum America was a new question for southern society: What would be the role of the newly freed black population of the South? What would be the social relationship between this new community and its former white masters? The South faced a newly freed workforce that grew more and more recalcitrant, refusing to work for former masters (very often with good cause), whatever the pay. Old habits of social interaction had to be reconsidered and, most often, unlearned. Thus, even if the South could quickly show some signs of economic recovery, solving the problems posed by social reconstruction would prove to be a much more difficult and lengthy proposition.

The political process of Reconstruction, on the other hand, had begun before the war ended. In some states—like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana—where earlier Union victories had been so complete as to take them out of the Confederacy for practical purposes, the populations had already taken steps in the direction of re-establishing former relations with the Union. For Abraham Lincoln, it was impossible to separate Reconstruction policy from war policy. Reunification was the central object of the war for Lincoln. Because of that, Lincoln believed that a swift procedure for Reconstruction—taking place, in effect, as Union victories gradually spread throughout the South—would aid in the effort to bring the war to a speedy end. In order to encourage a speedy process of Reconstruction, Lincoln argued for generous terms of amnesty to former rebels and encouraged lenient processes for restoring states to their former relations with the Union.

Many in Congress, however, had a different view. Upon receiving Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” these members were indignant. Apart from the content, which a number viewed as too gentle toward the South, some legislators argued that Lincoln’s proclamation flew in the face of Congress’ presumed sovereignty in the matter. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued that Lincoln’s plan for allowing only 10% of a state’s electorate to put forward a constitution was contrary to democratic theory and the principle of majority rule. Further, many members argued that the states joining the Confederacy had, in effect, “committed suicide” and had to be re-established from the ground up in the same way territories or conquered foreign lands would be organized.

Whatever virtues there were in Lincoln’s less strident and less specific plan for Reconstruction, however, may also have contributed to its weakness. Because its success depended so much on Lincoln’s own judgment, discretion, and persuasive abilities, his assassination on April 14, 1865 was a devastating loss to its operation. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, shared Lincoln’s view that reconstruction ought to be directed from the White House, but he lacked much of Lincoln’s political savvy and understanding and shared almost none of his forgiving nature or charm with the people.

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.

Southern governments frequently were in the hands of political novices: for example, inexperienced (and sometimes illiterate) freedmen and—worse yet, from the point of view of many Southern loyalists—Northerners who had moved south in the wake of war to assist in the recovery effort. 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 and 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. 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 Tenure of Office 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 (and, eventually, Congress) nonetheless. 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.

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.

Guiding Questions

How did the experience of social and political upheaval from the Civil War influence people to think about the process of Reconstruction?

What were the leading differences between Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, and the Radical Republicans in Congress when it came to Reconstruction?

Which of the leaders had the best and most realistic understanding of what was needed?


How did the results of Reconstruction policy shape the politics of the reconstructed states and the nation at large?

Learning Objectives

Describe the general character of the social conditions within the nation in the aftermath of war.

Demonstrate the ability to navigate through a statistical map interactive and use information gathered there to inform an understanding of the political, social, and economic crisis confronting the nation during Reconstruction.

Distinguish the central and driving ideas at work in original documents surrounding Reconstruction and be able to discuss their impact on events.

Identify specific problems that may have emerged given the attitudes and conditions prevalent in the defeated South.

Discuss how these attitudes and ideas may have helped or hindered Reconstruction.

Describe the constitutional claims of both the President and the Congress (in the generic rather than specific sense) for controlling Reconstruction policy.

Give a general accounting of the differences between some of the leading representatives in Congress and both Presidents Lincoln and Johnson.

Distinguish between the purposes of Johnson and Lincoln in advocating a stronger executive role.

Explain how the divisions between President Johnson and the Congress eventually led to his impeachment.

Distinguish between the main and competing visions for Reconstruction as they began to emerge at the end of the Civil War.

Distinguish the central and driving ideas at work in original documents surrounding Reconstruction and be able to discuss their impact on events.

Describe the general character of the social conditions within the nation in the aftermath of Reconstruction.

Demonstrate the ability to navigate through a statistical map interactive.

Use information gathered from the interactive maps to inform an understanding of the political, social, and economic problems confronting the nation in the wake of Reconstruction.

Distinguish the central and driving ideas at work in the documents used to illustrate this lesson.

Identify specific problems that may have emerged as a result of Reconstruction policy in its many and varied permutations.

Discuss how these policies may have affected attitudes in the country and, subsequently, how these attitudes helped or hindered politics upon the conclusion of the Reconstruction era.