“”What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.
|—Eric Foner, US political historian.|
|A guide to|
|Hail to the Chief?|
|Persons of interest|
Reconstruction is the name given to the period of United States history following the American Civil War. It lasted from 1865 to 1877 and focused on the question of how to reintegrate the South into the United States after those states had betrayed the nation by joining the Confederate States of America and were subsequently defeated in war and placed under martial law. There were also questions as to how the nation could rebuild the South's devastated economy and infrastructure, as well as how the victorious Union could preserve the newly-won freedom of African-Americans. Needless to say, some goals of the Reconstruction era were more successfully realized than others.
Unfortunately, there were differing goals among members of the US federal government on how to accomplish these aims. After Lincoln's assassination left the presidency in the hands of his southern Democratic Vice President, Andrew Johnson, the new president came into conflict with so-called "Radical Republicans" in the United States Congress. While Johnson wanted to reintegrate the South as quickly as possible, even if that meant throwing blacks under the bus, the Radical Republicans wanted to expand and entrench civil rights for black people. The situation became even worse due to racial tensions in the South. White supremacists rioted against the freedmen and those northern whites who had traveled south to aid them. When Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency from the reviled Johnson, he favored the Republican approach and used the powers of the presidency to suppress the recently-formed Ku Klux Klan, which had resorted to terrorism against Republicans and blacks in the South. Sadly, racism among much of the US public combined with high state spending and an eventual financial crisis led to a collapse in public support for Reconstruction. It officially ended when the Rutherford Hayes presidential administration honored a political deal struck with Democrats to withdraw Union troops from the South.
Reconstruction was the federal government's first large scale effort at nation building. Until the US Civil Rights Era, Reconstruction had a fairly bad reputation in the United States. That interpretation, called the "Dunning School" after pseudohistorian William Dunning, says that the Radical Republicans wanted to "destroy" the power of the South by disenfranchising the poor downtrodden whites and instituting a corrupt system of black supremacy. The Dunning School and all similar takes on Reconstruction are bullshit.[citation NOT needed] Instead, this "destruction" was to take the form of giving education and political rights to southern African-Americans in recompense for the horrors they'd endured under slavery. It was at this time that the US had its first African-American in the House of Representatives, and even an African-American Senator.
The social leaps forward brought by Reconstruction were largely undone in later years. Southern states instituted Jim Crow laws, and black Americans were re-confined to plantations with a debt system called "sharecropping."
Gradual abolition of slavery
Throughout the civil war, President Lincoln used emancipation of the Confederacy's slaves as a means of waging economic warfare against the rebel states. Early in the war, the Union army adopted a policy of treating the South's slaves as "contrabands of war" that were to be confiscated, effectively meaning that any blacks found by Union forces would be freed from bondage immediately. This policy broadened into the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in the Confederate States would be considered free unless they were in areas the Union already controlled. Despite the limited nature of this presidential order, Lincoln had to wait until he received a political boost from the Union's victory at Antietam before signing due to a fear of political backlash. The Union subsequently began recruiting freed blacks to fight the Confederacy. Despite facing racism and other challenges, African-Americans distinguished themselves by being effective and honorable soldiers. By the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, there were more black soldiers in the Union army than there were any kind of soldier in the Confederate army.
These wartime measures weren't enough for either Lincoln or his more radical Republican party members. In December of 1863, Representative James Ashley the first ever proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the US. His ideas became the framework for the Thirteenth Amendment, although both houses of Congress argued much over what the actual text would look like. Two Radical Republicans, Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens proposed a text of the amendment that would have lacked the "except as a punishment for crime" loophole. That ended up being a bit too much for their fellow members of Congress. The Senate passed it on April 8th, 1864, but the House of Representatives failed to meet the required two-thirds majority on June 15th. It wasn’t until January 31st of 1865 that the House passed the amendment, having been threatened and cajoled by Lincoln.
Fortunately, the amendment was rapidly ratified by the required number of states. Unfortunately, most of the Southern states only ratified the amendment after being assured by the later Andrew Johnson administration that the amendment did not mean that the federal government would intervene to support civil rights for freedmen. Also, further proving that they're among the worst states in the Union, Kentucky didn't ratify the amendment until 1976, while Mississippi didn't ratify it until 1995 and didn't submit the proper documentation to the federal government until 2013.
Union military success quickly brought to the forefront the issue of what to actually do with those Confederate states that had come under Union occupation. After all, they had betrayed the United States and committed treason by seceding, firing on Fort Sumter, and then waging war on their countrymen. The Union's success in the New Orleans campaign meant that Louisiana was one of the first states to see significant occupation by Union troops. In December 1863, Lincoln proposed the Louisiana Plan, or the Ten-Percent Plan. This policy called for a general pardon to the state's population and rapid restoration of the state's representation in Congress once 10% of the state's voting population took an oath to be loyal to the United States and abide by the Emancipation. This was intended to hasten peace by granting the South a lenient way out of the war. By 1864, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas had rebuilt their governments and started sending representatives to Congress.
This caused a sharp rift between Lincoln's moderate faction and the Radical Republicans. The latter feared that a lenient peace for the South would allow them to rebuild their pseudo-aristocratic lifestyles and force blacks back into slavery. They were later proven right. With control of Congress, the Radical Republicans tried to neutralize Lincoln's plan by refusing to count the votes of the representatives from the newly-readmitted states. They then proposed a competing plan, the Wade–Davis Bill. The Wade–Davis Bill called for a majority of a state's population to take a firmer oath of loyalty before being readmitted to Union, and it would have disenfranchised Confederate officials and veterans while abolishing the former states' governments and placing them under Congressional control. Lincoln hated this idea. He didn't consider secession to be legitimate, so he didn't understand why states had to "re-join" the Union. He also feared that the harsher plan would sabotage the efforts he had made to restore loyalty in three Confederate states. Lincoln ultimately killed the bill with a pocket-veto.
Devastation in the South
The South's economy got colossally fucked, especially in the later years of the war. Part of that was just the natural result of a losing war: much of a generation of men dead, infrastructure damaged, and difficulty transitioning a wartime economy to a civilian economy. From the start, the South was materially outmatched. Their soldiers couldn't even rely on consistent supplies, so they had to forage for weapons and even food among captured enemy goods.
The later years, however, saw Grant's relentless Overland Campaign in Virginia as well as Sherman's infamous March to the Sea in which he torched Atlanta and carved a path of destruction through Georgia and South Carolina. Sherman operated behind enemy lines without relying on supply trains, meaning that his soldiers were extremely thorough at stripping the Southern countryside of anything useful. His tactics made much of the South unlivable; of the many hundreds of thousands of slaves he freed, as many as 10,000 ended up starving to death in the newly-created wasteland. It wasn't just Sherman; Sheridan's forces left a ninety-mile stretch of the Shenandoah Valley completely barren. Meanwhile, Confederate-controlled cities throughout the war saw overcrowding from refugees, food shortages, and economic collapse.
Refugees who returned home after the war found razed towns and cities, burned fields, destroyed train tracks and demolished bridges, and looted homes. Incomes for southerners plummeted and poverty became ubiquitous. Freed blacks suffered by far the most from this catastrophic poverty as they struggled to find a place and make a living.
The Freedmen's Bureau
In March of 1865, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which created the eponymous governmental body to aid former slaves in finding jobs, shelter, and food. The new bureau faced enormous challenges. There were roughly four million displaced blacks who had been kept illiterate and uneducated, and most of them also faced the threat of imminent starvation. Blacks were not the only beneficiaries of the Freedmen's Bureau. Of the 21 million food rations distributed by the bureau, five million went to white southerners.
It's important to note that the workers of the Freedmen's Bureau accomplished a lot of good under awful circumstances. Along with food aid distribution, the bureau offered legal services, handed out medicine, and built hospitals. It also built schools to teach freed blacks the information and skills they had been denied for so long. The bureau partnered with private missionary groups to fund the schools, and the missionary groups sent teachers from the North, who were primarily white and female. The bureau established over 1,000 schools and several black colleges whose positive influence continued even after the bureau's collapse.
Unfortunately, the bureau had its work sabotaged by multiple actors. Firstly, it had its mandate and powers gutted by President Johnson. The details of this will be further down the page. Additionally, it faced great resistance from ordinary southerners and eventually the Ku Klux Klan. This meant that the Freedmen's Bureau was unable to act effectively in many parts of the South, and many of the good things it could have accomplished were not realized.
Assassination of President Lincoln
“”In April 1865, shortly before his death, Lincoln for the first time publicly stated his support for this kind of limited black suffrage... [H]is assassination brought to the White House a man unable to rise to the demands of one of the most challenging moments in our nation's history.
John Wilkes Booth's murder of Abraham Lincoln was one of the tragic turning points of Reconstruction. Booth was almost certainly motivated by Lincoln's generous (by the standards of the day) plans for promoting African-American civil rights. Booth and one of his later accomplices witnessed one of Lincoln's speeches in which he expressed his desire that the South extend voting rights to blacks; an enraged Booth said to one of his accomplices, "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give." Booth made good on his oath. Throughout the day of April 14, he was busy making up arrangements for his opportunity and had a last meeting Lewis Powell/Paine, George Atzerodt and David Herold about the finalized plan at about 9 pm. He told Atzerodt to shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel and Powell to kill Seward at his mansion with Herold to guide Powell put of the city, while Booth himself would kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. All the attacks were planned to occur at 15 minutes after 10 pm. One hour after the Lincolns and their substitute guests arrived at Ford’s Theater for Our American Cousin, Booth arrived at the back of Ford’s Theater and slowly went to the saloon next door, where he spend his time drinking to prepare his time. Then, at 10:10 pm, all conspirators took action. At 10:13 pm, while Booth was preparing his mission in the presidential box, Atzerodt failed to assassinate Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel and Secretary of State William Seward was seriously disfigured at his mansion by Lewis Powell, but survived the attack as a result of a metal canvas splint that held his broken jaw in place. Back at Ford’s Theater, it was about 10:15 pm when Booth infamously shot Lincoln in the back of his head. After stabbing one of Lincoln’s guests, Major Henry Rathbone, Booth jumped to the stage where he proclaimed the Virginia state motto before leaving Washington D.C. on horseback. After being attended by doctors who were actually in Ford’s Theater, Lincoln was moved across the street to the Petersen House, where he died the following morning at 7:22 am on April 15, 1865. In the coming months after John Wilkes Booth’s own assassination by Boston Corbett during a two week manhunt, eight conspirators were convicted of conspiracy involving Lincoln’s assassination. While Dr. Samuel Mudd (who tended Booth’s left leg in the same morning before Lincoln’s death), Ned Spangler (Ford’s Theater employee), Michael O’Laughlin, and Samuel Arnold are sentenced to be transferred to Fort Jefferson prison, four other conspirators (Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold and their landlady, Mary Surratt) were hanged on July 7, 1865. Mary Surratt became the first and only women hanged by the federal government.
Ultimately, this left the future of Reconstruction and the nation as a whole in the hands of Andrew Johnson, who proved to be the wrong man for the wrong time.
The Johnson administration
Andrew Johnson, who was effectively though not officially a Southern Democrat, took an even softer tone with his approach to Reconstruction. In 1868, the new president issued pardons to all former Confederate soldiers. The pardon also freed former Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, who had languished in prison for two years after being captured in Georgia.
Johnson almost immediately came into conflict with the Republicans in Congress. Instead of following the Republicans' goal of deconstructing the social order of the South, Johnson instead sought to appease the former Confederates by allowing them to ensure their continued dominance. He later split completely with Congress and sought to block the enforcement of their Reconstruction acts.
It's a controversial issue among historians how different Johnson's presidency was from a potential continuance of Lincoln's. Lincoln biographers Randall and Current argued that Johnson was trying to continue Lincoln's policies and that, " Lincoln would have followed a policy similar to Johnson's, that he would have clashed with congressional Radicals, that he would have produced a better result for the freedmen than occurred, and that his political skills would have helped him avoid Johnson's mistakes." It is also true that in the earliest years of his presidency, Johnson's greatest political support came from former Lincoln partisans, the people who favored the previous president's moderation.
Whatever the cause and whoever gets the blame, Johnson was an inept politician whose presidency helped bring about the disastrous failure of Reconstruction policies. He squandered perhaps the greatest opportunity for racial equality that had ever presented itself to the United States.
President Johnson refused to take action when Southern states began implementing Black Codes to restrict the freedom of blacks.
Under Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, the former Confederate states were permitted to reestablish their state governments with no federal oversight. As a result, all of the Southern states restricted the voting of constitutional convention delegates and participation in debates to white people only. As a result of that, all of the Southern states were able to legally deny freed blacks the right to vote. South Carolina’s provisional governor declared at his state constitutional convention, "this is a white man’s government."
The new Southern state governments made a commendable step forward to legally mandating, for the first time in the region's history, free public schooling. Blacks, however, were excluded. Then the state governments moved on to what they likely considered the more pressing issue: drafting and passing the Black Codes. South Carolina's Black Code was the first, and it applied to anyone with more than one-eighth African ancestry. Although the Code granted blacks rights they previously didn't have, such as the right to legally marry and own property, it mostly sought to force them back into slavery. White Southerners could legally hire black "servants", who would then have to live on their land, work from sunup to sunset, and could be "moderately" whipped. How did they convince blacks to agree to this arrangement? They didn't. Instead, the Black Codes also imposed so-called "vagrancy laws", where the homeless and other undesirables would be arrested and imprisoned. The whites would be simply jailed, but the blacks could "hired out" as servants. Children of impoverished black parents and black orphans could also be legally forced into this kind of servant arrangement by Southern courts. The other Southern states quickly tried to follow South Carolina's example.
Luckily, the Black Codes never went into effect. Many Northerners were infuriated by them, and the Freedmen's Bureau quickly declared that they were all invalid. However, although the Black Codes were prevented, they were a chilling preview of the future. After the end of Reconstruction, many states, both Southern and otherwise, revisited them and created the evil Jim Crow laws that lasted for much of the Twentieth Century.
With this and other worrying signs of Southern resistance to Reconstruction, Congress tried to block the readmittance of the Southern states to the Union. Johnson, however, vetoed this measure because he basically considered Reconstruction over after the certification of the Thirteenth Amendment. In 1866, Johnson also vetoed Congress' renewal of the Freedmen's Bureau laws, and Congress failed to override it. This latter veto inflicted a great cruelty on Southern blacks. The Freedmen's Bureau had planned to distribute captured Confederate plantation land to blacks in order to help them make a living for themselves. Former slaves were instead expelled from this land by the order of the president, forcing them back into poverty. The land was returned to the rich Southern whites.
Congress then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which would have made all citizens equal under the law regardless of color and made all people born in the United States (except for Native Americans) a citizen. Johnson vetoed it, which lost him the support of the moderate Republicans. Congress managed to override his veto, and the bill became law.
White violence in the South
With the Freedmen's Bureau neutered and Congress busy bickering with the president, white Southerners suddenly had a free hand to use violence against blacks and Northern whites. White Southerners were pissed at a lot of people. Firstly, they hated the blacks for breaking free from slavery, supposedly "betraying" the South, and receiving help from the government. They hated the Northerners who went south to help the blacks, calling them "carpetbaggers" and claiming that they were just out to exploit white Southerners. And they hated their fellow white Southerners who had the temerity to support Reconstruction, calling them "scalawags" and claiming that they were betraying their heritage.
White resentment exploded into a number of race riots. The Memphis massacre of 1866 saw 46 blacks killed and the city's African-American population forced out. The New Orleans massacre of 1866 saw 44 blacks and three white Republicans murdered by the city's white police and firemen.
The Ku Klux Klan also formed during this time. Former Confederate officers started a movement where they would fuck around in white costumes in order to terrorize blacks. The group took off from there. During a meeting in 1867, the group elected their first Grand Wizard, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, also known as the man responsible for the Fort Pillow Massacre. The Klan went on to become a distressingly powerful terrorist organization which targeted and murdered blacks and white Republicans.
1866 US midterm elections
Racial violence in the South served to discredit Johnson's policies in the eyes of American voters. During the heated campaign season, Johnson went around the country to advocate for his preferred candidates, who were mostly Democrats. Instead of helping anyone, Johnson's presence and support caused backlash against the Democrats. As a result, the Republican Party won supermajorities in both houses of Congress, ensuring that Johnson's vetoes could basically be overridden whenever Congress wanted, rendering the presidency almost powerless. From this point on, Congressional Republicans had the power to seize control of Reconstruction policies.
As a means of ensuring that the Civil Rights Act could not be undone, Congress proposed the landmark Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Congress left most of the details to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which was headed by Thaddeus Stevens, John Bingham, and Jacob Howard. Congress quickly approved the final version of the Fourteenth Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. The president publicly expressed his disapproval, and what followed was a two-year fight between Johnson and Congress over the amendment's ratification. Southern states naturally followed Johnson's lead in refusing the amendment. Congress fought back by passing the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which required ex-Confederate states to extend voting rights to African-American men and denied these states representation in Congress until they voted to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Reconstruction Acts
“”Whether legally and constitutionally or not, they did, in fact, withdraw from the Union and made themselves subjects to another government of their own creation. And they only yielded [stopped] when they were compelled [forced] by utter exhaustion to lay down their arms [weapons] … expressing no regret, except that they had no longer the power to continue the desperate struggle.
|—Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Congress' justification for placing the South under military rule.|
Along with the act compelling states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress passed more measures designed to prevent more outbreaks of violence like the riots in Memphis and New Orleans. These are collectively known as the Reconstruction Acts. The first of these divided the South into five military administration zones, each headed by a Unionist general. These were:
- The First Military District: Virginia, under General John Schofield,
- The Second Military District: North Carolina and South Carolina, under General Daniel Sickles,
- The Third Military District: Georgia, Alabama and Florida, under Generals John Pope and George Meade,
- The Fourth Military District: Arkansas and Mississippi, under General Edward Ord and,
- The Fifth Military District: Texas and Louisiana, under Generals Philip Sheridan and Winfield Scott Hancock.
Tennessee was exempt as it had initially ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and had been re-recognized as a full state. Every Southern state under military occupation then had to hold a new state constitutional convention which was open to black and white man alike. President Johnson, naturally, tried to veto the bill, but Congress overturned it by the required majority. Ex-Confederate officers were excluded from voting, so in many areas, freed slaves actually outnumbered white voters. Although most of these blacks were illiterate, they were determined to take part in the political process and protect their rights. Many whites reacted to this development with more rioting and violence. Congress passed the Second and Third Reconstruction Acts to bolster the first.
Several interesting challenges to Radical Reconstruction arose. William H. McCardle, a Mississippi newspaper editor, was arrested and jailed for sedition after criticizing both the local Union military commander and Congress. After being denied his right to due process, McCardle appealed to the Supreme Court. Fearing that the Court would strike down the Reconstruction Acts, Congress passed a law temporarily stripping the Supreme Court of its powers of judicial review, which was technically legal and acknowledged by the Court as such under Article III, Section 2 of the US Constitution. Johnson tried to veto Congress' action, but they simply overrode him. That kind of thing happened a lot.
Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
It was clear to everyone by this point that Congress had effectively taken control of the entire federal government, checks and balances be damned. Especially hard-hit was the presidency, which had been neutered by Congress' ability to easily override any of Johnson's vetoes. The only check Johnson had on Congress' power was his position as Commander-in-Chief, with which he could try to weaken Radical Reconstruction efforts by replacing military leaders in the South with less proactive ones. However, he couldn't even effectively do that because the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was a zealous Radical Republican and an appointee who Johnson had inherited from Lincoln.
It didn't take long for Johnson to decide that Stanton had to go. However, Congress knew that, and they passed the (bullshit) Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which sought to strip the president's power to remove his own Cabinet members without the consent of the Senate. After failing to veto the bill, Johnson decided "fuck it" and removed Stanton anyways. Three days later, the House hit Johnson with eleven articles of impeachment, essentially boiling down to "he illegitimately violated our (possibly illegitimate) law". The House passed the articles easily, making Andrew Johnson the first president in US history to ever have been impeached by the House.
Johnson's trial in the Senate went on for a stressful 11 weeks. The president tried to save himself by ceasing his attacks on Congress and promising to uphold Radical Reconstruction policies. In the end, it worked and Johnson was saved by a single vote. Unfortunately, the president went right back to opposing Reconstruction.
Impeachment of Andrew Johnson was another sad missed opportunity for social progress in the United States. As he had no vice president, the president of the Senate, Benjamin Wade, would have assumed the office. Wade, another Radical Republican and a fierce advocate for black civil rights, would have made for a much better leader than Johnson.
1868 US presidential election
The Republican Party held its convention during Johnson's trial and unanimously nominated Ulysses S. Grant, the general who won the Vicksburg and Overland campaigns, to run against Johnson for the presidency. Johnson, for his part, had proved to be such an unsuccessful president that he actually failed to win his party's nomination despite being the incumbent. What a loser. Instead, the Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour, the former governor of New York. This was a problem for them, because Seymour was most known to the country as a whole as being a "copperhead". Copperheads, also known as "Peace Democrats," were Northerners who opposed fighting the war against the Confederacy. The Republicans immediately started attacking Seymour as unpatriotic, proving that some of their political tactics didn't change with the Southern strategy.
Reconstruction was the primary issue of the election. The Democrats were against any further efforts to interfere in the South while the Republicans wanted to ensure civil rights to blacks. Grant won, of course, but by a much narrower margin than one might think, with Grant only winning by 300,000 votes. About 500,000 black voters participated in that election, and assuming that most of them voted for Grant, that means Seymour actually won a majority of the white vote. Despite getting a relatively small margin in the popular vote, Grant did manage to absolutely massacre Seymour in the Electoral College, taking 214 electoral votes to Seymour's 80. Part of this is due to the fact that black voters managed to put several reconstructed Confederate states into Grant's column. Part of this is also due to the fact that Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia hadn't re-earned their voting privileges yet and were therefore barred from contributing to the electoral votes.
“”Each man has a right to be heard on all matters relating to himself . . . Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage. Let suffrage be extended to all men of proper age, regardless of color.
|—Rep. James A. Garfield, 1865.|
Immediately after the war, black suffrage became a critical issue for Radical Republicans. They had a few reasons. Firstly, extending the vote to blacks was just the morally right thing to do.[citation NOT needed] More pragmatically, Republicans also realized (especially after the 1868 election) that permanently enfranchising blacks would significantly bolster their voting base by adding an unshakably loyal demographic. Many Northern states put black suffrage to a referendum, but all of these ballot measures sadly failed. Democrats successfully convinced many voters that black people were too stupid to participate in government. Clearly, some greater action was necessary.
President Grant also ended up supporting black suffrage, although he had been an admitted skeptic earlier. The weak policies of Andrew Johnson changed his mind by convincing him that ex-Confederates were being emboldened and that blacks, as the Union's most loyal citizens, were in desperate need of political tools with which to protect themselves.
Congress started drafting the Fifteenth Amendment right after Grant's election victory. There were ultimately three different versions of the amendment proposed. The first stated that states could not deny citizens the right to vote because of their race, color, or previously having been a slave. The second version would also have prevented states from denying the vote to anyone based on literacy, property, or the circumstances of their birth. The third version stated simply that all male citizens who were 21 or older had the right to vote. After much argument, Congress went with the first version despite the fact that many argued that it left too many loopholes. Sadly, those people ended up being right.
Several states resisted ratifying the amendment. However, Congress stepped in once again to pass a bill declaring that Southern states had to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment or else forfeit their right to participate in the federal government. The Southern states unhappily ratified the amendment, but they would spend subsequent decades learning to get around it.
Southern blacks in public office
“”The colored men who took their seats in both Senate and House were as a rule studious, earnest, ambitious men, whose public conduct would be honorable to any race.
|—Representative James G. Blaine (R-Maine).|
Grant's first term was easily the high point of Reconstruction for African American civil rights. Before he won the presidency, no black person had ever held public office in the South. By the end of his first term, about 15% of all public officeholders in the South were black, a higher proportion than in 1990. Most of these offices were at the local level, but it was still astonishing that one could see black men assessing property, collecting taxes, or serving as justices of the peace. Black lawyer Jonathan Jasper Wright actually sat on the Supreme Court of South Carolina from 1870 to 1877. Republican Party member and war veteran Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first black United States Senator after being appointed by the Mississippi state legislature.
These clear signs of black political power sparked ugly and intense rage from white Southerners. Democratic newspapers referred to black legislators as turning their governments into "menageries" and "monkey houses." They falsely accused black office holders of being illiterate, ignorant, and sinful. Ridicule of black office holders continued even after Reconstruction. After white Democrats retook the Georgia state legislature, the man responsible for compiling biographies of legislators declared, "I am not going to include these Black legislators because it would be absurd to record the lives of men who were but yesterday our slaves and whose past careers embrace such occupations as boot blacking, shaving, table waiting, and the like." The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind both had scenes meant to portray black legislators as stupid and boorish, like showing them taking their shoes off and putting up their bare feet in the South Carolina state capitol building.
The Grant administration
“”The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected.
|—Ulysses S. Grant in his second inaugural address.|
If Ulysses S. Grant had been as great a president as he was a man, he would probably go into the history books as one of the best US presidents ever alongside Lincoln and Washington. He was a goddamn hero during the war, and fighting against the South turned him into a committed anti-racist. Indeed, in terms of social policy, his administration thoroughly lived up to his ideals. In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed and Grant signed the Enforcement Acts, which protected African-Americans’ right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. The Enforcement Acts also reserved the federal government's right to forcefully intervene should any state fail to to uphold those rights. In 1870, Grant signed into law a bill which created the US Department of Justice, and created the office of the Solicitor General to advocate for the government. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was later gutted by racist justices and legislators, but then found new life within the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. He appointed Ebenezer Bassett as the first African American US diplomat, naming him ambassador to Haiti.
Many of his anti-racist actions were made necessary because Grant had to deal with one of the deadliest domestic enemies ever to confront a US president: the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. By the time Grant became president, the Klan had become a huge terrorist organization. They beat, whipped, maimed, kidnapped, and hanged thousands of black citizens. They did this primarily to terrorize blacks out of voting, hoping that by doing this they would help the Democrats retake control of the South. They also burned freedmen's schoolhouses, murdered Republican Party members, and attacked blacks for failing to act acceptably submissive. The Klan murdered huge numbers of people, especially during the 1868 election season. That we today know of, the Klan killed about 1,000 blacks in Louisiana, 2,000 in Arkansas, and even more in Georgia and other places. It's no coincidence that two of those named states ended up giving their electoral votes to Seymour.
Grant was understandably very pissed off about this situation. He very quickly began using all of the powers of the executive branch in his quest to eradicate the Klan for good. He convinced Congress to pass the Enforcement Acts as a means of giving him the legal authority to protect blacks from the Klan's efforts to disenfranchise them. The third of the Enforcement Acts was actually called the Ku Klux Klan Act, and it specifically illegalized wearing disguises, forming conspiracies, and intimidating officials while giving the president the legal authority to use federal troops and suspend the writ of habeas corpus in his quest to protect black freedoms. Grant's Justice Department used the Enforcement Acts to indict about 5,000 suspected Klan members, and they managed to win convictions against about 1,000 of those.
1872 US presidential election
The downfall of his presidency came due to the fact that Grant was kind of a bad judge of character when it came to many of his political appointees. Members of the Grant administration were responsible for many corruption scandals, far too many for us to list here because they're only tangentially relevant to Reconstruction. Grant's political enemies used these corruption scandals as a means of attacking his moral character and undermining his efforts at racial equality.
Meanwhile, the North's population was becoming tired of Reconstruction and the high state spending that came with it. Many members of the Republican Party itself were also losing interest in the seemingly eternal struggle in the South. These factors combined led to a complete fracture inside the Republican Party. On one end was Grant and those who supported his determined efforts to uphold black civil rights despite the shittiness of his administration. On the other end was the newly-formed Liberal Republican Party, led by Charles Sumner and Horace Greeley, which advocated anti-corruption reforms and wanted to take a few steps back from Reconstruction in the South. It's telling that rather than nominating one of their own, the Democrats chose to endorse the Liberal Republican nominee, Horace Greeley.
Interestingly, another opposition party formed, called the Equal Rights Party, although it never became really relevant. However, it nominated a woman for the presidency, civil rights activist Victoria Woodhull, and nominated Frederick Douglass as her running mate. This was the first time either a woman or an African American had ever been nominated for those positions. The funny thing is that Frederick Douglass was apparently never aware that he had been nominated.
Greeley lost the election, but won a respectable amount of the popular vote. He also died before the electoral votes were cast, so they were divvied up among various other anti-Grant politicians. Amusingly, Georgia cast three of its votes for Greeley, effectively voting for a corpse to be president. However, the schism in the Republican Party was a sign that Radical Reconstruction was coming to an end. The political will to continue battling racist Southerners over the issue of black civil rights was just no longer there.
End of Reconstruction
Things got worse after Grant's myriad scandals fractured the Republican Party during the election of 1872. The Republicans started splitting even further between those who wanted to end Reconstruction and those who wanted it to continue, causing bitter political conflict around the country. Republican factions even fought each other in Arkansas, weakening them all and allowing the Democrats to retake control of the state's government.
Meanwhile, the Democrats adopted a new political strategy called the "New Departure." They started distancing themselves from their Civil War and copperhead past and decided to focus instead on issues such as economic modernization and postwar recovery aid for the South. Southern Democrats generally opposed this new strategy. These people became the self-proclaimed "Redeemers", and they sought to remove the Republicans from the South and permanently entrench white supremacy in Southern society. The Redeemers and the New Departure Democrats both succeeded in gaining power over the rapidly declining Republican Party. This culminated with the disastrous 1874 midterm election cycle in which the Republicans lost 94 seats in the House of Representatives. Later elections would see the Republicans recover somewhat, but they wouldn't retake the House for a long, long time.
Panic of 1873
Reconstruction would be further hampered by the fact that the Grant administration and state governments suddenly had much more pressing matters to handle. Trouble began with a stock market crash in Europe, which caused European investors to sell off their holdings in the US, especially in the railroad industry. This snowballed when New York's biggest bank, Jay Cooke & Company, went bankrupt due to the railroad crash. People lost their fucking minds at this point, and they started mass withdrawing their money from the banks. Banks started collapsing nationwide. 89 of the country's 364 railroads crashed into bankruptcy, 18,000 businesses failed in a mere two years, and unemployment hit 14%.
After the immediate crisis faded, the US settled in for what is now termed the "Long Depression". Depending on how one measures it, general economic malaise continued until about 1896. President Grant spent most of his second term trying to handle these economic issues. A typical Republican in this respect, Grant sided with big business and gave them more economic freedoms in the hopes that they would pull the country out of the recession. That didn't work.
More white violence in the South
With the Republican Party in a bad spot and the president focused on political and economic problems, white violence was able to grow once more in the South. The first major sign of this was the 1873 Colfax massacre in Louisiana, in which white supremacists murdered between 60 and 150 blacks. The Colfax massacre represented a major turning point. The government tried to prosecute the perpetrators, but the murderers managed to appeal their way to the Supreme Court. The Court overturned the lower court's convictions by arguing that the federal Enforcement Acts should only apply to actions by state governments, not actions by individuals. This effectively removed the federal government's ability to prosecute hate crimes. In other words, the case was a starting pistol for a massive uprising of white supremacist violence.
In 1874 a new white terrorist organization formed, calling itself the White League. Unlike the clandestine Klan, the White League felt confident enough to operate openly across much of the Deep South. The White League became responsible for a dizzying array of murders, massacres, and other crimes. By September of that same year, the White League had become powerful enough to launch an armed insurrection against a state government. 5,000 White Leaguers attacked New Orleans and managed to occupy the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days before disbanding under the threat of federal intervention. The White League was ultimately successful in suppressing Republican votes, and Louisiana turned over to the Democrats in 1876.
1876 US presidential election
“”The election of President Hayes was achieved through the conniving of members from both parties in Congress, the governor of a northern state and a member of the United States Supreme Court. This conspiracy was entered into by those who were determined to deny former black slaves their citizenship rights. It involved a commitment to withdraw the federal troops from southern states.
|—Rep. William Lacy Clay, sitting US Congressman from Missouri.|
One of the most contentious and controversial elections in US history, the 1876 election helped bring the final nail in Reconstruction's coffin. Despite expectations that he would seek a third term, Grant decided to voluntarily end his political career. In his place, the Republican Party nominated Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. The Democrats nominated New York governor Samuel Tilden as his opponent.
The election happened during a very bad time for the country. Economic depression had set in years before and showed no signs of fading. The Republican Party was largely done with Reconstruction, and their party was still marred with the infamous corruption of the Grant administration. Black votes were being violently suppressed in the South by white terrorists.
Tilden swept the South and won the popular vote by about 260,000 votes. However, four states had disputed results: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and one electoral vote from Oregon. On the verge of conceding, Hayes and his advisers did the math and realized that if all of those electoral votes went to him, he could win the election 185–184. Hayes' allies held secret negotiations with the Southern Democrats. They came to a deal. In exchange for the electoral votes he would need to win the election, Hayes would withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction. Hayes accepted, and he therefore won the election and the presidency by fraudulent means.
Federal troops leave the South
“”Instead of withdrawing, he should have sent additional troops out there. An 1871 report to Congress says that in nine counties in South Carolina, there were 35 lynchings, 262 black men and women were severely beaten, and over 100 homes were burned. The Ku Klux Klan was already riding roughshod.
|—Rep. William Lacy Clay.|
Immediately upon assuming the presidency, Hayes honored the deal he struck with Democrats and began withdrawing federal troops from those Southern states in which they were still based. Removal of federal troops from Southern streets and Southern government buildings was effectively the end of the Republican Party's commitment to ensuring black equality. Republican-led governments collapsed in the Southern states, and "Redeemer" Democrats took control in order to begin passing laws to recreate their ideal form of institutionalized racism. These became the Jim Crow laws. Southern governments also found ways to legally disenfranchise blacks and evade the Fifteenth Amendment; by 1905 blacks across the South were completely unable to vote or exercise any political freedoms whatsoever. Henry Adams, a black Louisianan, famously lamented, "The whole South—every state in the South—had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves."
It's debatable how much of a choice Hayes really had. The political will among Republicans to continue Reconstruction did not exist. It had been going on for a very long time, and it was using state resources that most whites wanted to be going towards repairing America's broken economy instead. While acknowledging this fact, however, Dan T. Carter, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said, "He basically was knuckling under to terrorism. Hayes should have stood up to the American people and said, 'We're doing this terrible thing,' and instead he came up with this mealy-mouthed political bargain."
One very small silver lining came in the form of the landmark Posse Comitatus Act, signed by President Hayes in 1878, which prevents the US government from enforcing its laws by occupying its own soil with soldiers. Although signed for a very nasty reason, the law is now considered an essential safeguard against potential government tyranny.
Supreme Court reverses Reconstruction laws
The last remnants of Reconstruction, its laws, were gradually undone by the US Supreme Court towards the end of the era in a number of very unfortunate cases.
Slaughterhouse Cases (1873)
This was the first test of the Fourteenth Amendment, and it came about when Louisiana tried to grant a state monopoly of the New Orleans meat slaughtering business to a single corporation. Other slaughterhouse businesses sued the state government the monopoly abridged their privileges and immunities as US citizens, and the case was sent up to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of Louisiana, arguing that states still had jurisdiction over the civil rights of their citizens. Unfortunately, this reading of the Fourteenth Amendment unintentionally gutted the Privileges and Immunities Clause and made it easier for states to run roughshod over black civil rights.
United States v. Reese (1876)
This was the first significant voting rights case ever brought before the Supreme Court concerning the Fifteenth Amendment. A Kentucky elections official was indicted under one of the Enforcement Acts for refusing to register a black man's vote. Specifically, the black man had been required to pay a poll tax but then had his money refused. What the official did was obviously bullshit, of course, and the case made its way to the highest court in the land.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Kentucky elections official by reading the Fifteenth Amendment ridiculously narrowly. According to them, the Fifteenth Amendment didn't give anyone suffrage, but simply prevented anyone from denying suffrage based on race. Since the Kentucky elections official didn't technically deny the black man the vote due to his race, his action was legal. The Supreme Court also used this case to strike down the Enforcement Acts as unconstitutional.
This was the signal Southern states needed to start evading the Fifteenth Amendment in various ways to deny black men the vote. They implemented poll taxes, which most blacks were unable to pay, literacy tests, which were subjectively administered by racist whites who often rejected even the most educated black men, restrictive residency requirements to exclude blacks who had to travel a ways to vote, and grandfather clauses to ensure that whites would not be impacted by the aforementioned rules.
United States v. Cruickshank (1876)
A strong contender for the worst Supreme Court decisions in US history, this case arose from the 1873 Colfax massacre, where a white mob murdered more than a hundred black men due to a political dispute in Louisiana. The federal government decided to charge the perpetrators under the often-used Enforcement Acts by rightfully accusing the white men of infringing upon the blacks' civil rights.
Ridiculously, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions by claiming that despite the Fourteenth Amendment, none of the constitutional amendments or the Bill of Rights applied to state actions. The Court ignored the fact that Louisiana's courts were refusing to prosecute the murderers, ignored the fact that situations like these were exactly why the Fourteenth Amendment was passed by Congress, and ignored the fact that they had effectively given the KKK and other white terrorist groups a green light to commit murder with impunity.
Civil Rights Cases (1883)
Various black citizens in the South sued white businesses for refusing to cater to them by citing the 1875 Civil Rights Act. The Court ruled that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not give Congress the power to prevent the states or private actors from being racist against black people, and therefore ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. These cases, decided collectively, helped usher in the era of segregation in the South, and further stripped blacks of legal protection against an increasingly hostile Southern judiciary.
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