| Guide to:|
|Ideas and policies|
Reconstruction is the name given to the period of U.S. history following the American Civil War. The literal meaning of the era is the reconstruction of the Southern states, which made up the Confederate States of America, from the devastation wrought by the war.
Reconstruction was the federal government's first large scale effort at nation building. In the early 1900s, Reconstruction had a fairly bad reputation in the United States. Many history textbooks talk about the "radical Republicans" and their desire to "destroy" the power of the South. What's usually left out is that 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 Congressmen, and even an African-American Senator.
Reconstruction also has figurative meanings. The former states that made up the Confederacy were not admitted back into the Union immediately. They were occupied by forces of the United States (Northern) army and under martial law. Many radical Republicans, known as carpetbaggers, were "shipped" from up-north to the southern states to re-form their governments. Some wound up holding elective office in the newfound political arrangements. And some were free-lance opportunists looking to buy up land cheap from the hard-pressed plantation owners who were wiped out and not reimbursed for the loss of their investment in slaves. Eventually all civilian Northerners who came South were greeted with the disdainful label, "carpetbagger", and many came to be accused of corruption and extravagant spending at the expense of the southern states.
President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the Radical Republican controlled House because Johnson was imposing a lenient, Lincolnesque policy on Southerners, granting pardons to landowners and former slaveholders; to them, he (and Lincoln himself at that matter) was being too soft on the South and was not willing to take the measures needed to erase the Confederacy's lingering influence. Radical Republicans wanted to expropriate their land and redistribute it to former slaves in packages of 40 acres and a mule, hoping to build a constituent voter base in the South. Radical Republicans ultimately came to be seen as imposing a vengeful policy on the South, denying Confederate rebels the right to vote simply to punish them for being part of the Confederacy,which was contrary to the words of Lincoln's second inaugural, "with malice toward none, with compassion toward all".
Not all southern whites were deprived of the vote. Many southerners sympathized with the aims of Reconstruction, and worked with the military-backed governments. Their compatriots dubbed them "scalawags". Some scalawags were conscripted, and had little in common or sympathy for the rich plantation owners who at one time controlled state government and declared secession. But rebels who voluntarily contributed to the insurrection had their voting rights taken away. This was perceived by many as discrimination based on their former affiliation, and was a prime factor in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan alongside freedmen getting the vote and serving in legislatures. And for the first time Congress paid Union veterans benefits, but rebel veterans received nothing. The end result of all this was that the Confederate sympathizers in the South could produce evidence to support their claim that the Union was meddling in their governments to leave them marginalized and unable to have a voice in their own state government (which would go on to form part of the ideology of the Lost Cause of the South).
Many attitudes of Southern Democrats, and their feelings toward Yankee Republicans and carpetbaggers, were formed at this time. Some allege the political divisions that are the legacy of Reconstruction have been more enduring than the political divisions that caused the Civil War.
Some Southern states actually had African American majorities in the 1870s and without voter suppression a pro-integration political force could have built a dynasty in the South, but ultimately there was a lack of political will (or maybe lingering racism) in the North to do what would have been necessary to ensure that. It was during this time that the Ku Klux Klan was created. Reconstruction came to an end mostly because the southern whites would not allow any political rights for southern African-Americans, and waged a vicious insurgency against it. Another aspect was that Northern whites (apart from the radical Republicans who were ultimately pushed to the side) were unwilling or unable to fight to uphold the civil rights of the freed slaves, their rationale being that the goal of Reconstruction was to re-integrate the Southern states into the Union and that the Radicals' insistence on those rights was an obstacle to that process.
In the end, Reconstruction ended as part of a bargain in which southern states that had disputed votes for electors to the electoral college would allow the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes to win their votes in exchange for Hayes' withdrawal of the military governments. As soon as it ended, Jim Crow and segregation started.