Key Facts & Summary
- The Reconstruction occurred in the southern US after the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the Compromise of 1877 that began the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes.
- The Period was marked by intense controversies, including the impeachment of President Jackson
The Reconstruction Acts
After the civil war, President Jackson announced the reconstruction, whose aim was to rebuild the south to enable the seceded states to rejoin the union and provide for equal rights of the slaves.
Johnson was also a firm believer of states rights and therefore sought not to interfere with the affairs of states, beyond what he felt was the constitutional requirement including not interfering with voting process and requirements. He took a very lenient position during the reconstruction and was keen on affirming the rights of the states over the issue of slavery as the case was before the war.
The war tensions between the south and north were also rife during this period. Northerners who moved south were called “carpetbaggers” and were accused of intending to benefit from the reconstructions. Southerners were called “scallywags.”
Radical Republicans, however, were keen on ensuring that black rights were realised. Congress, therefore, enacted the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 overriding a veto by the President. The Acts temporarily divided the ten southern states except for Tennessee into five military districts with a Union General to command each district. The General had twenty thousand federal troops stationed at his command to ensure the protection of all freedmen. The states were also required to ratify state constitutions that provided for universal male suffrage and secure Congressional approval for their constitutions.
The Act also provided that states had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment which granted equal civil rights and citizenship to African Americans and former slaves. The military in each district oversaw elections and registration of voters. The southern states were not allowed to rejoin the Union until they had realised the conditions outlined in the Act.
Impeachment of President Jackson
William McCardle was arrested for treason after criticising Congress and a Union military commander. His defence was that the reconstruction measures, including military occupation in the south, were unconstitutional. He appealed to the US Supreme Court, taking advantage of the recently passed Habeas Corpus Act of 1867 that Congress passed to enable African Americans to access the Supreme Court in the event federal governments and courts violated their constitutional rights. Congress, fearing that the Supreme Court would agree with McCardle passed another measure that suspended the right of the Supreme Court to subject Reconstruction measures under Judicial Review. Johnson vetoed the bill, but Congress once again overrode his veto, and in 1869, Supreme Court dismissed the case on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction.
Congress was also presently unhappy with Johnson’s insistence on vetoing Congress measures. His racist and white supremacists’ remarks during the December 1867 State of the Union address, further aggravated his relationship with Congress.
To ensure that the President did not hinder any further reconstruction measures Congress passed two laws in 1867 whose constitutionality was questionable. The first was the Command of the Army Act which required the president to give military orders only through the commanding general of the army, whose security of tenure was protected by requiring Senate’s approval if the President intended to dismiss or reassign the commander. The second was the Tenure of Office Act which needed the President to secure the consent of the Senate whenever he appointed or removed officials. The second measure was to protect Republican-leaning officials working to implement the reconstruction measures.
In August 1867, President Johnson removed the Edwin M. Stanton the Secretary of War without the approval of Congress. He attempted to replace Stanton with Ulysses S. Grant, but Grant resigned the position for he was in support of the reconstruction measures. The Republican welcomed the President’s actions and was impeached on the grounds of violating the Tenure of Office Act.
In the impeachment proceedings, the House of Representatives which serves as the prosecution and Senate the judge, eleven counts of encroaching on Congress powers were brought against Johnson. In the final vote, the Republicans failed to reach the required two-thirds majority. Johnson survived, and the Republicans dropped the endeavour, but the President was effectively silenced.
The Fifteenth Amendment
Ulysses S. Grant won the Presidency in November 1868, the success of the Republicans in the campaign was based on a strategy the Democrats called “waving the bloody shirt” that blamed them for the Civil War and its aftermath.
Grant allowed for the continuation of the reconstruction agenda. In 1869, the Republicans introduced the Fifteenth Amendment that provided for the right to vote for all with and would not be denied on “account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude.”
However, the amendment did not address itself to literally tests and poll taxes that were used to deny blacks in the north or south the right to vote. Massachusetts, Representative Charles Sumner did not vote on the amendment for this reason. The amendment was ratified in 1870, and many were of the opinion that the reconstruction measures were progressive in ensuring the rights of the Africans Americans were firmly protected.
In 1871, Grant’s administration passed the Enforcement Acts with the aim of controlling the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Support for the reconstruction also greatly diminished over the years and in 1874, after an economic depression and elections, the Democrats for the first time since the Civil War had control over the House of Representatives.
In 1875, the Democrats then embarked on a violent campaign to take control of the Mississippi after a brutal election. However, Grant refused to offer the support of the federal troops, marking the end of the reconstruction. By 1876, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were still Republican States. During the disputed Presidential election in that year, Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise with the Democrats, that in exchange for allowing his declaration as the winner in the election, he would acknowledge the Democrats controlled the entire South.
The Compromise marked the end of the reconstruction, but its legacy would be revived a century later with the civil rights movement. The end of the Reconstruction era ushered the Jim Crows laws and the Black Codes that significantly undermined the Constitutional safeguards the African Americans had celebrated with the Reconstruction Act and the Constitutional Amendments.