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🐎  Unit 4: 1800-1848

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5.10 Reconstruction






⏱️  4 min read

written by

Robby May

robby may

Caleb Lagerwey

caleb lagerwey

The three big questions of Reconstruction were:

  1. What do we do with the former Confederates?

  2. What do we do with the formerly enslaved people?

  3. Who should be in charge of deciding #1 & #2: Congress or the President?

Reconstruction Amendments

The Civil War and Reconstruction led to enormous political changes in the United States. First, the federal government was much more powerful after the Civil War & protected the rights of citizens in new ways. The best examples are the three Reconstruction Amendments:

  • The 13th Amendment abolished slavery

  • The 14th Amendment granted African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the laws

  • The 15th Amendment granted African American men voting rights. Women’s rights were dealt a setback when they were not included in the 14th and 15th Amendment rights, and this splits the movement, which had previously included both black rights advocates and women’s rights advocates.

Lincoln’s Reconstruction Plan

Prior to Lincoln’s assassination, he had established the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (often called the 10% Plan), which provided 

  •  Full presidential pardons would be granted to most Confederates who (1) took an oath of allegiance to the Union and the US Constitution, and (2) accepted the emancipation of slaves.

  • A state government could be reestablished and accepted as legitimate by the US president as soon as at least 10% of the voters in that state took the loyalty oath.

Congress and Wade-Davis Reconstruction

Many Republicans in Congress objected to Lincoln’s 10% plan, arguing that it would allow a supposedly reconstructed state government to fall under the domination of disloyal secessionists. In 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill, which proposed farm more demanding and stringent terms for Reconstruction. It required:

  • 50% of the voters of a state to take a loyalty oath

  • Permitted only non-Confederates to vote for a new state constitution. 

Lincoln exercised a pocket veto by refusing to sign the bill before Congress adjourned. 

Freedmen's Bureau 

In March 1865, Congress created an important new agency: the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, known simply as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bureau acted as an early welfare agency, providing food, shelter, and medical aid for those made destitute by the war – both blacks (chiefly freed slaves) and homeless whites.

The bureaus greatest success was in education. Under the leadership of General Oliver Howard, it established nearly 3000 schools for freed blacks, including several colleges.

Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan

After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who was on Lincoln’s 1864 ticket to provide national unity appeal, became president. He began in 1865, a process called Presidential Reconstruction where the South was allowed to reenter the Union with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. They were also allowed to pass Black Codes and discriminate against Freedmen (former slaves). 

What were black codes?

Black Codes that restricted the rights and movements of the former slaves. The codes:

  • Prohibited blacks from either renting land or borrowing money to buy land

  • Placed freedmen into a form of semi bondage by forcing them, as “vagrants” and “apprentices” to sign work contracts

  • Prohibited blacks from testifying against whites in court.

  • Most codes made black unemployment a crime, which meant that blacks had to make long-term contracts with white employers or be arrested for vagrancy.

  • Others limited the occupations that they could have to include servants or laborers only. 

Congressional Radical Republican Reconstruction 

When Congressional Radical Republicans came into session, they rejected Johnson’s plans and clashed with him repeatedly over Reconstruction policies. They passed numerous laws over his veto.

Radical Republicans also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that declared all people born in the US citizens and deserving of equal rights (repudiating Dred Scott and later reinforced with the 14th Amendment). Over Johnson’s veto, Congress passed three Reconstruction Act of 1867, which:

  • Placed the South under military occupation, dividing the former Confederate states into five military districts, each under the control of the Union army.

  • States had to ratify the 14th Amendment to be readmitted. 

  • Place guarantees in its constitution for granting the franchise (vote) to all adult males, regardless of race. 

This period of Congressional Reconstruction also led to the first black congresspeople, including Blanche K. Bruce & Hiram Revels as the first Black US Senators. 

Johnson’s Impeachment

The obstacle to enforcement of congressional Reconstruction was Johnson. He sought to thwart the will of Congress by administering the plan in his own fashion. He began to dismiss officeholders who sympathized with Radical Reconstruction and countermanded the orders of generals in charge of southern military districts who were enforcing the new legislation.

Congress responded by passing legislation limiting presidential authority over Reconstruction matters. Tenure of Office Act required Senate approval for the removal of Cabinet officers and other officials whose appointment needed the consent of the Senate.

When Johnson tried to discharge Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (the only Radical in the Cabinet) and persisted in his efforts despite disapproval by the Senate, the pro impeachment forces gained strength. The House voted overwhelmingly to impeach the president on February 24. He was then placed on trial before the Senate. 

The effort to remove him from office fell one vote short.

🎥 Watch: AP US History - Reconstruction

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