XV. Reconstruction, 1863 – 1877
Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves, they were not quite free. No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, action of others, and has no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining his liberty. Frederick Douglass, 1882
The silencing of the cannons of war left the victorious United States with a new set of problems no less challenging than the war itself. How would the South rebuild its shattered society and economy after the damage inflicted by the years of war? What would be the place in that society of 4 million freed blacks, and to what extent, if at all, was the federal government responsible for helping them to adjust to freedom? Should the former states of the Confederacy be treated as conquered territory subject to continued military occupation? Under what conditions would the southern states be fully accepted as coequal partners in the restored union? Finally, who had the authority to decide the questions of Reconstruction: the president or Congress?
The conflicts that existed before and during the Civil War—between regional sections, political parties, and economic interests—continued after the war. Republicans in the North wanted to continue the economic progress begun during the war. The southern aristocracy still needed a cheap labor force to work the plantations. The freedmen and women hoped to achieve independence and equal rights. However traditional beliefs limited the actions of the federal government and states’ rights discouraged national leaders from taking bold action. Little economic help was given to either whites or blacks in the South, because most Americans believed that free people in a free society had both an opportunity and a responsibility to provide for themselves. The physical rebuilding of the South was largely left up to the states and individuals, while the federal government concentrated on political issues.
A. Reconstruction Plans of Lincoln and Johnson Throughout his presidency, Abraham Lincoln held firmly to the belief that the southern states could not constitutionally leave the Union and therefore never did leave. The Confederates in his view represented only a disloyal minority. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson attempted to carry out Lincoln’s plan for the political Reconstruction of the 11 former states of the Confederacy. 1. Lincoln’s Policies During the war years, Lincoln hoped that the southern states could be reestablished (though technically, in his view, they had never left) by meeting a minimum test of loyalty. a. Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (1863) As early as December 1863, Lincoln set up an apparently simple process for political Reconstruction—that is, for reconstructing the state governments in the South so that Unionists were in charge rather than secessionists. The president’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction provided for the following: (1.) Full presidential pardons would be granted to most southerners who (a) took an oath of allegiance to the Union and the U.S. Constitution and (b) accepted the emancipation of slaves. (2.) A state government could be reestablished and accepted as legitimate by the U.S. president as soon as at least 10 percent of the voters in that state took the loyalty oath. In practice, Lincoln’s proclamation meant that each southern state would be required to rewrite its state constitution to eliminate the existence of slavery. Lincoln’s seemingly lenient policy was designed both to shorten the war and to give added weight to his Emancipation Proclamation. (At that time, late 1863, Lincoln feared that if the Democrats won the 1864 election, they would overturn