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Reconstruction was the period after the American Civil War when the southern states of the defeated Confederacy, which had seceded from the United States, were reintegrated into the Union. Abraham Lincoln had endorsed a lenient plan for reconstruction, but the immense human cost of the war and the social changes wrought by it led Congress resist readmitting the rebel states without first imposing preconditions. A series of laws, passed by the Federal government, established the conditions and procedures for reintegrating the southern states.

Much of the impetus for Reconstruction involved the question of civil rights for the freed slaves in the southern states. In response to efforts by southern states to deny civil rights to the freed slaves, Congress enacted a civil rights act in 1866 (and again in 1875). This led to conflict with President Andrew Johnson, who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866; however, his veto was overridden.

After solid Republican gains in the midterm elections, the first Reconstruction Act was passed on March 2, 1867; the last on March 11, 1868. The first Reconstruction Act divided ten Confederate states (all except Tennessee, which had been readmitted in 1866) into 5 military districts. Governments that had been established under Abraham Lincoln's plan were abolished; the first Reconstruction Act stated that "no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exist in the rebel States".

During the period of Reconstruction there was considerable upheavel in Southern society. Northerners, known as carpetbaggers, moved south to participate in southern governments. Anti civil-rights terrorists formed the Ku Klux Klan.

Three constitutional amendments were passed in the wake of the Civil War: the thirteenth, which abolished slavery; the fourteenth, which granted civil rights to African Americans; and the fifteenth, which granted civil rights to freed citizens. The fourteenth amendment was opposed by the southern states, and as a precondition of readmission to the Union, they were required to accept it (or the fifteenth after passage of the fourteenth). All Southern states were readmitted by 1870, and all but 500 Confederate sympathizers were pardoned when President Ulysses S. Grant signd the Amnesty Act[?] on May 22, 1872. However, Reconstruction continued until 1877, when the contentious Presidential election was decided in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, supported by Northern states, over his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. Some historians have argued that the election was handed to the Hayes in exchange for an end to Reconstruction; this theory characterizes the settlement of that election as the "Compromise of 1877". Not all historians agree with this theory; in any case, regardless of the circumstances, Reconstruction came to an end at this time.

The end of Reconstruction essentially signalled the end of civil rights for African Americans; as the years passed after the end of the war, the North lost interest in continuing to pursue the matter and instead turned its attention towards other concerns. The South was essentially allowed to establish a segregated society in return for accepting its integration into the Union, and the initial flurry of civil rights measures were eroded over time. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, much of the civil rights legislation was later overturned by the United States Supreme Court near the end of the 19th Century. Most notably, the court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases 109 US 3 1883 that states could enact laws that segregated black and white citizens in public places. Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 1896 went even further, providing that segregation was legal as long as it provided for "separate but equal" facilities. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 1954 was one of the landmark 20th-century cases in which the Supreme Court reversed itself on segregation, but it was not until the Federal government formally struck down the concept of segregation in all public facilities in Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Plessy was formally reversed. This act, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finally paved the way to an end to officially sanctioned segregation in the United States.


  • This article incorporates public domain text from Twenty Years of Congress: From Lincoln to Garfield. With a review of the events which led to the political revolution of 1860, by James Blaine.

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