The Battle Over Reconstruction

Lincoln's Plan and Congress's Response

While Lincoln took a moderate approach to Reconstruction, Congress sought to impose harsh terms on the South.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between Lincoln's and Congress's approaches to Reconstruction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction was Lincoln's plan to reintegrate the Confederate states back into the Union, granting presidential pardons to all Southerners (except political leaders) who took an oath of future allegiance to the Union.
  • Radical Republicans rejected Lincoln's plan and instead passed the more stringent Wade-Davis Bill, which called for 50 percent of the state to take the loyalty oath. Lincoln pocket vetoed this bill.
  • The Freedmen 's Bureau was an agency that provided food, shelter, medical aid, employment aid, education, and other needs for blacks and poor whites. It was the largest federal aid relief plan at the time, and it was the first large-scale governmental welfare program.
  • President Johnson proved to be an obstacle to the Radical Republicans in Congress, who attempted to completely overhaul the Southern government and economy.
  • In 1866, Johnson vetoed two important bills by Congress; in response, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment, granting African Americans full citizenship.

Key Terms

  • 10 percent plan: A model for reinstatement of Southern states, offered by Abraham Lincoln in December 1863, that decreed that a state could be reintegrated into the Union when 10 percent of the 1860 vote count from that state had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States and pledged to abide by emancipation. The next step in the process would be for the states to formally elect a state government. Also, a state legislature could write a new constitution, but it also had to abolish slavery forever. At that time, Lincoln would recognize the reconstructed government.
  • Radical Reconstruction: A congressional plan for postwar recovery that imposed harsh standards on the Southern states and supported newly freed slaves (freedmen) in their pursuit of political, economic, and social opportunities. During this era, Congress passed three constitutional amendments that protected the rights of freedmen.
  • Freedmen's Bureau: A U.S. federal government agency that aided distressed freed slaves in 1865–1869, during the Reconstruction era of the United States.
  • Wade-Davis Bill: This congressional bill from 1864 proposed strict requirements for Southern states' reintegration into the Union during the Reconstruction era, and was written by two Radical Republicans, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland.

From 1863 until his death, President Abraham Lincoln took a moderate position on Reconstruction of the South and proposed plans to bring the South back into the Union as quickly and easily as possible. During this time, the Radical Republicans used Congress to block Lincoln's moderate approach. They sought to impose harsh terms on the South, thinking Lincoln's approach too lenient, as well as to upgrade the rights of freedmen (former slaves). The moderate position, held both by Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson (who took over the presidency after Lincoln's death), prevailed until the election of 1866, at which point the Radicals were able to take control of policy, remove former Confederates from power, and enfranchise the freedmen. A Republican coalition came to power in nearly all of the Southern states and set out to transform the society by setting up a free-labor economy, with support from the army and the Freedmen's Bureau.

Lincoln's Plan for Reconstruction

During the American Civil War in December 1863, Abraham Lincoln offered a model for reinstatement of Southern states called the "10 Percent Plan." It decreed that a state could be reintegrated into the Union when 10 percent of the 1860 vote count from that state had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States and pledged to abide by emancipation. Voters then could elect delegates to draft revised state constitutions and establish new state governments. All Southerners, except for high-ranking Confederate Army officers and government officials, would be granted a full pardon. Lincoln guaranteed Southerners that he would protect their private property, though not their slaves. By 1864, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas had established fully functioning Unionist governments.

This policy was meant to shorten the war by offering a moderate peace plan. It was also intended to further Lincoln's emancipation policy by insisting that the new governments abolish slavery. Lincoln's reconstructive policy toward the South was lenient because he wanted to popularize his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln feared that compelling enforcement of the proclamation could lead to the defeat of the Republican Party in the election of 1864, and that popular Democrats could overturn his proclamation. Lincoln's plan successfully began the Reconstruction process of ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment in all states.

Congress Responds

Congress reacted sharply to this proclamation of Lincoln's plan. Most moderate Republicans in Congress supported the president's proposal for Reconstruction because they wanted to bring a swift end to the war, but other Republicans feared that the planter aristocracy would be restored and the blacks would be forced back into slavery.

The Radical Republicans opposed Lincoln's plan because they thought it too lenient toward the South. Radical Republicans believed that Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction was not harsh enough because, from their point of view, the South was guilty of starting the war and deserved to be punished as such. Radical Republicans hoped to control the Reconstruction process, transform Southern society, disband the planter aristocracy, redistribute land, develop industry, and guarantee civil liberties for former slaves.

A scathing attack on the ineptness and military ineffectualness of the Lincoln administration. The cartoon derives its title from an indiscreet letter written by secretary of war Edwin McMasters Stanton to past President James Buchanan immediately following the Union army's defeat at the Battle of Bull Run. Stanton wrote,

"Running the 'Machine.'": An 1864 political cartoon—featuring William Fessenden, Edwin Stanton, William Seward, Gideon Welles, Lincoln, and others—takes a swing at Lincoln's administration.

Although the Radical Republicans were the minority party in Congress, they managed to sway many moderates in the postwar years and came to dominate Congress in later sessions. In the summer of 1864, the Radical Republicans passed a new bill to counter the plan, known as the "Wade-Davis Bill." As opposed to Lincoln's plan, this new bill would make readmission into the Union more difficult. The bill stated that for a state to be readmitted, the majority of the state would have to take a loyalty oath, not just ten percent. Lincoln later pocket vetoed this new bill.

Freedmen's Bureau

In March 1865, Congress created a new agency, the Freedmen's Bureau. This agency provided food, shelter, medical aid, employment aid, education, and other needs for blacks and poor whites. It also attempted to oversee new relations between freedmen and their former masters in a free-labor market. The Freedmen's Bureau was the largest federal aid relief plan at the time, and it was the first large scale governmental welfare program.

With the help of the bureau, the recently freed slaves began voting, forming political parties, and assuming the control of labor in many areas. The Freedmen's Bureau helped to start a change of power in the South that drew national attention from the Republicans in the North to the conservative Democrats in the South.

Congress's Reconstruction Bills

Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice president who took over the presidency after Lincoln's assassination, attempted to continue Lincoln's vision for Reconstruction. However, Congress continued to pass more radical legislation. The Radical Republican vision for Reconstruction, also called "Radical Reconstruction," was further bolstered in the 1866 election, when more Republicans took office in Congress. During this era, Congress passed three important Reconstruction amendments.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified in 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment, proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868, guaranteed U.S. citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and granted them federal civil rights. The Fifteenth Amendment, proposed in late February 1869 and passed in early February 1870, decreed that the right to vote could not be denied because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Congress also passed the Reconstruction Acts. These initially were vetoed by President Johnson, but later were overridden by Congress. The first Reconstruction Act placed 10 Confederate states under military control, grouping them into five military districts that would serve as the acting government for the region. One major purpose was to recognize and protect the right of African Americans to vote. Under a system of martial law in the South, the military closely supervised local government, elections, and the administration of justice, and tried to protect office holders and freedmen from violence. Blacks were enrolled as voters and former Confederate leaders were excluded for a limited period.

The Reconstruction Acts denied the right to vote for men who had sworn to uphold the Constitution and then rebelled against the federal government. As a result, in some states the black population was a minority, while the number of blacks who were registered to vote nearly matched the number of white registered voters. In addition, Congress required that each state draft a new state constitution—which would have to be approved by Congress—and that each state ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and grant voting rights to black men.


Lincoln is typically portrayed as taking the moderate position and fighting the Radical positions. There is considerable debate about how well Lincoln, had he lived, would have handled Congress during the Reconstruction process that took place after the Civil War ended. One historical camp argues that Lincoln's flexibility, pragmatism, and superior political skills with Congress would have solved Reconstruction with far less difficulty. The other camp believes that the Radicals would have attempted to impeach Lincoln, just as they did his successor, Andrew Johnson, in 1868.

Johnson's Plan

While Andrew Johnson favored punishment for Confederates after the Civil War, his policies toward the South softened during his presidency.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate President Johnson's approach to Reconstruction

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Black Codes were laws passed in the Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War. They lowered the status of freedmen.
  • The Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862. They allowed for the confiscation of land owned by Confederates, and for this land to be redistributed to freedmen. Johnson ordered that the land be given back to the pardoned owners instead.
  • The Freedmen's Bureau administered basic relief to newly freed slaves and poor whites, including the provision of food and medicine, as well as limited legal and employment aid.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave freedmen full legal equality, with the exception of the right to vote. It was vetoed by Johnson, but his veto was overridden by Congress.
  • The Joint Committee on Reconstruction was a 15-member panel created to devise Reconstruction requirements for Southern states to be restored to the Union.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment was designed to put the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act into the Constitution, but it went much further. It extended citizenship to everyone born in the United States except visitors and American Indians. It penalized states that did not give the vote to freedmen and created new federal civil rights that could be protected by federal courts.

Key Terms

  • black codes: Laws passed after the Civil War that limited the basic human rights and civil liberties of blacks.
  • Andrew Johnson: The seventeenth president of the United States. He became president after Lincoln's assassination and battled with the Radical Republicans in Congress over control and stringency of the Reconstruction. He was eventually impeached ostensibly for violating the Tenure of Office Act and was acquitted by one vote.
  • Lyman Trumbull: A U.S. Senator from Illinois during the American Civil War and coauthor of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Johnson's Battle with Congress

Both Northern anger over the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln as well as the immense cost of human life during the Civil War led to vengeful demands for harsh policies in the South. Initially, Vice President Andrew Johnson spoke of hanging rebel Confederates. When he became president, however, Johnson took a much softer line and pardoned many of them. Additionally, no trials for treason took place. Only Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, was executed for war crimes.

Johnson's soft stance on Southern states can be understood by examining some of his viewpoints. First, he sought a speedy restoration of the states, on the grounds that they had never truly left the Union, and thus should again be recognized once loyal citizens formed a government. Unlike Radical Republicans, Johnson did not seek to make Southerners accountable for the war, but instead wanted to reintegrate them as easily as possible. Despite some of his rhetoric during his vice presidency, his actions as president reveal that he was not concerned with punishing the South. Second, to Johnson, African-American suffrage was a delay and a distraction; it always had been a state responsibility to decide who should vote. Without a focus on providing explicit legal equality for the freed slaves, Johnson overlooked the actions of white Southerners and blocked the actions of Congress. Many of the Radical Republicans' efforts were to pass laws granting freedmen more political equality, so compared to Congress, Johnson indeed could be considered lenient on the South. Johnson's conservative view of Reconstruction did not include the involvement of former slaves in government, and he refused to heed Northern concerns when Southern state legislatures implemented Black Codes, laws that limited the basic human rights and civil liberties of blacks. Johnson's presidency, therefore, would be known primarily for its lax enforcement, and at times defiance, of Reconstruction laws passed by Congress.

Despite the abolition of slavery, many former Confederates were not willing to accept the social changes. The fears of the mostly conservative planter elite and other prominent white citizens, however, were partly assuaged by Johnson's assurance that wholesale land redistribution from the planters to the freedmen would not occur. Johnson ordered that land forfeited under the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which were passed by Congress and administered by the Freedmen's Bureau, would not be redistributed to the freedmen, but instead returned to pardoned owners.

Freedmen and the Enactment of Black Codes

Southern state governments quickly enacted the restrictive Black Codes. The Black Codes indicated that the freedmen would have more rights than they had before the war, but still only a limited set of second-class civil rights. Additionally, freedmen were not granted voting rights or citizenship The Black Codes outraged Northerners, and were overthrown by the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which gave freedmen full legal equality (except the right to vote).

This helped freedmen force planters to bargain for their labor. Such bargaining soon led to the practice of sharecropping, which gave the freedmen both greater economic independence and social autonomy. However, because freedmen lacked capital, and because planters continued to own the tools, draft animals, and land, the freedmen were forced into producing cash crops, mainly cotton, for the landowners and merchants. Widespread poverty, as well as the falling price of cotton, led to indebtedness among a majority of the freedmen, and poverty among many planters.

Northern officials gave varying reports on conditions involving freedmen in the South. One harsh assessment came from Carl Schurz, who documented dozens of extra-judicial killings in states along the Gulf Coast. He also reported that at least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other African Americans had been killed in this area. In Selma, Alabama, Major J.P. Houston noted that whites who killed 12 African Americans in his district never came to trial. Several other killings never culminated in official cases.

Black women were particularly vulnerable at this time, as convicting a white man of sexually assaulting a black woman was immensely difficult. Because black women were considered to have little virtue, some in white society held that they could not be raped. This racist mindset contributed to numerous sexual crimes against black women. Black men were construed as being extremely sexually aggressive, and their supposed threats to white women often were used as a pretext for lynching and castrations.

Moderate Responses

During the autumn of 1865, the Radical Republicans responded to the implementation of the Black Codes by blocking the readmission of the former rebellious states to Congress. Johnson, however, pushed to allow former Confederate states into the Union as long as their state governments adopted the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery). The amendment was ratified by December 6, 1865, leading Johnson to believe that Reconstruction was over.

The Radical-controlled Congress, however, rejected Johnson's moderate presidential Reconstruction, and organized the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, a 15-member panel that devised Reconstruction requirements for the Southern states to be restored to the Union.

Johnson vetoed the renewal of the Freedmen's Bureau Bill in February 1866. Although Johnson had sympathies for the plights of the freedmen, he was opposed to federal assistance. An attempt to override the veto failed on February 20, 1866. In response, both the Senate and House passed a joint resolution, disallowing any congressional seat admittance until Congress declared Reconstruction finished.

Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, leader of the moderate Republicans, recognized that the abolition of slavery was worthless without the protection of basic civil rights, and thus proposed the first Civil Rights Law. Congress quickly passed this Civil Rights bill.

Johnson's Impeachment

Portrait of Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson: President Andrew Johnson

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was one of the most dramatic events that occurred during the Reconstruction era in the United States, and was the first impeachment in history of a sitting U.S. president. Johnson was impeached because of his efforts to undermine congressional policy; the impeachment was the culmination of a lengthy political battle between the moderate Johnson and the Radical Republicans who dominated Congress and sought control of Reconstruction policies. Johnson was acquitted by one vote.

Johnson was impeached on February 24, 1868, in the U.S. House of Representatives on 11 articles of impeachment detailing his "high crimes and misdemeanors." The House's primary charge against Johnson was with violation of the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress the previous year. Specifically, he had removed Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war (whom the Tenure of Office Act was largely designed to protect), from office and attempted to replace him with Brevet Major General Lorenzo Thomas.

The House agreed to the articles of impeachment on March 2, 1868. The trial began three days later in the Senate, with Chief Justice of the United States Salmon P. Chase presiding. The first vote on one of the 11 impeachment articles concluded on May 16 with a failure to convict Johnson. A 10-day recess was called before attempting to convict him on additional articles, but that effort failed on May 26. The 35-to-19 votes were one short of the required two-thirds needed for conviction.

The Reconstruction Amendments

The Fourteenth Amendment provided the foundation of equal rights for all U.S. citizens, including African Americans.

Learning Objectives

Define the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Republican Congress during and after the Civil War passed three constitutional amendments, called the " Reconstruction Amendments," that ended slavery and extended many civil rights to black Americans.
  • The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, abolished slavery in the United States, extending the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted on July 9, 1868, was the second of three Reconstruction Amendments. The three main clauses of amendment are the "Citizenship" clause, the "Due Process" clause, and the "Equal Protection" clause.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified February 3, 1870, gave suffrage to black males.
  • Black Codes were laws the Southern states had passed in the wake of the abolishment of slavery. They attempted to return former slaves to a subservient legal and political status.

Key Terms

  • black codes: The Black Codes were laws in the United States after the Civil War that limited the civil rights and civil liberties of black people.
  • Civil Rights Act: A U.S. federal law (14 Stat. 27) enacted April 9, 1866, that was mainly intended to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the wake of the American Civil War.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment: A constitutional amendment that provided the basis for equal protection under the law for all citizens, including newly freed slaves.
  • The Thirteenth Amendment: A constitutional amendment that abolished slavery in the United States.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment: A constitutional amendment that gave suffrage to male freedmen.

During and immediately after the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed three constitutional amendments that provided political and social equality for African Americans. They were termed the "Reconstruction Amendments" and were spearheaded by the Radical Republicans in Congress. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified in 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment, proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868, guaranteed U.S. citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and granted them federal civil rights. The Fifteenth Amendment, proposed in late February 1869 and passed in early February 1870, decreed that the right to vote could not be denied because of, "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The amendments were directed at ending slavery and providing full citizenship to freedmen. Northern congressmen believed that providing black men with the right to vote would be the most rapid means of political education and training.

The Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. In Congress, it was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states on December 6, 1865.

Slavery had been tacitly enshrined in the original Constitution through provisions such as Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the " Three-Fifths Compromise," which detailed how each state's total slave population would be factored into its total population count for the purposes of apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and direct taxes among the states. Though many slaves had been declared free by President Abraham Lincoln 's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, their postwar status was uncertain.

Though the amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States, factors such as Black Codes, white supremacist violence, and selective enforcement of statutes continued to subject some black Americans to involuntary labor, particularly in the South.

The impact of the abolition of slavery was felt quickly. When the Thirteenth Amendment became operational, the scope of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was widened to include the entire nation. Although the majority of Kentucky's slaves had been emancipated, 65,000 to 100,000 people remained to be legally freed when the amendment went into effect on December 18. In Delaware, where a large number of escaped slaves had settled during the war, 900 people became legally free.

In addition to abolishing slavery and prohibiting involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, the Thirteenth Amendment also nullified the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Three-Fifths Compromise.

The Fourteenth Amendment


The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: The Fourteenth Amendment, depicted here, allowed for the incorporation of the First Amendment against the states.

The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted on July 9, 1868, was the second of three Reconstruction Amendments. The amendment provided the foundation for equal rights for all U.S. citizens, including African Americans, and a framework for their implementation in the former Confederate states.

The three main clauses of the amendment are the "Citizenship" clause, the "Due Process" clause, and the "Equal Protection" clause. The "Citizenship" clause overruled the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling that blacks could not be citizens of the United States. The "Due Process" clause prohibits state and local governments from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without certain steps being taken to ensure fairness. The "Equal Protection" clause requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction. This clause was the basis for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that led to the desegregation of U.S. schools.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 had previously granted U.S. citizenship to all persons born in the United States. The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment added this amendment to the Constitution for two reasons. First, to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to be unconstitutional for lack of congressional authority to enact such a law, and second, to prevent a future Congress from altering it by a mere majority vote. The amendment was also in response to the Black Codes that Southern states had passed in the wake of the abolishment of slavery. These Black Codes attempted to return former slaves to something like their former condition by, among other things, restricting their movement, forcing them to enter into year-long labor contracts, prohibiting them from owning firearms, and by preventing them from suing or testifying in court.

The Fifteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's, "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.

In the final years of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed, Congress repeatedly debated the rights of the millions of black former slaves. By 1869, amendments had been passed to abolish slavery and provide citizenship and equal protection under the laws, but the election of Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency in 1868 convinced a majority of Republicans that protecting the franchise of black voters was important for the party's future. After rejecting more sweeping versions of a suffrage amendment, Congress proposed a compromise amendment banning franchise restrictions on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude on February 26, 1869. The amendment survived a difficult ratification fight and was adopted on March 30, 1870.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the late nineteenth century interpreted the amendment narrowly. From 1890 to 1910, most black voters in the South were effectively disenfranchised by new state constitutions and state laws incorporating such obstacles as poll taxes and discriminatory literacy tests, from which white voters were exempted by grandfather clauses. A system of whites-only primaries and violent intimidation by white groups also suppressed black participation.

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