First Reconstruction Act of 1867 eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

African American menan elderly craftsman, a civilian, and a soldierwait in line to vote for the first time. The Library of Congress. African American men—an elderly craftsman, a civilian, and a soldier—wait in line to vote for the first time. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress
A 1868 political cartoon by Thomas Nast entitled This is a white mans government. The cartoon depicts three kinds of white votersan Irishman, a Southerner, and a Northern businessmanjoining together over a fallen African American soldier. The L A 1868 political cartoon by Thomas Nast entitled "This is a white man's government." The cartoon depicts three kinds of white voters—an Irishman, a Southerner, and a Northern businessman—joining together over a fallen African American soldier. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress

Enacted by U.S. Congress, March 2, 1867

Reprinted on About Texas: Texas State Library and Archives Commission (Web site)

Congress devises a plan for remaking Southern society

"No legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exists in the rebel States.…"

Two horse-drawn carriages—one driven by a white man, the other by an African American man—collided May 1, 1866, on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, a city that swelled with African American refugees and racial tensions after the American Civil War (1861–65). Police arrested the African American driver, and a nearby group of African American war veterans stepped in to ask what was happening. The scene attracted a crowd of white men, many of them resentful of the African Americans who were making a good living in the city or were wandering the streets of Memphis looking for work. Tempers began to flare. Shoves turned into punches, touching off one of the bloodiest riots of the post-war era, as noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. By the end of the three-day Memphis riots, at least forty-six African Americans were dead, five African American women had been raped, and "hundreds of black dwellings, churches, and schools were pillaged or destroyed by fire."

A second round of riots broke out in New Orleans on July 30, 1866, outside a convention that had been called to add voting rights for African American men to the Louisiana state constitution. White mobs—including some police officers—attacked any African American person in sight, firing shots at African Americans even as they fled or waved white flags of surrender, as reported in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. The riot left thirty-four African Americans dead and more than a hundred injured. Union general Philip H. Sheridan (1831–1888) described the scene as "an absolute massacre."

News accounts of these riots and other attacks convinced many Northerners that President Andrew Johnson's (1808–1875; served 1865–69) plan for rebuilding the South was not working. In many Southern towns, such as New Orleans, voters elected ex-Confederate leaders as mayors and other officials. Not only did the police officers fail to protect African Americans under attack, but many of them joined in the riots. It was clear to African American abolitionist (slavery opponent) Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) that the South had replaced slavery with mob violence and discriminatory laws against African Americans. The result was the same: Whites were still able to control and, in some cases, terrorize African Americans.

Douglass wrote a passionate essay, published in January 1867 in the Atlantic Monthly, asking Congress to give African American men the right to vote. "There is something immeasurably mean, to say nothing of the cruelty, in placing the loyal negroes of the South under the political power of their Rebel masters," Douglass wrote, after listing the contributions of African American soldiers and informants who helped Northern troops win the Civil War. Congress "must cease to recognize the old slave-masters as the only competent persons to rule the South," Douglass added.

For months, Congress had been debating the question of how to bring the former Confederate states back into the Union (see Chapter 7). Many Southerners (including President Johnson, a Tennesseean) believed the states should immediately return to their place in the country before the war. But many Northerners rejected a Reconstruction plan that left the South unchanged, as if the Civil War had never happened. When the South sent its new representatives and senators (many of them former Confederate leaders) to Washington, D.C., in December 1865, Congress refused to seat those members until it drafted a plan for reforming and readmitting the Southern states.

Congress formed a Joint Committee on Reconstruction that interviewed more than a hundred witnesses on the political climate of the South. The committee concluded that Congress should guard against future Southern rebellions by imposing certain conditions on the ex-Confederate states before bringing them back into the Union. The Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction reads, in part:

Whether legally and constitutionally or not, they did, in fact, withdraw from the Union and made themselves subjects to another government of their own creation. And they only yielded [stopped] when they were compelled [forced] by utter exhaustion to lay down their arms [weapons] … expressing no regret, except that they had no longer the power to continue the desperate struggle.

On March 2, 1867, Congress approved the first Reconstruction Act. It divided the South into five military districts, each one headed by a Union general. Each state was required to draft a new state constitution at a convention open to African American and white delegates alike (except high-ranking ex-Confederate officials). African American and white men alike would get to vote on it. The states would also have to approve the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a measure ensuring citizenship and equal rights for African Americans (see Chapter 9). Then they could be readmitted to the Union. (Tennessee was exempt from this entire process, as it had been readmitted in 1866 after approving the Fourteenth Amendment.)

The terms angered many Southern whites. Congress was forcing them to scrap their old governments, give African American men the vote, and allow ex-slaves to hold state office even though some ex-Confederates could not. The act also raised numerous questions for those Southerners, as noted in The Civil War and Reconstruction. "Of itself the reconstruction act accomplished nothing except to create puzzlement, confusion, and resentment in the South." It did not explain how the constitutional conventions would be run, or which ex-Confederates would be barred from the process, or whether they could get a pardon to hold office.

Things to remember while reading the first Reconstruction Act:

  • The bloody, racial riots in Memphis and New Orleans, along with other reports of attacks on Southern African Americans, led many to conclude that Johnson's plan for rebuilding the South was not working. Under the president's plan, former Confederate officials were returning to power, whites were passing discriminatory laws, and African Americans were powerless without the vote. Above all, African Americans were not safe in many parts of the South, where white police officers often took part in the riots instead of stopping them.
  • Abolitionists such as Douglass said African Americans would remain oppressed by their former masters unless they could vote, shape laws, and run for elected office.
  • The process of bringing the former Confederate states back into the Union prompted a major debate. Southerners believed they should resume their former place in the country and send their congressmen back to Washington, D.C. But many Northerners wanted to reshape the South—take ex-Confederate leaders out of power, give African Americans a greater say in government—before letting the states return to the Union.

WHEREAS no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exists in the rebel States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas; and whereas it is necessary that peace and good order should be enforced in said States until loyal and republican State governments can be legally established: Therefore,

Be it enacted, That said rebel States shall be divided into military districts and made subject to the military authority of the United States as hereinafter prescribed, and for that purpose Virginia shall constitute the first district; North Carolina and South Carolina the second district; Georgia, Alabama, and Florida the third district; Mississippi and Arkansas the fourth district; and Louisiana and Texas the fifth district.

SEC. 2. That it shall be the duty of the President to assign to the command of each of said districts an officer of the army, not below the rank of brigadier-general, and to detail a sufficient military force to enable such officer to perform his duties and enforce his authority within the district to which he is assigned.

SEC. 3. That it shall be the duty of each officer assigned as aforesaid, to protect all persons in their rights of persons and property, to suppress insurrection, disorder, and violence, and to punish, or cause to be punished, all disturbers of the public peace and criminals; and to this end he may allow local civil tribunals to take jurisdiction of and to try offenders, or, when in his judgment it may be necessary for the trial of offenders, he shall have power to organize military commissions or tribunals for that purpose, and all interference under color of State authority with the exercise of military authority under this act, shall be null and void.

SEC. 4. That all persons put under military arrest by virtue of this act shall be tried

The May 26, 1866, issue of Harpers Weekly shows scenes of the riots in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 2, 1866. At top is the burning of a Freedmens schoolhouse; below is the shooting of African Americans. The Library of Congress. The May 26, 1866, issue of Harper's Weekly shows scenes of the riots in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 2, 1866. At top is the burning of a Freedmen's schoolhouse; below is the shooting of African Americans. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress
without unnecessary delay, and no cruel or unusual punishment shall be inflicted, and no sentence of any military commission or tribunal hereby authorized, affecting the life or liberty of any person, shall be executed until it is approved by the officer in command of the district, and the laws and regulations for the government of the army shall not be affected by this act, except in so far as they conflict with its provisions: Provided, That no sentence of death under the provisions of this act shall be carried into effect without the approval of the President.

SEC. 5. That when the people of any one of said rebel States shall have formed a constitution of government in conformity with the Constitution of the United States in all respects, framed by a convention of delegates elected by the male citizens of said State, twenty-one years old and upward, of whatever race, color, or previous condition, who have been resident in said State for one year previous to the day of such election, except such as may be disfranchised for participation in the rebellion or for felony at common law, and when such constitution shall provide that the elective franchise shall be enjoyed by all such persons as have the qualifications herein stated for electors of delegates, and when such constitution shall be ratified by a majority of the persons voting on the question of ratification who are qualified as electors for delegates, and when such constitution shall have been submitted to Congress for examination and approval, and Congress shall have approved the same, and when said State, by a vote of its legislature elected under said constitution, shall have adopted the amendment to the Constitution of the United States, proposed by the Thirty-ninth Congress, and known as article fourteen, and when said article shall have become a part of the Constitution of the United States said State shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress, and senators and representatives shall be admitted there from on their taking the oath prescribed by law, and then and thereafter the preceding sections of this act shall be inoperative in said State: Provided, That no person excluded from the privilege of holding office by said proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States, shall be eligible to election as a member of the convention to frame a constitution for any of said rebel States, nor shall any such person vote for members of such convention.

SEC. 6. That, until the people of said rebel States shall be by law admitted to representation in the Congress of the United States, any civil governments which may exist therein shall be deemed provisional only, and in all respects subject to the paramount authority of the United States at any time to abolish, modify, control, or supersede the same; and in all elections to any office under such provisional governments all persons shall be entitled to vote, and none others, who are entitled to vote, under the provisions of the fifth section of this act; and no persons shall be eligible to any office under any such provisional governments who would be disqualified from holding office under the provisions of the third article of said constitutional amendment.

What happened next …

Johnson vetoed the bill, describing it as "utterly [totally] destructive to those great principles of liberty and humanity for which our ancestors … have shed so much blood and expended [spent] so much treasure [money]." He said the bill replaced the laws of the South with the will of a military ruler: "Everything is a crime which he chooses to call so," Johnson said in the veto message, "and all persons are condemned whom he pronounces guilty." He also objected that the bill placed all people of the South under "the most abject [bleak] and degrading slavery," by forcing African Americans and whites alike to vote a certain way in order to rejoin the Union. Johnson concluded:

The military rule which it [the bill] establishes is plainly to be used, not for any purpose of order or for the prevention of crime, but solely as a means of coercing [forcing] the people into the adoption of principles and measures to which it is known that they are opposed, and upon which they have an undeniable right to exercise their own judgment.

Congress gathered the two-thirds majority necessary to overturn the veto and make the measure law. A couple of weeks later, on March 23, 1867, Congress told the Union generals to start gathering the votes to call a constitutional convention in each state. When Johnson's attorney general, Henry Stanbery (1803–1881), raised questions about the generals' powers under the first Reconstruction Act, Congress passed another act in July 1867 that reinforced the generals' authority over the state governments, giving them power to remove state officials from their posts. When a majority of Alabama voters defeated their state constitution by refusing to cast their ballots, Congress passed another Reconstruction measure in March 1868, allowing state constitutions to be approved by a majority of the people who actually vote, not by a majority of all registered voters.

The disqualification of high-ranking ex-Confederates, and the addition of African American voters, meant that former slaves outnumbered whites at the ballot box. According to Reconstruction: After the Civil War, among the 10 Southern states covered by the Reconstruction acts, about 703,400 registered voters were African American and about 660,000 were white. Many of these new African American voters lacked political experience or even the ability to read, but they were determined to learn and participate. Former South Carolina slave Beverly Nash summed up the desire of many: "We may not understand it at the start, but in time we shall learn to do our duty." Many joined political clubs and attended political meetings. In fact, as noted in The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida, "Negroes became so interested in politics that crops were neglected." The Freedmen's Bureau told the men to never "lose an hour from their labor to attend a political meeting," as their friends could always fill them in later.

Some whites reacted violently to the entry of African Americans into local politics, particularly in areas where African American voters became the majority. A group of African American men in Calhoun, Georgia, wrote a letter in August 1867 asking for military protection in their town as the fall elections approached. Their letter, reprinted in Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans, described the racial violence in their community:

There has been houses broken open, windows smashed and doors broken down in the dead hours of the night, men rushing in, cursing and swearing and discharging [firing] their Pistols inside the house. Men have been knocked down and unmercifully beaten and yet the authorities [local police] do not notice at all. We would open a school here, but are almost afraid to do so, not knowing that we have any protection for life or limb.

Did you know …

  • Two months after the war ended, Johnson privately suggested that Mississippi governor William Sharkey (1798–1873) give voting rights to African Americans "who can read the Constitution of the United States in English and write their names" and to those who own property worth at least $250. The president believed this would prevent Congress from pushing for voting rights for all African American men, and the Southern states would have to be readmitted. But Sharkey ignored the advice.
  • Johnson later tried to weaken Congress's Reconstruction plan by replacing the generals in a couple of Southern military districts. He named new commanders who were less interested in interfering with local officials who were mistreating African Americans.
  • In many Southern communities before the Civil War, it was a crime to teach a slave how to read. Some whites used that as an argument after the war to deny African Americans the vote: After all, they argued, most African Americans did not know how to read.

Consider the following …

  • What was the significance of the 1866 riots in Memphis and New Orleans?
  • Do you think it was a good idea to put Union troops back in the South after the Civil War?
  • How would the Reconstruction governments differ from the Southern state governments before the war?

For More Information

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Randall, J. G., and David H. Donald. The Civil War and Reconstruction. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Co., 1961.

"The Reconstruction Acts: 1867." About Texas: Texas State Library and Archives Commission. (accessed on September 20, 2004).

Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction of the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1866.

Richardson, Joe M. The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida, 1865–1877. Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1965.

Sterling, Dorothy, ed. The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.