Reconstruction Acts (Major Acts of Congress)
Daniel W. Hamilton
Well before the Civil War was over, even before a Union victory appeared imminent, politicians in the Union debated how to treat the defeated South after the war. Abraham Lincoln's dream of a ninety-day war dissolved into years of terrible bloodshed and total war. With every major battle and every passing year, a quick return to peace and a restoration of political ties between the North and the South became increasingly improbable, and for many northerners, undesirable. While leading Democrats wanted to restore the Union as it had been before the war, powerful voices within the Republican Party argued that not only must the rebellion be put down, the South itself must be fundamentally refashioned, or reconstructed. Republicans, especially those in the party's radical wing, argued that the leaders of the Confederacy must be forever kept out of political power in the states and the federal government. Southern states, they
A great debate over reconstruction was underway. In response to those calling for fundamental change, President Lincoln offered a much milder program. Lincoln, who was very much involved in strategic decisions and day-to-day battle plans, was pained by the relentless bloodshed and became a forceful advocate for the quick resumption of political reunion without political upheaval. On December 8, 1863, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction and outlined his reconstruction program in his message to Congress. Lincoln offered a general amnesty to all southern whites, excluding certain high-ranking officials, who took an oath pledging loyalty to the United States and to support the Emancipation Proclamation and laws passed by the Congress that concerned slavery. Lincoln did not demand immediate, universal emancipation within a state as a condition for readmission, but instead provided that slaves freed during the war could not be enslaved again. Once 10 percent of the number of voters in the 1860 election had taken the oath, a state could establish a new government. Confederate political, judicial, and military officers could apply for individual pardons. Lincoln's reconstruction policy was part of his military strategy and he hoped that a lenient reconstruction program, adopted during the war, would prompt southern whites to reject the Confederacy.
As some southern states bean to reorganize according to Lincoln's plan, congressional opposition to the plan's leniency emerged. Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Henry Winter Davis in the House rejected Lincoln's plan and replaced it with a program detailed in a new bill. The Wade-Davis bill put the Confederate states under a military governor, and required a majority of a state's 1860 voters to pledge loyalty to the United States before they could form a new state government. The "iron clad oath" of the Wade-Davis bill was considerably more stringent than the one provided for by Lincoln. It was to be offered only to those who swore they had never voluntarily supported the Confederacy. The Wade-Davis bill required also that slavery be abolished in reconstructed states and barred Confederate officials from holding office. The bill drew widespread Radical Republican support and passed on July 2, 1863, a few days before adjournment. Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill by refusing to sign it after Congress adjourned.
Lincoln's pocket veto enraged the Congress, and Wade and Davis soon responded with a blistering Manifesto in August 1864, asserting that reconstruction policy was entirely within the authority of Congress. The fight over the Wade-Davis bill was the first battle in a decade-long war between Congress and the president over control of reconstruction. Reconstruction legislation, the central piece of the most dramatic and significant dispute between Congress and the president in American history, led to the near-removal of a president from office and plunged the South into political chaos.
This power struggle intensified with the assassination of Lincoln and the succession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency in April 1865. Johnson, a southerner from Tennessee, hated intensely the powerful planter aristocracy that, in his mind, had duped southern yeoman into war. Johnson rejected calls for reconstruction and soon declared his own plan of "restoration." He
Events in the South dramatically affected debates over reconstruction. With the end of the war in April 1865, former Confederate states began to tightly restrict the freedoms afforded the millions of freed slaves. Several states soon passed "Black Codes," prohibiting blacks from, among other things, serving on juries, testifying against whites, or owning guns. The codes also created oppressive vagrancy laws that subjected those without work to arrest and prison. In 1865 the Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee as a secret society designed to terrorize blacks.
For many Republicans in Congress, the passage of the Black Codes and the reemergence of ex-Confederate leaders meant that the Union victory was being undermined. In December 1865 the thirty-ninth Congress convened for the first time after Lincoln's death. By that time, all of the Confederate states except Mississippi had met Johnson's requirements for readmission. In the House, Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens successfully prevented recognition of the southern representatives during the roll call, effectively denying them admittance.
Republicans in the House and Senate created a Joint Committee on Reconstruction, consisting of nine representatives and six senators. Soon, Congress began to pass powerful new legislation directing the course of reconstruction, including the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, both designed to protect the rights and improve the conditions of blacks in the South. Johnson vetoed both measures, but Congress overrode both vetoes and the bills became law. Most importantly, in June 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, explicitly granting blacks state and federal citizenship, prohibiting any state from depriving "any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law" and further prohibiting states from denying any person "the equal protection of the laws." In the election of 1866 Republicans campaigned largely on their support of the new amendment and increased their majority in Congress, forming anti-Johnson majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Congress soon took a decisive lead in directing the course of reconstruction. On March 2, 1867, on the last day of the session, Congress overrode Johnson's veto and passed the first of four Military Reconstruction Acts. The first act invalidated, but did not immediately disperse, the governments established under Johnson's plan. The ten Confederate states (all but Tennessee) that had refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment were divided into five military districts. Each military district was put under the direction of a military governor authorized to appoint and remove state officials. Voters were registered, and suffrage was extended to freedmen. State constitutional conventions were called, and elected delegates were charged with drafting new constitutional provisions providing for black suffrage. Finally, states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before readmission.
Congress passed the second Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto in March 1867, directing military commanders to register voters, call conventions, and organize elections, rather than wait for state officials to act. In the face of recalcitrance from Johnson's executive branch and white southerners attempting to subvert the law, Congress in July 1867 passed a third Reconstruction Act, declaring the existing state governments in the South illegal and subject to military control and the U.S. Congress. In an attempt to delay the creation of new state governments, some southern whites turned to a provision of the first Reconstruction Act requiring that a majority of registered voters was necessary to ratify a new constitution and called for a boycott of the ratifying election. On March 11, 1868, Congress passed a fourth and final Reconstruction Act that allowed a majority of those voting to ratify a new constitution, regardless of the size of the turnout. President Johnson, as commander in chief, worked to delay and obstruct the army from enforcing these laws. Conflicts over the direction of reconstruction reached the boiling point in the spring of 1868, when the House of Representatives impeached Johnson. On May 26, 1868, the president escaped conviction by the Senate and removal from office by a single vote.
These acts have evoked intense scholarly controversy. To some important early historians of Reconstruction, they were emblematic of the Republican Party, captured by a radical wing, bent on taking vengeance against the South. More recent works take the opposite position, that these acts did not go nearly far enoughhat their passage and implementation showed a Congress that ultimately abandoned any long-term, meaningful protection of freed slaves in the South. Still others argue that the Reconstruction Acts were the product of compromise within the Republican Party, reflecting the dominance of neither radicals nor conservatives, but all factions of the Republican Congress. Republicans, in this interpretation, seized control of reconstruction only after collaboration with President Johnson became impossible.
Reconstruction continues to be controversial because it remains, in the words of Eric Foner, "America's unfinished revolution." In both the North and South, reconstruction ended not with racial equality, but rather with decades of discriminationnly haltingly reversed by the modern Civil Rights movement.
See also: CIVIL RIGHTS ACTS OF 1866, 1871; FORCE ACT OF 1871; FREEDMEN'S BUREAU ACT.
Benedict, Michael Les. A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction. New York: Olympic Marketing Corporation, 1975.
Donald, David H., et al. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863877. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Gienapp, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2002.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Reprint, New York: Ballentine Books, 1989.