Reconstruction Era

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What were the phases of the Reconstruction Era?

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Reconstruction (1865–1877), which took place after the Civil War, was a long and difficult period in US history. The North and the South had just fought each other in the the country's bloodiest war, and there was a great deal of bitterness and vituperation. Slavery was finished, but the newly-freed blacks faced daunting challenges. Would they be able to own land, support themselves, and vote? The defeated South expected servile obedience from its former slaves. There were ardent defenders of emancipated blacks in the North: the Radical Republicans. How should the leaders of the South be treated? Should they be executed for treason or welcomed back as citizens with all their rights? There were no easy answers to these questions.

The first phase of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, was led by the presidents. Abraham Lincoln had capably led the North through the war, and he hoped to meld it back together. But his assassination ended his dream of national reconciliation. Vice President Andrew Johnson replaced him. Johnson was very lenient in his treatment of the South, so Radical Republicans challenged his leadership.

The fight between Johnson and the Radical Republicans led to the impeachment of the president in 1868. Johnson survived the impeachment vote in the Senate, but the presidency had lost the battle over Reconstruction. The Senate controlled the second phase of Reconstruction. Congressional Reconstruction Acts created military governors for the defeated South. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were passed to safeguards blacks' rights as citizens and voters.

A third "phase" of Reconstruction occurred in the 1870s. By that time, the nation had grown weary of the problems brought about by Reconstruction. The two leading Radical Republicans died by 1875. There was a corrupt bargain made to resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876, and the last troops from the North left the South.

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Reconstruction began even before the final end of hostilities during the Civil War. It was, in a sense, an attempt by the federal government to recreate the former Confederate states. Reconstruction can be divided into three distinct phases: Presidential Reconstruction under Lincoln, Presidential Reconstruction under Johnson, and Congressional or Radical Reconstruction.

In many ways, President Lincoln's Reconstruction plan began with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which legally freed most slaves. By the end of 1864, Lincoln had a well-defined plan in place for bringing the rebellious states back into the Union upon their military defeat. It is often referred to as the "Ten-Percent Plan," under which the former Confederate states would be readmitted once ten percent of their voters pledged loyalty to the Union. They could then draft their own state constitutions, as long as they outlawed slavery. However, this plan was effectively scuttled by the Radical Republicans in Congress. All the same, Lincoln did still sign the bill creating the Freedman's Bureau and lobbied heavily for the passage of the thirteenth amendment.

President Johnson's approach to Reconstruction was even more lenient than Lincoln's. He pardoned nearly every Confederate leader and restored most of their seized property. Johnson did not care so much about aiding the former slave population and was more concerned with helping the South return to much of its pre-war status quo. He opposed many of Congress's efforts to aid former slaves and turned a blind eye when Black Codes were established.

The final phase of Reconstruction is known as either Radical Reconstruction or Congressional Reconstruction. After they gained a significant amount of congressional seats in the election of 1866, Radical Republicans had enough power to take control of Reconstruction. Their mission was to take a hard line with the South. Using coercive and punitive means, this plan included such measures as military occupation of states that did not ratify the fourteenth amendment. There was also hard work done to help promote the newly-won rights of former slaves, many of whom became active in politics.

During the early 1870s, Reconstruction was winding down. Although it still had its vocal defenders, many Northerners were losing interest and thought of the whole matter as an expensive venture with no foreseeable end. Southerners were finding ways to re-establish white supremacy and persecute former slaves. As the Radical Republicans were losing support and President Grant proved to be ineffective, it became clear to many that Reconstruction was, in many ways, a failure. It came to a complete end with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the complete end of military occupation in the South.

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There were essentially two major phases of Reconstruction. The first is often called Presidential Reconstruction, and lasted until the midterm elections of 1866. The second, which lasted from 1867 to 1877, is known as Congressional, or Radical Reconstruction, though it should be noted that its effects had waned severely by the time Reconstruction was finally brought to an end. 

Presidential Reconstruction describes the approach of Andrew Johnson to Reconstruction. Johnson sought to eliminate only the most diehard Confederates from politics, believing that ordinary Southerners (as he himself had been) would control the postwar South. When this turned out not to be the case, and former Confederates were returned to political leadership, he did little about it. He warned against the "Africanization" of the South, opposing political rights for former slaves, and he vetoed legislation that proposed to expand the mandate of the Freedmens Bureau. He also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and looked the other way as Southern states imposed "black codes," which imposed harsh legal restrictions on African-Americans.

Congressional Reconstruction began when Republicans were swept into Congress in the elections of 1866. Led by a group known as "Radicals," they sought to establish legal, political, and social rights for African-Americans in the South, and to ensure the programs were implemented, they divided the South into military districts, occupied by small contingents of federal soldiers, with the Reconstruction Act of 1867. With federal protection for black voters, many African-Americans were voted into office, especially at the state levels. Despite these advances, no serious proposals were put forth to secure land for freed slaves, who were mostly forced by economic need to accept sharecropper or tenant arrangements on farmlands owned by whites. 

Over time, the Radicals lost momentum for reforms, and "redeemer" governments (i.e. white Democrats opposed to Reconstruction) took over state governments, often using violence and intimidation. The final five years of Reconstruction might, in fact, be thought of as a final phase, as whites reestablished white supremacy in almost every southern state. By the time the infamous compromise of 1877 was settled, Reconstruction was in many ways over in the South. 

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