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The term Reconstruction refers to the efforts made in the United States between 1865 and 1877 to restructure the political, legal, and economic systems in the states that had seceded from the Union. The U.S. Civil War (1861–65) ended Slavery, but it left unanswered how the 11 Southern states would conduct their internal affairs after readmission to the Union. Though some legal protections for newly freed slaves were incorporated into the Constitution by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, by 1877, conservative Southern whites had reclaimed power and had begun to disenfranchise blacks.

Abraham Lincoln took the first steps toward Reconstruction in 1863 when he announced a post-war plan for the Southern states. Under these terms, a state would have to renounce slavery and agree to comply with the Constitution. The states of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee agreed to these conditions and asked that its senators and representatives be readmitted to Congress. Radical Republicans in Congress objected to this plan, contending that it would do nothing to change the Southern social system. They introduced a tougher bill that Lincoln vetoed, which left the state of Reconstruction uncertain at the time of Lincoln's assassination. The Freedmen's Bureau was established as a social welfare agency for the newly freed slaves, but little else was agreed upon. Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson, came from Tennessee. As governor, he had championed his state's readmission to the Union under Lincoln's terms. As president, he revealed a hostility to the use of federal power to change the Southern way of life, in part because he wanted to rebuild the Democratic Party and ensure his election in 1868.

Radical Republicans became incensed when Johnson issued a general pardon for most Confederates and then issued proclamations that permitted the Southern states to rejoin the Union after holding a constitutional convention and agreeing to three conditions: repeal of the secession laws, repudiation of the Confederate debt, and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States. However, Johnson did not require the states to permit blacks to vote. In 1866, Southern whites took back the reins of government and proceeded to pass Black Codes, which restricted the freedoms of the newly freed slaves. Racial Segregation was established, blacks were barred from serving on juries and as appearing as witnesses, and unemployed blacks were arrested and then auctioned off to employers to pay their fines.

In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended due process and Equal Protection rights to all persons and barred states from violating these rights. Over time, this amendment would be used to apply most of the Bill of Rights to the states, but, during the Reconstruction period, it was used as the basis of additional statutes that imposed federal control over the Southern states. In 1867, the Radical Republicans passed the First Reconstruction Act; three other acts would later be passed by Congress to further define the scope of Reconstruction. These acts abolished the Southern government that Johnson had authorized, placed the South back under military control, announced new state constitutional conventions, mandated that blacks be allowed to vote, and prevented former Confederate leaders from serving as public officials. By mid-1868, Congress readmitted representatives from six states, and then the remainder complied with the act's terms and were readmitted in 1870.

With these new constitutions in place, state and local elections took place. Though some blacks were elected to public office, most officeholders were white. However, most Southern whites opposed these governments and the idea of black equality. This prevalent attitude led to Vigilantism and Terrorism by various groups, including the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). These groups used terror to discourage blacks from asserting their political rights and frighten whites who collaborated with the new governments. Congress sought unsuccessfully to impeach President Johnson, but Radical Republicans assumed conditions would improve with the election of General ulysses s. grant to the presidency in 1868.

Grant disappointed supporters of Reconstruction over the ensuing eight years. Though Congress passed and the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, it had very little impact in the South. The amendment prohibited voting discrimination based on race, but blacks were intimidated by the KKK and local employers and stayed away from the polls. Congress proceeded to pass three Force Acts in 1870 and 1871, wide-ranging criminal and civil laws that sought to curb vigilantism. Several parts of these Force Acts remain in effect, including the Civil Rights tort law 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1983. These laws had some effect, but they required federal officers to enforce them. The desire of Northerners to continue this work had begun to ebb, and, by the end of Grant's term in 1877, it became apparent that federal efforts were grinding to a halt.

The 1876 presidential race between Republican rutherford b. hayes and Democrat samuel tilden ended in an Electoral College deadlock due to disputed electors from Florida and Oregon. To avoid a constitutional crisis, a commission was appointed to review the contested states and decide on a winner. In the end, the Democrats allowed Hayes to be declared the winner in exchange for a promise that Hayes would withdraw all federal troops and give Democrats a portion of the patronage rights to federal jobs.

The withdrawal of the troops symbolized the end of Reconstruction, but an earlier Supreme Court case had made clear that the legal system would resist a broad reading of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the slaughterhouse cases, 83 U.S. 36, 21 L.Ed. 394 (1873), the Supreme Court read the amendment's privileges and immunities clause virtually out of the Constitution. The Court effectively closed the door on the concept of privileges and immunities as an enforcement tool against state laws that restricted individual civil rights. On a 5–4 vote, the Court interpreted the clause as protecting only rights of national citizenship from the actions of the state government. This restrictive reading robbed the Privileges and Immunities Clause of any constitutional significance.

Conservative white Democrats reasserted their authority in 1877 and began to disenfranchise blacks again. They enacted "Jim Crow" segregation laws that directly challenged the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court removed the last impediment to these efforts in the civil rights cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S.Ct. 18, 27 L.Ed. 835 (1883). The Court invalidated the civil rights act of 1875, the last piece of Reconstruction legislation. This act proclaimed "the equality of all men before the law," and promised to "mete out equal and exact justice" to persons of every "race, color, or persuasion" in public or private accommodations. The law sought to prohibit racial segregation of trains, trolleys, theaters, hotels, restaurants, and other places that are open to the public. The Supreme Court struck down the act, finding that the Fourteenth Amendment only prohibited official, state-sponsored discrimination. The Fourteenth Amendment could not reach discrimination practiced by privately owned places of public accommodation. This Fourteenth Amendment "state action" requirement remains a central tenet of modern civil rights law. The Court's holding meant that racial segregation could be imposed by private businesses. More troubling was the Court's belief, less than 20 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, that the time for concerns about equal treatment for blacks was over. The Court stated that blacks should no longer be "special favorite[s] of the law."

Reconstruction has come to be regarded as a missed opportunity for U.S. society. Many of the issues that concerned political leaders of that period returned a hundred years later in the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Fourteenth Amendment would be revivified by the Supreme Court, and surviving parts of the Force Acts would be used again.

Further readings

Collier, Christopher. 2000. Reconstruction and the Rise of Jim Crow, 1864–1896. New York: Benchmark Books.

Foner, Eric. 2002. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Perennial.

Peacock, Judith. 2003. Reconstruction: Rebuilding after the Civil War. Mankato, Minn.: Bridgestone Books.


Civil Rights Acts; Discrimination; Jim Crow Laws; Racial and Ethnic Discrimination.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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