Government and Politics


What was the Reconstruction?

The Reconstruction was the 12-year period (1865–77) of rebuilding that followed the Civil War. The last battle over, the South lay in ruins: Food and other supplies were scarce, people were homeless, city centers had been destroyed, schools were demolished, railways torn up, and government was nonexistent. Further, the nation had new citizens to enfranchise—and protect—the freed slaves. There was also the question of how to readmit each Southern state to the Union.

In short, the nation’s wounds needed to heal. But the long years of the Reconstruction brought only more divisiveness and quarrels. This time the battlefield was not Gettysburg or Chattanooga, but Washington, D.C. President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), a Southern Democrat and former slave owner, squared off with Congress, led by a radical Republican faction. The two branches of government fought over who should guide Reconstruction policy. Johnson favored a more tolerant and swifter approach to reuniting the nation, but his measures failed to protect the country’s black citizens. Congress proceeded more cautiously, setting up military administrators in the South as an interim form of government until readmission of the states could be effected. In the end, Congress won out by overriding President Johnson’s vetoes again and again.

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which took a first step toward enfranchising the black population by guaranteeing the legal rights of former slaves; the Reconstruction acts (1867), outlining how each Southern state would be readmitted to the Union; the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, which extended the life of the wartime agency in order to help Southern blacks and whites get back on their feet; and adopted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (the so-called Civil War amendments). Since the South was based on agriculture, the economy slowly recovered, eventually becoming more industrial. Public schools were established in each state. And the state governments became more open than they had been, with more offices up for election rather than appointment. In addition, blacks were guaranteed the vote—and the right to run for office.

But there was resistance to all these measures. And the post-Civil War recovery was not smooth. Many historians believe that the controversy that ensued in the years that followed the Confederate surrender at Appomattox (April 1865) laid the groundwork for segregation and other injustices that brought on the civil rights movement. Many also believe that the problems are still with the country today.


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