Reconstruction: An Unfinished Revolution, 1865-1877


                      Charles Sumner                     Andrew Johnson                 Thadeus Stevens

Reconstruction refers to the process by which the nation was rebuilt after the destruction caused by the Civil War. This rebuilding was social, political, and economic. Since there were no guidelines as to how it would be accomplished, questions and disagreements arose. Given such disagreements, as well as the emotional aftermath of four years of war and the force of individual personalities, Reconstruction proceeded by trial and error.

As early as 1863, some two years before the end of the war, a debate began between the President and Congress over key questions relating to Reconstruction. In this debate, and in the Reconstruction proposals put forward by President Lincoln and Congress, it was apparent that the two disagreed over the scope and objectives of the Reconstruction process. Despite these disagreements, in early 1865 Congress and the President were able to work together to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and to create the Freedmen's Bureau.

At war's end and as the power struggle between the executive and legislative branches over control of the Reconstruction process became more pronounced, freed men and women renewed their determination to struggle for survival and true equality within American society. On one level they placed faith in education and participation in the political process as means of attaining equality, but they also turned to family and religion for strength and support. Denied the possibility of owning land, they sought economic independence through new economic arrangements such as sharecropping. However, sharecropping ultimately proved to be a disaster for all concerned.

When Congress reconvened in December 1865, it was faced with a Reconstruction policy advanced by President Johnson that not only allowed former Confederate leaders to regain power at the state and national levels, but obviously abandoned the freedmen to hostile southern whites. Northern congressmen and the constituents they represented were unwilling to accept this outcome of the long, bitter struggle against a rebellious South. Believing that it had a constitutional right to play a role in the Reconstruction process, Congress acted. This action led to clashes with an intransigent President Johnson and to the passage of two congressional Reconstruction plans.

The first of these plans, the Fourteenth Amendment, evolved when the wrangling between President Johnson and Congress produced compromises among the conservative, moderate, and radical factions of the Republican Party. Although Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over the president's veto, there was concern that the Supreme Court would declare the basic provisions of the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional. Therefore, those provisions were incorporated into a constitutional amendment that was presented to the states for ratification in April 1866. The Fourteenth Amendment demonstrated that Congress wanted to guarantee equality under the law to the freedmen, but its provisions make it clear that the moderate and conservative Republicans who controlled Congress were not willing to accept the more progressive concept of equality advanced by the Radical Republicans.

When, at the urging of the president, every former Confederate state except Tennessee refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress passed its second Reconstruction plan the Reconstruction Acts of 1867-1868. Although these acts demonstrated some movement in the Radical direction by extending to blacks the right to vote in state elections, congressmen were still limited by the prejudices of the age. They labeled as extremist the suggestion that southern land be redistributed and so rejected the idea of giving blacks economic independence. They naively assumed that blacks would need only the ballot in their fight for a better life.

The same kinds of limitations worked within Reconstruction governments, preventing fundamental reform of southern society. Concurrently, southern Republicans adopted a policy that returned voting rights to former Confederates. These former Confederates, or Conservatives, ultimately led a campaign designed to return political and economic power to their hands by discrediting the Reconstruction governments. Adopting tactics ranging from racist charges and intimidation to organized violence, the Conservatives were able to achieve their objectives, as events in Alamance and Caswell counties in North Carolina demonstrated.

These setbacks indicated that northern commitment to equality had never been total. The federal government even began to retreat from partial commitment a retreat made obvious by the policies of President Grant, the gradual erosion of congressional resolve on Reconstruction issues, the conservative decisions of the Supreme Court, and the emergence of other issues that captured the minds of white Americans. Finally, with the resolution of the disputed Hayes-Tilden election in 1876, Reconstruction ended. The promise of equality for African Americans remained unfulfilled.

Reconstruction; 1865-1877

1863 Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln announces his Ten-Percent Plan for Reconstruction.

1864 Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana establish governments.

1865 Freedmen's Bureau created. Thirteenth Amendment ratified.
Lincoln's assassination. Andrew Johnson launches presidential Reconstruction.

1865-66 Southern states institute Black Codes.

1866 Congress passes Civil Rights Bill over Johnson's veto. Ku Klux Klan founded. Congress approves the Fourteenth Amendment. Tennessee readmitted to Congress. Republicans sweep midterm congressional elections.

1867 Congressional Reconstruction begins with the Military Reconstruction Act. Congress passes Tenure of Office Act. Thaddeus Stevens's land reform proposal defeated.

1867-68 Southern states hold constitutional conventions.

1868 Fourteenth Amendment ratified. House impeaches President Johnson; Senate acquits him. Seven more southern states readmitted to Congress. Ulysses S. Grant elected president.

1869 Congress approves the Fifteenth Amendment. Transcontinental railroad completed. Democratic Redeemers begin to win power in the South.

1870 Fifteenth Amendment ratified. Last three southern states readmitted to Congress.

1870-71 Congress passes the Enforcement Acts.

1872 Credit Mobilier scandal exposed.

1873 Panic of 1873 launches economic depression. Supreme Court decides Slaughterhouse Cases.

1874 Democrats win control of House for first time since 1856.

1875 Civil Rights Act passed. Mississippi Redeemers institute the "Mississippi Plan."

1876 Disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election produces political crisis.

1877 Compromise of 1877 leads to inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes.
President Hayes withdraws all federal troops from the South.
Last remaining Republican governments in the South fall.

American Diversity: Reconstruction laid the foundations for a revolutionary change in the relationships of blacks and whites in America. It opened the door for black culture to be preserved and increasingly accepted in American life during the twentieth century.

Economic Transformations: Two major economic transformations are explored in this chapter. The first is the abolition of slavery and its replacement, albeit imperfect, by a system of "free" labor in the South. The second is the rise of the "New South," which promoted the growth of industrial values and production.

Politics and Citizenship: In the aftermath of civil war, the nation assumed the authority to define citizenship, and for a brief period created the most equal society in terms of race that America has ever enjoyed until very recently.

Slavery and Its Legacies in North America: The social effects of slavery were evident in the Reconstruction South. Assumptions of black inferiority, or white superiority, permeated the culture. Because of this unchallenged tenet, justice, despite the Reconstruction amendments, was denied the freedman.

Digital History


The twelve years following the Civil War carried vast consequences for the nation's future. Reconstruction helped set the pattern for future race relations and defined the federal government's role in promoting racial equality. This section describes Presidents Lincoln's and Johnson's plans to readmit the Confederate states to the Union as well as the more stringent Congressional plan; it also describes the power struggle between President Andrew Johnson and Congress, including the vote over the president's impeachment. This section also identifies the groups that ruled the southern state governments from 1866 to 1877 and explains why Reconstruction ended in 1877.

Biography of America

Reconstruction (series 12)
Professor Miller begins the program by evoking in word and picture the battlefield after the battle of Gettysburg. With the assassination of President Lincoln, one sad chapter of American history comes to a close. In the fatigue and cynicism of the Civil War's aftermath, Reconstruction becomes a promise unfulfilled.

America at its Centennial (series 13)
As America celebrates its centennial, 5 million people descend on Philadelphia to celebrate America's technological achievements, but some of the early principles of the Republic remain unrealized. Professor Miller and his team of historians examine where America is in 1876 and discuss the question of race.

Lecture Outlines

Reconstruction 1865-1877


Civil War and Reconstruction 1861-1877 

Economic Impact of the Civil War


Student Assignments 

Reconstruction ws 

13th, 14th, 15th amendments ws