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American History II


Reconstructing the Nation

            The Civil War effectively ended when first General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and then, ten days later, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered near Durham, North Carolina, in April of 1865.  At that time, the government of the United States had not yet articulated a plan for how to deal with the problems that the peace would bring, and the war ended without a treaty to spell out the terms of what each side would do in the future.  Throughout the four years of the war, there had been disagreement about the goals of the war itself.  While many believed from the beginning that freeing the slaves was a primary goal, Lincoln and the government had refused to acknowledge that as a goal until after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. Preserving the Union was a generally acknowledged goal. Settling some outstanding issues about the rights of states, the strict or loose construction of the Constitution, and the role of government in economic policies were also goals of at least some participants. The absence of an agreed upon set of goals for the war, a peace treaty, or an agreed upon plan for dealing with the peace would prove to be extremely problematic. What exactly did victory (or defeat, for that matter) mean?  How was the "victory," which had been won only because of a huge investment of human life and national resources, to be institutionalized and made a part of the fabric of the nation?  Who had the constitutional authority to act to implement any plans for Reconstruction?

            To some in both the North and the South, the most important objective of the immediate post-war period was reunification, setting both North and South on a common path toward the future of one nation.  Immediately after the war, this group included most Northern Democrats and a rather large number of southerners, including many of those who had been leaders of the Confederacy.  For these people, the war had settled certain issues that had divided the nation into sections and the necessary task was to get on with the nation's business; many seemed to adopt attitudes similar to those Henry Clay had held while trying to get the nation to accept his "American plan."  This group advocated a broad general amnesty covering almost all of those who had participated in the rebellion, immediate elections in which all white men who professed allegiance to the Constitution could vote and hold office, and allowing the southern states to formulate plans for how to deal with rebuilding their economies and how to deal with the issues that arose out of emancipation.  While appealing to most people in the South and many Northern Democrats, this plan was widely opposed by virtually all Republicans, most Northern churches, and most of the Northern press.  To them, such proposals were tantamount to disloyalty to the union.

            To many in the North, including Presidents Lincoln and Johnson and many moderate Republicans, the most important goal for the peace was the restoration of the proper relationship between the rebellious states and the national government. For that reason, both presidents advanced plans that required relatively little from the people of the South: a relatively small number of persons swearing allegiance to the Constitution; accepting the Emancipation Proclamation and laws abolishing slavery or, after it was passed by Congress, ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment which freed the slaves; and the election of new governments with officials who had taken the oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Lincoln was more willing than Johnson to support measures to try to meet some of the needs of the newly freed blacks; Johnson was willing to go much further than Lincoln was in making sure that the old ruling elite of the South was not returned to power in the new governments.

            Many Northerners, however, believed that such requirements and the presidents were willing to impose were minimal and would ultimately give away the victory won on the battlefield. They believed that these rather minimal requirements would simply allow the South to return to business as usual ruled by the same elite and exploiting freed but otherwise penniless and homeless blacks as usual. Thus, the Radicals both in and out of Congress who believed that the most important goal for the peace was the reconstruction of Southern society in such a way as to create a place and roles for newly freed blacks and their descendants, to reshape permanently the relationships between blacks and whites, to eradicate permanently the basis for the political ideologies that had become known as "states rights," and to redefine the balance between agriculture and industry in the economy of the South.

            The plans advanced by Northern Democrats were dismissed out of hand by the Republican dominated North; Southern Democrats were mostly disenfranchised as a result of their participation in the rebellion.  Between those who saw the goal as restoration of  the proper federal relationship between the rebellious states and the national government and ensuring that the state governments acted in accordance with the Constitution in the future, one the one hand, and those who saw the goal as the complete social, political, and economic reconstruction of the South, on the other, were many moderates who picked and chose among the variety of ideas and proposals like so many diners in a cafeteria line.

            As debates and discussions occurred, it became obvious that the nation had to deal with three rather thorny problems:

1. Now that the slaves were freedmen, what needs did they have for which the national government ought to assume responsibility?

2. If the aristocracy of the South that had led and run the rebellion were to be barred from positions of leadership in the South because of their participation in the rebellion, who would assume the responsibilities for leadership and governance in the Southern states and how would these new leaders be selected?

3. What was to be done with the thousands of acres of land in the rebellious confiscated for failure to pay taxes, abandoned by its owners, or confiscated for other reasons?

            The absence of an established and duly adopted restoration/reconstruction plan, decisions on these questions and the questions about who had the authority to act in what matters would subject to public debate and open to the advancing of thousands of ideas by members of the government, political party officials, newspaper editors and other opinion leaders, and special interests of one kind or another. You may recall that George Washington had wisely closed sessions of the Constitutional Convention to the public because he realized that difficult agreements could not be made if various of the decisions that had to be made were subject to public debate. The plan for reconstruction may well have been very different if these issues had been settled within the Union government before the war ended rather than being settled after the collapse of the Confederacy.

            Congress had proceeded, with Lincoln's support, to try to deal with the problems of the freed slaves. It had created a Freedmen's Bureau to try to address some of the immediate problems of homelessness, lack of funds, lack of education, etc. Congress was experimenting with trying to provide the freedmen with some land to farm so that they could have both homes and incomes. The government of the United States had come into effective possession of a considerable amount of land in Southern states as a consequence of failure to pay taxes, abandonment by owners, and confiscation as punishment for participation in the rebellion. Lincoln was accepting this experimentation, although the evidence suggests that he believed that the best way to deal with freedmen was to deport them back to Africa. (The United States had helped establish a new nation in Africa, Liberia, as a home for escaped slaves in 1820.) Clearly, Lincoln did not believe that the nation could successfully integrate a large number of people of color into the predominantly white society. There were still issues to settle with respect to land redistribution when Lincoln was assassinated, but the assassination put an end to the idea of repatriation to Africa.

            One of the major issues with respect to land redistribution was that confiscation of land as punishment was only enforceable against the owner who rebelled, but not against his heirs--which meant that at least a portion of the lands the government controlled might be temporarily assigned to freedmen for their use but could not be titled to the freedmen because it would eventually have to be returned to the heirs of those from whom it was confiscated. Andrew Johnson was something of a strict constructionist where interpreting the Constitution was concerned and did not believe the national government could or should act to solve individual problems such as homelessness, providing education, etc.  He also had a rather typically southern working-class attitude toward blacks and was almost totally unconcerned with the freedmen and their problems.  When Johnson assumed the presidency on Lincoln's death, he effectively ended Congress's land redistribution by decreeing that a presidential pardon for participation in the rebellion restored the person's property rights, requiring immediate restoration to him of confiscated land.  He also acted to veto re-funding of the Freedmen's bureau and other legislation specifically designed to assist blacks on an individual basis.

            The efforts to restore normal relations between rebellious states and the national government began before the war actually ended because the Union army had conquered three of the rebellious states: Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama. Because he had the authority as commander-in-chief of the military, Lincoln had appointed military governors for these states and ordered them to proceed with restoration of normal relationships under his own plan:

1. Adult males of the state equal to 10% of those who had voted in the election of 1860 had to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and receive a pardon from the president. Lincoln made it clear that he would not pardon some people: those who had left positions in the U. S. government or military to join the rebellion, those who had held high civilian office in the Confederacy or its states, and high ranking Confederate officers.

2. Those taking the oath and receiving pardons had to agree to abide by the Emancipation Proclamation and laws enforcing it.

3. Those taking the oath and receiving pardons had to repeal secession ordinances, elect new state and local government officers from among their numbers, and make whatever adjustments to their state constitutions as might be needed to make them Constitution compliant.

            Lincoln pronounced these three states sufficiently restored that they were to have elections and select presidential electors in the election of 1864. But it was obvious even then that Congress had a sufficient number of persons who believed stronger measures were called for to indicate that there would be a battle over how to restore/reconstruct the nation. Just before it had adjourned in 1864, Congress had passed the Wade-Davis Bill setting forth a different set of conditions for normalizing relations. Lincoln was able to defeat it with a "pocket veto" because Congress adjourned before Lincoln's constitutionally mandated ten-day consideration period had expired. But the new Congress seated in 1865 responded to Lincoln's having proceeded with his own plan by refusing to seat those elected to Congress from these three states and by refusing to count their electoral votes. When Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, the issue of the status of these three states was still unsettled. What had happened, however, was that Andrew Johnson, who had represented Tennessee in the Senate, had become vice-president as a result of the election of 1864. Taking office in March 1865, Johnson, whose official duties called for him to preside over the Senate, had made it known that he had some differences with Lincoln's reconstruction plan.

            Johnson acted to reduce the number of persons needed to take an oath to support the Constitution as a requirement for statehood but increased the percentage of people who were ineligible for a general amnesty (although he pardoned thousands of those people on a case-by-case basis). Again, receiving either amnesty or a presidential pardon restored rights--in this case voting rights and the right to hold office.  Johnson refused to allow anyone owning property valued at $20,000 or more to receive amnesty, although he issued individual pardons to thousands of men who owned a large amount of property.  It certainly appears that Johnson, a working class Southerner, had a hidden agenda of revenge against the Southern upper class for grievances that were at least as much personal and pre-war in origin as war related.

            Southerners ignored suggestions that they enfranchise at least some blacks and that they avoid returning Confederate leaders to positions of leadership in their fist elections under the presidential plans. Although returning Confederate leaders to elective office under the restored governments may have struck a blow for southern pride, it was a major tactical blunder because it enraged northerners who had not previously been interested in the sort of reconstruction the Radicals were proposing. As public sentiment began to construct the idea that presidential reconstruction was about to give away the fruits of victory for which so many had died by making it so easy for the "slavocrat" aristocracy of the South to regain and maintain control, more and more moderates joined the Radicals in calling for the sort of program that would radically reconstruct southern society rather than merely restore normal intergovernmental relations. After Johnson's political influence was effectively neutralized by the Radicals, there were no remaining effective obstacles to adopting a radical approach (that is, the reconstruction of the whole of southern society) to the problems and issues as yet unresolved some two years after the war ended.

            Thus it was that two full years after the end of the war the Congress de-constructed the states that had participated in the rebellion, dividing them into five military districts not resembling any one state in its territory, placing them under military governors and martial law until new governments controlled largely by carpetbaggers (Northern radicals who went south to exploit the situation), scalawags (native Southern whites, generally of  working- and lower-class origin) and newly enfranchised blacks. These military districts included the states that had been told that they had met the terms of restoration by either Lincoln or Johnson. Radicals in Congress then proceeded to adopt a variety of measures aimed at redesigning southern society, politics, and economics. The Radicals, however, completely underestimated both the degree of antipathy southern whites had for immediate social and political equality for emancipated blacks and also the amount of interracial hatred that would be aroused by the various attempts to empower and enfranchise blacks and to alter traditional social and political structures. The measures taken specifically to assist blacks were inconsistently enforced and under enforced, often susceptible to manipulation by carpetbagger whites,  and thus incapable of permanently redesigning social and political relationships. Congress was limited in its power to redesign southern politics permanently and in its power to redesign the economy of the South. Radical Reconstruction came to an end without meeting its primary goals in about a decade as a result of deals made in trying to sort out the irregularities of the election of 1876.

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