Reconstruction’s New Order

On New Year’s Day 1863, Republican President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in captured portions of the Confederacy, and changing the goal of the two-year-old Civil War from one of suppressing a rebellion and preserving the Union to bringing a new order to the United States.6 The North’s victory in 1865 elated the newly freed slaves, but their freedom also generated new questions about the future economic and political landscape of the South. Sweeping change transformed the former Confederacy in the decade that followed, as the Northern victors in Congress experimented with ways to reconcile with their former enemies.7

Constitutional Amendment/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_constitutional_amendment_1866_lc_usz62_32499.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress This 1866 political cartoon, distributed by a white-supremacist candidate, declared that Republicans sought to grant suffrage to black men in order to create a voting bloc for themselves. Detractors of the campaign for full black male suffrage were attempting to discredit abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and others.
Radical Republicans were the driving force in Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Primarily former abolitionists who represented Northern constituencies, these politicians looked to implement in the postwar South their “utopian vision of a nation whose citizens enjoyed equality of civil and political rights, secured by a powerful and beneficent state.”8 They emphasized the political equality of American men, yet with few exceptions, stopped short of calling for the social integration of the races. The venerable Charles Sumner of Massachusetts—a fiery, well-spoken abolitionist who endured an infamous beating from South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate Floor in 1856— led the Radical Republicans in the Senate. Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens—caustic, brooding, and a brilliant political strategist—led the charge in the House. Sumner and Stevens hoped Democratic President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated President Lincoln in April 1865, would be even more harsh than Lincoln in readmitting Confederate states. But Johnson believed in limited federal intervention and did not share the Radical Republicans’ sweeping vision of freedmen’s rights. The President’s plan granted amnesty to repentant former Confederates and turned southern politics over to Union loyalists. The administration and the congressional majority were soon at odds. Of the 29 vetoes issued by Johnson—many involving Reconstruction bills—15 were overridden, more than for any other President.9

Freedman/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_freedmans_bureau_-currier_LC_USZC2_2365.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress This 1868 Currier & Ives print, titled “The Freedman’s Bureau,” featured a young man dressing for a visit to Congress. An ambivalent image highlighting both the subject’s conscientiousness and low economic status, this commercial decorative print reflected the complex attitudes toward African Americans during the period.
Unable to circumvent Johnson, Radical Republicans sought to remove him. In January 1867, Republican Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio introduced a resolution, adopted by the House, instructing the Judiciary Committee to “inquire into the conduct of Andrew Johnson,” with an eye toward impeaching the President. The committee initially rejected the measure. But in September 1867, after President Johnson attempted to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—who opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and worked closely with congressional Radicals—the committee recommended impeachment proceedings in a 5 to 4 vote, claiming Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act (14 Stat. 430–432). The full House rejected that report, but Johnson was bent on confronting Congress. In February 1868, when the President again tried to dismiss Stanton, congressional retribution was swift. The House voted 126 to 47 to impeach President Johnson, though the Senate later acquitted him by a single vote.

15th Amendment/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_15th_amendment_nara.xml The original 15th Amendment, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration Ratified on February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment (S.J. Res. 8) forbade any state to deprive a citizen of his vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Even in the face of presidential intransigence, the Radical Republicans imposed a bold agenda of strict reforms upon the former Confederacy. Collectively, their push for African-American political rights surpassed any measure ever seen in the United States. The 38th Congress (1863–1865) quickly passed and submitted for ratification the 13th Amendment (13 Stat. 744–775)—outlawing slavery—in 1865. That same year, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau (13 Stat. 507–509), which was charged with preparing the newly freed slaves for civic life by providing social services and education. In 1866, the 39th Congress (1865–1867) passed the first Civil Rights Bill (14 Stat. 27–30), granting American citizenship to freed slaves, and then expanded upon the legislation by approving the 14th Amendment (14 Stat. 358–359), which enforced the equality of all citizens before the law. On the final day the House met during the 39th Congress, the Radicals divided the former Confederacy into five military districts, each commanded by a U.S. Army general and ruled by military law. The act also provided strict conditions for re-admission to the Union: each of the 10 remaining Confederate states was required to rewrite its constitution at a convention attended by black and white delegates, to guarantee black suffrage, and to ratify the 14th Amendment.10 In a rare move, the 40th Congress (1867–1869) convened minutes after the 39th Congress adjourned and quickly granted greater authority to the commanders of each military district by vesting them with considerable powers to hold elections and determine citizens’ eligibility to vote. The 15th Amendment (16 Stat. 40–41), which passed in 1869, enforced the right to vote for eligible African-American men. Thus, in an effort to achieve their ambitious vision for a racially transformed South, Radical Republicans drastically changed the status of southern blacks; within the space of a decade, millions who formerly had been classified as property exercised their new rights as voters and potential officeholders.11

After the ratification of the 15th Amendment, former slaves flocked to the ballot boxes and the more ambitious sought political office. By 1877 about 2,000 black men had won local, state, and federal offices in the former Confederate states.12 But although black voters formed the bulk of the Republican constituency in the former Confederacy, black officeholders never achieved significant power within the GOP ranks. Nor did any southern state elect black officeholders in proportion to its African-American population. Finally, black politicians never controlled a government at the state level during the Reconstruction Era even though the populations in several states were majority black.

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6President Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, after the Civil War battle of Antietam. In his message to the Confederacy, the President announced his intention to free the slaves in the rebellious states; one hundred days later he signed the official proclamation. For more information on the history of both proclamations, see James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 138–146; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 562–563. See also the National Archives and Records Administration’s online “Featured Documents” at 13 May 2008).

7The Confederacy originally included 11 states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee).

8Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988): 230.

9This includes the 21 formal vetoes and eight pocket vetoes issued by Johnson in the 39th and 40th Congresses (1865–1869). Johnson had the second-highest percentage of vetoes overridden (51.7 percent). Franklin Pierce, who had 55.7 percent of his vetoes overridden, issued nine vetoes only to have five overridden by the 33rd and 34th Congresses (1853–1857). See Office of the Historian, “Presidential Vetoes,” available at

10Tennessee, which had rejoined the Union on July 24, 1866, was exempt from the requirements of the Reconstruction Act.

11See Appendix J, Constitutional Amendments and Major Civil Rights Acts of Congress Referenced in the Text.

12Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): xi.