The History Cat Classroom
New South, Old Attitudes
Slavery might have been gone with the wind but the Old Plantation elite weren't giving up their power without a fight. The Civil War had been about economics, states’ rights, and slavery and many historians will disagree over which of these three were the primary cause. Because historians just like to argue over everything. The Southern economy ran on the production of cash crops like cotton and tobacco which required vast amounts of cheap (free) labor. The Civil War not only put an end to this economic system, it had deprived the planters of what would be worth in today’s money millions of dollars in property. To make matters worse, the once proud South was in total ruin. One visitor to Charleston remarked on the “vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotting wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets.” Returning rebel soldiers came home to a scene straight out of hell. Barns and fields were in charred black. Railroads destroyed. Thousands of homeless people, both black and white, roamed aimlessly. Mothers wept for their dead sons and men with amputated limbs begged for food and money.
The Union soldiers stationed in every Southern city constantly reminded the proud ex-Confederates that they were a conquered people under military rule. Many plantations that managed to survive the war had been confiscated by Union officials or carpetbaggers. That was the derogatory nickname given to scores of Northerners were headed South to get take advantage of the opportunity to get rich by setting up plantations and businesses. Southerners resented these Northern whites for getting rich from Southern misery.
But if a Southerner resented the carpetbaggers and Yankee soldiers, they really must have loathed the thought that four million ex-slaves were free to do as they pleased. Emancipation may have brought freedom but it didn’t bring stability. Most of these free blacks were now homeless, unemployed, illiterate, and with no skills other than fieldwork. Some blacks tried to open small businesses. Many wandered hundreds of miles to find their loved ones who had been sold off to a different master. Others chose to remain on the plantation of their former masters rather than face the chaos that came with the end of the Civil War. Whites especially resented blacks who were being given free land, schools, and legal assistance while they were forced to live in misery. Many blacks openly walked on the sidewalks and even looked white women in the eye! The war might have made slavery illegal but it couldn't erase the racist attitudes that many whites held about black inferiority. Rather than blame themselves for their own situation, Southerners blamed Northerners and free blacks for the ruin of the Old South.
Nobody–– and we mean nobody–– could have believed that Andrew Johnson would one day actually be the guy in charge of one of the most crucial chapters in the history of the United States. But a bullet from an assassin’s pistol made the unthinkable a reality. Johnson had the personality of a wet blanket: cold, argumentative, and unwilling to compromise, President Johnson would come to alienate even his closest supporters.
Johnson didn’t really have a better plan for Reconstruction than anyone else. How could he? No American had ever faced this sort of situation before. At first, Johnson talked tough about dealing with the traitors. Born poor, he hated the planters with a passion and so too did the Radical Republicans who wanted revenge against the traitors. Finally, there was a man who saw things like they did. Or so the Republican thought. Except he didn’t share their opinions at all. In reality, Johnson wanted to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible and forget about the whole thing. The Presidential Reconstruction Plan required that southern states agree to the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and that southerners take a loyalty oath to the Union. But rather than punish the leaders of the rebellion with prison or execution he made a special provision that said that anyone with $20,000 in property had to come groveling to him personally to get their pardon. Flattered by the attention, Johnson handed out presidential pardons like it was candy on Halloween. In just one year he had granted 7,000 pardons to Confederate leaders and wealthy planters. Johnson believed that because secession was illegal the South had never technically left the Union. One California man fired back that just because murder is illegal doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. He removed Confederate leaders from top state offices and replaced them with loyal Unionists now running the state governments. With that done, Johnson wiped his hands and declared that the South was officially restored. The liberal “Radical” Republicans in Congress were spitting fire at the betrayal.
The South Descends into Chaos
The Radical Republicans were as different from the President as chalk and cheese. Radical Republicans in Congress like Thaddeus Stevens and Mr. “Please-don’t-cane-me” Charles Sumner believed that true emancipation could only be achieved if free blacks were given equal opportunities to whites. Blacks must be given citizenship, the vote, education, and land if they were going to be able to rise up out of the conditions of slavery. But sadly, there were not enough whites who felt the same way. Black equality to many meant that whites would become inferior. Racism had become so ingrained over the years that they could not imagine a world where two races lived side by side without dominating the other, where all their lives, they had known that one race had been subservient to the other. The Radicals were always a minority voice in Congress and time and again they were defeated in their attempts to pass black suffrage and civil rights legislation. Many whites weren’t ready for that kind of radical change. But then the Radicals got some unexpected help from the most unlikely of places. Soon after Johnson had declared that Reconstruction "complete" ex-confederates began sweeping back into office and a new reign of terror was about to begin.
1866 was a crucial year for America. One of those moments that had things gone differently we might have avoided segregation and gotten past racial divides. Would the United States fulfill its promise in the Declaration of Independence of all men being created equal? Now was the time to prove it. While Congress continued to debate about what direction reconstruction should take, Confederate leaders began to regain their old positions of power in their home states. Even before the 13th Amendment had been ratified, Black Codes were being passed that made a mockery of emancipation. Like in the days of slavery blacks were barred from traveling without a pass. They couldn’t rent or own houses in some towns. They were couldn’t own guns or dogs. They were barred from public accommodations. But the most vicious part of the Black Codes forced blacks to sign work contracts that kept blacks on plantations. Anyone without a work contract would be arrested and sold into hard labor. Across the South, Southerners were bringing back slavery. And President Johnson wasn’t making any attempt try to stop them.
With a green light to do whatever they wanted, the violence against blacks and loyal white Unionists intensified. Memphis was like many southern cities after the Civil War. Thousands of freedmen were fleeing the plantations and moving to the city in search of work other than picking cotton. The competition for jobs with poor whites caused tensions to rise until May 1866 they turned into a riot. Free blacks were frequently harassed and abused by the mostly white Irish police force. False arrests and beatings for “insolence” were common. The police often clashed with a regiment of black soldiers who tried to protect the freedmen from abuse. On May 1st things turned ugly. A confrontation broke out between the soldiers and the police which later on turned into all-out mob violence. Mobs of whites attacked blacks in the streets, looted homes, and raped. After 3 days of violence 46 blacks and 2 whites had been killed. A few months later the scene played out again in New Orleans. On July 30, a group of blacks held a rally to protest the black codes and push for the right to vote. An angry mob of armed ex-Confederates surrounded the Mechanic Institute where the meeting was being held and began opening firing. People fleeing the massacre were shot down in the streets and when the mob ran out of bullets they began beating any black person they could find. The police not only stood by but some even participated in the violence. Northerners were outraged. Four years of war and sacrifice were flushed right down the toilet. In November, Republicans won the elections by a landslide gaining 77% of the seats in Congress. The message was clear more aggressive action had to be taken against the South.
With the Republicans firmly in control of both houses of Congress, the Republicans stepped up their fight with the President over the Reconstruction of the South. The President insisted that Reconstruction was over. The Republicans thought differently. They passed the First Reconstruction Act of 1867 which divided the Old Confederacy into 5 military districts each one under the leadership of a Union general. Basically, what the Republicans did was to roll back the clock by two years and started with a fresh plan for reconstruction. Each of the eleven states would have to write up a new state constitution approving both the 13th and 14th Amendments if they wanted to rejoin the Union and send delegates to Congress. Congress introduced two pieces of legislation that they knew that Johnson would reject outright. But that was the point. One was a bill to put more money into the Freedmen’s Bureau (a temporary agency set up to help the freedmen).The other was the beginning of the 14th Amendment of the United States that said that any person born in the United States was entitled to the rights and protections of the United States. This last bill was aimed directly at the Black Codes and was a challenge to the President to do something to ensure freedom for all. When Johnson vetoed both bills, it angered the moderate Republicans so much that they joined with the Radicals and overrode Johnson’s veto with a 2/3 majority. Johnson had lost control of Reconstruction.
By 1868, Johnson was so despised that his own Republican party decided to get rid of him. There was so little he could do about the fate of the country that the Republicans set him up for impeachment. Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act over Johnson’s veto, a flat-out power grab that upset the system of checks and balances solidified in the Constitution. The law said that the President couldn’t fire any of his Cabinet members without the consent of the Senate, and this was a blatant attempt to limit the president. Normally (and still today), a president has to get approval for members of his / her Cabinet from the U.S. Senate, but there’s nothing in the Constitution about not being able to fire them. So Johnson challenged the law by firing his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (a Lincoln appointee). The House quickly wrote up 11 articles of impeachment, of which three passed onto the Senate for the trial. In the Senate during an impeachment trial, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the only judge and the Senate act as a jury. They must vote ⅔ affirmative to remove the person who has been impeached, and luckily for Johnson, each of the three impeachment charges failed by ONE VOTE. So Johnson spent the rest of his term licking his wounds while the Republicans tried to put the country back together again.
It took the thirteenth amendment to free black men and women from a life of bondage and the fourteenth amendment to make them citizens with due process. But it would take the Fifteenth Amendment to give African-Americans their rights as U.S. citizens. Radical Republicans were gung-ho about making that dream a reality. They believed that blacks would never be truly free if they weren’t allowed a say in the political process. With Republicans in control of Congress, the 15th amendment easily passed. Now the big battle for equal rights was left up to the 37 states. Even with the Republicans in control in all of the ex-rebel states (except Tennessee) making the dream of color-blind suffrage a reality was far from a sure thing. In places with few blacks like Ohio and Kansas, it was going to be an uphill battle to convince white voters there to share power with blacks. In the western states like Nevada and California, racism against Asian immigrants was rampant. Voters there were less worried about giving blacks the vote than they were about the thought that Chinese and Japanese immigrants might be enfranchized. In the end, the amendment got the votes it needed when Iowa became the 28th state to approve the 15th Amendment on February 3, 1870. As a side note, five states held out their votes until the 1950s, Tennessee became the last state to cast their vote for black suffrage on April 8th, 1997 (117 years after the fact!).
Between 1868 and 1870 1,500 black men were elected to public offices from mayors, and representative at the state level, school superintendents, sheriffs, and state treasurers and even a black State Supreme Court Justice was chosen in South Carolina. At the national level, about a dozen black men won seats in Congress and in 1870 both of the Senators from Mississippi were black. In a nation where only twenty years before the Supreme Court had denied Dred Scott the right of U.S. citizenship blacks were now gaining positions of leadership.
In 1869, President Johnson was out and the hero of the Union army–Ulysses S. Grant– was now sitting in the Oval Office. The Radical Republicans had a friend in office who would support their get-tough approach on Reconstruction. Northerners were horrified by the news coming out of the South of the lynching and fire bombings being carried out by ex-Confederate soldiers who had become the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK’s mission of scaring voters away from the polls was working in local elections, and the Republicans decided to strike back with a set of laws known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1870 and 1871.
The Ku Klux Klan Acts made it a crime to interfere with voting or exercising of civil rights by freedmen, and in extreme cases, soldiers were stationed at the polls to protect voters. But sadly, the Klan Acts had more bark than bite because they were rarely enforced. Blacks continued to be harassed and intimidated throughout the South. Black voter registration peaked in 1870 and then began to drop like flies. In 1875, many counties across the South had no black registered. One Louisiana parish only had one African-American on the roster. Sadly, throughout the end of the 19th century, you could always tell that voting season was approaching by the surge of violence against blacks.
Furthermore, another reason why Americans lost sight of the goals of Reconstruction was the Depression of 1873. This was first triggered by a stock market panic in railroad stocks, and the effects rippled throughout the nation. The depression lasted until 1878 but by then, the Democrats had won Congress back in 1874 further weakening Northern support for Reconstruction efforts. In order to cut costs in the South, Black men were rounded up by local sheriffs on charges of “vagrancy” and leased to companies as practically slave labor. This was a win-win for local Southern governments. Convicts were rented out to Southern businesses and plantation owners at rock bottom prices. Convict leasing looked suspiciously like slavery. This shady they would type of "law enforcement", continued until outlawed in the early 20th Century.
Eleven years after the last shots of the Civil War, many Americans had grown tired of Reconstruction. The equality being pushed by the Radical Republicans had become a broken record to many whites who wanted to put Reconstruction behind them and start making money like the rest of the country. Americans were pushing west with the railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, and a whole new round of Indian Wars was taking the attention away from black equality. The U.S Attorney General had this to say about sending more troops to protect black voters: “The whole public are tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South”.
The era finally came to an end after the disputed presidential election of 1876. Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes ran for the Republicans while New Yorker Samuel J, Tilden led the Democrats. Early returns showed Tilden with the lead but three Republican-controlled Southern states, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida (really? Again?) were the scenes of voter intimidation and fraud. Both parties claimed that their candidate had won the states. Tilden was one vote away from the electoral majority and ahead in the popular vote by 250,000, but no one could decide until a special committee was named that included five Senators, five Representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Voting along party lines, Hayes won the disputed votes, 8-7. But Democrats wouldn’t go quietly. They demanded the end of military rule, lots of money for internal improvements like a Southern transcontinental railroad, and a Southerner named to Hayes Cabinet. With this Corrupt Bargain of 1877 (also known as the Compromise of 1877), Reconstruction finally ended.
Was this time period a failure like many early historians of the era stated? Possibly, but their reasons varied. Many historians thought that Blacks weren’t ready for freedom and that Radical Republicans were to blame for pushing their rights too quickly. Racism dug deeper into the soil of the South with convict leasing, debt peonage, and the insidious Jim Crow laws that lasted until 1964. Blacks were not able to exercise many of their civil rights or interact socially with whites without restrictions. Reconstruction spectacularly failed to bring the North and South back together or end racial injustice.
A group of Freedmen pose for a picture with the ruins of Richmond, VA in the background.
I am sworn to uphold the Constitution as Andy Johnson understands it and interprets it.
-Andrew Johnson talking about himself in third person
In this cartoon by Thomas Nash, President Johnson kicks Freedman to the curb.