Reconstruction March 1865–April 1877

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Reconstruction March 1865–April 1877

From: Civil War and Reconstruction, Eyewitness History.

There were two views of how to deal with the political status of the defeated Confederate states, one view held by the executive and one by the Congress. Lincoln and Andrew Johnson believed strongly that the problem of Reconstruction was the responsibility of the executive department. Their view was that there had been an insurrection; the executive had called out troops to suppress it. It was up to the military to determine when the insurrection had been suppressed; it was up to the executive to exercise the power of pardon and amnesty. And it was up to the executive to determine what conditions had to be met to qualify for amnesty.

Some members of Congress held the view that the states had indeed seceded or at least destroyed their old relationship with the Union and that they had been defeated as conquered provinces. Another view held that, by removing their representatives from Congress and by dissolving their governments and replacing them with new ones, the seceding states had reverted to the status of territories. In either case, whether the seceding states became conquered provinces or territories, it was the constitutional job of Congress to guarantee a republican form of government in those states. Further, it was in the power of Congress whether or not to admit elected legislators to the House and Senate from those states.

The Constitution had no specific provisions for this situation, and there was little guidance as to what constituted the correct constitutional procedure. The executive department relied on those clauses of the Constitution concerning rebellion and treason; the legislative department relied on those clauses that spoke to the republican form of government of the states and the admission of representatives to Congress. Since president and Congress had such differing constitutional bases and such separate agendas, the two views led to inevitable conflict.

Lincoln's Reconstruction Goals

Lincoln, as a Republican politician, wanted reconstruction to progress in such a fashion that there would be a Republican Party in the South. Remembering his own Whig origins, he wanted a national party such as the Whigs had been, not a sectional party, such as the Republicans had been on the eve of the war. At least part of his mild reconstruction planning was based on a hope that the Union or Republican Party would be able to capture the support of the former Southern Whigs and create a truly national political base. Before Lincoln's death he made progress toward establishing loyal governments in Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas, all based on a combination of Whig-Unionists and those willing to take loyalty oaths to the Union. He attempted to get core Unionist governments set up in Louisiana and Tennessee to serve as a nucleus around which the new governments in those states could emerge. On December 8, 1863, he issued his proclamation of amnesty and reconstruction—the so-called 10 percent plan that would allow the establishment of governments once ten percent of the eligible voters signed a loyalty oath. In 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis plan, which required a majority (not 10%) to vote for state organizing conventions. However, to serve as a delegate to a state constitutional convention or to hold office in the newly established governments, under the congressional plan, individuals would also have to sign an "iron-clad" oath that they had never participated voluntarily in secession. This is the bill that Lincoln let go unsigned, or pocket-vetoed, but for which he also wrote a veto message in the summer of 1864.

Although the Confiscation Act of 1862 originally included a provision for the confiscation of the estates of Confederates, that provision was never enforced; Lincoln had not wanted to dispossess the planters of their land and believed that it was unconstitutional to deprive heirs of their property for the crimes of an individual ancestor. Lincoln hinted that the Emancipation Proclamation, as a war measure, only applied so far as it went during the war; he appeared to be suggesting that, if the South surrendered, emancipation would not be applied to areas under Confederate jurisdiction on the date of surrender. He urged the passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, partly because he believed that, without such an amendment, the wartime measures of emancipation might not be permanent.

From this evidence, it seems that Lincoln probably intended some sort of Reconstruction policy that would build on the old Whig and Unionist elements in the South to create a possibility of a Republican Party (or Union Party of some sort) with congressional delegations from the South. As to social policy, Lincoln was not nearly as egalitarian as the radicals in the Republican Party, and he probably would have endorsed only a program of gradual enfranchisement (perhaps with a literacy test). However, he was a superb politician and strategist and he might have understood that to achieve his goals he would have to yield in the radical direction of more rights and status for the former slaves, and he was certainly quite capable of matching wits with the radical strategists in Congress.

Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction

With Lincoln's death and his replacement by Johnson, who was politically incompetent, the chances of reconciling the natural divergence of viewpoints between the executive branch and the legislative branch were greatly diminished. Although many in Congress did not endorse a socially radical plan of Reconstruction, most Congressmen did believe that the question of how and under what terms the Southern states should be restored to political equivalency with the other states was in the jurisdiction of Congress.

Johnson talked tough in early 1865, and radicals thought he was with them. As a Tennessee-born, self-made man in the Jacksonian tradition, Johnson had always resented the power and arrogance of the wealthy planter class in the South. From his remarks and his acquiescence to the comments of others, Johnson appeared to support trials for leading Confederates and confiscation of their estates. He insisted that the states organized under his plan in 1865 had to exclude from positions of leadership former unpardoned Confederates. To be constituted as state governments with local jurisdiction, the defeated Confederate states had to endorse the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and they had to repudiate the Confederate war debt. On their surface, these requirements imposed an implied transition that would bring the states into conformity with the Union, and, if rigorously enforced, would go far toward meeting the radical agenda. If he had coupled enforcement of his stated requirements for readmission with his indicated intention of confiscating planter estates of leading Confederates, radicals would have had little to complain about.

The reasons for his fall from grace with the radicals were several. Over the period 1865–66 he modified his views, accepting the fact that the former Confederate states did not actually abide by his own conditions. Secondly, he was a very poor politician and unsure of himself, often remaining silent when he should have given his opinion, and, at other times, making intemperate speeches off the cuff that insulted his supporters as well as his opponents. Furthermore, the radicals really never understood that Johnson was not a supporter of the emerging business culture in the North, and that he was willing to give the planter class power as long as they personally appealed to him for clemency. Nor did the radicals understand the degree to which Johnson shared the prevailing white view in the South that the African American was completely incapable of citizenship. As a Jacksonian, self-made man, as well as a racial bigot, he did support some socially democratic ideas such as public schools and the Homestead Act, but his social democracy was intended for whites only.

Johnson hoped to achieve Reconstruction between May and December 1865. The governments elected under his plan, however, were mostly dominated by ex-Confederates. Johnson may have expected the white underclass of the South to elect their own leadership, men like himself. However, the politically adept and experienced politicians were for the most part former Confederates. Many of those elected were in the very classes he had excepted from the effect of the amnesty, and they were elected in clear defiance of his explicit statement that they were not included in his blanket amnesty. But instead of refusing to allow them to hold office, he yielded and issued wholesale pardons. He issued 13,500 pardons, then pardoned all but a few hundred individuals on September 7, 1867. The pardons of ex-Confederate politicians and military officers pushed the Union men in the South to minority positions in the legislatures and in the state administrations. Furthermore, Johnson gave up on confiscation of estates, which he appeared to support at first, and was ready to recognize and accept the new governments even when they failed to meet his preconditions.

There are several explanations for why Johnson gave up on his attempt to exclude the former planter class from power and why he accepted the elections of those he had specifically excluded from the effect of his amnesty. His views on race were much closer to those of the Confederates than to those of the radicals in Congress. Perhaps he lacked the courage to enforce his restrictions on office holding, which would have required that he fly in the face of the electoral will of those who had voted. Such an action would have contradicted his proclaimed Jacksonian faith in the wisdom of the people expressed through the ballot. Perhaps he became converted to generous Reconstruction. It also seemed that he liked the personal power that came from making wealthy and formerly powerful aristocrats apply to him for pardon. It certainly seemed that planters and Confederates soon understood and exploited this personal weakness. In effect, the former Confederates were more adept at politics than he, and he found himself outflanked. By fall 1865, Johnson was in the position of having to defend the governments he had established, even though they were dominated by secessionists and even though they began to enact laws designed to keep African Americans in a status close to slavery. Stuck with his commitment, he had to stand by the governments he had encouraged and had to support them against attacks from Congress.

The governments established by the former Confederates under the Johnson rules in 1865 quite clearly set about establishing a caste system. Reports to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction described the failure of Reconstruction under Johnson to protect the freedmen; the Carl Schurz report was less critical of the social policies put in place under the Johnson governments, but still showed that the governments in the South were dominated by Confederate thinking. Schurz gave a candid report, indicating that token submission by the former planters was adopted as a necessity to get rid of federal troops. However, both the Joint Committee and Schurz noted that freedmen were being mistreated—any evidence of attempting to exercise rights was treated as "insolence" and often met with whipping, caning, or murder.

Furthermore, the reports showed, even Johnson's mild terms were not quite met. Some states repealed, but did not repudiate, the ordinances of secession; most appointed Confederates, rather than Southern Unionists or new Northern residents, to appointed positions. There were many other notable aspects of the resistance of the Johnson-sanctioned governments to the intent of the Johnson Reconstruction. Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery; South Carolina did not repudiate Confederate debt, claiming it was so miniscule and so mixed with other debts that it could not be identified; Arkansas voted pensions for Confederate veterans. All the states rejected black suffrage; none of the Johnson governments established schools for blacks. Furthermore, the Johnson governments passed the Black Codes, intended to keep the slaves as propertyless workers. In short, the states disfranchised blacks, kept them in conditions resembling slavery, enacted segregation and legal discrimination, and empowered Confederate politicians and military officers to rule the states. About the only change from prewar conditions these states appeared to accept was the formal ending of the status of chattel slavery.1

In the Southern states where Johnson had allowed the establishment of governments, former secessionists, the most irresponsible class of leadership and the least willing to compromise, believed they had a free hand to establish a caste system to replace slavery. The social goal of these governments was to keep the freedmen as a subservient labor pool while denying them legal, political, and social advancement. That is, they did not expect blacks to be able to freely make their own contracts, to move about, to be able to use the courts to protect their rights, to vote, or to get an education. Radical goals on such topics seemed to them wrongheaded and liable only to raise the expectations of the former slaves, making them less tractable. In short, the secessionist-planter class leadership was willing to accept emancipation, but expected to replace it with a system that continued to make the freedmen available as laborers paid only at the subsistence level. They believed that removing slavery had worsened the position of African Americans, but that African Americans had no reason to expect, and no ability to utilize, the benefits of citizenship. Some were even reluctant to grant the former slaves the right to marry, but most may have been willing to yield on this point. The political leadership did not think it was appropriate to allow blacks to testify against whites in court, clearly assuming that blacks would be incapable of telling the truth. Johnson's program, if it had any intention of changing the social-political power structure in the seceded states, had failed.

Congressional Reaction to Johnson's Plan

When Johnson took over the administration of Reconstruction during the summer and fall of 1865, Congress felt he had usurped their prerogatives. After all, he could have called them into session before their regular meeting in December, or he could have consulted extensively with leading members of Congress. Furthermore, it was his generous application of the amnesty and pardon power that allowed former Confederates to assume power. As the investigations of the progress of Reconstruction under Johnson's terms were completed, Northern journalists and congressional leadership grew outraged, fully convinced that the president had abandoned some of the most important Republican goals. Some suspected that he hoped for a Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1868. For all of these reasons, by early 1866 Johnson had lost the support of Congress, and Republican newspapers and journals throughout the North rumbled with angry editorials.

Congress assembled in December for the 1865–66 session with four factions. One was the small group of Northern Democrats, who were disorganized. They tended to throw their support to Johnson when they saw the pattern of radical opposition to him emerging. Second was a group of conservative Republicans who tended to be partisan but not radical. Radicals, the third group, included among others Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, and William Ashley of Ohio. Finally, there were some moderate Republicans, leaning toward Johnson, but wavering between radicals and conservatives. Although the Republicans were divided by factions, the radicals had the clearest vision of what the reconstructed South should be like. They believed that blacks should not only be freed from slavery, but also transformed into citizens, with access to education, some financial start on the path to prosperity, and guaranteed basic rights of equality in public and private matters. This egalitarian view, based on abolitionist views of the race issue, was far in advance of the views of the majority of both Southern and Northern whites. Nevertheless, it suggested a coherent agenda of what needed to be done; clearly, Johnson had done nothing to implement anything like such an agenda.

Because Johnson was stubborn and the Southern governments showed no sign of yielding over the course of the session from December 1865 to the summer of 1866, the moderates were driven into the camp of the radicals. Thus the egalitarian measures supported by radicals became attractive even to more moderate Republicans, if only as a way of punishing the recalcitrant rebels who had gained power under Johnson, and as a way of showing their opposition to Johnson himself.

The next two years saw a deep conflict between Congress and the president over three very fundamental issues. One was the relative power of the executive and Congress. A second was the relationship between state and federal responsibilities and powers. And third, underlying the other two, was a debate over exactly what terms should be imposed on the former Confederacy. Through these debates, the radicals continued to strive for measures that would protect the freedmen and elevate their status to that of full citizenship.

During debates on these intertwined issues, the radicals, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives and Sumner and Chandler in the Senate, held that the states had seceded and were now conquered provinces. In the Senate, Sumner argued that the Confederate states had reverted to territories, and Congress could set the rules. Even though the somewhat theoretical issue of whether the states had become conquered provinces or territories was hotly debated, it was clear that Congress expected to control the practical question of readmission of the seceded states to representation in the Congress.

The central issue that divided Northern conservatives and radicals was the place of freed slaves in the society. Johnson held that the United States was still a white man's country. Johnson and his supporters viewed those whites who advocated black rights as hypocritical, crazy, vindictive, or venal. There may indeed have been some unconscious hypocrisy among the radicals, as well as some political hyperbole, but the radicals were also idealists. Radicals had achieved the transformation of the Civil War from one for union to one for freedom, and they did not intend to see this idealistic goal destroyed by former slaveholders or by Northern racists.

In December 1865, the radicals and moderates, constituting a clear majority of Congress, agreed not to seat any senators and representatives from the former Confederacy. In February 1866, both houses agreed not to seat any congressmen from a former Confederate state until both houses were satisfied that the state was entitled to representation. With these tools in hand, Congress was in a position to establish policy along lines dictated by the Republican majority representing the 19 Northern states. Another measure supported in December 1865 was the establishment of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, consisting of six senators and nine representatives; even though moderates controlled it, its findings backed up the radical claims that the Johnson state governments had set out to establish racial oppression in the South.

In addition to the reports coming from the South, one precipitating event drove a clear wedge between Congress and Johnson. On February 22, 1866, Johnson delivered a speech in which he almost casually charged members of Congress with treason. He claimed that Thaddeus Stevens, Wendell Phillips, and Charles Sumner were traitors, when in fact they were the most influential leaders of the Congress. Even though he had first made the remark in an offhand manner, he repeated the charge several times, making it clear he believed it. Furthermore, he suggested that Congress had no jurisdiction since it did not include representatives of all the states. Johnson's vetoes of congressional Reconstruction bills passed in early 1866 finalized the break between Congress and president, confirmed when they easily overrode the vetoes with more than two-thirds of the required votes.

The election campaign of fall 1866 was bitter, and radicals won, not only taking more than two-thirds of both houses, but also gaining Republican margins in all Northern legislatures and taking all governor's races of that year. The fall elections were a clear repudiation of Johnson by Northern voters and an endorsement of the intent of Congress to proceed with its plan for Reconstruction. With radical control of Congress, and as the Northern population came to recognize that Johnson had yielded control to the former Confederates, it was clear that the power over Reconstruction policy would readily pass to Congress. Johnson's claims that Congress (which admitted representatives from Tennessee, but not from the other 10 states of the former Confederacy) was a rump organization with no legal standing, and his repeated charges of treason, inspired fears that he intended to impose a coup d'etat by arresting those congressmen and senators most opposed to him.

His behavior and ineptness spurred Congress to look into ways to remove him from office and to consider impeachment. In 1867, Congress took full charge of Reconstruction, passing further numerous bills over the president's veto. Before the Johnson administration, no Congress had overturned a presidential veto on any significant bill. There had been two minor cases of overturning vetoes before the Civil War, but they had not involved nationally important legislation.

Congressional Reconstruction and Impeachment

The central aspect of the congressional Reconstruction plan consisted of establishing military governments in the South, empowered to hold constitutional conventions that would guarantee rights to blacks. The Fourteenth Amendment had to be passed by these states prior to considering the admission of their representatives to Congress. Although the Fourteenth Amendment left the question of suffrage to the states, it did make clear that the other rights of citizenship could not be denied on grounds of race or previous condition of servitude.

If a state approved the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments, the process of Reconstruction could proceed. The state constitutional conventions established under federal military control would produce provisional governments, elect congressmen and senators; if they met the conditions, Congress would accept the representatives, restoring the states to the Union. This plan could be readily hampered by Johnson if he appointed generals in the South who were not vigorous in carrying through the intent of the law. Nevertheless, even with moderate (rather than radical) generals, the system set up by Congress did yield radical governments across the remaining 10 states of the South.

After attempting in March 1868 to impeach Johnson on grounds that his attempt to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, Congress turned its attention to readmitting the states. Of the 10 still not represented, six were readmitted in June 1868, all with Republican administrations: Arkansas, Florida, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama. Not yet admitted were Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia. In these four states, political chaos, boycotted elections, and legislatures that refused to seat duly elected black members prohibited admission. Congress made the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly guaranteed the right to vote to all men without regard to race or previous slavery, a condition for readmission of these remaining four states.

Grant and the Bourbon Democrats

In the fall election of 1868, U. S. Grant was elected president. Although not a radical, Grant was willing to implement the radical program. Never too interested in the minute details of administration, Grant was also a poor judge of character in his appointments. Many of these appointees saw their jobs as a chance for graft, which, during the eight years of his two administrations, reached levels never before seen in the United States. After further military control and monitored elections supervised by uniformed troops, the remaining four states were admitted to the Union in 1870. Thus in 1870, briefly, radical Reconstruction was at work through 10 states of the South. However, some of the Republican governments in the South had gained power because Democrats had boycotted elections during the military occupation, suggesting that an easy way to regain power for the Democrats would be through the simple exercise of the ballot once the state had gained its seats in Congress.

Democrats began working to regain power, succeeding first in Tennessee in 1869, by elections in that year. The Democrats retaking power were known as Bourbons, recalling the effort of the Bourbon house in France to restore the ancien régime after the French Revolution. When Bourbons achieved power in the South, they claimed they had redeemed the state government, and thus, once in power, they were known as redeemers. State by state, Democratic Party redeemers gained control, usually charging the Republican governments with incompetence, over-spending, and graft. Most of these charges were false but were easily believed, simply because most white Southerners assumed that blacks in state government would be incapable of efficient administration. Democrats charged whites who worked in these governments with hypocrisy, venality, and disloyalty to the South and to the white race. Southern-born Unionists and former Whigs who worked with the governments were labeled scalawags; Northerners who had immigrated to the South with the army or with the Freedmen's Bureau were called carpetbaggers, suggesting that they carried their whole estate in a suitcase. Even facing such hostility, and in states with large black populations or with Republican governors willing to use state militias to protect the rights of blacks, radicals retained control for a few years. The period of radical Reconstruction, with mixed support from scalawags, carpetbaggers, black voters, and committed Republican governors, varied from a few months to several years, depending on the state. For the most part, such governments were dominated by their white members, with some 16 African Americans serving in Congress, two in the Senate, and several in state administrative positions below the rank of governor. In Louisiana, P. B. S. Pinchback, a black lieutenant governor, served as acting governor for just over a month.

The process by which the Bourbon Democrats took power away from the Republicans varied from peaceful electoral means to illegal processes, such as forced resignations of governors, to violent means incorporating terror and bloodshed. In Virginia, as soon as the state was readmitted to the Union, the governor changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, in 1870. In the 1870 election in North Carolina, Democrats took control of the legislature and in 1871 impeached the Republican governor. In the 1870 elections, Democrats took control of both the legislature and executive in Georgia. In 1873, the gubernatorial election in Texas was contested, and the Republican governor insisted on staying in power. Nevertheless, he was forced to resign before the end of his term, early in 1874. In Mississippi, in 1875, Democrats used their party organizations or local clubs, including such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camilia, to form terror groups that broke up Republican meetings, threatened and murdered black politicians and voters, prevented Republican ballots from being distributed, and forced Republican sheriffs to go into hiding. This system of organized violence and subversion of the political process became known as the Mississippi Plan, although similar practices had been used as early as 1868 in elections in New Orleans and in scattered locations in other states. It was later emulated in South Carolina to depose the Republican regime there.2

By 1876, Mississippi was "redeemed" and in Democratic Party hands, although the irony of using that term to define a process that had worked by explicit and open violence was not lost on many commentators, or on Congressional investigators. Nevertheless, the Republican organization in Mississippi was dead, and blacks were terrorized into not voting there. Later, the exclusion of blacks from the franchise in Mississippi and other Southern states would be achieved by a combination of less bloody methods, including poll taxes, intimidation at registration places, literacy tests, and refusal to allow blacks to participate in the primary elections of the Democratic Party. Even with these disabilities, a handful of African-American congressmen from former Confederate states continued to be elected after Reconstruction, into the 1880s and 1890s. By 1876, Republican regimes still held state power in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina, but in those states, federal troops had to be stationed in and around the state-houses to prevent assassination or forcible removal of the governments.3

Radical Reconstruction Governments' Achievements and Failures

The Bourbon Democrats leveled a wide range of arguments against the Republican regimes that they sought to overthrow in the period 1870–76. Charging these regimes with malfeasance and incompetence, they sought to win votes by the implied and explicit racism of their charges. Further, very few blacks in the South before the Civil War had achieved any education, and the vast majority of African Americans that Southern whites had encountered had been slaves. Whether forced into docility and obedience by the system of slavery or choosing to play a role of simplicity and compliance, slaves had rarely challenged the stereotypes that whites imposed on them. When black individuals showed a willingness to speak out against mistreatment, they were regarded as insolent or saucy. While similar prejudices also prevailed in the North, whites there had opportunities to see African Americans as free men and women, in some states exercising their vote, and in all states quietly pursuing their lives as laborers, tradesmen and craftsmen, mineworkers and millworkers, educators, clergymen, churchgoers, and journalists. So Northern whites, despite their prejudices, could conceive of some blacks playing perfectly competent roles in state government, although none had been elected to state office in any Northern state. However, when blacks appeared in state constitutional conventions and state legislatures in the South, whites in that region explicitly treated the event as a spectacle, a combination of amusing impossibility and a tragic mistake.4

When legal, semi-legal, and completely illegal and violent means were employed to bring down those governments, respectable and law-abiding Southern whites comforted themselves in the belief that a proper order of things was being restored. The legend of incompetence not only was politically useful, it also penetrated the historical treatments of the period, only to be revised and corrected in recent decades by careful historical research. The state debts of the Republican governments climbed due not to incompetence, but to the need to physically rebuild the Southern states, to issue bonds to support the construction of railroads, and the expenses associated with the establishment of public schools for both blacks and whites in states that had never funded public schools in the past. The few cases of bribery and embezzlement that developed in the Republican governments were less severe than similar cases under Democratic governments and faded into insignificance by contrast to the great scandals taking place in Washington during the period.

Perhaps the greatest failure of the Republican regimes in the South was the reluctance to use available military force to retain power. In states like South Carolina and Mississippi, where state militia units made up of black troops might have been able to prevent wholesale election fraud and the use of terror by organized gangs of whites, governors were reluctant to employ such militias out of fear that their use would create an even worse backlash and further bloodshed. In many communities, the appearance of a company of black militia would have been met by an immense armed mob, and governors hesitated to provoke any such incidents.

Republican governments, whether administered by loyal pro-Union whites or by resettled whites from the North, tended to rely for support on the federal government. However, that support was never too reliable, as military officers varied in their commitment to radical social programs calling for equal rights for blacks, as Johnson removed from office some of the most outspoken generals, and as Congress turned its attention from issues of social justice to other concerns by the early 1870s.

Republicans Abandon Radicalism and the Solid South

By the second administration of Grant, radicals in Congress began to abandon a concern with racial equality in the South for other issues, some closer to home. The Republican Party began to divide between those who adopted a strictly partisan view that holding office was the crucial issue, and those interested in reform. Those in the party who focused on retention of power were known as Stalwarts. The Stalwarts hoped to build the Republican Party into a lasting organization by careful distribution of patronage and by supporting the emerging business interests in mining, railroads, and industry. Reform-minded Republicans came to be known as Liberals, taking up issues such as reform of government job distribution and contracting, the establishment of a civil service, and the elimination of graft. While Stalwarts and Liberals contended for power within the Republican Party, the older radical goals of Reconstruction faded into the past. Those hoping to compromise between Stalwart and Reform wings were known as Mugwumps, reputedly from the concept that they kept their mug on one side of the fence and their wump on the other.

The reason for the change of focus from issues of racial justice to one of government and party management was partly due to the death of several key radical leaders, like Thaddeus Stevens, Horace Greeley, and Charles Sumner. Others, like Henry Ward Beecher, were discredited by personal scandal, in his case, an extended controversy over adultery charges. With its fuel diminished, the radical engine slowed down and lost steam pressure. By 1876, Southern radical leaders were more or less on their own, sustained by a few reluctant federal troops stationed at the statehouses in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. In much of the rest of the South, Republicans, Unionists, and black spokesmen worried that gangs of white thugs would burn their houses or kill them if they dared to speak out for the racial causes that had been the core of the radical agenda.

What emerged in the South was a peculiar new political arrangement. In the Appalachian counties that had formed the core of Union support in the South, many former Whigs and Unionists remained attached to the Republican Party, supported by scatterings of black voters in the other counties where they retained the franchise. Thus in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, northern Alabama and Georgia, and in western North Carolina and some counties of western Virginia, Republican strongholds continued into the 20th century. However, in the downstate counties in all of these states, former Whigs tended to join with Democrats in a new conservative alliance that established the "solid South." Democrats also dominated in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. For the period from the 1870s through the mid-1950s, the former states of the Confederacy voted Democratic in presidential elections and returned largely Democratic delegations to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. With the Republican Party dominated by the Stalwart wing, and the Southern Democrats dominated by a conservative agenda that favored the preservation of the status quo, the Republicans and Dixiecrats tended to collaborate through the following decades. In one sense, the political collaboration between conservative Democrats in the South and conservative Republicans in the North, had its beginning in the election of 1876, whose outcome marked the end of Reconstruction.

The Election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877

In 1876, the Republicans nominated Congressman Rutherford B. Hayes, a moderate with a concern for civil service reform, for president, while the Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden. Tilden was a corporate lawyer in New York who rose to prominence with the support of the corrupt Tweed ring in the Democratic Party there, but who, as New York governor, joined the forces of reform in the Democratic Party. Thus both Hayes and Tilden had reputations as political reformers, but neither shared the earlier radical commitment to racial equality in the South. With all the former Confederate states now readmitted to Congress and therefore entitled to cast their electoral votes, the election was quite close. Tilden took a majority of the popular votes cast, by more than 200,000 votes. However, the Electoral College vote was in dispute. In the three Southern states with Republican governments still in power, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, both Democrats and Republicans claimed to have won the election, with a total of 19 Electoral College votes between them. In addition, the Democratic governor of Oregon irregularly removed one Republican elector from that state, replacing him with a pro-Tilden elector. Thus the Electoral College vote after the election was 184 for Tilden, 165 for Hayes, with 20 in dispute. The majority necessary for victory was 185. While at first Hayes believed that Tilden had won, as the dispute over the Electoral College votes became well-known, Hayes began to believe he might have a chance at victory. Republican headquarters refused to concede the election.

The Constitution did not offer a pathway through this dilemma. The votes of the electors were to be received and counted by Congress, but which votes would be counted clearly mattered. If all the Hayes votes from the contested states were counted, he would be the winner. If any of the disputed votes were counted for Tilden, he would be the winner. Between the election in November and the inauguration date in March, the country and the candidates nervously considered the impasse. Early in January, a Democrat, George Drew, was inaugurated as governor of Florida, but that did not change the fact that Florida had still submitted two slates of electors. To resolve the question, Congress established a 15-member electoral commission, carefully constructed to contain seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent. Further, the agreed balance consisted of five senators, five congressmen, and five members of the Supreme Court. One of the Supreme Court justices, David Davis, was well known as an independent. However, before the commission could meet, Davis was appointed by the Illinois state legislature as a U.S. senator. Since it would not do to have six senators on the commission, he was replaced by another Supreme Court justice, Joseph Bradley, who was a Republican.

During February, in a series of four meetings held on February 9, 16, 23, and 28, the electoral commission met and, voting strictly on party lines of eight to seven in each case, decided to allocate all of the disputed Electoral College votes to Hayes. Although the Democrats had already pledged to abide by the decision and not to throw the country into further turmoil by refusing to accept the results, a further agreement was struck. Held behind closed doors at the Wormley Hotel in Washington, some sort of settlement was reached, although it may have simply served to confirm already-established agreements. Rumors of the Wormley Bargain spread. Republicans agreed to support a plan to establish a railroad route across the southern tier of states and agreed to support the removal of the remaining federal troops that were stationed at the statehouses in Louisiana and South Carolina, where federal troops helped prevent Democratic claimants from taking office. Further, Republicans agreed that the president would appoint a prominent Southerner to the cabinet. The date of the so-called Wormley Bargain or Compromise of 1877 was February 26, two days before the final award of Electoral College votes, and a week before the date of the presidential inauguration.

Congress met, accepted the recommendations of the electoral commission, awarded all the disputed electors to Hayes, and declared him elected president on March 2. Since March 4, the regular date of inauguration, fell on a Sunday, Hayes was privately inaugurated on March 3, and then publicly inaugurated on March 5, 1877. A week later, in announcing his cabinet appointments, Hayes selected former Democratic senator David Key of Tennessee as postmaster general. The position was important because it allowed the distribution of patronage positions; throughout the South over the next months, Democratic postmasters would replace Republican postmasters, removing one last leg of support for the Republican organizations in those states. On April 10, federal troops were recalled from the statehouse in South Carolina and returned to their barracks. Democrat Wade Hampton, whose election had been based on the application of the Mississippi Plan in South Carolina, began his term as governor. Two weeks later, federal troops quietly withdrew from the statehouse in Louisiana, and Democrat Francis Nicholls was inaugurated as governor of that state.

Whether or not the appointment of David Key and the removal of troops supporting the Republican regimes in South Carolina and Louisiana were the direct result of the Wormley Bargain or not, it was clear that Republicans had abandoned the effort to impose a new racial order on the South. As Bourbon Democrats strengthened their hold on the states of the former Confederacy, Republicans turned their attention to issues of industrial development, efficient government, and control of corruption and the excesses of patronage. Control of social policy returned to the states, where it remained for decades to come.

Reconstruction: Success or Failure

Southern Democrats perpetuated the legend that the radical governments of the Reconstruction era had represented the imposition by force of incompetent and corrupt regimes, creating a tragic period of failed government. Supporters of civil rights for African Americans regarded Reconstruction as a tragic era as well, one that offered great opportunities for racial justice, but opportunities that had not been realized, either through land reform or through protection of equal rights. However, a longer view recognized that with the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, the groundwork had been established for future progress.Denial of civil rights and suffrage continued, but by subterfuge and extralegal means. Clearly the Constitution now called for equal treatment without regard to race and equal voting rights without regard to race, and those who fought for these goals in future decades had the Constitution on their side. So in one sense, the Reconstruction era had achieved great progress by incorporating into the law of the land an idealistic vision that had been shared only by a few black leaders, abolitionists, and Republican radicals. That vision would not be fully implemented for more than a century, but because the leaders of the 1860s generation had embedded their goals in the Constitution, the vision remained on the nation's agenda.


1. A good source for investigative reports on the progress of Reconstruction is Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America During the Period of Reconstruction, April 15, 1865–July 15, 1870. (1871; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1972).

2. Re Mississippi Plan, see Albert Morgan, Yazoo; or On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South, as reproduced in Glenn M. Linden, ed., Voices from the Reconstruction Years, 1865–1877 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), p. 240.

3. Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1890 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), pp. 181–215.

4. Protest regarded as "sauce," see LaWanda Cox and John H. Cox, eds., Reconstruction, the Negro and the New South(Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 4–5.

5. This perspective on the long-range consequences of Reconstruction is shaped by Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Carlisle, Rodney P. "Reconstruction March 1865–April 1877." Civil War and Reconstruction, Eyewitness History. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.

ItemID=WE52&iPin=EHCWR11&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 20, 2012).

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