Sunday, October 16, 2011

Putting the Nation Back Together Again

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After the Civil War, the United States was faced with one of its greatest challenges of all time. The documents which contain the basic ideals of this country, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, would truly be tested during the years after the war. In addition, the North had to reconstruct the entire Southern way of life. Before the war, the Southerners were extremely sensitive about the issue of eradicating slavery because it was the basis of their lifestyles. As a result of the war, slavery was like a rug that was pulled from under their feet. To make matters worse, the Northern army had pillaged and burned a large amount of land in the South as they went along. Also, no one had the slightest clue how to handle the millions of uneducated African Americans that were now free. These former slaves only possessed one skill, the skill of labor. Now that they attained their freedom, they had no knowledge of what to do with it. The North, on the other hand, was doing extremely well. The economic boost that had begun with the war continued in the years of peace afterwards and the era of big business began. The miles of railroad track nearly doubled between 1860 and 1870, mostly in the North and the West.

One of the earliest challenges for the Union was deciding what to do with the leaders of the Confederacy. Some Northerners demanded that the leaders be punished for their actions. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a few of his officials were detained for a few years, but were released when Northern Authorities could not find grounds for prosecuting them. In addition, most people did not desire revenge anyway. Most southern military leaders could not be arrested because they were under military parole, which is a verbal contract in which the prisoner of war gives his word that if he is released, he will not fight against his captors again. Only one prominent Confederate official was executed, Henry Wirz. He was the commander of Andersonville prison in Georgia, where 1,000 Union soldiers had died. The years to come became known as Reconstruction. During Reconstruction, many different opinions and views were exercised to try to resolve the problems in the South.

The national government did not take any immediate action to aid the distressed South. The government did, however, create the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist freed African Americans in making the transition from slavery to free life. The bureau helped both blacks and whites. However, its agents were criticized for fraud and party politics. In reality it was the whites in the South who were left to deal with the free African Americans. Instead of welcoming the free blacks into society, the South was eager to regain their stranglehold on the free African American population with the Black Codes, which were issued in 1865. The codes were utilized to control the free blacks and deny them the rights that the North had won for them. The Black codes varied from state to state. Most of them encompassed the same basic restrictions, which included everything from marriages to the right to hold and sell property. Although the white planters in the South could no longer possess slaves, they were determined to have a system just like the previous one, only with a different name. Generally, codes compelled Freedmen to work. Any free black that was unemployed could be arrested. Even those who did work, had their hours, duties, and behavior dictated. The South refused to let go of the ideology that African Americans were predestined to do manual labor for whites. For example, in South Carolina, free blacks needed a certificate from the judge to work in a profession outside of agricultural. Also, self-sufficiency was discouraged. In many states, blacks were not allowed to own land outside of the city, nor were they allowed to grow crops. At the same time, other cities discouraged blacks from residing in towns or cities. To enter some towns “a note was required and it had to state the nature and length of the visit. Any black found without a note after ten o’clock was subject to imprisonment” (The Black Codes of 1865). Of course, extending suffrage to blacks was unheard of in the South. President Lincoln did not immediately deal with the codes. For this, Charles Summer attacked Lincoln claiming, “A government organized by Congress and appointed by the President is to enforce laws and institutions, some of which are abhorrent to civilization” (Black Codes). In a cross-examination, Robert E. Lee was asked if he believed that people of color should be allowed to vote in elections. His answer contained the pure ideology of the South, “My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the right of suffrage would open the door to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways. What the future may prove, how intelligent they may become, with what eyes they may look upon the interest of the state in which they may reside, I cannot say more than you can” (Black Codes). Nevertheless, Federal officials who deemed the codes too strict and too harsh suspended the codes in 1866.

Many people had their opinions as to what should be done, but no one offered any concrete solutions. The task was left to the man in office, President Abraham Lincoln. Just like his views on slavery, Lincoln proposed a very moderate plan for Reconstruction. He yearned to reconstruct the Union as soon as possible and did not wish to punish the South. Lincoln’s plan, announced in December 186, offered a general amnesty, or pardon, to all who would take an oath of loyalty to the United States. The oath obligated those who took it to comply with the constitution and obey federal laws, especially ones concerning slavery. If, in each state, one tenth of the number of voters in 1860 took the oath, they could re-establish their state government. Lincoln promised to recognize such governments. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee begin to carry out Lincolns plan in late 1864. However, it is impossible to please everyone, as Lincoln found out. A group of Republicans in Congress, called the Radical Republicans, strongly opposed the plan because they desired much harsher punishments for the South. In July 1864, the Radicals presented a plan of their own, the Wade-Davis Bill. This measure required that a majority of the state had to take the oath. A state would also have to abolish slavery in order to be re-admitted to the Union. In addition, no one who had served as a Confederate or State Official could vote for a state legislator. Lincoln disposed of it with a pocket veto. Outraged, the Radicals issued a violent denunciation of Lincoln, and declared that Congress alone held the power to control Reconstruction.

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Before the issue between Lincoln and the Radicals could be solved, the President was assassinated on April 14, 1865. His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, took over the Presidency. His plan encompassed some of the ideas from Lincoln, but it still had a few differences. Johnson proposed that the government should pardon all states that took an oath of loyalty, but not extend amnesty to high ranking confederate officials or those with property valued over 0,000 dollars. In addition, a state had to revoke its ordinance of succession and abolish slavery before it could rejoin the Union. Unfortunately, Johnson had one major shortcoming; he was not Lincoln. Johnson lacked the skill of handling people, and did not understand how to compromise. One major mistake Johnson made was going ahead with his Reconstruction plans without consulting Congress. This irritated many members of Congress, especially the Radical Republicans. “The Radicals favored a ‘hard peace’ for the defeated South” (Reconstruction). There were a few different motives for the Radicals’ views. Some believed that the South started the war and needed to be punished. Others worried about the future for the millions of free African Americans. They thought it was the government’s responsibility to insure the rights of the freed slaves. Still, many Republicans saw the issue as a political one. They wanted a plan to keep the Republican Party in power. They were determined to retain the legislative gains that were won in the war. These gains included high tariffs, free homestead, a banking system favorable to business, and subsidies to railroads. They assumed that if the Democrats regained power in the South, they would oppose the plan. The Republicans wanted to create a Republican party in the South. Such a party would rely on African American votes. So, for both idealistic and political reasons, Republicans supported black suffrage. Nevertheless, the Republicans had to carry out their plan with extreme caution because many Northerners wanted to deny African Americans the right to vote. Still, with careful maneuvering, the Republicans were able to gain a significant amount of popularity in the North.

The Radicals pushed through the Civil Right Bill, to counteract the Black Codes, in April 1866. It attempted to prevent states from discriminating against a person merely because of his or her race. President Johnson vetoed the Bill, but Congress overrode it. Encouraged by their success, the Republicans endeavored to create a 14th amendment. It was the first definition of a citizen in the history of the nation and aimed to prevent state intervention of civil rights. In addition, it declared that state representation in Congress and the Electoral College would be reduced if a state denied the right to vote to any free man. Another provision disqualified prominent Confederate leaders from holding national or state office. Many states did not ratify the amendment because they would not approve of a measure penalizing their leaders. Although the amendment was defeated, many Northerners generally favored it. This proved to do more damage than good for the South. The Congressional elections of 1866 expressed how the North felt about the issue. The Radicals acquired over two-thirds of the majority of Congress, which was needed to override a presidential veto. “They then moved to profit from their victory and enact their final program” (Reconstruction). They tried to assure that it would be Congress, rather than the President, that would control the administration of their plans. In 1867, the Radicals passed two laws that were clearly unconstitutional. First, they passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the President from dismissing certain officials, including cabinet members, without the senate’s consent. Second, the Command of the Army Act was passed, which prohibited issuing of military commands except through the commanding general who could not be removed without the senate’s approval. The army was a vital part of the Republican plan because it would be used to enforce their program. Then, the Radicals moved to complete the final part of their plan. They did so through the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which were a series of bills that divided the ten unreconstructed states into five military districts. A major general would be in charge of preparing his province for a return to statehood. Election boards would register all adult black males, and any adult white male that would take a complicated oath of loyalty. In the ten states, 70,000 African Americans and 67,000 whites registered. The voters had to elect a convention to prepare a new constitution providing for African American suffrage. As a final condition, the states had to ratify the 14th amendment. Johnson vetoed the bills in protest, but the Radicals easily overrode his veto.

Next, the Radicals moved to punish their enemy in the White House. They attempted to impeach Johnson on the grounds that he violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The Radicals failed by one vote to muster the two-thirds of the Senate necessary to impeach Johnson. It is, perhaps, very fortunate for this nation that the Radicals did not succeed in impeaching Johnson or the power of the Presidents thereafter might have been permanently limited. Despite the Republican efforts, Johnson was able to finish his sentence. His successor, Ulysses S. Grant, generally supported the Republican plan. Republican state government in the South depended on black voters, but white men usually provided the real leadership. Some southerners believed they could cooperate with the African Americans and direct their votes. These men became known as scalawags. Most scalawags were planters and businessmen who had long histories dealing with African American, but they could not control the African Americans. They refused to meet all of the blacks social and economic demands, and lost leadership to a group of Northern whites, the carpetbaggers. This group got their names from the bags that they traveled with. Most carpetbaggers went south for idealistic and selfish reasons and were willing to give the African Americans what they wanted. The Republican state governments in the South were supported by the United States army, and without it, they would have probably failed immediately. As one Southerner put it, “… it was seen on every hand that the end was near, and that the corrupt governments, set up under the Reconstruction law, remained … held up on the points of the bayonets of the United States army” (Summary). The state governments often contradicted themselves. Their programs combined fraud with liberal, though some time impractical, legislation. State budgets and debt reached figures previously undreamed of. The money went into the pockets of some dishonest men. Some went to worthy causes, such as public education. The corruption was not limited to the South. Northern State and Local governments were just as bad, if not worse, than many of its counterparts in the South.

Many people in the South did not take the Republican rule lying down, and Southern resistance took on many forms. One infamous organization that emerged was the Ku-Klux-Klan. Their purpose was to terrorize African Americans to the point where they were too frightened to vote. This is one legacy of Reconstruction that continues to plague us today. The federal government moved vigorously and aggressively against them. In three force bills passed in 1870 and 187, it authorized the use of military force to preserve civil rights. Southerners then created semi military organizations such as the White League of Louisiana and the Red Shirts of South Carolina, which attended polls carrying firearms. African Americans refused to vote in the face of such threats. Then the federal government added the 15th amendment to try and guarantee African American suffrage. However, many Southerners were persistent in their views and used complicated literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. When the literacy tests began keeping whites from the polls, some states passed the Grandfather Clause, which declared that one’s grandfather had to be white in order for them to vote. This provision effectively barred African Americans from voting. Ultimately, economic pressure was the most important weapon to the South. The African Americans depended on the whites for both jobs and pay. In this way, the Southern whites could control the votes of the Southern blacks. Republican rule in the South did not last a very long time. In some states, whites overthrew the governments almost immediately. Still, others progressed at a slower pace. Public opinion in the North gradually turned against the use of force in the South. The Election of 1876 spelled the end of Reconstruction.

The Election of 1876 was one of those elections that tested the constitution and this country’s integrity. Neither candidate for President, Rutherford B. Hayes nor Samuel J. Tilden “could have taken office with the complete pride in his party’s electioneering” (Who Won the Election of 1876). Both sides were involved in scandals and fraud. Four different states, all of which were still undergoing Reconstruction, sent in two different decisions as to who won the state’s electoral votes. Through it all, Hayes came out as the winner. He declared the remaining Reconstruction Acts unconstitutional and Reconstruction in the South essentially ended.

Soon after the demise of Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Laws were passed. The Jim Crow Laws were meant to replace the Black Codes and impose racial segregation. Also, the Jim Crow Laws are one of the most infamous legacies of Reconstruction. The Supreme Court set the stage for the Jim Crow Laws by several of its decisions. The Court held that the Civil Right Acts of 1875 were unconstitutional, and that the 14th amendment did not prohibit private organizations and individuals from discriminating on the basis of race. “However, it was the Supreme Court’s decision in ‘Plessy versus Ferguson’ that led the way to racial segregation” (Creation of the Jim Crow South). In 180, Louisiana passed a law that forbid blacks from riding in white railroad cars. Homer Pessy, a carpenter in Louisiana, was seven-eights Caucasian. While traveling on a railroad car reserved for whites, Pessy was told to leave. When he refused, he was arrested and the local judge found him guilty. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. It held that separate but equal accommodations did not violate Plessy’s rights and that the law did not stamp the colored race with a badge of inferiority. The court further supported separate but equal accommodations in ‘Cumming versus County Board of Education’ that separate schools were valid even if comparable schools were not available for blacks. With the Supreme Court’s approval, the Plessy decision paved the way for segregation in the South. Southern States passed laws that barred African Americans from restaurants, public restrooms, public water fountains, parks, hospitals and other public places. Over time, things changed. The members of the Supreme Court changed along with their views. By 115, The Jim Crow laws were losing their strength. The Supreme Court in ‘Guinn versus United States’ ruled that the Oklahoma law, which denied the right to vote for some citizens, was unconstitutional. In 117, the decisions in ‘Buchanan versus Warley’, the Court held that Louisville, Kentucky could not require segregation. However, it was the Supreme Court decision in 154, nearly 100 years after the end of the Civil War, in ‘Brown versus Board of Education’, that overturned the Courts decision in Plessy. It held that separate schools were unequal and its ruling helped dismantle racial segregation. The Court provided fuel for the growing Civil Rights Movements that eventually led to the end of legal racial segregation. Unfortunately, no law can legislate attitude, and racism still exists today in many forms. Racial profiling, where police discriminate against blacks is very common all of over the United States. There are many ways that opportunity is denied to blacks. Often housing is hard for blacks to find in white areas. Banks can compound the problem with unfair lending practices. Also, it is not unheard of that blacks are told jobs have already been filled, when in reality they have not

Sadly, Reconstruction did not have the desired effect, which we are still forced to deal with today. The rights that the Union Army had won for the African Americans in 1865 were not truly granted for almost a century. Congress could change laws, but not attitude. Also, Reconstruction was handled improperly and put the South through a number of very tough years. The Northerners who went south after the war, carpetbaggers, did not help either. “The carpet-baggers had taken their ‘carpet bags’ and gone to a more congenial clime, where they lost their identity as a class, having the scorn and contempt of all respectable citizens” (Summary), declared one Southerner. The whole Reconstruction and Jim Crow Laws era proved to be one more seemingly impossible trial in this grand experiment of liberty and justice for all. Nevertheless, this nation seems to be dealing with each succeeding adversity with more confidence and less controversy than ever seen in the history of this world.

“Black Codes.” 1 May 00.


“The Black Codes of 1865.” 1 May 00.


“Creation of the Jim Crow South.” 1 May 00.


“Reconstruction.” The Worldbook Encyclopedia. 15th ed. 17.

“Summary.” 16 May 00.


“Who Won the Election of 1876.” 17 May 00.


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