The Reconstruction era, from 1865-1877, represents America’s first attempt at multiracial democracy. Why did this valiant attempt end so abruptly? What were some of the achievements of the era? And most importantly, what lessons can we draw from Reconstruction for the 21st century?
This session was led by Robert Greene II, an Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina in 2019. His areas of research are Southern history since 1945, African American history, and American intellectual history since Reconstruction. Dr. Greene serves as book reviews editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians. He also serves as Lead Instructor for the South Carolina Progressive Network’s Modjeska Simkins School of Human Rights. Finally, Dr. Greene has published several book chapters and scholarly articles, and has also written for popular publications including The Nation, Oxford American, Dissent, Scalawag, Jacobin, and In These Times.
Below, you will find a recording of the session, a recommended reading list, and a truncated summary of the session.
Books on the Reconstruction Era and its aftermath are plentiful. However, this list is meant to provide a solid foundation for understanding Reconstruction. Much of this is recent, but classics such as Black Reconstruction in America still have plenty to teach us too.
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution by Eric Foner
Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois
After Appomattox by Gregory P. Downs
Capitol Men by Philip Dray
Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty For All by David Roediger
A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
The Death of Reconstruction by Heather Cox Richardson
Race and Reunion by David Blight
The Second Founding by Eric Foner
A Nation Under Our Feet by Steven Hahn
Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 by Charles Postel
Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy by Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle
The Beginnings of Reconstruction (21:00)
The session began by centering South Carolina as an example for thinking about race and American society, especially as it relates to the south and Reconstruction Era. It is an incredibly important space - as it’s not only the site that began the Civil War, but also where reconstruction policy really took shape.
Port Royal, a coastal settlement in the state, was one of the first places in the Confederacy that fell to Union forces. Port Royal was home to a couple thousand enslaved Africans, and following federal capture in November of 1861, political leaders were forced to answer long-festering questions about what to do with former slaves. This began the Port Royal experiment, which an effort to see if formerly enslaved Africans would work for a decent wage. The experiment involved thousands of Africans, union soldiers, school teachers, and other leaders from New England who came to educate these people on the benefits of wage labor. What they found, of course, was that these former slaves were more than happy to work for pay.
However, throughout this experiment, the formerly enslaved of Port Royal were never really asked what they wanted. Where federal forces from the north were instructing freed slaves on the ways of capitalism and wage labor, what most truly wanted (and needed) was their own piece of land and political protections. This mismatch – of what former slaves wanted and what they were given - would become a source of tension between former slaves and white northerners. This tension would play out over and over throughout the Civil War, but during the Reconstruciton Era more broadly. This tension also reminds us that the Civil War was not just a battle for slavery – but a battle between a pro-slavery south and pro-capitalist north.
Freedom and Slavery (25:52) and Defining American Citizenship (28:15)
After Port Royal, Republicans in Congress used the outcome of this experiment to inform different proposals on what to do with former slaves during the Reconstruction Era.
But Watch Night (December 31, 1862) is also an instructive event that exposes the larger political realities during this time. Before midnight on December 31, many sat in Black churches across the United States awaiting a message from Abraham Lincoln that formally declared Black freedom. In September of 1862, President Lincoln released what was called the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of Jan 1, 1863, all people held in bondage across the south would be henceforth and forever free if the South did not give up its war against the federal government. Earlier in 1862, union setbacks on the battlefield caused some uncertainty as to whether President Lincoln would actually follow through on this guarantee.
Shortly after midnight on January 1, couriers across the country brought messages from Abraham Lincoln which declared that the Emancipation Proclamation had officially been decreed. This transformed the Civil War from a story of north versus south into a war of emancipation. But declaration of freedom prompted an additional political question to the fore: what happens to Black people when the Civil War is over?
Prior to Reconstruction, there were no iron-clad laws that truly defined American citizenship. This ambiguity had calamitous effects for African Americans in the past. The 1857 Dred Scott decision – for example – found that no person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore could not bring suit in federal court. This had the effect of enshrining that Black Americans – enslaved or free – had very little rights in front of national law. However, once the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, tens of thousands African Americans joined the effort to fight in the Civil War. Valor on the battlefield forced federal leaders to think more deeply about what it means to be an American citizen. Pro-citizenship advocates noted that there were thousands of African Americans who fought and died in the civil war – in-effect, fighting to save the Union; this promoted an idea that Black Americans should thus be granted the privileges of citizenship. Additionally, emancipation allowed Black Americans to make their voices heard in ways they had never been able to before - expanding their abilities to protest and communicate their ideas in both Black and White populations across the country. Of course, Black Americans had been asking these political questions for generations, but Reconstruction forced a political answer to this long-ignored quandary. But this question was also extended to new immigrants to American and Indigenous populations out west. Ultimately, the 14th Amendment would create the constitutional basis for resolving ambiguity over citizenship.
The Reconstruction Era (31:57)
Discussion of citizenship for Black men was revolutionary thought during the time – most White Americans weren’t even thinking about granting voting rights to African Americans in 1862. And yet by 1865, we are at the precipice of a real revolution in political and social rights in America. A great deal of this revolution was built on the ashes of the south, which had been utterly devastated by the Civil War. South Carolina – the first state to succeed from the Union in 1860 - had by 1865 been destroyed. There was a sense that this post-war period may offer the best chance to transform the south into a truly democratic piece of the Union. Southern states, but especially South Carolina, had oppressive voting systems even for White men – so it was hardly a model for democracy even by 19th century standards, and so redesigning democracy became a critical objective for the Republican Party of the time.
As reconstruction occurs in the south, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the federal government had been simultaneously engaging in various wars against indigenous peoples out west, as typified by the Dakota War of 1862 and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. As the federal government shapes what the south can and should be, there is also a push out west to disrupt and destroy indigenous tribes for the sake of providing more land for the country’s white population. This reminds us that the history of the Reconstruction Era is not just one of Black political advancement and retrenchment. It is also an era westward expansion and labor disruption. The Era created many decision points for the country – and different decisions could have led the country into wildly different directions.
From War to Reunion (37:33) and Reconstruction Policy (38:53)
In 1865, there is relief in the north that the war is over, and politicians in Washington consider how to go about winning the peace. This meant not only managing the political reincorporation of states into the Union, but atoning and reconciling the vast bloodshed spared on both sides, and clarifying what to do with the nearly 4 million people who are now free. These questions would go on to perplex many American politicians throughout the decade, and the effects of decisions made would linger in the American consciousness and political system for generations to come.
The death of Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865 is one of the most important in the history of reconstruction policy. Although there is historical debate surrounding how President Lincoln would have build reconstruction policy, his final public address in 1865 included statements about granting the right to vote to Black men (albeit of a certain “level of intelligence”) and Black veterans of the Civil War. Regardless of his thinking on reconstruction policy, this speech marked the first time in history where an American President openly considered advancing citizenship rights to Black men, giving many reformers and activists the political space necessary to advocate for bolder social reformation.
Following Lincoln’s death, Vice-President Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency. A former Democrat from Tennessee, he was the only southerner to stay in the Senate during the Civil War. As reward for his loyalty he was appointed military governor of Tennessee and later selected as Vice-President, as Lincoln wanted to show that he was dedicated to Union, rather than revenge. There was hope that Johnson would do right by the slaves; growing up poor himself and ardently opposed to the plantar class in the south, there was a belief that he might look out for newly freed slaves as he did for poor whites– a sentiment shared even by Black intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass.
But by the end of 1865, it became clear that Johnson’s policy would not live up to these hopes. Johnson was more concerned with achieving a swift rehabilitation of the Union, in effect ignoring the plight faced by former slaves (and Black Americans in general). However, the more radical wing of the Republican Party, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate, were thinking that this was their chance to fundamentally alter the south for the better. Their ideas would take root in a Republican Party that became increasingly frustrated with actions taken by ex-Confederate states.
Many ex-Confederate territories began rewriting their constitutions to reenter the Union, and had come ot include “Black Codes” which would bring the social status of Black Americans as close to slavery as possible. Although the passage of the 13th Amendment (the first of the Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the Civil War) abolished slavery, southern governments could effectively do everything short of enslavement to control the lives and labor of Black Americans. These codes restricted African Americans settlement, required identification papers carried at all times, required white persons to vouch for the character of former slaves before engaging in certain activities, and so forth. In addition to legislative tricks, by the end of 1865 Congressmen from the south would begin returning to Washington, DC. Their ranks included many members of the former Confederate Congress and those in Confederate leadership positions – including Alexander Stevens, Vice-President of the Confederacy. Republicans were shocked to see the people responsible for the Civil War were now returning to Congress as if nothing happened. This pushed moderate, and even conservative Republicans to support more radical reconstruction policies.
Meanwhile, activists such as Frederick Douglass were pushing Congress to grant Black men the right to vote. This idea was pushed not only as a moral imperative, but as a political tactic: where Black men had the right to vote, they would be able to bolster the Republican Party in an otherwise Democratic South.
Freedman’s Bureau and Early Experiences with Reconstruction (44:50)
In examining the Reconstruction Era, we also observe the origins of modern thinking about government and the services we expect it to provide. For example, the idea that social welfare is a service that provides greater benefit for society has its origins in the Reconstruction Era Freedman’s Bureau. The Freedman’s Bureau was designed not just Black Americans, but poor whites across the south as well. It was meant to be a place where victims of the Civil War could apply for relief, access an education, and so forth. But the Bureau quickly becomes associated with Black people, as they were most willing (and most desparate for) the services provided. The Bureau provided a crucial role to former slaves, as they were able to sign contracts on someone’s behalf, provide physical and political protection, and supply aide and relief in the name of helping former slaves achieve greater economic liberation and advancement. But the Bureau also became of the first targets of resistance to the Welfare State, or social safety net. Much of the language and arguments against the Welfare State in political debates today originate from this early resistance to the Freedman’s Bureau: an idea begins to spread across both the north and south that Black people are too dependent on the government.
In reality, the question of what is owed to former slaves and their family was hardly settled during early reconstruction. The colloquial phrase “forty acres and a mule” iinfers the idea that Black people were owed something for their years of unpaid labor (as well as the physical and emotional horror shouldered) under slavery. This idea has its origins in General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, issued in January 16, 1865. The orders confiscated hundreds of thousands of acres of land along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be given to recently freed slaves in the region – promised no more than forty acres, and potentially a mule for laboring the land. This idea took hold in the coastal areas of the south, but also spread inland.
Andrew Johnson moved to rescind the order – but many Freedman’s Bureau workers on the ground resisted these orders until they were dismissed. What the order’s rescinding meant was freed slaves – who had already settled in many of these lands and were actively working them - would have to evacuate and watch their return to those who previously owned them. This experience lingers through Black history – encouraging many to question the resolve and power of the federal government to support, aid, or provide redress. This skepticism and hostility would resurface time and again during the Reconstruction Era.
In addition to the Black Codes, which would reappear in reformed state constitutions, mass violence also terrorized and intimidated African Americans in the south. Massacres, such as the Memphis Massacre of 1866 and New Orleans Massacre of 1866, were prompted following assertion of rights by the formerly enslaved. When news of these massacres reaches the north, in addition to other instances of social terror inflicted on former slave populations across the south, Congress was prompted to formerly push for civil rights protections for African Americans across the country. This led to the passage of the first Civil Rights Act of 1866 – which was originally vetoed by President Johnson but overturned by a majority in the House – which became the first that specifically defined American citizenship.
Formal Reconstruction (53:35)
The formal reconstruction process took many forms throughout the era, but largely oriented around the four Reconstruction Amendments passed between 1865 and 1870. These acts demanded southern state governments to re-write their constitutions to enshrine Black citizenship rights, and provide Black men the right to vote. These demands were shared by most northern Congressional leaders who came to understand that the only way reconstruction would really take hold would be for Black men to exercise political and economic agency. Politically, the will of reconstruction was implemented through the military – which formed five districts across the south. Military occupation encouraged these southern states to re-organize their state governments in order to return to autonomy.
The Late Reconstruction Era (58:34)
Throughout his tenure, Andrew Johnson had angered far too many Congressional blocs, eventually spurring an impeachment attempt in 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act, although he survived being removed from office by one vote in the Senate. This process left him so politically wounded that he would be unable to run for office again. The following election, then, for all intents and purposes became a referendum on racism in American society.
The Republican Party ran Ulysses S. Grant, a Union hero of the Civil War, under the slogan of “let us have peace.” This platform essentially promised a final and decisive resolution to years of calamities throughout the Reconstruction Era. Democrats ran on an explicitly racist platform. A placard from the era describes the tenor of the Democrats’ campaign: “This is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.” This motto was not geared toward white southerners – in fact, it was openly promoted across the American north. The platform tapped into latent fears among northern whites that, with the end of slavery, Black Americans would come north to take jobs. There was an economic fear that equality amongst the races would lessen white freedom and opportunity, and this fear was indulged by Democratic politicians.
While Grant did win the election in an electoral college landslide, the popular vote was quite close. In fact, some historians believe that Grant’s competitive performance in the south was due to Black voters; Grant won South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, and lost four northern states (New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland). This worried Republicans, who came to believe that their window for reform was closing.
Congress passed the last of the reconstruction amendments, the 15th Amendment, in 1870 which enshrined that the right to vote will not be infringed based on race, creed, or color. The amendment does not mention sex – which will become a sticking point for many suffragists throughout and following the Reconstruction Era. Among many activists (including slavery abolitionists) there was a desire to provide the right to vote to women. But abolitionists largely decided to put universal sufferage on the backburner – a fact that many activists would argue to be a mistake (and indeed, women would not be granted the right to vote until 1920). This Era should also be one that is instructive to modern reformers and activists today. Throughout the Era, activist and progressive alliances encountered numerous walls that inhibited further social change. In this case, we see how it was thought that civil rights could only be advanced on race or gender lines – not both at the same time. We can apply experiences of these movements to modern political alliances today who are debating how far society can be pushed, and how far society is willing to imagine the politics of tomorrow.
Southern Violence and Resistance (1:05:35)
The Reconstruction Era was also one of larger fear. Thousands of Black people (men, women, and children) were killed or disappeared throughout the Era. This was the result of vigilante groups and social organizations, such as the KKK, which deployed force to terrorize or intimidate Black Americans from exercising their newly granted social and political autonomy. The Civil War ended in 1865, but for all intents and purposes, a low-boil guerilla war would continue throughout the late 1860s and 70s.
The Republican Party was successful in passing a series of laws designed to safeguard elections in response to this widespread violence. This included the Enforcement Act of 1870 (which banned the use of violence to stop people from voting), the Enforcement Act of 1871 (which allowed federal oversight of elections), and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (which bars use of Klan tactics to dissuade voters, and allowed the President to call militia to engage in federal government activities). The KKK, which began in the 1860s, had by the 1870s become a mass terrorist organization across the country. This history also marks the formation of the modern Department of Justice, which was reformed and empowered during the Reconstruction Era to stamp out the KKK and other terrorist organizations throughout the 1860s and 70s. Examining contemporary actions taken by the DOJ – such as its spying on groups such as the NAACP, Communist groups, or black liberation groups – projects an unsettling irony given its reconstruction roots.
But despite these measures and Grant’s reelection, violence doesn’t seem to stop – it just seems to change form. While the Klan is effectively destroyed by 1872, across the South white southerners had become more brazen in their attacks on Black populations. This resulted in the Colfax Massacre of 1873 and the Hamburg Massacre in 1876 (where the right to vote became brutally suppressed by what were called “red shirts,” or people who wore red and desired to build a South Carolina government that would be in favor of restoring “White Rule.”
By 1876, many White Americans across the country are tired of reconstruction issues and tumult. The Panic of 1873 led to economic turmoil which compounded financial anxities faced by American workers across the country. By 1876, many began to lose faith in the Republican Party’s style of governance, and the Presidential election that year was won by one electoral college vote in the Republicans’s favor. In fact, the outcome of the election was contested far past election night; accusations of voter fraud and voter suppression ran rampant in the southern states of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. Eventually, in Winer of 1877, a conference of Republicans and Democrats compromised to grant Republicans the White House and withdraw troops out of the south – effectively ending the Reconstruction Era.
Discussions and Questions (1:12:15)
Professor Greene followed his lecture by fielding answers to questions posed by session attendees. The discussion fielded a wide array of contemporary political topics, such as: ending racial discrimination today; strategies for building multi-racial coalitions; the effects of slavery on political ideas and systems; and the broader history of anti-racist resistance during Reconstruction and the implications of these experiences in strategizing for radical politics today.