What Political Problem Faced the United States at the End of the Civil War?

President Grant oversaw much of the Southern Reconstruction following the war.
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The political problems after the Civil War were twofold. The first crisis involved how to abolish slavery. Second, the government agonized over how to bring the Confederacy back into the Union. The slavery issue was solved with the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments, but it would be a century before all African Americans completely enjoyed these rights.

1 Abolishing Slavery

Although the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Confederate states, all slaves were not free until the ratification of the 13th Amendment shortly after the war. Subsequent amendments made former slaves citizens and protected their right to vote. The 14th Amendment states that all people born in the United States are citizens, and the 15th Amendment prevents racial infringement on voting rights. Thus, the 13th (1865), 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, and they are important cornerstones of civil rights protection for African Americans and others.

2 Reorganizing the South

From 1866-1877, the goal of the federal government was to reorganize the former Confederate states in order to readmit them into the Union. Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, proposed a lenient plan for readmission, but one that did not grant any political power to the former slaves. Lincoln and Johnson proposed that once ten percent of a state’s voters took an oath of allegiance to the Union, that state could then form a new government. Congress balked at this plan and passed the 14th and 15th Amendments in order to give Southern African Americans political power. For the next decade, Republicans controlled the former Confederate state governments. They were composed of a coalition of African Americans, white Southern Republicans and some Northern Republicans who moved south.

3 Southern Republicans

The South was split politically following the Civil War. The economic power resided in a small class of wealthy elite landowners and former slave owners who belonged to the Democratic Party. However, a large population of recently freed slaves, 3-4 million, and many white subsistence farmers also sought political power. Congress and the Republican Party gave power these people at the expense of the Southern landowners. There were also Northern Republicans who moved south, called carpetbaggers, seeking new business reconstructing the South. These Republican state governments soon ended in the late 1870s as the federal government began removing Union forces from the South. By 1878, the power had returned to the Democratic Southern elite.

4 Southern Democrat Revival

The lack of resolve by the federal government to maintain political power for African Americans, and the return of power to the wealthy landowners in the South brought an era of violence and oppression to the former slaves. The Democrats also worked to suppress African-American voting rights and hence political power for Southern Republicans. The last federal troops left the South in 1877, and the former Confederates were once again in charge of their state governments. From 1878 until the 1960s, the Southern Democrats formed a nearly impenetrable bloc that controlled every former Confederate state.

John Peterson published his first article in 1992. Having written extensively on North American archaeology and material culture, he has contributed to various archaeological journals and publications. Peterson has a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern New Mexico University and a Master of Arts from the University of Nebraska, both in anthropology, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in history from Columbia College.