Reconstruction was the period following the Civil War in which the national government attempted to reintegrate the Southern states that had formed the Confederacy back into the United States. From 1865, when the war ended, until 1877, the national government worked to establish order in the South. In the process, the nation passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery, defined citizenship and protected the right to vote.
There were actually two periods of Reconstruction. The first, referred to as Presidential Reconstruction, began with the ending of the Civil War. As the commanders-in-chief of the military, President Abraham Lincoln, and then his predecessor, President Andrew Johnson, initiated the return of the Southern states back into full union with the country. This phase of Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to the spring of 1866, when Congress overtook the project. Congressional Reconstruction, the second phase, remained in effect until 1877.
The Thirteenth Amendment became law on December 6, 1865, making slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional. All American workers would be paid wages. Though outlawing slavery and servitude, the Amendment allowed for their imposition as punishment for crimes. As a result, most Southern states, where former slave owners needed workers, adopted Black Codes that created a series of new crimes. These crimes ensnared many recently freed African Americans, most of whom had little funds to pay bail. In turn, states could use these former slaves as laborers. The South remained largely agricultural during, and after, Reconstruction, with many mired in a cycle of perpetual poverty through a system known as sharecropping, in which the poor grew crops on another’s land in return for wages paid after the harvest. Having recently been freed with no financial resources, African Americans had to accept credit each year to pay for seeds, tools and other supplies. In the end, most sharecroppers remained in debt. State peonage laws made it a criminal offense to leave before settling debts, restricting the mobility of workers as had been the norm during slavery.
Incensed over the Black Codes, Congress began its own Reconstruction in 1866. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868, was an essential part of this period. This Amendment made anyone born in the United States a citizen of the nation and his state. Furthermore, states could no longer pass laws denying citizens equality under the law. Opponents, nevertheless, seized upon the Amendment’s weakness through laws that provided, at least theoretically, separate, but equal, treatment. Later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 making racial segregation illegal.
To provide greater access to political power, Congress adopted the Fifteenth Amendment on February 3, 1870. This Amendment made it unconstitutional for states to deny the right to vote for reasons related to “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Fulfilling the spirit of the Amendment, Congress eventually authorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement, ending major obstacles to voting for racial and ethnic minorities.
- Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections; Larry J. Sabato and Howard R. Ernst
- Library of Congress: 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- Reconstruction: People and Perspectives; James M. Campbell, Rebecca J. Fraser and Peter C. Mancall
- Cornell University Law School: Civil Rights
- Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era; Richard Zuczek, Ph.D.
- Library of Congress: 15th Amendment