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What Is Reconstruction?

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  • Written By: B. Koch
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Images By: Andrii Salivon, Olavs, The British Library
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2016
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The Reconstruction Era was the period in the United States immediately after the Civil War, lasting from 1865 to 1877. This period was marked by attempts to reintegrate the Confederate states into the Union. These efforts were not always easy, as social, political, and economic differences made compromise difficult.

There were a number of different theories as to how Reconstruction might take place. The first plan to be implemented was President Lincoln’s plan. Lincoln wished to make reaccession as easy as possible so that the Union could be reestablished and normality created as soon as possible. Lincoln’s plan for readmitting the Confederate states into the Union included a “10 percent plan,” which stated that for a state to be readmitted to the Union, 10 percent of white voters must pledge an oath of allegiance to the Union.

After Lincoln was assassinated, his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, tried to follow the same reconstruction philosophy as Lincoln. He supported the 10 Percent Plan. The extension of these moderate policies made him disliked by many who either wanted stronger or weaker policies.

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Many in Lincoln and Johnson’s own party, especially a group called the Radical Republicans, thought the 10 Percent Plan was much too lenient. They wished to assure the loyalty of the former slaveholding classes and wanted to go to greater lengths to ensure racial equality in the former Confederacy. For example, the Radical Republicans wanted the land of former slaveholders be taken from them and given to their former slaves, redistributing the wealth of the rich in these areas.

It was the work of the Radical Republicans that allowed three amendments to the constitution to be ratified — the 13th, 14th, and 15th. These amendments formally abolished slavery, gave the rights of citizens to former slaves, and gave citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote.

In 1866 the Radical Republicans gained a strong majority in Congress. Their plan for Reconstruction was implemented soon afterwards and involved separating the southern states into military districts. They were reaccessioned after they agreed to ratify the 14th and 15th amendments. The hope was, that equality for former slaves would be assured in these states following their ratification of the amendments. Entirely new governments were established for each state, which largely consisted of African Americans as well as Republicans, originally from the northern states.

Opposition from the southern land owning classes as well as a national financial crisis made it difficult for the government to maintain these policies. By the mid 1870s Reconstruction policies were no longer being strictly maintained. By 1890 freed former slaves were finding it difficult to maintain their voting rights.

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Despite the best intentions of the leaders of reconstruction, the failure to come to an agreement on how best to implement it may have contributed to a long delay in racial integration in the United States.

Imagine how different things would have been if the reconstruction period had been more successful in giving rights to blacks as long ago as the 1870s.

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