After the Civil War the federal government was in a tough position, there needed to be legislation ensuring the freedom of slaves as well as a plan for bringing southern states back into the Union. Reconstruction was the plan that was supposed to take care of these issues. However, Reconstruction looked different to different people. President Abraham Lincoln had a very lenient view on Reconstruction. President Andrew Johnson had a very different view from Lincoln, attempting to grant southern states more rights and keep African Americans down. Republicans in Congress used the situation to attempt a political stronghold. In short, during Reconstruction “southern states sought to rejoin the Union and recover from the war’s human and material losses; the North sought to advance its political and economic interests throughout the country and in the South and black Americans sought to be part of American society” (Optow, 30). Reconstruction in all its forms had many flaws and could not address all of the issues required to move forward peacefully after the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln started planning for Reconstruction before the Civil War ended. Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction was aimed at bringing the southern states back into the Union and to assimilate African American into American society. Lincoln began planning Reconstruction by allowing southerners to take an oath of allegiance to the Union beginning in 1863. “When just 10 percent of a state’s voting population had taken such an oath, loyal Unionists could then establish governments” (Christopher Abernathy et al, 2018). This began to cause problems because these “Lincoln governments” began to emerge in areas where there was already Union support, areas that were also spared from the Emancipation Proclamation. While the Emancipation Proclamation did force the abolition of slavery, it only help this to areas of rebellion and did not free slaves from bondage in Union occupied areas. This then led to Congress passing the Thirteenth Amendment which legally abolished slavery. However, things changed drastically when President Lincoln was shot.
After President Lincoln was assassinated Vice President Andrew Johnson came into office. Johnson was a believer in states rights and was also a racist, leading him to have very different views on Reconstruction. While he did force southern governments to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment he gave them very little restrictions other than that. “Many southern governments enacted legislation that reestablished antebellum power relationships” (Christopher Abernathy et al, 2018). Southern states began to pass laws that denied African Americans rights and attempted to limit their social and economic control. These laws became known as the Black Codes. SInce Johnson had given the southern states so much freedom there was no real federal repercussion from him regarding this unjust treatment of freed slaves. “So when Johnson announced that the southern states had been restored, congressional Republicans refused to seat delegates from the newly constructed states” (Christopher Abernathy et al, 2018). This in turn led to a spate of legislation issued by Congress which eventually did include the Fourteenth Amendment.
Republicans in Congress seemed to be making laws that attempted to give rights to freed slaves and restore political order amongst the north and south. However, they secretly had a different agenda they were working. Republicans in Congress were essentially taking advantage of the situation to guarantee their party’s hold on the government. Giving voting rights to freed slave men gave hundreds of thousands of votes to the Republican party. “Republicans, the liberal party of that time, feared that if freed slaves could not vote, the resulting population increase in the South resulting from the Fourteenth Amendment would boost the political power of former slaveholders and the conservative Democratic party” (Optow, 33). Therefore, it was in the best interest for the Republicans in Congress to give fundamental rights to freedmen by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Fourteenth Amendment. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 attempted to “define all American-born residents (except Native peoples) as citizens” (Christopher Abernathy et al, 2018) and the Fourteenth Amendment, which Congress developed at the same time as the Civil Rights Act, ensured that state laws “could not deny due process or discriminate against particular groups of people” (Christopher Abernathy et al, 2018). Both the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment were an attempt at reversing the Black Codes and establish a more intense Reconstruction plan. However they did also demonstrate that the federal government was willing to uphold the Bill of Rights over the rights of the states.
Although Reconstruction was a tense time in American history I would not say that it should be described as the darkest period in American history. “Reconstruction brought the first moment of mass democratic participation for African Americans” (Christopher Abernathy et al, 2018). African Americans began to vote in large number and help positions of government. During this time African Americans also were granted rights to marry and began to get an education. “Formerly enslaved people entered the post-war period wanting to participate fully and equally in American society” (Optow, 31). Women also began to view themselves differently with the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment and began to bring up issues of Women’s Rights. While I believe what had to be endured was terrible, it also gave people the momentum that was needed to establish real change for this period. However, I believe that there should not have been so much emphasis put on punishing the south after the war. Reconstruction was going to be difficult no matter who won the war but the plan for Reconstruction needed to be more inclusive and less focused on retribution.