Reconstruction offered a glimpse of equality for Black Americans. Why did it fail?

During the Reconstruction era, the U.S. abolished slavery and guaranteed Black men the right to vote. But it was marred by tragedy and political infighting—and ended with a disastrous backlash.

Members of the first South Carolina legislature after the Civil War. Approximately 2,000 Black men were elected to office during the post-war Reconstruction period, which briefly provided political and social power to formerly enslaved people before a backlash ushered in an era of segregation.
Photograph courtesy Mercer Brown, the Library of Congress

On April 11, 1865, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln spoke to an ecstatic crowd at the White House. In the last speech he ever gave, Lincoln could have waxed poetic about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s recent surrender and the impending end of America’s bloodiest conflict. Instead, he made a case for stitching the country back together after the Civil War by restoring rebel states to the Union and undoing the evils of slavery.

“Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between [Confederate] states and the Union,” Lincoln said. “I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union.”

The ensuing period of reform and rebuilding, known as Reconstruction, briefly succeeded in providing Black people with political and social power. But it was marred by tragedy, political infighting, and a disastrous backlash that set the stage for more than a century of segregation and voter suppression.

Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction

Plans to readmit Confederate states to the Union began long before the war’s end. Lincoln wanted to make it easy for them to return, fearing that too harsh a plan would make reunification impossible.

In December 1863, the Republican president issued a proclamation that offered to reinstate former Confederate states once 10 percent of their voters pledged allegiance to the Union and promised to adhere to the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that the United States would “recognize and maintain” the freedom of all people enslaved in seceded states. Those who took the oath would be pardoned, and states that cleared the bar could draft new constitutions and convene state governments.

But a group of congressmen and senators known as Radical Republicans disliked the plan, both for its perceived lenience to the rebels, and because it didn’t provide formerly enslaved people any civil rights aside from their freedom. Their response, the 1864 Wade-Davis Bill, would have required half of a state’s voters to take a loyalty oath and swear they had never voluntarily taken up arms against the Union. Former Confederates would be stripped of their right to vote, while formerly enslaved Black men would gain it. However, Lincoln thought the plan was too punitive and refused to sign it.

As Confederate defeat became inevitable, Union leaders turned their attention to the future prosperity of enslaved people. In January 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued an order to seize land from slaveholders in occupied Georgia and South Carolina and divide it among freedmen. Although the policy didn’t mention farm animals, it became known as the “40 acres and a mule” pledge.

Congress also set out to enshrine emancipation in the Constitution by passing the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, abolishing slavery. Lincoln made it clear that in order to rejoin the Union, Confederate states would have to agree to ratify the amendment. In March, at Lincoln’s behest, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau, a dedicated agency that would provide education, food, and assistance to emancipated people and oversee the division of land.

President Johnson’s leniency and the Black Codes

Tragedy reshaped the trajectory of Reconstruction—and ultimately undermined its promise. On April 15, 1865—just days after his final speech—Lincoln was assassinated and his vice president, Andrew Johnson, became president.

Although Johnson was a southern Democrat and a former enslaver who had joined Lincoln on a unity ticket, most Republicans expected him to continue Lincoln’s agenda. They underestimated Johnson’s racism and southern sympathies: Johnson’s vision for Reconstruction included blanket pardons for most former Confederates, including many high-level officials, and a lenient stance toward rebel states. He made no attempt to integrate Black people into southern institutions.

Johnson allowed former Confederate states to create all-white governments. When Congress reconvened in December 1865, its new members included many high-ranking Confederates, including former Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Although Congress refused to admit them, Johnson had made his sympathies clear.

His leniency would have disastrous consequences for Black people in the South, where former Confederates quickly established a slavery-like system to ensure white dominance and exploit Black labor.

In November 1865, Mississippi’s all-white legislature enacted a set of draconian laws called Black Codes, which curtailed Black people’s ability to own or rent property, move freely, control their own employment, and marry. Harsh penalties included forced, unpaid labor, seizure of possessions, and even the removal of children, who could be “apprenticed” to former slaveholders. All white people could legally enforce the codes.

The codes prompted other former Confederate states to enact copycat laws. In response, Radical Republicans in Congress introduced the nation’s first civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866. It granted citizenship to all non-Native American men born in the United States, regardless of race or former servitude, and guaranteed they would benefit from all laws concerning “the security of person and property.” When Johnson vetoed the bill, Congress overrode it.

Congressional Reconstruction begins

Empowered by an election that swayed Congressional power in their direction, Radical Republicans took the reins of Reconstruction in 1866 and began undoing Johnson’s policies.

In 1867 and 1868, Congress passed four Reconstruction Acts establishing military rule in former Confederate states and revoking some high-ranking Confederates’ right to vote and hold office. In order to reestablish ties to the Union, rebel states had to let Congress review their constitutions, extend voting rights to all men, and ratify the 13th and 14th Amendments.

The 14th Amendment, adopted in July 1868, granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States, forbade states from depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and provided all people equal protection under the law.

Although citizenship technically guaranteed Black men the right to vote, most were kept from southern polls through violence and intimidation. The 15th Amendment, ratified in February 1870, made it unconstitutional to abridge someone’s right to vote because of their race.

The Reconstruction Acts and Reconstruction Amendments reshaped the political structure of the South. Two sets of white Republican operatives rose to prominence: the derisively named “carpetbaggers,” who had moved south after the war, and “scalawags,” white Southerners who supported the rise of Black Southerners’ political power. (Today ‘physical symbols of white supremacy’ are coming down. What changed?)

Men who had once been enslaved now constituted a political majority throughout much of the South—and most were fervent Republicans. Hundreds of thousands of Black men registered to vote, and between 1863 and 1877, about 2,000 served were elected to public office. Among them were South Carolina’s Joseph H. Rainey, a formerly enslaved man who in 1869 became the first Black U.S. Congressman, and Mississippi’s Hiram Revels, a freeborn man who became the first Black U.S. Senator in 1870.

White backlash and the dismantling of Reconstruction

White Southerners resented what they saw as overly punitive policies and argued that Black people were racially inferior and unfit to govern. This white backlash spawned paramilitaries and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized Black lawmakers and would-be voters. White Southerners carried out mass lynchings, attempted to overthrow Reconstruction governments, and fought their policies in court. (Here's how the Confederate battle flag became an enduring symbol of racism.)

In the early 1870s, an economic depression and political scandals tarnished the Republican party’s reputation, giving Democrats a chance to regain power and end Reconstruction. The 1876 presidential election was bitterly contested amid allegations of voter suppression and tampering on both sides. After months of deadlock, southern Democrats made a backroom deal to accept Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ win over Democrat Samuel Tilden in exchange for an end to Reconstruction.

As federal oversight of southern states ended, so did the protections that had allowed Black people to exercise their political and social rights. White lawmakers—many the same Confederate leaders who had formed all-white legislatures under Johnson—swiftly dismantled Reconstruction policies and enacted cruel “Jim Crow” laws that reestablished white rule. Jim Crow laws segregated social spaces, criminalized interaction between races, and disenfranchised Black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers.

Ultimately, the promise of Reconstruction offered Black Southerners only a fleeting taste of freedom. But the opportunities it so briefly enabled still resonate today. In the words of historian George Lipsitz, it was “a victory without victory”—a failure with disastrous consequences that nonetheless sowed the potential for future change.

It would take nearly a century for the civil rights movement to prompt legislation that ensured voting rights for all and spur other social reforms. More than a century and a half later, Black Americans still face deep disparities in everything from policing to homeownership, economic opportunity, education, and health. But Reconstruction also made it clear that with institutional and social will, racial equality could one day be achieved and protected.

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