Reconstruction: North and South |
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 brought Vice President Andrew Johnson into the White House. A Tennessee Democrat who served two terms as governor before being elected to the Senate in 1857, he was an ardent Unionist who blamed the slaveholding planter elite for secession and the Civil War. Johnson was the only southern senator who refused to embrace the Confederacy in 1861. Such credentials help explain why Lincoln invited him to be his running mate in 1864.
The Radical Republicans hoped that President Johnson would embrace their comprehensive effort to reconstruct the defeated South. Johnson shared their disdain for the former Confederate leaders and for the planter class, but he also cherished states' rights and feared any effort to expand federal authority. He also retained many of the racial prejudices of his native region. "White men alone must manage the South," Johnson told a journalist. Unlike the Radical Republicans, he balked at putting freed blacks in control of southern politics.
Like Lincoln, Andrew Johnson hoped that middle-class white southern Unionists, along with repentant ex-Confederates, would take control of restoring the South to the Union. He required that the new state constitutional conventions formally abolish slavery, renounce secession, and void all war debts that the state had incurred. The states then could hold elections and officially return to the Union. By April 1866 all of the southern states had fulfilled these requirements, albeit grudgingly, and had formed new governments. At the same time, they steadfastly refused to allow blacks to vote. Johnson, however, was dismayed that the new political leaders were more often former Confederates than southern Unionists.
The Union victory in the Civil War and the official end of slavery created excited expectations among the freed slaves. Some adopted new names to express their new identity and to make a new beginning. Others discarded the clothes provided by their masters and took up new modes of dress. Many freed people left the plantations and migrated to neighboring towns and cities, where federal troops offered protection.
But freedom itself did not provide security or the resources necessary for meaningful lives. In March 1865 Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency administered by the War Department, to provide the former slaves with emergency supplies and to help them find employment, procure land, and pursue educational opportunities. By 1870 the Bureau was supervising more than 4,000 schools.
Yet for all of its heroic efforts, the Freedmen's Bureau could help only a small percentage of former slaves. Few freed people were able to acquire land of their own. Most of them were forced to become wage laborers, or sharecroppers or tenant farmers contracting with white landowners to work their land in exchange for food, tools, clothing, and a place to live. This agrarian system, however necessary in the face of the social and economic realities confronting the region, soon placed the freed slaves in a dependent relationship reminiscent of slavery itself.
As the new "lily-white" state governments coalesced in 1865 and 1866, most of them drafted "Black Codes" limiting the rights and freedoms of African Americans. These laws varied from state to state, but all of them restricted the independence of blacks and channeled them into the service of the white-dominated social and economic order.
Some whites decided that such restrictive laws did not sufficiently impress upon blacks their subordinate status. In an effort to promote white supremacy they founded secret organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, organized by former Confederate soldiers, used violence and terror to intimidate blacks and to disrupt the efforts of Radical Republicans from "reconstructing" the South. During one campaign season in Louisiana, over 200 blacks were killed in one parish alone. Congress passed laws intended to suppress the Klan, but to little avail.
Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South. African Americans in the region retained certain constitutional rights, but in practice white supremacy had been reestablished through force and terror. With the loss of federal protection, blacks found themselves not only at the mercy of the southern political elite but also locked into dependent economic relationship through the sharecrop system as well.