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Reconstruction Act of 1867

Reconstruction Act of 1867



What is the Reconstruction Act of 1867?

Following the end of the Civil War, the United States Congress forged a plan to reconstruct the war-torn country. Three dynamic measures were passed in 1867 and an additional legislation was enacted the following year. The fundamental points of the Reconstruction of 1867 included:

• The Reconstruction Act created five military districts in the seceded states (with the exception of Tennessee, which ratified the 14th Amendment and was thus re-admitted to the Union)

• The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 implemented regulations regarding voter registration; all freed individuals were allowed to vote along with white persons who took extended oaths.

• Each district in the Union was now headed by a military official empowered to remove and subsequently anoint state leaders/officials. All states were required to employ a military leader from the North (Marshall Law). 

• All states were required to ratify the 14th Amendment prior to readmission into the Union.

• State constitutional conventions were required to draft new governing documents that included laws on black male suffrage. The Reconstruction Act required all southern states to eliminate their black codes and ratify the 14th amendment. The act also disabled confederate leaders and any individual who did not pledge their allegiance to the United States from voting.

Background of the Reconstruction Act:

Long before the United States’ Civil War was over, politicians in the Union deliberated to develop legislation regarding the treatment of the defeated South after the war. While a number of influential democrats wanted to restore the Union as it was prior to battle, many prominent voices within the Republican Party wished to fundamentally restructure the South. Many radical leaders within the Republican Party fought to banish Confederate influence in government. These individuals wanted to strip the South of representation in Congress until the Confederacy abolished slavery. 

As the Civil War waged on, Republicans demanded for the formal adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and the inclusion of black male suffrage provisions as a condition for re-admission. Furthermore, radical Republicans wanted the federal government to protect the political and civil rights of freed slaves in the South. 

These wants ultimately sparked a fervent debate regarding reconstruction. In response to those yearning for fundamental change, President Abraham Lincoln offered a milder approach. Lincoln, who developed and implemented fighting strategies during the war, wished to quickly resolve the debates with a seamless political reunion; the President was overcome with grief as a result of the bloodshed.

In December of 1863, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, and promulgated his plans for resolve to Congress. Lincoln extended amnesty to southern whites, excluding military officials, who took an oath supporting the Emancipation Proclamation and the United States as a whole. The First Reconstruction Acts did not demand an immediate emancipation for readmission, but instead stated that all slaves freed during war could not be enslaved again.  

The First Reconstruction Act required a 10 percent of voters in the 1860 election to take the oath, before a state could establish a new government. Under this provision, confederate judicial, political and military officials could apply for pardons. 

The Rejection of the First Reconstruction Act:

Although some southern states reorganized under the First Reconstruction Act, congressional opposition regarding Lincoln’s plan emerged. Ohio Senators Henry Davis and Benjamin Wade rejected the First Reconstruction Act and replaced it with a new bill, which placed Confederate states under a military governor and required a majority of a state’s 1860 voters to pledge loyalty to America before a new state government formed. Furthermore, the Wade-Davis bill mandated the abolishment of slavery in reconstructed states and barred all Confederate officials from holding office. The Wade-Davis bill drew widespread support among the Radical Republicans, who passed the act on July 2nd of 1863. Lincoln, in response to the passing, pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis bill and refused to sign it after Congress adjourned. 

The pocket veto enraged Congress and Wade and Davis responded with a Manifesto asserting that reconstruction efforts were within the authority of Congress. This battle over reconstruction legislation represented the foundation of the most dramatic dispute between a president and Congress in American history, a conflict that led to a near-removal of Lincoln from Office.

The power struggle over reconstruction intensified when Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14th of 1866 and succeeded by President Andrew Johnson.

Reconstruction Act under Andrew Johnson:

Johnson, a Tennessee native, despised the aristocracy that, in his opinion, duped the confederacy into war.  President Johnson rejected Lincoln’s call for reconstruction and immediately declared his plan for “restoration.” Johnson offered pardons to those who took a loyalty oath; however, he would individually determine pardon status for land owners with property valued at over $20,000. 

States seeking readmission were required to abolish slavery and repeal its ordinance of secession. When the war ended in 1865, former Confederate states began to restrict the freedoms of millions of newly-freed slaves. A number of states passed “Black Codes”, which prohibited freed-slaves from a number of civil liberties, including: testifying against whites, serving on juries and owning guns. 

For Republican leaders in Congress, the passing of the Black Codes and the re-emergence of the Confederate guard denoted a significant regression. In December of 1865, Congress convened and refused to acknowledge southern representation. 

New Formation of the Reconstruction Acts:

Republican leaders in both houses created a Joint Committee on Reconstruction (consisted of sex senators and nine representatives) to pass new legislation that would direct the course of reconstruction. Ultimately, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill to protect the rights of blacks in the South. 

More importantly, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted blacks federal and state citizenship and prohibited the state from depriving any individual of life, liberty and property, without the due process of the law. Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from denying any individual the equal protection of American laws. 

Military Reconstruction Act:

Following the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress took a decisive lead in establishing the course of Reconstruction. On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the first of four Military Reconstruction Acts. 

The First Military Reconstruction Act invalidated the government’s plan under Johnson. The Ten Confederate States (with the exception of Tennessee) that rejected the ratification of the 14th Amendment were split into five military districts and placed under the direction of a military governor who appointed and removed state officials. The First Military Reconstruction Act implemented registration laws for voters and extended suffrage to affirm the rights of freedmen. State constitutional conventions were ordered and elected delegates were responsible for drafting new provisions to include black suffrage. And lastly, the Military Reconstruction Act required all states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before readmission commenced. 

Subsequent Reconstruction Acts:

The United States Congress passed the Second Reconstruction Act which directed military officials to register voters, organize elections and call conventions. To impede subversion, Congress passed the Third Reconstruction Act, which declared existing state governments in the South illegal and subjected them to Congress and military control. To delay the creation of these new state governments, southern whites enacted a provision of the first Reconstruction Act, which required a majority of registered voters to ratify a new constitution. In response, Congress passed the Fourth Reconstruction Act on March 11, 1868 that allowed a majority of those voting for a new constitution, regardless of the turnout.