Reconstruction 1866-1877



After the Civil War ended in 1865, Reconstruction was primed to rebuild the South physically and socially. Materially, the South was resurrected; socially, it put up an enormous fight. Politically, the ex-slaves were gaining power and rights stemming from Constitutional amendments and civil rights' acts. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and 1876, were all designed to ensure civil and legal rights to black citizens (1).

The authors of the Thirteenth Amendment felt that freeing the slaves would be enough to ensure blacks their rightful place as citizens; but, as it turned out, most people did not agree as to what was the proper place for the freedmen. President Andrew Johnson felt that the amendment's only purpose was to free the slaves; others felt that it also banned racial discrimination. Legislation by the states attempting to deny rights to the freedmen, know as “black codes,” was meeting little resistance. As “black codes” became the rule of law in the South, it became evident that the amendment was not specific enough to guarantee blacks equal rights as citizens (2).

To respond to the insufficiency and ambiguity of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Northern republicans crafted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to broaden the definition of citizenship by making it more inclusive, to trump the “black codes,” and to guard the civil rights of the freedmen (3). Both were very controversial and resulted in the impeachment, and near conviction, of President Johnson. Presidential Reconstruction was at an end; radical Reconstruction, in the hands of fervent republicans, was just beginning (4).

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed guaranteeing certain rights to blacks, among these rights was the right to enter into contracts and to hold and sell property. Concerns over the constitutionality of the act, and the desire to make the act more sufficient and enforceable, led to the Fourteenth Amendment. Power to enforce now shifted towards Congress and the President, who could call out troops if necessary (5). The framers of the amendment attempted to make the federal government the guarantor of the civil rights of all citizens. But, they did not mean to replace an already established federal system with a national system in which Congress held all power, they simply wanted to “affirm constitutional protection for rights already possessed in some sense, but therefore unprotected in the old constitution.” These rights can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights (6). Harvard Law Professor, Mark Tushnet, suggests that maybe at one point the idea of the framers was to “shift power from the states to Congress,” but by 1883, when Fourteenth Amendment was tested in the highest court in the land, “the reformist impulse had disappeared” (7).

The efforts of the federal government to “reconstruct the Southern social order on a new basis” was wanning by the mid-1870s, as white Southerners began to regain control of their governments (8). A final political attempt to protect the blacks was made with the passage the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred racial discrimination in public accommodations such as inns, hotels, theaters, and public transportation on land and water; this was the last congressional legislation concerning civil rights until 1957. By 1877, however, federal troops were pulled out of the South in an agreement made to get Rutherford B. Hayes elected president (Compromise of 1877). Reconstruction was over. With white supremacy and Jim Crow solidifying their control over the South, and with no federal troops to enforce the 1875 Act, rampart discrimination was eminent (9).



1. Jean West Mueller and Wynell Burroughs Schamel, "Reconstruction, the Fourteenth Amendment, and Personal Liberties," Organization of American Historians 4, no. 1 (1989): 60.

2. Brook Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1997), 5.

3. Harvey Fireside, Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision that legalized Racism (New York: Carroll & Graft Publishers, 2004), 119.

4. Thomas, 8.

5. Donna A. Barnes and Catherine Connolly, "Repression, the Judicial System, and Political Opportunities for Civil Rights Advocacy during Reconstruction," The Sociological Quarterly 40, no. 2 (Spring, 1999): 333.

6. Michael P. Zuckert, "Completing the Constitution: The Fourteenth Amendment and Constitutional Rights," Publius 22, no.2 (Spring, 1992): 91.

7. Mark Tushnet, I Dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 47.

8. Ibid., 47.

9. Keith Weldon Medley, We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson (Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Company, 2003), 86.