The Reconstruction Acts were four bills passed by Congress between March 2, 1867 and March 11, 1868 that established criteria and procedures for former Confederate states (excluding Tennessee) to regain readmission to the Union.
Even before the Union victory in the American Civil War became a certainty, politicians in Washington began quarreling over the fate of the South after hostilities ceased. Eager to see the Union restored with “malice toward none and charity for all,” President Lincoln drafted a lenient plan to pardon the Rebels and then let them take part in reconstructing the nation. It is noteworthy that his plan did not include blanket emancipation or equal rights for former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
Frustrated, or even alarmed by the growth of presidential power during the Civil War, many Congressmen were not prepared to take a back seat to Lincoln as he established policies for restoring the Union. They believed that Reconstruction was a legislative prerogative. Still, Congress was not of one mind. Generally, Democrats (who were in the minority) lobbied to restore the Union as it had been before the war. Republicans, however, argued that Congress must reconstruct the South.
Complicating matters further, members of the majority party disagreed about how far Reconstruction should go. Led by powerful figures such as Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade, a minority faction of the party saw Reconstruction as a revolution of sorts. These radicals clamored for harsh treatment for the rebellious states, blanket emancipation, universal manhood suffrage, and federal intervention to guarantee the civil rights of freedmen in the South. Moderates, led by men such as Illinois Representative Lyman Trumbull, and Ohio Congressmen John Bingham and James Ashley supported emancipation and civil rights, but were less insistent about suffrage and federal intervention.
Events in 1865 and 1866 forced the moderates to take sides. After the assassination of President Lincoln, moderates had reason to believe that they could work with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, to craft a reconstruction policy that would quickly restore the Union, abolish slavery, and protect the freedmen in the South. The relationship began to sour in December 1865, however, when members of the Thirty-Ninth Congress voted not to seat representatives and senators elected by the Southern states. Although Johnson recognized the right of Congress to establish its own membership qualifications, he consistently argued that many of the subsequent Reconstruction bills passed by the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congresses were unconstitutional because they imposed regulations on states without their participation in the legislative process. Consequently, Johnson attempted to thwart Congressional Reconstruction by exercising his veto power more than any president before him. Most of the time, Congress prevailed by overriding Johnson’s vetoes, especially after the midterm elections of 1866, which gave Republicans overwhelming control of both houses.
In June 1866, Congress approved a proposed Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and sent it to the states (including the Southern states) for ratification. Among other things, the proposed amendment conferred citizenship on all freedmen and accorded them equal protection under the law. Tennessee quickly ratified the amendment in July, but other Southern states, encouraged by President Johnson, refused to follow suit, despite an implicit understanding that ratification was a condition for regaining their representation in Congress.
First Reconstruction Act
By 1867, even congressional moderates had enough of Southern recalcitrance and presidential obstructionism. On March 2, 1867, Congress overrode President Johnson’s veto to enact the first of four Reconstruction Acts—”An act to provide for the more efficient government of the Rebel States.” More commonly known as the First Reconstruction Act, the measure comprised four key provisions:
- The division of the Southern states into five military districts, each governed by a Union general empowered to appoint and remove state officials. Congress excluded Tennessee because it had already ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
- The measure charged military officials with registering voters in each district, including freedmen and white men willing to take an extended loyalty oath to the Union.
- Congress ordered each Southern state to draft a new state constitution providing for black male suffrage.
- The law required each Southern state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment prior to readmission to Congress.
Although he opposed the legislation, President Johnson complied with its provisions. After consulting with General Ulysses S. Grant, he appointed John Schofield to govern Virginia, Daniel Sickles to govern the Carolinas, John Pope to govern Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, Edward Ord to govern Arkansas and Mississippi, and Philip Sheridan to govern Louisiana and Texas.
Second Reconstruction Act,
It quickly became clear that the First Reconstruction Act suffered from a glaring omission. The measure detailed how Southern states could rejoin the Union, but it did not compel them to seek restoration. Many Southern whites preferred remaining under military rule to giving in to Congressional Radicals and granting black suffrage. Less than a month after the enactment of the First Reconstruction Act, Congress overrode another presidential veto to enact a supplemental reconstruction act on March 23, 1867. The Second Reconstruction Act required the military commanders of the five Southern districts created by the First Reconstruction Act to register eligible voters and oversee the election of delegates to state constitutional conventions.
Third Reconstruction Act
The Johnson administration responded to the first two Reconstruction Acts by interpreting their provisions as narrowly as possible. Attorney General Henry Stanbery ruled that the disenfranchisement of Confederate officials applied only to officeholders who had taken an oath to support the Constitution before the war. Stanbery also prohibited military officials involved in the registration process from questioning the affirmation of prospective voters that they had not taken part in the rebellion. Stanbery’s ruling prompted Congress to pass yet another Reconstruction Act over Johnson’s veto on July 19, 1867. The Third Reconstruction Act established specific categories of Confederate officeholders subject to disenfranchisement. The act also allowed voter registration officials to reject the oaths of prospective voters if they suspected fraud or perjury.
Fourth Reconstruction Act
The adoption of the Third Reconstruction Act paved the way to calling state conventions and drafting constitutions, but it did not ensure ratification. The original act required a majority of registered voters to approve ratification. Southern whites responded by registering in large numbers and then refusing to vote, thus making it difficult, or nearly impossible, for ratification. Frustrated by Southern obstructionism, on February 27, 1868, Congress passed yet another Reconstruction Act. When President Johnson refused to sign the legislation, it became law on March 11. The Fourth Reconstruction Act stipulated that a majority of people casting ballots—as opposed to a majority of registered voters—would determine the outcome of the ratification process in the Southern states.
The enactment of the Fourth Reconstruction Act produced the results Congress was seeking. By July 21, 1868, seven Southern states (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia) adopted new constitutions, formed new governments, and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, thus paving the way for readmission to the Union. Virginia complied in October 1869, followed by Mississippi and Texas in 1870.