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0: A Political History

A guide to the key events that defined America from 1863 through 1883.


Episode Notes

In the introduction to our series on the post–Civil War period of Reconstruction, we provide an outline of the political history of the era. It’s intended to complement the rest of the series, which is more thematic and specific.

Here, for the more visually inclined, is a textual version of that outline, based loosely on the notes we made while preparing to record the episode.

January 1863: Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people living in the states that are still in rebellion.

December 1863: Lincoln issues the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Under its terms, if 10 percent of Southerners in a state that had fallen to Union troops would take an oath of future loyalty, they could establish a government and send representatives to Washington. People to the left of Lincoln in the Republican Party object; the Republican-controlled Congress refuses to recognize those representatives.

February 1864: The Republican Congress passes a Reconstruction plan called the Wade–Davis Bill (proposed by Sen. Benjamin F. Wade, R–Ohio, and Rep. Henry Winter Davis, R–Maryland) that was much more radical than Lincoln’s plan, requiring that former Confederate leaders be disenfranchised and that anyone who joined the governments of the re-admitted states needed to swear an “ironclad” oath that they had not fought against the Union. The bill also requires states to give black people the right to vote. Lincoln pocket-vetoed this bill while Congress was out of session.

March 1865 : Congress creates the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, as part of the War Department. The Bureau has some limited power to provide a degree of relief to freedpeople who were hungry, unhoused, and without medical care, and to be their allies in contract negotiations with employers.

April 1865: Lee surrenders and Lincoln is assassinated, making Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee who had remained loyal to the North during the Civil War, the president. Although Johnson had initially favored harshly punishing Confederate leaders, his idea of Reconstruction turned out to be much more pro-Democrat, pro-white, and pro-Confederate. (Historian David L. Wilson writes: “While Johnson disliked the Southern aristocracy, he hated and feared blacks even more.”) For the next three years he and Congress would fight over what to do in the South.

December 1865: Johnson creates a plan that awards amnesty to former Confederates who take an oath of future loyalty. By the end of 1865, Congress refuses to recognize the state governments and representatives elected under Johnson’s plan, objecting to the inclusion of former Confederates as notorious as Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederate States of America.

December 1865: The states ratify the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery (except as punishment for a crime)!

1865: Mississippi enacts the era’s first Black Code, forcing “apprenticeship” on any black minors who the state designated as parentless, giving “masters and mistresses” the ability to inflict corporal punishment on these minors, and prohibiting them from leaving their place of “apprenticeship.” Similar codes would be passed in other Southern states, restricting freedpeople’s freedom of movement, right to assembly, and right to marry interracially.

February 1866: Congress passes the second Freedmen’s Bureau Act, which charges the military with protecting freedpeoples’ civil rights. President Johnson vetoes it.

April 1866: Congress passes the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, which gives any person born in the United States citizenship, and charges federal courts with seeing that their civil rights are protected. Johnson vetoes the bill twice; Congress, increasingly frustrated with the president, eventually overrides that veto.

May 1866: Memphis “race riot” of 1866 leaves 46 black people and two white people dead. (Here’s why there are scare quotes.)

July 1866: Mob violence in New Orleans instigated by the city’s ex-Confederate mayor leaves 238 people dead, including 200 black Union Army veterans.

July 1866: The Congress tries again to pass the second Freedmen’s Bureau Act; this time, they override Johnson’s veto in order to put it into law.

1866: The Ku Klux Klan is founded in Pulaski, Tennessee.

November 1866Midterm elections put a big majority of Republicans into Congress, giving them a two-thirds margin. Republicans take this as a demonstration of the electorate’s approval of the proposed 14th Amendment, which they had drafted in June 1866.

March 1867: Congress passes the Tenure of Office Act, protecting civil officers from removal from office without senatorial approval, with the intention of preventing Johnson from firing the radical Republican Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. (The Tenure of Office Act will be ruled unconstitutional in 1926.)

Spring and Summer 1867 : Congress passes three radical Reconstruction Acts, dividing the Confederacy into military districts, and giving the military power over the judiciary and politics in the former Southern states. Those states are required to enact constitutions giving black men voting rights, and need to ratify the 14th Amendment to be represented in the national legislature. Johnson vetoes; Congress overrides his veto.

Summer 1867: The United States Army registers black voters across the former CSA.

Fall 1867: Southern states who had yet to do so held constitutional conventions as Congress directed, and the military administrators repeal the Black Codes.

March 1868: The House impeaches Johnson, citing his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate, however, fails to convict Johnson.

July 1868 : The states ratify the 14th Amendment, giving citizens equal protection under the law.

November 1868: In the general election, the Democratic party does not nominate Johnson, instead running former New York Gov. Horatio Seymour against Ulysses S. Grant. Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia are not yet formally restored to the union and so cannot sanction electors who could vote in the Electoral College.

The campaign is largely fought over Reconstruction, and the Republicans campaign on the idea that Grant would restore peace to the government (and to the nation). Seymour’s running mate, Francis P. Blair Jr., goes on a speaking tour and tries to provoke racial hatred, warning that under the Republicans “a semi-barbarous race of blacks who are worshippers of fetishes and polygamists” would rule over white people. Seymour adopts less inflammatory rhetoric, arguing for amnesty for past Confederates and the restoration of state-level civil authority in the South (as opposed to military administration). Grant prevails.

1869: Tennessee becomes the first state where white people mount a state-level electoral backlash to Reconstruction, expelling Republicans from state government and replacing them with white conservative Democrats—often ex-Confederates and ex-planters—called Redeemers. The KKK assists the Redeemers by intimidating black and Republican voters.

1870: The state governments of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia go Redeemer, too.

February 1870: The 15th Amendment, giving citizens the right to vote, is ratified.

1870 and 1871: Congress—still radical Republican—passes three Enforcement or “Force Acts,” protecting black people from abridgement of their constitutional rights. Congress investigates the KKK and places national elections under the control of federal government. The third Force Act gives the president the power to suspend habeas corpus and use the military to fight those who would conspire to deny black citizens equal protection under the law. With the passage of these acts, violence in the South abates temporarily.

June 1872: The Freedmen’s Bureau, which had been lacking funds and personnel for years, as politicians from the North and South refused to champion its mission, is officially abolished.

1874: Riding a wave of discontent after the Panic of 1873, Democrats sweep the national midterm elections and control both houses of Congress for the first time since before the Civil War.

March 1875: The Civil Rights Act of 1875, forbidding discrimination in jury selection, in public spaces, and on public transportation, passes Congress after its author and longtime champion, Charles Sumner, dies.

1875: Grant refuses to send troops to help fight to keep the state of Mississippi out of the hands of Democrats, pursuing the “Mississippi Plan,” who are using intimidation to wrest control of the state government out of Republican hands.

March 1876: The Supreme Court declares in its decision in the case of United States v. Cruikshank that the federal government should not be responsible for preventing infringements of citizens’ constitutional rights when those infringements are committed by other citizens or state-level governments. The court tells freedpeople who feel their rights have been violated that they needed to apply to (often unsympathetic) state courts for protection.

November 1876: The presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden, a tightly fought contest, ends with Hayes winning the Electoral College by a single vote and Tilden winning the popular vote. Both sides allege voter suppression, and Congress appoints a commission to settle the result.

The commission rules along party lines in favor of Hayes, giving him the presidency. In the course of this process, Hayes promises to remove federal troops from the South, which he does, allowing for Democratic control of the region.

1877: With the withdrawal of troops, Reconstruction comes to an end.

1883: The Supreme Court rules the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.

About the Show

The era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War was our best chance to build an American democracy grounded in racial equality. Its failure helps explain why race, “states’ rights,” and the legacy of the Confederacy remain central themes in our politics today.

Don’t miss Rebecca and Jamelle’s previous podcast, The History of American Slavery.

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