The Reconstruction Period After the Civil War in the USA


Out of all the historical events that happened during the era of mankind, war remains to be the most undesirable and high-priced act of human beings. Military actions lead to the loss of financial means, men’s lives, settlements, and even cities. Moreover, the end of warfare does not mean that survivors overcame all the difficulties as there is still a lot of work that needs to be done for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation includes the rebuilding of the destroyed physical objects and reestablishment of social order in the states. One of the examples of rehabilitation is the Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War in the USA in the 19th century.

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This time is characterized by many events and reforms, including sharecropping, the establishment of various acts, and more. In this paper, the events that happened during the presidency of Andrew Johnson will be discussed. Some individuals claim that Johnson is the worst president of the USA due to his slavery-protective views. However, I argue that his actions and reforms aimed not only to follow his personal preferences but also to protect the economy and social order of the USA.

This essay consists of two main parts, namely, a brief historical background on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and the description of the most significant reforms introduced by Johnson. The second part provides evidence that supports the main argument of the paper and interpretation of the information. At the end of the essay, the conclusion that summarizes the primary ideas and thoughts is presented.

Historical Background

The second half of the 19th century in the USA can be characterized as a turbulent time. For the period from 1861 to 1865, there was the Civil War in the country. It started as a result of a continuous confrontation between two groups of citizens, namely, the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South). The conflict emerged due to the slavery politics in the country, as people had different points of view on the colonization of African Americans (Ransom 372).

Thus, the North supported the idea of the abolishment of slavery, while the South considered it as free labor. Slaves used to be especially in demand in the 1800s in the Southern states due to the development of the cotton industry there. The war ended in 1865 with the victory of the Union and the abolishment of slavery. Thus, slavery was abolished in accordance with The Emancipation Proclamation written by Lincoln: “all persons held as slaves within any State shall be forever free” (254). Therefore, people were freed, but after the war, the country needed to be reconstructed, which laid the foundation for the beginning of the Reconstruction Era.

The Reconstruction Era is a significant period in the history of the USA. Many events happened during that time, including the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the adoption of three Constitutional amendments that gave the rights to former slaves. The most significant event that occurred during that time is the appointment of a new president, Andrew Johnson. Since the first day of his presidency, ex-slaves started sending documents to the president to claim their rights and share concerns.

Thus, in the first two documents, former slaves “set their credentials as loyal citizens and call the question as to which side the federal government would be on” (Holt and Brown, “The Work of Reconstruction” 369). Unluckily for freedmen, Johnson was a former slaveholder and a strong supporter of the South. He opposed the ideas of Lincoln about the liberation of slaves and giving them civil rights.

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Johnson turned out to be in a challenging situation, as he had to find a balance between his views and the implementation of a new policy of the state. As a result, he established his own form of reconstruction, which aimed to find any possible ways to support slavery without violating the law. He did not protect freedmen, returned the old leaders of the Southern states, and even opposed the Constitutional amendments that were passed to give civil rights to former slaves.

After the victory of the Union in the Civil War, the majority of Congress members were republicans. Therefore, it is not surprising that the reforms of a new president were not supported by many officers of Congress. This situation facilitated the emergence of conflicts between Republicans and Democrats and disorder in the political system of the country.

There is some evidence that proves that the situation in the country was challenging. Thus, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent, in one of his reports, says that employers had the right to file a complaint if they are dissatisfied with the freedmen. Freedmen, however, had the same rights in terms of filing complaints against their employers (Holt and Brown, “Charles Raushenberg’s Reports” 377). It resulted in a large number of complaints from both sides and the inability of agents to resolve the issues between two parties. Moreover, the majority of freedmen could neither read nor write. They had to ask others for help to write complaints.

Elizabeth Botume, a schoolteacher, remembers that much of her spare time was spent on writing letters for freed people (Holt and Brown, “Elizabeth Botume Remembers a Husband and Wife Reunion” 379). It is fair to note that freedmen tried to resolve their problems. For example, the first act of black people after they were freed was to establish special schools for ex-slaves (Gutman 389). Unfortunately, due to the economic difficulties, they did not have enough financial means to resolve all the issues they had.

Nevertheless, Johnson was not going to help the ex-slaves and continued supporting the South. Trying to gain more power and spread his ideas, the president decided to have a tour and visited various states of the country to gain more support from the population. In an attempt to achieve his goals, Johnson decided to fire the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who assisted the Union during the Civil War.

As a response to his actions, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which limited the ability of the president to dismiss officers without the approval of the Senate. Moreover, the House of Representatives impeached Johnson, who, however, managed to prevent conviction and dismissal from the office (Barr et al. 297). The presidency of Andrew Johnson lasted four years, from 1865 to 1869. He did not win the next presidential election and left the office after the period of his service was over. Therefore, the Democratic and Republican parties failed to achieve harmony and consensus during the Reconstruction Era.

Andrew Johnson and his Reconstruction

Andrew Johnson took several measures to return the power of the white people from the South over African Americans. Thus, in 1866, he vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, saying that people should learn how to take care of themselves. The president also vetoed the Civil Rights Bills, asserting that Congress “expands the federal power at the expense of states’ rights” (Watson and Dailey 548). Similarly, he supported the South in its rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment by banning passing the Reconstruction Acts, which aimed to implement a stricter reconstruction policy.

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Some historians, scholars, and politicians consider Johnson as the worst president in the history of the USA as he used to violate the law and follow his personal goals. For example, Blomquist, in his work “Presidential Encounters with American constitutional Law,” gathered evidence about the fact of violation of constitutional law by the president (381). Moreover, the presidency of Johnson is widely criticized for his pro-slavery policy.

Nevertheless, I argue that Johnson’s actions were based not only on his personal preferences and views but also in accordance with the needs of the country. Thus, his reforms aimed both to regain the power of white people under African Americans and protect the economy and social stability of the country.

The policy of Johnson aimed to balance the economic situation between the North and the South. After the war, both parts of the country were destroyed and ruined physically and economically. However, the economy of the Northern states was developing more progressively than the economy of the Southern states. It was ensured by the presence of small businesses possessed by the inhabitants of the Northern part. As a result, there was a need to balance the economy of the USA by supporting the South. During the reconstruction, the South focused on the development of the cotton industry, which ensured the high demand for slaves.

Therefore, their liberation was undesirable for Southern states, and the actions of Johnson aimed to ease the economic situation there. Brock supports this idea asserting that political actions during the reconstruction were correlated to the economic situation as there was a strong connection between economic and political aims (8). Therefore, by vetoing the bills issued by Congress, Johnson aimed to maintain an economic balance between the South and the North.

Second, Johnson’s policy, which supported slavery, aimed to avoid the issues that occurred due to the influx of many African Americans to the North. After the emancipation of ex-slaves, they started moving to bigger cities to find jobs, claim their rights, and settle down. As a result, the number of newcomers in the cities, such as Washington, DC, was significantly higher than before the reconstruction. From 1860 to 1870, Washington’s black population grew from 19 to 33 percent (Masur 279).

It led to the overload of the labor market, as the city could not provide enough working places for everyone. Also, African Americans caused social disorders because every challenge was considered as an effort to infringe on their rights and violate the new law and initiated the overreaction of ex-slaves. This idea is supported by Masur, who asserts that crowds of African Americans in the capital “were dramatizing the vulnerability of fugitives from slavery and repudiating the order” (280). Even though the political measures implemented by Johnson would not significantly improve the situation, they would still assist in the deterrence of the influx of displaced people to the North.

This paper does not aim to argue that slavery should not have been abolished or that Johnson’s policy was accurate in terms of depriving the rights of African Americans. Instead, it argues that the reforms of Johnson could help to protect the economy and social order of the country. Gradual liberation of slaves could be performed in a less traumatic way for the country than the immediate freedom of every enslaved person across the whole state.

The experience showed that neither the government nor the slaves were ready for such global changes, which resulted in economic and social difficulties. The reforms, suggested by Johnson, did not have the negative impacts only, as their implementation could have positive outcomes as well. Even though the reforms would decrease the number of freed people, they would still have some positive effects. Thus, it would reduce the influx of displaced people in the big cities, which would prevent the crisis of the labor market. Also, it would help to avoid social disorder and political instability. Moreover, Johnson’s policy would help the South to develop economically and establish economic balance in the country.

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Therefore, it can be concluded that the Reconstruction Era brought many changes in people’s lives in the USA. This period is a significant time in the history of the country as it is characterized by many events, reforms, and actions. One of the brightest figures of that period is the 17th president of the USA, Andrew Johnson, who is frequently criticized for his slave-protective policy. However, it was revealed that the projects suggested by Johnson aimed not only to support slavery but also to maintain the economic and social balance of the country.

It could establish the economic balance between the North and the South, avoid overcrowding of big cities of the country, and prevent social disorders initiated by freedmen. Nevertheless, the Reconstruction Era demonstrates the mistakes and achievements of the American domestic policy of the 19th century.

Works Cited

Barr, Chris, et al. “Civil War Incarceration in History and Memory.” Civil War History, vol. 63 no. 3, 2017, pp. 295-319.

Blomquist, Robert. “Presidential Encounters with American Constitutional Law (The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History.)” Valparaiso University Law Review, vol. 52, no. 2, 2016, pp. 373-394.

Brock, W. R. An American Crisis: Congress and Reconstruction 1865-67. Springer, 2015.

Gutman, Herbert. “Schools for Freedom.” Major Problems in African American History, Volume I: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, edited by Thomas Holt and Elsa Brown, 2000, pp. 388-401.

Holt, Thomas, and Elsa Brown. “Charles Raushenberg, a Freedmen’s Bureau Agent, Reports from Georgia, 1876.” Major Problems in African American History, Volume I: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, edited by Thomas Holt and Elsa Brown, 2000, pp. 376-379.

—. “Elizabeth Botume, a Schoolteacher, Remembers a Husband and Wife Reunion, c. 1865.” Major Problems in African American History, Volume I: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, edited by Thomas Holt and Elsa Brown, 2000, pp. 368-369.

—. “The Work of Reconstruction.” Major Problems in African American History, Volume I: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, edited by Thomas Holt and Elsa Brown, 2000, pp. 368-369.

Lincoln, Abraham. “The Emancipation Proclamation.” Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, 2nd ed., edited by Barbara Krauthamer, et al., Cengage Learning, 2018, pp. 254-255.

Masur, Kate. “Everywhere is Freedom and Everybody Free: The Capital Transformed.” Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, 2nd ed., edited by Barbara Krauthamer, at al., 2018, pp. 271-288.

Ransom, Roger. “The Civil War in American Economic History.” The Oxford Handbook of American Economic History, Volume 2, edited by Louis Cain et al., Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 371-391.

Watson, Harry, and Jane Dailey. 1: A Narrative History to 1877. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

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