Although Reconstruction is often associated with the end of the Civil War, it actually began in 1863 and concluded in 1877. Concerned with a speedy restoration of the Confederate states to the Union, Abraham Lincoln proposed a plan for the Reconstruction and Amnesty plan in December 1863. The plan required only ten percent of the state’s electorate to take a loyalty oath in order for the state to be readmitted into Congress. By December 1864, Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan had been enacted in Louisiana with the state legislature sending two Senators and five Representatives to Washington – which Congress refused to seat.

Congress, controlled by Radical Republicans, instead passed the Wade-Davis Bill that required a majority of the state electorate to take loyalty oath to be admitted to Congress. Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill, thereby widening the rift between the moderates and the Radicals in the Republican Party. The former would be represented by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, while the latter included Massachusetts Senator  Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who advocated the uncompensated abolishment of slavery, full civil rights for free men, and limited political and voting rights of former Confederates.

Andrew Johnson (1863-1869)

In spite of these differences, and even after the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Republicans were able to continue Reconstruction with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and attempted to return the U.S. currency to a precious metal standard.  In his first address to Congress, Johnson stated:


Andrew Johnson. Source:

“It is our first duty to prepare in earnest for our recovery from the ever-increasing evils of an irredeemable currency without a sudden revulsion, and yet without untimely procrastination. For that end we must each, in our respective positions, prepare the way. I hold it the duty of the Executive to insist upon frugality in the expenditures, and a sparing economy is itself a great national resource. Of the banks to which authority has been given to issue notes secured by bonds of the United States we may require the greatest moderation and prudence, and the law must be rigidly enforced when its limits are exceeded. We may each one of us counsel our active and enterprising countrymen to be constantly on their guard, to liquidate debts contracted in a paper currency, and by conducting business as nearly as possible on a system of cash payments or short credits to hold themselves prepared to return to the standard of gold and silver. To aid our fellow-citizens in the prudent management of their monetary affairs, the duty devolves on us to diminish by law the amount of paper money now in circulation. Five years ago the bank-note circulation of the country amounted to not much more than two hundred millions; now the circulation, bank and national, exceeds seven hundred millions. The simple statement of the fact recommends more strongly than any words of mine could do the necessity of our restraining this expansion. The gradual reduction of the currency is the only measure that can save the business of the country from disastrous calamities, and this can be almost imperceptibly accomplished by gradually funding the national circulation in securities that may be made redeemable at the pleasure of the Government.

During the Civil War, the United States issued currency without the backing of either silver or gold.  The paper bills were easily counterfeited and, in order to restore confidence in the dollar, the currency needed to be backed once again by precious metal. But this process would have to be gradual in order to avert economic disaster in both the North and the South.

Johnson’s position on Reconstruction included an amnesty for all insurgents except for those who held property valued at $20,000 or more, pardons for high-ranked Confederate officials, and permission for the Southern states to control the procedure and conduct of their own elections in 1865. With no mention of black suffrage, Johnson alienated the Radical faction of the Republican Party. With their 1866 congressional election victory, the Radicals rejected Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan and instead proposed their own version which included the Fourteenth Amendment, a Civil Rights Bill, and renewal of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which oversaw the relations between former masters and slaves in a new free labor market. In response to this new congressional assertiveness, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill (which later was overridden by Congress) and tried to block unsuccessfully the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which made the South’s black codes unconstitutional.

The Radicals and Johnson clashed so often over Reconstruction that the President exercised his veto twenty-one times with fifteen of those being overridden by Congress, including the Reconstruction Acts, which created five military districts in the South, and the Force Acts, which protected the voting rights of African-Americans and prevented leading Confederates from holding office. As a result, Republican governments were formed in ten southern states and supported by the U.S. army sent by Congress. Ultimately this conflict between Congressional Reconstruction efforts and the President’s resistance to them came to a showdown in Johnson’s impeachment trial.

The first attempt to impeach Johnson on grounds of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” failed in the House of Representatives on December 5, 1867 with a vote of 57-108. However, the second effort was successful with the House impeaching Johnson for intentionally violating the Tenure of Office Act with a vote of 128-47. The Tenure of Office Act denied the President to remove an executive officer without the advice and consent of the Senate. When Johnson suspended War Secretary Edwin Stanton without Senate approval, the House impeached him. But through his allies in the Senate, Johnson was able to survive impeachment by a single vote. Afterwards Johnson was able to serve out the rest of his term with his last significant act granting unconditional amnesty to all Confederates on December 25, 1868.

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)

Ulysses S. Grant, who had been in charge of the army under Johnson but enforced the Radicals’ agenda in the South, was elected President in 1868. Grant oversaw the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the admission of the final Confederate state, Texas, into the Union in 1870. He also sided with the Radicals by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1871 into law, which permitted the president the power to suppress state disorder on his own initiative and to suspend the right of habeas corpus. During his presidency, Grant used this authority on numerous occasions to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan and other insurgent groups. But with this use of federal troops to support the Radical state regimes in the South and the governmental corruption that plagued his administration, Grant had alienated the liberal wing of his party. These Liberal Republicans were also wearied by the continual insurgent violence of whites against blacks in the South.  Grant was able to win reelection in 1872 on the strength of Union veterans, Southern Republicans, and the Stalwart faction of his party, which depended upon his patronage.

Up to this point, the Democrats had lost to the Republicans because they contested each election on the issue of Reconstruction.  By 1870 Democrats had moved away from their opposition to Reconstruction and black suffrage and instead advocated policies of economic modernization with accusations that Republican-controlled state governments were inefficient and corrupt. Democrats of this “New Departure” called themselves “Redeemers” who accused Republicans of being unable to revive the economy because of unwelcomed tax burdens.  The election of governor of Virginia, William E. Cameron, an ex-Confederate general, and Georgia Democrats full control of the state government are examples of the political success of this new ideological program.

Although Grant was able to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan so that it would not be able to resurface as a meaningful organization until the first half of the twentieth century, he still was confronted with other paramilitary organizations that sought the violent overthrow of Republican governments and the suppression of black voting. The 1875 Mississippi election was an infamous example where Democrats and insurgent groups were able to intimidate or kill enough Republicans to guarantee a Democratic victory. With northern public opinion growing weary of southern violence, Grant did not send troops to Mississippi and the Republican Governor, Adelbert Ames, fled the state. Northern opinion became to shift from Reconstruction to a “home rule” or “let alone” policy on which Rutherford B. Hayes campaigned to victory in his Ohio gubernatorial election in 1875.

The Panic of 1869 and the Depression of 1873

In addition to the problems of the white insurgency in the South and charges of governmental corruption, such as the 1876 graft trials known as the Whiskey Ring, Grant also was blamed for a series of economic crises, such as the Black Friday Panic of 1869 and the Depression of 1873.v In his first inaugural address, Grant spoke of returning to the gold standard and strengthening the United States government’s credit:

“A great debt has been contracted in securing to us and our posterity the Union. The payment of this, principal and interest, as well as the return to a specie basis as soon as it can be accomplished without material detriment to the debtor class or to the country at large, must be provided for. To protect the national honor, every dollar of Government indebtedness should be paid in gold, unless otherwise expressly stipulated in the contract. Let it be understood that no repudiator of one farthing of our public debt will be trusted in public place, and it will go far toward strengthening a credit which ought to be the best in the world, and will ultimately enable us to replace the debt with bonds bearing less interest than we now pay. To this should be added a faithful collection of the revenue, a strict accountability to the Treasury for every dollar collected, and the greatest practicable retrenchment in expenditure in every department of Government.”

During Reconstruction the United States issued a large amount of money that was backed by nothing except credit, which fueled the belief that government would purchase those “greenbacks” later with gold. In 1869 a group of speculators, led by James Fisk and Jay Gould, recruited Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Corbin, who in turn convinced Grant to appoint Daniel Butterfield as Assistant Treasurer of the United States.  Butterfield agreed to tip the men off when the government intended to sell gold.

Fisk and Gould began purchasing large amounts of gold, causing the price to rise. After Grant realized what had happened, the government sold $4 million in gold to drive the price down. When the government gold hit the market, the price plummeted and investors tried to sell their holdings, with many of them, including Corbin, ruined.  Fisk and Gould, however, escaped financial harm.  Although Grant was not directly involved in the scandal, his association with Fisk and Gould tainted his presidency.

Perhaps more damaging to Grant’s reputation was the Panic of 1873 which led to an economic depression that lasted in both the United States and Europe until 1879. When the German Empire ceased mining silver coins in 1871, the United States adopted the Coinage Act of 1873 which moved the country to a de facto gold standard. The United States would no longer purchase silver at a statutory price or convert silver into silver coins.  Silver prices immediately plunged, the domestic money supply shrank, and investors began to shy away from obligations, such as long-term bonds for railroads.  The sudden, swift move from a bimetallic standard to a single one resulted in a series of bank failures that temporarily closed the New York Stock Market and ushered in an economic depression for the United States. The post-Civil War economic boom that was fueled by the railroad came to an end.

The 1877 Compromise

With the Republican Party split, the economic depression of 1873, and accusations of governmental corruption, the Democrats swept back into power in congressional elections of 1874 and ended the reign of the Radical Republicans. Furthermore, the Redeemers, white conservative Democrats, had seized control of the state government from the Republicans in the South except for South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. With the 1876 presidential election being so close and to be decided in those three states, the Compromise of 1877 was devised with the election of a Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, as president in exchange for the withdraw of federal troops from the South.

Weary of fighting the white insurgency in the South, the North agreed to recall the federal troops. The result was the dominance of white Democrats in the South and end of the effective civil and political rights of African-Americans. With the Compromise of 1877, the era of Reconstruction had finally come to an end.

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