Reconstruction: The Beginning

Lesson Content

Inquire: What Plans Did the North Have to “Reconstruct” the South?


The war was over, but how could the North and the South reconnect? And if they did, could the Union be rebuilt? What would the South’s economy be without slavery? What would be the punishment — if any — for political and military leaders of the Confederacy? With over 600,000 casualties in the Civil War, emotions and passions were intense, and the pain was raw on both sides.

President Lincoln had a fairly forgiving plan for accepting the rebellious states back into the Union, but his assassination on April 14, 1865 ended any hopes of his plan becoming reality. The new president, Andrew Johnson, was a Democrat and Congress was controlled by Radical Republicans who wanted nothing but retribution and revenge — specifically, punishment of and payment by the rebels from the South.

This would be a difficult process, and the scars of the war and Reconstruction would shape and forever impact America.


Big Question

What were the Reconstruction plans, and how did the implementation — or attempted implementation — of the plans affect the reconstructed United States?

Watch: Black Codes - Back Door Slavery

Read: Lincoln - 83 Years Ahead of His Time


World War I officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The Armistice — ending hostilities — was signed at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, hence the “11-11-11” that many people remember, and the celebration of Veterans Day in the United States on November 11th.

In reality, the United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, a separate treaty was negotiated between Germany and the U.S. because Great Britain and France were intent on punishing Germany after World War I. The Treaty of Versailles punished Germany and created an environment where extremist political parties like the Nazi Party could thrive and prosper. Anger became the driving emotion of the German people, and revenge was in their hearts. Essentially, it created an environment where World War II was almost inevitable.

After World War II, U.S. Secretary of State General George Marshall envisaged a better plan to end the war and bring peace to the world — the Marshall Plan. In accordance with the Marshall Plan, the United States spent more than $13 billion (over $100 billion in modern dollars) to rebuild Western Europe, including Germany. America also spent billions rebuilding Japan — again, a bitter enemy in the war.

Unlike after World War I, Germany and Japan became and have remained staunch supportive allies of the U.S., and there has been no World War III. The policies used after the First World War by the victors — retribution and punishment — built resentment and further violence. The method employed by the U.S. after the Second World War — help and sacrifice — helped to build solid relationships and strong allies.

The end of the Civil War saw the beginning of the Reconstruction era, when former rebel Southern states were integrated back into the Union. President Lincoln moved quickly to achieve the war’s ultimate goal: reunification of the country. He proposed a generous and non-punitive plan to return the former Confederate states speedily to the United States. Lincoln’s plan was similar to the Marshall Plan in many ways, 83 years before its time. Had Lincoln’s life and presidency not ended in an assassination, the Lincoln Plan may have created a result similar to the Marshall Plan, potentially ridding the reconstructed country of the animosity and antagonism that had marked the North vs. South conflict. Perhaps even the racism, segregation, and violence that would scar the South could have been eased to a more solvable issue.

The President’s Plan

Benjamin Wade

From the outset of the rebellion in 1861, Lincoln’s overriding goal had been to bring the Southern states quickly back into the fold in order to restore the Union. In early December of 1863, the president began the process of reunification by unveiling a three-part proposal known as the Ten-Percent Plan, which outlined how the former Confederate states would return to the union. The Ten-Percent Plan gave a general pardon to all Southerners except high-ranking Confederate government and military leaders. It also required ten percent of the 1860 voting population in the former rebel states to take a binding oath swearing allegiance to the United States and the emancipation of slaves. Once those voters took those oaths, the restored Confederate states would draft new state constitutions.

Lincoln hoped that the leniency of the plan — 90 percent of the 1860 voters did not have to swear allegiance to the Union or to emancipation — would bring about a quick and long-anticipated resolution and make emancipation more acceptable everywhere. This approach appealed to some in the moderate wing of the Republican Party, who wanted to put the nation on a speedy course toward reconciliation. However, the proposal instantly faced opposition from a larger faction of Republicans in Congress who did not want to deal moderately with the South. These members of Congress, known as Radical Republicans, wanted to remake the South and punish the rebels. Radical Republicans insisted on harsh terms for the defeated Confederacy and protection for former slaves, going far beyond what the president proposed.

Henry Winter Davis

In February of 1864, two of the Radical Republicans, Ohio senator Benjamin Wade and Maryland representative Henry Winter Davis, answered Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan with a proposal of their own. Among other stipulations, the Wade-Davis Bill called for a majority of voters and government officials in Confederate states to take an Ironclad Oath, swearing that they had never supported the Confederacy or made war against the United States. Those who could not or would not take the oath would be unable to take part in the future political life of the South. Congress assented to the Wade-Davis Bill, and it went to Lincoln for his signature. The president refused to sign, using the pocket veto (that is, taking no action) to kill the bill. Lincoln understood that no Southern state would have met the criteria of the Wade-Davis Bill, and its passage would simply have delayed the reconstruction of the South.

 The 13th Amendment

Despite the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the legal status of slaves and the institution of slavery remained unresolved in the United States. To deal with the remaining uncertainties, the Republican Party made the abolition of slavery a top priority by including the issue in its 1864 party platform, leaving no doubt about the intention to abolish slavery.

DecorativeThe president, along with the Radical Republicans, made good on this campaign promise in 1864 and 1865. A proposed constitutional amendment passed the Senate in April of 1864, and the House of Representatives concurred in January of 1865. The amendment then made its way to the states, where it swiftly gained the necessary support, even in the South. In December of 1865, the 13th Amendment was officially ratified and added to the Constitution. The first amendment added to the Constitution since 1804, the 13th Amendment overturned a centuries-old practice by permanently abolishing slaver.

A President Assassinated

President Lincoln never saw the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. On April 14, 1865, Confederate supporter and well-known actor John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln while he was attending a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. The president died the next day. Booth had steadfastly defended the Confederacy and white supremacy, and his act was part of a larger conspiracy to eliminate the leaders of the Union government and keep the Confederate fight going. One of Booth’s associates stabbed and wounded Secretary of State William Seward the night of the assassination. Another associate abandoned the planned assassination of Vice President Andrew Johnson at the last moment.

DecorativeAlthough Booth initially escaped capture, Union troops shot and killed him on April 26, 1865 in a Maryland barn. Eight other conspirators were convicted by a military tribunal for participating in the conspiracy, and four were hanged. Lincoln’s death earned him immediate martyrdom, and hysteria spread throughout the North. To many Northerners, the assassination suggested an even greater conspiracy than what was revealed, masterminded by the unrepentant leaders of the defeated Confederacy. Militant Republicans would use and exploit this fear relentlessly in the ensuing months.

Reflect: What’s Your Plan?


Imagine you were in Congress as the Civil War comes to a close.

Assuming you had the chance to consider each plan, which would you have voted for:

Expand: New President, New Plan


In 1864, Republican Abraham Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson, a Democratic senator from Tennessee, as his vice presidential candidate. Lincoln changed his ticket from the 1860 election as he was looking for Southern support and hoped that by selecting Johnson, he would appeal to Southerners who had not wanted to leave the Union.

DecorativeJohnson, like Lincoln, had grown up in poverty. He did not learn to write until he was 20 years old. He came to political power as a backer of the small farmer. In speeches, he railed against “slaveocracy” and a bloated Southern aristocracy that had little use for the white working man.

While Lincoln was alive, the views of his vice president were not held to the utmost importance, but following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson’s views mattered a great deal. Would he follow Lincoln’s moderate approach to reconciliation? Would he support limited black suffrage as Lincoln did? Would he follow the Radical Republicans and be harsh and punitive toward the South?

Johnson believed the Southern states should decide the course that was best for them. He also felt that African Americans were unable to manage their own lives, and certainly did not think that they deserved to vote. At one point in 1866, he told a group of black citizens visiting the White House that they should emigrate to another country.

He also gave vast amnesty and pardons. Johnson returned all property except, of course, their slaves to former Confederates who pledged loyalty to the Union and agreed to support the 13th Amendment. Confederate officials and owners of large taxable estates were required to apply individually for a presidential pardon. As a result of Johnson’s presidency, many former Confederate leaders were soon returned to power, and some even sought to regain their Congressional seniority.

Johnson’s vision of Reconstruction had proved remarkably lenient. Very few Confederate leaders were prosecuted; by 1866, 7,000 presidential pardons had been granted. Brutal beatings of African Americans were frequent. Still-powerful white men sought to subjugate freed slaves via harsh laws that came to be known as the Black Codes. Some states required written evidence of employment for the coming year or else the freed slaves would be required to work on plantations.

In South Carolina, African Americans had to pay a special tax if they were not farmers or servants. They were not even allowed to hunt or fish in some areas. Blacks were unable to own guns — and even had their dogs taxed. African Americans were barred from orphanages, parks, schools, and other public facilities. The Freedman’s Bureau, a federal agency created to help the transition from slavery to emancipation, was thwarted in its attempts to provide for the welfare of the newly emancipated. All of these rules resulted in the majority of freed slaves remaining dependent on the plantation for work.

DecorativeThe Black Codes left no doubt that the former breakaway Confederate states intended to maintain white supremacy at all costs. These draconian state laws helped spur the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction into action. Its members felt that ending slavery with the 13th Amendment did not go far enough. Congress therefore extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau to combat the Black Codes. In April of 1866, they passed the first Civil Rights Act, which established the citizenship of African Americans. This was a significant step that contradicted the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which declared that blacks could never be citizens.

The law also gave the federal government the right to intervene in state affairs in order to protect the rights of citizens, and thus, of African Americans. President Johnson, who continued to insist that restoration of the United States had already been accomplished, vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act. However, Congress mustered the necessary votes to override his veto. Despite the Civil Rights Act, the Black Codes endured, forming the foundation of the racially discriminatory Jim Crow segregation policies that impoverished generations of African Americans.

Andrew Johnson’s policies were initially supported by most Northerners, even Republicans. But, there was no consensus as to what rights African Americans should receive along with emancipation. A group of Radical Republicans wanted the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence extended to include all free men, including former slaves, but this was in no way a universally held belief. A political power struggle was in the offing.

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Lesson Resources

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Additional Resources and Readings

Reconstruction and 1876: Crash Course US History #22

A Crash Course video describing Reconstruction following the Civil War

What If Reconstruction Hadn’t Failed?

An article by The Atlantic discussing how the failed Reconstruction era had a lasting impact on the U.S.

Reconstruction Era: 1865 – 1877

A list of resources, compiled by Howard University, allowing you to continue exploring the impact of the Reconstruction

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow | PBS | ep 1 of 4 Promises Betrayed

Part 1 of a PBS video on Jim Crow laws, expanding on how the Black Codes were a precedent to Jim Crow

Lesson Glossary


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  • 13th Amendment
    Constitutional amendment which formally abolished slavery throughout the nation
  • 1866 Civil Rights Act
    an act which established the citizenship of African Americans
  • Black Codes
    Laws passed by Southern states during Reconstruction that restricted African Americans' freedoms and forced them to work for low wages
  • Emancipation Proclamation
    an executive order issued by President Lincoln that freed slaves in the states that were seceding
  • Freedman's Bureau
    a federal agency set up in 1865 to assist freed slaves in obtaining relief, land, jobs, fair treatment, and education
  • Ironclad Oath
    an oath proposed by Ohio senator Benjamin Wade and Maryland representative Henry Winter Davis requiring all voters and officials to swear they had never supported the Confederacy; intended to slow Reconstruction
  • Jim Crow segregation
    laws in the South that legalized racial segregation
  • Radical Republicans
    a faction of the Republican Party who advocated for punishment and retribution during Reconstruction
  • Reconstruction
    period after the Civil War in which the former Confederate states were brought back into the United States
  • sharecropping
    a type of economy in the South during Reconstruction that forced former slaves to work for low wages or be in debt
  • slaveocracy
    the political power held by slave owners prior to the Civil War
  • Ten-Percent Plan
    Lincoln's Reconstruction plan that allowed Southern states to be readmitted into the Union once 10 percent of its voters swore an oath of allegiance to the U.S.

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: “Presidential Reconstruction”: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Congress and the Remaking of the South, 1865–1866 – Black Codes: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Restoring the Union: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeLincoln and JohnsondJoseph E. BakerWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeProbably Freedman’s Bureau, Beaufort, S.CSam A. CooleyWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeRepublican presidential ticket 1864bCurrier and IvesWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeLincoln assassination slide c1900 unattributed; based on the depiction from a mechanical glass slide by T. M. McAllister of New YorkWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeAdoptionOf13thAmendmentHarper’s WeeklyWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeHwdavis by John Turner, made between 1840 and 1859AlexPlank at English WikipediaWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeBenjamin F Wade – Brady-HandyMathew Brady and Levin Corbin HandyWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain