The Reconstruction Acts were four bills passed by the United States 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 was assured, battle lines were being drawn in Washington, DC, to determine the fate of the South after hostilities ceased. Eager to see the Union restored with "malice toward none and charity for all," President Lincoln began formulating a lenient plan to pardon the Rebels and also to let them participate in Reconstruction. It is noteworthy that his plan did not include universal emancipation or equal rights for former slaves freed under the Emancipation Proclamation.
Frustrated, or even alarmed by the growth of presidential power during the Civil War, many United States 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 for restoration of the Union as it had been before the war. Republicans, however, typically argued that the South must be fundamentally reconstructed. 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 M. 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 President Lincoln was assassinated, 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 of Congress.
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.
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 consisted of four key provisions:
- The division of the Southern states into five military districts, each to be governed by a Union general empowered to appoint and remove state officials. Tennessee was excluded because it had already ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Military officials were charged with registering voters in each district, including freedmen and white men willing to take an extended loyalty oath to the Union.
- Each Southern state was ordered to draft a new state constitution providing for black male suffrage.
- Each Southern state was required to ratify the 14th 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.
It quickly became apparent that the First Reconstruction Act suffered from a glaring omission. The measure detailed how Southern states could be restored to the Union, but it did not compel them to seek restoration. Many Southern whites preferred remaining under military rule instead of giving in to Congressional Radicals and granting black suffrage. On March 23, 1867, less than one month after the enactment of the First Reconstruction Act, Congress overrode another presidential veto to enact a supplemental Reconstruction Act. The Second Reconstruction Act required the military commanders of the five Southern districts created by the First Reconstruction Act to begin registering eligible voters and to oversee the election of delegates to state constitutional conventions.
The Johnson administration responded to the first two Reconstruction Acts by interpreting their provisions as narrowly as possible. Attorney General Henry Stanberry ruled that the disenfranchisement of Confederate officials applied only to officeholders who had taken an oath to support the Constitution before the war. Stanberry also prohibited military officials involved in the registration process from questioning the affirmation of prospective voters that they had not participated in the rebellion. Stanberry's ruling prompted Congress, on July 19, 1867, to pass yet another Reconstruction Act over Johnson's veto. The Third Reconstruction Act established specific categories of Confederate officeholders who were subject to disenfranchisement. The act also authorized voter registration officials to reject the oaths of prospective voters if they suspected fraud or perjury.
The adoption of the Third Reconstruction Act paved the way to calling state conventions and to 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 the constitutions to be ratified. 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, when Congress overrode the president. The Fourth Reconstruction Act stipulated that ratification of proposed constitutions in the Southern states would be determined by a majority of people casting ballots, as opposed to a majority of registered voters.
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) had adopted new constitutions, had formed new governments, and had 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.