Episode 21: Reconstruction Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
U.S. History and huzzah! The Civil War is over!
The slaves are free! Huzzah! That one hit me in the head? It’s very dangerous, Crash
Course. So when you say, “Don’t aim at a person,”
that includes myself? The roller coaster only goes up from here,
my friends. Huzzah! Mr. Green, Mr. Green, what about the epic
failure of Reconstruction? Oh, right. Stupid Reconstruction always ruining
So after the Civil War ended, the United States had to reintegrate both a formerly slave population
and a formerly rebellious population back into the country, which is a challenge that
we might’ve met, except Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and we were left with Andrew
“I am the Third Worst President Ever” Johnson.
I’m sorry, Abe, but you don’t get to be in the show anymore.
So, Lincoln’s whole post-war idea was to facilitate reunion and reconciliation, and
Andrew Johnson’s guiding Reconstruction principle was that the South never had a right
to secede in the first place. Also, because he was himself a Southerner,
he resented all the elites in the South who had snubbed him, AND he was also a racist
who didn’t think that blacks should have any role in Reconstruction. TRIFECTA!
So between 1865 and 1867, the so-called period of Presidential Reconstruction, Johnson appointed
provisional governors and ordered them to call state conventions to establish new all-white
governments. And in their 100% whiteness and oppression
of former slaves, those new governments looked suspiciously like the old confederate governments
they had replaced. And what was changing for the former slaves?
Well, in some ways, a lot. Like, Fiske and Howard universities were established, as well
as many primary and secondary schools, thanks in part to The Freedman’s Bureau, which
only lasted until 1870, but had the power to divide up confiscated and abandoned confederate
land for former slaves. And this was very important because to most
slaves, land ownership was the key to freedom, and many felt like they’d been promised
land by the Union Army. Like, General Sherman’s Field Order 15, promised to distribute land
in 40 acre plots to former slaves. But that didn’t happen, either through the
Freedman’s Bureau or anywhere else. Instead, President Johnson ordered all land returned
to its former owners. So the South remained largely agricultural with the same people
owning the same land, and in the end, we ended up with sharecropping. Let’s go to the Thought
Bubble. The system of sharecropping replaced slavery
in many places throughout the South. Landowners would provide housing to the sharecroppers–no,
Thought Bubble, not quite that nice. There ya go–also tools and seed, and then the sharecroppers
received, get this, a share of their crop–usually between a third and a half, with the price
for that harvest often set by the landowner. Freed blacks got to control their work, and
plantation owners got a steady workforce that couldn’t easily leave, because they had
little opportunity to save money and make the big capital investments in, like, land
or tools. By the late 1860s, poor white farmers were sharecropping as well–in fact, by the
Great Depression, most sharecroppers were white. And while sharecropping certainly wasn’t
slavery, it did result in a quasi-serfdom that tied workers to land they didn’t own–more
or less the opposite of Jefferson’s ideal of the small, independent farmer.
So, the Republicans in Congress weren’t happy that this reconstructed south looked
so much like the pre-Civil War south, so they took the lead in reconstruction after 1867.
Radical Republicans felt the war had been fought for equal rights and wanted to see
the powers of the national government expanded. Few were as radical as Thaddeus “Tommy Lee
Jones” Stephens who wanted to take away land from the Southern planters and give it
to the former slaves, but rank-and-file Republicans were radical enough to pass the Civil Rights
Bill, which defined persons born in the United States as citizens and established nationwide
equality before the law regardless of race. Andrew Johnson immediately vetoed the law,
claiming that trying to protect the rights of African Americans amounted to discrimination
against white people, which so infuriated Republicans that Congress did something it
had never done before in all of American history. They overrode the Presidential veto with a
2/3rds majority and the Civil Rights Act became law.
So then Congress really had its dander up and decided to amend the Constitution with
the 14th amendment, which defines citizenship, guarantees equal protection, and extends the
rights in the Bill of Rights to all the states (sort of). The amendment had almost no Democratic
support, but it also didn’t need any, because there were almost no Democrats in Congress
on account of how Congress had refused to seat the representatives from the “new”
all-white governments that Johnson supported. And that’s how we got the 14th amendment,
arguably the most important in the whole Constitution. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Oh, straight to the
mystery document today? Alright. The rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the Mystery Document and try not to get shocked. Alright let’s
see what we’ve got today. Sec. 1. Be it ordained by the police jury
of the parish of St. Landry, That no negro shall be allowed to pass within the limits
of said parish without special permit in writing from his employer. Sec. 4. . . . Every negro is required to be
in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible
for the conduct of said negro.. Sec. 6. . . . No negro shall be permitted
to preach, exhort, or otherwise declaim to congregations of colored people, without a
special permission in writing from the president of the police jury. . . .
Gee, Stan, I wonder if the President of the Police Jury was white. I actually know this
one. It is a Black Code, which was basically legal codes where they just replaced the word
“slave” with the word “negro.” And this code shows just how unwilling white
governments were to ensure the rights of new, free citizens.
I would celebrate not getting shocked, but now I am depressed.
So, okay, in 1867, again over Johnson’s veto, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act,
which divided the south into 5 military districts and required each state to create a new government,
one that included participation of black men. Those new governments had to ratify the 14th
amendment if they wanted to get back into the union. Radical Reconstruction had begun.
So, in 1868, Andrew Johnson was about as electable in the U.S. as Jefferson Davis, and sure enough
he didn’t win. Instead, the 1868 election was won by Republican and former Union general
Ulysses S. Grant. But Grant’s margin of victory was small
enough that Republicans were like, “Man, we would sure win more elections if black
people could vote.” Which is something you hear Republicans say all the time these days.
So Congressional Republicans pushed the 15th Amendment, which prohibited states from denying
men the right to vote based on race, but not based on gender or literacy or whether your
grandfather could vote. So states ended up with a lot of leeway when
it came to denying the franchise to African Americans, which of course they did.
So here we have the federal government dictating who can vote, and who is and isn’t a citizen
of a state, and establishing equality under the law–even local laws. And this is a really
big deal in American history, because the national government became, rather than a
threat to individual liberty, “the custodian of freedom,” as Radical Republican Charles
Sumner put it. So but with this legal protection, former
slaves began to exercise their rights. They participated in the political process by direct
action, such as staging sit-ins to integrate street-cars, by voting in elections, and by
holding office. Most African Americans were Republicans at
the time, and because they could vote and were a large part of the population, the Republican
party came to dominate politics in the South, just like today, except totally different.
Now, Southern mythology about the age of radical Reconstruction is exemplified by Gone with
the Wind, which of course tells the story of northern Republican dominance and corruption
by southern Republicans. Fortune seeking northern carpetbaggers, seen
here, as well as southern turncoat scalawags dominated politics and all of the African
American elected leaders were either corrupt or puppets or both.
Yeah, well, like the rest of Gone with the Wind, that’s a bit of an oversimplification.
There were about 2,000 African Americans who held office during Reconstruction, and the
vast majority of them were not corrupt. Consider for example the not-corrupt and amazingly-named
Pinckney B.S. Pinchback, who from 1872 to 1873 served very briefly in Louisiana as America’s
first black governor. And went on to be a senator and a member of the House of Representatives.
By the way, America’s second African American governor, Douglas Wilder of Virginia was elected
in 1989. Having African American officeholders was
a huge step forward in term of ensuring the rights of African Americans because it meant
that there would be black juries and less discrimination in state and local governments
when it came to providing basic services. But in the end, Republican governments failed
in the South. There were important achievements, especially a school system that, while segregated,
did attempt to educate both black and white children.
And even more importantly, they created a functioning government where both white and
African American citizens could participate. According to one white South Carolina lawyer,
“We have gone through one of the most remarkable changes in our relations to each other that
has been known, perhaps, in the history of the world.”
That’s a little hyperbolic, but we are America after all.
(libertage) It’s true that corruption was widespread,
but it was in the North, too. I mean, we’re talking about governments.
And that’s not why Reconstruction really ended: It ended because 1. things like schools
and road repair cost money, which meant taxes, which made Republican governments very unpopular
because Americans hate taxes, and 2. White southerners could not accept
African Americans exercising basic civil rights, holding office or voting.
And for many, the best way to return things to the way they were before reconstruction
was through violence. Especially after 1867, much of the violence
directed toward African Americans in the South was politically motivated. The Ku Klux Klan
was founded in 1866 and it quickly became a terrorist organization, targeting Republicans,
both black and white, beating and murdering men and women in order to intimidate them
and keep them from voting. The worst act of violence was probably the
massacre at Colfax, Louisiana where hundreds of former slaves were murdered.
And between intimidation and emerging discriminatory voting laws, fewer black men voted, which
allowed white Democrats to take control of state governments in the south, and returned
white Democratic congressional delegations to Washington.
These white southern politicians called themselves “Redeemers” because they claimed to have
redeemed the south from northern republican corruption and black rule.
Now, it’s likely that the South would have fallen back into Democratic hands eventually,
but the process was aided by Northern Republicans losing interest in Reconstruction.
In 1873, the U.S. fell into yet another not-quite-Great economic depression and northerners lost the
stomach to fight for the rights of black people in the south, which in addition to being hard
was expensive. So by 1876 the supporters of reconstruction
were in full retreat and the Democrats were resurgent, especially in the south. And this
set up one of the most contentious elections in American history.
The Democrats nominated New York Governor (and NYU Law School graduate) Samuel Tilden.
The Republicans chose Ohio governor (and Kenyon College alumnus) Rutherford B. Hayes.
One man who’d gone to Crash Course writer Raoul Meyer’s law school. And another who’d
gone to my college, Kenyon. Now, if the election had been based on facial
hair, as elections should be, there would’ve been no controversy, but sadly we have an
electoral college here in the United States, and in 1876 there were disputed electoral
votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and, of course, Florida.
Now you might remember that in these situations, there is a constitutional provision that says
Congress should decide the winner, but Congress, shockingly, proved unable to accomplish something.
So they appointed a 15 man Electoral Commission–a Super-Committee, if you will. And there were
8 Republicans on that committee and 7 Democrats, so you will never guess who won. Kenyon College’s
own Rutherford B. Hayes. Go Lords and Ladies! And yes, that is our
mascot. Shut up. Anyway in order to get the Presidency and
win the support of the supercommittee, Hayes’ people agreed to cede control of the South
to the Democrats and to stop meddling in Southern affairs and also to build a transcontinental
railroad through Texas. This is called the Bargain of 1877 because
historians are so good at naming things and it basically killed Reconstruction.
Without any more federal troops in Southern states and with control of Southern legislatures
firmly in the hands of white democrats the states were free to go back to restricting
the freedom of black people, which they did. Legislatures passed Jim Crow laws that limited
African American’s access to public accommodations and legal protections.
States passed laws that took away black people’s right to vote and social and economic mobility
among African Americans in the south declined precipitously.
However, for a brief moment, the United States was more democratic than it had ever been
before. And an entire segment of the population that had no impact on politics before was
now allowed to participate. And for the freedmen who lived through it,
that was a monumental change, and it would echo down to the Civil Rights movement in
the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes called the second reconstruction.
But we’re gonna end this episode on a downer, as we are wont to do here at Crash Course
US History because I want to point out a lesser-known legacy of Reconstruction.
The Reconstruction amendments and laws that were passed granted former slaves political
freedom and rights, especially the vote, and that was critical.
But to give them what they really wanted and needed, plots of land that would make them
economically independent, would have required confiscation, and that violation of property
rights was too much for all but the most radical Republicans.
And that question of what it really means to be “free” in a system of free market
capitalism has proven very complicated indeed. I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café.
Every week there’s a new caption for the libertage. You can suggest those in comments
where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of
historians. Thank you for watching Crash Course. Don’t forget to subscribe. And as we say
in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome. reconstruction –