Of course, the most important change in the United States as a result of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery. Before Lincoln’s death, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and in doing so changed the goal of the Civil War from a war to reunite a nation, to a war to end slavery. Lincoln tried to get the Congress to call for an Amendment to end slavery as early as1864, but the Amendment had failed to pass the Congress. However, after Lincoln’s death and the war’s end, Congress did pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and the states of the north, and south as a condition to readmission to the Union, ratified the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. Though Lincoln had died before seeing his United States free from the cruel institution of slavery, it was still one of his crowning achievements.
The effort to rebuild the south and bring the former Confederate states back into the union was called Reconstruction. The period of Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877. Lincoln had planned to readmit the southern states without punishment. He knew the nation would need to heal, and punishing the south would only cause that healing process to take longer. In his Second Inaugural Address to the nation after winning reelection in 1864, Lincoln promised to unify the nation “with malice toward none, and charity for all.” Lincoln’s plan even called for the Confederate leaders to be pardoned of their crimes of treason against the United States. He wanted the southern states to quickly be readmitted to the nation, and the southern states to quickly elect senators and representatives to send to Washington, D.C. to reform the Congress.
Lincoln had also established the Freedman’s Bureau. The Freedman’s Bureau was established to set up hospitals, distribute food, fuel, and clothes, and to set up schools to educate African-American children and former slaves. Lincoln and abolitionists in the north knew that the former slaves needed to be quickly absorbed into the society, taught to read and write, and given employment. The former slaves would need help and the protection of the government to eradicate the evil of the institution of slavery and to bring the former slaves into the society.
Lincoln’s plan to readmit the southern states to the Union was called the “Ten Percent” Reconstruction Plan. Lincoln maintained that the south could not constitutionally secede from the Union, therefore, they were only in a state of rebellion, and so he, as president, could take charge of reconstruction. Under Lincoln’s plan, all southerners would be allowed to become U.S. citizens and be pardoned for their revolt if they took an oath to support the Constitution and agreed to ratify the 13th Amendment that abolish slavery. Once ten percent of the states registered voters had done this, their state would be readmitted into the Union, and elect senators and congressmen.
Yet, Lincoln’s death derailed his plans for Reconstruction. Vice-President Andrew Johnson became president with Lincoln’s death. Johnson was not as popular or supported as Lincoln had been, and unlike the republican Lincoln, Johnson was a democrat. Republicans in the Congress distrusted Johnson’s abilities to reconstruct the south, fearing as a democrat, he would be too lenient with the former Confederacy. Also, Johnson was a stubborn and proud man, unwilling to compromise as Lincoln had. Johnson tried to follow Lincoln’s plan to reconstruct the south, and stated it was the president’s job alone to do so. This angered already suspicious republicans in the Congress, who soon wrestled control of reconstruction from Johnson.
The southern states might have been defeated, but they were not about to change easily. Southern states elected governors and state legislatures, but these men were almost all old Confederate leaders, people that had lead the secession of the Confederate states in the first place. Some southern states simply refused to ratify the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery!
Many southern states passed Black Codes. The Black Codes restricted the freedom of former slaves in the south. The southern states passed laws that said that free African-Americans had to have proof of employment. Anyone that did not have proof of employment would be forced to work on a plantation, basically forcing the former slaves back into their old jobs. Other Black Code laws forbade African-Americans from owning guns, or assembling in groups unless supervised. Because of these laws, many northerners felt that the south had not changed at all.
When the new congress was started after the Civil War, northern politicians were shocked! The south had elected former Confederate leaders as their representatives in Washington, many the very same politicians that had called for the south to secede in the first place, or had been leaders of the Confederate government, or military. Even the former Vice-President of the Confederacy had been elected to congress! Under the Constitution, congressmen are able to decide if new congressmen are qualified to be congressmen. The northern politicians refused to swear in the ex-Confederate leaders to congress. Without southern congressmen to support him, President Johnson would no longer be in charge of reconstruction.
When Congress took over Reconstruction, they changed Lincoln’s plan. Congress reconstruction plan was known as Congressional Reconstruction, or Radical Reconstruction. Though the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery had been passed, the southern states were refusing to grant African-Americans their civil rights. The south’s passage of the Black Codes had further angered northern politicians. And besides, northern politicians felt the south should be punished for the Civil War. So, congress passed new laws in the Congressional Reconstruction, or Radical Reconstruction. These laws greatly changed what the south had to do to be readmitted into the United States.
According to Congressional Reconstruction, or Radical Reconstruction, the entire south was divided into five military districts under the command of the United States Army, who would provide a military government until the states had satisfied the north that they were ready to rejoin the Union. The southern states were also required to write new state constitutions, which had to be approved by the U.S. Congress, and ratify the 14th Amendment which defined the civil rights of all citizens regardless of their race, or former condition of servitude. And finally, the states of the south had to ratify the 15th Amendment that gave African-American men the right to vote.
President Johnson, that had taken over after Lincoln’s assassination, tried to let the south back in easily and without punishment as Lincoln had intended. Johnson also did not see the need to punish the south or former Confederates. Johnson pardoned former Confederates and worked against congress’s reconstruction plans. In retaliation, congress tried to impeach, or remove from office, President Johnson. Though the impeachment was short one vote from removing the president from office, it was the end of Johnson’s political power. Congress continued on with its own reconstruction plans, overriding Johnson’s vetoes of their civil rights laws and amendments that extended the rights of former slaves.
The Reconstruction Era lasted until 1877. For twelve years, the south was under military control of the U.S. Army. In 1877, a compromise was reached. The south never fully extended rights to former slaves, and often failed to live up to the civil rights laws. However, in 1877 republican Rutherford B. Hayes was running for president. Knowing he needed southern support to win the election, Hayes promised to end military control of the south. Hayes won the election and in 1877. The Compromise of 1877 ended the Reconstruction Era. The nation was whole again at last. Many more difficulties lied ahead, but finally, the nation was moving toward the future as a complete and reunified nation.
The history of the United States is a history of the birth and struggles of a great nation. In the two-hundred plus years since Thomas Jefferson first wrote the Declaration of Independence, this nation has changed much. But, the promises he included in his masterwork, that this nation strive to ensure that all men are created equal, that this nation strive to protect the citizen’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has not wavered.
While not always perfect, the United States reaches for perfection. The Constitution and our capitalistic economic system have allowed our nation to become the richest and freest nation on the Earth. While the nation has needed to correct some flaws in our government over the years, the very structure of our government and the rights it guarantees for us allows us to change the government and the very Constitution itself as the nation, and its citizens, evolve.
Calvin Coolidge, thirtieth president of the United States once said, "To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race." President Coolidge was expressing that only under our Constitution can people live as securely in their rights and freedoms. No other nation in the world provides for such freedom to it citizenry. It is the envy of every person in the world without it, and the fear of every dictator and tyrannical government.
No, our nation is not perfect, but it strives to be. What else could explain why so many people risk their lives, leave their homelands, and struggle to come to America? Perhaps our American democracy and values can best be described by someone that never experienced it. In communist China, a school boy was once asked what democracy was. He replied, “I don’t know what democracy is, but we should have more of it.”