Even before the Civil War had concluded, Northern politicians were busy making Reconstruction plans for the Confederate States. Reconstruction—the process by which seceded states were to re-enter back into the Union—was a difficult process for the United States for two reasons. Firstly, civil rights had to be secured for the emancipated slaves, against Southern protest; and secondly, the Union needed to be reunited as quickly as possible, with as little “punishment” to the Southern states as possible. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson made great strides to reunite the Union as quickly as possible, but sometimes overlooked Black civil rights in the process. Once the Radical Republicans in Congress took over the Reconstruction the Blacks gained more civil rights and the Southern states were treated more harshly than before. The definitive goal of Reconstruction was to secure rights for Blacks and reunite the Union as effectively as possible, though there was disagreement as to how best this should be done.
When Abraham Lincoln was in charge of the Reconstruction he worked to reunite the Union as quickly as possible. His lenient Ten-Percent Plan allowed easy re-entry into the Union for previous Confederate states; when ten percent of the voters who had voted in the Election of 1860 pledged loyalty to the Union, that state would be allowed re-entry. Lincoln’s top priority was maintaining the unity of the nation at all costs. In his most famous speech, he said he wished to bring the nation together “…with malice toward none; with charity for all” to achieve “a just and lasting peace”. Though his top concern was not Black civil rights, he fought for fair treatment of the Southern states and as little “punishment” as possible. Lincoln’s Reconstruction was about maintaining the integrity of the Union; Black civil rights came second.
Andrew Johnson had policies similar to Lincoln’s when he first took power, but gradually became more conservative as his term continued. He favored a swift Reconstruction with as little conflict as possible. Johnson was often criticized by the Radical Republicans in Congress for being too favorable to the Southern states, by giving amnesty to former Confederate officials and opposing legislation that protected former slaves. Though one might question Johnson’s motives for opposing Black civil rights laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1866, he did not do so out of malice for Blacks, but rather out of a desire to end the Reconstruction as promptly as possible. As Johnson said, “We want to get it done as quickly and inexpensively with as much creativity and flexibility as we can have.” To achieve this goal, Johnson often made considerable concessions to the South during his term as President. Like Lincoln, his primary concern was maintaining harmony in the nation and suppressing sectional discord.
Although Lincoln and Johnson made considerable concessions to the South during their terms, extremist Southern states like South Carolina kept denying the outcome of the war by attempting to reinstitute Blacks into slave-like conditions through unfair laws. Unreasonable “Jim Crow” laws, Black Codes, and poll taxes sought to replicate the conditions of slavery for Blacks in the post-Civil War South by promoting discrimination and segregation. However, after the Radical Republicans took control of the Reconstruction, harsher “punishments” were inflicted on the Southern states to make them accept new laws protecting blacks. In many Southern states, military governments were established until the states accepted the terms of re-entry into the Union. This included acceptance of the 14th and 15th Amendments, guaranteeing the right of citizenship and suffrage to Black American males. Furthermore, the Radical Republicans started the first United States welfare agency, the Freedman’s Bureau, proving food, clothing, and education for freed slaves. Despite their good intentions, however, the Bureau failed to establish the freed slaves as landowners. Though many Southerners at the time believed the Radical Republican dominated Congress was excessively harsh to former Confederate states, this was not the case; passing harsh laws and imposing military government was the only way to guarantee the Blacks their civil rights amidst the tireless discrimination of the South. The Congress had the best interests in mind for the security of the former slaves and for the future of the country.
Although President Lincoln, President Johnson, and Congress had different approaches to reconstructing the South, it is evident that the main motives of the Reconstruction process were to secure the civil rights of freedmen and to consolidate the political goals and gains of the newly re-constituted nation. The Reconstruction faced much opposition and criticism during the 1860s; however, it was able to make noble strides in the protection of countless Black Americans in the decades to come.