A New Birth of Freedom: Reconstruction During the Civil War The Meaning of Freedom: Black and White Responses to Slavery From Free Labor to Slave Labor Rights and Power: The Politics of Reconstruction Additional Resources Credits for this Exhibit Link to Digital History Home Link to Reconstruction Home




Reconstruction, one of the most turbulent and controversial eras in American history, began during the Civil War and ended in 1877. It witnessed America's first experiment in interracial democracy. Just as the fate of slavery was central to the meaning of the Civil War, so the divisive politics of Reconstruction turned on the status the former slaves would assume in the reunited nation. Reconstruction remains relevant today because the issues central to it -- the role of the federal government in protecting citizens' rights, and the possibility of economic and racial justice -- are still unresolved.

Northern victory in the Civil War decided the fate of the Union and of slavery, but posed numerous problems. How should the nation be reunited? What system of labor should replace slavery? What would be the status of the former slaves?

Central to Reconstruction was the effort of former slaves to breathe full meaning into their newly acquired freedom, and to claim their rights as citizens. Rather than passive victims of the actions of others, African Americans were active agents in shaping Reconstruction.

After rejecting the Reconstruction plan of President Andrew Johnson, the Republican Congress enacted laws and Constitutional amendments that empowered the federal government to enforce the principle of equal rights, and gave black Southerners the right to vote and hold office. The new Southern governments confronted violent opposition from the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups. In time, the North abandoned its commitment to protect the rights of the former slaves, Reconstruction came to an end, and white supremacy was restored throughout the South.

For much of this century, Reconstruction was widely viewed as an era of corruption and misgovernment, supposedly caused by allowing blacks to take part in politics. This interpretation helped to justify the South's system of racial segregation and denying the vote to blacks, which survived into the 1960s. Today, as a result of extensive new research and profound changes in American race relations, historians view Reconstruction far more favorably, as a time of genuine progress for former slaves and the South as a whole.

For all Americans, Reconstruction was a time of fundamental social, economic, and political change. The overthrow of Reconstruction left to future generations the troublesome problem of racial justice.

Copyright 2003