In February 1867, Congress approved the First Reconstruction Act, which outlined a process for restoring the Confederate states to the Union, and sent it to President Andrew Johnson for review and signature. Remembered by some as “a champion of the white South,”1 Eric Foner, Reconstuction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 190. Johnson denounced and vetoed the bill, calling it an attempt to “coerce the [Southern] people into the adoption of principles and measures to which it is known that they are opposed and upon which they have an undeniable right to exercise their own judgment.”2 Andrew Johnson, Veto for the first Reconstruction Act, March 2, 1867.
Johnson preferred a more lenient policy that would cancel Confederate debt, pardon former Confederates in exchange for their pledged loyalty to the Union, and restore former Confederate states to the Union once they denounced secession and wrote new constitutions that abolished slavery. Johnson instituted this policy of “Presidential Reconstruction”—which did not require Southern states to guarantee voting rights for Black men or involve Black people in the writing of new state constitutions—when he took office following President Lincoln’s 1865 assassination.
By 1867, Congress had grown frustrated that former Confederate leaders were controlling Southern state governments and actively working to undermine Emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments.3 Foner, Reconstuction, 196. In March 1867, Congress overrode President Johnson’s veto and the First Reconstruction Act became law.
The act implemented “Reconstruction” as a longer period of post-war transition that empowered African American men as an electorate and excluded former government officials who had aided the Confederacy.4 Thirty-ninth Congress. Sess. II. Ch. CLIII. March 2, 1867. (14 Stat. 428-430, c.153). It divided 10 former Confederate states into five Reconstruction districts held under federal military control and led by commanding generals. Tennessee was excepted, since it had been readmitted to the Union in 1866. Each state had to complete a series of requirements to earn full federal restoration; the first was to hold a state convention of elected delegates and draft a new constitution establishing voting rights for men of all races.
Over the next two years, three additional laws were passed to form the collective Reconstruction Acts. Together, they authorized the commanding military generals to register voters and hold elections for delegates;5 Fortieth Congress, Sess I. Ch VI. March 23, 1867. (15 Stat. 2-5, c.6). declared that “the governments then existing in the rebel States . . . were not legal state governments;”6 Fortieth Congress, Sess I. Ch. XXX. July 19, 1867. (15 Stat. 14-16, c.30). and authorized the election of state officials and representatives to Congress while the new state constitution was up for ratification.7 Fortieth Congress, Sess II. Ch. XXV. (15 Stat. 41, c.25).
To earn full restoration to the Union, these states had to write new constitutions, have the constitutions ratified by a majority of voters, elect new officials under the new constitutional guidelines, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and secure reinstatement from Congress.
The 10 former Confederate states held their required constitutional conventions between November 5, 1867, and February 8, 1869. Of the 1,027 total delegates who participated, 258—nearly 1 in 4—were African American men. In some states their numbers were much greater. Black men made up the majority of delegates at the South Carolina convention, nearly half in Louisiana, and more than a third in Florida.8 Richard L. Hume, “Negro Delegates to the State Constitutional Conventions of 1867-69” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 129, 133-34.
Even with the protection of federal troops and the force of federal law, Black people empowered to participate in the remaking of the South faced violence at the hands of resentful white mobs. At least 26 African American delegates to constitutional conventions were victims of Ku Klux Klan attacks.9 Ibid., 146. Newberry, South Carolina, delegate Lee A. Nance was shot and killed outside of his home in October 1868. That same month, a Black man named Benjamin Randolph was shot in the head while riding a train, one day after giving a controversial political speech in Abbeville, South Carolina. “Future generations will look back with horror,” read a resolution by the South Carolina legislature following Mr. Randolph’s murder, “upon the parties who, in open daylight, made an attack on him from behind.”10 The Charleston Daily News, “The State Legislature: The Murder of B.F. Randolph – Action of the Senate – Speeches by Republican Leaders,” December 2, 1868.
As Reconstruction continued, violent white resistance to Black political power, citizenship rights, and freedom spread terror throughout the South, diminishing Black electoral influence and restoring to office many former Confederate officials who still promoted white supremacist policies.
Terror campaigns enabled white people opposed to racial equality to gain control of most Southern state legislatures. By 1876, pro-Reconstruction officials controlled state governments in only three of the former Confederate states.