Rebirth and Reconstruction in Post-Civil War America

Aida Kane

The Creation of a New Political Imaginary

In the field of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's impeccable and unparalleled speech captured where the nation was before the war, where it stood in 1863 and where it was headed. For Lincoln, the new nation under God was to be reborn with a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The American government was navigating the end of a social, political and economic system mainly characterized by racial caste and a system of slave labor in half of the country. The rebirth would mark the end of an old order and, hopefully, the swift implementation of a new one. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the pillars on which the old order stood would not be left to collapse without resistance. Ongoing attempts were made to maintain them, each attempt taking a new form. The three branches of the Federal Government were responsible for ushering in the political, legislative and judicial framework that would enable a new social system. Furthermore, the transformation of society also required a revamp of the political imaginary of the nation. Craig Browne, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, and Paula Diehl, Professor for Political Theory and History of Ideas at the Christian Albrechts University of Kiel, wrote on the notion of political imaginary. They explain the idea as follows: "By the ‘political imaginary’ we understand a collective structure that organizes the imagination and the symbolism of the political, and therefore organizes the instituting process of the political as well." With regards to the United States, its Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a quintessential piece of its political imaginary. The semantic, used by Thomas Jefferson, captured what historian Joseph Ellis called “the essential words of the American creed”. Eighty-seven years later, Lincoln’s semantics had significant influence in redefining the creed. James McPherson, American Civil War historian, analyzed the use of the word "nation" and "Union" in Lincoln's speeches and addresses. In the article Out of War, a New Nation, published in the Prologue Article, McPherson explains: "In his first message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln used the word Union 32 times and nation only three times. But in his Gettysburg Address in November 1863 he did not mention the Union at all, but spoke of the nation five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationhood." His use of the word "nation" in lieu of "Union" symbolizes the dawn of a new American political imaginary that would gain momentum throughout the coming decades. Moreover, in his essay, McPherson emphasizes the semantics by further explaining how the words "United States" transitioned from a plural noun to a singular noun. The latter symbolizes a nation, while the former embodies a Republic. One of the main events that cemented the Republic was the creation of the First Bank of the United States. It was formed in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton and the Federal Government, when they took up the Revolutionary War debts of several states. The United States, in its singular form, had conquered freedom and was attempting to bring equality to all its citizens.
Rebirth and Reconstruction in Post-Civil War America
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Rebirth and Reconstruction in Post-Civil War America
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The U.S. Constitution and the Reconstruction Amendments

In the 15 years following the Civil War, the efforts to reintegrate the seceded states and implement the tenets of Reconstruction began with the Constitution. Prior to Reconstruction, the XII Amendment was the last one to be ratified to the Constitution in 1804. The three Reconstruction Amendments were ratified over the span of five years, between 1865 and 1870. The XIII Amendment in 1865 came first, abolishing slavery and making it a national policy, unlike Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation which only freed enslaved people in the Confederate States. The XIV Amendment followed in 1868, granting all former enslaved people citizenship and equal civil and legal rights. Finally, the XV Amendment was ratified to the Constitution in 1870. Under this amendment, "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" could not prevent any citizen from having the right to vote. With slavery, citizenship, equal rights and suffrage settled at the Constitution level, the emancipationist vision of constitutional equality for African Americans was in place. The XIII, XIV and XV amendments were widely regarded as a cornerstone of the post-civil war era by black communities, abolitionists and radical republicans. They braced legislators in their attempts to create a thriving post-slavery society across the nation. Between 1869 and 1879, the United States Congress passed over 20 laws. Several of them were dedicated to reinforcing the Reconstruction Amendments which provided support to many Republican governors across the South who dealt with daily attacks on the new amendments. Particularly, the XV Amendment was subject to assails from violent groups doing everything in their power to prevent Blacks from voting, serving in juries or running for public office. Hence, during the 41st and 42nd U.S. Congress sessions, legislators voted on the Enforcement Act of May 1870, the Second Enforcement Act of February 1871 and the Third Enforcement Act of April 1871. The First Act was introduced to the House by John Bingham, Republican governor of Ohio, and passed in the House on May 16. It passed in the Senate just a few days later. Bingham brought forth the Act to tackle the harassment of black voters. It included 23 sections, among which was the prohibition of individuals from gathering in groups to conspire to violate citizens' rights. This section enabled the arrest of hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members. The Act also prohibited racial discrimination in voter registration by state officials and provided federal courts the power to impose the Act. Although the Enforcement Act remedied many issues that black voters faced in the South, John C. Churchill, Republican governor of New York, introduced the Second Enforcement Act in 1871. The intent was to address some of the shortcomings of the First Act. It allowed the federal government to have control over the administration of national elections and enabled federal judges and U.S. marshals to oversee polling places. A third reinforcement of the Act occurred in April 1871. The Third Act granted the president the power to send military support to governors when violent incidents occurred against armed groups.
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President Ulysses S. Grant Reinforces Order

For the better part of the 1870s, the executive branch had President Ulysses S. Grant at its head. For the Republicans, Grant coming into power as the 18th president of the United States symbolized the victory of the Union, but even more so, the defeat of the Confederacy. He stood with the Radical Republicans to support an extensive reconstruction that included full civil rights for former enslaved people. A year after his election, Grant signed the XV Amendment. However, he also understood that the Reconstruction Amendments would not be enough to implement changes on the ground. On July 22, 1870, upon the request of Republican Governor William W. Holden, Grant sent military troops to North Carolina. The governor was dealing with increasing violence and terror activities from the Ku Klux Klan and required support from the federal government. As African Americans were now attending schools, entering the political arena, establishing their own churches and creating their own economic opportunities, a new society was being shaped – not just in North Carolina, but throughout the South. In addition, states with a Republican governor, such as North Carolina, were particularly despised by white Southerners. The Klan was on a quest to overthrow Republican governors. The support from the executive branch was primordial to curbing the Klan's violence and Grant was open to the use of force from the federal government. After receiving Governor Holden's request, Grant replied: "Dear Sir: Your favor of the 20th. inst. detailing the unsettled and threatening condition of affairs of North Carolina, is just received, and I will telegraph to the Sec. of War immediately, to send more troops to the State without delay. They will be used to suppress violence and to maintain the laws, if other means should fail." In the face of similar turmoil in many cities across the South, Grant's alternative to sending troops to restore order was the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Consequently, in order to reinforce the XIV Amendment to the Constitution, numerous counties in South Carolina witnessed the suspension of the privileges of the writ of Habeas Corpus. Grant used force again in September 1874 when the Governor of Louisiana, Henry C. Warmoth, requested federal support in an insurrection attempt. The White League, a white supremacist paramilitary terrorist group, outnumbered the state militia and the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans to take control of the armory and the statehouse. When the U.S. troops and Naval vessels arrived in New Orleans, the insurrection was suppressed and more than 20 people on the side of the insurrectionists died.
Rebirth and Reconstruction in Post-Civil War America
President Ulysses S. Grant
Rebirth and Reconstruction in Post-Civil War America

Aida Kane

Aida Kane is the founder of a small production company called Wallflower Documentaries. Her passion is to tell the great stories of those who came before us in historical art house documentaries. In addition to working on documentaries, she's a bilingual English/French journalist and the founder of an EdTech company called Picnotes.
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