Key Texts for an Introductory Unit on Reconstruction

— Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor on

Reconstruction took place in the years immediately following the end of the American Civil War, lasting from 1865, when the Confederacy surrendered, until 1879, when the last federal soldiers left South Carolina. Few decades in American history have had as lasting an impact as the Reconstruction years. Let’s look at several of the key, early moments from this period and how they laid the foundation for what would come.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Even though the Civil War had not yet ended, Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” conveys cautious optimism about reintegrating the rebel states into the Union. His speech is notable because of the fine line he walks: Lincoln avoids casting blame, appeals to multiple interest groups, and masterfully expresses a desire to reconcile his divided country.

A month after Lincoln’s speech, and the North’s victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, many knew the South would surrender in the coming months. Knowing how Lincoln envisioned reconstructing a South without slavery and unifying a divided country provides context for the key legislation and texts that followed. For introductory units to Reconstruction, this text should be considered required reading.

Resolution Submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States

Since the Declaration of Independence was written and the nation was founded, slavery had been a pressing issue. Since representation in Congress depends on state population, the Southern states were concerned about their representation in Congress. This led to the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which codified slavery through a census data measure stating that each slave equalled three-fifths of a person. Because of this, Lincoln and others worried that the Emancipation Proclamation could be overturned in court, and therefore only saw it as a step towards complete emancipation.

In December of 1865, just eight months after the end of the Civil War, Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment, which completely prohibits all slavery, was an impressive legislative victory for abolitionists. The language is brief, but as one of three congressional amendments passed during Reconstruction, this key text firmly established the groundwork for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, which further advance the cause of civil rights by providing African Americans and other previously disenfranchised groups with full citizenship and the right to vote.

Douglass's Reconstruction

Frederick Douglass wrote “Reconstruction” in December of 1866, a year and a half after the end of the Civil War. During that time, President Andrew Johnson had done much to undo the progressive policies that Lincoln and others set in motion. He created and enacted his own Reconstruction plan without Congressional approval, and Congress retaliated by overriding Johnson’s vetoes to pass legislation to protect the rights of African Americans.

Although it was published in a magazine and not supported by law, Frederick Douglass’s “Reconstruction” presents a well-articulated call to action for Congress while condemning President Johnson’s policies. Douglass provides a comprehensive background of recent events, and goes on to argue that much more needs to be done by Congress. Douglass fiercely opposes negotiating with ex-Confederates in Congress, claiming that they “deliberate with daggers and vote with revolvers.” He emphasizes the need for the federal government to institute and enforce national laws to prevent the spread of “black codes” and other discriminatory, prejudiced policies that the Southern states had implemented under President Johnson’s policies. He concludes by asserting the need for a Union built on equal rights and privileges for all.

While not exhaustive, these three texts provide an accessible starting point for anyone interested in delving into American Reconstruction. We’ll be adding more texts on this fascinating time period, so check out the Primary Sources bookshelf, and be sure to follow us on Twitter for more updates!