When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States had to determine how to allow the seceded Southern states to rejoin the Union and rebuild infrastructure destroyed by the war. President Andrew Johnson strongly supported states' rights and didn't believe the federal government had the right to intervene in state government functions. His lax approach to reconstruction angered northern Republicans in Congress, who gained a majority after the 1866 midterm elections and took over the reconstruction effort.
Freedom is Only Half the Battle
WIth Union victory in the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the federal Constitution was passed, abolishing slavery. As many as 4 million slaves were freed, but the government didn't know what to do with all of them. In 1865 there was no historical precedent for a government caring for millions of refugees without housing or means of income. The federal government established the Freedmen's Bureau to provide food, housing, medical services, education and legal assistance to African-Americans and poor whites in the war-torn South. Over the course of its existence, the bureau fed millions of people, negotiated labor contracts, and built thousands of hospitals and schools.
Civil Rights for African-Americans
Radical Republicans, who largely controlled reconstruction, believed African-Americans were entitled to the same political rights and liberties as whites. In 1866, they passed a far-reaching Civil Rights Act, which provided equal property and individual rights for African-Americans. When President Johnson vetoed the legislation, moderate Republicans joined with the Radicals to override the president's veto. In 1867, they secured ratification of the 14th Amendment, which forbid states from denying anyone equal protection under the law. Newly enfranchised African-Americans in the South were elected to state legislatures and U.S. Congress. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, protecting the right to vote regardless of race or former condition of servitude.
Forty Acres and a Mule
By far the most ambitious goal of Radical Republicans was land redistribution. In 1865, Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens, a leading Radical Republican, proposed that the federal government confiscate all land owned by rebels that exceeded 200 acres or $10,000 in value. His plan called for that land to be redistributed, granting 40 acres to every adult male slave who had been freed. Land distribution was part of the original responsibilities of the Freedmen's Bureau, but the plan itself never got off the ground. President Johnson disagreed with the plan, and continuously undermined efforts at land redistribution by pardoning former Confederates and restoring land to them that had been confiscated by the Union army during the war. Ultimately there was little opportunity for African-American land ownership in the South.
Transformation of the South
President Johnson may have championed states' rights, but Radical Republicans believed in direct federal intervention in states' affairs to alter the society, economy and way of life in the South. The rural South exhibited a stark contrast between rich and poor and had no state-run public schools. The Reconstruction Act of 1867, also passed over Johnson's veto, divided the former Confederate states into five military districts under control of a commander who could call in federal troops to restore order and guarantee civil rights. The Radical Republicans used the Freedmen's Bureau and economic development programs to revolutionize the social and governmental organization of the Southern states.