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The South Has Been at Civil War for 150 Years

The film Lincoln ends after the Amendment that ended slavery throughout the nation passed. But for blacks, earning the rights of citizenship was to prove a much more protracted war.

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In March 1865 Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, clothing and fuel to ex-slaves and advice on negotiating labor contracts between freedmen and their former masters. The Bureau, not the local courts, handled the legal affairs of freedmen. It could lease confiscated land for a period of three years and sell portions of up to 40 acres per buyer.

When Johnson assumed the Presidency he ordered any confiscated or abandoned lands administered by the Freedman’s Bureau returned to pardoned owners rather than redistributed to freedmen.

The Bureau was to expire one year after the termination of the War. In January 1866, Congress renewed the Act. Johnson vetoed the bill. An attempt to override the veto failed, marking the beginning of a struggle between Congress and the President over which branch of government had the ultimate authority to oversee Reconstruction—a struggle that ultimately led to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson by the House in 1868. He avoided removal from office by only one vote in the Senate.

In 1865 the Senate and House denied the seating of any Senator or Representative from the Confederate States until Congress decided when Reconstruction was finished.

In March 1866 Congress enacted the first Civil Rights bill, intended to give ex-slaves full legal equality. It stated, “All persons born in the United States … are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery … shall have the same right in every State … to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

Johnson vetoed the bill. This time Congress overrode his veto. (Congress also passed a more moderate Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and overrode the subsequent Presidential veto of that.)

In response to the Civil Rights Act, every southern legislature passed “black codes,” which limited the rights and civil liberties of freed slaves. Many stripped blacks of their right to vote, serve on juries, testify against whites and own firearms. Some declared that ex-slaves who failed to sign yearly labor contracts could be arrested and hired out to white landowners.

Congress then passed the Fourteenth Amendment, extending citizenship to everyone born in the United States and prohibiting anyone from being deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The Amendment also allowed federal courts to enforce these rights. The Southern states, with the exception of Tennessee and several border states, refused to ratify the Amendment.

A sweeping Republican victory in the 1866 Congressional elections gave Republicans a two-thirds majority, ushering in a ten-year period of aggressive efforts to defend the rights of ex-slaves. The 1867 Reconstruction Act required as a condition of readmittance to the Union for Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment. The Act also placed the former Confederacy under military rule.

The army conducted new elections in which freed slaves could vote. Whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were not permitted to run for office. Republicans took control of all Southern state governorships and state legislatures, except Virginia.

The impact on Southern politics and culture was revolutionary. At the beginning of 1867, no African-American in the South held political office. Within three or four years about 15 percent of all elected officials in the South were black. It may be instructive to note that this was still far below blacks’ proportion of the population, which was over 50 percent in Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina, and over 40 percent in four other Confederate states.

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