History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

Time Line

RECONSTRUCTION IN TENNESSEE

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     Reconstruction, during the first two years after the Civil War (1861-1865), was called "presidential Reconstruction," simply because Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who served as vice president when President Lincoln was killed, was in charge. Lincoln had been a Republican; Johnson was a Democrat who owned slaves. However, Johnson had backed Lincoln and decided to stick with the Union when the Southern states seceded. This act took courage, as he seemed to be the perfect person to bring South and North together.

     Reconstruction, at its beginning, seemed to go well. Congress had created a Freedmen's Bureau to help the newly freed men and women. The bureau distributed food, clothing, and shelter to black people all across the South. Schools were soon opened for the former slaves. During the years of slavery, every southern state except Tennessee had made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. So the former slaves were starved for knowledge. Parents often sat in classrooms with their children. As soon as they could read and write, the new learners taught others.

     The southern farms were in terrible shape, which made it hard to learn if you were hungry. The cotton crop failed in 1865, and little increase was experienced the following year. The Freedman's Bureau kept most people from starving. Neighbors helped neighbors. A former house slave found a job and brought five dollars to his old mistress each week. Northern soldiers kept order, but just gazing at those blue uniforms upset many Southerners. And some whites couldn't accept the idea of a society where people were equal.

     On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. It said, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States." But Andrew Johnson was already working against it. The President's plan of Reconstruction put power back into the hands of the South's old white leaders, and therefore gave African-Americans no civil or political rights.

     Soon every southern state passed laws that discriminated against blacks. The laws were called Black Codes. They made it a crime for any black person to refuse to sign a contract to labor on white plantations. And they gave African-Americans no voice in government. Soon outbreaks of violence against blacks were taking place. At a riot in New Orleans, thirty-four blacks and three whites that stood with them were killed. Some whites put masks over their faces and began terrorizing and killing black people. They were members of a newly formed hate organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and they didn't have the courage to show their faces. It turned out that President Andrew Johnson shared some of their beliefs. In letter after letter he exposed his prejudices. In one he wrote, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men."

     (The Ku Klux Klan was organized at Pulaski, Tenn., in May 1866. A general organization of the local Klans was effected in Apr., 1867, at Nashville, Tenn. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famous Confederate cavalry leader, was made Grand Wizard of the Empire and was assisted by ten Genii.

     The war had been fought to end slavery. But the black codes were there to do the same old thing: to keep blacks as a secondary labor force. So, in 1866, Republicans in Congress, both radical and moderate, united to pass the Civil Rights Act. It was designed to nullify the Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the act. After a veto, two-thirds of Congress must vote for a bill to have it become a law. Two-thirds did. It was the first time in American history that an important piece of legislation was passed over the president's veto. Andrew Johnson was furious. He was also stubborn and un-compromising. "I am right. I know I am right. And I am damned if I do not adhere to it," he declared.

     The next thing the Congressional Republicans did was to write the Fourteenth Amendment. It was an authoritative amendment meant to change the Constitution as it was. It said: "No State shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

     The Amendment declares that the states must provide equal protection of the law to all their citizens. The South had fought for states' rights. Many Southerners thought each state should be free to make its own decisions. If a state wanted an upper-class society with layers of privilege and unfairness--well, if that was what the greater part of its people wanted, the solution was simple. This was what one famous judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes had to say about that: "The history of most countries has been that of majorities--mounted majorities, clad in iron, armed with death--treading down the tenfold more numerous minorities."

     The Constitution makers had realized that majorities are sometimes dictatorial. The Bill of Rights was intended to protect minorities from mistreatment by the majority. But it only enclosed federal laws. The Fourteenth Amendment protected citizens from dictatorship by the states. Unfair laws by the states can be overridden by the U.S. Government, a direct reference to the Fourteenth Amendment. It took power from the states and gave power to the federal government.

Time Line



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