The results of 1877 could have been avoided had the Johnson administration taken a more active and persistent role in seeing that Reconstruction was put firmly in place. Andrew Johnson, who came into office following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, originally set the tone for a pro-Reconstruction policy in his administration. But it quickly became clear that Johnson had no intention of following through with this policy.
Reconstruction depended on the tone Johnson set in the early years of Reconstruction. While the Republican party, particularly the radical wing of the party, insisted upon setting and creating policy that addressed the problems of the south, and especially the issues that faced freedmen in the south, Johnson undermined their efforts, first by applying a liberal hand in treating upper rank Confederate soldiers by giving amnesty to those who owned more than $20,000 worth of property and exonerating men who were arrested for committing acts of violence against Freedman without their having fulfilled the requirements the government determined in order for them to have full citizenship rights again.
While moderate and radical Republicans took matters into their own hands and started passing laws, such as the Civil Rights Act 1866, the damage was already done. Johnson’s collusion with the Confederates set in motion a series of events which would undermine all Reconstruction efforts. For instance, the Civil Rights Act was written in response to the Black codes, which southern politicians had passed due to their own awareness that Johnson posed no real threat to their efforts to regain the south. Johnson’s incompetence and his disregard for the laws angered and frustrated Republicans. Eventually this would lead to Johnson’s impeachment when he broke the Tenure of the Office Act by firing members of his Cabinet. Though Republicans were unable to remove him from office, Johnson’s administration was effectively crippled.
Ulysses S. Grant, who proved to be friendlier to the Reconstruction efforts, was elected. Yet Grant’s election did nothing to quell the aggressive Southerners, since emboldened by Johnson’s inactivity. Southerners used intimidation and violence to prevent Blacks from voting, and actively pursued a policy of regaining control, both political and socially, of the South. The few Black representatives who were voted into the national and state governments during the Reconstruction were either chased out of office or killed. Mobs attacked groups of Blacks, such as the case in the Colfax Massacre, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that was constant and politically debilitating for freed African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization, also formed during this period to formalize these acts of violence.
While in the beginning Grant was aggressive in dealing with the South, eventually he suffered from the same malaise as other northerners regarding the persistent problems of the south and quickly became apathetic. Too many federal resources, such as the Army, were being taxed in addressing these problems and they never seemed to be resolved. Once Grant and the Republicans dealt with one issue regarding violence, such as the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, another problem reared its head. Eventually, Northerners became indifferent toward Reconstruction efforts and wanted to move on from the ugly memories of the war.
Grant also had to deal with scandals, such as the Whiskey Case Scandal, which led to public frustations toward the Republican party. When the Tilden/Hayes Election Fraud occurred, Southerners, who had by then regained control of the House, took advantage of the situation and offered a deal to Republicans to keep their fraudulent electoral votes in return for the effective end of Reconstruction.