After the Civil War, with slavery abolished and the Confederacy defeated, the possibility for a “new birth of freedom” (as Lincoln called for in the Gettysburg Address) arose, based on racial equality and enforced by the federal government. With the defeat of President Andrew Johnson’s racist Reconstruction policies, the Republican Congress enacted the 14th and 15th Amendments to give freed people citizenship and access to the ballot.

Newly emancipated slaves did not need to be told the meaning of freedom, which included citizenship, education, the right to vote, free movement, legal recognition of their families and land redistribution. Congress sent Union soldiers to the South to ensure the safety of the ballot and protect the lives of the liberated African-Americans and their white allies. Voters in the South elected African-Americans to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, state legislatures and to a host of local offices.

Because the federal government assumed the role of guarantor of freedom and protector of civil rights, Reconstruction also challenged the traditional view that freedom required a limited national government. Although much progress was made, Reconstruction ended too soon to complete the transformation of the South. Racism, severe economic depression, Northern exhaustion with Southern troubles, and a campaign of organized violence against African- Americans and their white allies overturned Reconstruction. The Compromise of 1877 removed the last federal troops from Southern states and formally ended Reconstruction. African-Americans would continue to exercise some voting rights in the South until the 1890s, but they were progressively stripped of political, social and economic power. More than half a century passed until the civil rights movement successfully demonstrated for those rights that had been briefly won during Reconstruction.