9 Primary Source Images: Reconstruction


After the Civil War, much of the South lay in ruins. How would these states be brought back into the Union? Would they be conquered territories or equal states? How would they rebuild their governments, economies, and social systems? What rights did freedom confer upon formerly enslaved people? The answers to many of Reconstruction’s questions hinged upon the concepts of citizenship and equality. The era witnessed perhaps the most open and widespread discussions of citizenship since the nation’s founding. It was a moment of revolutionary possibility and violent backlash. African Americans and Radical Republicans pushed the nation to finally realize the Declaration of Independence’s promises that “all men were created equal” and had “certain, unalienable rights.” Conservative white Democrats granted African Americans legal freedom but little more. When black Americans and their radical allies succeeded in securing citizenship for freedpeople, a new fight commenced to determine the legal, political, and social implications of American citizenship. Resistance continued, and Reconstruction eventually collapsed. In the South, limits on human freedom endured and would stand for nearly a century more. These sources gesture toward both the successes and failures of Reconstruction.

Johnson and Reconstruction

"Reconstruction and How It Works," in Harper's Weekly shows President Johnson as Iago and a black soldier as Othello, drawing a parallel between Iago's manipulative treatment of Othello with Johnson's behavior during Reconstruction. The image also shows Reconstruction riots in smaller images surrounding the central image, and includes some text from Othello and quotes from Johnson.

Thomas Nast, “Reconstruction and How It Works,” Harper’s Weekly, 1866, via HarpWeek.

This print mocks Reconstruction by making several allusions to Shakespeare. The center illustration shows a black soldier as Othello and President Andrew Johnson as Iago. Johnson’s slogans “Treason is a crime and must be made odious” and “I am your Moses” are on the wall. The top left shows a riot in Memphis and at the top a riot in New Orleans. At the bottom, Johnson is trying to charm a Confederate Copperhead. General Benjamin Butler is at the bottom left, accepting the Confederate surrender of New Orleans in 1862. This scene is contrasted to the bottom right where General Philips Sheridan bows to Louisiana Attorney General Andrew Herron in 1866, implying a defeat for Reconstruction. 

The text on the left side of the image reads:

Iago. The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by the nose,
As asses…
Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me,
For making him egregiously an ass,
And practicing upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness. ‘Tis here, but yet confus’d;
Knavery’s plain face is never seen, till us’d…
Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love;
Which is indeed but sign…
Then devils will their blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now…
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon,
For too much loving you…
I hope, you will consider, what is spoke
Comes from my love;–But, I do see you are mov’d:–
I am to pray you, not to strain my speech
To grosser issues, nor to larger reach
Than to suspicion…

O grace! O heaven defend me!

Are you a man? Have you a soul, or sense?–
God be wi’ you; take mine office.–O wretched fool,
That liv’st to make thine honesty a vice!–
O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world!
To be direct and honest, is not safe.–
I thank you for this profit; and, from hence,
I’ll love no friend, since love breeds such offense…
Work on,
My medicine, work!


The text on the right side of the image reads:

“I have been accused of being inimical to the true interests of the colored people’ but this is not true. I am one of their best friends; and time, which tries and tests all, will demonstrate the fact…I once said I would be the Moses of your people, and lead them on to liberty–liberty they now have…I have been blamed for vetoing the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, and have been also represented to the colored people as having done it because I was their enemy. This is not true…The ordinary course of judicial proceedings is no longer interrupted. The courts, both State and Federal, are in full, complete, and successful operation, and through them every person, regardless of race and color, is entitled to and can be hear. The protection granted to the white citizen is already conferred by law upon the freedman….It can not be expected that men who have for four years been made familiar with the blood and carnage of war, who have suffered the loss of property, and in so many instances reduced from affluence to poverty, can at once assume the calm demeanor and action of those citizens of the country whose worldly possessions have not been destroyed, and whose political hopes have not been blasted, and the worst view of this subject affords no parallel in violence to similar outrages that have followed all civil commotions, always less in magnitude than ours. But I do not believe that this to-be-regretted state of things will last long.”– Andrew Johnson.

Fifteenth Amendment

Painting depicting several important themes related to the fifteenth amendment. The print celebrates the military achievements of black veterans, the voting rights protected by the amendment, the right to marry and establish families, the creation and protection of black churches, and the right to own and improve land.

Thomas Kelley, “The Fifteenth Amendment,” 1870, via Wikimedia.

This 1870 print celebrated the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Here we see several of the themes most important to black Americans during Reconstruction: The print celebrates the military achievements of black veterans, the voting rights protected by the amendment, the right to marry and establish families, the creation and protection of black churches, and the right to own and improve land. Unfortunately, many of these freedoms would be short-lived as the United States retreated from Reconstruction.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

US History II Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book