Reconstruction Essay, Research Paper
The Era of Reconstruction following the Civil War was a period marked by an intense struggle to restore a worn-out and devastated society. The war, which was aimed at confronting the national problem of slavery, only led to subsequent dilemmas over emancipation and an undefined condition of freedom. Some had naively believed that ending slavery would solve the problem of racial inequality, overlooking the prejudice and uninviting atmosphere towards blacks. Questions over how to reinstate a disloyal population with the fall of the Confederacy and restore a destroyed southern territory rang throughout the nation. Although the former slaves were undeniably freed, the foundations for a racial democracy were laid, and the country was once again united, overall, Reconstruction was a period of political strife, shortcomings, and general failure.
After the war, the South was left in a state of complete turmoil. Passing armies had shattered the South’s agricultural economy with the burning of buildings, destroying of crops, and killing of livestock. Southern industry was also badly hurt, as assets needed to support loans were lost in the war. More importantly, the South, for the first time ever, was without an easy profit economy based on slavery. Racial prejudice was as strong as ever and many white southerners, with a feeling of superiority found it difficult to adjust to the new way of life. To the dismay of many freedmen, President Johnson returned to whites the plantations that the Union Army had given to blacks during the war. Many freedmen were forced to endure sharecropping in which they rented land from white planters and relinquished a portion of their harvest. As a result, poor farmers were gradually pushed into extreme debt and became victims of a burdensome tenancy. The black codes passed by the legislators of Southern states also suppressed blacks. Although the codes allowed for minor legal rights, they also were geared to place blacks in an inferior position. Interracial marriage was prohibited. In some areas freemen needed special licenses to engage in specific trades and in others they were denied certain lands for farming. The South was left in economic ruin filled with racial discrimination.
With the South in a state of desperation it was clear that the federal government needed to take action. However, how to do so was greatly debated. Much of the failings of Reconstruction were a result of the opposing views of President Andrew Johnson and Congress. Johnson, a southerner and former slaveholder fully disagreed with the Republican aims of strict southern reinstatement and racial equality and from the beginning called such radicals his “adversaries.” Johnson’s Jacksonian convictions for a truly united nation led him to insist on the speedy restoration of Southern governments based on the prewar white electorate. High Confederate officials and all those owning property valued at more than $20,000 were excluded from amnesty, but were entitled to individual pardons granted directly by the president. Such pardons placed the president in a position of great power and made reinstatement too easy. Provisional governors were also appointed to call constitutional conventions, in which the states were expected to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, nullify their secession ordinances, and repudiate the Confederate debt. However, Johnson’s plan in practice revealed that little had changed in the South. None of the states enfranchised even literate blacks. Many declined to nullify the secession ordinances and repudiate their debt. Furthermore, Mississippi even refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. For the most part, Johnson’s plan of reconstruction left the south in its prewar state.
Doubting Johnson’s program and concerned for the safety of the freedmen, the Republican Congress opposed the president’s efforts and sought their own plan for reordering the South. Upon meeting in December of 1865, the body refused to seat any of the representatives from the seceded states. All maters pertaining to the restoration of the South were to be reserved for the newly created Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. Congress, believing that emancipation was not enough and the rights of former slaves were in need of protection, passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills. It was contended that the agents of the formerly created Freedmen’s Bureau would enforce the Civil Rights bill through their power to conduct courts and settle injustices. Predictably, Johnson opposed both bills and declared them unconstitutional. By vetoing them, the president marked his alienation from Congress and set off a chain of events leading towards failure.
After overriding Johnson’s veto, congress began to develop its own Reconstruction plan. Radicals of the Republican Party sought to frame a new amendment that could provide greater security than that given under the jurisdiction of the Thirteenth Amendment. In its final form the Fourteenth Amendment defined American citizenship, (includingblacks) prohibited states to pass laws which hurt the natural rights of blacks, and established a franchise clause which potentially gave blacks the right to vote. Furthermore, it officially disqualified all former confederates from public office. Republicans then passed the Reconstruction Acts which instituted the “radical” phase of their plan. They divided the South into five military districts, enfranchised blacks, and required southern states to draw up constitutions safeguarding such suffrage. Congress was determined to protect the rights of former slaves and establish a union of loyalty.
Despite its ultimate failure, Reconstruction did have some positive outcomes contributing to a changed South. Freedmen began to move forward both economically and politically as blacks slowly assumed positions as delegates, legislators, and professionals. The desire to unify, and readmit rebel states soon became a reality and by 1868 all but three had been acknowledged. The new state constitutions were improved from their predecessors. States now assumed responsibility for many social services that had formerly been left to local and public officials. Moreover, public school systems, hospitals, and institutions for the homeless and handicapped were created. Tax systems were fairer and states now undertook programs for economic recovery and improving infrastructure. Most importantly, however, was that blacks were undeniably freed.
However, the many inadequacies and failures of Reconstruction seem to outweigh these minor achievements. The terms of Ulysses S. Grant, Johnson’s successor, were filled with scandal and failed to complete the work of reconstruction. White supremacy was reasserted through politics and southern violence. The radical Republican movement died out, amnesty was frivolously granted to former Confederates, and the North’s gradual loss of interest in Southern matters contributed to a flawed era. Many politicians were reluctant to continue sectional bickering for in the words of Samuel J. Tilden, “We have just emerged from one civil war, and it will not do to engage in another civil war… it would end in the destruction of free government.” White supremacists, with the intention of reestablishing their dominance, soon followed the “Mississippi Plan,” which called for the restoration of Southern conservatives in local government and intimidation through violence to blacks voters. Blacks lost much of their newly gained economic power and were once again pushed back to a state of extreme inferiority. Factionalism within Republicans, through the growth of Liberals in 1872, and the financial panic of 1873 contributed to a platform of mixed intentions and placed doubt on the Republican majorities in the House. Despite efforts to reform a devastated nation in the years following the Civil War, little was accomplished with Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was an experiment that undoubtedly could not last. Marked by intense political division and sectional attitudes, the achievements of emancipated slaves after the war were slowly drawn to a minimum towards the end of the century. The Compromise of 1877 and the government-adopted policy of reconciliation exemplified the collapse of Reconstruction and willingness of the North to drop their convictions for true racial equality.
Blum, John M., ed. The National Experience A History of the United States. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973.
Current, Richard N., ed. Reconstruction. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.
Donald, David, The Politics of Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers,
McPherson, James M. Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War And Reconstruction. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, INC., 1982.