Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
Reconstruction Period: Goals, Success and Failures
As the Civil War was drawing to a close in 1865, President Lincoln began making plans for the physical, economic, social and political rehabilitation of a region marked by four years of war and 200 years of racism. Republicans in the federal government felt responsible for restoring public infrastructure, private property, food production, medical care and housing - all while the workforce and economy were in shambles. Furthermore, they wanted to change many characteristics of Southern society and politics.
Even though most of the programs were aimed at helping the South, many white Southerners resented the suggestion that their world needed to be reconstructed at all and fought against any changes imposed on them by Republicans, Northerners or anyone in the federal government. This struggle to rebuild Southern government, society, infrastructure and economy was called Reconstruction, and it dominated political debate for 12 years under three different presidents. But, was it successful?
The Successes of Reconstruction
President Lincoln's original goal in the Civil War was to hold the nation together. And in this, the war and Reconstruction were a success. The Confederacy was destroyed for good, and every state that had seceded was readmitted to the Union. In fact, the Civil War went a step further in terms of public thought. American historian Shelby Foote noted, 'Before the war it was said 'the United States are.' Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always 'the United States is,' as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.'
The federal government outlawed slavery with the 13th Amendment, defined citizenship and protected all Americans under the law with the 14th Amendment and extended suffrage to all men in the 15th Amendment. Federal legislation, like the Freedman's Bureau and the Civil Rights Act, worked to get African Americans back on their feet and participating equally in the government, society and economy. Black men were elected to every level of government, including governors and senators.
All of the Southern states drafted new constitutions and ratified the Reconstruction Amendments. Many African Americans participated in new state and local governments, which worked for equal rights and to rebuild or create services like schools, railroads, hospitals, housing, roads and asylums. Charitable organizations and individuals - especially Northerners - worked to improve literacy and education for African Americans. Businessmen opened new industries, like steel, cotton and lumber mills to revitalize the economy. New cultural venues opened. Black institutions and churches gained autonomy.
How the Freedmen's Bureau Worked
The Union Army established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, called the Freedmen's Bureau for short, in 1865. This office was designed to provide assistance to former enslaved people as they navigated their new, free lives in a land of hostile whites. The Freedmen's Bureau provided food rations during Reconstruction. It also helped build public schools and hospitals. The Freedmen's schools helped lay the foundation for the larger public education system throughout the South. Freedmen's Bureau officers also tried to ensure that sharecropping contracts between African Americans and white landowners were fair and were followed through appropriately. Such enforcement was particularly important because the vast majority of former enslaved people were illiterate. They flocked to Freedmen's schools to learn to read.
Still, the Freedmen's Bureau had limited efficacy, primarily because it was severely understaffed. During its existence between 1865-1872, for example, the Freedmen's Bureau never employed more than one-thousand agents, even though the Bureau was supposed to oversee the entirety of the former Confederacy. Moreover, Freedmen's Bureau offices were often hundreds of miles apart from one another, making it hard for people to reach Freedmen's offices to register complaints and receive assistance.
The Failures of Reconstruction
Yet, Reconstruction faced tremendous challenges, many (but not all) of them because of white resistance.
In the early years of Reconstruction, the new state governments had many competent but inexperienced leaders. A few were carpetbaggers motivated by greed and corruption. Southern whites were often uncooperative with new legislation passed by Blacks or Yankees. The vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, emerged to maintain white supremacy and intimidate Black voters or any whites who supported them. And although there was some industrialization, the region remained committed to an agricultural economy and used sharecropping as a legal means to ensure that Blacks would still work the land that whites still owned.
As soon as former Confederates had their right to vote restored, so-called 'Redeemers' won public office and began to systematically undo most of the social and economic reforms. These were white, Southern Democrats who vowed to undo Reconstruction and restore the Old South. They passed voting restrictions and 'Black Codes' to suppress the rights and opportunities of African Americans at the state and local levels. Jim Crow laws made segregation legal. The Supreme Court supported these actions, generally saying that the 14th and 15th Amendments only applied at the federal level. And though the Radical Republicans had worked for nearly a decade to secure equal rights, the House of Representatives changed hands in 1874. Under Democratic leadership, government spending was cut and many Reconstruction programs were hurt or eliminated.
By the late 1870s, many Northerners were tired of the fight for Reconstruction. Furthermore, economic worries turned national attention away from civil rights. So, when federal troops left the South after the Compromise of 1877 that settled the disputed presidential election, there was no enforcement of federal protections for African Americans. Despite constituting a majority of the population in some states, most Blacks still lacked the resources, education, social standing and experience needed to defend their rights against white supremacists. The Redeemers had unchecked control over the politics, society and economy of the South.
So, what do you think? Was Reconstruction a success? Just like a lot of political actions today, it really depends on how you look at it. Some may say it was successful, while others may say it was just a waste of time and money. Clearly, there were some lasting, positive changes. The nation was restored and slavery was abolished forever. The South was physically rebuilt. Yet, in spite of these achievements and some early social advances, Southern whites managed to regain control of society and politics, and Black Americans would not regain the support of the federal government until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Let's review. Between 1865 and 1877, Republicans in the federal government worked to reconstruct the politics, society and economy of the South. There were tremendous advances at every level, including the Reconstruction Amendments and other federal legislation. As states were readmitted to the Union, new governments worked to improve services for all of their citizens, and private individuals contributed to the economic and educational development of the South. But many whites resisted the changes and the new governments. The Ku Klux Klan fought to maintain white supremacy. The economy remained largely agricultural. And legislation was undone by Redeemer governments with the support of the Supreme Court. The long battle of Reconstruction ended with the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, and African Americans would not truly achieve legal equality until the 1960s.
Following this article, you'll be able to:
- Explain the goals of Reconstruction
- Argue on both sides of the issue of whether Reconstruction was successful
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