The Reconstruction Era of the United States of America refers to a time of postbellum efforts to restructure the political, legal, and economic systems in the states that had seceded from the Union during the American Civil War. This period began when the Civil War ended in 1865 and continued for twelve years until its deterioration in 1877. A crucial period in the nation’s history, this reconstructive phase marked the first time the laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee African-Americans recognition as citizens and equality before the law. During the Reconstruction Era, people had varying opinions of what should be accomplished.
For the majority, Reconstruction encompassed the concept of freedom—both its definition and its boundaries. Since African Americans’ understanding of freedom was formed by their experiences as slaves and their observation of the free society around them, most believed the best type of freedom came in the form of escaping the injustices of slavery and sharing in the rights of American citizens. They hoped that Reconstruction would enable them the same entitlements as the white man: self-ownership, family stability, religious liberty, political participation, and economic autonomy.
In the words of an emancipated slave, Garrison Frazier defined freedom as “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves. . . to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor. ” Radical Republicans as well hoped to promote political, economical and social equality for African Americans while also believing that the Confederate leaders should be punished for their roles in the Civil War. Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, for instance, thought that the government should confiscate the land of disloyal planters and divide it among former slaves and northern migrants to the South.
In contrast, southern plantation owners sought to define black freedom in the narrowest manner; they opposed the very notion of African Americans having the same social standing as them. Freedom, in their minds, was a birthright to be defended. Even President Andrew Johnson believed that African Americans had no role to play in Reconstruction. Meanwhile, women saw this era as their opportunity to claim their own emancipation. Throughout the course of Reconstruction, there were positive advancements towards equality. The thirteenth amendment, for instance, was made to outlaw lavery, along with the fourteenth amendment to define citizenship and protect all Americans under the law and the fifteenth amendment to grant the suffrage to all men.
All of the reunited, pardoned Southern states ratified these Reconstruction Amendments and drafted improved constitutions that greatly expanded public responsibilities, established free public education systems, created new penitentiaries, orphan asylums, and homes for the insane, guaranteed equality of civil and political rights, and abolished practices of the antebellum era such as whipping, property qualifications for officeholding, and imprisonment for debt.
In addition, the Freedmen’s Bureau of the U. S. federal government was established in 1865 to aid freed slaves in the South. Separated family members were brought together, freedmen were urged to gain employment and arrangements were made to teach freed slaves how to read and write. Furthermore, businessmen opened new industries, like steel, cotton and lumber mills to revitalize the economy and black men were finally permitted to hold office in every political position. Yet, despite these positive aspects, the Reconstruction Period was an economic, societal, and governmental failure in the end.
One of the major goals of Reconstruction was to repair and improve the nation’s economy after the destructive war. In order for the South to fully recuperate from wartime economy into regular economy and prosper like the North, its financial system had to undergo major revisions. However, this is not what happened. While there was some industrialization, the South continued to maintain an agricultural economy. This is attributable to the South’s determination to not amend their beloved ways and to President Johnson’s order to nearly return all land in federal hands to its former owners.
Because no land distribution took place, the vast majority of rural freed people remained poor and without property. The South additionally took a long time to repair its economy as a consequence of white families losing labor and spending savings on war bonds. As a compromise between the blacks’ desire for land and the planters’ desire for free labor, southern plantation owners created sharecropping—a system that came to dominate the cotton South and much of the tobacco belt.
In this arrangement, a plantation owner allowed a tenant [typically a previous slave] to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on their portion of land. Although this method succeeded in giving freed slaves their own land to farm and plantation owners the resumed labor of their former slaves, many of the tenant farmers ended up in a vicious cycle of debt. As a result, freed slaves ended up unable to leave the plantations and feeling that the post-war south was not very different from the pre-war South. With no economic growth nor freedom for the freedmen, Reconstruction failed to ameliorate the stagnant southern economy.
As well as economically, the Reconstruction Era failed to establish long-term racial integration. Even after African Americans were freed from slavery and granted certain rights, much of the South continued to hold discriminatory views towards freedmen and Reconstruction achieved little to alter this. Social reform was difficult to implement because southern whites objected all change and made little to no effort to accept blacks’ new rights. Although Reconstruction had the potential to redress the imbalance of power, it did not meet the requirements and left widespread racial inequalities that took generations to resolve.
There was a lot of progress on paper, but the important implementation of the progressive policies on the people failed. This social divide gave birth to violent race riots and the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. This clandestine Klan used (and still uses today) beatings, lynchings, and massacres to try to defeat the Republican party, maintain white supremacy and execute a reign of terror aimed both at local Republican leaders as well as at blacks seeking to assert their new political rights. Ultimately, the Reconstruction Era failed to unite the people and socially accept freedmen into society.
On top of falling through economically and socially, Reconstruction failed politically. The Radical Republican legislation unsuccessfully protected former slaves from white persecution. In part, this can be ascribed to the fact the president of the United States at the time, Andrew Johnson, was racist. In his plan for Reconstruction, President Johnson offered pardons to the white southern elite to all who signed an oath and allowed the South to create their own provisional governments.
This, in turn, granted white southerners to reestablished civil authority in the former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866. In these new southern governments there were many competent but inexperienced leaders and carpetbaggers motivated by greed and corruption. Some of the first laws enacted by these new governments were the Black Codes. These laws restricted freed blacks’ activity and ensured their availability as a labor force now that slavery had been abolished. Furthermore, President Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau extension and Civil Rights Bill.
Northern outrage over the black codes and Johnson’s leniency helped undermine support for Johnson’s policies, and by late 1866 control over Reconstruction had shifted to the more radical wing of the Republican Party in Congress. However, after nearly a decade of the Radical Republicans working 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. Then in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South and former Confederate officials and slave owners returned to power.
So, while there were political efforts in support of equality, its efforts in the long run were too weak to make the lasting impact it hoped to achieve. Ultimately, the Reconstruction Era saw a gradual decline to its termination in 1877. While conservative leaders bitterly opposed the new governments, Northerners increasingly felt that the South should be able to solve its own problems without constant interference from Washington. Over time, the North grew tired of the fight for equality as the Supreme Court whittled away at Congress’s guarantees of black rights.
Moreover, the Liberal attacks on Reconstruction contributed to a resurgence of racism in the North and the 1873 depression distracted the North from Reconstruction’s goals. Though the Reconstruction Era failed in some aspects economically, socially and politically, perhaps its greatest oversight of all was its failure to heal the wounds of war. After Reconstruction’s dissolution, bitter wounds were neglected and left to blister and heal on their own, leaving tender scars or still-gaping lesions that might have been avoided if they had been properly sewn together.
For instance, soon after Reconstruction ended, the Jim Crow laws were instituted to enforce racial segregation in the South. If Reconstruction had measured up to what it had aimed to be, social equality, economical restoration, and political unification would have been established much quicker. But, as a result of Reconstruction’s downfall, it would be nearly a century before the nation tried again to bring equal rights to the descendants of slaves.