Was Reconstruction a failure? As the bloody Civil War drew to a close, the period of reconstruction began to take shape across the states. There were many questions aroused following the war regarding the physical re-building of the nation, demobilisation and most importantly what was to replace the pre-war norm of slavery? America’s position on the latter, was of course both vague, with differing opinions from the North to the South, these differences which should have been settled with the outcome of the Civil War meant the war on the battlefield had transgressed to one on a social and political level.
However as Michael Les Benedict quite aptly states that ‘winning had been more important than figuring out what to do afterwards,’ which resulted in a sporadic reconstruction being forced by dissimilar motives. When looking at how successful the Reconstruction period was in America one should consider the intentions behind such Reconstructing, this poses the question therefore of whether the period was one of rebuilding relations between the North and the South or between the slaves and citizens?
This essay will look at therefore the attempt at creating an increasingly harmonious nation with the interruption of unstoppable de facto discrimination that made reconstruction a void period. When discussing the reconstruction some decide to begin with the Emancipation Proclamation where Lincoln addressed the nation on 1st January 1863; “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free. This of course was the primary leap into the unknown, however as this was not passed through Congress and there only being a few states state’s emancipated renders 1863 as an ineffectual starting date for the Reconstruction period. However what was important during this time was the role of African American’s in the war which shaped their position in post-war America. ‘By the wars end, some 180,000 blacks had served in the Union Army. ’ Although there was severe dissatisfaction over conscription, the opportunities offered in the army was the foundation for the move towards equality.
Primarily it was an opportunity for Afro-Americans to prove their capability and ability to be disciplined; this allowed them to be seen as equals, as equal as possible as the time. ‘Although slavery was still legally intact, in the summer of 1862 General Butler began substituting a system of compensated labour,’ Butler’s recognition of military status of black soldiers was an example of the positive outcome of the war, and what impact It had on integration even though ‘most of the soldiers spoke scornfully of ‘niggers’’ there was an un-admitted truth that the war could not have been won without the help of the Negros.
Learning from the military integration and flowing the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865 saw the true beginning of the reconstruction period and as a result there was an increase of active participation of African-Americans in society. ‘Local leaders played such a variety of roles in schools, churches, and fraternal organizations that were bridges to the larger world of politics. ’ The primary source of involvement was through the parishes however Afro-Americans were soon able to work their way further as in 1865 John S.
Rock of Boston was the first black lawyer admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court, this showed that ‘slowly the North’s racial barriers began to fall. ’ This positive change not only saw the increased integration of black’s within the judicial branch, however also in the executive, ‘among the ablest were Robert B. Elliott of South Carolina and John R. Lynch of Mississippi. Both were speakers of their state House of Representatives and were members of the U. S. Congress. ’ However such was short lived due to the ever increasing violence from the Ku Klux Klan; this shows that the restoration was limited to the North.
As previously mentioned the 13th Amendment was a milestone in the road to freedom or blacks, however ‘the amendment closed one question only to open a host of others. ’ This was because although freed on paper and equal under the law, Afro-Americans were not quite regarded as equal under the eyes of society. The federal government therefore set up a protective organisation; the Freedman’s Bureau which meant ‘there was a freer attitude towards supplying money for plantation equipment, clothing, and food, including salt, bacon, and other necessities for the Negros. The was a successful outcome of the Bureau, however there was obvious weaknesses within the Bureau, commenting on the organisation, a citizen expresses that ‘it would have been wise if our statesmen could have received, digested and acted upon the answers these men [blacks] gave to their questions. ’ This suggested the nonchalant attitude the bureau had towards the emancipated slaves, rendering the establishment of a new life increasingly difficult without federal aid.
Further evidence of the federals restricted willingness to give aid can be seen through their attitude as ‘for a while northerners regarded the proposed Fourteenth Amendment as an incredibly lenient settlement of the Civil War. ’ Prior to this the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1866 which declared that ‘every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall have the same right. This shows that had the 14th amendment seen to be too radical then the importance of the Civil Rights Act had not been thoroughly enforced of accepted. ‘Years before the end of slavery, black abolitionist Charles L. Reason had predicted that emancipation would impose “severe trials” upon the freedman. ’ This prediction of course was one of great clarity as during the reconstruction period there was a general neglect of emancipated slaves and a re-establishment and maintenance of white supremacy.
The neglect can be seen though the inefficiency to support the released slaves and their struggle during the reconstruction period, ‘finding employment and housing, food, clothes and medicine for the flow of refugees into the Department was almost impossible. ’ There was such little prospect for a freed slave that the result was to work practically how life had been previous to the 13th Amendment just without chains or to get involved with sharecropping which resulted in the increase of Tenant farming. Planters had no desire to further economic democracy, white or black, and no confidence that freedman could farm successfully independent of whites. ’ The lack of confidence in the freed man bears question to what it was really the Civil War was fought for. ‘In 1861, the restoration of the Union, not emancipation, was the cause that generated the widest support for the war effort,’ this supports the evidence that there was a lack of concern for the emancipated slaves, as this was not at the forefront of Americans objectives.
Quite a profound contribution to the failure of the reconstruction period was none the less than the president at the time, Andrew Jackson. Following the assassination of Lincoln was the beginning of the end for the Reconstruction period as Jacksons interpretation of reconstruction was a reflection of his southern prejudices. Jackson excluded black’s from politics, in fact excluded numerous problems from his time in office; ‘Johnson had always believed in limited government and a strict construction of the Constitution.
In Congress, he had moved to reduce the salaries of government workers, voted against aid to famine-stricken Ireland, and even opposed appropriations to pave Washington’s muddy streets. ’ This could either be described as laissez faire methods of rule or negligence. Although the Civil Rights Act did eventually get passed this was with no thanks to President Johnson, who during what was meant to be the restoration period vetoed it twice meaning its eventual passing through congress was due to an overall majority vote from his cabinet.
The lack of the presidents intervention, or acceptance of the Sherman-Johnston agreement reflected the lenience accepted by the executive at the time as it was agreed that ‘the executive authority of the government of the United States not to disturb by reason of the late war so long as they live in peace and quiet. ’ This meant very liberal treatment of the ex-rebels of the Civil War. The leniency toward the de-mobilisation of the South meant it possible for ‘the same people, the same issues that had precipitated the great war to remain. This therefore making the restoration of slavery further possible, rather opposite to the original intentions of restoration, it was what Les Benedict described as the ‘death of the Confederate reconstruction. ’ ‘Laura Towne reported that the freedman would not believe that Lincoln was dead’ as he was the foundation for the emancipation of the slaves and one who had revolutionary visions at a time of prevalent discrimination. As previously mentioned, Afro-Americans were increasingly getting involved in positions and society; however this was not true to everyone and was definitely not on the increase. Cleveland County, North Carolina, counted 200 black members of biracial Methodist churches in 1860, ten in 1867, and none five years later. ’ There is a recurring trend of the laissez faire method of rule or negligence towards the Afro-Americans during the reconstruction period. Under President Ulysses S. Grant the state produced less forms of reconstructive policies to protect the black’s from a prejudice society. ‘He had won election in 1868 by urging, “let us have peace,” and he had not intervened in the South until Klan violence had forced his hand. This shows the executives turning a blind eye towards the violence and discrimination that prevailed throughout the reconstruction period. Not only was there negligence towards imposing protection for the emancipated slaves, but there were further restrictions implemented on their freedom such as the Black Codes; Sec. 3. ‘Every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conduct of said Negro. ’ This shows that although black slaves were meant to have been emancipated, there was always the clause of being emancipated under the control of the white man.
The fact the white man had control over the emancipated slave made freed life sometimes harder than the days of slavery. Additionally although the 15th amendment was passed with the intention of enabling the emancipated the privilege of the vote, it was not long followed by the restrictive Jim Crow laws which had further implication into the post-Reconstruction period and into the twentieth century. The Crow laws not only made it impossible for makes to ascertain suffrage due to the Grandfather Clause, but enabled de facto segregation.
The reconstruction period was not only a failure due to the legislation or lack of legislation, but the economic depression resulted in ‘the first great crisis of industrial capitalism permanently altering the nature of economic enterprise, and had profound political and ideological consequences. ’ This meant that due to economic hardship there was a decrease in sympathy towards the Negro who had nothing compared with the white man who had nothing. ‘By the end of 1874 nearly half the nation’s iron furnaces had suspended operation’ The reconstruction period was one that saw a plethora of legislative change, however not all for the better.
There were many empty promises directed at the liberated slaves, however liberated is not the correct term to use. The emancipated slaves saw little to no improvement in their lives, and not only were the reconstruction a failure with regards improving relations between North and South; it was a failure with repairing relations between the slave and the citizen. The fact the reconstruction period was so short and its ending reverted back to previous times renders the reconstruction period a failure. There remained the underlying intentions, just lacked motivation to implement the reconstruction of the ‘United’ states.
Additionally these intentions derived from a handful of just minded thinkers such as Lincoln, however there were too many, with great power who were not yet ready to accept the equality that was preached to clearly in the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment. Therefore as there was such little actual change when reflected against how much legislative change at Washington makes the Reconstruction period a failure as perception, treatment and understanding of a different race did not improve.
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