Successes And Failures Of Reconstruction Era
The results of the Civil War left the Union in chaos. The rebels lost but many still had the fighting spirit within them. The government struggled to decide on how much to punish the south. Too little, and they may not obey. Too much, and the fighting might begin again. It was important to find a good balance to keep the semi-peace between the North and South. Reconstruction was the era in which these decisions were made. But is Reconstruction only about success or failure? This essay will try to find an answer to this question.
There was a lot of debate, so it was slow going. During this period, the government freed slaves and gave them certain rights. Some of the states argued against many of the national government’s rulings. Even national branches were heatedly debating over bills to be passed. The Reconstruction era helped shape the future of the nation.
The end of the Civil War in America led to the end of an era within the reunited states. Before the war, the southern states believed strongly in heritage, and this led to some people even joining the war based on traditions being threatened. Since the northern states were trying to prevent the addition of slave states, the south believed that their rights were being taken away. The tension between the two sides escalated so much, that, after Lincoln was elected in 1860, states started to secede from the union. Although some people wanted to stay united in the south, the majority left the union and became a loose confederation. And, then came the war. The fight between the rothers was brutal, and the end result was the North becoming the winner. The only thing left to do after the war was to make sure the states would not divide again. The plans for reconstructing the Union were not easily executed, and there were many debates about how the south should be treated. There were the issues of slavery being abolished, African-Americans gaining the right to vote, and ensuring the South’s loyalty to worry. With the conflicting ideas being thrown at each other, Reconstruction was slow to progress.
Before the war, the South was very traditional and proud of its heritage. It was not easy for them to change, and this was one of the reasons why aggression escalated. The work of the slaves was the lifeblood of the South’s economy. Agriculture needed manpower to be successful, and the presence of slavery boosted the economy due to the free labor. Not all farms had a large number of slaves though. The rich, who owned large plantations, were the owners of twenty or more slaves. On these plantations, they developed a social system in which the slaves worked for their white owners, and the masters would take care of them. The mistresses of the plantation would train and uplift the slaves. This was envisioned to be the symbol of plantations, but really, most farms had masters and mistresses in the field, working with the slaves. This led to the development of a different culture and a wider range of skills within the slave groups. Although there were some kind owners, slaves were more like livestock than humans. The economies of both sides changed after the war. The South could no longer depend heavily on the labor of slaves, and the North became more industrialized.
The war left many parts of the nation in chaos and confusion, but Abraham Lincoln had a plan to ease the country back into unity. During the war, and even before it, Lincoln’s main plan was to preserve the Union. He did whatever it took to keep the nation together. Near the end of the war, he came up with a Reconstruction plan. His plan would require ten percent of white southern voters to pledge their loyalty to the Union. They would promise not to rebel and to obey new slavery laws. After that, they would be allowed to elect delegates to recreate their state constitution and government. His plan aimed at forgiving the South. He granted amnesty to the majority of southerners, except for some Confederate generals and government officials. Lincoln planned to be more lenient to help persuade the South to surrender. He claimed that he would protect private property but not former slaves. There were some African-Americans who petitioned for voting rights, but Lincoln felt that this would dissuade white southerners. This further proved that his biggest priority was to restore and preserve the Union. He wanted to appease the south enough to keep them from rebelling once more.
In the beginning, the rest of the Republicans generally agreed. At this point in the war, they were ready for it to end. After, though, is a different story. The Radical Republicans came up with their plan later. They felt that the south should be punished more so than Lincoln’s extremely forgiving plan. The Radical Republicans passed a bill in Congress called the Wade-Davis Bill. They believed that Lincoln would agree with the plan and pass the vote, but he surprised them by using a pocket veto. It was passed later during some of the final days in Congress. This plan would require the president to appoint provisional governors for the formally seceded states. Once the majority of the state’s white male population swore to uphold the United States Constitution, the provisional government would allow the state to establish a new constitution. The white males that were allowed to take the oath of loyalty must have never helped the Confederates. The state also had to abolish slavery and ensure the slaves’ freedom. They had to recognize that blacks were citizens, too. There needed to be equality in trials, but no other racial equality was required. The new constitution then had to be approved by the majority of white male voters and Congress. This plan would also nudge toward future racial equality transitions. This plan would force the southerners to change and might have caused former rebels to fight back once more. Both plans were very different, but there were a few similarities. Both required slavery to be abolished, but they did not mandate suffrage.
These plans were the very beginning of the Era of Reconstruction, but there were a few more debates after, still arguing over the level of punishment for the South. When Lincoln died from the assassination on April 15, 1865, Andrew Johnson filled the role of president. It seemed that he would cooperate with congress more than Lincoln, but he proved to be a southerner. He believed that African-Americans were inferior to him. On May 29, 1865, he issued a general proclamation of pardon and amnesty for most Confederates. He was letting the southerners off easily. He authorized the provisional governor of North Carolina to proceed with the reorganization of the state. Soon after that, he issued a similar proclamation for the other former Confederate states. The state was required to repeal ordinances of the session, repay Confederate debt, and to recognize the thirteenth amendment. He did not, however, require them to enfranchise African-Americans, This led to fighting among the federal branches of government.
Andrew Johnson’s decision led to the adoption of black codes within the states. These black codes regulated the rights and privileges of freedmen and treated blacks as inferiors. The right to own land was restricted and they could not bear arms. Sometimes, African-Americans would be bound to servitude for vagrancy and other offenses. This also caused many riots. In May of 1866, there was a riot in Memphis. In July of 1866, there was another one in New Orleans. African-Americans were brutally assaulted and killed in these riots. In some cases, blacks were treated worse now than they were in slavery, and this showed how inhumane the period could be.
Congress did not agree with Andrew Johnson on many fronts, so they started to make plans of their own. The Freedmen’s Bureau was passed. This organization would aid millions of freed black Americans transition as well as poor whites. The Freedmen’s Bureau offered food and medical supplies. It was also responsible for the regulation of wages for blacks, work regulations, and the establishments of many schools for the former slaves. It was much-needed support for the newly freed men. It was one of the first times that the government attempted to offer a hand for the integration or acceptance of African-Americans. When Congress tried to extend its lifetime, Johnson vetoed it. Congress overrode his veto with a two-thirds vote. They overruled a few more vetoes during his presidency. Later, tensions between the president and Congress got so thick that the House of Representatives tried to impeach him after he disobeyed a newly passed law, which was the Tenure of Office Act. The act stated that no one could be removed from office unless the Senate agreed, and it was passed to limit some of the president’s powers. Johnson removed the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, from office soon after the law was passed, deliberately disobeying the law. The House of Representatives tried to impeach him, but the Senate’s trial (March 30-May 16, 1868) resulted in him staying. After his presidency, the Democratic Party did not nominate Johnson as their candidate again. Johnson was the first of three presidents to face a trial to be impeached. This proves how much Congress did not agree with him. There are always debates and arguments between the two branches, but to face impeachment shows just how much they did not agree.
The Era of Reconstruction led to the creation of many important things that are in society today. For instance, it created the Reconstruction Amendments. The 13th Amendment was ratified in the Constitution on December 6, 1865, and it was the first of the Reconstruction Amendments. The purpose of the amendment was to outlaw slavery. Slavery nor involuntary servitude was allowed after the passage of the amendment. It was hard to enforce this law, so, in 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which declared freed slaves citizens and gave them fundamental rights. This led to the creation and ratification of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The importance of the 13th Amendment is that, later, Congress used this amendment to create civil rights laws and to create laws against hate crimes based on race.
The 14th Amendment was ratified by Congress in 1868 and was the second of the Reconstruction Amendments. The amendment gave former slaves citizenship in the United States, as well as anyone born or naturalized in the United States. It is also important since it created the new way states would be represented. Newly freed African-Americans were now represented fully, and the Three-Fifth Compromise was replaced. The amendment also threatened states who might attempt to disenfranchise any male citizen. The state responsible would have their representation reduced proportionally. This was when the government finally recognized African-Americans as citizens and not lesser beings.
The 15th Amendment was the final Reconstruction Amendment, and it was ratified in 1870. This amendment gave all men the right to vote. Women were not allowed to vote until much later. This was the first time, though, that blacks could participate in government. It opened up a new world of possibilities for them. They were now allowed a say in how the decisions of government were made. The south still fought against this and tried to discourage them from participating. Many threats were coming from white employers and, even worse, the Ku Klux Klan. They were terrorists and were trying to get rid of African-Americans’ participation. One of the largest barriers to African-Americans voting was the literacy test. These tests were unfair. The person responsible for allowing the test taker to register to vote was always white. The test was also much harder for blacks compared to the simple sentence that whites had to interpret. Another barrier was the Grandfather Clause, which permitted any man to vote if his grandfather was allowed to vote before the Civil War. These efforts to disenfranchise blacks were collectively called Jim Crow laws.
During the Era of Reconstruction, sharecropping immerged. This was a system in which blacks could attempt to start their lives after being freed, but most would fail because of the way it worked. Black families would rent a portion of land from a white owner since it was hard for blacks to own land themselves. During the harvest, the landowner would receive a portion of the crops as payment, and this led to an endless cycle of debt for the families renting the land. They could not make enough money to start their farms, so they would be stuck there, and the land owner would benefit from their symbolic entrapment. It was an unfair way to entice former slaves into debt and another form of slavery.
The Reconstruction was also important because it was the literal rebuilding of cities in the south. At the end of the war, Union General William T. Sherman burnt down many cities, most in Georgia. During his “march to the sea,” Sherman and his men used total warfare and terrorized residents. He burnt everything to the ground. He even claimed to give the city of Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas present. After the war though, the remaining residents had to rebuild the burnt cities. Economically, this was a struggle. They were having to start from the beginning.
When Rutherford B. Hayes was elected on March 2, 1877, the end of Reconstruction began. In April of 1877, he removed the United States army from Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. Those states still had a government established by Reconstruction. The army was there to enforce them. This was essentially the end of Reconstruction efforts. Though the Reconstruction of the South ended, the fight for civil rights had only begun.
The end of the Reconstruction era marked the beginning of the Civil Rights era. Though the African-Americans were free from servitude, given citizenship, and given the right to vote, they still were not equal in society. Many whites believed themselves to be better or worth more. Blacks had to fight for their citizenship and voting rights in some states even though the constitution gave them that right in the federal government. The term “separate but equal” was used since public locations became segregated. Blacks and whites had separate schools, bathrooms, and restaurants, to name a few. But Reconstruction was the beginning of blacks being integrated into government, albeit slowly. It was a spark of hope that lead to many establishments of civil rights efforts.
Reconstruction was an important period. It was a time when newly freed slaves gained citizenship and the right to vote. They also had to fight to keep these rights. The South was literally and figuratively rebuilding after the war. The Reconstruction of America was what kept the Union together after the war. The debates might have been very frequent, but if things had gotten out of hand, then it is possible that fighting might have broken out once more. Reconstruction also held the beginning of Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and black codes. Regardless of the good and bad, Reconstruction shaped the nation after the Civil War. It kept the nation unified and moved us toward the future.
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