To what extent was Reconstruction a failure?
The aftermath of the American Civil War was intended to be a time of hope and unity. As both the North and South had the opportunity to recover from the colossal casualties caused by the war, there was huge political pressure to begin reconstruction and bond the American states together. However, this was easier said than done. On paper, it would appear that reconstruction was well under way. The 13th amendment allowed for the abolishment of slavery that had created uproar of equality among states. There was government aim to rebuild the South on an economic and social level. The 14th amendment was adopted in order to insure the rights of newly freed slaves. And the 15th amendment was later passed to allow African American men voting rights. Yet the actual events of the reconstruction tell a different story in terms of its success. Economically speaking, the South was left in ruins, with little to no industrial base to build from. Northern opportunists used the events to make their own money in the South, of which very little was put back into the land. The most apparent issue with reconstruction was of course the treatment of newly freed African Americans. Although the new amendments promised social change, they were executed poorly. Black Codes meant that black rights were extremely limited to levels comparable with slavery. Violence also occurred due to social unrest in the South, with the emergence of groups such as the KKK. It was clear that there were many prominent social divides still present after the war.
After the immense pressure of battle had lifted, it was clear that the Southern economy had taken a beating. Its entire grounds for industry had been wiped out during the course of the Civil War, and the only real hope of substantial income was from the land itself. Southern states were infamous for exporting their wide range of demanded goods that could be produced on the land. Even so, there had been such a reliance on slavery that many land/ plantation owners could not afford to continue such production. The various land holding classes were left with no option other than to divide up the plantation systems for more manageable paid labour, or simply sell the land on. Even that would prove an issue however, as the war had brought about a 30% decrease in Southern property value. It was this sort of economic struggle that arguably caused further difficulty for newly freed salves. Had Congress been able to confiscate plant owner land to be redistributed among the freepeople, there would have been far more opportunity for African Americans to attain their new social rights. It could have provided them with economic foundations of opportunities and freedoms that they were said to deserve. In many cases the lands were rented by the previous owners to members of the black community that could afford to, allowing them the ability to farm the land.
The South’s economic slump also effected divisions between North and South which did not improve the situation. Soon after the end of the Civil war, many Northern business opportunists saw the money making potential in the South’s weakened economic state. They hoped to work on behalf of the newly emancipated slaves and set up their own schemes in the much needed development of industry, in order to exploit the Southern misfortune. At first glance, this looks like it may be beneficial for the South, but very little of the money made was reinvested. Instead, a majority of the income returned to the North, or with the businesses themselves. This was economically disastrous. The Civil War had cost the South an estimate of 2.98 billion dollars that would never return for the purpose of industrial investment. Soon the Northern opportunists were stifled by the economic downturn in 1873, and departed to take their investment to the West. The White South was left penniless, with very little opportunity for economic growth. The government’s lack of focus to improve Southern economy was huge contraction on the ability of reconstruction. It created economic hardship for those in the South who were already tired after a long war. The social divides created were also wearing, as African Americans could be granted very few developments in true freedom. This was followed by a continued hostile divide between North and South, as Northerners took advantage of the economic misfortune.
Another hugely important downfall to reconstruction after the Civil War was the poor execution of amendments addressing black rights. These were put in place in Southern states between 1865 and 1866 in order to define the new rights and responsibilities of black people. With them, came new opportunities for African Americans, such as the ability to testify in court. However, the Black Codes had numerous limitations and were far from progressive. Essentially, the Black Codes allowed for the essence of slavery to continue, and worked as an excellent legal suppressant of the new black freedom. With the huge shortage of labour on plantations, there was an economic call to boost employment that occurred in the form of the Black Codes. Black people now had to sign labour contracts with their previous owners in order to attain guaranteed work. If these contracts were broken in any way, the plantation owner was within his legal rights to whip and beat the black worker as punishment. There was a huge lack of working right for black people in comparison to whites at the time. Blacks were still under a great deal of both physical and metaphorical supervision. A far call from the expected freedom that would be granted upon the Union’s victory in the Civil War. It wasn’t just fully grown black men who were targeted for unfair labour. Young black orphans were often placed into labour schemes at an early age in order to work the land and continue into the future. There was still the sense of ownership that had been present throughout the reign of slavery. Congress had simply not put enough power behind its amendments to truly enforce black freedom. The Black Codes still implemented the huge inequalities without any legal backlash and were a huge downfall in the attempted reconstruction.
An important creation during the beginning of the Reconstruction era was The Freedmen’s Bureau. It was established in 1865 and initiated by Abraham Lincoln, with the aim to enforce the new promised black freedoms and aid the freed slaves in poverty. Bureau agents were intended to establish schools to improve black education, aid the young and old, and settle disputes between whites and blacks. This was another example of the Reconstruction appearing successful on paper. The Bureau’s aims were honourable to black freedoms, and appeared very progressive for the time. Yet its achievements were limited to areas such as health and education. By 1869 there were nearly 3000 schools with around 150,000 pupils that reported to the Bureau. This was of course a huge step forward for African Americans, but with no more than 1000 agents operating in the South, the progress was slow. Furthermore, the assassination of Lincoln saw Southerner Andrew Johnson take presidency. He was far less interested in participation in the Reconstruction, and his fumbles saw a number of downfalls for the Bureau. In the Summer of 1865, Johnson ordered nearly all land to be returned to its previous owner, and not shared with the free black people of the South. This decision was met by much protest from the black community who felt cheated by the decision. This had a huge knock on affect for the freed people. Without the land, they were to remain poor for the majority of the Reconstruction period, and forced to work under the White labour force once again. It was a colossal backlash from the government that left a sense of betrayal.
A huge downfall that was evident in the Reconstruction period was seen in the social disorder that followed the Civil War. Violence against newly freed African Americans in the South was not uncommon. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was infamous for its militant protest against black rights. Founded between 1865 and 1866 by 6 former confederate army members, the original clan terrorised key areas of black society. They had a sense of frontier justice, taking matters into their own hands without concerning existing laws or authorities. It became a mission of self justification and revenge for white supremacy. But, the close nit group’s efforts were perceived as acts of terror to those around them of opposing views. Murder was a focal point in their acts of violence. In the first years of their creation, nearly a thousand race motivated murders were committed. This took place commonly in the form of lynching. There was a message sent in this form of murder that made it clear to black citizens that they could not prosper as a people within Southern society. It acted as a dramatic warning to those who wished to challenge their beliefs. Yet, this kind of hostility was not exclusively intended for black people. Whites who wished to sympathise or support black people in there freedoms were targeted as a warning to others who wished to intervene. Every aspect of black society was targeted. Black schools and churches were set on fire, homes were broken into, robbing the little possessions black families had, and in some cases black representatives with a grasp at political power were murdered in order to stop blacks from attaining a vote. This kind of violence continued on through the Reconstruction period. The government made very little effort to intervene with these acts of terror that were set to continue. Congress ultimately were unable to execute any sort of legal aid for the situation. This may be down to fear of causing further unrest between the North and the South. Government intervention may have sparked further conflict and uproar that could have even led to another war. Yet the social mess that followed showed clear failures in reconstruction. Racial tensions showed the clear boundaries of the intended black rights. Fear was the true boundary. The prospect of violence had black communities anxious to build and develop schools and houses. Any hope for progressive change was put to a complete halt. The social disorder also had whites in conflict with each other, on the beliefs of black freedoms. Violence and social unrest clearly conveyed the failure of the U.S Reconstruction, as racism was further ingrained into the South.
To conclude, the Reconstruction was almost a complete failure. The amendments created to protect black freedoms seemed like a huge step in the right direction, but their terrible execution left social integration at a stand still for the black community. Furthermore, the South’s economic low point made it almost impossible to recover from the hardships of the Civil War. Labour shortages and little to no reliable industry had the South on its knees for income. Northern business opportunists who took advantage of the matter made things worse economically speaking. Their presence also created further tensions between the North and the South. Black Codes were another aspect of the Reconstruction that actually limited the right of newly freed black slaves. They limited the new found freedoms to a standard that appeared similar to slavery. Efforts to help reinforce these freedoms such as the Freedmen’s Bureau had positive aims, but lacked the means to truly honour them. Their absence of agents and power made their efforts weak. A final key area of failure in Reconstruction was the social unrest and violence that followed the end of the Civil War. Groups such as the KKK terrorised the black community to spread a message of fear to those who opposed white supremacy. This continued to grow further tension of opposing views within the white community. A lack of real government intervention meant there was little hope for true Reconstruction.