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Seth Cassel
January 2008

The Failure of Reconstruction

The American Civil War preserved the Union and freed the slaves. However, during Reconstruction, a lack of political focus on the effort failed to solve the sectional wounds, and the elimination of the freed slaves' newly gained civil liberties failed to bring about long-term racial integration.

After the war, the Union needed to effectively bring the South back into the country on equal footing, revive their economy, and rebuild their shattered landscape. Nevertheless, divisions in the federal government over Reconstruction caused a failure to achieve these goals. Lincoln first proposed the 10% plan, which offered a lenient way for Southern States to rejoin the Union. However, once Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson, a former owner of slaves, became president and initiated his own plan for Reconstruction. Although his plan initially worked, former Confederates eventually worked their way into the government and were elected to the United States Congress. The Republican dominated Congress refused to seat these Southerners. Furthermore, even the Republican Party itself was divided. Moderates and conservatives wanted the South to be readily admitted into the Union and Congress. These Republicans also wanted more reforms than those Johnson was providing. At the same time, radical Republicans wanted drastic change, desiring to "remake the South in the image of the North." These tensions within the Republican Party, and the seemingly Southern leaning president, led to little progress and even an impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. The Northern disputes sidetracked the Union from real progress and did not help to bring the South back into the Union. Also, another cause of the lack of political focus during Reconstruction was the great economic prosperity in the North following the Civil War. For example, the first transcontinental railroad was completed, industrial inventions abounded, and industrial output skyrocketed. This Northern boom, in combination with a subsequent depression, "had the effect of drawing attention away from Reconstruction."

The failure of the North to effectively rebuild the South and bring it back into the Union during Reconstruction is evident after the time period. First, the unsuccessful nature of Reconstruction can be seen in 1880 when the "contrast between the South and the Northeast was similar to that between Russia (one of the poorest nations in Europe) and Germany (one of the wealthiest)." Also, "long into the 20th century, the South remained a one-party region under the control of a reactionary ruling elite" that harbored hatred against the North. In fact, until the 1940's, Tennessee was the only state of the former Confederacy to observe Lincoln's birthday as a legal holiday.

Another issue of Reconstruction, the integration of freed slaves into society, also shows the unsuccessful nature of Reconstruction. There were several promising times during Reconstruction when progress was made for freed African Americans. The first was the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments guaranteeing African Americans certain civil liberties. Also, 14 African Americans were elected to Congress and numerous others served in state and local governments. However, the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups, in combination with the Black Codes, began to intimidate freed slaves and push back their civil liberties. Also, in the Slaughterhouse Cases, U.S. v. Cruikshank, and U.S. v. Reese, the Supreme Court helped severely limit the rights of African Americans. In addition, the sharecropping system, especially the crop-lien system, placed many African Americans into positions of indebtedness, reminiscent of the dependence of slavery. Thus, there were hopes of freedom, but "the Yankees… let us [African Americans] be put back in slavery again." Partly due to the failure of Reconstruction to provide racial equality, African Americans would be free but oppressed, second-class citizens well into the 20th century.

Reconstruction after the Civil War was a failure. The North was at odds and distracted over how the effort should be addressed and thus did not effectively rebuild the South and bring it back into the Union. Also, although for a time it appeared as if the freed slaves would become equal with whites, racism was allowed to pervade into society. Therefore, as seen in the ineffective efforts to bring the South back into the Union as a healthy equal to the North, Reconstruction also failed to successfully integrate freed slaves into society.