- Explain the problems that came with the ending of slavery
- Describe how Reconstruction can be viewed as the Civil War, Part II
- Discuss how Reconstruction was a failure in the eyes of the Radical Republicans
- Describe what life was like for African-Americans from 1865-1965 in the South
After Johnson-impeachment fiasco, the next president was Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant, who won thanks to 500,000 African-American votes. This was possible because of the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870. It was passed after concern was raised that Grant’s narrow victory would encourage white Southerners to disenfranchise—to take away political power—African-Americans. The Amendment makes it illegal to deny anyone the right to vote due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Congress then passed the Enforcement Act in 1870. It gave the federal government the power to enforce the 15th Amendment and punish anyone who violated African-Americans right to vote.
Reconstruction did not only deal with readmitting former-Confederate states into the Union. It also had to do with rebuilding the war-torn South. Additionally, the Radical Republicans also wanted to restructure Southern society. Southerners were resistant to bringing the freedmen into mainstream society and, perhaps even more importantly, politics. Because of the obstacles being imposed, such black codes and poll taxes, some Northern reformers went South to try and change things.
Northerners who went South were called carpetbaggers—named after suitcases that were popular at that time. This term was meant as an insult, as they were resented by whites in the South. Some Southerners believed in and cooperated with Reconstruction. They were called scalawags. Some “scalawags” only participated in the reform movement in hopes of gaining political power in the new South. Others were committed to change. Whichever the case, they were also looked on as traitors by most Southerners.
The South was in shambles after the Civil War and needed to be rebuilt. Most of the fighting took place in the South and the Union strategy was to devastate the South’s ability to wage war.The federal government didn’t just rebuild the South, it upgraded it. Federal public works programs build roads, bridges, railroads, hospitals and schools. The building of this infrastructure in the South helped develop the Southern economy to include industry.
One plan to try and bring the freedmen into white society was the ‘40 acre and a mule’ plan. African-Americans were promised land for helping the Union in the Civil War. Some believed that if African-Americans were given land and some tools to farm it, they would be able to become self-sufficient economically, which would lead to political and social equality. Unfortunately, the politicians did not come through. Most land reform measures were dismissed or poorly implemented. An example is the 1866 Homestead Act that set aside 44 million acres to be given to freedmen. Most of the land, however, was undesirable and unsuitable for farming.
In fact, the “New South” wasn’t really that new. In several ways, the Reconstructed South wasn’t really different. Politically, although the freedmen had been guaranteed the right to vote by the Constitution with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, in practice, they were kept from exercising their voting rights. Once the power of the black vote became apparent in the 1870 presidential election, white Southerners saw the threat African-Americans posed at the polls.
To minimize the impact of African-American participation in politics, practices, such as Black Codes, literacy tests and poll taxes, prevented African-Americans from voting. Poor and uneducated whites were exempted by these measures by the grandfather clause, which said that if someone couldn’t pass the literacy test or pay the poll tax, they’d still be eligible to vote if his father or grandfather was eligible to vote before 1867. No blacks had the right to vote before this time, so the grandfather clause only protected whites. Terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan committed acts of terrorism to also keep blacks from voting. Local and state governments in the South did not protect the rights of African-Americans. The federal government found it difficult to force the South to respect these rights. With the Johnson administration’s pardon of the politicians of the old South, the new South was run by the same people who ran it before the Civil War. These politicians did not want things to change.
In economic life, although the slaves had been set free, the only thing the freedmen were qualified to do for a living was farm. But without land, they were at the mercy of the rich plantation owners they worked for before. Some black leaders, like Booker T. Washington, pushed the need for vocational education programs to provide blacks with opportunities in the trades. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute, a school that trained African-Americans for professions. Other leaders, such as W.E.B. DuBoise, thought traditional education would lead to lasting change.
But perhaps the biggest problem—for the freedmen—was the development of the system of sharecropping. In this system, the landowner “rented” a plot of land to a farmer and provided him with tools and supplies to farm the land. The farmer was allowed to keep only enough food to feed his family. All surplus had to be given back to the landowner as rent. Sharecropping created a cycle of poverty. In theory, a freedman could save up enough money to become a tenant farmer, moving up the economic ladder. But in reality, sharecroppers were in a system of virtual slavery, being kept perpetually poor and dependent on the land owner. Sharecroppers were also forced by the landowner to grow cash crops, such as cotton or tobacco. Other problems plagued the freedmen in the sharecropping system. During the Civil War, many countries found other sources for cotton. With the added competition, cotton was no longer as profitable.
Social problems that existed before the war also perpetuated. Economic hard times are tied to racial tensions. African-Americans were blamed by many whites for economic problems in the period after the Civil War. This added to the per-existing racism. This race hatred led to a rise of terrorist organizations, like the KKK and other, in the decades after the Civil War. Whites were determined not to accept the freedmen into white society.
Later, these practices of segregation became the law of the land. Southern society became strictly segregated by race. Segregation is the separation of groups. Blacks and whites were kept apart in both public and private facilities. The segregation measures are called Jim Crowlaws. Racial segregation was put into effect in schools, hospitals, parks, and transportation system. Even public bathrooms and drinking fountains were segregated. Blacks were also barred from hotels, restaurants and theaters.
When challenged in the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal, as long as the facilities were “separate but equal.” In reality, everyone knew that things were not equal.
Due to corruption (Grant’s presidency was severely marred by corruption), economic problems and lack of political and popular support, Reconstruction ran out of steam by the 1880’s. Grant used the spoils system and gave mean political jobs to friends and political allies. As a result, many scandals erupted during his presidency. Most historians believe that Grant’s lack of political experience led to him surrounding himself with people who took advantage of him. One of these events was the Credit Mobilier scandal. The Credit Mobilier construction company was helping build the Union Pacific Railroad. It skimmed off large profits off it. Several political officials in Grant’s administration we involved in receiving bribes, including his Vice-President.
Other scandal from the time was the Whiskey Ring. Whiskey distillers bribed government officials to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. These are two examples of many scandals from Grant’s era. All in all, these events led to a distrust of the presidency and helped cause the era of weak presidents that followed.
The economic problems caused by the war, most notably Confederate debt, caused racial tensions and also made everyone tired of Reconstruction. Northern support for Reconstruction evaporated and it ended without realizing its goals.
It would take almost sixty some years until people tried to address the failures of Reconstruction with the modern Civil Rights Movement, which took place from 1955—1968. Because of the failure of Reconstruction, the whites in power in the south were able to keep African-Americans down politically, socially and economically. In the one-hundred years after the Civil War, nothing had really changed and political and cultural institutions were stacked against African-Americans, preventing any attempts to change.
See also: Reconstruction