Summary & Analysis
Reconstruction was America's first experiment in interracial democracy for men. It tested the central philosophies and traditions of America's society and institutions. The Civil War entailed a dramatic expansion of the roles and responsibilities of the central government that resulted in the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments made involuntary servitude a federal crime, created a new federal dimension of citizenship for all Americans, and sought to guarantee universal male suffrage. Once they were ratified, Congress was constitutionally empowered and obligated to protect and enforce them, sustaining the broad new powers and active role of the national government.
The postwar period began with a series of fairly lenient Reconstruction plans put forth by presidents Lincoln and Johnson, who were both eager to see the former Confederacy returned to the Union with as much speed and as little vindictiveness as possible. As the ineffectiveness of Presidential Reconstruction became apparent in the face of blatant violations of the freed peoples' constitutional rights and liberties, northern voters elected Republicans to Congress by a landslide, thereby providing a mandate for the Republicans to take over the job of putting the Union back together again. They were deemed "radical" by subsequent historians because they insisted that blacks be protected in their newfound rights.
When white southern intransigence followed the nation's first Civil Rights Act, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which gave federal authorities jurisdiction over both states and individuals who tried to deprive freedmen and women of their newfound rights. Never before had the federal government intervened so forcefully and directly on behalf of its citizens, let alone its most castigated and impoverished minority.
Yet even that unprecedented level of involvement proved insufficient to protect African-Americans or bring about a fundamental change in racial attitudes. Not since the Haitian Revolution had a recently enslaved population risen up amidst cataclysmic social change to claim their own rights and freedoms, to exercise power at every level of government in a society that had been—and, to a great extent, remained—predicated upon the concept of white supremacy. Central to the struggle of the emancipated men and women was the question, "How free is free?" Was freedom simply the absence of bondage, or the right to obtain an education, to receive healthcare, to negotiate for wages, to vote, and to tend one's own plot of land?
Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in 1868—the year that the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified—famously termed the Reconstruction period a "splendid failure," for it did not fail for the reasons that whites thought or expected that it would. Rather than revealing any innate inferiority or incompetence, some 2,000 black Americans governed reasonably well in nearly every level of government, from the Senate to the local sheriff and tax collector. They learned the uses of political power and served with great courage amidst a hostile environment of embittered and war-scared southern whites, many of whom targeted black representatives with violent attacks.
During Reconstruction, African-Americans formed their own fraternal organizations and worshipped in their own churches, and they embraced the notion of an activist government that promoted and safeguarded the welfare of its citizens. Rather than becoming the illiterate, ignorant dupes of demagogues and northern white Republicans, as so many whites suspected or believed, black men and women eagerly obtained the education that had been denied them by law under slavery. The Reconstruction governments were hardly perfect, but blacks proved themselves neither superior nor inferior to their white counterparts. This in itself was a revolutionary concept, in a society were white supremacy remained the central tenet of life, North and South, and where white ministers preached from the pulpit on Sundays that blacks had descended from Ham, and were therefore an inferior race, separated from the superior Anglo Saxon (even though the Curse of Ham passage in the Book of Genesis makes no mention of skin color or race).
Corruption and bribery did take place in government during Reconstruction, as they had prior to the Civil War and as they still do today. Railroad promoters, business speculators and their retainers, land contractors, and stock market investors all sought to purchase their share of influence with elected leaders. As one black representative and former slave commented, "I've been sold eleven times in my life; this is the first time I ever got the money." Yet despite these moral frailties, all of the southern governments combined did not steal as much from the public treasury as William "Boss" Tweed's Ring in New York City, a Democratic Party machine that lined its pockets with over $75 million, or the Republican "Gas Ring" in Philadelphia, which did the same thing. Though such comparisons do not excuse the failings that Reconstruction governments did exhibit, the fact remains that such governments did establish some of the first public and social services in the South outside of North Carolina; they collected taxes to fund public schools, expand hospitals, and build asylums, among other programs.
Nonetheless, as whites regained power over the South by 1877 and throughout the century that followed, whites from both North and South pilloried the Reconstruction period as a disaster because blacks were in charge, and were—by their interpretation—racially unfit to rule and unprepared for the rights, responsibilities, and freedoms granted to them in postwar America. Reconstruction-era instances of corruption or bribery were vastly exaggerated; the nation's foremost scholars, especially historians, wrote seething histories of the period that decried the supposedly deplorable treatment of white southerners and spun overtly racist tales concerning the ignorance and savage lust of black officeholders. The two sides of the Civil War reunited during the late nineteenth century by casting the fate of the black population aside and basing innumerable aspects of their reunited culture, education, and society on the concept of white supremacy. In fact, whites during Reconstruction had responded the same way to all Reconstruction governments, whether corrupt or not. The white South turned to force to end the country's first experiment in integrated government; not because of black failure, but because of black success. Evidence of black ambition, confidence, and aptitude threatened the power structure, institutions, labor system, and society of the former Confederacy more than black corruption or ignorance ever could. But by discrediting the era in which blacks were most active politically, historians, filmmakers, politicians, and writers from across the country effectively acquitted the white South of disfranchising blacks under the Redemption and Jim Crow periods; they permitted racial segregation and discrimination, and even sanctioned it, for over a century.