Conclusion: The Effects of Reconstruction
Reconstruction was a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States, but most historians consider it a failure.
Evaluate the successes and failures of Reconstruction
- Reconstruction was a failure according to most historians, but many disagree as to the reasons for that failure.
- On the one hand, black Americans earned many political and civil freedoms, including suffrage and equal protection under the law, during Reconstruction from constitutional amendments.
- On the other hand, white-supremacy groups, Jim Crow laws, and state constitutions effectively negated these political gains and subjected black Americans to second-class citizenry.
- Reconstruction Amendments: The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the Civil War.
- Jim Crow laws: State and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States.
Reconstruction was a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States, but most historians consider it a failure because the South became a poverty-stricken backwater attached to agriculture. White Southerners attempted to reestablish dominance through violence, intimidation, and discrimination, forcing freedmen into second-class citizenship with limited rights, and excluding them from the political process.
The interpretation of Reconstruction has been a topic of controversy. Nearly all historians hold that Reconstruction ended in failure but for different reasons. The following list describes some schools of thought regarding Reconstruction:
- The Dunning School considered failure inevitable and felt that taking the right to vote or hold office away from Southern whites was a violation of republicanism.
- A second school sees the reason for failure as Northern Republicans ‘ lack of effectiveness in guaranteeing political rights to blacks.
- A third school blames the failure on the freedmen not receiving land so they could have their own economic base of power.
- A fourth school sees the major reason for failure of Reconstruction as the states’ inability to suppress the violence of Southern whites when they sought reversal for blacks’ gains.
- Other historians emphasize the failure to fully incorporate Southern Unionists into the Republican coalition.
Regardless of the reasons for failure, Reconstruction, although aimed at improving the lives and civil liberties of freedmen, put many black Americans in conditions that were hardly an improvement from slavery. Although legally equal, black Americans were subject to segregation laws in the South, violence at the hands of white-supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and political disfranchisement by state constitutions from 1890 to 1908 that effectively barred most blacks and many poor whites from voting. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1935, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” The conditions of black Americans would not improve until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s.
Despite these failures, important landmarks in civil rights for black Americans were reached at that time. The “Reconstruction Amendments” passed by Congress between 1865 and 1870 abolished slavery, gave black Americans equal protection under the law, and granted suffrage to black men. Although these constitutional rights were eroded by racist violence and Jim Crow laws, blacks still began participating in politics, and these amendments established the legal groundwork for more substantive equality during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. Historian Donald R. Shaffer argued that the gains during Reconstruction for African Americans were not entirely extinguished. The legalization of African-American marriage and family and the independence of black churches from white denominations were a source of strength during the Jim Crow era. Reconstruction was never forgotten among the black community and remained a source of inspiration. The system of sharecropping allowed blacks a considerable amount of freedom as compared to slavery.