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Reconstruction: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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The effectiveness of the Reconstruction Acts and constitutional amendments was further diminished by a series of Supreme Court decisions, beginning in An economic depression from to saw much of the South fell into poverty, allowing the Democratic Party to win back control of the House of Representatives and heralding the end Reconstruction. By , the legislatures of only three Southern states: South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana remained under Republican control.
The outcome of the presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, was decided by disputed vote counts from those three states. After a controversial compromise saw Hayes's inaugurate president, Union troops were withdrawn from all Southern states. With the federal government no longer responsible for protecting the rights of the formerly enslaved people, Reconstruction had ended.
However, unforeseen results of the period from to would continue to impact Black Americans and the societies of both the South and North for over a century. In the South, Reconstruction brought a massive, often painful, social, and political transition. While nearly four million formerly enslaved Black Americans gained freedom and some political power, those gains were diminished by lingering poverty and racist laws such as the Black Codes of and the Jim Crow laws of Though freed from slavery, most Black Americans in the South remained hopelessly mired in rural poverty.
Having been denied educations under slavery, many formerly enslaved people were forced by economic necessity to. Despite being free, most southern Black Americans continued to live in desperate rural poverty. Having been denied education and wages under slavery, ex-slaves were often forced by the necessity of their economic circumstances to return to or remain with their former White slave owners, working on their plantations for minimal wages or as sharecroppers. According to historian Eugene Genovese, over , formerly enslaved persons stayed with their masters. As Black activists and scholar W. As a result of Reconstruction, Black citizens in the Southern states gained the right to vote.
In many congressional districts across the South, Black people comprised a majority of the population. House of Representatives, becoming the first popularly elected Black member of Congress. Though they never achieved representation proportionate to their total number, some 2, Black held elected office from the local to national level during Reconstruction. In , Black members of Congress, led by South Carolina Representative Robert Brown Elliot, were instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of , outlawing discrimination based on race in hotels, theaters, and railway cars.
However, the growing political power of Black people provoked a violent backlash from many White people who struggled to hold on to their supremacy. By implementing racially motivated voter disenfranchisement measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests, Whites in the South succeeded in undermining the very purpose of Reconstruction. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments went largely unenforced, setting the stage for the civil rights movement of the s.
Reconstruction in the South meant a massive social and political upheaval and a devastated economy. By contrast, the Civil War and Reconstruction brought opportunities for progress and growth. Passed during the Civil War, economic stimulus legislation such as the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act opened the Western territories to waves of settlers. Congress in and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Though they were repeatedly either ignored or flagrantly violated, the anti-racial discrimination Reconstruction amendments remained in the Constitution. In , U. Emancipation changed the stakes of the Civil War, ensuring that a Union victory would mean large-scale social revolution in the South. It was still very unclear, however, what form this revolution would take.
Over the next several years, Lincoln considered ideas about how to welcome the devastated South back into the Union, but as the war drew to a close in early , he still had no clear plan. In a speech delivered on April 11, while referring to plans for Reconstruction in Louisiana , Lincoln proposed that some Black people—including free Black people and those who had enlisted in the military—deserved the right to vote. He was assassinated three days later, however, and it would fall to his successor to put plans for Reconstruction in place.
Apart from being required to uphold the abolition of slavery in compliance with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution , swear loyalty to the Union and pay off war debt, southern state governments were given free rein to rebuild themselves. These repressive codes enraged many in the North, including numerous members of Congress, which refused to seat congressmen and senators elected from the southern states. The first bill extended the life of the bureau, originally established as a temporary organization charged with assisting refugees and formerly enslaved people, while the second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens who were to enjoy equality before the law.
After Johnson vetoed the bills—causing a permanent rupture in his relationship with Congress that would culminate in his impeachment in —the Civil Rights Act became the first major bill to become law over presidential veto. The participation of African Americans in southern public life after would be by far the most radical development of Reconstruction, which was essentially a large-scale experiment in interracial democracy unlike that of any other society following the abolition of slavery. Southern Black people won election to southern state governments and even to the U. Congress during this period. After , an increasing number of southern whites turned to violence in response to the revolutionary changes of Radical Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations targeted local Republican leaders, white and Black, and other African Americans who challenged white authority.
Though federal legislation passed during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in took aim at the Klan and others who attempted to interfere with Black suffrage and other political rights, white supremacy gradually reasserted its hold on the South after the early s as support for Reconstruction waned. Racism was still a potent force in both South and North, and Republicans became more conservative and less egalitarian as the decade continued.
In —after an economic depression plunged much of the South into poverty—the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War. When Democrats waged a campaign of violence to take control of Mississippi in , Grant refused to send federal troops, marking the end of federal support for Reconstruction-era state governments in the South. Doctorow, The March. Random House. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press. Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches, ed. Michael P. Johnson, ed. Farrar Strauss Giroux. William Gienapp, ed. Requirements There will be two required papers of pages each. Survey Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts about this course through the survey linked below.
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