American History

A New Look at the Failures and Successes of Reconstruction

The era of U.S. history known as Reconstruction brought rapid and significant changes to the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. While the moderate policies of Abraham Lincoln, and later Andrew Johnson, supported a deliberate and relatively slow process of promoting political and economic change in the South, a more radical contingent of Republicans pushed for rapid change and a virtually complete overhaul of the politics and economics of the South. These Radical Republicans supported the rights of post-slavery Freedmen, affording them the right to vote and to engage in political activity. By most accounts, the era of Reconstruction was a failure, and many of the policies and changes pushed by the Radical Republicans were quickly reversed. Historians disagree about what forces were primarily responsible for the failure of Reconstruction; some maintain that individual and institutional racism undermined the Reconstruction efforts, while others assert that larger economic policies were the root cause of the failure of many components of Reconstruction. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between these competing views or Reconstruction: racism, economics, and politics were all factors in the failure of some aspects of Reconstruction, though it may be too simple to say that any one factor was the most significant, just as it may be an oversimplification to see Reconstruction as a complete failure.

            LeeAnna Keith writes about the battle at the Colfax Courthouse in Louisiana, and points to this event as a tipping point when the efforts by the Radical Republicans to overhaul the political and economic systems of the Southern states began to fail. The Colfax Courthouse had become a symbol to many disgruntled Whites in the South of the newfound political and economic freedoms afforded to the Freedmen (the former slaves) by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Anger and distrust was building among many Whites, and an organized group of men, some of whom belonged to groups like the “Old Time Ku Klux Klan” attacked the Freedmen who were holed up in the Courthouse on April 5, 1873. Dozens, or possibly hundreds, of Blacks were killed in the attack. According to historians such as Keith, this assault and slaughter became a symbol and a rallying cry for the Whites who opposed Reconstruction, and would mark the beginning of a growing movement to bring an end to the changes imposed on the South by Congress.

            Historian Heather Cox Richardson takes a different view on the failures of Reconstruction, claiming that political and economic circumstances in the North had as much or more to do with the situation as did the racism of Southern Whites. Richardson argues that Whites in the North opposed aspects of the labor movement associated with Freedmen, such as the redistribution of property and other decisions that the Northern Whites believed showed special favoritism to Southern Blacks. While many Whites in the North supported the notion of granting “Civil Rights” to Blacks, these rights were specifically about the rights to own property, to vote, to use the legal system, and other similar processes. At the same time, many Whites in the North believed that Freedmen, as well as some politicians, were attempting to write and pass legislation that would afford Blacks privileges that had not been individually earned. The opposition to this was based on the belief that Whites had to earn their own places in society and that the laws should not be used to grant Blacks special favors or privileges.

            Discrimination against Blacks by Northern Whites may not have been as strong or as violent as that of Southern Whites, but many in the North still opposed the idea that Blacks and Whites were socially equal, and believed that Radical Republicans who were trying to enforce the rights associated with labor were also trying to push for social equality for Blacks that was not earned. In a sense, the racism of Southern Whites and Northern Whites helped to undermine Reconstruction, and when combined formed a force of opposition that was too great for the changes of Reconstruction to withstand. Despite the fact that many of the changes brought about by Reconstruction were undone or reversed, however, those few years of relative freedom for many Blacks gave them a glimpse of the possibilities that could be theirs. This realization did not die with the end of Reconstruction, and would serve to support the eventual rebirth of the civil rights movement in the following century. By that measure, then, Reconstruction was not entirely a failure, though it would take nearly a century before the rights of Blacks that had been lost at the end of reconstruction would eventually be restored.