What were the objectives and long term effects of Reconstruction on political, economic and social development of the United States? Reconstruction, literally meaning the rebuilding of the shattered nation, was a pivotal movement between 1865 and 1877 in which the South was trying to be readmitted into the Union as well as a moment in time where blacks were attempting to gain a redefined status in American society. The period of reconstruction during the later half of the 19th century consisted of two primary periods, known as presidential and radical reconstruction. Each one had its own unique goals and accomplishments; both however making significant advances for both South and the freedmen following the end of the civil war. Politically, economically, and socially, America was affected significantly in these areas during the Reconstruction era. Although successful in its pursuit of readmitting the South and redefining the status of the black man, the greater of the two accomplishments for the country as a whole was the rise in importance of the black man in American society.
While political participation became one of the leading goals for blacks, who thought and believed was a significant part of the overall definition of freedom, following the end of the Civil War, the South was devastated economically but starting from almost nothing, the Union was able to reassemble eventually into a united nation socially. The vision of freedom during this era was quite controversial during this time, as no single man appeared to have an acceptable and clear definition that applied to the common man. As Congressman James Garfield mentioned in 1865, “What is freedom? Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion.” The idea of freedom meant two separate things for the white and black man. African American’s definition of freedom was based on their experiences as slaves and what they observed around them in what they considered a free society. Public education and the sharing of rights and opportunities as other American citizens were some of the ideals that swept through the minds of the once previous slaves.
Henry Adams, who was an emancipated slave in the state of Louisiana stated, “If I cannot do like a white man, I am not free”; a common theme for all blacks during this redefining stage of the black man. Succession from the Union created a difficult path for the South back into the Union following the end of the Civil War in 1866. One of the most difficult objectives for the country as a whole was to gain the cooperation of the South in attempt to redefine the status of the black man; a goal that the South clearly and for good reason wanted no part of. Although not blatantly said before civil war broke out between the North and South, the war was fought over the debate of slavery. Therefore, as the North requested the South’s cooperation in honoring the goals and motives of this movement, there was an almost expected surge in opposition from those below the Mason-Dixie line. Social developments among the black communities created lasting effects upon American Society which has lasted more than a century.
Institutions like churches became centers for schools and social events, and almost a century later became strongholds for speeches that propelled the civil rights movement. The first black universities began to spring up across the country suck as Fisk University in Tennessee, Hampton University in Virginia, and Howard University in Washington D.C. Black family life which previously never existed came into existence. These social advances sparked the political and economical changes that would soon follow. Presidential Reconstruction, 1865 through 1867, consisted of a series of proclamations that had one goal, to reunite the nation. The man behind all the action, President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, became the man in charge of the restoration of the Union. Although President Andrew Johnson once supported emancipation under Lincoln, this would soon change as he came into power.
With the objective of admitting the South back into the Union, the president restored political and property rights through a series of pardons to all white southerners who agreed to take an oath of allegiance. Even though this pardon was meant to exclude leaders of the once confederates and wealthy planters, they were also given the opportunity to take an oath of allegiance. Furthermore, President Johnson appointed provisional governors to call state conventions that would create loyal governments. Unfortunately, these ‘loyal governments’ would become primarily infested with confederate leaders. The only rules that the South was required to abide by was the abolishment of slavery, reunite with the union, and pay confederated debt. But in turn, the president allowed the new governments to manage their local affairs; foreshadowing a disastrous outlook for the freedom movement of the black man. Soon after the end of the Civil War in 1865, Frederick Douglas said, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”
Political participation became one of the leading goals for blacks, who thought and believed was a significant part of the overall definition of freedom. Having agreed to allow local governments in the South to govern their own affairs, this created a wall of opposition to this objective of political participation. Black codes, put into effect by southern governments to regulate blacks’ lives granted legalized marriage, ownership of property, and limited access to the courts. At the same time the black codes denied blacks voting rights and the ability to testify against whites in courts; ultimately creating a greater divide not only between the North and the South, but the North and the President of the United States. However, the ratification of the fourteenth amendment following the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in April of 1866 put citizenship into effect for all Americans, requiring the federal government to protect the rights of all Americans.
This amendment stated that any state that denied the right for blacks to vote would have their representation in Congress reduced. This did not grant blacks the right to vote, however put political democracy in favor of the black community. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 marked the end of Presidential Reconstruction, and marked the beginning of a new period called Radical Reconstruction. This act along with the Tenure of Office Act, were just few of the political moves by Congress which characterized this time period. However most significant was the fifteenth amendment which under President Ulysses Grant in 1868 made it illegal to deny the right to vote based on race, literacy tests, property qualifications, and poll taxes. By 1870, the desire to have all states readmitted to the Union was completed.
A few years previous of this, new state constitutions slowly started to form. Under these new state constitutions, the first established state-funded systems of free public education, prisons, orphanages, and institutions for the insane came to be. Further political action that affected American society which in some way or another has left an impact on society today is the Freedmen’s Bureau. This agency created in March of 1865 was put into place by Congress to establish schools, help the needy, settle disputes between blacks and whites, and finally maintain equal treatment for blacks and those loyal of the union in front of the courts. This bureau had a lasting impact, creating an astounding 3,000 schools, and ran hospitals that had been put into place during the war. In addition, close to 250 blacks took office during the Reconstruction Era, marking a change in the direction of politics of the country as a whole. Following the end of the Civil War, the South was devastated economically.
Numerous short-term effects became prominent, such as the situation with share cropping and the crop-lien system; two systems in which the black man as well as the white man came out as losers. However, due to the tremendous devastation that did take place railroads began to penetrate the South where investors and merchants took advantage of the ongoing situation. With the growing presence of the railroad companies in the South and their rapid expansion, towns and cities further inland became the market places for merchants and townsfolk. Cities like Atlanta for once were able to trade directly with the North. These cities expanded quickly and became enormous centers for great populations of people which are present today. Infrastructure, factories, and towns popped-up where they never would have existed without the introduction of the railroad. The Reconstruction Era was a period of time in American history which was represented by a country in shambles, a country divided not only by the famous Mason-Dixie line but on grounds of ethics and morals.
A country that had been devastated by war, and there existed points at which the conflict was not only between the North and South but also against the President of the United States like that of President Andrew Johnson. Starting from almost nothing, the Union was able to reassemble eventually into a united nation. The country was by no means unified on their perspectives such as politics or black’s place in society, but at least they were once again one union. Although unified once more, the reclassification of the black man in society far out-did the importance associated with readmitting the South into the Union. A country separated on accounts of civil war is by no means an easy situation to deal with. The process by which Congress and the North as well as South had to undergo in order to become what we now call the United States is no less than a marvel. But a greater success story can be found within the decade or so we call the Reconstruction Era.
The freedom allotted to the black men that were once under white control is absolutely incredible. Not only was slavery abolished and black men allowed to vote thanks to the 15th amendment, but they finally took hold in American life with their own communities and establishments. There exists no other point in American history besides the Revolutionary War that a group of people fought so hard, in desperation for their rights and the opportunity to live freely with the ability to reap nearly the same benefits as their counter parts, the white man. Within 12 years the black men were no longer slaves to a wealthy plantation owner, and no longer were they limited in society due to the belief that they were completely ignorant, but were now part of a nation that took significant progress in making blacks their equals. Although not perfect, an entire race was finally being recognized by society as a product-full part of society.
A shattered nation was by no means an understatement in describing the condition of America following the Civil War. Not only having the overwhelming task of coming to terms of agreements with the succeeded states in order to re-unify the country, the country was also placed with another enormous situation, having to redefine the status of blacks in American Society. America has marveled many over its history, and has not let-up in its ability to amaze those in the accomplishments and advances made during this period of time. Whether it be the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, or the fact that by 1870 the once divided nation was whole again.
America has the ability to overcome even with the odds against them. The railroad system not only penetrated the South, but created a lasting impact like that of bustling towns which have now grown into tremendous cities such as Atlanta. Public education finally came to the forefront with the creation of Universities still prominent today like that of Fisk University. However far apart and at the same time inter-related the objectives of the Reconstruction Era were, the re-admittance of the South into the Union was not the highlight of the late 19th century, but masked by the success story of the redefining of the black man in American society.
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