There is still contention over whether Reconstruction was a misguided scheme that collapsed, or an experiment that lacked authority. A period marked by tremendous controversy, the government faced issues such: the extent of the constitutional powers of the federal government to intervene in a state’s affairs, whether the victors should try to change the South fundamentally, and the status of the black ex-slaves, or freedmen. Not only would these consequential issues spark struggles between political parties, but they would also play a dramatic role in deciding the ultimate outcome of Radical Reconstruction.
Political affiliations were a key determinant of views on those issues. Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts in 1867. These laws placed the South under temporary military occupation and divided it into 5 military districts, each under the command of a Union general. Reluctant to make the national government permanently responsible for the protection of the ex-slaves, Republicans decided to enfranchise blacks so that Southern politicians would have to treat them fairly to get their votes. This program became known as Radical Reconstruction.
The status of freedmen and the role they would play in society was one of the most critical issues to be handled. In 1865 the 13th Amendment was ratified, this abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States and gave Congress the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Congress in 1866 also passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act and proposed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which declared blacks to be citizens, prohibited states from discriminating against any class of citizens or denying any citizen fundamental rights, and banned Confederate leaders from holding federal or state office until Congress removed the disqualification. These amendments would be extremely momentous for African-Americans, they would be the first anti-discrimination laws that were intended to protect their civic rights and give African-Americans hope for the future.
To round out their program, the Republicans in 1869 proposed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution forbidding racial discrimination in voting qualifications; it was ratified in 1870, and the recalcitrant states were also required to ratify it before being readmitted. This would be a dramatic step for African-Americans and a tremendous accomplishment on behalf of the republicans to promote racial equality and attempt to eliminate discrimination. The Fifteenth Amendment also sparked a group led by Lucy Stone, which formed the New England Women Suffrage Association, inspired to attain suffrage for all women.
The new governments in the South were the most progressive the region had ever seen. Between 1868 and 1871 all the southern states met the congressional stipulations and rejoined the Union. Republicans were elected to office. African-American officeholders held positions of importance throughout the South. For example they were well represented in executive offices, elected three members of Congress, won a seat on the state supreme court and served as governor, secretary of state, treasurer, state legislators and served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Radical Reconstruction was opening up the prospect of meaningful independence in Southern states.
The aspiring Republicans continued to construct plans for the South. They established the first state-supported free public school systems in the South and made labor laws fairer to employees. They established hospitals, penitentiaries, and asylums for orphans and the insane. They built new roads and poured money into rebuilding the region’s railroad network. They promoted public improvements in order to enhance economic development.
In this process, the Republicans raised taxes much higher than Southerners were used to, and fell prey to the corruption that plagued all the states in the 1870s. Radical Reconstruction failed to give freedmen substantial land ownership, which enticed them towards a system of sharecropping that sank them deeply into debt with their landlords. The Southern whites charged the Republicans with misgovernment and in response to the Radical governments in the South, a group of old-line conservatives, arose to “redeem the South,” to save it from being reconstructed and to restore the South to its pre-war Southern democracy.
Founded in Pulaski TN in 1865-66 as a social club by 6 ex-confederate soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan spread quickly throughout the South. The Klan murdered and whipped Republican politicians, burned black schools and churches, and attacked party gatherings. Paramilitary groups such as the Rifle Clubs and the Red Shirts identified black leaders in assassination lists called “dead books” and provoked rioting that left hundreds of African-Americans dead. They threatened voters who lacked the protection of the secret ballot. The Civic rights, which they had earned, were clearly threatened. By 1875 all but three Southern states South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida were back in the hands of Southern Democrats, who discontinued most of the Republican reforms and began to circumscribe the freedom of blacks. These events highlighted the emptiness of some of the effects of Reconstruction in the South.
By the end of Reconstruction, all Southern governments had been returned to Southerners who overturned much that had been done for Blacks in the South. Despite the tremendous achievements by the Radicals, all that had been acquired seemed dispossessed. There was lack of involvement on behalf of the Federal Government to stop the terror that the Whites inflicted upon the Blacks. Prosecuting Klansmen under the Enforcement Acts, passed by congress was an uphill battle, as they usually faced an all-white jury and the Justice department lacked the resources to prosecute effectively. Blacks were in a socioeconomic condition little better than slavery.
Reconstruction did little to change the view White southerners held of Blacks. It failed to alter the South’s social structure or its distribution of wealth and power, which disadvantaged African-Americans at that period of time. Yet it is considered to be the foundation of many important events that would take place in the future and it showed an actual desire for change on behalf of the government. Reconstruction left significant legacies, including the 14th and 15th amendments, which remain as a symbol of democratic idealism and would be used 100 years later to protect minority rights.