Was the Reconstruction Era revolutionary in American history?If so, wouldn't the counter-revolution against it be more significant?

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brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I would argue that Reconstruction contained some revolutionary ideas, but put very little of that revolution into place or practice.  The idea of land reform, for example, whereby freed slaves would receive farmland of their own to work, would have been successful, but the "40 acres and a mule" idea was never implemented.  Abolishing slavery once and for all was indeed revolutionary, but since blacks were overwhelming worked and treated in the same fashion as slavery, the counter-revolution (or perhaps more accurately, southern resistance) was more powerful.

Other revolutionary ideas such as educating slaves through the Freedmen's Bureau would have forever changed society, and did for some 200,000 former slaves, but the temporary nature of those schools, and the 3.8 million blacks who remained illiterate had much more weight on society over the long term.

This is why so many historians argue Reconstruction policies were such a failure, because so little actually changed in the lives of southerners or former slaves.  It was a revolution on paper only.

larrygates's profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The reconstruction era actually was revolutionary for important reasons. It was during Reconstruction that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed. This Amendment is considered the most important addition to the Constitution since its inception, as it made all people born or naturalized in any state citizens. This effectively overruled the Dred Scott decision by which Scott had been denied relief as he was not a citizen. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment also prohibits states from depriving any citizen of life, liberty or property without due process of law; as well as denying any citizen the equal protection of the law. Although its implementation was slow and somewhat staggered ( as in the "separate but equal" doctrine adopted by the Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson,) the Fourteenth Amendment effectively extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to cover violations by the several states. Many precious rights which Americans now take for granted (e.g. Miranda warnings) were only possible because of the passage of this amendment.

Additionally, the Fifteenth Amendment which protected the right of Black citizens to vote was passed during reconstruction . Again, implementation was slow and uneven, but the end result has been the right of every American citizen to vote unless that right has been removed by due process of law. There can be no greater evidence of the revolutionary effect of this amendment than the fact that it allowed one such person to now serve as President of the United States.

Reconstruction did not bring change overnight; but it did bring revolutionary changes to the rights of every American citizen.


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