In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans went into the South with the intention of creating a truly egalitarian society. What were the successes and failures of Reconstruction?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Reconstruction was not meant to create a fully egalitarian society. The poor whites would remain poor. The early Reconstruction measures which took place even before the war was officially over in many areas did little to help the former slaves. Many former slaves associated cotton growing with their past lives...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Reconstruction was not meant to create a fully egalitarian society. The poor whites would remain poor. The early Reconstruction measures which took place even before the war was officially over in many areas did little to help the former slaves. Many former slaves associated cotton growing with their past lives and sought to avoid this practice. The areas administered by the army encouraged the former slaves to continue growing the cotton in order to promote the economy of the South. While many sought to create more opportunities for poor whites and former slaves in the South, it proved harder to do than originally thought. The dream of "forty acres and a mule" for the former slaves was dashed as moderate Republicans recoiled at land seizure and redistribution. Property taxes which funded the first widespread attempt at public education in the South was the most egalitarian work in the South and is perhaps the greatest legacy of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction had many successes. In five short years the former slaves were freed (1865) granted citizenship (1868) and given the right to vote (1870). Given the time it takes to change the Constitution, these were major accomplishments. However, the North also suffered from war fatigue and ended Reconstruction abruptly in 1877. Hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan kept black men away from the polls as well as terrorized anyone threatening the prewar status quo. Sharecropping became a way to take advantage of a surplus of labor and land and little else in the South. Sharecropping thus led generations of whites and blacks alike in rural areas to be poor. While the region attempted to industrialize, it never received the level of investment and immigration as the Northern states and the South lagged behind in economic growth. Segregation became a way of life, if not by custom than by law. There were even laws on the books stating that all blacks must have jobs and if not could be taken to prison on vagrancy charges. Blacks were also forbidden to travel at a time when many were going out and trying to find family members who had been sold in the past. Most blacks brought on vagrancy charges were put on chain gangs, thus providing "slave" labor for municipalities. Over time, even the right to vote was stifled as states enacted grandfather clauses and literacy tests to ensure that poor whites who were willing to vote for Democrats were given priority over blacks who voted for Republican candidates. The North did little to help the South acclimate to the faster economic conditions and it would not interfere with black voting concerns. By 1896 black voter turnout was at an all-time low, lynchings were widespread in the South and any progress toward egalitarianism in the South was largely forgotten. It is because of this that the historian Eric Foner has called Reconstruction an "unfinished revolution."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If the only goal of Reconstruction was to create a “truly egalitarian society,” Reconstruction was an utter failure.  However, if we expand the definition of Reconstruction’s goals to some degree, we can say that Reconstruction was at least a partial success.

If we only look at the creation of an egalitarian society, all the Reconstruction really did was to end slavery.  It was Reconstruction, along with the 13th Amendment, that ended slavery for good.   This made the South more egalitarian than it had been, but it did not really bring about a society in which people were truly equal.  The 14th Amendment did say that all people were to enjoy the equal protection of the law, but that amendment was not truly honored.  Society after Reconstruction was still dominated by whites and in particular by whites who owned a great deal of land.

So how could we say that Reconstruction succeeded at all?  We can say that it succeeded if we say that its goal was to put the United States back together.  The Civil War was the culmination of disputes over the rights of states versus those of the federal government.  The war tore the country apart.  Reconstruction reconciled the North and the South and established once and for all that the national government had more power than the states.  Reconstruction was a success because it ensured that the US would henceforth be a single and united country.

However, Reconstruction failed in most other ways because it did not bring about racial justice or egalitarianism.  The 14th Amendment was made into a dead letter by white supremacy, which eventually led to the Jim Crow era.  African Americans were given more education and more rights than they had once had, but they were still severely discriminated against.  Blacks quickly lost, for example, the right to vote.  They were not given good economic opportunities.  Instead, most African Americans became tenant farmers or sharecroppers who could never really get ahead economically. 

In these ways, Reconstruction succeeded in putting the US back together, but it almost completely failed to do anything to make the country more egalitarian than it once was.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team