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?
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.