Reconstruction

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After the Civil War, should the South have been treated as a defeated nation or rebellious state?

Many radical Republicans wanted to treat the South as a rebellious, conquered nation. It is likely that if this had been done, people who had been enslaved in the South would have received more protection. Instead, Reconstruction ended up pardoning the South and failing to support people who had been enslaved.

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There are two different ways one could argue the fate of the South. The Lincoln government never recognized the Confederacy in name, since doing so would open up a path to international legitimacy and provide a way for Britain and France to help the Davis government. Punishing the region by executing Confederate leaders and confiscating large swaths of plantation land would sow the seeds for a possible second attempt at secession later—one should remember that there were legitimate fears of reigniting the Civil War throughout the Reconstruction era. Lincoln's conciliatory approach was meant to bring the South back into the Union as seamlessly as possible.

Treating the region as a collection of rebellious states in need of drastic social and economic changes was also a viable option. Though only a minority of Americans believed in granting full civil rights to African Americans, a more forceful civil rights platform would have prevented some of the racial tensions that continue to plague the region. Redistributing the plantations, though against American concepts of private property, would have potentially allowed for more social mobility for both African Americans and poor whites in the South. While these radical changes might have made a positive lasting impact on racial and social justice, one should also remember that the federal government did not readily take on social and economic causes, and many thought that the federal government should not intrude on the private lives of the American citizen.

In the end, the federal government took on a largely forgiving role toward the South, though there was a period of military occupation, and some former Confederates were barred from public office. Racial attitudes throughout the country would not support a progressive civil rights agenda, and the Freedman's Bureau ultimately failed due to a lack of funding and national will to see it carry out its humanitarian goals. Reconstruction was successful in the sense that it did not lead to a reignition of a Civil War or a Confederate guerilla insurgency, but it was a failure towards creating a more racially and economically just South. This was due to a national need to move on from the war and the federal government's unwillingness to take on an expanded role in civil rights.

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It's hard to look back and say with certainty how the vanquished Confederate states should have been treated by the post–Civil War federal government. What can be said for sure is that it was crucial that the South be politically, socially, and economically reintegrated into the United States under its laws, and that those former slaveholding states be required to submit to a certain amount of federal oversight to make sure that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were being enforced.

Taking a punitive attitude against the already-decimated South would have been counter-productive to Lincoln's own original priority to maintain the cohesion and integrity of the republic. Treating the former Confederacy as a defeated nation would have meant extractive treaties that overextended the federal government's authority, perhaps further weakening the South's path for recovery through reparations or other concessions. The symbolic value of America's dealing with its individual rogue states like a foreign enemy would reflect poorly on the American system and generate more mistrust and resentment from the Southern states, with further armed conflict not unforeseeable.

Treating the Confederacy as sectarian rebels meant that once the extremist ideology motivating their cause—slavery—was formally prohibited, the federal government had legal cause to intervene for enforcement of the federal laws without marginalizing their status as sovereign entities. The ultimate goal was to get newly enfranchised African American men into the body politic as voters, party bosses, and elected leaders, on the way to greater inclusion in mainstream society.

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This is an interesting question! The South could have been looked at in many ways after the American Civil War, including both of these perspectives.

The South could have been looked at as a defeated nation because its goals and its way of life were in shambles after the war. The Confederacy had hoped to continue profiting from the exploitation of agricultural slave labor, but the outcome of the war put an end to that dream. When considering Reconstruction plans, the US government had to consider how to aid the South in coming to terms with change, without glorifying what the South lost.

The South had rebelled by seceding from the Union, and this rebellion led to many years of violent struggle. It thus would have been understandable for the US to take a purely punitive approach to Reconstruction, and to treat the South as a rebellious state. It is probable that if this perspective had been enforced that people who had been enslaved would have had more federal protection.

Many radical Republicans wanted to treat the South as a rebellious, conquered nation. But ultimately the government’s plans did not really shame the South. The government recognized that the South had made mistakes, but was generous in forgiving them. For example, Lincoln pardoned several Confederate generals, and Reconstruction failed to protect former slaves. Eventually, the abandonment of Reconstruction with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes allowed the South to carry on slavery’s legacy through legalized segregation.

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