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I've spent half of my life living in the North and half living in the South. As I grew up in the North, I never really thought about Reconstruction and would probably have said that it had eventually succeeded. However, after living in the South and witnessing firsthand some of the remaining negative effects of Reconstruction, I have to admit that it failed. Even though the South became part of the Union again, it still suffers from poor graduation rates (when compared to the North). Many Southerners attribute this to Reconstruction because they feel that the devastated region was not "reconstructed" but rather that many of them were forced to submit to Northern ideals and greed instead of focusing on educational and skilled labor pursuits.
Worse than the education and economic ramifications of Reconstruction is the racial tension that remained and actually inflamed during Reconstruction resulting in Jim Crow laws and existing intangible barriers between ethnic groups in the South.
I think that one could argue both sides of it quite passionately. While it might not be a result of the Reconstruction Era, I would say that the passage of Amendments 13, 14 and 15 are extremely meaningful and, by themselves, could constitute Reconstruction as a success in my mind. The very idea that the Constitution would have a voice about the nature of the Civil War and "speaking" to the end of preventing future conflicts like it would help to solidify its place as a success. Additionally, the Civil Rights Amendments passed help to move the discussion of race as something viable and a discourse that would grip the nation even to the modern setting. The fact that the government would be able to establish such elements through the Constitution is something quite impressive.
In addition to what has been mentioned, Reconstruction also failed as what has been known as "carpetbaggers" came down from the North and took advantage of the devastated South both financially and politically Since anyone who had participated in the Confedercy was not allowed to hold public office, the businessmen, lawyers, newspaperment, etc., who came from the North placed men in office who could be manipulated by them. Many "carpetbaggers" bought farms and mansions for only the back taxes, leaving the original residents homeless. Exploitation abounded as "confidence men" like those portrayed by Mark Twain with the Duke and the King in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" swindled the unsuspecting in their quest for making a profit from a defeated people. In short, the South was treated worse than any country that the United States has defeated.
It took years and years for Atlanta to recover structurally and economically from its burning and total destruction by General Sherman's men. That the South was exploited by the carpetbaggers is documented by President Grant's ordering them out of the South. And U.S. history also shows that the South has long been crippled as it has had need of federal aid. It is only recently with its burgeoning auto industry and other manufacturing that has moved from the North that the South now shows real signs of prosperity.
I very much agree with phonpei397's points but would like to comment on the idea that Reconstruction may be viewed as a success because
it did work. At the end of Reconstruction, blacks were still free. And by the end of that time, the Southern states were able to join the Union again.
Blacks were still legally free and equal, yes, but with the end of Reconstruction came a dramatic "rollback" of the important rights that had been extended to blacks, including voting rights and equal access to public facilities. The internet is rich in material covering the Jim Crow laws of the Southern and border states.
In the final analysis, at the risk of sounding too pessimistic, I think that Reconstruction failed to dismantle the racist structures in the South. That dismantling required a second forceful intervention of national government (including not another extended military occupation but certainly including some deployment of national troops) in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
It really depends on how you define success or failure and it depends on how long of a time period you are looking at.
If you just look at the period of Reconstruction and right after it, Reconstruction clearly failed in my opinion. Here, I am saying it failed because blacks were not equal to whites after Reconstruction (so that's my definition of failure here). At the end of the period, blacks were still much poorer than whites and they (by late in the 1800s) were not able to vote and were subject to segregation.
Of course, if you define success differently, it did work. At the end of Reconstruction, blacks were still free. And by the end of that time, the Southern states were able to join the Union again. So if that's how you define success, it did succeed.
Some scholars argue that Reconstruction did work, but you have to look longer after Reconstruction to see it. They say that Reconstruction made black people start working for rights. They say it succeeded because the black people eventually got all the same rights as whites. They say that process started back in Reconstruction.
The abolishment of slavery was a victory, but discrimination against them and their concentration of wealth was still significantly lower than whites.
The succes and failures of reconstruction all depends on how you look at it.
The success of reconstruction would be:
- The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery
- The 14th amendment, provided for the equal protection of the law for all citizens, enforced congressional legislation guaranteeing civil rights to former slaver
- The 15th amendment, provided suffrage for black males
- Public schools systems in the Southerns states were improved
- African Americans were elected to the House and Senate
The failure of reconstruction would be:
- freedmen entered sharecropping, which led to cycle of debt and depression for southern tenant farmers
- Black codes established
- rise of Jim Crow segregation "separate but equal" was constitutional
- Grandfather clause, literacy tests, poll taxes used to deny African Americans the ballot
The compromise of 1877 ended congressional reconstruction
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