Reconstruction: Why Did it Fail? what traditions and institutions were destroyed by the conflict?

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The Reconstruction Era, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, is generally regarded as producing only a few lasting, significant changes, so it is judged to be a failure. To consider the entire era a “conflict,” however, would be to ignore the large number of peaceful initiatives, especially laws and amendments,...

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The Reconstruction Era, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, is generally regarded as producing only a few lasting, significant changes, so it is judged to be a failure. To consider the entire era a “conflict,” however, would be to ignore the large number of peaceful initiatives, especially laws and amendments, that were effected during those 12 years.

The primary “institution” that was destroyed was slavery. Enforcement by national authorities, including the US military, effectively curtailed the autonomy that Southern states had enjoyed, which some would consider the tradition of states’ rights. The Emancipation Proclamation, the final version of which President Lincoln had issued in 1863, could not be enforced in the Confederacy during the Civil War, and its provisions exempted several border states that were not in rebellion. After the war ended in 1865, the Reconstruction Acts, laws passed by Congress, were put into place. Within each of five Southern regions, a military commander was appointed. The criteria for readmission to the Union included ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which ended slavery, and guaranteeing suffrage to black men (but not women). While the Fifteenth Amendment stipulated black male suffrage, states also had to modify their constitutions and other documents. As all states eventually complied, many institutions of racial discrimination, and enslavement, were legally abolished. However, other laws and widespread discriminatory practices—including widespread violence—severely curtailed many rights of African American people, and enforcement of federal laws was lax.

The goals of Reconstruction were not completed, in part because political tensions continued, as exemplified by the 1876 presidential election. Although the pro-Reconstruction Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, won, the Democrats’ strong showing, which dominated the South, led to a compromise. In exchange for not further contesting the results, the US military troops would withdraw from the Southern states, thus effectively ending any possibility of enforcement.

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