Was the Reconstruction Era after the American Civil War a success or failure? Why?
This has been the subject of a great amount of debate among scholars of US history. I will give you three opinions that have been more or less popular at various times:
- Reconstruction was a complete failure. This was the earliest view. It blames carpetbaggers and scalawags for creating a corrupt government. It says that they used the newly freed and ignorant slaves as their power base so they could get rich. It views Reconstruction as a shameful episode in US history.
- In the 1960s, a second view came about. It saw Reconstruction as a "glorious failure." It portrays freed slaves and their white allies fighting the good fight against violence and racism in the South. It acknowledges that the fight failed, but says that it laid the groundwork for the eventual triumph of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
- A third view has come around more recently. It holds that Reconstruction failed because it did little for average freed slaves. But it holds the black elite responsible. It argues that they were more concerned with their own privileges than with helping the freed slaves.
The reason I always teach about this (whether in HS or college) is that it shows how history reflects our own values in the present. View 1 shows blacks as hapless victims -- a patronizing view from the times before Civil Rights. View 2 shows blacks and whites working together valiantly -- like in the Civil Rights Era when the view originated. View 3 shows two things: first a modern historical desire to look at what happens to "the little people" and second a willingness to look critically at the efforts of blacks rather than to just call them heroes. This comes out of a more modern view that blacks are like everyone else and aren't necessarily weak but aren't automatically the good guys either (it was largely pioneered by black historians).
Forgive the long answer, but this is one of my favorite things to teach because it allows me to talk with my students about the way in which history gets made in accordance with what people's values and prejudices are at any given time.
Your question is very general so I will answer it in one way. For the African Americans it was a failure. As you know slavery was abolished however African Americans were not entirely free. They believed that through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, they could achieve total equality. But that was not how it worked out. In 1877 the whites in the south resisted and the federal government no longer supervised the civil rights in the south. This caused African Americans to become disenfranchised. When this occured legislation was created which enforced separation by race. Violence and racial threats were everywhere.Therefore in terms of answering the question "Can blacks and whites live together?, the answer was "no" in evaluating the effectiveness of the reconstruction. The other two issues regarding governance are more difficult to answer.
The three main issues at stake during the reconstruction were: 1. Can blacks and whites live together? 2.Who runs the county? 3.Can the north and south be truly one country ?
The previous posts did a nice job of addressing this question. For my bet, I would suggest that the answer lies in the distinction between theory and reality. The theoretical advancements made in the Reconstruction time period were highly significant. The Civil War Amendments (13, 14, and 15) added to the Constitution were groundbreaking for African- Americans and all individuals who were not originally conceived in the founding of the nation. To be able to boast such an advancement is powerfully compelling. At the same time, the reality of racial division in the South, the lack of institutional and social support given to people of color, and the idea that racism is not merely embedded in the institutional setting, but the social one are realities that cast a very critical eye on the time period. America, itself, can be seen as a nation that strives to be poised between these two levels of the good, that which is theoretical and that which is bound to reality. The Reconstruction Period typifies this dichotomy.
I believe it was a failure. A ten-year period of attempting to re-program Southern society into behaving fairly towards all races did little to address the real problem - entrenched belief systems that aren't altered by policing and policies. You cannot change a person's heart issues. Racism goes deeper than behavior. The following decades proved that although some progress was begun, the old regime regained power despite efforts to turn over all old governmental footholds. Many African Americans found their way to the North to gain opportunities they would never have been afforded in the South. If the goal of Reconstruction was to reunite the nation and rebuild the South, it's hard to look at any of the evidence and say it was a success - judging from the direction of American society in the years following: still divided, still broken.