Were the reconstructive amendments a success or a failure?  

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The short answer is that Reconstruction both succeeded and failed. An individual’s evaluation of the program’s success depends on their perspective, including such factors as when the evaluation was made and their understanding of the potential scope of the intended reforms.

The Reconstruction period began as the Civil War ended and continued through 1877. The nation was faced with the daunting task of reincorporating the former Confederate states into the Union. Federal policies that could be applied in all states were needed to accomplish that goal. An argument for success is the fact that the Reconstruction Amendments—the Thirteenth through Fifteenth—were actually passed and became part of the nation’s Constitution.

From the Thirteenth Amendment going forward, additional clarifications about freedom and equality and ways of achieving specific, related objectives were incorporated into the Constitution as a basis for further legal action. The initial abolition of slavery was one step in the process. With the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the nation affirmed the rights of citizenship and the applicability of laws to everyone, as well as laying out specific protections related to voting rights.

Given the ongoing tensions between federal law and states’ rights, however, implementing the laws was an uphill climb. Furthermore, the Supreme Court sometimes sided with the states, further impeding such implementation. In addition, there was no federal mechanism in place that could prevent individual states from passing laws that outright challenged the goals of the amendments, or mandated ways to get around them. In terms of voting, for example, many states allowed everyone to vote but established high poll taxes that effectively prevented the poor from voting. Many other obstacles to equal rights, regardless of race or financial situation, were put into place during and after Reconstruction.

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