What were the failures of Reconstruction and what were its successes? Why did it collapse, to the extent that it did?
Reconstruction began in 1865 with the intention of rebuilding the infrastructure and society of the southern states, and admitting them back into the United States of America after their loss in the Civil War. In his second Inaugural Address (March, 1865) Lincoln stated that he hoped to reunify the nation “with malice toward none, with charity for all". Since its stated goal was to reunify the United States, it can be counted as successful in that goal. However, its legacy in terms of race relations in America is far more murky.
Some successes of Reconstruction were tied to increased opportunity and aid for former slaves. The Freedman’s Bureau was established by the federal government to aid former slaves by establishing hospitals and schools, as well as supplying food and clothes. President Johnson insisted on the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment which banned slavery. He offered amnesty to those who had rebelled against the United States.
Radical Republicans in Congress proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which stated that all those born in the United States (excluding Native Americans) are citizens, and that citizens are entitled to equal rights. Despite President Johnson’s veto, the bill became law when a Congressional 2/3 majority overrode the veto. Congress went on to propose the Fourteenth Amendment which stated that all people who were born or naturalized in the United States were citizens and had “equal protection under the law.” While this amendment enshrined citizenship it did not specifically give former slaves the vote. With the exception of Tennessee, the South refused to accept this amendment (as did President Johnson), and Congress began a new phase called Radical Reconstruction which divided the South into military districts and required the states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and write new constitutions which provided the vote to all adult males, including blacks, before they could be admitted to the Union.
In the short run, it is hard to say that Reconstruction had any successes. In the long run, however, we can argue that the period was something of a success. Reconstruction failed in the short run because of the willingness of Southern whites to commit violence against it and because Northern whites did not care much about helping blacks.
In the short run, Reconstruction failed because it did not help black people gain economic independence or long-term access to basic political rights. While Reconstruction continued, African Americans had political rights. However, this angered most Southern whites enough that a number of these whites turned to violence. They intimidated supporters of Reconstruction and weakened the governments that were set up during under Northern protection. Meanwhile, as time went by, Northern support for Reconstruction waned. Northerners were no longer willing to engage in a military occupation of the South for the sake of black rights. White Northerners simply did not care enough about African American rights to do this. Therefore, Reconstruction ended and African Americans lost their political rights and any hope for serious economic progress.
However, we can say that Reconstruction succeeded to some degree in the long run. Because of Reconstruction, the 14th and 15th Amendments were passed. These amendments eventually worked to help African Americans gain civil rights and voting rights. Reconstruction did not help African Americans much in the short term, but at least it succeeded in opening the way for them to win their rights about 100 years after Reconstruction began.