Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Reconstruction is a term that is loosely applied to a period of US history, a group of policies and related practices applied in the former Confederate states, and changes in political, economic, and racial attitudes, especially in the South.

Because there were diverse, wide-ranging goals of Reconstruction, and these were applied in so many different ways, one can observe successes and failures.

The constitutional changes that ended slavery throughout the United States in the 1860s were the impetus for related changes at the state level through the 1870s. As all states had to modify their constitutions and laws, Reconstruction did succeed in abolishing slavery as a political and economic reality. Employment opportunities for newly freed African Americans were scarce, however, and many ended up working as sharecroppers or debt peons on the same lands where they had labored while enslaved.

Radically altering the national political and economic structure to improve Southern participation in general, diversify the agricultural economy beyond cotton and tobacco, and expand commerce and industry proved an uphill climb. Because slavery had propped up the economy and the war had been expensive, severely damaging much Southern territory, effective Reconstruction required a fundamental structural overhaul that was beyond the scope of accomplishment in a decade. Although human beings could no longer be bought and sold, and each individual was legally viewed as a person, not property, the racist underpinnings of the slavery system were virtually impossible to eradicate.

Race and regional pride merged in white Southerners' resentment at losing the war and being forced by Northerners to alter their ways of life; this hostility in some ways increased as Reconstruction policies were created and enforced. The vanquished Southerners' sense of victimhood and injustice generated a severe backlash against black people and the whites who championed their causes. There was also resentment among white Northerners, directed both at free blacks who migrated north and at the former Confederacy. Beyond the financial and human expense of the war itself, the North now had to bear the financial burden of aiding states in which they had little or no vested interest.

While Reconstruction was not intended to be unending or a panacea, it still fell short of achieving many goals. Nevertheless, important strides were made, especially at the legal, constitutional level, toward guaranteeing equal rights for all Americans.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would say that Reconstruction failed for two main reasons.  It failed because white people in the South generally hated it and because white people in the North did not care enough to continue to enforce it.

Most white people in the South hated Reconstruction.  They felt that it was being forced upon them undemocratically by the North.  Because of this, they resisted it vigorously.  Some white Southerners resorted to violence and terrorism (this was the beginning of the KKK) to resist Reconstruction.  This meant that it was hard to keep Reconstruction going.

If the North had really cared, Reconstruction might have continued.  But most white Northerners did not care about Reconstruction by the mid-1870s.  They did not really care whether African Americans had rights now that they were no longer enslaved.  They were certainly not very interested in continuing to impose Reconstruction on the South just so that African Americans could have civil rights. 

Thus, Reconstruction ended because of opposition (often violent) from white Southerners and because  white Northerners did not care enough about black rights to continue to support Reconstruction.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial