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Stefan Nilsen

Professor Jones

CDS 305

February 21, 2017

The Failure of Reconstruction

Ever since our continent was discovered, the world that we live in today has been

besmirched by the evils of colonialism and the legacy of slavery. All throughout our history

genocide, subjugation and nefarious acts upon peoples who were deemed inferior ripple

throughout our history. The Civil War and the emancipation of slavery in 1863 provided a door

to the betterment of the decedents of Africa living in the United States. A door to freedom and a

quality of life through suffrage, political representation, land-owning and many other things. I

would like to explore the failures of Reconstruction, contrasting what is known as Presidential

and Radical Reconstruction, the missed opportunities for the black collective and the possible

alternatives that were proposed or attempted. I would like to understand the problematic nature

of politicians and policies pre, during and post Reconstruction. Lincoln is a well-known

emancipator but harbored many racist sentiments just as most white politicians did at the time.

His successor Andrew Johnson proved to be far more deliberately racist and pushed forward an

agenda that quelled black suffrage and reestablished the old order of white supremacy within the

South. Arguably, the order of white supremacy has always existed in the US since the first white

man arrived with guns and disease. However, I would like to explore this fragile time and the

fascinating possibilities that Reconstruction offered to not only the public imagination but the

political arena to which it was proposed.


Reconstruction had a dichotomous nature characterized as Presidential and Radical and

these two approaches different wildly in their approach. With so much uncertainty about the role

of the Southern states there was a large opportunity for radical change. State government

positions were vacant and the land seized by Union troops was held from its former owners.

Reconstruction could have offered further emancipation from not only chattel slavery but from

the subjugation, prejudice and segregation by the white man. A more just legislature could have

been convened with the proposed legislature of the time. People like Thadeus Stevens, Charles

Sumner and other Republicans helped draft the first bills that attempted to give the blacks

representation and rights. However, these opportunities were purposely missed and targeted

towards a systemic oppression of the black man now freed.

In the wake of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew

Johnson stood poised at the beginning of a long era of reconstruction. As historian Eric Foner

points out, Johnson's support by Congress was high at the beginning of his term. The President

brought out of crisis and who had served by the side of Lincoln was hopefully going to deliver

them into the best reconstruction possible in the eyes Republicans. However, as he embarked on

his reconstruction efforts it became more and more clear that black suffrage was not going to be

high on Johnson's list. Black suffrage was actually the most contested issue during

Reconstruction delegation in Congress. It ended up splitting republicans in Congress between

those favorable of a suffrage policy for blacks and those who were in favor of limited suffrage

based on literacy or other qualifications. Another large collection of congressmen outright

opposed suffrage. Andrew Johnson came from a lineage of poor white yeoman and his attempts

to break up the large plantations and slaveocracy of the South came with multiple caveats. This

loss of direction and lack of integrity ended up destroying his reconstruction plans. He wanted to
cater to the poor white community and thus barred wealthy landowners in the South from

receiving presidential pardons in the months leading up to the elections and conventions. Those

who were loyal to the union and emancipation received presidential pardons. This was an attempt

to isolate the Old South elite and build support for Republican politics in the South amongst

everybody else. Clearly, his reconstruction "meant the proscription of rebels, not recognition of

the rights of blacks (Foner 186). Johnsons policies were known for having racist overtones and

his early speeches on reconstruction obsessed over racial miscegenation and the purported

differences between the races. He condemned blacks to inferiority dwelling on the lack of a

successful government composed of blacks. Obviously not understanding the historical gravity

of the Middle Passage or the racialization of black bodies as servants around the globe. He went

so far as to say that "the freedmen had no role to play in his vision of a reconstructed South"

(Foner 181).

President Johnson's reconstruction quickly crumbled as he began appointing Governors

who were most favorable in the South. These were white, elite and racist individuals who before

the war had either aided the Confederacy or at least claimed not to have been involved.

Moreover, most of Johnsons appointments could not take the Iron Clad Oath which was a sign

for the Republicans in Congress that the fruits of the Civil War were spoiling. The appointed

people had the odd task of building political support and they had no choice but to heed to the

voice of the white Confederates. Black suffrage and widespread white disenfranchisement had

apparently gone out of the objective. This solidified Johnsons reputation in the South because

white Southerners appreciated that his reconstruction empowered them to shape the transition

from slavery to freedom and to define black civil status without Northern interference (Foner

190).
I found it very interesting that Johnson would dangle the idea of a white man's government in

front of the politicians of the South in order to gain political support and relevancy. These moves

angered Republicans on both side of the suffrage divide and caused coalition against and within

Congress. While white Southerners appreciated his reconstruction efforts surprisingly even some

jailed confederate officials drafted letters proposing limited black suffrage and warned against

the weight of the consequences if this was not achieved. This acknowledgement by both sides of

the war offered an interesting look in the sentiments of the time. Many politicians of 1865 and 66

believed that without black suffrage the ideas of freedom under the constitution were a sham. As

constitutional conventions convened in the summer of 1865 delegates argued over the wording of

abolition and avoided the responsibility of past slavery. Eric Foner details the stark truth that

outside the Unionist mountains Johnson's policies had failed to create a new political leadership

to replace the pre-war slavocracy partly because the president himself has so quickly allied with

portions of the old Elite (Foner 197). This early positioning of Presidential Reconstruction

poisoned the future waters of equality that lapped at the ankles of the freedmen.

With confederate control practically realigned in the South lawmakers made big moves to

limit black life and independence. The Black Codes were drafted in many Southern States and

dictated the work of freed people's and it set certain curfews for them. Under the Black Codes

African Americans were subject to imprisonment and fines if they broke any of the rules set out

by the white society in the city. These codes had no consistency and varied from city to city,

town to town. These codes were designed to keep the African Americans in line and under

economic disenfranchisement often creating employment vacuums in predominantly African-

American towns and completely impoverishing the freedmen. These economic aspects of
reforms were not a part of of the vision of presidential reconstruction. The failures of Presidential

Reconstruction clearly were at play.

By this time Presidential Reconstruction had been failing to the point that Republicans

gathered in opposition. Under the title of Radicals they we're structured by abolitionists whose

careers were shaped by speaking for equal rights of blacks. These outspoken republicans in

Congress salvaged what was left of the opportunities to create shreds of equity within the new

Union. This would later be known as Radical Reconstruction but it began as insurrection within

Congress to attempt to secure some sort of rights for the blacks during reconstruction. This

volatile time within Congress contained fascinating propositions for the equality African

Americans. Men like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens fought valiantly for the rights of the

blacks. The radical republicans saw the Civil War and its post era as a golden opportunity to

"make substantial far-reaching change" (Foner 230). The driving force of radicalism was the

utopian vision of equal civil and political rights. This they hoped would be actualized by a

powerful and beneficent nation-state. They all agreed that limiting political commitments central

to the American nation state on the grounds of race made a mock of Republican institutions.

They insisted that there was no room for a submerged class in the Republic that emerges from

the Civil War. Thaddeus Stephens had the idea to seize 400 million acres belonging to the

wealthiest 10% of Southerners. 40 acres would be granted to each adult free man and "the

reminder- some 90% - sold to the highest bidder in plots, he later added, no larger than 500

acres (Foner 235). In addition to Radical Republicans, moderates like Lyman Trumbull had

prospective bills that attempted to legitimize the freedom for the freedmen and see some

accountability for the measures already put in place. Trumbulls proposals were influenced by his

meetings with commissioner Howard, the head of the Freedmen's Bureau. Howard and Trumbull
agreed that while some of the radical policies were too extreme for them that the extending of the

bureau's life was important to help the blacks and secure a fruitful future. His Freedmen's Bureau

bill authorized Bureau agents to take jurisdiction of cases involving civil rights infringement on

blacks (Foner 237). Even though he considered himself moderate this is included in the canon of

radical reconstruction for its far reaching terms and departure in federal policy. A even farther

reaching measure was the Civil Rights bill he introduced at the same time. "This defined all

persons born in the United States (except Indians) as National citizens and spell that right they

were to enjoy equal it without regard to race" (Foner 243). This bill even spelled out legal

enforcement by the government marking a cornerstone of future racial politics in the US. Had

this bill been passed it would have curtailed much of the systemic racism and disenfranchisement

experienced by blacks for generations to come. Seeing these milestones missed causes deep pain

in my heart.

The greatest threat to blacks at the time was systemic racism in the states. Radical

Republicans knew this and directly called this out as they attempted to secure some progress.

Two bills the Freedmen's Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill introduced by Trimble or expected

to be perished because they were seen as essential to the progress made in the South the time.

However, in a show play the resistance Johnson veto the Freedmen's Bureau bill and criticized

it's very existence. Johnson's race of sentiments let him down the path of denial and intolerance.

Next lady Civil Rights bill and he vetoed this to which struck congress with a deafening blow.

The bill was seen as clearly right and his actions caused the final blow to his presidency.

These failed opportunities of Presidential and Radical Reconstruction have haunted the African

Americans to this day. The loss of land and equitable wealth from the ending of the Freedmens

Bureau launched generations-long wealth inequality and stunted to growth of the blacks in the
US. The legacy of Reconstruction has been one of pain and despair. African Americans have

historically distrusted the government because of the legalized violence sanctioned upon them.

Racism and Jim Crow laws flourished in the South after the demolition of Reconstruction. More

than 2,000 black people were lynched as a direct result of the passivity of our government during

a crucial time of rebuilding. The opportunities were there, the powerful speakers were there but

Johnson and the 39th Congress fumbled one of the most important plays of US history.

Works Cited

Foner, Eric, and Joshua Brown. "Chapter 5: The Failure of Presidential Reconstruction." Forever Free:

The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Vintage, 2006. 176-227. Print.

Foner, Eric, and Joshua Brown. "Chapter 6: Making of Radical Reconstruction." Forever Free: The

Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Vintage, 2006. 228-80. Print.

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