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Characteristics and Impacts of American Reconstruction

The key goals of Reconstruction were to readmit the South into the Union and to define the status of freedmen in American society. The Reconstruction era was marked by political, not violent, conflict. Some historical myths are that the South was victimized by Reconstruction and that the various plans of Reconstruction were corrupt and unjust.

Actually, the plans were quite lenient, enforcing the military rule for only a short period of time, ignoring land reform, and granting pardons easily. The task of Reconstruction was to re-integrate America into a whole nation, securing the rights of each man and establishing order once again. There were three major Reconstruction plans; Lincoln, Johnson, and Congress each offered a strategy to unify the nation.

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Lincoln’s plan, in 1864, required ten percent of the voting population of each state who had voted in the 1860 election to take an oath of allegiance to the Union and accept the abolition of slavery. Then that ten percent could create a state government that would be loyal to the Union. Confederate officials, army and naval officers, and civil officers who had resigned from office were all required to apply for presidential pardons (Boyer, 443). Lincoln’s plan did not at all deal with freedmen’s civil rights, which is a definite weakness. Under his ten percent rule, no freedmen could be part of a state government. Also, it did not address land reform and the economic weakness of Lincoln’s strategy. Finally, under Lincoln’s plan, no federal military occupation was required in Southern states.

This left the freedmen at the mercy of the states for protection. Congress viewed this plan as far too lenient, and in 1864 passed the Wade-Davis bill. This bill required the majority of voters in each Southern state to take an oath of loyalty; only then could the state hold a convention to repeal secession and abolish slavery. Although Lincoln’s plan may have been too lenient, this bill would have been far too harsh and delayed readmission to the Union for a very long time. Lincoln did not sign the bill into law, or pocket-vetoed the bill, and was soon assassinated. Therefore, he did not have a chance to implement his plan of Reconstruction, and his goal was not met.

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After Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, and he introduced his plan of Reconstruction. Although Johnson claimed that his plan mirrored Lincoln’s, there were great differences. Under Johnson’s plan, fifty percent of the voters in each Southern state who had voted in the 1860 election had to take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Then, each state was required to write new constitutions adopting the 13th amendment (Boyer, 444). Johnson repudiated Confederate war debts, and he also supported Black Codes. Johnson seemed sympathetic to Southern opinion at the expense of freedmen’s rights.

He took steps to ensure a dependant black workforce for the South and restricted the rights of African-Americans. Freedmen were not allowed to marry interracially, perform jury duty, or give testimony in court against whites. Johnson’s plan was fatally flawed; his requirement that each state adopts the 13th amendment was practically useless as it only dealt with Federal elections. State elections were more important to citizens during the Reconstruction era, and unless Johnson guaranteed State voting rights to freedmen he was offering them hardly anything at all.

Also, Johnson supported Black Codes against Northern public opinion, which damaged him politically in the North. Finally, Johnson did not deal with land reform or economic aid, which was economically unsound. In Congress, the Radicals and Moderates were forced to join forces to overturn Johnson’s extremely lenient plan. Caught up in battles with Congress and an impeachment scandal until he left office, Johnson did not achieve his Reconstruction goals.

Congress finally implemented their plan in 1866. This is viewed as the most prevalent plan of Reconstruction. Under this strategy, the majority of each state’s voters had to take an oath of allegiance, and then the state had to write a new constitution. Congress would then review the constitutions and the applications for pardons from Confederate officers. The states also had to accept the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Finally, the South would be divided into ten military districts and were to be under military law (Boyer, 448). Although this plan was harsher than Johnson’s, it was still fairly forgiving to the South.

The military occupation was actually quite light and did not last long. Also, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments dealt only with Federal laws and did not extend to state elections or a private policy. Congress’s plan did nothing to aid freedmen or protect them from violence and race riots. Like Lincoln and Johnson’s plans, it did not address land reform. However, the goal of Congress’s plan was reached, at least partly.

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Although Congress did not succeed in guaranteeing black suffrage, which was one of its original intentions during Reconstruction, it did begin the process of rebuilding the South. Reconstruction modernized Southern law codes, created more equal Congressional districts, a fairer tax system, and a public school system.

What it failed to do was give freedmen social or legal equality, and protect them from white violence and oppression. By refusing to deal with land reform, the plan helped the rise of the share-cropping system, and by failing to guarantee state rights, it paved the way for segregation. However, the plan did provide a sense of closure to the nation, relieving it of the so-called “Southern question” (Boyer, 470). By 1875, the North was tiring of Reconstruction and devoted its focus to the Frontiers and Industrialization.

Reconstruction had a deep impact on the North, the South, African-Americans, and the nation as a whole. A landmark case that also had deep repercussions in America was the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that segregation was legal and could be enforced.
Reconstruction led the North into industrial growth, labour unrest, and created political unrest (Boyer, 462). Due to the implementation of the factory system, the North was able to employ low-level workers in droves. The black man became the common factory labourer; he was paid the littlest and was the most expendable. Factory owners pitted immigrants and freedmen against each other in order to pay as little possible for workers.

This led to labour unrest as the blacks were forced into ghettos because of their poverty. Reconstruction also showed the North as the hypocrite it was regarding race issues. Although the North had championed abolition and was known as a respite for blacks, it still participated in de-facto segregation and discriminated against blacks in hiring and wages. The turmoil of the Johnson years and Congress’s failure to win black suffrage left the North weary of Reconstruction and longing to move on.

In the South, Reconstruction began the process of physically rebuilding what the war had destroyed. Also, Reconstruction modernized Southern law codes, created more equal congressional districts, a fairer tax system, and a public school system. However, Reconstruction also maintained the status quo in the South. By allowing Black Codes and giving freedmen little protection, Reconstruction provided the South with an ignorant and dependant workforce much like slavery. Plessy v. Ferguson reinforced racist Southern opinion by legalizing segregation and allowing for its enforcement. This lead to more racist violence, many times in the form of lynching and riots. Also, the decision forced blacks into the role of inferior labourers once again.

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To the freedman, Reconstruction was a virtual failure. The Federal government failed to provide any real protection to blacks physically or politically. Blacks were kept at the bottom of the social scale, imprisoned as sharecroppers or factory labourers. Freedmen were never given educational assistance, which meant that many blacks were illiterate, with no wealth or business skills. The creation of Black Codes, vagrancy laws, and chain gangs further demeaned blacks and established them as America’s second class citizens.

Plessy v. Ferguson further oppressed blacks by upholding segregation and denying them protection under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. The ruling institutionalized racism, and firmly established blacks as an inferior class until the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. However, freedmen did create black institutions in response to Reconstruction; there was a cropping up of black churches, schools, and higher education establishments (Boyer 458).

Reconstruction made the nation as a whole feel ‘reunited’, but it was viewed as a failure and waste immediately after its completion (Boyer, 471). It laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement bypassing the 13, 14, and 15th amendments, even though they would not be implemented to protect minority rights for nearly a hundred years. Reconstruction also established a policy of treating African-Americans as second-class citizens.

The nation was taught that it was alright to treat blacks as inferior people because the government would not even guarantee them the right to vote in state elections. However, Reconstruction did pave the way for share-cropping and the factory system, which would lead to an economic boom as American expanded. Reconstruction threw America into upheaval, and by 1875 the North had tired of the various plans and politics and longed to end Congress’s plan (Boyer, 467).

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