How the Reconstruction Era Failed

Former Confederates regaining control of the South and ending Reconstruction in 1877 led to today's extreme political polarization.

It is 1865 and the Civil War is over. The casualties are still being counted, but will eventually amount to 750,000 (by modern estimates). As the country mourns the death of the beloved and controversial President Abraham Lincoln, the question remains: how do we move on from this catastrophe of a war? And how did it lead to the intense political polarization we see today? The Reconstruction Era (1865 to 1877) is one of the most important and often overlooked points in US history. It laid the groundwork for the vicious political polarization we see today and would set the standard for another century of widespread institutional racism across the country. This period was a time of great empowerment and triumph for Black people across the US. It was very overshadowed by the institution of “Black codes” in Southern states, laws made to oppress and control a newly free and very politically active Southern Black population. This caused widespread outrage throughout the North, leading to the passing of the 1867 Reconstruction Act that gave Black people a voice in politics, something that they had been wanting for a long time. 

So how did it fail? Well, this is an absurdly complicated question. The government had the massive task of uniting a newly freed Black population that needed support and protection, a very angry and dissatisfied Southern white population, and the white Northerners, many of whom had died fighting in the war. And maybe, maybe, we could have succeeded, but then Lincoln was tragically shot in the head and we got the new and remarkably unsympathetic president Andrew Johnson. President Johnson considered Black people subhuman and thought they should have no role or say in Reconstruction whatsoever. His first act in office was to establish all white provisional state governments (many of which were made up almost entirely of ex-Confederates) with the sole purpose in mind of reestablishing a white-dominated social order in the South. 

Now it wasn’t all horrible: former slaves were given plots of confiscated Confederate land by the very short lived “Freedmen’s Bureau” and the first Black colleges opened up across the country. 1865 saw massive Black political mobilization, even getting Black men elected to state and local assemblies. Unfortunately, this was all taken away in an instant when President Johnson ordered that all land should be returned to its former white owners in 1866. This reduced most of the African American population to working as sharecroppers stuck in massive, fabricated debt to their white masters. Some Republican politicians even went so far as to say it was nothing more than slavery with a different name. In 1867 the Republicans more or less took control of Reconstruction, enraged by the actions of white Democrats. They proceeded to do great things such as pass the 14th Amendment and allow Black people to serve in government on a much larger scale (by the end of the Reconstruction Era, 2,000 Black men would be elected.) 

After 1870 though, things began to steadily go downhill. Southerners feeling wronged by the North lashed out at Black people, creating a system of violence and disenfranchisement that persists to this day. As the Union moved more and more troops out of the South, Southern politicians got bolder and bolder. This culminated in the compromise of 1877, when an undecided election forced Northern Republicans to completely leave Southern states to their own devices, which effectively killed Reconstruction. 

The complete failure of Reconstruction to unite a severely damaged region of the country, and the disenfranchisement of Black Americans led to the South becoming a backwater, poverty-ridden region for the next 150 years, polarizing the country further. It cemented the North/South voting divide that we are all too familiar with, and made things such as the Southern Strategy and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) possible. With the nation in tatters and continued mistreatment of the Black community, it is clearer now than ever how the failure of Reconstruction had long lasting negative impacts. But, as it always does, hope remained, and Reconstruction was the beginning of the long road to equality in America that still continues to this day with the Black Lives Matter movement. Reconstruction started out with great ideals and hope, and ended up with the groundwork for a deep, systemic polarization that we feel today and that we as a country must continue to fight.

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