Reconstruction



The Era of Reconstruction following the Civil War was a period marked by an intense struggle to restore a worn-out and devastated society. The war, which was aimed at confronting the national problem of slavery, only led to subsequent dilemmas over emancipation and an undefined condition of freedom. Some had naively believed that ending slavery would solve the problem of racial inequality, overlooking the prejudice and uninviting atmosphere towards blacks. Questions over how to reinstate a disloyal population with the fall of the Confederacy and restore a destroyed southern territory rang throughout the nation. Although the former slaves were undeniably freed, the foundations for a racial democracy were laid, and the country was once again united, overall, Reconstruction was a period of political strife, shortcomings, and general failure.
After the war, the South was left in a state of complete turmoil. Passing armies had shattered the South’s agricultural economy with the burning of buildings, destroying of crops, and killing of livestock. Southern industry was also badly hurt, as assets needed to support loans were lost in the war. More importantly, the South, for the first time ever, was without an easy profit economy based on slavery. Racial prejudice was as strong as ever and many white southerners, with a feeling of superiority found it difficult to adjust to the new way of life. To the dismay of many freedmen, President Johnson returned to whites the plantations that the Union Army had given to blacks during the war. Many freedmen were forced to endure sharecropping in which they rented land from white planters and relinquished a portion of their harvest. As a result, poor farmers were gradually pushed into extreme debt and became victims of a burdensome tenancy. The black codes passed by the legislators of Southern states also suppressed blacks. Although the codes allowed for minor legal rights, they also were geared to place blacks in an inferior position. Interracial marriage was prohibited. In some areas freemen needed special licenses to engage in specific trades and in others they were denied certain lands for farming. The South was left in economic ruin filled with racial discrimination.
With the South in a state of desperation it was clear that the federal government needed to take action. However, how to do so was greatly debated. Much of the failings of Reconstruction were a result of the opposing views of President Andrew Johnson and Congress. Johnson, a southerner and former slaveholder fully disagreed with the Republican aims of strict southern reinstatement and racial equality and from the beginning called such radicals his “adversaries.” Johnson’s Jacksonian convictions for a truly united nation led him to insist on the speedy restoration of Southern governments based on the prewar white electorate. High Confederate officials and all those owning property valued at more than $20,000 were excluded from amnesty, but were entitled to individual pardons granted directly by the president. Such pardons placed the president in a position of great power and made reinstatement too easy. Provisional governors were also appointed to call constitutional conventions, in which the states were expected to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, nullify their secession ordinances, and repudiate the Confederate debt. However, Johnson’s plan in practice revealed that little had changed in the South. None of the states enfranchised even literate blacks. Many declined to nullify the secession ordinances and repudiate their debt. Furthermore, Mississippi even refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. For the most part, Johnson’s plan of reconstruction left the south in its prewar state.
Doubting Johnson’s program and concerned for the safety of the freedmen, the Republican Congress opposed the president’s efforts and sought their own plan for reordering the South. Upon meeting in December of 1865, the body refused to seat any of the representatives from the seceded states. All maters pertaining to the restoration of the South were to be reserved for the newly created Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. Congress, believing that emancipation was not enough and the rights of former slaves were in need of protection, passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills. It was contended that the agents of the formerly created Freedmen’s Bureau would enforce the Civil Rights bill through their power to conduct courts and settle injustices. Predictably, Johnson opposed both bills