At the close of the American Civil War in 1865, the United States’ government was faced with the tremendously difficult problem of re-integrating the Confederate States into the Union. Between 1865 and 1877 this problem was addressed by various forms of “Reconstruction,” programs whose goals also included the rebuilding of the ravaged Southern economy, and the integration of freed slaves and other African Americans into citizenship and culture at large. Complicated by an incompetent president, corruption, and a backlash by southern culture, the success of Reconstruction as far as achieving its objectives is questionable. If we, however, look at the Reconstruction’s achievements in culturally relative terms, we will see that it truly did make progress and pave the way for an eventual return to normalcy.
The first obstacle that Reconstruction faced was the very president who started it, Andrew Johnson.
Johnson became president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in May of 1865. Johnson announced a new plan for Reconstruction, canceling out Lincoln’s plan, within a month of the assassination, and without consulting Congress. (Boyer, et al., The Enduring Vision, 574) This action marked the beginning of a conflict between the president and Congress, Radical Republicans in particular. The conflict eventually resulted in increased difficulties for Reconstruction. Johnson’s Reconstruction led to the pardoning of approximately 13,000 former Confederates and wealthy Southerners.
These groups helped write the so-called “Black Codes,” a set of laws which left the freedmen some basic rights gained by the 13th Amendment but which essentially kept former slaves from being truly liberated. (Boyer, et al., 575-576)
Confronted with a president whose Reconstruction plans were viewed as feeble, moderate and radical republican factions joined forces. The new coalition worked together to overturn the black codes with Lyman Trumbull’s Supplementary Freedmen’s Bureau bill. Johnson vetoed this bill and went on to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as well, claiming that it would “operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” The coalition Congress overrode both of these vetoes and six more after that.
Although the Republicans managed to get their agenda through, the schism caused by Johnson’s confusing actions made things significantly more difficult. (Boyer, et al., 576-577, 580)
Corruption soured southerners against Republican efforts. According to Boyer, Republican rule could be seen as “the most stupendous system of organized robbery in history.” (589) In Louisiana, for example, the governor stole state funds and corruption accompanied every government transaction. It can easily be imagined that Southern Democrats noticed and resented this profiteering.
Corruption extended to the presidential level under the rule of President Grant, as well. Known as “Grantism,” bribery, scandal, and profiteering were characteristic of this time period. The wide-spread corruption led to the formation of the Liberal Republican faction. The Liberals served to make the political scene even more chaotic and opposed Reconstruction, claiming that it had already achieved its goal and that it was only serving to spawn more corruption. (Boyer, 589)
Another obstacle to Reconstruction was the backlash of southern anti-black culture against the newly imposed legislation freeing and enfranchising African-Americans. As early as 1865, directly after the war, the Freedman’s Bureau was reporting acts of terrorism against blacks.
(Boyer, 590) Vigilante groups sprung up all across the former Confederacy, and the notorious Ku Klux Klan developed into the most wide-spread. By 1868, Klan chapters existed in every southern state. (Boyer, 590) Actions by the Klan, such as night raids, served to intimidate the black populace and prevent them from voting. The Klan also leveled their fury against Republicans, Freedman’s Bureau officials, and successful blacks. Condemned by Republican legislatures and in violation of many laws, the Klan was able to continue its terrorism because the militias couldn’t enforce the law and local governments wouldn’t convict the wrong-doers. The government would have needed to provide a large military presence in the South to truly prevent the Klan from their crimes, but in fact, the opposite occurred and troops were gradually withdrawn.
(Boyer, 590-591) The Klan’s actions, in my eyes, proved to be the biggest obstacle to Reconstruction because no matter what Reconstruction measures managed to get passed, the Klan was there to render it at least partially ineffective.
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