Black Experience

Issues/Topics Covered in this Chapter

  • The nation in the aftermath of Reconstruction
  • Identify specific problems that may have emerged as a result of Reconstruction policy in its many and varied permutations.
  • Identify how these policies may have affected attitudes in the country and, subsequently, how these attitudes helped or hindered politics upon the conclusion of the Reconstruction era.


After the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the ascendancy of Congress in directing Reconstruction policy, the realities of enforcing their well-meaning goals soon dimmed the enthusiasm of many Republicans. Though Republicans made quick and huge political gains in the South as newly enfranchised black voters rushed to their support, it was clear that the party and its ideals of peace through racial and sectional harmony on Republican terms remained unpopular with large segments of the population—particularly with those who were disenfranchised because they could not take the “oath” or otherwise prove their loyalty to the Union. This meant that the huge majorities Republicans then enjoyed were, so to speak, operating on borrowed time.

There were many reasons for the unpopularity of Congressional Reconstruction in the South. Certainly, there was deep resentment on the part of many white southerners who did not want to accept the idea of racial equality. But another clear reason was the often ineffective and incompetent governing that characterized many of the post-war Republican Southern governments. Again, there were many reasons for the poor government in the South, including violence and sabotage from groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the racial animosity that inspired them, a general unwillingness to accept the political and social implications of equality under the law, and a lingering deep resistance to the idea of the supremacy of the Constitution and Union to state and local authority in matters of national significance. In addition to racial animosity—and possibly a factor that fed into that animosity as it was exploited by demagogues—was the rule of ineffective and inexperienced state and local politicians in the wake of Southern defeat. This condition was inevitable given the disqualification of many of the region’s most experienced and able government officials because of their disfranchisement for participation in the late rebellion.

This meant that Southern governments frequently were in the hands of novices: for example, inexperienced (and sometimes illiterate) freedmen and—worse yet, from the point of view of many Southern loyalists—Northerners who had moved in the wake of war to assist in the recovery effort. In some cases these newcomers were motivated by noble sentiment, while others were merely out to seek their fortunes. In any event, these Northern “carpetbaggers” were viewed as outsiders and exploiters by many who formerly had been loyal to the Confederacy. These conditions made it quite difficult for the Republican Party to get much of a foothold in the South among any except black voters and those who had relocated from the North. It also made it difficult to enforce Republican plans for Reconstruction or the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

As resistance and violence continued to spread in the South, Republican resolve began to weaken. Maintaining a visible and active presence of Union troops in the South to facilitate the peaceful operation of government and Reconstruction was expensive and frustrating to many in Congress. Moreover, the horrors of the late war were alive in the memories of most Americans and the real or imagined threat of resumed and open hostilities operated with more persuasive force than the best of arguments. President Ulysses S. Grant had been elected partly because he seemed to show promise of strong executive leadership, but also because he was viewed in the afterglow of his wartime success. In Grant’s opposition to the Tenure of Office Act (passed during Johnson’s term in 1867), which required Senate approval of all presidential appointments and dismissals, many believed that Grant evinced the kind of political fortitude necessary to set things aright. But in his first showdown with Congress upon being elected, Grant backed down and accepted a compromise proposal with the Senate even after the House had voted to join him in his opposition to the Act. This show of weakness seemed to set the tone for Grant’s administration (1869-77) which, though it seemed to offer some promise to restore order and sanity to the South, actually accomplished very little in this realm.

In part, Grant’s administration suffered because of some real and some exaggerated charges of corruption—most of which did not directly involve Grant but tarnished him nonetheless. But charges of corruption were not limited to Grant’s administration. There were also a number of members in Congress who were involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, which involved the Union Pacific Railroad and federal contracts for the first Transcontinental Railroad. Corruption compromised the ability of the government and, frequently, of private interests to facilitate the reconstruction of the South. The end of the war brought with it much devastation and, of course, those who knew how to turn devastation into opportunity. While many of the efforts at reconstruction were legitimate and well-intentioned, a good number were not. There were those who used their positions for exploitation. Similarly, there were those in the South who turned their bitterness at losing the war into a default position of hostility to all efforts to move forward. This hostility gathered strength as scandals continued to supply evidence for its justification.

The impact of scandal on the national political debate was real. It contributed to a chastening of Republican ambitions in the South and forced the party to concentrate on maintaining its base of support in the North rather than growing the party in Dixie. This helped to shape the national political debate for generations. In the South, the failure of Republican state governments to make serious inroads on the politics of the region led to a weakening resolve to protect the civil and political rights of freedmen. Segregation of both the official and unofficial variety took root. While much progress could be seen in things like the exponential growth of railroads, even an optimistic reading of these barometers had to be tempered by an acknowledgement that “doubling” track mileage does not amount to much when the starting point was so low. Weighted against growth in the North, the South fared poorer by all economic gauges.

The “official” era of Reconstruction came to a close with the Compromise of 1877. In that “compromise,” Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won a tight race for the Presidency with just one electoral vote—on the condition that all federal troops be removed from the South and a southern Democrat be named to his cabinet.

In all, the history of Reconstruction was an object lesson in the limitations of persuasion in politics—as was the history of the Civil War that preceded it. The great political battles of the era were full of interesting reflections and assertions about the nature and purpose of America and American government. The passage of the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights legislation were great victories for the advocates of equality under the law. But in the end, events overpowered the best thinking on both sides of this divide and the impact of these great victories was left to be felt and interpreted by a new generation of Americans. Much of the legislation enacted in the name of racial equality was to be undone in the coming years by rulings coming from the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, The Civil Rights Cases, etc.) and then to be taken up again in the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. In many ways, we continue these struggles in our politics today.

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