In the aftermath of the American Civil War a gargantuan question arose – How do two groups with such vastly different viewpoints come together and tether the rift that had torn their country apart for four long bloody years?
Reconstruction as it was aptly named became the ultimate answer to the impossible question. The decision to restructure, rethink, and reassess the political and societal architecture of the Southern states considered the best solution to repairing the fractured ideologies of the once opposing, now indirectly antagonistic, Confederate and Unionist counterparts to those sprawling and fragmented United States of America.
‘One can scarce realize today the promise and hope of those earlier days. The prejudice born of slavery and intensified by war and emancipation had not faded. But the Negro turned toward reconstruction with all the passionate belief of youth; not knowing how complex the problem would be but feeling the thrill of opportunity and the stirring of new life."
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "Black Reconstruction in America"
The American Civil War for all its complexities and bloodshed can be traced back to an immense disagreement between the Unionist Northern parties and the Confederate Southern parties of the United States. Amid numerous disagreements between the Unionist and Confederate parties, one stood head and shoulders above the rest, encompassing their differing ideologies and later proving crucial to the heartache and bloodshed that would occur after the fighting was finished. This problem was federal versus state power. In the Northern territories of the United States, it was believed that a centralized government was paramount to a long-lasting and successful republic, whilst in the Southern territories, it was argued that state power should prevail against the watchful eye of the federal government, and that any federal laws considered unconstitutional could be nullified, and that should the government continually act in an unconstitutional manner that there would be sufficient grounds to secede from the Union. These Southern fears of unconstitutional discourse, although grounded in reasonable complaint, were of course the manifestation of obstinate ideologies, as chief among the Confederate concerns was the disapproval of slave labor in the Southern States.
This friction and fundamental difference in beliefs came to a head when devout federalist Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States. The Southern States, seeing this success as a threat to their stately independence and a menace to their established way of life, began to secede from the United States. This secession, combined with the subsequent attack from Confederate forces on Fort Sumter, a Federal fort, forced Lincoln to act against the Southern opposition, demanding the secession be squashed and order be restored to the republic. These actions, a loud and unequivocal admonishment of Southern exploits, along with the very public abolishment of slavery that came two years later, turned the American Civil War into a battle of ideologies, the victor likely to decide the status quo of the country for years to come.
The outcome of the American Civil War, if you haven’t yet heard, was a victory for the Unionist forces, the industry, resources, and sheer manpower of the North overwhelming the agriculturally affluent and skilled military leadership of the South. The results of such a conflict were the abolishment of slavery in the South, preservation of the Union, the rapid acceleration of industrialization in the United States, and perhaps the most important factor leading to the Great Migration of African Americans from the Southern states to their Northern counterparts, the insertion of Federalist forces in Southern territories – an act that would have tremendous ramifications later on (ignoring all the other acts and actions that have had monumental ramifications thus far).
These factors, whilst signalling a radical change from the pre-war United States, wouldn’t become the catalyst for countrywide change and the impetus for the Great Migration until after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Whereupon the country would begin to shift and these once dormant elements would combine to create significant discord for the Northern and Southern territories.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln came at a time of uncertainty for the United States. The Confederate forces had surrendered three days prior, and although there had been talks of what would happen in the instance of a Unionist victory, no concrete plan had been decided. Therefore, the responsibility of reshaping and reimagining the United States post-war fell into the hands of Andrew Johnson, former Vice President made President following the Lincoln assassination. Johnson, a staunch Unionist and firm believer in States’ rights, made it clear that although the Southern forces had opposed the idea of a Centralized Government, they had not in fact left the Union, and so long as they upheld the abolition of slavery, repaid the war debt, and swore continued allegiance to the Union, that they should be allowed govern themselves as they saw fit. This leniency and breadth afforded to the Confederate States would result in the ‘Black Codes,’ a comprehensive set of rules that governed the freed men and women of the Southern territories. Among these rules was the condition that Black men and women must provide written proof of employment for the coming year each January, and should they terminate their contract before the pre-decided date that their earlier wages would be confiscated, and they would theretofore be subject to arrest. The Black Codes also prohibited Black people from holding any other profession other than farmer and servant unless they paid a heftier tax for an alternative profession. These codes coupled with anti-vagrancy and anti-enticement measures meant that any Black person found unemployed was subject to arrest and that any employers attempting to offer higher wages to contracted Black laborers were subject to legal recourse. These stipulations when combined pushed freed men and women into set labors, with pre-decided contracts, and paltry wages, that along with harsh repercussions, ranging from arrest to forced labor, meant there was little freedom to be found in free living.
The introduction of the Black Codes and the bolstering of white supremacy in the South caused outrage among Northern Unionists. Little confidence was afforded to Southern Lawmakers pretending to make good on the concessions of surrender, and to combat the deteriorating position of Black people in the South a group of Northern Unionists sought to ignite a period of Radical Reconstruction, redetermining the role of Black people in the United States whilst foregoing the more lenient approach that had borne no fruit thus far. This period of Radical Reconstruction culminated in the Reconstruction Acts that separated the South into military districts and mandated new state constitutions that granted voting rights to African American men. These acts also required Southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted equal protection under the law to all citizens, and later, the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting rights. This position of Radical Reconstruction and the legislature that bound its intent witnessed the election of Southern Black people to state government and even Congress. There was also the construction of the South’s first state-funded public schools, more equitable taxation legislation, and further laws against racial discrimination, including that against racial discrimination on public transport and the purchasing of accommodation. These leaps forward for the rights of Black people granted them a legitimate voice and Federal backing against the systems that sought to thwart them, and for a quick minute, it seemed that progress was possible – until there came the inevitable backlash, and subsequent implosion, of a once-promising ideal.
The growing opposition to Radical Reconstruction came at a time of great progress for the freed men and women of the Southern territories. Ulysses S. Grant had been appointed President, and under his jurisdiction the Enforcement Acts came into effect, declaring the federal government had the right to prosecute those who infringed upon the rights of citizens, particularly through acts of violence and intimidation; something that was incredibly timely given the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and their broadening influence in the Confederate states. The enactment of Civil Rights Laws during Grant’s time in office, along with his willingness to protect voting rights, support for the fifteenth amendment, and enforcement of Reconstruction policies furthered the aims of abolishment and continued the pursuit of a more egalitarian society. But to think that the attainment of societal betterment was a linear objective would be a dire mistake, as although Grant furthered the cause of freed men and women in the South, he was still at the mercy of his peers, and whilst it in the past it had been a case of cabinet versus President in the time of Johnson, the reverse was now true in the time of Grant.
The growing disillusionment and apathetic leanings towards Reconstruction among Northern Unionists was thanks in part to the worsening financial situation across the United States. The National Debt following the Civil War was still a splintered thorn in the side of the recuperating country and the occurrence of Black Friday and unending financial panics placed the States in a position of near-constant disarray. Throughout the Republican-led government, many saw the Reconstruction as the easiest place to trim the fat and pull the chute on a financial death spiral, believing that lessening their investment and involvement in the South would solve their financial woes whilst relinquishing some of the power many felt the government unjustly continued to wield within the Southern territories. This thought process persisted, until at a time when the freed men and women of the South needed their government allies the most, they vanished. The punctuation to a long sentence of hard-fought progress came when Mississippi Democrats waged a campaign of violence in an effort to regain control over their lost territories. When Grant refused to send Federal troops to support those under attack, the message was all but clear – the government was no longer actively defending the people in their care - and so began the beginning of the end for the Reconstruction era.
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."
- W.E.B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction in America.”
The final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction came with the advent of another Presidential election. Grant was set to leave office after eight years and the two leading candidates for office were Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. The Presidential race between these two men was special, as although Democrat Samuel Tilden had won almost a quarter of a million more popular votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were still being disputed. For almost four months the question of who was to become the next President remained unresolved until a compromise was reached whereby Democrats agreed Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes would become President in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the granting of home rule for the south also. This compromise marked a major turning point not only for Reconstruction but also for the United States as it effectively ended the period of Radical Reconstruction that had seen great advancements for the freed men and women of the South and instead plunged them headlong into a century of stifling oppression, segregation, predation, and dehumanization that saw the Black Codes replaced with Jim Crow, and the small flicker of hope that had sustained so many for so brief a time snuffed out in an instant.
The Compromise of 1877 saw to the inarguable end of the Reconstruction period, and perhaps the belief that all men are created equal. The Great Migration that occurred in subsequent decades witnessed millions of African Americans travelling North, in search of work, promise, and sanctuary from a home that was no longer their own.
The promises of yesterday had quickly become memories, erased in an instant.