Nature of Reconstruction and Its Importance to Subsequent African-American History Term Paper

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Reconstruction and Its Importance in African-American History

Many people might believe that the abolition of slavery in the United States was the most significant social and political action of the 19th century. Those people would be wrong. While the abolition of slavery was very significant and very overdue, it was, by itself, a socially meaningless action, because newly freed former slaves lacked the resources to live outside of slavery. Most former slaveholders were perfectly content to ignore the fact that the practice had become illegal, if they had been able to do so. Even more alarming is the fact that some former slaves had no idea how to engage in life as free people, and needed Reconstruction to show them how to make the legal transformation from chattel to citizens. Therefore, it may not be incorrect to suggest that Reconstruction was the most important social and political event of 19th century America, because it took the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment and gave them power that was more than symbolic. Unfortunately, the abrupt power-shift that came with Reconstruction also fueled a tremendous amount of racial hatred and animosity, which continues, though in a lesser form and with less obvious intensity, into the present day.

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Reconstruction was the formal system set up to deal with the aftermath of the war, including, but not limited to, dealing with newly-freed African-Americans. In March 1865, before the end of the war, "the U.S. War Department established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen's Bureau. The bureau was headed by Union General

Oliver Otis Howard and furnished food and medical supplies to former slaves. It also established schools and helped former slaves negotiate fair wages and working conditions." (MSN Encarta, p.5). However, some of these changes did not last past Lincoln's assassination. On the contrary:

Term Paper on Nature of Reconstruction and Its Importance to Subsequent African-American History Assignment

President Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, advocated leniency for the South. He granted amnesty freely to Southern whites, and his only requirement for readmitting a state to the Union was the adoption of a state constitution that outlawed slavery and disavowed secession. Encouraged by Johnson, Southern planters maintained much of their political power and passed black codes to restrict blacks' land ownership and freedom of movement. (MSN Encarta, p.5).

Northerners took issue with Johnson's stance. While the treatment of former slaves may have been an issue in Reconstruction, it is important to keep in mind that the North and the South had many political differences. Therefore, northern Republicans were concerned about the southern Democrat dominance in politics. As a result, the Republican Party took over Reconstruction. The first major act of Reconstruction was the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended citizenship to blacks and extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states. (MSN Encarta, p.5). Next, Congress passed the Reconstruction acts, which:

divided the former ten Confederate states into five military districts, each headed by a federal military commander. This created a federal military occupation of the former Confederate states. (Tennessee was exempt because it had ratified the 14th Amendment and was considered reconstructed.) Before applying for readmission to the Union, the Southern states were required to ratify the 14th Amendment and revise their constitutions to ensure that blacks had citizenship rights, including the right to vote. (MSN Encarta, p.5).

The Reconstruction acts were followed by the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited racial discrimination for voting and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial discrimination in certain public places. (MSN Encarta, p.5).

Reconstruction was not universally welcomed; while people in the North saw Reconstruction as a means of bringing former Confederate states back into the Union, the South did not have the same view:

Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it. (Library of Congress, Reconstruction, Part One, 2002).

Neither side of the debate was entirely correct or incorrect. Reconstruction may have been aimed at helping southerners adjust to a non-slave society, but it had a very real chilling effect on public and political participation by those who had been actively involved in the Confederate government. At the same time, Reconstruction actively promoted African-American involvement in politics and public life. Therefore, many non-African-American southerners may have equated freeing slaves with the loss of political power, a misperception that continues to persevere. The nature of Reconstruction was an important and salient debate because the underlying dispute in the Civil War was not the question of slavery, but the question of the distribution of power between state and local governments. Reconstruction deprived the Southern states of local decision-making power, by maintaining federal jurisdiction over those states. However, the states were not under military jurisdiction; the Union army was almost immediately disbanded and the military did little to enforce federal laws during Reconstruction. (PBS. 2004).

It is important to understand that Reconstruction was not only a political movement. On the contrary, Reconstruction was a very social movement; not only did it impact everyday social life, but many of the people insuring that it was instituted were from outside of political life. For example, one of the largest problems facing the recently freed slaves is that they almost universally woefully uneducated; in many states teaching slaves to read had been a criminal offense. As a result, former-slaves lacked some of the necessary skills for life as citizens, and education was a must:

During the years after the war, black and white teachers from the North and South, missionary organizations, churches and schools worked tirelessly to give the emancipated population the opportunity to learn. Former slaves of every age took advantage of the opportunity to become literate. Grandfathers and their grandchildren sat together in classrooms seeking to obtain the tools of freedom. (Library of Congress, Reconstruction, Part One, 2002).

Therefore, Reconstruction was responsible for the increased educational levels of southern blacks. While African-Americans literacy rates never reached that of whites, this increase in education proved crucial for later African-Americans, many of whom faced institutional barriers to education and freedom that rivaled that of their enslaved ancestors. The education that some African-Americans received during Reconstruction served as a building block for literacy and learning in African-American families when Jim Crow prevented black youth from attaining decent minimal educations. For example, "by the turn of the twentieth century the majority of African-Americans could read and write." (Library of Congress, Reconstruction, Part Two, 2002).

Another of the immediate results of Reconstruction was a change in the distribution of African-Americans in the United States. Not surprisingly, many former slaves fled the south after abolition. Some of them ventured north, where there were already established communities of free blacks. However, others traveled to the West, where color was less likely to be an impediment to future success. While the majority of blacks were still concentrated in the southeastern states, Maryland, and Virginia in 1890, there were emerging concentrations in New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, and Chicago. (Library of Congress, Reconstruction, Part One, 2002). In addition, Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, and many of the western states showed growing African-American populations. (Library of Congress, Reconstruction, Part One, 2002). However, African-Americans discovered that racism was not merely a southern convention, and northerners were often forced to confront their own racist tendencies. The result was the development of exclusively African-American communities and a racial distribution in the North that was frequently even more segregated than that of the South.

Of course, not all blacks fled from the South. Instead, many stayed on the South, and even stayed where they had lived while enslaved. However, freedom gave them the choice to leave, if they desired to do so. Even more importantly, freedom meant that the former slaves were entitled to earn wages in return for labor. The problem is that the freedom was oftentimes illusory, even during Reconstruction. Part of the reason for the lack of real freedom is that recently freed slaves did not own property and did not have the means to purchase property. Though many Confederate slaves believed that they would be granted some type of reparation in addition to emancipation, the promised reparations never came. For example, the legendary "40 acres and a mule" promise to freed slaves, seems to have never been more than a vaunted ideal. Though General William T. Sherman set aside abandoned lands in South Carolina and Georgia and arranged for slaves to take temporary title to 40 acre tracts of that land, President Johnson quickly reversed the order and returned the abandoned lands to their original, white, owners. (MSN Encarta, 2007). In addition to Sherman, M.C. Megis, Thaddeus Stevens, Orlando Brown, Carl Schurz, and John Sprage, among others, all sought some type of federal government program that would provide land… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Nature of Reconstruction and Its Importance to Subsequent African-American History.  (2007, October 30).  Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

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"Nature of Reconstruction and Its Importance to Subsequent African-American History."  October 30, 2007.  Accessed February 27, 2020.