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Reconstruction After the Civil War: Enforcement Acts Essay


Introduction

The post-Civil War period is characterized by significant changes in the US political, economic, and value systems. The social and political upheavals during the Reconstruction Era influenced many social groups, but they had the strongest effect on the position of African Americans in the country. After the abolition of slavery in 1863, the freed African Americans were still up against multiple challenges on the way to economic and social welfare as the southern states’ authorities strived to maintain the status quo and did not provide freedmen with equal opportunities. The adoption of the Enforcement Acts of 1870-1871 by the under the presidency of Ulysses S.

Grant may be regarded as the initial step towards the promotion of social equity in the United States because it helped to ensure some legal protection for African Americans and criminalize the actions against their freedom. Although the acts did not bring substantial positive changes immediately, they largely supported former slaves in their attempts to withstand the racist beliefs held by whites, as well as their unwillingness to change. The analysis of the reactions to the acts adopted throughout the Reconstruction Era helps to reveal the views and societal beliefs that prevailed during that time in the country and complicated the attempts to improve the lives of African Americans. However, despite the initial challenges in the execution of the Enforcement Acts, their significance cannot be underestimated because they provided the foundation for forming modern democracy.

Summary

The Enforcement Acts were the responsive measures undertaken by Congress to multiple cases of violence and injustice towards African Americans. After the Civil War, African Americans were granted citizenship, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified in many states. But although the amendments to the Constitution supported the provision of civil rights to freedmen, the Congress did not foresee the risks of the southern states’ opposition1. Their resistance resulted in the adoption of the Enforcement Acts that were meant to protect the rights granted to former slaves.

The Enforcement Act of 1870 provides legal support to all US citizens’ entitlement to vote. Section 2 of the act states that the citizens of any “race, color, or previous position of servitude” should be freely allowed to vote in any institution or a setting (e.g., State, county, city, school, etc.) under the regulation of any state or authority2. Some significant penalties for those who prevented the execution of the law were also outlined in the document. Individuals or groups and institutions that refused to receive votes of citizens entitled to vote were “deemed guilty of a misdemeanor against the United States” and considered liable to prosecution or punishment, e.g., large fines or imprisonment3. Additionally, the law empowered the federal government to handle the offenses committed against the provisions of the act and protect the civil rights by using the US naval forces and militia.

The second Enforcement Act was passed on February 28, 1871, and was meant to amend the first act. Instead of providing the federal courts with total control over congressional elections, it assured the authoritative role of federal supervisors in monitoring and intervening in federal elections in cities inhabited by over 20.000 people4. Since there was a risk of power abuse by the entitled supervisors, the act also provided the specifications of their roles.

The Enforcement Act passed on April 20, 1871, is mainly focused on the prohibition of insurrection, domestic violence, or unlawful combinations5. The third act was composed in response to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) group that became widespread since 1968 in the south and the violent and unlawful deeds of which were based on the racist ideology6. Therefore, the major focus was made on outlawing conspiracies. The conspiracy implied any type of hindering or crippling the appropriate course of justice in any state, intended denial of equal protection of all citizens, injuries in person or property, as well as deprivation of having and exercising rights7.

The third Enforcement Act of 1871 is considered the most efficient among all three as it helped to decrease the power of KKK in South Carolina8. But overall, the acts did not have the intended effect on the adverse situation. The researchers observe that throughout the years after the adoption of the policies, the opposition of the southern states to African Americans’ voting rights became only stronger9.

Analysis

Some researchers of the Reconstruction Era consider that the Enforcement Acts led to greater racial discrimination; strengthening of white supremacy in the southern states; and increased deprivation of social, political, and economic rights among African Americans10. However, these social policies targeting the promotion of equity may be regarded as the main turning-point in the development of the US community and progression of the Civil Rights movement. It is possible to say that the strengthening of the discriminative attitudes was triggered by some developmental tendencies occurred in the post-war period rather than the acts themselves. During that time, there was a drastic increase in the total number of immigrants in the United States caused by the industrial revolution and growing demand for unskilled labor11.

The increasing amount of cheap workforce resulted in a greater economic division between social classes. While the position of the higher class consisted of whites improved, the condition of the lower social class primarily comprised of minor ethnic groups and immigrants proportionally deteriorated. Thus, the Enforcement Acts alone cannot be blamed for the consolidation of white supremacy because there were many prerequisites for it. Naturally, the white population that enjoyed economic and social privileges over a significant time did not want to lose its power and the dominant role and strived to maintain supremacy in all spheres of life by all possible means. At the same time, the minor ethnic groups, especially the African-American one, wanted to change their positions through higher levels of political representation and equal wages12. Therefore, it is possible to say that the social tensions were inevitable.

As stated by Dozier, racism remained the main social force on the broad territory of the country, and it was highlighted by the racial segregation and emergence of the KKK that mainly fought African Americans and supporters of social reforms13. The Enforcement Acts were appropriate legislative strategies aimed to handle these issues and promote anti-discriminatory practices across the political and social spectrum. The acts were ambitious and strived to respond to social changes and provide a favorable environment for all citizens. However, like all other legal texts, they were open to interpretation. Right after passing the first act, the advocates of the Klansmen accused of crimes against the law could build their defense on the broad interpretation of the policies. In this way, the defense arguments were used to disable federal protection of African Americans in many legal cases reviewed by the state courts in the southern states14. It took time for the local authorities to recognize the inherent power of the Congress to protect federal elections and citizens’ voting rights and support the federal prosecution of the KKK members.

Despite the initial challenges, the Enforcement Acts have a strong effect on the process of the present-day social policies. First of all, the values which were embedded in the laws of the Reconstruction Era became the basis for the social development throughout the 20th century and supported some realization of equality in multiple spheres of life. The acts provided a push towards the creation of “progressive, orderly, and decent” community, and this tendency in the policy making still can be observed today15. Nowadays, both local and federal authorities are more willing to defend equality. These efforts are visible in a great number of contemporary social policies oriented to the improvement of the individual wellbeing of the US citizens including Medicaid and the Education for All.

Conclusion

The Enforcement Acts passed by the federal government during the Reconstruction period aimed to response the intensified racial discrimination and resistance to social equality that was particularly active in the southern territories. Although it is considered that these policies were not of great effect and resulted in the increased racial division among the southern states, the review of the literature makes it clear that there were many other prerequisites for the occurrence of the social turbulences in the country. The white supremacy was largely intensified by the industrial development, and the growing number of immigrants and economically unprivileged ethnic minorities claiming for their rights for equal wage structures and political representation could not be ignored by the government. The resistance towards equality endeavors was a natural psychological reaction of the historically privileged citizens who did not want to lose their power and who, in this way, strived to marginalize African Americans. But the Enforcement Acts were appropriate and important executive countermeasures because they allowed assuring greater federal protection of freedmen’s rights and, thus, laid the foundation for changing the position of African American citizens.

Bibliography

“Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, 1875.” Kansas State University. Web.

“Enforcement Act of 1870.” Puget Sound civil War Roundable. Web.

Dozier, Barbra. Word Press. Web.

Everitt, David. “1871 War on Terror.” American History 38, no. 2 (2003): 26-33.

Lane, Charles. The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Murdock, Kathlyn. “‘A General State of Terror’: The Enforcement Acts, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Struggle over Education in the Post-Bellum South.” Trinity College Digital Respository. Spring, 2011. Web.

Trattner, Walter. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Footnotes

  1. “Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, 1875,” Kansas State University, Web.
  2. “Enforcement Act of 1870,” Puget Sound Civil War Roundable, Web.
  3. Ibid., sec. 15.
  4. “Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, 1875,” Kansas State University.
  5. “Enforcement Act of 1870,” Puget Sound Civil War Roundable.
  6. David Everitt, “1871 War on Terror,” American History 38, no. 2 (2003): 26.
  7. “Enforcement Act of 1870,” Puget Sound Civil War Roundable.
  8. David Everitt, “1871 War on Terror.”
  9. “Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, 1875,” Kansas State University.
  10. Walter Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America (New York: Free Press, 2007), 315.
  11. Barbra Dozier, “Social Policies in America after the Civil War (1865-1900),” Word Press, Web.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Kathlyn Murdock, “‘A General State of Terror’: The Enforcement Acts, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Struggle over Education in the Post-Bellum South,” Trinity College Digital Respository, Spring, 2011, Web.
  15. Barbra Dozier, “Social Policies in America after the Civil War (1865-1900),” par. 5.
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IvyPanda. (2020, September 13). Reconstruction After the Civil War: Enforcement Acts. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/reconstruction-after-the-civil-war-enforcement-acts/

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IvyPanda. "Reconstruction After the Civil War: Enforcement Acts." September 13, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/reconstruction-after-the-civil-war-enforcement-acts/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Reconstruction After the Civil War: Enforcement Acts." September 13, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/reconstruction-after-the-civil-war-enforcement-acts/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Reconstruction After the Civil War: Enforcement Acts'. 13 September.

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