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Reconstruction History: Success or Failure? Essay

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Updated: Jul 8th, 2020

What were some of the plans for Reconstruction created during the war?

The Emancipation Proclamation signed in 1863 signified that the end of the war would produce some far-reaching consequences (Foner 12). During the war, the first comprehensive Reconstruction plan was introduced by the end of 1863.

The initial plan did not yet include racial equality before the law and black suffrage but was merely intended to end the war. The Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction presupposed the restoration of all rights to those Southerners who swore to accept the abolition, with the exception of some high-ranking officers. The abolishment of slavery was a necessary requirement although the states were allowed to introduce some temporary measures regarding blacks as a “laboring, landless and serving class.” Apart from that, the so-called Ten Percent Plan aimed to establish loyal local governments in the South, if at least ten percent of voters pledged allegiance to the North (Foner 27).

What was the definition of African American freedom early on in Reconstruction?

In the early days of Reconstruction, the notion of freedom encompassed several definitions. Freedom was, of course, the absence of slavery, but it also extended far beyond that. To the African Americans, freedom also meant the end of injustice and access to the same rights that the white people enjoyed. Fundamentally, these definitions had one underlying theme – the independence from the control exercised by the white people. This independence included both individual and community autonomy, as black institutions – namely, churches and schools – were also freed from the white supervision (Foner 46).

What were some of the desires for Reconstruction after the war ended (include both Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans, and others)?

The stances are taken by different stakeholders largely depended on their background, ideologies, and interests. Thus, Andrew Johnson, even though he embraced emancipation, did, however, resent the expansion of political and civil freedoms of the African Americans and wanted to curtail it (Foner 90). After the end of the war, the Radical Republicans desired to ensure, above all, equality before the law and loyal Unionists’ control over the Southern governments (Foner 39). Southerners, on the other hand, intended to resist the pressure that the government put on them and wanted to retain their political autonomy to the extent possible (Foner 92).

What were the main issues dealt with in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867? Who won this initial battle?

The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 presupposed the division of the South into five military districts, all headed by a general. Apart from that, the Southern states were required to draft a new constitution and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Foner 125). Essentially, these measures were intended to help introduce black suffrage into American society. Despite President Johnson’s attempt to veto the bill, it was nevertheless passed by Congress. Thus, one can say that the Radical Republicans won this initial battle to have the bill passed, even if Democrats managed to disenfranchise the African American population through consecutive legislation (Foner 126).

How did Southern politicians, law enforcement, economic leaders, and others ignore or circumvent the rights conferred on African Americans?

Upholding the rights conferred on African Americans presented a major challenge. The law enforcement agencies and officers excluded the blacks from the jury, punished them with severe penalties, and obstructed justice through a variety of other methods (Foner 184). Legislators and economic leaders, even though they could not overtly disenfranchise the black population, we’re looking for more creative ways to strip them of their voting rights. One of the most common practices was the introduction of a poll tax and, in some states, certain residency and registration requirements, that effectively disenfranchised the majority of the black population (Foner 185).

While these groups at least tried to pretend that their actions were not aiming to harm the states’ African American population, the Ku Klux Klan simply engaged in lynching and other violent practices (Foner 186). Essentially, individual freedoms and even the lives of the black population were still endangered in the South.

What does Foner mean by “The Reconstruction of the North”?

Clearly, the North did not have to undergo such dramatic changes as were taking place in the South. However, Foner considers the industrial, economic, and social transformation that the North went through to be part of Reconstruction. The North experienced the rise and consolidation of the capitalist economy. The manufacturing sector was quickly expanding, and new infrastructure was put in place to facilitate mining, lumbering, and other production activities. The social structure also underwent some changes: “wage-earners” replaced the independent craftsmen, the number of white-collar workers went up, and a new power elite of industrialists and railroad entrepreneurs had emerged. Ultimately, the North’s formerly agriculture and the artisanship-centered economy was replaced by the new industrial one (Foner 201).

Was Reconstruction successful? If so, why? If not, why not?

While some historians see Reconstruction as both success and failure, Foner takes an unequivocal stance that Reconstruction was not at all successful. He cites several reasons in support of his opinion – economic and political, as well as social. The main flaw of Reconstruction was that it ultimately failed to improve the living conditions for the blacks (Foner 233). Moreover, Foner considers Reconstruction to be a failure because it was based, to a significant degree, on intimidation and violence. Finally, Reconstruction did little to improve the economic conditions in the South, ultimately leaving it in poverty and even backwardness.

Who “won” Reconstruction?

Strictly speaking, it is difficult to say that one side won Reconstruction as it was not a conflict in the word’s traditional sense. Nevertheless, given Foner’s analysis, two conclusions can be drawn. Insofar as the Southerners managed to hinder Reconstruction, effectively disenfranchise and intimidate the blacks, regardless of the measures imposed by the North, one can say that the South won Reconstruction. It is, perhaps, even more, accurate to say that the North lost it as they failed to design a policy response that would further the cause of equality in the country. While the North managed to industrialize successfully, the country remained vulnerable to deep social and economic cleavages as the differences between the two parts of the country became even more apparent.

What is Foner’s thesis about Reconstruction? Basically, what is he arguing in his book?

The main argument put forward by Foner, as well as his primary conclusion, is that Reconstruction should be regarded as a failure (Foner 256). This failure was precipitated by several political, social, and economic factors. Unfavorable conditions such as the depression of the 1870s and a global decrease in demand for cotton limited the opportunities for economic change. Southern politics largely remained dominated by a racist agenda, and factionalism and corruption undermined the new governments’ legitimacy. Perhaps, worst of all, the anti-black violence prevalent in the South undermined the prospects for equality and free labor. Foner believes that the failure of Reconstruction significantly slowed down the development of American society, although he acknowledges that such a claim lies in the domain of speculations rather than facts (257).

List what Foner highlights as the most important themes of this era

Foner lists five most important themes of the Reconstruction era: first, it is the “centrality of the black experience” meaning that the blacks were among the makers of Reconstruction, and not merely its passive victims (9). The second theme is the drastic political and social changes that the Southern states went through, even if with some local variations. Next is the evolution of the public attitudes and opinions regarding race and the connection between race and class in the postbellum South. The fourth theme is the emergence of a national state with new and extended powers and principles, such as the commitment to national citizenship. The last theme concerns the changes in the “economy and class structure” of the North, as well as their influence on the process of Reconstruction (Foner 9).

Do you believe what Foner argues? Does he prove his thesis?

I think that, overall, Foner makes good use of historical evidence to illustrate his point and support his thesis. His analysis is thorough and comprehensive, and he presents some compelling arguments in favor of his claim. However, I believe that he makes a mistake common for many revisionists in that he considers the events of Reconstruction in the light of our contemporary reality as opposed to in view of their historical context. Surely, it is evident to us these days that the American society had a long way ahead of it to achieve racial equality – and, to some extent, we cannot even say we have fully achieved it today. It appears to me that his analysis is still built on the “what-if” premise, even though he admits that such an approach can produce nothing but speculation.

What were some of the more surprising elements of Foner’s book to you? What did you learn from the book?

Two elements of Foner’s analysis stood out to me. First of all, I believe I was not aware of the extent to which President Andrew Jackson opposed the advancement of civil rights and liberties of the African American community. Even though I was aware of him vetoing the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, it was Foner’s insights that helped me fully understand the role that he played in hindering the progress of improving racial equality and justice. Secondly, I enjoyed Foner’s approach to analyzing the role of black people in Reconstruction. Usually, analysis of the period tends to adopt a white-centered approach that leaves the African Americans to be passive recipients rather than active agents of change.

What would YOUR thesis be for this era? Write a thesis statement of at least three sentences that presents your argument for the era

The Reconstruction era was a failure in political, social, and economic terms as it created new political cleavages, failed to advance racial justice and equality in the country, and left it deeply divided as the South resented the North’s interventionist approach. Nevertheless, the significance of the period is twofold: first of all, Reconstruction de jure unified the country and ended a military conflict on its territory. Secondly, the period facilitated the formation of a common black identity and growth of cultural self-awareness that, in turn, helped the community life through the segregation era and contributed to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

List what you believe to be the most important themes of the era

For the most part, I agree with the themes outlined by Foner in his book. I would like, however, to add two more themes to the analysis. The first theme would be that of unification: after all, Reconstruction managed to keep the Northern and Southern states together, even if not under the most favorable circumstances. Perhaps, if the Southern states succeeded to establish a new state, racial inequality and injustice would persist in this new country much longer than it actually did. I would also put more emphasis on the formation and solidification of the black community and racial identity. I believe that the common identity, together with the strengthened institutions of school and church, helped the black community retain its strength throughout the Jim Crow and segregation era.

Works Cited

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. 1st ed. 1990. New York, New York: Harper Perennial. Print.

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