The Reconstruction (1865-1877) was a period during which the life of the defeated South was to be returned to normal; it was also a time when the Black Americans attained some rights thanks to Lincoln and the Republican part of the Congress and despite Johnson’s intentions. An extremely violent time, it is sometimes called “the darkest period of American history”; still, it brought many important progressive changes to the US.
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Abraham Lincoln is known for proclaiming the black slaves Emancipation in 1863; he was convinced that it was necessary for the North to win the war. Lincoln believed that the Confederate states needed to be reintegrated back into the US while preserving the abolition of slavery; however, the 16th President wasn’t planning to punish former Southern authorities severely (Foner 569).
Andrew Johnson, before he became the president, supported Lincoln’s emancipatory policies; however, after attaining the post, he started realizing his racism openly. It is important to stress that he planned to return the old Southern elites to power while not providing Blacks with any rights. Indeed, he proposed a pardon to most of the former Southern authorities and slave owners, returning them the property and political rights they had before (Foner 569). He did require them to preserve the abolition of slavery, but the former Southern elites were restored to power. As a result, the Black Codes’ were adopted in the former Confederate states; they strictly regulated the freedmen’s lives (Foner 570).
The factions of Congress did not have a unified plan; the Democrats supported Johnson, whereas the Republicans did not. The Radical Republicans, being indignant about Johnson’s activities, demanded to dissolve the Southern governments and guarantee the enfranchisement of the newly freed Black men.
However, they were a minority among the Republican congressmen; the Moderates, while supporting Blacks, were anxious that the right to vote for African Americans would be accepted by Whites nowhere in the US. It caused them to work with Johnson, believing that his plans could be corrected. Johnson, however, did not collaborate and vetoed the Civil Rights Bill, which, reflecting the view of the Moderates, was supposed to introduce many rights to Blacks (but no right to vote). Still, in April 1866 the Parliament overrode the veto (Foner 570-572).
The 14th Amendment was a compromise between Radicals and Moderates in the Congress; it contradicted Jonhson’s intentions, but there was no direct contradiction with Lincoln’s policy. Being approved in June 1866 (no Democrats supported the bill), it allowed the federal government “to protect the rights of all the Americans”, including Blacks, and, importantly, to reverse the Black Codes (Foner 572-573).
While not making the local governments give African Americans the right to vote, it did deprive the states that refused to give the Black males the franchise of a number of seats in the Congress. All the southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify the Amendment, which pushed many Moderates to support Radicals. As a result, in March 1867 the Reconstruction Act was adopted by the Congress; Black men were given the right to vote.
It led to the Radical Reconstruction, and to an open confrontation between Johnson and the Republicans. The articles of impeachment were adopted, and a trial against Johnson was started; however, the Congress lacked one vote to remove him. Still, his term of presidency soon came to an end, and Grant was chosen as a new president (Foner 573-575).
The period of Reconstruction was extremely bloody; unorganized violence “remained widespread”; furthermore, KKK emerged in 1866 (Foner 584-585). Besides, the endless conflicts caused a severe economic depression in 1873 (Foner 587). Certainly, it was a terrible period; but during these times, Black people were at last freed from slavery and received some rights.
Indeed, they faced violence and discrimination at every turn; but it is better to be free and have a chance to protect oneself, than to be a slave, unable to control any of the aspects of your life and completely depend on a whim of somebody who treats you as their personal possession.
We don’t know the exact statistics, though; perhaps people, especially Blacks, quantitatively underwent more suffering during the Reconstruction that during many other periods before or after it. But, if we think of e.g. how Blacks were transported from Africa in the 1700s, tightly packed in slave ships so that they couldn’t even change their pose, having to endure this for weeks, massively dying before even reaching America, it is possible to say that the Reconstruction wasn’t “the darkest period of American history”.
If I had had the chance to influence the Reconstruction (while retaining the today’s mind of mine), I would have supported the Radicals in their attempts to establish the racial equality. What I would have done differently is that I would also have tried to give more rights to women. There were many women’s organizations (Foner 578-579), so I wouldn’t be alone in my efforts. It would also be useful to help the Blacks and their supporters to network and form more organizations, which would have strengthened them and helped them resist the racist violence.
To sum up, it should be stressed that Black Americans, after being freed from slavery, attained some rights during the Reconstruction. This was thanks to Lincoln’s political calculations, as well as to the Republican part of the Congress, and despite Johnson’s plans and the Democrats.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1866 to give them those rights, and to reverse the discriminatory Black Codes, the result of Johnson’s policy. While the period was bloody, it did bring some crucial positive changes. It is our belief, therefore, that calling it “the darkest period of American history” is invalid.
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Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. Vol. 2. 4th ed. 2013. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. Print.