Thursday, June 15, 2017

Reconstruction, What's Your Function?

In the spring of 1865, the Civil War was finally over. Upon agreement of the terms of surrender, Union General Ulysses S. Grant declared, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.” At the close of the war, the South was in shambles; much of the South’s landscape and infrastructure had been destroyed, and the economy needed rebuilding. Some four million African-Americans had been freed from bondage during the war, but in December of 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery everywhere. Now that the war was over, the nation had to come together once again. The Civil War resulted in many things: slavery was abolished, there was a disruption to the economy, the plantation system had been eliminated, and race relations in the South had been upended. The defeated Confederacy had to come to terms with a new way of life as the United State entered into the Reconstruction Era.

The Reconstruction Era ran from 1865 to 1877, and it was a period of political and social turbulence that had long-lasting implications for life in America. Questions about the nature of freedom, equality, and opportunity would be asked and answered in this era. A major question that would be asked was: what would be the fate of the African-Americans? What would be their status in this new America


To many Americans, the Civil War was a social revolution because the once-dominant influence of the southern planters had been reduced, and the North’s “captains of industry” had been elevated, paving the way for an industrialized American. During and after the Civil War, the US government began to align itself with the interests of corporate leaders (which we still very much see today). As a result of this, Congress was able to centralize national power, create a unified banking systems and currency, build the first transcontinental railroad, enacted the Homestead Act in 1862 to encourage westward expansion (giving free federal homesteads of 160 acres to settlers, who had to occupy the land for a minimum of five years), and colleges of “agricultural and mechanic arts) were founded.

Things in the post-war South were not so good. The Civil War left the South almost permanently changed; property values went through the floor, Confederate bonds were worthless, many railroads had been damaged or completely destroyed, and emancipation wiped out $4 billion that had been invested in slavery and uprooted the labor system. The crops suffered as well—cotton production didn’t amass to the 1860 record harvest until 1879; tobacco production didn’t reach its pre-war level until 1880; sugar production didn’t recover until 1893; and rice production has never recovered. That wasn’t all that the South endured—many people were left destitute and homeless, and families were broken with loss of sons and husbands.


In the South, the newly freed slave suffered; they weren’t slaves anymore, but they weren’t really considered citizens either. In March of 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to deal with the issues of food, clothing, and fuel—many Northerners believed the newly freed African-Americans needed those necessities of life before they needed citizenship. In May of that year, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help former slaves find work and better themselves. The Freedmen’ Bureau was sent to the South to negotiate labor contracts, provide medical care, distribute food, and set up schools. Radical prejudice in the South often threw off the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Share cropping became famous/infamous in the South—former slave owners would write contracts and hire back a portion of their former slaves to work on the land (planting, cultivating, and harvesting) and keep a portion of the crop, but if the African-Americans left or tried to quit, they voided the contract and lost everything; share cropping was a way for the planter elites to bring back slavery, as they were determined to continue to control the African-Americans.



Political Reconstruction


Toward the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which stated the terms the South needed to complete to re-enter the Union and be forgiven for the war. The rebel states, at least 10% of each state’s population, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union, and must receive a presidential pardon; participants also had to swear support to the laws that dealt with emancipation. However there were many people that were excluded by the pardon: Confederate officers of the army and navy; government officials, judges, Congressmen, and military officers who left their posts to aid the rebellion; and those who failed to treat captured African-American soldiers and officers as proper prisoners of war.


Lincoln was trying to immediately restore the country. Most moderate Republicans supported Lincoln’s program; however, radical Republicans wanted a sweeping transformation of southern society—to dismantle the planter elite and the Democratic Party.



Lincoln’s Assassination


Not everyone was happy with the outcome of the war or the roll-out of Reconstruction. One man in particular took his anger out in a devastating way—by killing President Lincoln.

               
On the evening of April 14, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary went to see the play “My American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. As the play was well underway, a man named John Wilkes Booth (an actor and Confederate sympathizer) slipped into the President’s box, which was unguarded as the police officer that should have been guarding it had left his post. Booth aimed his pistol and shot President Lincoln point-blank in the back of the head. Leaping from the balcony, Booth yelled “Sic semper tyrannis”, which is short for “Sic semper evello mortem tyrannis” meaning “Thus always I bring death to tyrants”. Booth broke one of his legs on the landing, but managed to mount a waiting horse and escape the city. Booth would later be found and killed in a barn fire.


Lincoln died nine hours after he had been shot, and his Vice President Andrew Johnson had to finish Lincoln’s second term.


Andrew Johnson was an interesting guy. A pro-Union Democrat from Tennessee, he was put on the 1864 election ticket as a gesture of unity. Johnson was short tempered, bigoted, and an alcoholic, but he was loyal to the Union and was a strict Constitutionalist. Johnson’s plan to restore the Union was similar to that of Lincoln; he had an amnesty proclamation that not only had barred the same people that Lincoln did from pardon, but also barred everyone who had taxable property worth $20,000 or more…but those landowners could apply for pardon, and before1865 had ended Johnson pardoned 13,000 people. Johnson’s plan for readmitting the former Confederate states differed from Lincoln’s; the secession ordinances had to be abolished, and each state had to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, bringing an end to slavery.

               
Many of the former slave holding states did not want to abolish slavery because the African-Americans would be on their way to becoming full-fledged citizens, so a way they got around treating the African-Americans like full citizens was by the drafting and enacting of black codes. Black codes were intended to preserve slavery as nearly as possible, and to show that there was a distinction between blacks and whites. On the one hand, marriages were legally recognized, blacks could own property, and they could sue and be sued in the courts; on the other hand, interracial marriages were prohibited as well as miscegenation (the blending of races via natural reproduction…so mixed race children and families were often hidden from the general population), blacks could not own farmland in Mississippi or South Carolina, blacks needed special licenses to practice trades in Mississippi, blacks who worked for whites needed a contract to do so, and blacks who were unemployed could be jailed or forced to work in the fields (many whites would not hire blacks just for this purpose).

               
Knowing what was going on in the South in response to the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 28, 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment eliminated any doubt as to the citizenship of African-Americans, and it guaranteed basic citizenship for all Americans.



The Reconstructed South

African-Americans in the post-war South affected the course of Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Era didn’t diminish or even try to hide racial tensions; the Southern whites seemed to not understand that freedom for blacks meant the same freedom they themselves had experienced. The Civil War brought an end to slavery but it didn’t bring an end to the exploitation and abuse of black; whites often use terror, intimidation, and violence to suppress blacks as they were trying to carve out lives of social and economic equality.

               
African-Americans in the post-war South sought to better their lives, so they established churches and schools within their communities to educate their spiritual and intellectual selves. It was common for these churches and schools to be set on fire and burned to the ground; and it was well-known that the schools were getting old, out-of-date books and dilapidated desks from white schools, so these schools, unfortunately, were not equal to other schools in the area. White opposition to black churches and schools just led to more people determined to educate themselves and their future generations. More people were entering the teaching profession to ensure that these African-American people were getting the education that they needed and deserved to succeed in their lives.



The Grant Years


In 1868 Ulysses S. Grant, the famed Union general of the Civil War, won the presidency. At this point in our nation’s history, Grant was the youngest to be elected president at 46-years-old. Taking office shortly after the war ended, and being so young, Grant was often blind to what was going on around him politically, instead relying on Congress to lead the way.

               
Grant’s presidency was dominated by financial issues. The Republican platform of the election of 1868 urged payment of the national debt in gold. The Democrats believed that since the national debt grew with the purchase of war bonds, which had been bought with depreciated “greenbacks” that the debt should be paid with greenbacks rather than gold. After the war, the Treasury had assumed that the $432 million worth of greenback that had been issued would be retired from circulation and the US would revert to a hard-money currency system—gold coins. Many people were not pleased with this idea, because they believed that eliminating greenbacks would make repaying debts more difficult. Grant sided with hard-money advocates and in March of 1869, Grant signed the Public Credit Act, which stated that the national debt must be paid in gold.

               
Financial issues weren’t all that plagued Grant’s presidency. Grant also had to deal with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Organized in 1866, the KKK began as a social club, but its members soon turned to intimidation of blacks and white Republicans. The KKK spread throughout the South where they spread rumors, issued threats, harassed African-Americans, and wreaked havoc and destruction. The KKK targeted prominent Republicans, white and black alike. The KKK committed murders, and carried out whippings and lynchings. Grant signed into the law the three-part Enforcement Acts in 1870, which levied penalties on anyone who interfered with a citizen’s right to vote, placed the election on Congressmen under surveillance by federal election supervisors, and the KKK’s activities were outlawed.

               
Grant was a two-term president, and the issues that plagued his first term remained for the second term as well. Economic problems struck as greenbacks were eliminated from circulation. People were investing heavily in railroads, but railroad bonds would turn sour as 25railroads defaulted on their interest payments and a prestigious investment bank went bankrupt in 1837. Investors eager to get cash for their depreciating bonds caused the stock market to close for ten days. The panic of 1873, as this event would come to be known, caused a six-year long economic depression. Thousands of businesses went bankrupt, millions of people lost their jobs and homes, and people blamed the Republican party for the panic.

               
The year 1876 was another election year. The Republicans put up Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democrats put up Samuel J. Tilden. Both candidates favored a move toward a relaxed national government. The 1876 election generated the most votes in US history up to that point. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won, due in large part to a secret deal; the Republicans had promised that if Hayes won the election that he would withdraw the last federal/Union troops from South Carolina and Louisiana, letting the Republican-controlled governments there collapse, in return the Democrats would withdraw their opposition to Hayes and accept the Reconstruction amendments.



The End of Reconstruction

               
In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes took office as President. Just as was agreed upon, Hayes withdrew federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana, and their Republican-controlled governments collapsed soon after. Over the next 30 years, the protection of blacks’ rights in the South crumbled as white rule was restored.

               
Despite the trials faced in the decade after the Civil War, Reconstruction did leave a legacy…the ratification of the Thirteenth (ending slavery), Fourteenth (citizenship, equal rights, and equal protections of former slaves and their descendants), and Fifteenth (voting rights) Amendments, creating a foundation for future advances in civil rights and social equality. 

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