The First Reconstruction: A Revolution?

Many people will argue that the social and political changes in the period between 1860 and 1877 culminated in a revolution. This time period, known as the First Reconstruction, made many advances in equality for Blacks in voting, politics, and the use of public facilities. The lawmakers of the time were however unable to make adequate progress in advancing economic equality; therefore Blacks didn’t completely escape their original plight. This should not be considered a revolution because its results were quickly reversed when former confederate leaders and other bigots reclaimed the power of legislation in the South.

The First Reconstruction was a result of the Civil War and lasted until 1977. The political, social, and economic conditions after the war helped define the goals of lawmakers during the Reconstruction. Congress now had to decide on how they were going to address such topics as; Black equality, rebuilding of the South, admission of southern state to the Union, and deciding who would control the government. In the south the newly freed slaves wandered the countryside and the white population was devastated due to their loss in the recent war. The south was also devastated economically; plantations were destroyed, railroads torn up, their labor force gone, and cities were burned.

In the post Civil War era there was a struggle for the power, each with their own ideas on how the country should go about in the reconstruction process. First, the Southern Democrats, a party made up of former Confederate leaders and other members of the aristocracy, strived to end the perceived control of the North over the South. They also sought the reinstitution of slavery under a different name, Black Codes. These codes would provide a cheap labor force to the plantations by limiting the rights of Blacks to move, vote, travel, and change jobs. Second, Moderate Republicans wanted to obtain a policy of reconciliation between the South and the North, but also insure that slavery would not be reinstated. Third, a group of Northern politicians who were strongly opposed to slavery, unsympathetic to the South, wanted protection for the freed slaves, and wanted to keep their majority in Congress formed the Radical Republicans. Andrew Johnson has to be considered the fourth political element of the time due to his unpartisan views and actions. Johnson’s only apparent goal was unification of North and South.

The Radical Republicans surfaced as the country’s dominant political party and with the majority in Congress they set the goals for reconstruction. Their initial goal for reconstruction was to prevent slavery from again rising in the South. They thought this could be accomplished by passing the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery. However after the passage of the amendment, Southern Democrats counteracted with the Black Codes that reinstated slavery in all but name. Both Moderate and Radical Republicans reacted to the Codes with expansion of the Freedman’s Bureau to include the protection of Blacks from such codes and laws.

Apparently going nowhere in their pursuit of the complete abolition of slavery, the Radical Republicans changed expanded their objectives to include political equality and suffrage. These new goals were established for two reasons, Northerners were siding with the Southern Blacks in increasing numbers but also because the Radical Republicans saw an opportunity to gain the votes needed to all but insure their continued majority and keep the Southern Democrats out of office.

Although the extension of suffrage to the Black man worked fairly well it did not give the Black man any real power. The number of offices held by Blacks was far from proportional to the number of Black voters. And those Blacks who did manage to get into a political office usually owed it to an alliance that hindered their effectiveness as an office holder.

The Reconstruction leaders overlooked the fact that if the Blacks were unable to gain economic equality they would quickly become mere serfs in the Southern plantation system. More importantly without property it would be extremely difficult to defend the rights granted to them in the Reconstruction Period. There were several plans proposed to grant economic equality to the Blacks, including one that if implemented, would seize property from rich Southern Landowners and redistribute it to the newly freed slaves. The man who proposed this plan, Thaddeus Stevens, explains the motivation for it:

Southern Society has more the features of aristocracy then a democracy… It is impossible that any practical equality of rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the whole landed property. How can Republican institutions, free school, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs, of owners of twenty-thousand–acre manors, with the lordly palaces, and the occupants of narrow huts inhabited low white trash?

The plan was eventually shot down, being called, “brash and unfair.” The Government did not yet understand the importance of economic equality in the freeing of a people.

The reason I feel that this was not at all a revolution but merely an uprising is that by 1905 the progress made in the Reconstruction Period was almost completely reversed. At this time good character tests, poll taxes, white primaries, literacy, tests, grandfather clauses, and intimidation caused almost the complete loss of Black suffrage and representation. In Louisiana alone, the number of Black voters dropped 99% and the number of Black officials dropped to zero. Soon after the influence of the Black citizens died out the now infamous Jim Crow laws were implemented, completely negating all of the accomplishments of the Reconstruction Period. Reconstruction offered great promise and hope to Blacks but it failed to achieve all its goals, resulting in its many accomplishments disappearing into history in the decades directly following. So as you can see the political and social changes of the period between 1860 and 1877 amounted in a mere uprising and not in a revolution.



Word Count: 980

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