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Attempts At Rebuilding The Southern Economy History Essay

Reconstruction, as viewed according to Eric Foner’s position in Americas Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, was a fourteen-year period that began with earnest attempts at rebuilding the Southern economy, and that also included both land reform and the enfranchising of emancipated slaves as citizens. Viewed then 1863-1877 was a period in which the future direction of the nation was under deep consideration and as such it is remembered as a period of intense national debate. In total this period was one of stops and starts, with hopes built up and dashed, and of economic reforms that ultimately moved at their own pace, and did little to enhance the land reform desperately needed.

Time and again, the process of reform showed that The United States was ill prepared for rebuilding the South and divided on the role that freed slaves should play in national politics. Uncertainty and the lack of consensus was rife throughout the reconstruction period. This largely stemmed from a contradiction that existed among Americans. They understood that the federal government would have to play an increased role to assure that the states, namely the defeated states, complied with the Constitutional amendments of the period, yet many still, especially in the South, were not in favour of relinquishing the principle of States rights and uniqueness. More importantly though, congress too was not immune from contradiction, congressional indecision over the role of the federal government over the defeated states and the increased role it would have to play to assure compliance ultimately doomed Reconstruction. Instead, the result was a tragic fourteen years of “bait and switch” for freedmen’s rights, continual bitter infighting between the Republican North and an almost unreconstructed Southern populace, and gradual land reform that had marginal impact on those who needed it most, the landless ex-slave.

Freed slaves realised, as was told to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1865 by black ministers, that for the future of their families, ‘The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and in turn till it by our labour …..We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.’ [1] General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No.15, issued on January 16 1985, though intended to relieve pressure of provisioning for freed slaves following his army, granted areas of land for freedmen on the Sea Islands. The white inhabitant of which had fled in 1861 when the Union Navy occupied Port Royal. Carolina for the free slaves that had followed his army or had become free as Confederacy areas were occupied. General Sherman’s order also granted areas of land along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. ‘The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.’ [th] 

In total 400,000 acres of land had been allocated to the settlement of approximately 180000 freed blacks inhabiting the area then. With forty acres to be allocated for each family. [2] With regards to the Sea Islands Specials Field Orders No.15 was a legitimisation of the possession that had been in effect since 1861. There was much tampering with the Sea Islands during the war, primarily by northern investors who sought to reverse the cultivation of subsistence crops planted by the freed slaves back to cotton. Northern investors did not share the same attitude as the freed slaves, the latter had, in the colloquy of coloured ministers, expressed an aspiration to own land and live in the main independent from the market. While Northern investors desired the future role of freed slaves to remain tied to the plantation working for wages. [3] The free labour experiment on the Sea Islands along with other experiments in working relations, such as General Nathanial Prentiss Banks military maintenance of plantations in Louisiana or the model slave system of Davis Bend, Mississippi, point out the wide void between Northern labour policy and the true goals of freed slaves. [4] At any event these efforts would die on their own, or be negated by the land policies of President Johnson. [5] 

A year after the Emancipation proclamation, Lincoln offered generous terms for re-entry into the Union. His ten percent rule, or Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,

devised a model for reinstatement of the confederate states whereby states would be reintegrated and the creation of a new state government would be granted on the basis that 10 percent of the 1860 vote count of the state take an oath of future loyalty to the United States and vow to abide by the Proclamation of Emancipation. Issued in December of 1863, it failed to layout his plan for reconstruction. However, the very process of devising a model for reinstatement and loyal government had unexpected consequences, producing serious friction among Southern unionists, creating political forums in which long excluded groups stepped forward to claim a share of political power, and inspiring freedmen and their Radical allies to remonstrate for even more far reaching changes in southern life. Lincolns proposal too would allow the newly constituted State government’s the ability to create a new constitution, though they had to expressly and explicitly ban slavery forever. Yet, at the same time the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction allowed these new constitutions the capacity to adopt temporary measures with regards to the newly freed slaves inhabiting the states. It states;

Any provision which may be adopted by (a reconstructed) State government in relation to the freed people of such State, which shall recognise and declare their permanent freedom, provide for their education, and which may yet be consistent, as a temporary arrangement, with their present condition as a labouring, landless, and homeless class, will not be objected to by the national executive.

This provision of Lincoln’s proposal was not lost on many within the Republican party. It sowed the fear that the planter aristocracy and slaveholders would be restored, while freed slaves would be returned to a form of quasi slavery through the adoption of labour regulations. As these and other measures could be adopted, as long as State government’s acknowledged the freedom of former slaves and made minimal requirements for their education. Undoubtedly political expediency and the ending of the war, rather than addressing the eventual needs of four million slaves lay at the heart of Presidential policy.

As demonstrated by Lincoln’s offering of the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which was in effect a moderate peace plan.

As the war progressed, signs of fracturing in the Republican Party began to show. In addition, the 1864 Wade-Davis bill pushed for an alternative to the ten percent plan. The thought being that Lincoln was too negligent in allowing such a small minority to set up governments under such lenient terms. Concern over Lincolns approval of a white Louisiana government and General Banks labour system began to push abolitionists and party Radicals to believe that black suffrage must come. [6] 

Once the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery passed in 1864-65, Lincoln needed only peace to begin reconciling the country, and upon its arrival, proposed in cabinet a plan to appoint military governors in Virginia and North Carolina. In addition, the Freedman’s Bureau, created in 1863, provided a tool for providing the basic needs of freed slaves; clothing, food, fuel, and even a remote possibility of land. [7] Yet, the larger question of the freed slaves place in America after the war was not answered, and there seemed no clear idea coming from Washington. Others, such as Frederick Douglas, supported the then radical view that, ‘Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.’ [8] That deprived of any political rights freedmen would quickly return to a condition similar to that of slavery, though different in name. Also, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, who added to its masthead ‘No Reconstruction Without Negro Suffrage.’

With Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction took a calamitous turn. Andrew Johnson, Lincolns vice-presidential choice made for political expediency, assumed the presidency, and used his powers irresponsibly. Coming from the border state of Tennessee, Johnson appeared to have an unwavering commitment to the union advocating a hard line in his speeches. Speaking on the 21 of April, 1865, only seven days after the death of Lincoln, he declared, ‘Treason must be made odious, that traitors must be punished and impoverished. They must not only be punished but their social power must be destroyed.’ [st] Johnson had appeared to be more in the camp of the radicals than Lincoln; his past career, impoverished roots and his thundering against the slavocracy led many to expect a Reconstruction policy that envisioned far-reaching change in the defeated South. Even Radical Republicans endorsed him.

To the dismay of Congress, first he recognized Southern governments created under the Lincoln administration, (Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia) and on May 29, 1865 began the wholesale pardoning and returned confiscated property to Southerners who took an oath pledging loyalty to the United States and their support for emancipation. It was clear from a $20,000 clause in Johnson’s amnesty , that his wrath was directed toward the old Southern elite, not the Confederacy as a whole. [9] He then began appointing provisional governors. His Gubernatorial appointments reflected a variety of candidates, but primarily old Unionists and Whigs, who were neither secessionist, nor were anti-slavery. [10] Unionist opinion on freedmen in the border and southern states, during the period, can be gauged by the comments of John Henderson, a co author of the thirteenth amendment, a Unionist senator for the State of Missouri, he declared in 1864, ‘We give him no right except his freedom, and leave the rest to the States.’ [11] Henderson and many of his colleagues in the Congress and old slave States assumed that the abolition of slavery carried with it no rights at all. Sharing this attitude the new governors of the Southern States worked to assure that Emancipation Proclamation had not changed the working status of the freedmen. Florida Governor William Marvin advised freedmen to ‘return to the plantations, labour diligently, and call your old Master- “Master”.’ In Southern states, politics began reverting to their pre-war status. The resulting state conventions and elections of 1865 and 1866 left Southern states in the hands of Unionist Whigs and Upcountry Unionists, all intent on keeping the government of each state in the hands of whites. Several states were reluctant to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and in solving the labour problems of the states, Legislatures passed what is known as the “Black Codes”.

These “Black Codes” were centralized around keeping agricultural labour tied, through State enforced labour agreements, to plantations, punishment for workers who would not contract, and to prevent whites from competing among themselves for black labourers. As Benjamin Flanders of the Louisiana legislature said, “Their [the South’s] whole thought and time will be given to plans for getting things back as near to slavery as possible.’ [12] 

The Congressional election of 1866 brought a Republican majority of two-thirds to Washington. With Johnson’s actions, Congress began the process of rejecting his policies. In 1866, The Freedman’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bill passed in Congress. Johnson vetoed the Freedman’s Bureau Bill, deriding it as an “immense patronage” which was unwarranted and unaffordable, and also commented that no such special treatment had been given to “our own people”. President Johnson too, never wavered from the conviction that the status of blacks should not become an obstacle to the prompt completion of Reconstruction. As he viewed the federal government as lacking sufficient authority over the states for which to impose a policy of equality with regard to the freed slaves. [13] As a final blow, in addressing Congress in 1867, he insisted that blacks had less capacity for government than any other race of people. ‘No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, whenever they have been left to their own devices, they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.’ [14] 

He also repudiated the Civil Rights Bill for extending federal powers too far, a ‘stride toward central government, and the concentration of all legislative powers in the national Government.’ [15] To add further insult to the progressives of his own party he declared that, ‘The distinction of race and colour is by the bill in favour of the coloured and against the white.’ [16] Congress though overrode Johnson’s veto, the Civil Rights Bill thus became the Fourteenth Amendment. It provided for; national citizenship, unbridgeable by any state, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, and barring rebels from voting in national elections until 1870; legislative representation based solely on adult males, removing the old three-fifths rule ; banning from Congress, Presidency or Vice-presidency any former rebels; acknowledged Federal debt for the war, while excluding that of the Confederacy. [17] 

The mood in Congress was that the president had been effectively stripped of his power, and that acts of Congress would go through regardless of his wishes . In the conviction that only a prolonged period of federal control could enable loyal public opinion to sink deep roots, Congress extended manhood suffrage to the territories and began a process that would extend martial law into the former Confederate States. [18] 

Although, Congress had provided nothing substantive in land reform (no “forty acres and a mule”), the South slowly evolved into a new form of “free labour” system. Northern investors purchased land, formed partnerships with Southern planters or leased land themselves. [19] With the influx of northern capital land prices rose and this pulled planters, whose only asset was land, out of debt, stabilising the class. These carpetbaggers came in search of fortunes to be made in cotton.

With stabilization, came a need for labour. While Southern planters expected a return to labour under the working conditions of slavery, freedmen now had the ability to exercise more control over their working conditions. They rejected the old “gang system” from the days of slavery and increased bargaining power by forcing local planters to compete for labour and eventually to compete with railroads and industry. [20] The net result was a loss of labour hours since long days and child and female labour could be curtailed. This led to a reshaping of the plantation, and also of the black family, with women staying at home, rather than working in the fields. Thus was lost, as a Georgian planter put it, ‘a very important percent of the entire labour of the South.’

Slowly, a system of tenancy and sharecropping arose, giving blacks an opportunity to climb the agricultural ladder to land ownership. [21] With this slow evolution, a reversal of the domesticity of women followed, due to the need for them to contribute directly to family wealth. Most importantly, it forced blacks and whites to find some common ground for mutual benefit and survival. Credit, however, proved to be a more difficult issue. What rose was a system based on credit from local merchants in the form of crop liens. In order to assure repayment the merchants required at least a portion of crops be planted in cotton, which could be easily sold, and as a result, to obtain additional credit, farmers were compelled to concentrate more heavily on the production of cotton. Thus the lack of production of consumables made it impossible for black farm tenants to use sharecropping as a means for the accumulation of money and the acquisition of land. [22] At each turn, the options and prospects for freedmen were continually limited.

By 1867, the Reconstruction Acts passed through Congress establishing martial law in five districts composed of the Southern states and outlined the method of setting up new constitutions, including black suffrage. This, of course, applied only to the defeated Southern states. With these Acts, politics arose as the principal focus of black aspirations. Ministers, lecturers, and most importantly the Union League, which emerged as the political voice of impoverished freed slaves, invigorated black voters throughout the South. Between 1864 and 1867 black political leaders emerged at the local, state, and national level. They were made up of a wide variety of individuals, from the illiterate, to former soldiers, and other men, respected for personal qualities. [23] With political power, and the Freedman’s Bureau, schools were established, medical facilities (largely left by the army) were operated and expanded into areas previously not under military control and a vision of change could be seen. [24] These years were undoubtedly the high-water mark for freedmen’s powers and privileges, but unfortunately it would not last.

During the same period, two dangerous trends emerged that had tremendous impact on Reconstruction. Republicans controlling Congress began a serious breakdown in how Reconstruction was to be formed. In Michael Les Benedict’s essay The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction the theme that is most apparent, during the period, is one of confusion and discord over the evolving role of the federal government, and the potential for superseding states. rights. Concern was more over the vastly expanding federal powers than on actually using such powers to make positive and permanent change. Only as the Reconstruction process neared completion did many Republicans finally appreciate its fundamental weakness. As the Southern States met Congresses conditions and pushed for restoration in 1868, Republicans suspected that their acquiescence with the Reconstruction Acts was more apparent than genuine.

Congress suffered from the lack of vision that confronted the Freedman’s Bureau in assisting in the South’s labour problem: as Foner remonstrates the greatest failing of the Freedman’s Bureau was that it could not quite comprehend the extent of racial antagonism and class conflict that existed in the South during the reconstruction period. [25] In this one statement, when extended to include policy-makers in the North, is the root of the failure of Reconstruction.

While Republican leaders laboured to consolidate a party and government, plagued by racism, factionalism and corruption, as well as developing a program capable of winning white support while serving the needs of the slave it had freed, and establish themselves as a fixture on the South’s political landscape, their opponents were organizing to bring Reconstruction to a violent, irreversible end. The white backlash against the Reconstruction Acts was severe. The Ku Klux Klan began spreading intimidation throughout the South and launching attacks against Republican leaders white and black. [26] Violence, intimidation and anarchy spread through the southern states as the Klan launched their reign of terror.

Congress responded in 1870 and 1871 by passing the Enforcement Acts. The first act was designed to devise a criminal code for the execution of free elections, and the second to strengthen enforcement. Though these Enforcement Acts were designed with the Democratic practices in Northern cities more fully in mind than in conditions within the South. This was a clear indication that black involvement in the political process was no more welcome in the North than the South. Next came the Ku Klux Klan Act of April 1871, which provided protection of civil rights under federal law. [27] Wildly unpopular in the South, they were ultimately unenforceable.

Universal male suffrage was pushed through with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. While it seemed a crown to Reconstruction, throughout the nation, states found ways to circumvent the law. Through requirements of poll taxes, gerrymandering, and devious practices, black voting was delayed or blocked. With blockage came a return of Southern Democrats to Redeem and Reconstruct State governments in a form tolerable to whites and exclusive of blacks. As Foner emphasize, many of these Democratic leaders spoke of a new era in Southern politics, while privately many to undo the evil of black suffrage as soon as possible. [28] 

In its continual battle with President Johnson, including his impeachment trial, Congress continued to turn the Washington spotlight away from Reconstruction. Furthermore, President Johnson’s acquittal again weakened the Radical position within the Party and made the nomination of General Ulysses Simpson Grant all but inevitable in the 1868 Presidential election. Grant’s political views pushed him more in line with Democrats, but his support of congressional policy made him an acceptable compromise candidate as Republicans moved to consolidate their position. [29] Throughout the Grant administration issues of industrialization, railroads, and Westward expansion filled the consciousness of the North. The profits of capitalism and progress of expansion made the pain and continual difficulty of reconstruction easier to ignore and policies weakened.

Once the presidential election of 1877 became mired in controversy, with the election of the Republican Rutherford Birchard Hayes over the Democrat Samuel Joned Tilden in question, political upheaval ensued. But, with the “Bargain of 1877“, Hayes became President and the negotiations produced results inescapable by February 1877: Hayes inauguration and the end of Reconstruction. [30] The compromise assured Democrats that President Hayes would appoint at least one southerner to his cabinet, withdraw federal troops from the South and end the process of Reconstruction. This agreement had the effect of restoring Democratic dominance in the Southern State, thereby ending to a great extent the federal government’s role in Reconstruction.

As a congressman, between 1864-67, Hayes had been a supporter of radical Reconstruction. As Ohio Governor, he expressed approval of the Fifteenth Amendment. Though as President he could not help but succumb to the clear wishes of the public. On election day only Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina remained under the control of Republican governments and by the day of Hayes’ inauguration Florida’s Republican government had already fallen to the Democrats. Despite the assurances of Republican’s that as President Hayes would put an to end reconstruction, with the compromise of 1877, the process was already crumbling before he took office. Reconstruction crumbled as the Republican governments in the South crumbled, and as the military was unable to both maintain Republican control or police the Southern States. Thus by the end of 1878 with federal troops withdrawing from the South and the reinvigorated Democratic party gaining majorities in every southern state the political landscape appeared little different from what it had been in 1860. The unreconstructed nature of the white southerners left the freed slaves in and odious position, as the withdrawal of federal forces left them to mercy of the State governments. In his inauguration speech Hayes had declared it his intention to, ‘Forever wipe out in our political affairs the colour line and the distinction between North and South, to the end that we may have not merely a united North or a united South, but a united country.’ [31] By the end of 1877 Hayes although not managing to wipe out the distinction between North and South did create the conditions by which the Southern states felt able to join The United States in a United country. This was effectively achieved by through a modus Vivendi with the South. With the consequence of sacrificing the aspirations and hopes of freed slaves. Without federal protection in the South freed slaves faced discrimination as their rights guaranteed by the Constitutional amendments of the period were circumvented by Southern state governments.

It was during President Hayes period that the “Jim Crow laws”, Laws of Racial Segregation, spread through the south. They were legislated by the newly installed Democratic State governments, segregating freed slaves from the white population. As federal troops withdrew blacks faced even more discrimination and intimidation at the polls. Though after 1877 Democrats passed law that made elections more restrictive, through the imposition of restrictions on voter registration. The result of course was that freedmen, as well as some whites, could not vote. Frederick Douglas statement in 1865 that, ‘slavery is not over until the black man has the ballot’ thus shows the contradiction that can be witnessed when examining the Reconstruction period and the position of freed slaves. Black men may have been granted the vote but at face value their rights were still not regarded as equal to that of the white men, and this was not just an opinion shared in the Southern States. Their rights were acknowledged but then they were largely left without provision.

Reflecting back on Reconstruction, it is clear that the opportunities for real change were missed, tied up in political rhetoric, or never actually existed. The North was in no way prepared for the mammoth task that lay ahead. Remaining from Antebellum political thought, blacks were never considered to be part of the grander scheme of democracy. Since no set of rules existed for accepting rebellious states into the Union, or confiscating lands for the use of the homeless resulting from the end of slavery, Presidential and Congressional debate blocked progress. While finally, as the “Guilded Age” of America and the enormous industrial growth of the North and West exploded, financial lures proved more provocative than national political progress, and the Reconstruction of the South was allowed to simple slip away. Northerners after a decade just became tired of the reconstruction. Though the Reconstruction in a sense was a limited success. America, after 1877, could once again be called The United States. All of the southern states had drafted new constitutions; ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and pledged loyalty to the Union. Together, the Civil War and Reconstruction also settled the States’ rights vs. federalism debate that had been going on since the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of the 1790s and the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s.

However, although Reconstruction was a success in a broad sense, it was a failure in several explicit ways. The swift changes in political power in the South rendered useless most of the legislation that Radical Republicans had passed through Congress. While President Hayes removal of federal troops from the South in 1877 allowed many former Confederates and slave owners to regain power, and this return of power to whites also meant a return to the policies of the old South. Democrat politicians passed the “Black Codes” and voter qualifications and allowed the sharecropping system to thrive. This return to form was in actual fact supported by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, whose key court rulings between the 1870s and into the 1880s effectively repealed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

The North and South arrived at a compromise, whereby black civil right and racial equality would be set aside, in order to restore the Union and as it turned out, blacks would not regain the support of the federal government for nearly another hundred yea

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