The Successes of Reconstruction

Reconstruction was a success in the sense that 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’ fights vs. federalism debate that had been going on since the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of the 1790s and the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. As one historian noted, the United States before the Civil War were a country, but the United States after the war was a nation.

The Failures of Reconstruction

However, although Reconstruction was a success in a broad sense, it was a failure in several specific ways. The swift changes in political power in the South rendered useless most of the legislation that Radical Republicans had passed through Congress. Rutherford B. Hayes’s 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 policy of the old South. Southern politicians passed the black codes and voter qualifications and allowed the sharecropping system to thrive—all with the support of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, whose key court rulings in the 1870s and 1880s effectively repealed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

As a result, by 1877, northerners were tired of Reconstruction; weary of battling southern elites, scandal, and radicalism; and had largely lost interest in supporting black civil rights. Theoretically, North and South reached a compromise: black civil liberties and racial equality would be set aside in order to put the Union back together. As it turned out, blacks would not regain the support of the federal government until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Popular pages: Reconstruction (1865–1877)