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The Failures of The Reconstruction Era

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The Reconstruction era was a tumultuous period in the history of the United States. The Union victory during the Civil War in 1865 awarded African American slaves their freedom. During this time, it appeared as though the freed slaves would socially and politically assimilate themselves successfully into American society. There were many great results of the Congressional Reconstruction but once Reconstruction failed, many educated former slaves proposed several ideas to help African Americans survive in a racially intolerant South. The best result from the Congressional Reconstruction was the right for any male citizen to vote. Congress approved the 15th Amendment on February 1869, which indicated that a United States’ citizen possessed the right to vote and this right could not be rejected on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

However, Reconstruction came to an end and radical groups emerged that posed threats to the African-Americans. The enlightened colored citizens such as Booker T. Washington suggested that African Americans must educate themselves to the best of their ability in order to survive in a racially intolerant South.

The Reconstruction era refers to the period in the United States history during the aftermath of the Civil War. Although the Civil War ceased, the Reconstruction period was similar to a war because the Northerners and Southerners possessed conflicting beliefs and lifestyles. Slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War and three great constitutional amendments were made during the Reconstruction era. The Reconstruction era was a time of numerous changes and enormous hardships. The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in all of the United States and its territories, the fourteenth amendment protected any male citizen regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude and the fifteenth amendment provided African-American males the right to vote. Although massive legislative and political changes were made, American society was slow to accept these changes. Many Southerners and racist Americans found it difficult to accept these new changes and thus it was difficult to enforce these new rules. The Reconstruction era ushered in great changes but also provided new obstacles for freed slaves.

The greatest and longest lasting legacy of the Congressional Reconstruction was the fifteenth amendment where any male citizen was granted the right to vote; regardless of race or previous condition of servitude. It initially appeared as though freed slaves would be successfully incorporated into American society. This was a great and lasting change because it allowed freed slaves to begin to assimilate themselves into American society. Booker T. Washington said, “…it is the duty of the Negro -as the greater part of the race is already doing-to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I think that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night, gourd-vine affair.”

This evinced that the process for freed slaves to successfully integrate themselves into American society would take a long time. He illustrated that it was a necessary step for freed slaves to learn to successfully govern themselves and make wise decisions when he said, “..for a man cannot learn the exercise of self-government by ceasing to vote, any more than a boy can learn to swim by keeping out of the water, but I do believe that in his voting he should more and more be influenced by those of intelligence and character…”. This illustrated that African-Americans must make informed and intelligent choices when voting because it will lead to better self-governance and foster growth for the African-Americans in society. The fifteenth amendment was the longest lasting legacy of the Congressional Reconstruction because today, in American politics, race and color do not inhibit a citizen’s right to vote. This amendment paved the way for women’s suffrage and greater equality among Americans, regardless of gender and race.

When the Reconstruction period ended, many radical groups targeting freed slaves emerged. Numerous African-Americans sought the advice of Booker T. Washington. He advised African-Americans that they should educate themselves to the best of their ability in order to survive in a racially intolerant South. Washington himself struggled and sacrificed tremendously to obtain an education. He said, “The ambition to secure an education was most praiseworthy and encouraging… as soon as one secured a little education, in some unexplainable way he would be free from most of the hardships of the world, and, at any rate, could live without manual labour.

There was a further feeling that a knowledge, however little, of the Greek and Latin languages would make one a very superior human being, something bordering almost on the supernatural.” This quote emphasized Washington’s view of education because it illustrated that freed slaves could avoid laborious manual jobs by pursuing an education and obtaining a better job. He also emphasized that possessing knowledge of Greek and Latin languages was similar to being a divine being. This meant that educated people were compared to supernatural beings because education was so elusive to the African-Americans of that time period. The quote, “Of course the coloured people, so largely without education, and wholly without experience in government, made tremendous mistakes, just as any people similarly situated would have done.” This meant that freed slaves made numerous mistakes due to their inexperience and severe lack of education. This made the whites believe that, “if the Negro is permitted to exercise his political rights now to any degree, the mistakes of the Reconstruction period will repeat themselves.”

Booker T. Washington disagreed because, “the Negro is a much stronger and wiser man than he was thirty-five years ago, and he is fast learning the lesson that he cannot afford to act in a matter that will alienate his Southern white neighbors from him.” He advised African-Americans to educate themselves to make wiser decisions so that the whites would be confident in the freed slaves’ abilities to govern themselves and make positive political and economic contributions to society. Washington believed that education could allow African-Americans to survive in a racially intolerant South and that it could uplift them from their impoverished conditions.

The Reconstruction era brought about numerous changes in America after the Civil War. Many positive outcomes resulted from this time period but many obstacles presented themselves after the Reconstruction ended. African-American males were awarded the right to vote and this was the longest lasting legacy of that time period because it blazed a trail for universal adult suffrage to occur. Booker T. Washington advised many African-Americans to pursue an education and make informed decisions in order to survive in a racially intolerant South and to eventually assimilate themselves successfully into American society.


Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: an Autobiography. Corner House, 1989.

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