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As a country, America has gone through many political changes throughout her lifetime. Leaders have come and gone, all of them having different objectives and plans for the future. As history takes its course, though, most all of these “revolutionary movements” come to an end. One such movement was Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was a time period in America consisting of many leaders, goals and accomplishments. Though, like all things in life, it did come to an end, the resulting outcome has been labeled both a success and a failure. When Reconstruction began in 1865, a broken America had just finished fighting the Civil War. In all respects, Reconstruction was mainly just that. It was a time period of “putting back the pieces”, as people say. It was the point where America attempted to become a full running country once more. This, though, was not an easy task. The memory of massive death was still in the front of everyone’s mind, hardening into resentment and sometimes even hatred. The south was virtually non-existent politically or economically, and searching desperately for a way back in.
Along with these things, now living amongst the population were almost four million former slaves, who had no idea how to make a living on their own. They had been freed by the 13th amendment in 1865, and in the future became a great concern to many political leaders. Still, it was no secret that something had to be done. So, as usually happens, political leaders appeared on the stage, each holding their own plan of Reconstruction, each certain their ideas were the correct ones.
One of the first people who came up with a blueprint for Reconstruction was the president at the time, Abraham Lincoln. The “Lincoln Plan” was a very open one, stating that after certain criteria were met a confederate state could return to the union. To rejoin, a state had to have ten percent of voters both accept the emancipation of slaves and swear loyalty to the union. Also, those high ranking officers of the state could not hold office or carry out voting rights unless the president said so. Well, sadly enough, Honest Abe was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865, before he could put his plan to the test. After his death, several other political leaders emerged with plans in hand. These men were of the Republican Party, and they called themselves Radicals. The Radical Republicans that came out to play after Lincoln’s death had two main objectives to their cause. First, they were mad at the south, blaming them for the Civil War that had just ended. Ergo, they wanted to punish them and make them pay. Secondly, they wanted to help all of the near four million slaves who were now free men after the war. They felt these “men” needed protection, and it was their job to do so.
There were three main Radical Republican leaders. These men were Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and the formally inaugurated president Andrew Johnson. Thaddeus Stevens was a very political man, holding a place in the House of Representatives. His main concern was the economic opportunity for slaves. He wanted them to be able to make a living on their own, and not depend on the “white man” as they had done all their lives. Thinking almost on these same lines was Charles Sumner. He was a senator who fought mainly for political rights for African Americans, as well as for their citizenship. He felt that the “all men are created equal” part of the constitution really should hold up for everybody. Well, for men that is.
Finally there was President Andrew Johnson. Probably due to the fact that he had been Lincoln’s vice president, Johnson had in mind a Reconstruction plan that almost mirrored the former presidents. Many of the Radicals did not approve of Johnson’s plan, though. They felt he went over the limit with 13,000 pardons, and that he wasn’t paying enough attention to the major issue, the rights of slaves. In 1868 Andrew Johnson was impeached. All though he was not removed from office at this time, he was basically without authority. It was at this point that Congress really stepped in with their own plan of Reconstruction.
The Reconstruction Act finally passed by congress had two main points to it. First, troops were required to move in and take up residence in the confederate states of the south. Secondly, any state that wanted back into the union was only allowed to do so when and if they changed their 14th amendment. They had to agree that all men born in the U.S. were citizens, and that because of that they were guaranteed equal treatment by the law. Later, in 1870, black men were also granted the vote…but this would come later. Now, the Reconstruction Act looked really good on paper, but as usually happens in politics somebody rocked the boat. The shakeup took place in the 1876 presidential election. The two men running were Democrat Samuel Tilden, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Due to the closeness of the race, a group of men called a “commission” was set up in order to figure out an outcome. In the end, the result was the Compromise of 1877. In this compromise, Hayes was declared the winner, and this was agreed on by both parties. The real kicker was the other stipulation, though. The military occupation of the southern states was put to an end. No big deal, right? WRONG! Without military force to back them up, the freed slaves living down there were without safety. There was nothing to keep the southerners from taking advantage of the freedmen, and this is exactly what they did. Knowing that they couldn’t directly disobey the law, many southerners set up their own laws, or black codes, that put hard restrictions on African Americans. So, even though protection laws were in place, they did little good with nobody to enforce them. At this point Reconstruction ended. The laws were in place, and though they didn’t always work, some people felt that was enough, they had done their jobs. It’s hard to say for sure whether or not Reconstruction was a success or a failure. Since the time it began people have been debating that question.
Personally, I believe it is a toss-up. I think that though it wasn’t a total success, it was at least a step in the right direction. Granted, laws that were set up weren’t followed strictly. Still, at least laws were being created to protect African American rights. I mean, they were now formally known as citizens, and were given the right to vote. Though not a huge leap, it was a major step. If that doesn’t convince you, think of it this way. Without Reconstruction and the 14th and 15th amendments, another group may have never got the courage to fight for their rights. This group is women. Many suffrage leaders would later look at this point in African American history as a hopeful sign that they, too, might someday be recognized.
So, was Reconstruction a success? Yes. It was a success with exceptions.
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