Reconstruction Period

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,410
Albuquerque, NM
In a short space, Spellbinder has ably made a case for those who see the 19th century as a terrible time. It was that, but it was also a period that was important to the development of human progress, and a trans-formative period in the progress of Western Civilization. However, the OPs focus was, Why is the American Reconstruction Period so overshadowed by other periods?

Students of American History are, of course, very familiar with the period. That the general public is not is hardly surprising. The Civil War is like a Black Hole in our history. It was the final act in failures, trends, and unintended consequences that existed from the adoption of the Constitution. The Civil War engaged and touched more Americans personally than any thing else, even WWII. It was, as civil wars often are, an event that destroyed property, relationships, and rosy dreams of the future leaving the population embittered and resentful. Once you start studying the period, it's hard to move on without finding yourself in a feedback loop to the "Late Unpleasantness".

The American Civil War was inherently dramatic, and a natural subject for literature, film and television. Unfortunately, that's about the extent that most folks know the history of American history in the 19th century. Not one in fifty could name any 19th century Presidents beyond Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, and maybe Polk. That is only four of seventeen! During the period of 1865 - 1900, the public has always been more interested in what was happening out along the frontier (Indian Wars, conflicts between "Free Range" Ranchers and "Sod-busting" farmers seeking a new life). The American landscape is awesome in its size, and emptiness even today. It is a backdrop to American notions of untrammeled personal freedoms, even when those freedoms conflict with civilization's laws. The American West was a pressure relief chamber where the past could be buried, and a new life invented. "Gone to Texas" was almost as common in the Northern States as it was in the South where many thousands migrated. Why not, they white population had lost heavily and were subject to often harsh treatment by carpetbaggers, vengeful Union troops, and those who had until recently been their inferiors. The American West was the future, and Old South was the past.

Those whites left behind weren't the sort not to resist the changes forced upon them. They sabotaged programs where they could, they terrorized and murdered many of those who were intended to "reconstruct" the South. They formed secret societies to terrorize and prevent the newly freed slaves from ever forgetting that they were inferior and of little worth. Actually, there were many very competent Black legislators, able and honest Union backed administrators during the period. What the Old Guard saw instead, was an occupation army that favored in almost every instance repugnant new ways. Reconstruction was a costly and frustrating effort for the North, not terribly different from our recent experiences in SW Asia. After nearly 10 years, the South had really changed very little. The old White leaders had managed to recover many of their State's legislatures. and were enacting laws that in effect nullified the efforts toward Reconstruction.

In 1874, a terribly dirty national election resulted in a bargain that was the end of Reconstruction. To insure the election of Rutherford B. Hays, Reconstruction was formally ended. The Republican Party retained, with a few exceptions, the White House until the beginning of the 20th century (think Cleveland and Wilson). During that long period the Federal Government only very reluctantly made any effort to constrain business. Business interests were driving the development of the country with new railroads, manufacturing, and a rising standard of living for the privileged. That view was arguably what the Constitution envisioned. What was overlooked was that the concentration of wealth and growth of monopolistic business practices tended to also restrict the ability of Americans to succeed on their own. Railroads were notorious for giving low freight rates to "friends" while charging small shippers outrageously high rates. The Railroads had obtained for themselves title to lands for miles along both sides of their rail lines, and those were the most valuable. Wage slavery and the fleecing of recent emigrants from Europe, fueled urban industries and made their owners fabulously rich.

It was, the Gilded Age. Lavish spending and class arrogance on one hand was balanced by the poverty, hunger and unmet needs of the general population. Toward the end of the period, the Federal Government was beginning to respond to problem by passing a number of Federal Bills to beak up and reduce the power of the most oppressive businesses. During the period there arose organizations to change business practices and restore a more equitable balance. There were the Granges, the beginnings of a labor movement, and the Progressive Party.

The last 25 years of the 19th century in America saw numerous improvements. New farming technology increased crop yields. Shipment of foods across the nation to feed the hungry millions laboring in the East, made ranchers and farmers "out west" successful. Telegraph service was common even in the most remote hamlet, and telephones were just around the corner. By the end of the century, automobiles and electric lights were beginning to appear. Edison had invented the phonograph, and literacy rates were the highest in American history. Teddy Roosevelt's dreams of Empire were beginning to come true. American Idealism and mass circulation newspapers resulted in the Spanish-American War. However, many deplored and hated American possession of the Philippine Islands.

Those 10 years directly after the Civil War, sorta get lost in the drama and importance of event both before and after Reconstruction.
 
Last edited:
Jul 2019
1
Sofia, Bulgaria
Americans talk perpetually about the Civil War and the events that led up to it. Very little is mentioned of Reconstruction. In you opinion why is that?
In my opinion, compared with the Civil War period the Reconstruction seems not that startling and full of events. It was politically significant for the South, but it actually was a time of stagnation. Of this period no show or amusing movie can be made. Nevertheless it is not ignored by historians. A great amount of books is written on Reconstruction.
 
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Port

Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
2,092
portland maine
Historians haven't ignored Reconstruction. Quite a bit has been written about it. But if you can't turn it into a movie (like the major wars), or if it doesn't have a happy or triumphant ending (like Civil Rights or the Revolutionary Period), then the layman doesn't usually care. But I don't think this is unique to United States history. Lots of French people and French history buffs can go on for days about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, but talk about the Revolution of 1848, which had a huge impact on mid-late nineteenth century European political and intellectual history, and you are more likely to hear crickets than spirited discussion. Most anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of European history is familiar with the works of eighteenth century French intellectuals Voltaire and Rousseau, considerably less of equally influential nineteenth century French intellectuals such as Auguste Comte (the founder of Sociology) and Charles Fourier (the most influential Utopian Socialist).
 

Port

Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
2,092
portland maine
Personally I find the period of reconstruction exciting regarding movies take the Birth of a nation and iits impact would be a powerful area to study. The first black members off Congress, one Senator, sheriffs andgovernors elected, Reconstruction still influences racial divides today. The role of the Supreme courts decision that ate away at the 14th amendment as well as the very strange decision of Slaughter house Cases, US versus Cruikshank ( I have never understood these 2 decisions)., not to mention Plessy V, Fergusom. The re enslavement process through tenant farming and the prison system. ( great book Slavery by another name) The debate between "the "talented 10 per cent "or separate and skilled There is so much there I only wish I could write - there are fiction non fiction & great movies to be made about this period.
 
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pikeshot1600

Ad Honorem
Jul 2009
9,960
The avowed social-political aspects of Reconstruction were ahead of their time. The attitudes of southern Whites (and also of northern Whites) were no different socially in 1870 than they had been in 1860.

What was at work in the South was a good number of Republicans gaining control of southern legislatures in order to plunder and dominate their defeated - mostly Democrat - enemy. That Black representation appeared in Congress was, IMO, resented by establishment politicians both Republican and Democratic. There were no purges, mass executions or involuntary exile of southerners, but let's not be naive and think that after a brutal war they were all "brothers again." They were not. Reconstruction was a euphemism for pay back.

The course of Reconstruction distracted from the industrialization of the northern United States, and from its westward expansion. As such, the country grew tired of the South, was bored with its issues, and the nation turned its attention to other priorities. The Presidential election of 1876 was the effective political event that ended Reconstruction. A number of compromises in politics returned the South to its established, entrenched elites and the South became what it remained for 100 years, a backwater. Despite the poverty of the south, Whites, in the form of their elites, enjoyed social, and their own economic, domination.

Progress for freed slaves was minimal. There were eventually some educational opportunities for a few, but economic advancement was extremely difficult. Black political participation was virtually eradicated. Enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution was completely ignored in Southern states, and as late as the 1920s Black citizens were openly being denied the franchise to vote and to much due process.
 
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betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,425
Enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution was completely ignored in Southern states, and as late as the 1920s Black citizens were openly being denied the franchise to vote and to much due process.
As late as the 1960s. Jim Crow was intensified in the 1890s. It wasn't ended until the US Congress and Courts forced its end.
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,425
In my opinion, compared with the Civil War period the Reconstruction seems not that startling and full of events. It was politically significant for the South, but it actually was a time of stagnation. Of this period no show or amusing movie can be made. Nevertheless it is not ignored by historians. A great amount of books is written on Reconstruction.
The Reconstruction period is still controversial. As mentioned, "Birth of a Nation" from 1915 dealt with Reconstruction. It was a breakthrough in cinema, but glorified KKK violence as stopping the evils of Reconstruction and black political power.
 

pikeshot1600

Ad Honorem
Jul 2009
9,960
As late as the 1960s. Jim Crow was intensified in the 1890s. It wasn't ended until the US Congress and Courts forced its end.
Yes, that is not in dispute. I should have expanded a bit, such as nearly all the former CSA states enacting laws, and even new constitutions, that made it virtually impossible for non-Whites to vote. That happened at the turn of the 20th century and on into its early decades. By the 50s and 60s it was legally entrenched, in violation of the US Constitution.
 

Code Blue

Ad Honorem
Feb 2015
4,397
Caribbean
Americans talk perpetually about the Civil War and the events that led up to it. Very little is mentioned of Reconstruction. In you opinion why is that?
There are entire books written on the subject. And many other books that include it.

IMO, history, like all knowledge is something one must want; something one must actively seek and diligently pursue.
 
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