The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) was a time of great change and hope for the United States following the American Civil War. Unfortunately, due to many social and political factors, this hope was never fully realized, and the Reconstruction Era ended largely in failure and suspended forward-progress toward the equality many in this country had trusted to achieve. Reconstruction ended 140 years ago, and yet many of the issues facing this country in the post-Civil War Era are still very relevant today, a fact that makes for fascinating analysis of this era in American history. In addition, much of the historical legislation enacted during that time period—i.e., the Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Bill of Rights—persist today as vastly important to the premises on which American values stand. Reconstruction was a political, social, and economic attempt to do exactly what its name implies—“reconstruct” a nation that had been divided by a brutal and bloody Civil War. With eleven southern states having seceded from the United State prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, one of Reconstruction’s tasks was to solve the problem of how to readmit those states and re-unify the divided country. Moreover, Reconstruction was an early attempt at “interracial democracy,” where certain political leaders, such as President Abraham Lincoln, envisioned equality for the recently freed black slaves and other minorities. Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, at the onset of Reconstruction, and his successor, President Andrew Johnson, was far less visionary. Johnson’s adversarial relationship with Congress made passing legislation difficult, and Johnson, reportedly a racist himself, often sought to counter movements for black equality at every turn. Ultimately, Reconstruction sought to address equality and establish rights for freedmen; however, the south faced many social and political issues prohibiting its success, namely ideologies such as rhetoric aimed at (falsely) victimizing southern whites, reverse discrimination, the creation of an imagined national mythos of supposed “Negro Rule,” and the corruption and racist attitudes of then President Johnson, to name a few.
The problems faced by Reconstruction in the south were based on corruption and white supremacist attitudes. Following the Civil War, as the government began to implement legislation aimed at ensuring equal rights for freedmen, there was a southern backlash against the movement for equality. In an odd example of reverse discrimination, rhetoric began erupting that portrayed whites as somehow facing persecution and/or being threatened by the newly liberated black freedoms. Films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation “depicted illiterate, uncouth, and lecherous-for-white-women black men who had supposedly taken the reins of power in Southern states during Reconstruction.” This view cast the newly-freed blacks as the villains in a motion picture in which the whites were the true heroes, (falsely) victimized by the threat of black emancipation.
Ironically, this viewpoint has persisted for many decades, even up to present day, where some texts still teach Restoration as being a period of the victimization of the defeated south by northern “carpetbaggers,” “scalawags,” and uncivilized blacks. According to scholarly research, this view was a fabrication created by the marginalized south, who, having just lost a major war, had to endure the indignity of watching the men and women they had so recently considered their “property” enjoy the same rights as themselves. Unfortunately, backed by President Johnson, this rhetoric took a foothold in the country’s imagined consciousness, and soon came fears of the black specter of “Negro Rule.” It seems clear that the actual reality of the Reconstruction Era did not conform to the narrative of the imagined national threat espoused during this time period. Instead, Johnson was lauded as a hero for the people, an individual trying to save the white majority from the clutches of the “evil” freedmen and northerners bent on exploiting and subjugating the hardworking southern folk. Instead of working to realize freedom and equality, the supposed goals of the Restoration, this imagined narrative paved the way for continued racism and hate crimes against blacks, i.e., the Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, segregation, public lynchings, continued denial of voting rights, refusal of rights to own private property, etc.
Political historian Gregory P. Downs has noted, “It took a lot of time and effort to establish the myths of Reconstruction. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to tear down those myths.” The myths that Downs mentions were the predominate issues faced by the south during Reconstruction, and they were the main cause of Reconstruction’s failure. The Reconstruction Era was a monumental time for change and progress, and yet its goals were hindered by political and social ideologies that demonized blacks and made whites the apparent victims. Reconstruction is still discussed today, largely because its issues—i.e., admission to citizenship and voting privileges, continued and pervasive racism guised by white nationalism, hate crimes, and the influence of an imagined narrative on public consciousness (today we might call it “fake news”)—are all current hot button topics in our contemporary society, especially post-2016 election. Have we learned from Reconstruction’s failures? Possibly. However, it is surely distressing to realize that the basic issues that faced the progenitors of Reconstruction Era politics are the same issues with which we still struggle today. Reconstruction was emblematic of the American paradox, i.e., the idea that we are a country deeply conflicted—one whose propensity for imagistic and visionary thinking on basic human freedoms can be simultaneously offset by a deepened sense of nationalistic gullibility and a persistent belief in the established hierarchy and the unfortunate status quo.
- Foner, Eric. “Reconstruction,” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified May 5, 2015.
- “Why Reconstruction Matters.” The New York Times, Sunday Review. March 28,
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. “What if Reconstruction Hadn’t Failed?” The Atlantic. October 26,
- Schuessler, Jennifer. “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era.” New York Times
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