Was Reconstruction a noble experiment that failed, a vengeful Northern punishment of the South, or the best that could have been expected under the circumstances?
Reconstruction after the Civil War was needed. The nation had been torn apart, and there was a lot to be done to heal the Union and bring it back to a point where it could grow stronger. Yet the process of reconstruction was abused as many sued it to punish the South, the freed slaves, and to increase their own pockets. Reconstruction was a noble experiment that did not live up to its full potential.
Lincoln had his own plan of reconstruction in mind, but Booth took that away from the nation when he put a bullet into the President. Johnson moved up to the noble office and created his own form of reconstruction that included a “vow of loyalty to the Nation and the abolition of slavery that Southern states were required to take before they could be readmitted to the Nation.” (1) He was determined that the Southern states understand that the Union was not to be tampered with in the future. If they wanted back into the nation as a whole with all the privileges, they had to renounce their desire to be separate. That would include accepting the fact that slavery was forever gone.
The Southern states might have thought they had it bad, but the former slaves were finding out quickly that the reconstruction was going to be hard on them. Limits were placed on how many former slaves could move toward the West. The South refused to let the free blacks become a part of society. They were determined to keep it close to the way it used to by implementing “cruel and severe black code laws” with the intent to “control or reimpose the old social structure.” (2) The rights the slaves thought they had with their emancipation was quickly being taken away by the individual states. The silver lining was dulling at a rather quick pace.
The Federal government was able to help some, but the effects of that help were limited. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 only went so far. The black codes kept all those who were former slaves and their descendants in a new form of slavery which included life as servants and introduced share-cropping which became a legal form of slavery the South was glad to accept. But the former slaves still had more freedom than they did from a government stand-point. They could now vote.
The reconstruction of the nation after the war was vital, but in the end, the former slaves found themselves back as being lower class citizens with restrictions imposed at every turn. They were free legally, but their freedom was severely curtailed. They were not equal to the white man. That had to wait another hundred years. Slavery had officially been abolished, but it was still alive and well.
(1) “Reconstruction Era: 1865-1877”, Library System, Howard University, http://www.howard.edu/library/reference/guides/reconstructionera/default.htm.