An Ambiguous Legacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Reconstruction was not an unalloyed success, although the degree to which it did succeed–or failed–is still debated today. We have seen that paramilitary groups interfered with the electoral process and with the daily lives of African Americans. These attacks occurred despite the military occupation of much of the South by federal forces and the existence of a system of military justice. Although racism and the legacy of slavery and the Civil War were very much at issue in these postwar conflicts, they were also a manifestation of continued hostility in the South toward a “robust” federal system as a whole and the concomitant trampling of states' rights. At least that is what animated some of the more ardent believers in the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and the traditional political culture it represented.

Reconstruction was not an unalloyed success, although the degree to which it did succeed–or failed–is still debated today. We have seen that paramilitary groups interfered with the electoral process and with the daily lives of African Americans. These attacks occurred despite the military occupation of much of the South by federal forces and the existence of a system of military justice. Although racism and the legacy of slavery and the Civil War were very much at issue in these postwar conflicts, they were also a manifestation of continued hostility in the South toward a “robust” federal system as a whole and the concomitant trampling of states' rights. At least that is what animated some of the more ardent believers in the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and the traditional political culture it represented.

In this final section we look at a number of developments unfolding at the tail-end of the Reconstruction era. The section opens with an examination of the U.S. Supreme Court decision United States v. Cruikshank. The Cruikshank decision effectively put a break on federal actions in the area of state elections, affirming the rule of states in such matters. The decision made it clear that if an election is disrupted–by, for example, a white militia–the federal government has no right to step in and pursue criminal charges against individuals alleged to have disrupted it; that, rather, is a matter for the states to pursue (or not). We hear a counterview from a black Republican of Mississippi, Blanche Bruce, who argues that whites in his state were attempting to “redeem” themselves and their cause on the backs of free blacks.

Also supporting the promise of Reconstruction and its achievements to date are Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant. Douglass provides his inspiring remarks, in which he reflects back on President Abraham Lincoln, in the form of an address given on the occasion of the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument in Washington, D.C. Grant provides his comments in the form of a letter to (Republican) South Carolina governor Daniel Chamberlain. Grant writes that “a government that cannot give protection to life, property, and all guaranteed civil rights … to the citizen … is a failure, and every energy of the oppressed should be exerted … to regain lost privileges and protections.”

That was written in the summer of the same year, 1876, in which the landmark Hayes-Tilden presidential election occurred and the bargaining began to put Hayes in office and give to Tilden and his supporters in the South the deal of the century: the end of a federal presence there. Thus ended Reconstruction, after barely ten years. And so began the return of the South to its traditional roots, albeit absent slavery and the old plantation economy. Still, white supremacy was allowed to flourish under Jim Crow for the next hundred years. We end the present section with an example of a sharecropper's contract, a document that reflects the exploitation of black southerners seeking to support themselves by white landowners.

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