|The Significance of Reconstruction
|Digital History ID 3110|
If a mid-19th century Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep
in 1857, the year of the Dred Scott decision, and awoke in 1877,
it would probably take him quite a while before he would believe
reports of what had happened during the years he was asleep. He
would learn about a four year civil war that had freed four million
slaves and destroyed half the South's farm implements and livestock;
presidential assassination; ratification of constitutional amendments
abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal rights, and extending the
vote to African Americans; presidential impeachment; and a disputed
presidential election. But when he looked around him, much would
appear unchanged. Southern representatives had returned to Congress,
and they were similar to those who had served before the war.
In each of the southern states, the Democratic Party was securely
in control. The overwhelming majority of African Americans would
still be living in the South, working as farm laborers on land
that they did not own.
Of course, our latter-day Rip Van Winkle would eventually recognize
that despite continuities, fundamental changes had taken place.
Chattel slavery had been defeated. The gang system of labor, enforced
by the whip, was dead. Incredibly, about 20 percent of African
Americans in the South managed to acquire land by 1880. And through
the 1880s, sizeable numbers of African American men in the South
would continue to vote. Real gains had been won, even though full
equality remained an unfulfilled promise.
Like an earthquake, Reconstruction shook southern society's
foundations then subsided. But it left the national landscape
forever changed. Out of Reconstruction came the first statewide
public school systems in the South as well as hospitals, penitentiaries,
and asylums. The first black institutions of higher learning were
founded. Equally important, it was during Reconstruction that the
institutional foundations of the modern black community in the
South were laid, including independent black churches and a growing
number of black landowners, businessmen, clergymen, and teachers.
With the passage of the 14th Amendment, mandating equal rights
for all citizens, and the 15th Amendment, forbidding states to
deny the right to vote because of race, the possibilities for
later attacks on discrimination had been established.
Reconstruction's failure also carried long-term negative consequences.
Racism became more deeply embedded in American society. The South's
economy became almost entirely dependent on a single crop, cotton,
and an increasing number of Southerners were reduced to tenant
farming. One political party, the Democratic Party, monopolized
political power. Violence kept immigrants from migrating to the
region. The roots of half a century of southern poverty had been
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