At first, Johnson seemed anxious to punish the ex-confederates: he was disappointed that he could not hang Jefferson Davies. Then he started issuing pardons to everyone he could find, which meant that the confederate leaders soon found themselves back in government. The old confederate vice president, Alexander Stephens, was elected to Congress in 1865. In the same year Johnson signed a proclamation which insisted that all land confiscated during the war and given to the freedmen should be returned to its former owners. The blacks’ belief that they were each to receive “40 acres and a mule” was sadly mistaken.
One of Johnson’s biggest mistakes was not to give the South any direction with regard to the freedmen. He believed, and often said, that as long as the Southern states accepted the constitution, ratified the Thirteenth Amendment and repudiated their debts, he would not interfere with their all important “states’ rights.” Consequently they began to do whatever they wanted to deal with the problem of the freedmen. Firstly, organised violence, under the auspices of organisations like the Ku Klux Klan began to take hold. Secondly, states began to impose “black codes,” which were laws intended to supervise the lives of the freedmen. Although no longer slaves, they were being treated almost as such. In the South this was widely accepted. An editorial in a Georgia paper said, “There is such a radical difference in the mental and moral [nature] of the white and black race, that it would be impossible to secure order in a mixed community by the same [law].”
However, in the North it was greeted with outrage. As Johnson failed spectacularly to do anything about them, Congress, under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens, took over as leaders of the Reconstruction movement. The Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act and the extension in the power of the Freedman’s Bureau were passed with the opposition of Johnson. These guaranteed blacks the rights of citizenship, the right to vote and the support of a powerful body working in their interest. For a few years, it looked as though equality might become more of a reality. In the elections of 1867 and ’68 the blacks had the right to vote, and several reached positions of unprecedented seniority and by 1868 most states had repealed the Black Codes. For a brief period there were even two black senators, (the next to be elected was in 1966). Also in 1868 Johnson, after surviving impeachment charges the year before, was replaced as President by Ulysses Grant. Although equally as inept as Johnson, Grant did not try and obstruct Congress in the same way as Johnson had, and the huge republican majority in Congress had almost a free reign to carry on with Reconstruction. Why, then, as civil rights were starting to improve, and Reconstruction could at last carry on unhindered, did it prove such an abject failure? Seven years later it was effectively over, and the situation had almost reverted to that before the war.
It seems that by and large the aim of the Radical Republicans was to create a South in the image of the North before the war, with some improvements such as black suffrage. Perhaps this aim was too simplistic; certainly it was unlikely to succeed. Not only had both the North and South changed considerably since before the war, but they were also very different entities economically, socially and structurally.
For the South the end of the war had brought about a social upheaval. The abolition of slavery had destroyed a way of life, and an economy. In the North very little had changed; the war had been about ideals not practicalities. One of the first things to suffer in the South was the economy, which before the war had been based almost entirely on cotton and slavery. After the war, cotton prices fell sharply, as competition from India had a sharp felt effect, while the loss of such a cheap and readily available labour force was even more devastating. The blacks, who as slaves had been an important part of the economy themselves, were determined not to assume the same role in society as before the war, and would only work reasonable length days for reasonable pay. One solution, proposed by Thaddeus Stevens, would have been the redistribution of some of the land to the blacks, which would probably have revived the economy to some extent, but this was far too radical a suggestion for the time. Instead, after very unsuccessful attempts to recreate the old plantation system (the Black Codes were one such attempt), the estates were divided up into small farms and let to farmers, either black or white. Unfortunately, the entire system was based on debt, and was impossible to sustain. The poor whites simply became worse off, and were joined in poverty by the blacks, who were in almost the same position.
Fortunately for the planters, who were still the richest and most influential, the natural alliance never came about, and instead the whites blamed their troubles on the blacks, along with the scalawags and the carpetbaggers. Organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan benefited from this, and even began to achieve a modicum of respectability in the South, as they were supported by large numbers of Southerners. The Southern leaders became involved to a lesser extent, mostly through propaganda. They spread rumours of corruption within the reconstruction governments and especially the Freedman’s Bureau, which succumbed in 1872.
These divisions amongst people in the South even extended to divisions among the blacks. There was a small but influential middle class of blacks, who did not really cooperate with the majority. The blacks created their own society, which was separate to that of the whites. It could be said that one of the advantages of the American way of life is that communities can be set up and stay almost entirely unconnected to any other. However, in this case the lack of integration did not serve the blacks well at all, mostly because they had very little political power to support their community. At first they saw education as a vital tool to self improvement, but as it became clear that it was not working, they lost interest. In 1890 64% of blacks were still illiterate, although this had risen from 95% in 1865. Religion became very important, but again it was confined to the black community.
Probably the most important reason why reconstruction failed was simply that the North lost interest in the issue. There were very few blacks in the North, so the issue rarely entered the consciousness of the people. Moreover, the idea of actively doing something to promote the rights of the blacks was unfamiliar: many people thought that having their rights enshrined in the Constitution was sufficient. Politics, which could have kept the issue at the forefront of public opinion, lost interest. During the war politics had been something of vital importance, with the interests of the Union above those of parties or personalities, but by 1870 it had returned to the more mundane issues of attracting votes and being re-elected. Republicans realised they had to pander to the views of the Southern whites, while Northern Democrats realised the importance of the black vote. All the radical campaigners such as Stevens retired or lost their enthusiasm, and the government decided that it would be easier to cooperate with the Southern leaders.
In 1877 Hayes was elected President, on the condition that he brought about the end of Reconstruction. In fact, it was already at an end. The Northern political will had died out, to be replaced by apathy in the North and continued and renewed discrimination in the South. Reconstruction had been tried, and it had failed. Some might say that it had been destined to fail from the very beginning, and that the South could not deal with such a radical change in such a short space of time. Whatever the reason for its failure, it left the American South backward and unenlightened for the next eighty years.