Reconstruction After the Civil War
The perceived heroes and villains of Reconstruction varied between the four articles. Wilson claimed heroism to the Southern white men who were forced to take the law into their own hands, since the government had burdened them with issues such as increased taxes. The secret club called the Ku Klux Klan formed “to protect the southern country from some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution…”(11) Woodson however did not see the KKK as heroes but more as villains who as a group “could not tolerate the blacks as citizens.”(13) They established themselves merely to terrorize with lawlessness and violence. Yet another perspective resides with Bailey, who did not take the antics of the KKK seriously enough to consider them heroes or villains. He does not mention the frequent lynchings made famous by the KKK, but calls their actions mere “tomfoolery”. (15) Finally, Norton breaks it down by stating that leaders “allowed factionalism along racial and class lines to undermine party unity.” (19) She goes on to list the KKK’s main purpose for existing, which was to scare and kill former slaves. Thus, accurately calling the KKK terrorists, which they clearly were, puts them in the villain category. While two out of four authors considered the KKK terrorists, identifying the heroes of Reconstruction also demonstrated contrasting views. As mentioned above, Wilson saw the Southern white men as the heroes and protectors of the South. Woodson mentions potential heroes as the Freedman’s Bureau and the Union soldiers. He concentrates on the heroic deed of educating the former slave. With education, comes true freedom. While a hero is not apparent in Bailey’s article, the “Negro-white legislatures passed much desirable legislation and introduced many overdue reforms.” (15) He credits them with initiating needed amenities such as state charities, public works and guaranteed property rights for women. According to Norton, the new Republicans, who consisted of voting blacks and northerners who moved south, along with southern whites in favor of change, brought “progressive reforms adopted earlier in the rest of the nation.” (17) Reforms included public schools and hospital-like institutions. Additionally, Norton mentions that carpetbaggers had come seeking business opportunities and to promote reform. She does not portray them as crooks like the rest of the authors do.
Advancement and progression in race relations since the Civil War confirm the change in opinion on why Reconstruction failed. However not to say that racism no longer exists, its function in society has altered. Upon initially reading the articles, I drew the conclusion that as history moved on, opinions and analyses changed. At the time of the Civil War, the majority of Americans thought themselves above black people, whether they were against slavery or not. In addition, perhaps mainstream historians faced ostracizing and career failure if they spoke their true beliefs on the reasons of a failed Reconstruction.
As Eric Foner mentions, black suffrage was considered the gravest error of the entire Civil War period, because it was correct to think this at the time. “It accorded with firmly entrenched American political and social realities.” (84) Foner also points out that society had yet to purge its racial injustice. Americans were working on so many other reforms that their mindset could not have changed, nor were able to change until later in time. Although Woodson wrote his article in 1922, being African-American, he did not have racism as a cover-up and spoke the truth; in other words, he had nothing to lose within the mainstream attitude.
The four articles see the failure of Reconstruction in different lights. While Wilson blamed the government in general, Woodson states that former slaves were not given enough time to get ahead. Bailey’s assertions of ignorance across the black race show his conservative and racist views. And Norton blames the South for resisting Reconstruction altogether. All agree on the failure of Reconstruction.
Perhaps we should look at the fact that Reconstruction faced a myriad of obstacles from the beginning and was destined to fail. If given the time, I would prefer to stress all the reasons listed in Foner’s article in the classroom. However, since given a choice of the initial four articles, I would stress Mary Beth Norton’s perspective for it is well thought out, modern and extensive. She does not merely blame certain people for the failure, yet goes into detail on what each group did or did not do to help its success. Additionally, by critiquing the four articles in our class, my ability to make a well-reasoned analysis revealed Norton as the most appropriate to teach in the classroom.