The era after the Civil War was an era of hope and promise. Blacks were no longer enslaved and many people wanted blacks to achieve equality. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed, legally granting blacks much of the freedom and equality they sought. This twelve year period was known as the Reconstruction. However, by 1877, the Reconstruction was effectively over and enforcement of these amendments stopped. Without federal enforcement, blacks lost many of their newly earned freedoms. The end of Reconstruction was the result of many actions by many different people all over the country. While both the North and South contributed to the downfall of Reconstruction, the South was mainly responsible for its end.
One reason the North ended support for Reconstruction was that they had other, arguably more important, issues to deal with. Instead of focusing on Reconstruction, “many Northern voters shifted their attention to such national concerns as the Panic of 1873 and corruption in Grant’s administration” (C). Northerners felt that Reconstruction was irrelevant to them because it was happening far away, so they did not view it as important. Support and resources were diverted away from the Reconstruction to support the other issues that they felt needed more attention. Another reason that Northern support dwindled, was that many northerners were not ready for some of the reforms that the Reconstruction was pushing for, especially giving blacks political freedom. This was a widespread thought in the North as shown by the pro-freedman Boston Evening Transcript publishing that “the blacks, as a people, are unfitted for the proper exercise of political duties” and that “blacks needed a period of probation and instruction” (D). They felt that blacks were not educated enough to thoughtfully participate in the political system and, therefore, should not participate until they became educated. They also saw blacks as unfit for for office as demonstrated by the northern political cartoon below. Since northerners were not interested in seeing some goals of the Reconstruction fulfilled, their support decreased. This loss of northern interest and support in the Reconstruction was partially responsible for its downfall.
|The cover of Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1874.|
While northern responsibility for the end of Reconstruction is from their neglect, the South did many deliberate and horrible things to force the end of Reconstruction. The main groups pushing for its end were the KKK and other white supremacist organizations. Not only did they attack and intimidate blacks, they also threatened carpetbaggers, who were Northerners in the South who supported Reconstruction, and scalawags, who were southerners who supported Reconstruction. The KKK were ruthless and indiscriminate in their attacks. One republican state senator, John W. Stephens, “was foully murdered by the Ku-Klux in the Grand Jury room of the Court House” (A). Murdering a senator in a courthouse shows that the KKK were trying to send a message; they did not want supporters of the Reconstruction around and they would do anything they had to to end support. These attacks not only eliminated some of the KKK’s key opponents, it terrorized many others into stopping supporting the Reconstruction, as they were not willing to risk their lives for it. One specific goal of the KKK’s terrorism was to prevent blacks from exercising their political freedom. When blacks actually did vote, the KKK would make sure they voted for who the KKK wanted by beating blacks who voted for the republican candidate (B). Not only did this limit their freedom by taking away their free choice, it also led to the end of the Reconstruction. By making blacks vote for democrats or not vote at all, it allowed the KKK’s candidates to win office and pass laws limiting their rights even more. They also were able to put more pressure on the federal government to end Reconstruction from their offices. These were some of the main reasons that the Reconstruction era ended.
While both the North and South played major roles in the ending of the Reconstruction, the South is mainly to blame for it. Northerners grew apathetic on the issue which allowed the KKK and other southern groups to become more aggressive in their intimidation and other methods to end Reconstruction. It was the South that actively and intentionally worked to limit blacks’ rights and stop supporters of the Reconstruction. The North was negligent, but their negligence did not end Reconstruction, it simply gave the South the opportunity to end it. Since the South deliberately worked towards its end, it can be known as the killer of Reconstruction.
A: Albion Tourgee, Letter on Ku Klux Klan Activities, New York Tribune, May 1870.
B: Abram Colby, testimony to a joint House and Senate Committee in 1872.
C: Gerald Danzer et al., The Americans, McDougal Littell, 1998.
D: Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.