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What Factors Lead to the Failure of Reconstruction?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated May 17, 2024
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The failure of reconstruction in the era after the US Civil War of the late 19th century can be attributed to four primary factors. The resistance and subsequent violent acts of Confederate loyalists placed many African-Americans and supporters of racial equality in danger. Hundreds of thousands of white plantation owners and freedmen suffered increasing poverty due to war expenses and destruction, disputes over labor contracts, and the increasing dependence on credit. Finally, lack of effective law enforcement and waning national interest did little to prevent the failure of reconstruction.

After the Civil War ended, much controversy and debate surrounded the issues of reunification and reconstruction of the South. Politicians and leaders of the time each had an opinion on how and under what conditions Confederate states should be allowed to rejoin the Union. Dissension, combined with the resistance and violent acts of Confederate loyalists, caused the eventual failure of post-slavery efforts to reunify and rebuild. Repeated violence and strong resistance were both financially and morally draining on the entire country.

As the United States tried to recover financially during the Reconstruction Era, Southern plantation owners and small farmers were faced with mounting financial struggles. The system of labor required for successful operation of large plantations was in ruins. Disputes over labor contracts, the loss of investments in Confederate bonds, and the move toward cotton as a cash crop all contributed to economic ruin in the Southern states. More farmers, desperate for income from cotton crops and goods supplied by Northern merchants, were forced to purchase on credit or use crops as collateral. High interest rates and several region-wide crop failures plunged many white and African-American farmers into extreme poverty.

Furthermore, while federal regulations provided the legal frame work to give all men equal rights and protection under the law, few mechanisms existed to enforce such laws. Groups of Confederate loyalists were able to freely threaten and harm African-Americans attempting to exercise the rights provided through Constitutional amendments, further contributing to the failure of reconstruction. Costs for reconstruction efforts grew and the more violence that erupted, the less support Northerners expressed. The entire country was ready to shelve the difficult questions raised by the Civil War and return to normalcy, further detracting support for reconstruction efforts.

In short, the failure of reconstruction efforts can be attributed to resistance by Old South supporters, economical conditions, lack of proper law enforcement, and waning interest on the part of Northern supporters of reconstruction. Each factor served to erode the country's confidence in reconstruction efforts and the idealistic support of resources exhausted during this time. By 1877, the failure of reconstruction was fully realized and the entire Reconstruction Era came to a close, leaving issues of racial inequality for future generations to resolve.

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Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On May 22, 2013

Interesting article, but Reconstruction was much, much more complex. I realize it's impossible to cover all the aspects of such a subject in a short article, but there are so many more factors that were in play, it's hard to distill them down to as few as 10.

One factor that was huge was the complete disenfranchisement of Southern whites. The federal government said the Union had been restored, but Southerners were not able to claim their rights of citizenship, whether they were plantation owners or poor farmers. It bears mentioning that while the economy of the South was heavily dependent on slave holdings, only about 8 percent of all Southerners ever owned slaves, or wanted to. There were, in spite of what you may have read, pockets of heavy Union/abolitionist sympathies in the South. These were generally among family farmers who had never owned slaves and considered it a grave sin to do so.

The problem was that the plantation owners were the ones who served in Congress, not one of the 92 percent of white farmers who had no interest in slavery.

Enacting radical Reconstruction (as opposed to presidential Reconstruction) did incalculable damage both to the South and to the nation as a whole. It crippled the South economically for decades, which rendered it unable to keep up with the industrial North in commercial ventures. As a result, the entire nation suffered in the late 1800s, and as late as the 1930s, farmers who were still suffering from the economic effects found their resources further damaged by the Great Depression.

Sadly, humans determine pecking orders wherever they are, and it was the former slaves who were sent to the bottom of the pecking order. It is worth noting that they were cheated as badly by the Carpetbaggers who came South. These con artists took advantage of the former slaves' illiteracy and ignorance to fleece them of every dime they had, and then some. It was criminal how these people were treated by the people who were their supposed liberators.

Radical Reconstruction was a direct catalyst for the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the later horrible Jim Crow laws. These were all the poisonous fruit of a rotten tree.

When white Southerners were denied any form of justice, they formed vigilante groups, and that's where the Klan started. Jim Crow laws were a natural, evil extension of this mindset.

Radical Reconstruction was meant as revenge and to punish the South, even those who had never taken up arms against anyone. Revenge, however, has an ugly way of backfiring, and the USA as a nation has suffered the effects of the venom ever since.

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