More on what Reconstruction did and did not do

During the period of Reconstruction, Congress finally sanctioned intervention by the national government to protect the equal rights of all. 

But "equal rights" did not mean the same thing to all Radical Republicans.  In the Civil War era "rights" and "liberties" took many forms, and some seemed more essential and worth protecting than others.

There was widespread sentiment in the North that "natural rights" should be protected – slavery was against natural law and hence morally wrong.  All people should have a right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  Many Republicans also believed that African-Americans should have access to such "civil rights" as equal treatment in law and before the courts.  These were seen as a precondition to the functioning of the Bill of Rights.

But beyond that there was little common ground.  Should African-Americans be ensured such political rights as the vote?  If so, where did that leave women?  And what about the notion of social equality?  Did "equal rights" mean that Black people should mix as equals with whites in society? 

The Radical Republican from Boston , Thaddeus Stevens, certainly thought so. He asked to be buried in a Black cemetery, under a stone bearing these words:

"I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of Man before his Creator."

But evidence suggests that few Americans shared his view.

Of equally critical long-term significance, there was no agreement on the matter of whether African Americans should have an equal access to the property which had belonged to disloyal Southerners.  Should they be granted a measure of economic independence, or simply be expected to fend for themselves after hundreds of years of enslavement?

Before the Civil War was over, an experiment was underway which could have profoundly influenced the future development of the nation.  When the Sea Islands south of Charleston , South Carolina were taken over by the Union Navy in November 1861, Southern planters left in a hurry.  They left behind more than 10,000 slaves and land which would be a magnet to slaves fleeing their plantations during the war years.

In early 1863, the federal government, led by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, initiated the " Port Royal experiment," which was designed to demonstrate that a system of free labor could successfully replace the South's slave system.  Land confiscated from absentee planters amounting to some 75,000 acres was sold at auction.  Most of it was bought by Boston investors.  They planned to use it to demonstrate that a profit could be made if Black workers were hired as wage labor.  Two thousand acres were sold to a group of African Americans who pooled their money to buy it.

Within two years, the land was making a large profit for the Boston investors, who sold it off to African Americans at high prices.  At the beginning of 1865, General William Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, setting aside the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia , and all land below Charleston , South Carolina for thirty miles inland for the exclusive use of freedmen.  The land was to be divided into 40-acre "homesteads" to be leased or sold to African Americans and be worked with the help of mules leased from the Army.  Sherman later said this was to be a temporary arrangement only.

A few months later, the Freedmen's Bureau was established, and given the task of dividing abandoned and confiscated land into 40-acre plots for rent and eventual sale to freedmen as part of an effort to create a "free labor force" in the South.  Despite winning the approval of Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner General Oliver O. Howard, the experiment which placed more than 40,000 destitute freedmen on 400,000 acres was not to last. 

Late in 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered General Howard to inform the freedmen that the land was to be taken from them and restored to the recently-pardoned Southern planters.  Johnson believed that giving anything to Black people – whether land or citizenship rights – was as form of discrimination against whites.

Midway through 1866, half of the land which the Bureau had administered had been handed back to its former owners, rendering thousands of Black people again homeless.  In some parts of the Sea Islands , Black people took up arms to defend their lands.  Eventually, all but about 2,000 freedmen were forced to surrender their land.

Faced with President Johnson's opposition and the absence of wide Northern support for the program of "40 acres and a mule," the Freedmen's Bureau abandoned its hopes of securing freedmen an independent existence on the land. Instead, it encouraged them to go back to the plantations, this time for a wage. 

African Americans were not the only people to be betrayed by the federal government after the Civil War.  By 1871, Congress – to please the railway companies – turned its back on its traditional treaty system that considered native peoples to be members of independent nations.  The way was thus opened for the removal of the Plains Indians to reservations, and for the massive agrarian and industrial penetration of the West.

Between 1862 and 1872, while the federal government was making and then breaking promises of land redistribution to African Americans, over 100 million acres of federal land were handed over to the railways.  The driving force of profit easily triumphed over any expansive notion of "equality" among citizens.