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
"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
In early 1863, the federal government, led by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, initiated the "
Within two years, the land was making a large profit for the
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
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.