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Roberson 1 Nathan Roberson Professor Esch 9 March 2012 HIST X1402 The Splendid Failure of Reconstruction In his 1935

text Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, W.E.B. Du Bois closes the penultimate chapter with the phrase, The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure (708). This attempt is, in a broader sense, representative of Reconstruction as a whole. While a constitutional amendment could declare free slaves to be citizens the question lingers regarding integration into society at large. Therefore, it is necessary to address the term splendid failure with careful consideration. Du Bois text explores both the triumphs and failures of this tumultuous period in American history, yet in the end he cites more disappointments than celebrations. Du Bois believes the missed opportunity of land redistribution to be an egregious failure of Reconstruction; this action ought to have been an integral part of Emancipation (611). Compounding this oversight were other injustices toward freed slaves in the realms of labor and civil rightsnamely sharecropping and the Black Codes. Despite the atrociousness of these failings, Du Bois still describes the failure of Reconstruction as splendid (708). The splendid nature of Reconstruction is wedged between its shortcomings. It is the triumphs of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments along with African-American education. Overall, Reconstruction was a splendid failure due to a litany of defeats outweighing a few major successes for African-Americans.

Roberson 2 Du Bois history of Reconstruction emphasizes the lack of land redistribution for freed slaves. The hope for redistribution came with General Sherman issuing Field Order 15 in 1865, ordering plantation land to be confiscated, divided into 40-acre sections, and given to former slave families (Esch, Power). Unfortunately the former slaves were driven off the land, the government breaking the promise of Shermans order and reneging on Andrew Johnsons pre-war declaration regarding the necessity of land redistribution (Du Bois 393, 603). Du Bois holds a decidedly Marxist view of this failing. [L]iberalism did not understand . . . revolution was economic and involved force. . . . It hoped with the high humanitarian of Charles Sumner eventually to induce the planter to surrender his economic power peacefully . . . that other CharlesKarl Marxhad not yet published Das Kapital to prove to men that economic power underlies politics. (Du Bois 591) The economics and force Du Bois refers to are the tenants of Field Order 15: confiscating and redistributing the plantocracys land for use by freed slaves, allowing the immediate assimilation of freed slaves into the economic structure of the South. Du Boiss argument does not violate American principles of the period, as the liberal Republican government (guided by men such as Charles Sumner) distributed Southern land to railroad corporations throughout Reconstruction (Esch, Reconstruction). If wealthy corporations were eligible for such treatment, why not the massive number of freed slaves? An economic foothold could have been provided to the freed slaves through land, in turn leading to political power.

Roberson 3 Instead of the possibility for economic independence through redistribution, the landowners of the South were free to institute sharecropping (or tenant farming) as a means of controlling former slaves (Esch, Reconstruction). Dubois aptly describes this system: [S]erfdom was established in the South (597). This system created an illusion of land redistribution. Landowners divided their fields for freed slave families to live and work on, but in return the families were required to give a portion of their harvested crops to the landowner (Esch, Reconstruction). The former slaves were also required to buy new farm equipment from the landowners, usually at higher-than-market prices that would create further debt to the landowners (Esch, Reconstruction). In essence, sharecropping represents a determined effort to reinstitute slavery to the furthest degree possible in the postwar South. As the landowners could no longer practice chattel slavery they instead tried to bind their former slaves to the land through debt and perpetual povertythey created a new (and legal) form of indentured servitude. Freed slaves in the South found further dehumanization through the Black Codeslegislation designed to strip and limit the civil rights and liberties of AfricanAmericans (and to a lesser degree, poor whites) during Reconstruction. The Mississippi Black Code, passed in November of 1865 at the close of the Civil War, forbid interracial marriage, outlawed unemployment (or vagrancy) for all races but levied heavier fines on African-Americans, and also illegalized the possession of firearms and certain knives by African-Americans (Fleming 6-8). Other Black Codes in the South restricted the movement of African-Americans, requiring permission from a property-owning white man for an African-American to travel or make use of public transportation. Black Codes often included a poll tax, a tax that must be paid in order to vote. The poll tax was usually

Roberson 4 overlooked for whites, except for those who perhaps appeared poor and needed to be used as a false example of fairness (Esch, Power). The Black Codes were a total rejection of freed slaves new status following the Civil War; they were powerless to revoke the codes that limited both literal and class mobility. The codes attempted to turn back the clock on the progress made for the rights of former slaves following the war, as the Southern whites wanted to maintain as much of their antebellum society as possible. Though the Black Codes rejected the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitutioncolloquially known as the Reconstruction Amendmentsthese amendments still stand as a lasting achievement of Reconstruction, regardless of the Souths circumvention. The Reconstruction Amendments (adopted between 1865 and 1870) state that there will be no involuntary servitude unless it is punishment for a crime, that all people born in the United States are naturalized citizens, and that the right to vote is not determined by race, color, or previous status of servitude, respectively (Esch, Power). As Frederick Douglass stated for his fellow African-Americans in 1872: we are indebted for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (qtd. in Du Bois 367). The 14th Amendment is of particular importance for overturning the Dred Scott Decision, an 1857 Supreme Court ruling that declared all slaves and their descendants to not be citizens of the United States (Esch, Power). These amendments were a huge victory for freed slaves and abolitionists, acting as the culmination for years of struggle and bloody conflict. No longer were African-Americans to be viewed and treated as lesser beings. While this intention was in no way an immediate reality, it signifies the beginning of the end for dehumanization of African-Americans in the United States. The

Roberson 5 major stride of the Reconstruction Amendments were a massive move toward the right direction, and therefore embody the splendid nature of Reconstruction. To understand, exercise, and fight for the new rights granted through the Reconstruction Amendments the freed slaves needed education. As Du Bois notes, Prior to the abolition of slavery, there was no general public educational system, properly speaking, in the Southern states, except perhaps, in North Carolina (qtd. in Du Bois 638). The planning and successful opening of several schools for African-Americans occurred in Georgia throughout 1864-1865 (Du Bois 644-5). These schools were not organized directly by the government, but by freed slaves themselves (Du Bois 645). In 1866 the Negroes of Georgia founded the Georgia Educational Association with the goal of inspiring former slaves to establish schools in their communities (Du Bois 645). Former slaves also established their own schools in Arkansas and Delaware (Du Bois 658, 662). The Freedmans Bureau worked to create schools in Florida and Kentucky (Du Bois 654, 660). As Du Bois summarizes: the common school instruction in the South . . . was founded by the Freedmens Bureau and missionary societies, and that the state public school system was formed mainly by Negro Reconstruction governments (664). This creation of an educational system for African-Americans during Reconstruction is a monumental achievement. Prior to emancipation, it was illegal to educate a slave (Esch, Power). Though much of the education was not integrated or ideal in terms of setting or funding, it can be considered (like the Reconstruction Amendments) to be the beginning of radical change. Reconstruction was a turbulent time in American history. By referring to this period as a splendid failure, W.E.B. Du Bois aptly summarizes the great positive shifts of

Roberson 6 the period, namely the Reconstruction Amendments and the beginning of education for former slaves. However, sharecropping and the Black Codes soon squashed the opportunities presented by the Reconstruction Amendments. Both of these barbarisms were avoidable through the confiscation and redistribution of land to the former slaves, creating the possibility of economic success and the might that comes with such success. Reconstruction failed tremendously, but not without a few splendid and inspired flourishes of thought and action that would enable progress for African-Americans in the future.


Roberson 7 Works Cited Fleming, W.L., ed. "Black Codes Enacted in the South." Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Documents. Ed. Michael P. Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. 5-8. Print. Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Free, 1998. Print. Esch, Elizabeth. "Power and Possibility." Barnard College, New York. 26 Jan. 2012. Lecture. Esch, Elizabeth. "Reconstruction of What, for Whom?" Barnard College, New York. 31 Jan. 2012. Lecture.