Race, Expansion & War

What did Reconstruction actually reconstruct?

Essay, 2011

7 Pages, Grade: 1,3


With the formal end of slavery a new phase of the American history began – the so called era of Reconstruction. This period led to radical changes for the black community. In this essay I will try to outline that Reconstruction in the end did neither ‘reconstructed’ nor ‘constructed’ a better life, respectively democracy and freedom, for black Americans in the South. In order to do so I will work with examples from the Caribbean Islands like Haiti and Jamaica, where slavery was abolished only some years before, to give a better understanding of the situation in the United States.

The Civil War not only led to a radicalisation of the Republican Party of Lincoln but also of the population in general. The radical side were not only satisfied with the abolition of slavery but demanded a complete and fundamental rearrangement of the American South. The main focus was the claim of voting rights for black people. The Democrats disparaged them as dangerous revolutionists and as “nigger lovers.”[1] A lot of abolitionists now criticised the British emancipation in the West Indies as insufficient. The emancipation of slaves there showed what happens when former slaves are still dependent on their former slave holders. England did not go far enough when they formally ended slavery but not gave the slaves the citizenship.

Those references to the Caribbean emancipation during the debate over slave rights showed that the organisation of the relationship between blacks and whites was mainly about four questions: 1. access to property and estate, as well as access to economical resources; 2. control over the ex-slave’s work power; 3. political participation of the ex-slaves; as well as: 4. the possibility for white Southerners to exclude former slaves from political power.

The answer for the American South on the first question was the so called sharecropping. Here Eric Foner sees something like a historical compromise: on the one hand sharecropping prevented the black people from gaining a lot of land, and on the other hand the ex-slaves were kept away from the system of working gangs from antebellum times. Due to emancipation every black person had the opportunity to choose what to do and therefore a lot of planters preferred alternatives like wage labour under heavy control.[2] But sharecropping became the norm and took its place instead of slavery. Still bonded labour occurred because the planter aristocracy managed to gain political power after the Civil War.

For this kind of argumentation Eric Foner sees a difference between the situation in the United States and the Caribbean Islands.[3] Foner says that there was a basic disctinction between the emancipation movement in the republican living conditions in the United States and the colonial system in the British Caribbean. Within the British Empire the question of equal rights of black and white people was not of importance or relevance because the British people did not want equality in its own white community. There are two arguments that speak against this theory: on the one hand the American republicanism of the Reconstruction era did not claim a monopoly on campaigning for equal rights, independent of condition or skin colour; and on the other hand that the American South actually did not restrain from relapsing into a racial system again.

Some of the Southern states looked for an answer for the second question in the foundation of agencies for the support of immigration. They were hoping to break the negotiation power of the blacks in the labour market but the results fell short of the Southerners expectations. Of the millions of immigrants coming from New York, Boston or other big cities of the North of the United States only few found their way into the South of America. That seems quite intelligible due to the openly articulated interest of the planters in the republican newspapers of the South:

“We have lands but can no longer control the niggers; [...] hence we want Northern labourers, Irish labourers, German labourers, to come down and take their places, to work our lands for ten dollars a month an rations of cornmeal and bacon.”[4]

Because of the inefficacies of the plan to attract Europeans into the South again the Caribbean Islands served as a model for the Southern states: indentured labour should solve the problems of the South. But since this model also did not work Southern planters tried to gain control over the work power of black people with the help of the so called Black Codes of 1865 and 1866. Mississippi and South Carolina played a major role in those events. Oberholtzer detailed elements of the black codes of Mississippi:

“Negroes must make annual contracts for their labor in writing; if they should run away from their tasks, they forfeited their wages for the year. Whenever it was required of them they must present licenses [...] citing their places of residence and authorizing them to work.”[5]


[1] Foner, Eric. Nothing But Freedom : Emancipation and Its Legacy. Louisiana State UP: Baton Rouge and London, 1983: p. 44.

[2] Meissner, Jochen et al. Schwarzes Amerika : Eine Geschichte der Sklaverei. Verlag C. H. Beck: München, 2008: p. 258.

[3] Foner (1983): p. 46.

[4] Cited after: Rowland T. Berthoff „Southern Attitudes Towards Immigration, 1865 – 1914.“ in: Journal of Southern History, XVII (August, 1951), pp. 328 – 37.

[5] Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson. A History of the United States since the Civil War. Vol. 1. Macmillan: New York, 1917: pp. 128–129.

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Race, Expansion & War
What did Reconstruction actually reconstruct?
York University
Race, Expansion and War
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reconstruction, united states, usa, negroes, blacks, schwarze, afro, civil war, bürgerkrieg, slavery, sklaverei
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Martin Kersten (Author), 2011, Race, Expansion & War, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/164990


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