Was reconstruction successful?
Briefly; Reconstruction as a Restructuring of the Power Elite
To figure out how successful reconstruction was we must first look at its means and goals and whether it did it in the right, that is to say moral way and whether these aims or goals were just to begin with. The goal of reconstruction was to reconfigure the social structure of the south to the benefit of the north. For it seems unlikely that Lincoln would have wanted politicians who would oppose his policies in the south and favored slavery and so forth and so it is likely that he elected people close to him or allies of one sort or another. This is how a prominence of radical republicans especially became possible even in the south. The restructuring of the social system meant a few things: giving blacks more political equality and rights including but not limited to voting and citizenship, the abolishment of the slave owning class and plantation elite. These goals then should be examined and how they got there (or not) should be as well if we’re to determine whether reconstruction as a political program succeeded or not.
Radical republicans soon took power in the south and tried to enact legislation that would led to many of these things. That is their favored decrees were forced from the top down on once wealthy slave owning and land owning individuals as well as poor and middleclass white individuals in the name of social equality. This of course leaded to a rise in violence, crime and other general social disruption because of how they decided to go about it. The violence in some states alone at times were small battles of the races and these battles eventually lead to the rise of the KKK who during the night made the northern armies occupation nearly worthless in the area of protecting the peace. And so in the realm of social stability it can be seen that reconstruction clearly was a disaster. Not only that but within a few years (1877 to be more exact) the radical republicans (some of which supported martial law and many military occupations and forced redistribution of wealth, again in the name of social equality) were being beaten by democrats and removed from power. And then most of the legislation and rights that went with the republicans left as well due to the Jim Crow laws.
And so how did the political equality and rights for blacks go in the face of so much social instability, violence and forced redistribution of land, property and general wealth? For a time it appeared to be going the way of the radical republicans. Black people became able to vote but considering the people who counted the vote were generally speaking most likely white and at in most cases at best considered the black person a “lower class” of citizen it’s doubtful their vote counted for much. And even if it did it’s not as if they had the time or the protection necessary to exercise the so called political equality radical republican were willing to do almost anything including forced redistribution of wealth for. Of course none of these criticisms of the radical republicans is to diminish the fact that the democrats seemed to be filled with people who supported inequality of races and were willing to use political power to force this from the top down. Both sides it seems then used some pretty dangerous and dirty tactics (hence the accusations of corruption within republicans with big business and land owners, etc.) to remain some form of “stability” that didn’t last either way.
Both in means and the goals of the reconstruction only caused more strife than was necessary. Both sides of the political class were not interested in the interests of the public but themselves, the white race or the business owners who had proverbially (as the women in Lowell proclaimed) become the new slave holders. So in effect reconstruction was about as successful of an attempt at forced racial equality and social justice as any attempt could be. Both the goals and the ends caused much more harm than good and it wasn’t till black people tried to empower themselves outside the political system did they stand a chance within it. In addition to all of this reconstruction likely contributed to many of the racial problems that occurred for the next 100 years in the US.