This post will actually answer two questions:
- What is Reconstruction?
- Why is Reconstruction important?
What is Reconstruction?
Reconstruction refers to the period immediately following the American Civil War, during which the United States had to reunify or “reconstruct” itself, particularly in the devastated Southern (formerly Confederate) states. Some historians date the beginning of Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War (1865), while others mark the beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), since the abolition of slavery in essence demanded the reconstruction of American society, even before the war had finished. The end date of Reconstruction is more fixed amongst historians: 1877—the year Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the Presidency, and the last occupying Federal troops withdrew from the South.
Why is Reconstruction important?
Next to the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States, Reconstruction is perhaps the most important period of American history to examine because in so many ways it defined who we have become as a nation—both good and bad. By the end of the Civil War, an estimated four million African Americans had been freed from bondage. What would their place be in a post-slavery nation? And how would all other Americans, both Northern and Southern, react? These were two of the key questions that America would need to answer during Reconstruction. A closer look at everything that happened during Reconstruction, however, shows us that we are still struggling to answer those questions today.
Reconstruction initiated some of the most important legislation in our nation’s history, including:
- The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States and its territories.
- The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, amongst other things, guaranteed “equal protection of the laws” to every citizen in every state.
- The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prevented the government or any state within the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Reconstruction also saw an incomprehensible amount of racial violence, the rise of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the beginnings of the injustices that would eventually thrive in the Jim Crow era.
We will discuss all of the above, in more detail, in future posts.
The hope and the tragedy that defined Reconstruction in turn defined the uneven path toward social and racial justice that America would follow for the next 150 years. What happened during Reconstruction is in fact still defining that path.