The End of Reconstruction: Causes, Challenges, and Consequences

The End of Reconstruction: Causes, Challenges, and Consequences

The End of Reconstruction


The Reconstruction era, spanning from 1865 to 1877, was a pivotal period in American history, focusing on the integration of the freed slaves and the rebuilding of the South post-Civil War. The actions and policies of this time set the foundation for modern race relations and the socio-political dynamics of the South. However, equally significant is the termination of this era. Understanding the end of Reconstruction provides insights not just into the challenges of rebuilding a nation after a devastating war, but also into the deeper issues of racism, political compromise, and economic inequality that persistently influence America’s societal fabric.

This essay aims to delve into the intricate factors that led to the end of the Reconstruction era, examining the roles of key players, highlighting the challenges faced during the period, and assessing the long-term implications of its abrupt conclusion. By evaluating these elements, one can discern how the ambitions of Reconstruction were either achieved or derailed, and how its termination has left a lasting legacy on the nation.

Background of Reconstruction

The Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, had devastating impacts on the United States, especially the Southern states. Beyond the physical destruction, the war also disrupted the socio-political and economic systems of the South, predominantly because of the emancipation of nearly four million slaves. Reconstruction emerged as an answer to the daunting question of how to rebuild this shattered region and how to incorporate freed slaves into the fabric of American society.

The initial goals of Reconstruction were both political and humanitarian. Politically, there was a need to reintegrate the rebellious Southern states back into the Union. Humanitarian objectives involved ensuring that the rights of the newly freed Black population were protected and that they were given a fair chance to prosper in a society where they were once enslaved.

Several key acts and amendments were passed to realize these objectives. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 aimed to protect the rights of African Americans, granting them citizenship and negating the discriminatory Black Codes. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865, was designed to aid former slaves and impoverished whites in the South, providing food, housing, medical aid, and legal assistance. Furthermore, the Bureau played a significant role in establishing schools for Black children and adults.

Additionally, a series of amendments were ratified to anchor the rights of the Black population constitutionally. The 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment (1868) granted citizenship to anyone born in the U.S., including former slaves, and guaranteed equal protection under the law; and the 15th Amendment (1870) secured the right to vote for Black men.

However, while these measures laid down the foundation for a reconstructed South, the actual implementation of these provisions met with significant challenges. As we shall explore in subsequent sections, the end of Reconstruction was not just the result of political decisions made in boardrooms and senate chambers but was also deeply influenced by socio-economic factors and deeply rooted racial prejudices.

Major Players and Their Roles

The success and failures of Reconstruction can’t be understood without evaluating the roles of the pivotal figures involved. At the federal level, three presidents took office during this period, each with differing views and policies related to Reconstruction.

Abraham Lincoln: Even before the Civil War ended, Lincoln began planning for Reconstruction. His approach, known as the ‘Ten Percent Plan’, was lenient, requiring only ten percent of a state’s voters to swear loyalty to the Union to be readmitted. While he aimed for a swift reunification, he faced criticism from the Radical Republicans, who demanded harsher measures for the Southern states.

Andrew Johnson: After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson, a Southern Democrat, ascended to the presidency. His leniency towards the South and his frequent clashes with the Radical Republicans marked his tenure. He pardoned many ex-Confederates and allowed the Southern states to pass the Black Codes, severely restricting the rights of the freed slaves.

Ulysses S. Grant: Taking office in 1869, Grant supported the Radical Republicans and prioritized the protection of African American civil rights. Under his administration, the 15th Amendment was ratified. However, corruption scandals and economic downturns marred his presidency, weakening his ability to support Reconstruction fully.

Outside the presidency, the Radical Republicans in Congress, led by figures like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, pushed for stringent measures against the South and robust protections for African Americans. Their influence led to the Military Reconstruction Act (1867), which divided the South into military districts overseen by Union generals.

In contrast, the Southern “Redeemers” sought to undo the changes imposed by Reconstruction. These white Democratic leaders aimed to restore the pre-war social order and white supremacy, often employing intimidation and violence to suppress Black voters and dismantle Republican governance in the South.

Challenges Faced During Reconstruction

Reconstruction faced multifaceted challenges, stemming from both systemic societal issues and external pressures.

Resistance from White Southerners: Many white Southerners resented the changes brought about by Reconstruction, especially the newfound rights of African Americans. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan emerged, using terror and violence to intimidate Black citizens and white Republicans. Their goal was to restore white supremacy and Democratic control in the South.

Economic Challenges: The Southern economy, heavily reliant on agriculture, faced significant hardships post-war. The plantation system was in disarray with the end of slavery. Sharecropping emerged as a prevalent system, where freedmen and poor whites would cultivate land owned by others in exchange for a share of the crops. While it offered a livelihood, it also trapped many in a cycle of debt and dependency.

Black Codes and Jim Crow: These were laws enacted by Southern states to restrict the rights and freedoms of African Americans. While the Black Codes were more prevalent immediately after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation, gained traction towards the end of Reconstruction and beyond.

Northern Indifference: As time passed, the Northern public’s interest in Reconstruction waned. Economic concerns, corruption scandals, and the general fatigue of dealing with Southern resistance led many in the North to prioritize other issues over the well-being and rights of African Americans in the South.

These challenges, coupled with shifting political landscapes and priorities, laid the groundwork for the eventual end of Reconstruction. The South’s relentless resistance, combined with the North’s dwindling commitment, created an environment where compromises, often at the expense of African American rights, became increasingly palatable.

The Compromise of 1877 and the Immediate Aftermath

The Compromise of 1877 stands as a defining moment marking the end of the Reconstruction era. Stemming from the disputed presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, the nation was plunged into a constitutional crisis, reminiscent of the tensions that led to the Civil War.

Tilden had won the popular vote, but 20 electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon were contested. Both parties claimed victory, leading to an impasse.

To resolve this, a bipartisan Electoral Commission was established. However, behind closed doors, leaders from both parties negotiated a deal. The Compromise of 1877 was born from these negotiations. The Democrats agreed to concede the presidency to Hayes, and in return, the Republicans promised several concessions:

  • Withdrawal of federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina, effectively ending the military occupation of the South.
  • Federal aid for Southern infrastructure projects.
  • The appointment of at least one Southerner to Hayes’s cabinet.

With the retreat of federal troops, the last vestiges of federal enforcement of Reconstruction policies in the South vanished. “Redeemer” governments, primarily composed of white Democrats, took control in Southern states, leading to the swift rollback of many advancements made for African American rights during Reconstruction.

Consequences of the End of Reconstruction

The end of Reconstruction had profound and lasting effects on the South and the nation as a whole.

Rise of Jim Crow: With the removal of federal oversight and the return of white Democratic control in the South, there was a surge in laws that institutionalized racial segregation. Known as Jim Crow laws, they enforced segregation in public places, transportation, schools, and more. This legalized segregation would persist until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Economic Disparities: The South’s economy, already in ruins post-Civil War, continued to lag behind the North. The hopeful economic initiatives from Reconstruction, meant to diversify and strengthen the Southern economy, faded. The South became more entrenched in its agrarian roots, particularly the exploitative sharecropping system, which trapped many African Americans and poor whites in perpetual debt and poverty.

Legacy of Racial Tensions: The abandonment of Reconstruction intensified racial tensions. The advancements made during Reconstruction became targets of resentment. Lynching and racial violence became more widespread. This racial animosity not only persisted but also evolved into other forms of racial biases and systemic racism that would challenge the nation throughout the 20th century and beyond.

Political Impacts: The Compromise of 1877 and the end of Reconstruction further solidified the Democratic Party’s dominance in the South, a stronghold that would last for nearly a century. Conversely, the Republican Party’s association with Reconstruction led to its decline in the South, pushing it to realign its strategies and base in the North and West.

While Reconstruction had aimed to heal the nation’s wounds and create an integrated society, its premature end ensured that many of its noble objectives remained unfulfilled. This period’s aftermath laid the groundwork for the struggles for civil rights and equal opportunities that would define much of America’s subsequent history.

Modern Relevance of Reconstruction’s End

While the Reconstruction era is a historical period from over a century ago, its legacy and the implications of its premature end reverberate in modern America. Understanding its ramifications is crucial for a comprehensive grasp of present-day racial, social, and political dynamics.

Systemic Racism: The failure to fully integrate African Americans as equal citizens during Reconstruction planted the seeds for systemic racism. The legal and social systems created in the wake of Reconstruction’s end, from Jim Crow to redlining, have resulted in deep-rooted racial disparities in education, wealth, and criminal justice.

Voting Rights: The suppression of Black voters that began earnestly after Reconstruction remains a contentious issue. Modern debates over voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and polling place accessibility echo the struggles for enfranchisement that followed the 15th Amendment’s ratification.

National Identity: The narratives formed during and after Reconstruction about the Civil War, the South, and the role of African Americans in society have played a significant role in shaping America’s national identity. The way these events are remembered and taught in schools, celebrated in monuments, or debated in public discourse reflects the country’s evolving understanding of itself and its history.

Political Realignment: The political transformations that started during Reconstruction continue to influence party dynamics. The eventual Southern shift from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican one in the late 20th century has its antecedents in the politics of Reconstruction.


The end of Reconstruction is not merely an endpoint in a historical era but a pivotal moment that set the trajectory for America’s journey through the subsequent century and beyond. The decisions made, opportunities missed, and compromises struck during this period laid a foundation upon which much of America’s modern racial and political landscape was constructed.

By scrutinizing the reasons behind Reconstruction’s termination, the players involved, and its long-term implications, we gain insight into the challenges of nation-building after civil strife. Moreover, it underscores the persistent issues of racial inequality and political compromise that America continues to grapple with. As the nation reflects on its past and charts its future, understanding the intricacies and outcomes of Reconstruction becomes not just a historical exploration but a guide to addressing contemporary challenges.

Class Outline – The End of Reconstruction

Reconstruction ended in 1877 because of a variety of reasons. Regardless of the reasons, the end of Reconstruction also signaled an end to whatever forward progress blacks were going to make. The success of Reconstruction had been ineffective at best, now, with the Conservative Southern governments back in control of the South a downward spiral would begin.

I. The End of Reconstruction

A. Reconstruction began in 1865, how do you think Northerners felt about it by 1877?

1. Northerners were tired of reconstruction after twelve long years. In the beginning it had been a great social adventure. Many had been convinced that they were doing a very good, important thing. By 1877 many felt that they would never accomplish the social good that they sought to accomplish. The general feeling was that the the south might never really change.

2. Northerners were also increasingly upset at the fact that the northern military had to occupy the south. We wanted our soldiers home.

B. How do you think the Depression of 1873 affected Northern effort at Reconstruction?

1. The north could no longer afford the costs of reconstruction.

C. How did the scandals of the Grant administration affect the next election?

1. Ulysses S. Grant, the military hero of the Civil War had been swept into office after the Johnson Administration. Unfortunately his administration, as well as his personal life, were ripped with scandal. Grant, an alcoholic, was unable to police his own cabinet and scandals began to emerge.

In what became known as the Credit Mobilier scandal key Republican congressman and members of the administration had arranged for the Credit Mobilier holding company to received government land and money to build a railroad out west. In return these men received bribes. The railroad was never built and the scandal showed America how little control Grant actually had.

2. After eight years of the scandalous Grant administration and his rather uninspiring leadership the Republican party began to lose influence. The once hated Democrats again gained national recognition and one party rule ended.

D. How did the election of 1876 affect reconstruction?

1. In the election of 1876 Democrats realized they had an opportunity to regain political power and prestige, in fact many thought they had a good chance of winning the presidency with the right candidate. The Republicans ran Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democrats ran a New Yorker, Sam Tilden.

2. Tilden carried the popular vote by 250,000 votes. He also had a lead in the electoral vote 184 to 165. He needed 185 to win and 20 votes were in dispute. Tilden only needed one of the twenty votes to win. If Hayes received all twenty he would win

3. The fate of those 20 votes and the election were placed in the hands of a committee of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats who ended up cutting a deal that gave Hayes the votes and the Presidency. Had the election been honest Tilden would have won.

a. The deal was that military forces had to leave those states thus ending reconstruction.

b. The federal government had to build a railroad from Texas to California, building money, waterway improvements and a conservative in the Cabinet were also part of the deal.