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Failure of Reconstruction

Explore how Reconstruction amendments reshaped freedom, citizenship, and democracy in the U.S. post-Civil War. Despite initial strides, African Americans faced limitations through sharecropping, Black Codes, and voter suppression. These amendments, however, laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

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Video transcript

- [Kim] How do you define freedom? Stop for a minute and picture what it means to be free. What comes into your mind? Traveling wherever you please, having enough money to do what you want, or is freedom better defined by what it's not? Not having anyone telling you what to do, not being in prison? Freedom is a core aspect of US national identity, but if someone gave you box labeled Contents: Freedom, what would you expect to find inside? This was the question that the United States faced during Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War, when the US government, Southern state governments, and African Americans attempted to negotiate a new social and political order for the South. But what African Americans expected to find in the box labeled Freedom was very different from what their former enslavers wanted to put there. Was freedom just the absence of slavery, as most white Southerners believed, or did it imply citizenship, political power, and economic self-sufficiency? Try to solve this dilemma, Congress passed, and the states ratified, three new Constitutional amendments during the Reconstruction era, the 13th Amendment, which ended the system of slavery in 1865, the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States in 1868, and the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870. So in just five years, African Americans in the South went from personal property to full civic participants, at least in theory. In reality, how different were definitions of freedom, citizenship, and democracy before and after Reconstruction? To really answer this question, we need to examine continuity and change in the Reconstruction era. What stayed the same and what changed in each of these three areas following the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments? Okay, first let's look at continuities and changes in the definition of freedom. Before the end of slavery, African Americans had neither economic nor physical freedom. They didn't have control of their bodies or of their labor. The pass system kept them from moving freely, and slavery itself meant that they couldn't choose where to work or earn money from their own work. So how much did their physical and economic freedom change after the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery? Well, their economic self-sufficiency went through some ups and downs. Most African Americans believed that their years of unpaid toil entitled them to land of their own. US Army general William Tecumseh Sherman redistributed Confederate territory on the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina to black families, who farmed there for a few years until Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, gave all confiscated land back to its former owners. Instead, most black farmers became sharecroppers, renting a portion of a white landowner's farm in exchange for part of the crop yield. This gave black farmers a lot more freedom over their own work, since they didn't have to work under an overseer. But economically, sharecropping kept black farmers, as well as small white farmers, in an endless cycle of debt and poverty. After the 13th Amendment, most Southern state governments attempted to limit the physical freedom of African Americans as well, with statutes known as the Black Codes. Many of these codes defined anyone who wasn't under a labor contract as a vagrant who could be arrested and have their labor sold. Later, segregation limited the physical freedom of where Southern African Americans could go and what they could do. Laws like the Black Codes, which so obviously attempted to institute slavery by another name, led Congress to pass the 14th Amendment, which defined a US citizen as anyone born or naturalized in the United States and specifically prevented states from infringing upon the rights of citizens. Before the Civil War, citizenship was exclusively the privilege of white Americans. Non-white immigrants weren't eligible to become US citizens, and the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott declared that no African Americans could be citizens at all. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, led to a huge increase in the number of US citizens and it decoupled citizenship from whiteness. Even the American-born children of Asian immigrants were citizens. But the Supreme Court defined the 14th Amendment very narrowly in the late 19th century, permitting many laws that discriminated on the basis of race. Only in the 20th century would the 14th Amendment become an important tool for civil rights activists to break down segregation. Lastly, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, extended the right to vote to black men. In the years leading up to the Civil War, with few exceptions, only white man had the right to vote. The 15th Amendment radically redefined the terms of American democracy. During Reconstruction, more than 2,000 African Americans held public office, including two US senators. But there were limits to this new broader definition of democracy. First, it didn't include women, much to the frustration of the women's suffrage movement. Then, as the federal government ceased to intervene to protect black citizens in the South in the late 1870s, Southern state governments imposed a range of voter suppression tactics to effectively bar African Americans from voting, which then reduced the likelihood of black politicians winning office. Not until the 1960s would African American voter registration once again reach Reconstruction-era levels. So how much did the Reconstruction Amendments change definitions of freedom, citizenship, and democracy? Well, after the amendments, African Americans were free to own their own bodies and labor, but that was about it. The 14th and 15th Amendments led to short-lived revolutions in the concept of citizenship and in voting rights, but those rights had all but evaporated by the end of the century. Nevertheless, although they didn't have much of an impact in the short term, these amendments would lay the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.