Reconstruction, 1865-1890

Author: E. Benjamin Andrews  | Date: 1865-1876

Why Reconstruction Failed

The method of reconstruction resorted to by Congress occasioned dreadful evils. It ignored the natural prejudices of the whites, many of whom were as loyal as any citizens in the land. To most people in that section, as well as to very many at the North, this dictation by Congress to acknowledged States in time of peace seemed high-handed usurpation. If Congress can do this, it was said, any State can be forced to change its constitution on account of any act which Congress dislikes. This did not necessarily follow, as reconstruction invariably presupposed an abnormal condition, viz., the State’s emersion from a rebellion which had involved the State government, whose overthrow, with the rebellion, necessitated Congressional interference. Yet the inference was natural and widely drawn.

Salmon P. Chase in a letter to the Democratic National Committee, in 1873 said: "Congress was wrong in the exclusion from suffrage of certain classes of citizens, and of all unable to take a prescribed retrospective path, and wrong also in the establishment of arbitrary military governments for the States, and in authorizing military commissions for the trial of civilians in time of peace. There should have been as little military government as possible; no military commissions, no classes excluded from suffrage, and no oath except one of faithful obedience and support to the Constitution and laws, and sincere attachment to the constitutional government of the United States."

John Sherman in his "Recollections" says: "It is a question of grave doubt whether the Fifteenth Amendment, tho right in principle, was wise or expedient. The declared object was to secure impartial suffrage to the negro race. The practical result has been that the wise provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment have been modified by the Fifteenth Amendment. The latter amendment has been practicaly nullified by the action of most of the States where the great body of this race live and will probably always remain. This is done not by an express denial to them of the right of suffrage, on the alleged ground of ignorance, while permitting all the white race, however ignorant, to vote at all elections. No way is pointed out by which Congress can enforce this amendment.

"If the principle of the Fourteenth Amendment had remained in full force, Congress could have reduced the representation of any State, in the proportion which the number of the male inhabitants of such State, denied the right of suffrage, might bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age, in such State. This simple remedy, easily enforced by Congress, would have secured the right of all persons, without distinction of race or color, to vote at all elections. The reduction of the representation would have deterred every State from excluding the vote of any portion of the male population above twenty-one years of age. As the result of the Fifteenth Amendment, the political power of the States lately in rebellion has been increased, while the population conferring this increase is practically denied all political power. I see no remedy for this wrong, except the growing intelligence of the negro race."

If the South was to become again genuine part and parcel of this Union, it would not, nor would the North consent that it should, remain permanently under military government. Black legislatures abused their power, becoming instruments of carpet-bag leaders and rings in robbing white property-holders. Only doctrinaries or the stupid could have expected that the whites would long submit. So soon as Federal bayonets were gone, fair means or foul were certain to remove the scepter from colored hands. Precisely this happened. Without the slightest formal change of constitution or of statute the Southern States oneby one passed into the control of their white inhabitants.

Where white men’s aims could not be realized by persuasion or other mild means, resort was had to intimidation and force. The chief instrumentality at first used for keeping colored voters from the polls was the Ku-Klux Klan, a secret society organized in Tennessee in 1866. It sprung from the old night patrol of slavery times. Then, every Southern gentleman used to serve on this patrol, whose duty it was to whip severely every negro found absent from home without a pass from his master. Its first post bellum work was not ill-meant, and its severities came on gradually. Its greatest activity was in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, where its awful mysteries and gruesome rites spread utter panic among the superstitious blacks. Men visited negroes’ huts and "mummicked" about, at first with sham magic, not with arms at all. One would carry a flesh bag in the shape of a heart and go around "hollering for fired nigger meat." Another would put on an Indian-rubber stomach to startle the negroes by swallowing pailfuls of water. Another represented that he had been killed at Manassas, since which time "some one had built a turnpike over his grave and he had to scratch like h—l to get up through the gravel." The lodges were "dens," the members "ghouls," "giants," "goblins," "titans," "furies," "dragons," and "hydras" were names of different classes among the officers.

Usually the mere existence of a "den" anywhere was sufficient to render docile every negro in the vicinity. If more was required, a half-dozen "ghouls" making their nocturnal rounds in their hideous masks and long white gowns, frightened all but the most hardy. Any who showed fight were whipt, maimed, or killed, treatment which was extended on occasion to their "carpet-bag" and "scalawag" friends—these titles denoting respectively Northern and Southern men who took the negroes’ sides. The very violence of the order, which it at last turned against the old Southrons themselves, brought it into disrepute with its original instigators, who were not sorry when Federal marshals, put up to it by President Grant, hunted den after den of the law-breakers to the death.

In 1870 and 1871, by the so-called Force Bills, Federal judges were given cognizance of suits, privileges, or immunities under the Constitution. Fine and imprisonment were made the penalties for "conspiracy" against the United States or the execution of its laws, as by forcibly or through intimidation preventing men from voting. The army and navy were placed at the service of the President to enforce the act, and Federal judges might exclude suspected persons from sitting on juries. By this drastic measure and its rigorous execution in nine counties of South Carolina the organization was by 1873 driven out of existence. But some of its methods survived. In 1875 several States adopted and successfully worked the "Mississippi plan," which was, by whatever necessary means, to nullify black votes until white majorities were assured. Less violent than the Ku-Klux way, this new one was equally thorough.


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Chicago: Salmon P. Chase et al., "Why Reconstruction Failed," Reconstruction, 1865-1890 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.188-192 Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Andrews, E. Benjamin, et al. "Why Reconstruction Failed." Reconstruction, 1865-1890, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.188-192, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Andrews, EB et al., 'Why Reconstruction Failed' in Reconstruction, 1865-1890. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.188-192. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from