The Southern states were in political and economic ruins after the civil war.

Essay by ateivonUniversity, Bachelor'sA-, May 2003

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Discuss the reality of the reconstructed south with special reference to the situation of the freed slaves in that part of the country

The Southern states were in political and economic ruins after the civil war. Several

difficult decades of reconstructing the south lay ahead. In the short term, the

Federal and state governments needed to plan for the adoption of new state constitutions,

new land policies, and rights of suffrage. The reform of the constitution and land policies

proved much easier to accomplish than those of racial attitudes and justice.

The story of reconstruction is actually a story of the tension between increasing

the rights of freedmen and unchanged racism of Southerners and Northerners alike.

Tension also developed between the so-called radical reconstructionists, who

sought a complete overhaul of Southern society in the image of the North, and the

moderates, who urged reconciliation and the cession of reconstruction responsibilities to

Southern states.

Reconstructionists discovered that efforts to expand suffrage rights to the newly freed

slaves could easily run aground. With the abolition of slavery, the "three-fifths clause" in

the Constitution effectively became null and void, since blacks were now counted as

whole citizens. This change meant that the South might actually gain power in Congress,

since their proportionate representation would be based on a large population. To help

counterbalance this gain, President Johnson proposed extending the vote to literate

blacks worth at least 250 dollars. Southern states rejected the idea, and blacks remained

deprived of their political rights.

Racist opposition to the expanding role of African-Americans in society also took the

form of "black codes." Following emancipation, Southern legislature undertook the

business of determining the status of freedmen in society; as the legislators operated

under certain obligations, not all of the black codes were oppressive. Some laws extended

to freedmen legal protections such as recognized marriages, the right to own and sell

property, and the ability to enter into contractual relationships.

However, in most cases the black codes also prohibited African-Americans from serving

on juries and providing legal testimony. In addition, the codes outlawed interracial

marriage and created segregated public facilities. Harsher aspects of the codes included

vagrancy laws, under which unemployed blacks were often fined and then sent to prison

to work of their fine, as well as licensing requirements for non-agricultural occupations.

In the face of such obstacles and prejudice, the Federal government sought to gain a

tighter grip on Southern reconstruction by creating the Freedmen's Bureau. The

Freedmen's Bureau was a Federal agency charged with helping to manage and ease the

transition from slavery to freedom. As union troops began to occupy the South, the

Bureau set up offices in each of the former Confederate states. Eventually, 550 local

agents, most of them Northerners sympathetic to the plight of former slaves, worked

toward the elusive goal of racial reconstruction.

The Bureau took on overwhelming responsibilities. One of its foremost was to provide

legal guidance for freed persons. This duty included the settling of disputes between

blacks and whites, observation of trials, and the arrangement of contractual labor

relationships between former slaves and owners. As part of this process, through a newly

created category of freedmen's courts that could override local authority, the Bureau

managed to change some of the harsher aspects of the black codes.

Also under the Bureau's purview was the task of trying to reorganize land

ownership, which would prove not to be very effective in the end. For a while at least the

Bureau gave a boost to thousands of freedmen by settling families on abandoned land,

arranging land sales at cheap prices, and providing livestock and equipment. As a last

resort, the agency simply gave food rations to large numbers of poor and unemployed


Predictably, the Freedmen's Bureau had its detractors, many of whom charged that the

agency instilled a kind of welfare ethic in its benefactors. Since Bureau offices were often

located in cities, they tended to draw African-Americans away from the countryside,

causing an agricultural labor shortage. More importantly, the fact that the offices

provided assistance to the unemployed was seen as encouragement to be "idle."

The structural transformation of American society formed by the civil war dramatically

outpaced the changes in americans' racial attitudes. In many ways, the promised of

emancipation would not be legally realized until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

To the current day, of course, the tensions of racial coexistence continue to perplex and

frustrate the culture.