The era known as Reconstruction represented a chaotic period in the United States history. Abraham Lincoln has drastically reconsidered the attitudes around slavery and emancipation, starting the debate around Reconstruction. In the following years, his approach was contrasted with the actions of Radical Republicans, who advocated for a more forceful method of suppressing Southern slavery. Ultimately, the approach undertaken by the Radicals was proven to be more effective than that suggested by Lincoln.
Before comparing the perspectives, it is necessary to provide a background for the events. The primary aim of the Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877, was the reintegration of the South and its people from the Confederate States to the United States (“Reconstruction”). Following the Civil War, the North demanded that the South meets three conditions: “emancipation of its slaves; contract freedom for all citizens, black and white; and national reunification” (White 23). The fight then ensued over the meaning of these three demands, such as clarifying the status of newly-freed African Americans (“Watch Reconstruction: The Second Civil War”). The Southerners did not meet the proposal well, believing that freed African Americans still belonged to the white population (White 29). At that stage, Lincoln’s approach was ineffective, while the use of force (as suggested by Radicals) was.
Upon Lincoln’s assassination, the matters of the South were passed down to his successor. Under Andrew Johnson, leniency toward the South became a central theme as the Republicans were worried about the growth of the Southern power (White 36). Much of the newly enacted legislature was not profitable for the African Americans. For instance, although Congress ordered distributing the land between “loyal refugees and freedmen,” it was seldom implemented well (White 43). Simultaneously, with the emancipation commencing, fear of retaliation drove the Southern slave-owners to resist harder (White 30). Hence, the attempts to approach the issue leniently, once again, were ineffective.
The land was regarded as a primary marker and a source of independence. As White states, “Southern redistribution, in essence, was about whether Southern whites could be treated as Indians and Southern blacks could be treated like white men” (44). Johnson has quickly blocked the redistribution initiative, which caused the Freedman Bureau to pressure African Americans to enter contracts, presenting labor as the quickest way to gain independence (White 46). The Republicans have embraced this solution, expecting that it would solve the issue of allocating and employing most newly freed people. In practice, many contracts hardly differed from slave labor, providing only marginal benefits and still resulting in black dependency – but it was better than nothing at all (White 47). However, with the increasing Southern resistance, the black population was eventually faced with deciding to work for white people (with contracts) or starve.
The political pressure from the South continued to increase. Johnson introduced the “black codes” legislature in 1865-1866, which gave the white plantation owners the nearly absolute control back (White 42). It limited the newly gained freedom of African Americans in the post-war South by creating discriminatory labor contracts (“Reconstruction”). The result was a “coercive labor system” – neither slavery nor free labor (White 81). White refers to this decision as one of the “most spectacular misjudgments in the history of American politics” (38). Although Johnson maintained the ability to communicate with the South, he simultaneously alienated the Radical Republicans in the North and the newly freed people in the South (White 38). Thus, Johnson, who once opposed the Southern perspective, ended up against the Radicals by following the tactic of leniency. This fact adds another argument against Lincoln’s suggested approach.
The approach that the Radicals took resulted, in some ways, from Johnson’s decision. The subsequent outrage of the population in the North led to the passing of the Reconstruction Act in 1867, which elevated the social status of African Americans, allowing them to become socially and politically active (“Reconstruction”). However, many Radicals believed that increasing the percentage of black males who could vote was not enough. They strived to secure ‘war powers,’ pushing for land redistribution and confiscation in the South to protect freedmen and civil rights (White 84). However, these attempts at proposals have been largely unsuccessful, at least in the legislative sense. In practice, Republicans believed that the only way to control the South was by force.
Meanwhile, the sentiments among the Southerners varied quite drastically. Most Southerners were suspicious of finding common ground with the Radicals (White 86). Some, however, advocated for accepting the defeat and finding a compromise with the Republicans; the wealthy populations of the South still feared the possibility of confiscation (White 86). The actions of the Republicans in 1867 have quickly achieved remarkable results in the South, although some struggle was still ahead (White 89). Nonetheless, in the following years, the Reconstruction has become the foundation of the civil rights movement, ultimately defining the present state of matters (“Watch Reconstruction: The Second Civil War”). Overall, despite having a lot of political tension and threats that followed the Act’s passage, the Republicans have succeeded in establishing the basis for African American rights.
In conclusion, the lack of trust that the Radical Republicans had for the South may have been the foundation for successfully moving beyond slavery. Unlike the lenient approach suggested by Lincoln and so unfortunately upheld by Johnson, the use of more forceful methods enabled Republicans to pass the Reconstruction Act and advocate for suffrage without racial discrimination. Admittedly, military power may have heightened tensions in the South – however, they were heightened since the stakes were high for the plantation owners. Therefore, the Republicans were correct in the assumption regarding the South.
“Watch Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” American Experience.
White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. Oxford University Press, 2017.