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Reconstruction and the American Dilemma, 1865-77:Successes and FailuresIn simple terms, the era of Reconstruction after the Civil Warwas the process of restoring the union and rebuilding the war-torn nation.But Reconstruction was also the nation’s firsteffort at facing what some have called the American Dilemma andothers the American hypocrisy.That is, how could the UnitedStates the home of freedom and democracy, the nation, Lincolncharacterized in the Gettysburg address as “conceived in libertyand dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,”how could that nation countenance slavery, segregation, lynching,disenfranchisement—racism in all its ugliest and bloodiest forms?Many Americans have asked why?Was it simply that Americans wereblind to slavery’s existence and as slavery ended in the 1860s,the United States would live up to its creed?Or were freedomand unfreedom, Democracy and Racism linked somehow?The historical evidence argues for the latter conclusion.Liberty and slavery, democracy and racism were linked. WhiteAmericans could agree to respect each others liberty only becauseof their shared racism.After all, what did Thomas Jeffersonreading in his wing-backed chair in front of a roaring fire andsipping French wine at Monticello have in common with poor whitesin colonial Virginia who struggled to have adequate food through1
the winter?Race was just about all.And so racism becamecentral to American democracy.In the north, African Americans were free, but they facedconsiderable and often systematic discrimination.Only in NewYork and the New England states could African Americans vote.Lincoln’s Gettysburg address called for “a new birth of freedom,”but the legacy of American racism would mean black freedom hadclear limits after the Civil War.Presidential ReconstructionAbraham Lincoln was assassinated before the war ended, so henever had a chance to grapple with Reconstruction.Lincoln’svice president was Andrew Johnson.Johnson was a senator fromTennessee and a Democrat at the start of the war.He was theonly southern senator to reject the South’s secession and remainloyal to the Union.He served as military governor of Tennesseeduring the Union occupation.Lincoln, of course, was aRepublican.In 1864 he chose Johnson as his vice presidentialrunning mate to help win the votes of Democrats who supported theNorthern war effort.Lincoln’s assassination made JohnsonPresident.2
Johnson proposed a lenient plan to readmit southern states to theUnion.White southerners had to take a loyalty oath pledging theirloyalty to the United States to have their civil and politicalrights restored and recover their property.Wealthy southernersand high ranking confederate officials had to ask for a pardon.