Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

After the American Civil War, the South was in ruins and there was doubt about how the Southern states would treat newly freed slaves. So the US government instituted a 15-year policy known as Reconstruction, in which the military was stationed in the South in order to maintain law and order now that the Confederate government was gone, help rebuild the infrastructure after the devastation of the war, and ensure the equal treatment of whites and blacks, for instance concerning the ability to vote. Reconstruction is widely viewed as a failure; the South suffered from a lot of exploitative Northern entrepreneurs known as "carpetbaggers", and in the end the South reverted to unequal treatment of blacks through Jim Crow laws.

But my question is, what were the long-term effects of Reconstruction, particularly on Southern whites? The reason I ask is this lyric from Brad Paisley's widely criticized song "Accidental Racist":

They called it Reconstruction,

fixed the buildings, dried some tears.

We're still sifting through the rubble,

after 150 years.

Is there any truth to what Paisley is saying? Presumably he's not referring to literal rubble, but is the South still suffering from some negative consequences of Reconstruction?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You in Advance

EDIT: You can listen to "Accidental Racist" here: http://youtu.be/KSurzeGvPrQ

share|improve this question
I don't need to be an historian nor an American to instantly recognise those words as nonsense. –  Lohoris Dec 22 '13 at 21:25
Are you referring to the song lyrics? Yes, they were heavily criticized for being racist and ignorant. But what's the problem with these particular lines? –  Keshav Srinivasan Dec 22 '13 at 21:30
Exactly how long-term are we talking here? Fifty years? One hundred years? one hundred fifty years? Longer? I would argue that the long-term effects of the Reconstruction of the South have not yet played out sufficiently for complete analysis, and probably won't have until Confederate flags are a bit less prominent in public places south of the Mason-Dixon Line. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 23 '13 at 2:53
How are we supposed to measure the effects of corruption in the military or carpetbagging pre-20th century on the 21st century (what measure, removal of noise)? Why are you including Paisley, you already said he isn't talking about literal rubble, so how does his song lyrics help us answer your question? (it makes it less clear what you are asking) what are you asking? Are you asking if the south would have been better off without Reconstruction? (How does one suffer from a rebuilding effort? –  user1873 Dec 23 '13 at 17:23
@PeterGeerkens I think 150 years is a pretty long time period. –  Keshav Srinivasan Dec 31 '13 at 1:55
show 5 more comments

migrated from politics.stackexchange.com Dec 22 '13 at 20:41

This question came from our site for people interested in governments, policies, and political processes.

4 Answers

Reconstruction was dead in some states almost as soon as it started, and it was completely undone nationwide by the compromise that led to the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President in 1876. The lasting social damage that the song talks about should more accurately be associated with the demise of Reconstruction.

Here are some legacies of the time period:

  • A lot of famous "firsts" which we might associate with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s actually took place in the late 1860s. For example, the first black Senator was Hiram Rhodes Revels, who took office in 1870. Another good example I think of the changing mores and how they changed back quickly and semi-permanently is baseball, which, granted, is a Northern sport but which is still indicative of the times. Many people think that Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player; in fact, that honor goes to a man named Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played briefly for the American Association in 1883 and then for several other minor league teams throughout the 1880s.

  • The KKK first arose... but was also put down. In the wake of the Civil War, the original Klu Klux Klan arose, nominally led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the general who presided over the Fort Pillow massacre. Eventually President Grant cracked down on this group and Forrest even disassociated himself with them, but the memory of white people dressing up as ghosts and harassing blacks and antiracists lived on for 50 years until D.W. Griffith revived the meme with the early feature film Birth of a Nation.

  • We came the closest to removing a sitting President from office. If you'll recall the Lewinsky affair during the Clinton administration in the 90s, you'll remember that the President was impeached but not convicted of two separate crimes. Andrew Johnson faced a similar issue, only Johnson's impeachment was arguably even more politically motivated than Clinton's, and he came within a single vote of being removed from office (Nixon resigned before Congress could remove him).

  • It gave rise to a fair bit of slang which you may not be aware originated then. The term "carpetbagger", for instance, which is now generally used to talk about a politician who runs for office in a district he has only lived in for a short time, originally referred to Northern Republicans who traveled down South in search of money or a higher cause, often arriving with no more personal possessions than whatever they could stow in a carpet-bag which they slung over their shoulder.

    Likewise, the term "scalawag", now used (when it is used) as a general pejorative, referred specifically at the time to Southerners who betrayed "Southern values" by stumping for civil rights and the like.

  • While slavery was gone in name, it was replaced by a system called sharecropping which was nearly as bad and which ensnared poor whites as well as recently freed slaves and poor blacks. There is a folk song called 16 Tons that is actually about coal mining but which may as well be about sharecropping. Its lyrics include:

    You load sixteen tons, what do you get
    Another day older and deeper in debt
    Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
    I owe my soul to the company store

    No, these farmers weren't literally slaves anymore. They could marry whoever they pleased, more or less (so long as the person they were marrying was of the same race — and some states such as Virginia had some very strict definitions as to what was a black person and what was white), and they weren't exactly subject to being sold to another plantation at the whim of a plantation owner (although if they were behind on their rent, and sharecroppers were always behind on their rent, they could be kicked off of their land on a moment's notice). But in many ways — the "I owe my soul to the company store" line from the song — they were still indebted to the people who owned the land and were unfree.

  • It began a long exodus of African Americans from the South and into large Northern cities, where they were employed at factory labor. Lest I make it sound as though race relations are entirely an issue with the South, I feel compelled to point this out. Slavery sent hundreds of thousands of black men and women north to work on the stockyards in Chicago, the garment factories in New York City, and many other places. Harlem, for instance, was a Dutch settlement and only began to have a sizeable African American contingent after the 1870s or so. Racism followed them there, as well; as any native of any large Northeastern American city will tell you, none of those places are exactly "post-racial". At the same time, the ability of blacks to congregate with other blacks without a plantation owner looking over their shoulder led to new innovations in African-American culture from the syncretism between 20th century classical music and African rhythm that is jazz to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

  • Its failure has caused a lot of people over the years to overestimate the level of equality that African Americans have had. There is a general idea regarding history that it always moves forward, in technology but also in social issues such as tolerance and understanding. I guess this happens to be true right now on a gestalt level — there is no question that we're nicer to minorities right now than the ancient Romans were — but it glosses over the fact that history is filled with as much in the way of setbacks as progresses.

    If you remain unaware that the Reconstruction in the South was a colossal failure, kind of gloss over and/or forget the Plessy v Ferguson "separate but equal" decision in the 1890s, and take up black history with the 1950s and 60s the way we used to, you wind up asking yourself, "we gave these people freedom and they just, like, sat around for a hundred years. What did they do during this time?". The answer is, they fought for many of the rights which they had briefly but which were taken away from them. The right for black people to marry whites was not recognized by this nation until 1967, for example. It wasn't that black people cared about this and other issues and then suddenly didn't care, it's that their cause was pushed down to the point that it was arguably worse to be a black person living in the USA in 1900 than it was in 1870.

    I don't want to overstate how bad things were when Martin Luther King got started — he, too, stood on the shoulders of giants such as WEB Dubois and Marcus Garvey — but he was by and large attempting to imbue a society with a sense of anti-racism that its grandfathers had decided was not something worth fighting over. In that sense, the death and the failure of the Reconstruction, not the rise of it, is the important thing to remember.

share|improve this answer
Comments had a bickering tone, and have been purged. Users who don't like this answer are encouraged to vote accordingly, and/or post their own answers. –  T.E.D. Feb 21 at 14:19
add comment

The poster wanted to know about the negative effects of Reconstruction, so I am answering that question. The only direct long term negative effect of Reconstruction era policy I know of is that the South still pays exploitative railway fees to ship goods to other sections of the nation. Following the Civil War, the US was divided into 5 freight rate territories. As this book explains, the Southern territory was forced to pay the highest rate of 87% while the North paid the lowest. Many Southern railroads were purchased by Northern railroad tycoons consolidating their holdings and giving them monopolistic power to negotiate fees following the war. The railroad in Atlanta destroyed by Sherman went bankrupt 5 times in its attempts to rebuild before being purchased by the Southern Railroad, which owns much of the railroads in the South for example to this day. (These would be an example of the unpopular carpetbaggers in the question.) Although the rates were found unconstitutional in 1952, they are still in effect for the most part, since the ruling allows them to be "voluntary."

Before the war, the South was the wealthiest section of the nation and had the highest number of college graduates. The economy did not recover until the 1880s and then grew more slowly than the rest of the nation after that. The South is now the poorest section of the nation. Separating the effects of the war and Reconstruction policy to this unfortunate outcome is hotly debated, but it should be noted. My opinion is that while the war destroyed much of the wealth and status of the planter class who had invested large amounts in slaves, Reconstruction failed to improve the wealth of the lower classes very much.

Production of cotton was encouraged during Reconstruction, since cotton was vital to the Northern economy as well, while industrialization of the South may have been more helpful for it in the long-term. Here's a great paper on the topic. The share-cropping system was used to grow large amounts of cotton cheaply, but was less efficient than slave labor or if more freedmen and poor whites had owned their own land. The system eventually collapsed as mechanized farming and the Great Depression reduced the need for large numbers of farm workers leaving these workers in a very precarious position. wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharecropping Arguably much of the poverty became generational and the South still struggles with it today.

Paisley's song can be interpreted to be a little bit about the fact that the South still has not regained its economic or social status, even after 150 years, but I don't think so. I think its more about "Southern identity" in a post Civil Rights era, given that the title is "Accidental Racist," so I think the song is about race relations and the failures of the South to accept the positive elements of Reconstruction policy.

share|improve this answer
I sourced this better since it was down voted. I just tried to answer the question Keshav's trying to get answered. –  Razie Mah Feb 16 at 1:33
add comment

The first thing about Reconstruction was the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was the President whose Second Inaugural Address preached: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds..." When he died, the best chance of a peaceful Reconstruction died with him. Lesser men were unable to finish the job that he started.

It is important to remember that the Civil War was fought first, to preserve the Union, and only second, to free the slaves. So the South undertook to "lose the war and win the peace." That is, they refrained from further rebellion, and in exchange, sought, and got the "right" to treat blacks almost like slaves. That was the unspoken "compromise" that followed the Civil War and attended Reconstruction, resulting in the so-called Jim Crow Laws.

According to Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, it may not be an accident that the Civil Rights movement started in the 1960s. That was the time when the last parties to Reconstruction (born before 1880) finished dying, no one in American society had more than a second-hand memory of the Reconstruction, and Baby Boomers didn't even have memories of second hand memories, from their grandparents. But even people like Brad Paisley (a Gen-Xer who observed the tail end of the Civil Rights movement growing up), was enough of a realist to understand that some things that happened in his lifetime, had roots going back about 100 (not 150) years before he was born.

share|improve this answer
@user1873: Also average life expectancy is very misleading unless it states that childhood mortality is excluded. A much more interesting statistic is average life expectancy of those who have already attained the age of 18, or 21 if you prefer. Medieval life expectancy is often quoted as being only about 30, but those who attained the age of 21 had a reasonably good shot to reach 50 or more. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 23 '13 at 2:59
You've offered a plausible set of opinions; it may be that with a question this broad, that is all we can do. But it has the effect of abstracting out all the interesting controversy. The civil war was fought by a lot of people, with a lot of complex motivations. The connection ante bellum civil rights, post bellum civil rights and modern civil rights is book length in complexity. –  Mark C. Wallace Dec 23 '13 at 13:16
In the context of the song, Paisley seems to be talking about negative effects of Reconstruction that Southern whites specifically are suffering from. So I don't see how a denial of civil rights for blacks would qualify. –  Keshav Srinivasan Dec 23 '13 at 14:29
I'd like sources for pretty much everything in this answer. Most blatantly for the claim that the unspoken compromise was that the south could treat blacks as slaves. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 23 '13 at 15:07
@KeshavSrinivasan: In passing the so-called Jim Crow laws, google.com/… whites "cut off their noses to spite their faces." That is, they damaged their own economic prospects just to hold back the blacks. –  Tom Au Dec 23 '13 at 16:42
show 4 more comments

The south is still benefiting today from the effects of Reconstruction.

When you consider what Reconstruction is a rebuilding effort, it is odd to ask if people are still suffering from it:

a 15-year policy known as Reconstruction, in which the military was stationed in the South in order to maintain law and order now that the Confederate government was gone, help rebuild the infrastructure after the devastation of the war, and ensure the equal treatment of whites and blacks.

The souths infrastructure has been rebuilt, with 3 of the 5 top states for infrastructure and transportation being former confederate states. Half of the Confederate states placing in the top half of all states. Blacks and whites are ensured equal treatment under the 14th Amendment, and law and order is maintained with the Confederate government gone. Four of the top 10 most dangerous states are former confederate states, which is slightly more than average, but to suggest that law and order isn't being maintained in the south is laughable when you consider that Washington D.C.'s state ranks high on the list.

Every one of the objectives of the Reconstruction has been completed, so the long-term goals of Reconstruction have been accomplished.

share|improve this answer
Building is not the same as rebuilding. Claiming that the are rebuilding the infrastructure in the south means that you are saying that the infrastructure still is not as good as it was before the war. That is clearly incorrect. So hence the rebuilding is not going on still today. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 23 '13 at 15:05
Ah, so the phrasing in this answer is sarcastic? We get all kinds here, so I wasn't sure. –  T.E.D. Dec 23 '13 at 15:21
@user1873 The thing is, although those were the goals of Reconstruction, it still had some negative effects, like some corruption among the military forces, and some exploitation by carpetbaggers. So you could say that, at least in the short term, some Southerners did suffer from Reconstruction. I'm just wondering whether there were any long-term negative consequences tht the South is still suffering from, or whether Paisley is just wrong. –  Keshav Srinivasan Dec 23 '13 at 15:24
@user1873 I don't think the notion of "suffering from the effects of Reconstruction" is self-evidently absurd. Don't you think that a policy with good intentions can nevertheless cause some unintended negative consequences? There were some short-term negative consequences of Reconstruction, like carpetbagging and corruption, so it's reasonable to ask whether there were long-term negative consequences as well. –  Keshav Srinivasan Dec 30 '13 at 2:55
I wasn't talking about quantitative measurements of effects. But historical scholarship is replete with analyses of the long-term effects of various policies, even if you can't measure those effects quantitatively. So it's possible that historians have studied the long-term effects of Reconstruction as well. –  Keshav Srinivasan Jan 1 at 15:40
show 6 more comments

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.