When the American Revolution took place and the United States declared its independence in 1776, many were probably glad that the fighting was over. Little did people of that time know that America would again engage in a major revolution – one involving Americans killing Americans. One social issue was a rift that was driving the North and the South further apart, and that issue was slavery. Conflict over slavery involved a high emotional drive, as well as greed. Ultimately, the Constitution was utilized by the South to protect slavery, and by the North in order to effect change. These constitutional and social developments that occurred between 1860 and 1877 amounted to a revolution of three stages: civil war, reconstruction, and return of the planter aristocracy.
Ever since the beginning of slavery in America, the moral implications of human bondage have nagged at many, eventually resulting in open conflict. At first, the states attempted to maintain a balance of slave and free states, but this could not keep happy all sides eternally. In 1860, John Brown’s raid in Kansas raised the moral question of slavery to a new level. Then, when Lincoln won the 1860 election, seven states in the South announced their secession, and four more would later follow suit, mainly because a purely sectional party, the Republicans, had managed to snag the presidency. The seceding states believed it was their right to leave the union, on the grounds that the United States Government was not abiding by its own constitution. In its Declaration of Causes of Secession, South Carolina quotes the United States Constitution, “…powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution…are reserved to the states…or the people.” This statement showed the South’s stubbornness toward the issue, and only more drastic measures could change anything. Lincoln flatly refutes the states’ reasons for secession and discredits nullification, which leads to hostilities, and the war. After four long years, the war finally neared its end. The result was a tragic loss of life, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the southern lifestyle perhaps more than anything else.
Once the war was over, reconstruction could commence. Thousands of freedmen demanded equality, a social issue that would lead to several constitutional amendments. Shortly after the war, in 1865, African Americans assembled in Nashville and wrote a petition to the Union convention, in which they asked where the justice was in calling blacks to fight in the war, and then denying them the right to vote. The colored soldiers felt that their sacrifices should count for something, which caused White America to struggle within themselves. At the same time, in South Carolina, Freedmen petitioned the Freedmen’s Bureau and the President, asking for equal rights, including the right to free homesteads. All of these social issues contributed to three important constitutional amendments: the 13th Amendment to ban slavery, the 14th to give citizenship to blacks, and the 15th to give blacks the vote. The social impact of the fifteenth amendment was substantial, and artists depicted this, as shown in “The First Vote.” The entire southern system was crushed by the revolution, socially and economically. The detrimental effects of this would leave a visible scar on the South, and decades passed before the South “caught up.”
All was not well, and after a relatively short period of time, the South gradually revitalized many of its pre-Civil War customs, to the chagrin of the North. Notably, sharecropping emerged as a replacement for slavery. Many blacks were even contracted to work for their former slave-masters, only this time for money – barely. On average, blacks were driven into deeper and deeper debt, which their children inherited. This created a system that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery of the old days. Many Northerners likely wondered why the war was even fought, since it seemingly did not stop the South from achieving their ends.
Many in the South even undermined the new amendments to the Constitution. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, wrote in 1865 that Federal Government had no right to dictate suffrage. Literacy tests and reinstated property requirements kept many freedmen from voting. Furthermore, violence was used to scare potential voters. Lynching, as well as other acts of terrorism, was exercised by the Ku Klux Klan and the White League. Thomas Nast illustrated this reality in 1874, and published the message in Harper’s Weekly.
Another blow was dealt to reformation when the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy versus Ferguson. Segregation was deemed legal, as long as opportunities were equal. This was not the case, but segregation continued. Finally, in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the south. The North believed that, armed with suffrage, blacks could now fend for themselves. Also, maintaining a southern presence took away from Union efforts in the West. This move, however, gave southerners virtually free reign, and much of the planter aristocracy was restored for many more years to come.
The revolutions of Civil War, reconstruction, and the comeback of the planter aristocracy all played vital roles in the further shaping of the nation. Progress was definitely made, though, since the issues of slavery and nullification were finally put to rest.
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