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Reconstruction: After the Civil War, the American South Rebuilds


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THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a program in Special English.

In March, 1868, Congress tried to remove President Andrew Johnson from office. At that time, Congress was controlled by radical members of the Republican Party. They opposed Johnson, a Democrat.

Congress failed to remove Johnson. But it did succeed in getting control of efforts to re-build the South following America's Civil War.

Radical Republicans wanted to punish the South for starting the war. They also wanted to be sure new governments in the southern states would support the Republican Party.

I'm Frank Oliver. Today, Doug Johnson and I tell about this reconstruction.

One way radical Republicans gained support was by helping give blacks the right to vote. They knew former slaves would vote for the party which had freed them.

Another way Republicans kept control in the South was by preventing whites from voting there. They passed a law saying no southerner could vote if he had taken part in the rebellion against the Union.  This prevented the majority of southern whites from voting for Democrats and against Republicans.

Congress also made strong rules about what southern states had to do to re-enter the Union. It said each of the states needed a new constitution that protected the voting rights of all black men. And it said each southern state must approve an amendment to the United States Constitution that gave citizenship to blacks.

The radicals did not rest with changes in the law. They also sent their supporters south to organize blacks for the Republican Party. Many southern whites hated these men from the North. They had a special name for them: carpetbaggers.

The name arose because many of the northerners who went south arrived with all their possessions in a carpet handbag. Southerners also had a name for their own people who cooperated with the carpetbaggers. They called them scalawags. Neither name was friendly.

Southern whites had a reason to be bitter. They had lost the Civil War. Now much of their power was gone, and they were suffering. But there was another side to the story, as well.

Southern whites had held black people in slavery for many years. Now, the former slaves were getting to enjoy a small taste of freedom. Also, the South had started the Civil War which had caused so much death and destruction. It was not surprising that the North showed little sympathy when the fighting stopped and the South lay in ruins.

Southern states organized conventions to form new governments. Soon, all but three southern states had new legislatures.

Not surprisingly, radical Republicans held firm control in every one of the new governments. Many of the new governors and state officials were carpetbaggers from outside the state. Others were southern scalawags.

Many of these new state officials were dishonest. They began using their power to become rich.

In South Carolina, for example, the new governor was a former army officer from the state of Ohio. He gave government jobs to many dishonest men, including some who were wanted for crimes in other states.

The same situation existed in other state governments in the South. In Louisiana, for example, the governor was a carpetbagger from the state of Illinois. He left office after four years with one million dollars. His official pay during that time was only 32,000 dollars.

The South was not the only place where public officials were dishonest.

The period after the Civil War in the United States was marked by several famous incidents involving violations of the public trust. Some of these incidents took place in the North, even in the White House. They were among the worst examples of dishonesty and poor government ever to take place in American history.

It also is important to note that not everyone in the south was dishonest. The new state governments did many good things.

They built roads and bridges, schools and hospitals. They improved transportation and education. They loaned money to companies to build railroads. Most important, they helped give hope to former slaves. These people were struggling to create a new life in the land of their former owners.

So, the record of reconstruction in the South was mixed. Many southerners believe, even today, that reconstruction was a bitter time of defeat. But others now say this period after the Civil War was a necessary step in creating a different kind of South from the one which had existed before.

Historians do agree that reconstruction changed the United States in several important ways.  One of the most important changes was in the Constitution. Congress passed three historic amendments to the Constitution during this period.

The first was the Thirteenth Amendment. It ended slavery in the United States.

The next was the Fourteenth Amendment.  It said all persons born or naturalized in the United States were citizens of the United States and of the state in which they lived. It said no state could limit the rights of these citizens.

Finally, there was the Fifteenth Amendment.  It said a citizen of the United States could not be prevented from voting because of his color.

The Thirteenth Amendment freed all Negro slaves. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were supposed to protect their rights. These laws alone, however, did not succeed in doing this. It would take another century -- until Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders -- to make these rights a reality.

Yet the passage of these three amendments to the Constitution was still a historic step in making blacks full and equal citizens.

These same laws and other actions of the radical Republicans changed the South in other -- less desirable, ways. They helped cause angry whites to form the Ku Klux Klan and other groups that terrorized blacks for years to come.

The laws also increased bitterness between the north and south that lasted many years.

Reconstruction changed the economy of the South, too. White land-owners broke up their big farms into smaller pieces of land. They rented these to black farmers. With the land came seed, tools, and enough supplies for a year.  In exchange for this, the owner would get a large share of the crop raised by the tenant farmer.

This system, called share-cropping, spread through the South. It lasted for almost one hundred years.

Share-cropping made it possible for blacks to work the land for themselves for the first time in their lives. But it also made it difficult for them to earn enough money to improve their condition. As a result, the majority of southern blacks remained in poverty. The system helped cause the South to be the poorest part of the United States for many years.

The reconstruction period changed the face of the South and of the United States. The events of reconstruction also were central to one of the nation's most interesting presidential elections. That will be our story next week.

You have been listening to the Special English program, THE MAKING OF A NATION. Your narrators were Frank Oliver and Doug Johnson. Our program was written by David Jarmul.


American History in VOA Special English
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