History 2700  MacKay 

Armed White Man's Leaguer and Ku Klux Klan Member Shake Hands a cowed African, by Thomas Nast, printed in American Family (October 1874)

Historian Eric Foner has called Reconstruction a "a splendid failure." It did not succeed in resolving the debate over the meaning of freedom in American life. Yet, among the societies that abolished slavery in the 19th century, the U.S., for a moment offered the ex-slaves a measure of control over their own destinies. 


The Port Royal Experiment was what might have been--a place where ex-slaves were allowed access to education, jobs, government Begun in 1862 on the South Carolina Sea Islands, the Port Royal Experiment was an early attempt to prepare newly freed slaves for full democratic participation in post-Civil War society. When Union forces began an assault on St. Helena Island on the Port Royal Sound, the plantation owners fled, leaving behind their homes, possessions, and 10,000 slaves. Philanthropic Northerners, including Laura Towne and Charlotte Forten, undertook to educate the soon-to-be freedmen. Their goals were literacy, economic independence, and civil rights. Their efforts to bring the freedmen into "white society" became known as the Port Royal Experiment.

Amendment XIII (1865) 

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 

Amendment XIV (1868) 

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. 

Amendment XV (1870) 

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. 

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


Recommended reading: Don't Know Much: 238-251

Discussion Topics:

  1. How do you understand the analysis that Reconstruction was "splendid" and a "failure"? Consider the splendor of the constitutional amendments, the Port Royal experiment, the federal laws. Consider the failure of the Jim Crow laws.
  2. In what ways did the 14th amendment radically change the Constitution? Consider such issues as citizenship, state power vs. national power, the concept of equal protection of law.

Project #20: Work with materials presented by Digital History. What were the major political and social achievements of Reconstruction? Why do you think the North failed to follow through with policies that would have secured the rights and economic status of the freedmen?