The Unfinished Nation: Chapter 15, “Reconstruction and The New South”


Chapter 15 Main Themes:


  1. Radical Reconstruction changed the South in many significant ways, but ultimately fell short of the full transformation needed to secure equality for the freedmen.
  2. White society and the federal government lacked the will to enforce effectively most of the constitutional and legal guarantees acquired by blacks during Reconstruction.
  3. The policies of the Grant administration moved beyond Reconstruction matters to foreshadow issues of the late nineteenth century, such as political corruption and currency reform.
  4. White leaders reestablished economic and political control of the South and sought to modernize the region through industrialization while redrawing the color line of racial discrimination in public life.
  5. The race question continued to dominate Southern life well past Reconstruction into modern times.


A thorough study of Chapter 15 should enable the student to understand:


  • The competing notions of freedom that arose in the years immediately after the Civil War, and the attempt by the Freedmen's Bureau to negotiate them.


  • The Reconstruction strategy begun by Abraham Lincoln before his death, and Andrew Johnson's response to it after his death.


  • The differences between Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction, and the reasons for the transition to the latter set of policies.


  • The meanings of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments for civil rights in the South.


  • The Reconstruction governments in practice, and Southern (black and white) reaction to them.


  • The growth and impact of sharecropping and the crop-lien system on the economic development of the South and the economic independence of former slaves.


  • The debate among historians concerning the nature of Reconstruction, its accomplishments, and its ultimate effects on the South.


  • The national problems faced by President Ulysses S. Grant, and the reasons for his lack of success as chief executive in the domestic arena.


  • The diplomatic successes of Grant's administrations, including the purchase of Alaska and the settling of the Alabama claims.


  • The critical greenback question, and how it reflected the postwar financial problems of the nation.


  • The alternatives available to address the crisis spawned by the election of 1876, and the effects of the so-called Compromise of 1877 on Reconstruction.


  • The methods used by "Redeemers" in the South to achieve "home rule", and the social, economic, and racial decisions made by Southern whites in fashioning the New South.
  • The reasons for the failure of the South to develop a strong industrial economy after Reconstruction.


  • The ways in which Southerners decided to handle the race question, and the origin of the system of racial discrimination identified with "Jim Crow."


  • The response of blacks to conditions in the South following Reconstruction.




Carpetbaggers Pejorative term used by Southerners to describe white men from the North, most of them veterans from the Union army, who moved into the former Confederacy after the war, often to take advantage of economic opportunities as hopeful planters, businessmen, or professionals.


Factors Brokers in the economic system of the Old South who marketed planters’ crops.


Scalawag   Pejorative term used by Southerners to refer to southerners who cooperated with the Republican regimes of Reconstruction. Scalawags were usually former Whigs who had never felt comfortable in the Democratic party or farmers who lived in remote areas where there had been little or no slavery.


Sharecroppin   Economic system prevalent in the South after the Civil War where (often black) tenants worked their own plots of land and paid their (white) landlords either a fixed rent or a share of their crop.


Solid South   Refers to the fact that the South became overwhelmingly Democratic as a reaction to Republican actions during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Democratic domination of Southern politics persisted for over a century despite occasional cracks, especially in presidential elections.


Spoils System   The political equivalent of the military axiom "To the victor belong the spoils." In the nineteenth century, the victorious political party in national, state, and local elections routinely dismissed most officeholders and replaced them with workers loyal to the incoming party. The "spoils" were the many patronage jobs available in the government. At the national level, this included thousands of post office and customs positions. Political organizations especially adept at manipulating spoils to remain in power were often called machines. Civil-service reformers demanded that non-policymaking jobs be filled on the basis of competitive examinations and that officeholders would continue in office as long as they performed satisfactorily.


Unionists   Residents of the Confederate states who counseled against secession and who often remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Unionists were more common in upcountry regions of the South, where the slave-based plantation economy was less influential than in coastal areas of the South. Some Unionists left the South during the Civil War, but many remained.


Veto/Pocket Veto   The president's refusal to sign a bill passed by Congress. He must send it back to Congress with his objections. Unless two-thirds of each house votes to override the president's action, the bill will not become law. A pocket veto occurs when Congress has adjourned and the president refuses to sign a bill within ten days. Because Congress is not in session, the president's action cannot be overridden. (See the Constitution, Article I, Section 7.)