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Americans considered Reconstruction to be a revolution half completed, although they differed in their beliefs regarding the desirability of the transformation the Radicals and former slaves had hoped to achieve. African Americans were free and legal restrictions against them such as the Black Codes had been removed. Most white Americans thought this was enough change for a dozen years. Some even hoped to reverse these changes and fabricated a mythical past where everyone, including the slaves themselves, were happier under the plantation system of the Old South. Others believed that measures such as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 mandated “reverse discrimination.” They were convinced by demagogues that the law guaranteed that black women and men could claim a table in a restaurant or a seat on a train that had been given to a white person.
While few advocated a return to slavery, concerns about lingering issues of racial and economic inequality were harder to define and lacked the emotional certitude of chattel slavery. Black leaders and Northern journalists continued to document the plight of former slaves, but whites who wanted Reconstruction to be over increasingly convinced themselves racial discrimination had been eliminated when slavery ended. Believing otherwise might demand a greater commitment to Reconstruction and the investment of considerable resources. As a result, political leaders who celebrated the end of slavery as the end of the story swept into office, while those who reminded the public of the nation’s failure to live up to its professed ideals were usually defeated.
If Reconstruction did not provide lasting freedom for all Americans, it was a time when Americans of diverse backgrounds challenged their second-class citizenship. The period saw the reconstruction of notions about gender as women formed organizations like the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), pursued greater educational and career opportunities, formulated new ideas, and demonstrated on behalf of their right to vote. Immigrants and African Americans formed institutions such as churches, schools, fraternal societies, and political organizations that formed the core of their communities. These institutions built on traditions of extended family as former slaves and people from distant lands became brothers and sisters who accepted responsibility for the welfare of the larger community. The Constitution now embraced the idea of national citizenship, even if many sought to restrict the rights that citizenship conveyed. Lastly, Americans experienced the emergence of a larger, more active, and more powerful federal government. The nation’s retreat from Reconstruction in the South did not result in the abandonment of federal influence. Instead, the government transitioned from using its power to promote the expansion of citizenship to promoting Western expansion and industrial growth. And while the federal government retreated from the South and abandoned African Americans, its power was increasingly harnessed along the new frontiers of the American West.