Illusions of Emancipation
The defeat of the Confederacy destroyed slavery and the slaveholders' quest for an independent nation. The Freedmen's Bureau, established by Congress weeks before the surrender, aimed to construct a system of compensated labor on the ruins of slavery and to identify and protect the rights that freed people needed to function in the new world of freedom. They encountered strong opposition from former slaveholders, which President Andrew Johnson's lenient reconstruction policy appeared to encourage. When Radical Republicans gained the upper hand, they enacted sweeping legislation designed to reconstruct the seceded states on the principle of racial democracy (the Reconstruction Acts) and to safeguard black Americans' civil and political rights (a Civil Rights Act and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments). But by failing to legislate a redistribution of Southern land, the Radicals squelched the freed people's most cherished hope for economic advancement. Although this and other setbacks-including the violent overthrow of Radical Reconstruction in 1876-dampened hopes, the quest for freedom and equality endured.
Keywords: Freedmen's Bureau, President Andrew Johnson's lenient reconstruction policy, Radical Republicans, Reconstruction Acts, Civil Rights Act, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, redistribution of Southern land, Radical Reconstruction
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