Skip to Main Content

Liberty and Equality for African Americans During Reconstruction

The Civil War and Reconstruction period produced significant political, economic, and social transformations in the United States, but for African Americans the progress had mixed results at best. The legacy of the Civil War included the central question of what emancipation meant beyond the destruction of the institution of slavery. In this lesson, students will examine primary sources from the Reconstruction era and examine two historians’ arguments on its effects on the lives of African Americans. This lesson is adapted from materials contained in the Bill of Rights Institute’s U.S. History resource entitled Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the American Experiment. This free online resource covers 1491 to the present day, is aligned to the College Boards AP U.S. history framework. You can access the full resource HERE.


  • Students will explain how and why Reconstruction resulted in continuity and change understandings of what it meant to be American
  • Students will practice the historical thinking skills of examining primary sources and creating and defending historical arguments

Warm-up (10 minutes):

Allow students to study the Thomas Nast cartoons from Reconstruction in Handout A and answer the accompanying questions. Lead a brief class discussion.

Activity (40 minutes):

Tell students that historians today debate the progress that was made during Reconstruction. Distribute Handout B and Handout C: Graphic organizer. Have students read the arguments and complete the graphic organizer. Lead students in a brief discussion of their responses or collect and assess their responses with the Handout D: Suggested Answers.


Handout A: Thomas Nast political cartoons

Introduction: The following cartoons appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s Weekly covered domestic and foreign news as well as fiction, essays, and illustrations. Thomas Nast was the magazine’s most famous and influential contributor with his work appearing in the magazine from the late 1850s to the mid-1880s. When Nast’s Thanksgiving cartoon was published in 1869, Congress had recently passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and state legislatures were in the process of debating the ratification of the amendment. In the first image, Uncle Sam, standing on the far right, carves a turkey. Columbia, seated on the far left, speaks to a Chinese man. Americans from all around the world sit at the table. On the wall hang portraits of three presidents: Lincoln, George Washington, and Ulysses S. Grant. Behind Uncle Sam is a painting of Castle Garden, the main immigration processing center in New York City before the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. Despite the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments (i.e., the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments), the idea of allowing African American men to vote and receive full civil rights was met with local resistance in the South. The second featured image by Thomas Nast, “The Union As It Was,” also appeared in Harper’s Weekly, on October 10, 1874. A member of the White League and a Ku Klux Klan member shake hands over a shield depicting “The Lost Cause.”

Questions for discussion:

  • How many years have passed between the publication of each of these cartoons?
  • What was the artists Nast’s overall message in the first cartoon? How do you know?
  • Do any of the figures at the table surprise you? Explain.
  • To what extent does the second cartoon reflect a change in the artist’s attitude toward   Reconstruction?
The cartoon shows a table crowded by people of different races and ages. Columbia sits between a black man and a Chinese man. Uncle Sam carves the turkey. In the center of the table is the Temple of Liberty on top of the words “Self Government” and “Universal Suffrage.” Portraits of Lincoln, Washington, and Grant hang on the walls along with an American flag and a banner that says “First Amendment.” The words “Come One, Come All” and “Free and Equal” are on either side of the title of the cartoon, which is “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.”

Figure 1: Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” by Thomas Nast, as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 20, 1869.

The cartoon is titled “The Union as it was: This is a white man’s government.” The cartoon shows two men standing on either side of a shield. The shield, titled “Worse than slavery,” shows a black family on their knees between a lynched body in a tree and a burning school house. The two men are labeled the White League and the KKK. They reach across and shake hands over the shield. Above their handshake are the words “The lost cause.” Under their handshake is a skull.

Figure 2: “The Union As It Was” cartoon by Thomas Nash, as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly, October 10, 1874.

Handout B: Point-Counterpoint Essential Question: To what extent did American principles become a reality for African Americans during Reconstruction?

Issue on the Table: To what extent did American principles become a reality for African Americans during Reconstruction? Did they emerge from this period in a virtual state of slavery, or, despite many obstacles, did Reconstruction result in some progress for African Americans?

Instructions: Read the two arguments in response to the question, paying close attention to the supporting evidence and reasoning used for each. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the arguments in this essay are not the personal views of the scholars but are illustrative of larger historical debates.

Claim A: Brooks Simpson, Arizona State University

What did the end of slavery mean for once-enslaved African Americans? Emancipation might mean the destruction of slavery, but what did freedom mean for several million people? To be sure, a series of constitutional amendments brought an end to the institution of slavery, defined U.S. citizenship to include African Americans (thus definitively overturning the 1857 Dred Scott decision), and removed race, color, or previous condition of servitude as a barrier to voting by male citizens. Moreover, emancipation saw the reunification of families previously torn apart by sale, removal, and war. Therefore, Reconstruction presented an opportunity for African Americans to control their own lives, their families, and, to some extent, their work and education. And, for a brief, shining moment, it allowed them to take part in politics as voters and officeholders. Yet that moment proved all too brief. Reconstruction collapsed in the 1870s, its frail structure brought down by increasing indifference and opposition on the part of northern whites, inadequate federal enforcement, economic depression, political infighting, and, most of all, political terrorism by southern whites, who sought to restore “home rule,” or white supremacy, at rifle point, much as slave obedience had once been compelled by the whip. Meager efforts to establish a firm foundation for black freedom and opportunity through land confiscation and redistribution had never taken hold and blacks were usually left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment where they labored under significant disadvantages. Blacks (as well as many poor whites) struggled to make ends meet through various arrangements with white landowners and merchants, only to find themselves mired in ever-increasing debt. Whether the arrangements were labeled as sharecropping or the crop-lien system, with workers renting land or earning wages, the result usually perpetuated their state of impoverishment. Segregation, although an improvement over exclusion, in practice meant inferior and underfunded schools in most places. Public schools struggled and opportunity declined. The few exceptions to a lack of economic and educational opportunity proved the rule. No wonder an increasing number of black families migrated west and north, away from their native South, in search of a better future, although an observer might note that prospects were bleak everywhere. Nor could African Americans seek reliable recourse through the political system. The era of Jim Crow segregation saw increasing efforts to limit and diminish African American opportunity. Voter suppression through terrorism soon gave way to suppression through legislation, and eventually disfranchisement, with literacy tests and poll taxes presenting obstacles to exercising the franchise (vote). Although immediately after Reconstruction, African Americans held state and even national office, the number of black officeholders soon plummeted as black voters were first gerrymandered into districts that minimized the impact of black voting and then prohibited from voting altogether. For all the complaints about the shortcomings in Republican efforts to enforce Reconstruction legislation in the 1870s, court decisions in the 1880s further curtailed what gains had been made in civil rights in the 1860s and 1870s. In addition, after 1890, most Republicans were indifferent and most Democrats were actively hostile toward black aspirations. Meanwhile, many whites celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Appomattox by watching the movie Birth of a Nation, which presented Klansmen as heroes and southern whites as oppressed. Even in the land of Lincoln, the 1908 Springfield Riots reminded Americans that racism was a national problem. To be sure, the foundation for freedom laid down during Reconstruction, although largely abandoned for decades, proved firm enough to support the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. But for the African Americans who emerged from slavery during the Civil War, the promises of Reconstruction went largely unfulfilled. Although slavery had been destroyed, racism, injustice, discrimination, violence, and the stifling of opportunity and equality remained.

Claim B: John C. Waugh, Independent Historian

Although the promise of Reconstruction and the early days after emancipation remained largely unfulfilled for African Americans until the Civil Rights era, Reconstruction did lead to progress for African Americans; however, this progress was brief and halting. W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading black activist of the first half of the twentieth century, put it this way: “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; and then moved back again toward slavery.” Southern slaves were forever freed midway through the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and near the war’s end by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In the three years after the war, the Republican Congress fought another bitter war over Reconstruction with Andrew Johnson, who had become president in April 1865 when Lincoln was assassinated. The majority in Congress, which was controlled by so-called Radical Republicans, all of them abolitionists, wanted blacks to have an edge in the South and to be treated equally under the law with whites, and so passed legislation to that end. Johnson’s plans centered on restoring white control in the South, which would give no equality or protection to blacks. Already, former slaves were being lynched, murdered, and terrorized by white men in the South. This did not seem to bother Johnson, who was a white supremacist of long standing. But it appalled most in Congress, and Congress passed a Civil Rights Act to try to stop it. The Thirteenth Amendment had freed the slaves but it did not mention any civil rights such as citizenship or voting. The Civil Rights Act held that the freedmen were now citizens and, therefore, equally protected by the law. To protect the law itself, the Radicals then cemented it into the Constitution as the Fourteenth Amendment. The next worry for the Radicals was the lamentable absence of any mechanism that allowed black men to vote, and to outlaw any act of violence or intimidation that would prevent them from voting. This right was also written into the Constitution, with the Fifteenth Amendment. In the minds of the Radicals, there the three amendments stood, set in concrete, to free African Americans and forever end racial injustice. Freedmen voted in growing numbers and served in local, state, and national office. But by 1870, many of the Radicals had left Congress and were no longer there to extend African Americans’ “brief moment in the sun.” Southerners, ignoring the amendments, passed Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, and other segregation legislation, scissoring black rights back to near slavery. The Ku Klux Klan and the lesser white supremacy organizations-the White Brotherhood and Knights of the White Camelia-roamed the South terrorizing blacks with organized criminal violence, murdering, hanging, and otherwise intimidating former slaves. This hard-handed violence against African Americans and deprivation of their rights, despite the three constitutional amendments prohibiting it, lasted for the next 100 years. But in the 1960s, protesting blacks, with the help of sympathetic whites, began organized protests, marches, and bus rides against these white supremacy laws. This movement was violently resisted by southern whites and the violence appeared on television nationwide. That exposure, together and with a nonviolent challenge to racial injustice, led by the black Alabama minister Martin Luther King, Jr., awakened the country. The three constitutional amendments were adopted during Reconstruction guaranteed African Americans constitutional rights and led to progress before being systematically taken away within only a few years. They remained on the books for a century, and Senator Charles Sumner in his time called them the “sleeping giants.” Those sleeping amendments reasserted themselves and are now the laws governing equality among the races, as was intended when adopted a century ago. Racism, hard to stamp out, still exists. But the amendments have become the chief lasting products of Reconstruction. In the end, they, indeed, created progress for African Americans.

Handout C: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer

PDF available here

  • Which argument do you find more convincing? Explain what evidence led you to this point of view.
  • List at least two primary sources that would provide additional context to help you evaluate the arguments presented in this Point-Counterpoint.

Handout D: Suggested Answers

Discussion Questions:

  • Five years have passed.
  • Nast supports ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. This is shown by his inclusion of men and women
    of all ethnicities and races seated at one table on equal footing with two symbols of the United States: Uncle Sam and Columbia. The words “Come one, come all” and “Free and equal” appear in the bottom corners of the image. Nast has included the immigration processing center with the words “Welcome.” The table centerpiece also reads “self-government” and “universal suffrage,” indicating Nast believes the two must go together. By including portraits of Presidents Lincoln, Washington, and Grant in the background, Nast implies the presidents would have approved of such a gathering and, by extension, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.
  • Answers will vary. Students may note the American Indian (the Plains Wars were currently being fought) or the presence of women. The Fifteenth Amendment only gave the vote to men regardless of race.
  • Nast condemns the violence of the KKK against African Americans, calling it “worse than slavery.” He implies the whites of the South are dedicated to their “lost cause” and are intent to keep African Americans in their “rightful” place below them. The two white characters are armed and there is a victim of lynching shown in the shield to the left and a burning school house to the right. Nast appears angry over the violence Reconstruction has brought, compared with the optimism depicted in the first cartoon.

Point Counterpoint Questions:

  • Historian A claims that although slavery was technically abolished, African Americans during Reconstruction still lived in a virtual state of slavery and oppression and had a lack of true opportunity or equality.
  • Historian B claims that although cruelty and violence against African Americans did exist during, and after, Reconstruction, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments established during Reconstruction have ultimately ensured progress for African Americans.
  • Although slavery had been destroyed, racism, injustice, discrimination, violence, and the stifling of opportunity and equality remained.
  • Although the promise of Reconstruction and the early days after emancipation remained largely unfulfilled for African Americans until the Civil Rights era, Reconstruction did lead to progress for African Americans; however, this progress was brief and halting.
  • Both historians agree African Americans had a horrific experience during Reconstruction, with sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and other acts of violence.
  • Both articles recognize the accomplishments of Reconstruction were short-lived. However, the historians disagree on how much of a foundation the Reconstruction amendments laid for the Civil Rights movement.
  • Students may agree with Historian A or B but should support their opinion with specific evidence from whichever essay they choose.
  • Jim Crow laws would give context on what rights (or lack thereof) were afforded to African Americans; the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments would give context on the protections they gave African Americans.