Is the South still feeling the effects of Reconstruction Era policies?

I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Reconstruction policies were so radical that the South, especially the economy, is still recovering today, more than 130 years later which seems incredible to me. Is this true and are there any specific examples?

The short answer is no, it’s not true. I’d like to see anyone name these “policies” that had such an effect.

The longer answer looks at a much longer time period. The slave/plantation economy of the South is much debated but a number of general truths can be asserted. The South was mostly devoted to agriculture at a time when industry starting producing enormous wealth in the North. Wealthy Southerners mostly rejected any path to a Northern-style economy: they didn’t want to move their capital into industry, didn’t want to bring in the millions of immigrants who filled Northern factories, and didn’t want to allow blacks to move into cities in large numbers either. This was a deliberate collective decision to retain a fading economic system.

The failure of this system was shown in the Civil War. Forget all the romantic nonsense about brave soldiers; the North won the war with industry and technology. A war that was fought 99% of the time on Southern soil. Deficit spending flooded northern industry with billions of dollars of capital, three-quarters of a million immigrants flocked to the country during the war either for factory work or for the bounty to become soldiers, making the North stronger as the war went on, and Northern armies systematically destroyed every piece of technology in the South - trains, telegraphs, factories, shipyards.

That was the true devastating policy. The South was a wasteland after the war. Reconstruction could have helped build those states but they violently rejected it. Instead, Southern moneyed interests tried to retain the failed vision that had led to the war. They fought Reconstruction and made it fail; it only lasted 12 years and was mostly ineffective at best. The Soth had the additional disadvantage of a climate that was much less attractive in the days before air conditioning than today. Mostly, though, the South choose to be a stagnant backwater until WWII. Again, this was a deliberate choice not any policy imposed on them by the North.

So the long answer is not just no, but Hell no.

I have some pretty major criticisms of Reconstruction as a practical postwar policy - the plain fact is that it completely failed. Some elements of it were absolutely good and necessary, but others just didn’t. However, one major is is that Reconstruction didn’t offer any useful economic assistance - certainly not enough to actually rebuild. And the South was so utterly devastated that many areas simply never recovered whatsoever, which was quite to the taste of many North-Eastern elites who wanted to break the South politically.

The only major economic program was the railroad subsidy, and that backfired in a huge way (it was arguably a huge part of why Southerners so hated Reconstruction, even beyond the social/political dimensions). The amount of corruption was grotesque, and while the railroads got built, it required massive tax increases on a region that could scarcely afford them.

There was a Southern boy of that era, name of Woodrow Wilson, who saw all this happening. A few years later, he found himself in a position to influence (or try to influence) the policies toward European (and especially Germany) recovery after another Very Big War. He remembered what he saw in the post-bellum South, and argued at Versailles for the importance of rebuilding Germany, rather than saddling them with ruinous reparations.

But the other bigwigs at Versailles didn’t go along with that, and instead produced a harsh treaty of which the French soldier, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, said: “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” (To be sure, he was arguing for harsher terms against Germany.)

ETA: And BTW, corruption was rampant in the building of the railroads from coast to coast in that era, which included the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. See Iron Wheels and Broken Men by Richard O’Connor (if you can find it) for the story.

It’s hard to defend Reconstruction. After Lincoln died, the Radical Republicans could do pretty much what they wanted and that certainly included retribution.

Corruption certainly was rampant and the railroad subsidies are a good example. That money didn’t all go to carpetbaggers, though: Southerners were elbow-deep in cash.

And that remains the point. Too many Southerners felt there shouldn’t be any punishment at all for the war. Too many Southerners grabbed at the first dollars available after the privations of the war years. Too few Southerners made any serious effort to form a sensible policy for rebuilding the ruins. Too few Southerners worked to get Congress to pass responsible laws, even though their numbers greatly increased by 1875. And their social/political policy remained an endless source of shame during the period and for over a century after. You can’t blame Reconstruction for what happened from 1877-1977.

The South absolutely refused to face up to any reality before, during, or after the war. You can’t lay the blame anywhere else.

Keep in mind that the Panic of 1873 (which was a depression) hit in the middle of Reconstruction. It hit everywhere, but because the South was disrupted by the war, it made the impact there more severe. And while the Panic (IMO) was caused by a combination of stupid policies, those policies weren’t really aimed at the South per-se.

And, another thing to keep in mind is that the South was going to have to go through severe economic contraction no matter how harsh or mild reconstruction was because freeing the slaves created a complete disruption in how the Southern economy functioned.

Of course, the US massively invested in the South during the Great Depression. Not only the South of course, but they got a lot of infrastructure spending. So, even if you could argue that Reconstruction had lingering effects, you’d have to come up with a reason why all the money that flowed into the South during the New Deal didn’t make up for it. And today, the South (with the exception of a few states) gets more in Federal dollars then it send out, so it’s still getting subsidized. I think the onus is on anyone who claims that Reconstruction is still hurting the South today to come up with a plausible line of reasoning for that claim.

I will say that I’ve met a lot of Southerners who are deeply upset about Reconstruction. So, it might be that their feelings are the lingering effects they are referring to.

ETA: This was a general response, not to anyone particular in this thread.

In the 1930s and 40s there was a school of thought among some historians that Reconstruction was used as a tool for northern industrialists to remake the economy for their benefit and the expense of the Southern agrarian economy. This view has been refuted in a convincing fashion to me. There had always been a split in the american economy between the north and south since policies that help the industrial north which needed relatively tight money and high tariffs hurt the south which relied on farming and needed looser money and lower tariffs. However, the Republican party at the time was a very broad coalition and did not really have a unified economic agenda that it could impose.
Most Reconstruction laws were about politics and not economics. The biggest economic policy change was probably change changes in taxes from capitation taxes to better enforced property taxes. Most modern economic theory suggests this change would have been growth enhancing. The actual result of the policy would depend on how efficient a system plantation based labor was. I have seen data which suggests it was very efficient but there are good reasons to be skeptical that it was. Namely it seems unlikely that slaves were working as hard and as smart for their owners as freedman would work for themselves. Since the most important part of the southern economy was cotton production and the cotton fields were not destroyed and the cotton pickers were now free to pick for themselves, production of cotton would have rebounded to pre-war levels very quickly.
The biggest blow to the southern economy were likely the hundred of thousands of working age young men who died in the war. This would have significantly hurt the economy in the immediate aftermath of the war but would not have impacted much long term. Catch up models of growth would have predicted that Reconstruction would not have affected long term growth trends. What kept the south relatively poor, was climate, disease, lack of population, segregation, and poor work ethic as a legacy of slavery.
As mentioned upthread the panic of 1873 was very bad for the southern economy and it happened during Reconstruction but it was not caused by Reconstruction. For those who lived through it, most would not have been aware of this and it would have made sense for them to make the connection, it has always been common trope to blame all economic bad news on whoever is in office whether or not they had anything to do with it.

The south remained a backwater economically until the 1940’s, because of reconstruction. A lot of that was the fact Southerners wanted Yankees to stay the hell out.

The joke I heard once, from a Southerner, was that General Electric did more to conquer the south than anyone else.

Reconstruction ended in 1877. What Reconstruction policies caused the South to remain “a backwater economically” until sixty-odd years later?

Three things contributed to the Souths backwater economy:

  1. Slavery.

  2. The War.

  3. Reconstruction.

Of those three, that last was such a tiny % it’s hardly worth discussing. This is more Southern Sympathizer propaganda.

The South dug it’s own grave a good 5’11 inches with the first two, the fact that Reconstruction did the final inch is hardly important.

I think it’s important to separate Reconstruction from the effects of the Civil War itself and the effects of slavery as an institution.

  1. Reconstruction refers to the Northern control of aspects of Southern politics in the period from 1865 to 1877. It’s a fertile area of disagreement among historians, but I think most would agree that it has little if any continuing economic impact.

  2. The Civil War itself was quite damaging to the South. There was significant harm from the destruction of Southern infrastructure and the loss of the region’s young men, and of course slaves were the most important form of wealth in the South. I would argue that there is little continuing economic effect, but it certainly had a major impact for a long time.

  3. The biggest effect, in my view, stems from the manner in which the South chose to organize its society around slavery. De Tocqueville wrote of how far advanced Ohio was over Kentucky, which he ascribed to the debilitating effects of slavery in Kentucky. The South is still dealing with the effects of racism and a lack of emphasis on education and development.

It’s interesting that DrDeth and I had similar analyses. I hadn’t seen his post yet when I wrote mine.

I attribute a significant fraction of Twentieth Century Southern economic backwardness to the overthrow of Reconstruction. Southern whites imposed a socioeconomic system that kept half of the Southern population in uneducated peonage, and the region paid the price.

Another factor was that the postwar South suffered from the same problems today plaguing the Southern euro-zone–namely, being yoked in a currency union with the more prosperous and industrialized north. The north favored a tight monetary policy including the gold standard, high interest rates, and a limited number of national banks located mostly outside of the South. These policies were not favorable to the South which required large-scale borrowing to modernize and recover from war damage.