by Steven Mintz

In 1915, 50 years after the end of the Civil War, D.W. Griffith, released his epic film Birth of a Nation. The greatest blockbuster of the silent era, Birth of a Nation was seen by an estimated 200 million Americans by 1946.

Based on a novel by a Baptist preacher named Thomas Dixon, the film painted Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War, as a time when vengeful former slaves, opportunistic white scalawags, and corrupt Yankee carpetbaggers plundered and oppressed the former Confederacy until respectable white Southerner rose up and restored order. A "scalawag" was a southern white who supported the Republican party; a "carpetbagger" was a northern-born Republican who had migrated to the South.

The film depicted a vindictive northern Congressman, modeled on a Pennsylvania Republican member of Congress, Thaddeus Stevens, and a power-hungry mulatto eager to marry the Congressman's daughter. The film's hero is an aristocratic Confederate veteran who joins the Ku Klux Klan and at the film's climax rescues the woman from armed freedmen. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly described the film as "history written with lightning."

During the twentieth century, far more Americans probably learned about Reconstruction from Hollywood rather than from history books or lectures. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind depicted Reconstruction as a misguided attempt to overturn the South's "natural" order by giving political power to former slaves.

Even though the Confederacy lost the Civil War it succeeded, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in winning the ideological war that determined how Americans viewed the Civil War era. For much of the twentieth century, the dominant view of Reconstruction, repeated in many high school and college textbooks, was that it was a period of "bayonet rule," when vindictive northern carpetbaggers and their white and black puppets engaged in an orgy of corruption and misrule. According to this view, a courageous President Johnson, seeking to carry out Lincoln's policy of reconciliation, was confronted by a hostile Congress trying to punish the defeated South.

In recent years, this interpretation of Reconstruction has been thoroughly dismantled. It is now clear that Reconstruction was a failed, but admirable, attempt to adjust to the realities of emancipation: To guarantee the civil and political rights of former slaves and forge a more just society citizenship out of the ruins of slavery. President Johnson's reconstruction policy, far from being a continuation of Lincoln's, was steadfastly opposed to protecting the rights of African Americans.

Reconstruction was the most daring experiment in American history. It represented an attempt to transform the institutions and patterns of social relations of the Old South. It gave black Americans in the South their first taste of political power. Out of Reconstruction came constitutional amendments that extended citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. This era also witnessed the federal government's first efforts to create social welfare programs.

In the end, Reconstruction failed to establish a less racially divided society. Its failure doomed the South to decades of relative economic underdevelopment and ensured that the South would be dominated by a single political party. It also left the entire country with the unfinished task of achieving full economic and political equality to the descendants of slaves.

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Discussion

Although reconstruction was a great attempt to help the newly freed slaves and the nation itself, in the end, it was more of a failure. Reconstruction did a lot of good things, it was an attempt to change social relations in the south, it allowed black Americans in the south to have some political power, it granted them citizenship and allowed them to vote, and the federal government began to work on making social welfare programs. But reconstruction failed to end social division, and the south ended up falling decades behind in economic development, causing them to be dominated by a single political party. Reconstruction also failed to grant full economic and political equality to black Americans. At the end, the aim for reconstruction was not fulfilled.

-Casey C.


From this article I could see why D.W. Griffiths may have created this movie it was his surroundings that has influenced him to make the movie. Since he was at a time period of Reconstruction, his movie was able to portray to people what was happening to United States during that time and the novel by Tomas Dixon served as his guideline to make the movie. Griffiths saw the southern lifestyle what they called each other and how crucial politics was between them that the people with different motives were either called “scalawag” or “carpetbagger”. The film’s hero was a “Confederate veteran who joins the Ku Klux Klan” then rescue a women from “freedman”. The word freeman refers to the black being the villain so at the time people portrayed blacks as inferior, dangerous, untrustworthy, and many more throughout movies and other social media that was present at the time. Then you had President Johnson who tried “Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation” but Congress tried to punish the south so they can benefit from the South’s economy. All this shows the flaws of American history and it proves that reconstruction wasn’t really a success after all. Even though “extended citizenship and voting rights” were given to African-Americans at the end of the day the “Reconstruction failed to establish a less racially divided society.” 50 years later after Civil War there has been no progress in United States since blacks or freedman aren’t treated equally in social, politic and economic terms due to their “descendants of slaves”. – Mohammed Khan


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