Moral Significance of the Republican Triumph

THE victory which the Republican party gained in the November election, after the most fiercely contested struggle recorded in our political history, is the crowning victory of the War of the Rebellion, and its real close. A war such as raged in this country between April, 1861, and April, 1865, is ended, not when the defeated party ceases to fight, but when it ceases to hope. The sentiments and principles which led to the Rebellion were overturned, not in 1865, but in 1868. After the exhaustion of physical power, which compelled the Rebels to lay down their arms, came the moral struggle which has resulted in compelling them to surrender their ideas. If these ideas had been on a level with the civilization of the age, or in advance of it; if the “ Lost Cause ” had been the cause of humanity and freedom, of reason and justice, of good morals and good sense, — such a catastrophe would be viewed by every right-minded man as a great calamity. But the Rebellion was essentially a revolt of tyrants for the privilege to oppress, and of bullies for the right to domineer. Its interpretation of the Constitution was an ingenious reversal of the purposes for which the Constitution was declared to be made, and its doctrine of State Rights was a mere cover for a comprehensive conspiracy against the rights of man. The success of such a “cause” could not have benefited even its defenders, for the worst government for the permanent welfare even of the governing classes is that in which the intelligent systematically prey upon the ignorant, and the strong mercilessly trample on the weak. In a large view, the South is better off to-day for the military defeat which dissipated its wild dream of insolent domination, and for the political defeat which destroyed the last hopes of its reviving passions.

Those who are accustomed to recognize a providence in the direction of human affairs may find in the course and conduct equally of this military and political struggle the strongest confirmation of their faith. The great things that have been done appear to have been done through us, rather than by us. During the war, it seemed as if no mistakes could hinder us from gaining victories, no reverses obstruct our steady advance, no conservative prudence prevent us from being the audacious champions of radical ideas. The march of events swept forward government and people on its own path, converting the distrusted abstraction of yesterday into the “military necessity” of to-day and the constitutional provision of to-morrow. President, Congress, parties, all felt the propulsion of a force more intelligent than individual sagacity, and mightier than associated opinion. So strong was the stress on the minds of Republicans, that the charge of inconsistency, made by such politicians as had succeeded in secluding themselves from the heroic impulse of the time, not only fell pointless, but was welcomed as an indication that the men conducting the war were intelligent enough to read aright its grim facts as they successively started into view. The result proved that the very absence of what is called “ a leading mind ” indicated the presence of a Mind compared with which Caesars and Napoleons arc as little as Soubises and Macks.

What was true of the military is true of the political contest. After the armed Rebellion was crushed by arms, and the meaner rebellion of intrigue, bluster, and miscellaneous assassination began, both parties had reason to be surprised at the issue. The Rebels found that their profoundest calculations, their most unscrupulous plottings, their most vigorous action, only led them to a more ruinous defeat. Their opponents had almost equal reason for wonder, for the plan of reconstruction, which they eventually passed and repeatedly sustained by more than two thirds of both Houses of Congress, would not have commanded a majority in either House at the time the problem of reconstruction was first presented. Whether we refer this unexpected and unpremeditated result to Providence, to the nature of things, or to the logic of events, it still shows that our forecast did little more than “make mouths at the invisible event.” The country was not so much ruled as overruled.

The form which reconstruction eventually took was, however, the form which from the first reason would have decided to be the best. It offended strong prejudices and roused bitter animosities ; but it was necessary to insure the safety and honor of the nation, and it was fitted to the peculiar facts and principles of the case. The question to be decided referred primarily to suffrage. The Republicans were at first inclined to think it should be conferred on the educated alone. How would this principle have applied to the Rebel States ? Those who could read and write in those States were the originators of the Rebellion, and remained, after its military overthrow, in a state of sullen discontent with the government by which they had been subdued. To give them the suffrage, and deny it to the great body of the blacks and the poor whites, would be to put the Rebel States into the hands of the enemies of the United States. This condition of things would be little improved by allowing all whites to vote, and only such blacks as should happen to possess educational qualifications. The class on whose loyalty the government could depend would be practically sacrificed to the classes whose loyalty the government had the best reason to distrust. It is true that the blacks were, as a general thing, ignorant; but they at least possessed the instinct of selfpreservation, and they were placed in such a position that the instinct of selfpreservation would inevitably lead them to take the side of orderly government. Their interests, hopes, and passions, their very right to own themselves, were all bound up in the success of the national cause, to which the interests, hopes, and passions of the so-called educated classes were opposed. Besides, it might be said that education implies the recognition of sentiments of humanity, ideas of freedom, duties of beneficence, which are on a level with the civilization of the age ; and the blacks were better educated in this sense than the great majority of their former masters, who had notoriously perverted natural feeling, right reason, and true religion in their vain effort to defend an indefensible institutionSouthern education, for many years before the Rebellion broke out, had been an education in self-will, and its most shining results were men distinguished for the vehemence of manner and sharpness of intellect with which they defended paradoxes that affronted common sense, and assailed truths too tediously true to admit of serious debate. They were reasoning beings without being reasonable ones. Now, the blacks could not help being more in sympathy with the sentiments and ideas of the age than such men as these, for their simple, selfish instincts identified them with advanced opinions. And education, if not made the condition of suffrage, would be its result. If made its condition, the negroes would hold no political power, and common schools for all classes are only established by those legislative assemblies in which all classes are represented. At first, therefore, they would vote right, because they would vote as their instincts taught them ; and by the time that their instincts might not be the measure of their true interests, they would be educated.

In the first step made towards reconstruction, that called “the President’s Plan,” no heed was paid to these considerations. The negroes were practically delivered over to the tender mercies of their former masters, and the political power of the Rebel States was put into Rebel hands. Profligate as this scheme really was, it had sufficient plausibility to deceive many honest minds, and at one period there was imminent danger of its adoption. The reaction consequent on a long conflict, the desire of the people for a speedy settlement of the questions growing out of the war, the natural indisposition of the Republican leaders to quarrel with the President, the fear to face resolutely the question of negro suffrage, the seeming apathy or paralysis of the great body of Republican voters, — all seemed to point to a settlement which would be a surrender, and by which the supporters of the war would be swindled out of its fair and legitimate results. Fortunately, however, the great enemy of the President’s plan was the President. His vulgarity undid the work which his cunning had planned. The force which impelled the Republican party to overturn Mr. Johnson’s policy was derived from Mr. Johnson himself. It is needless here to recapitulate the mistakes by which he succeeded in concentrating Northern opinion, and making his opponents irresistibleThe Republicans owe to him a debt of gratitude they can never pay, for the peculiar manner in which he schemed to split them into factions made them a unit. The small, intelligent, and unscrupulous clique of politicians known as “the President’s friends ” sorrowfully admit that Mr. Johnson’s policy was a magnificent political game, which must have succeeded had it not been for the bad playing of Mr. Johnson. If the executive department of the government lost the respect of all parties during his administration, it was due to the fact that the President confounded the office with his personality. Nobody could respect the officer, and yet the officer persistently identified himself with the office.

After Mr. Johnson had broken with Congress, he became a President in search of a party. He sought it everywhere, and particularly at the South. At the North he could get politicians enough, but he could get no representative politicians,—no politicians who had “ a following.” At the South he obtained the support of the great body of the Rebels, but they were without any political power. They could speak for him, mob for him, kill negroes for him, but they could not vote for him. Believing, however, in the certainty of his eventual success, they repudiated, with a great display of indignant eloquence, the first “ Congressional Plan ” of reconstruction, which merely contemplated the identification of their political interests with the enfranchisement of the colored race, and denied them the privilege of counting, in the basis of representation, four millions of people to whom they refused political rights. Certainly no conquerors ever before proposed such mild terms to the vanquished, and yet the terms were rejected with a fury of contempt such as would have misbecome a triumphant faction, mad with the elation both of military and political success. The ludicrous insolence of this course ruined the last prospect these men had of rebuilding Southern society on its old foundations. The plan of reconstruction which has recently triumphed at the polls was the necessary result of their folly and arrogance. The reorganization of the Southern States on the comprehensive principle of equality of rights became possible only through the madness of its adversaries. Congress and the people repeatedly hesitated, but in every moment of hesitation they were pushed forward by some new instance of Mr. Johnson’s brutality of speech, or by some fresh examples of Southern proclivity to murder.

As it regards the right of the government of the United States to dictate conditions of reconstruction, it must be remembered that the difference between the President’s Plan and the Congressional Plan was not, in this respect, a difference in principle ; and that the position held by the Democratic party — that the Rebellion was a rebellion of individuals, and not of States — equally condemns both. This position, however, can only be maintained by the denial of the most obvious facts. The enormous sacrifices of blood and treasure in putting down the Rebellion were made necessary by the circumstance that it was a rebellion of States. Had it been merely an insurrection of individuals, it would have been an insurrection against State governments as well as against the government of the United States. We had, both before the war and during its continuance, examples of such insurrections. The Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania, and Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, were risings of individuals against the laws ; but nobody believes that Pennsylvania and Massachusetts lost any State rights by those disturbances. In Kentucky and Missouri, during the recent war, there was a tenfold more terrible rebellion of individuals against the United States government, but nobody pretends that Missouri and Kentucky forfeited any State rights by this crime of their individual citizens. In all these cases, the governments of the States remained in loyal hands. But the peculiarity of our war against the Confederate States consisted in the fact that all the State governments were voted by the people into Rebel hands. The result was, that the supreme powers of taxation and conscription, placing every man and every dollar at the service of the Confederate States, were lodged in a revolutionary government, and the cost of suppressing the Rebellion was increased at least fourfold by this fact. After losing two hundred and fifty thousand men, and two billions and a half of dollars, — more than would have been necessary to crush a rebellion of individual insurgents, — we are told that the States never rebelled ; that the loyal but bodiless souls of these communities still existed, whilst certain Rebel “ individuals ” exercised their supreme powers ; and that, the moment these Rebel individuals succumbed, the bodiless souls instantly became embodied and continued loyal in the Rebel individuals aforesaid ! Out of Bedlam no such argument was ever propounded before.

In truth, there was no possibility that the Rebel States could “resume their practical relations” with the United States except by the intervention of the United States in their internal affairs. Though the plan of reconstruction eventually adopted is called the “ Congressional Plan,” it was really the plan of the government of the country. In our system, a mere majority of Congress is impotent, provided the President, however “ accidental ” he may be, however mean, base, false, and traitorous he may be, nullifies its legislation by his vetoes ; but Congress becomes constitutionally the governing power in the nation, when its policy is supported by two thirds of the Representatives of the people in the House, and two thirds of the Representatives of the States in the Senate. President Johnson has pushed to the extreme the powers granted to the executive by the Constitution, and if he has failed in carrying his policy it has been through no encroachments of the legislature on his constitutional rights. Passed over his vetoes, he was bound to consider the reconstruction laws as the acts of the government. It is notorious that he has systematically attempted to nullify the operation of the laws which, by the Constitution, it was his simple duty to execute.

It was almost inevitable, however, that, in the measures by which Congress attempted to make Mr. Johnson perform his duties, it should commit errors of that kind which tell against the popularity of a party, if not against its patriotism and intelligence. In spite of executive opposition Congress had succeeded in getting new State governments organized at the South, and the representatives of the legal people of those States were in the Senate and House of Representatives. Mr. Johnson and the Democratic party pronounced these reconstructed State governments to be utterly without validity, though their Representatives formed part of the Congress of the United States, and though Congress has by the Constitution the exclusive right of judging of the qualifications of its own members, and, by the decision of the Supreme Court, has the exclusive right of judging of the validity of State governments. Whatever popularity, therefore, the Republicans may have lost by their reconstruction policy, it was more than offset by the blunder made by their opponents in proposing the overthrow of that policy by revolutionary measures. Elections are commonly decided by the votes of a class of independent citizens, who belong strictly to neither of the two parties; and the course pursued by the Democrats pushed this class for the time into the Republican ranks. The intellect of the Democratic party is concentrated, to a great degree, in its Copperhead members ; and these had become so embittered and vindictive by the turn events had taken, that their malignity prevented their ability from having fair play. They assailed the Republicans for not giving peace and prosperity to the nation, and then laid down a programme which proposed to reach peace and prosperity through political and financial anarchy. They selected unpopular candidates, and then placed them on a platform of which revolution and repudiation were the chief planks. Perhaps even with these drawbacks they might have cajoled a sufficient number of voters to succeed in the election, had it not been for the frank brutality of their Southern allies. To carry the North their reliance was on fraud, but the Southern politicians were determined to carry their section by terror and assassination, and no plausible speech could be made by a Northern Democrat the effect of which was not nullified by some Southern burst of eloquence, breathing nothing but proscription and war. The Democratic party was therefore not only defeated, but disgraced. To succeed as it succeeded in New York and New Jersey, in Louisiana and Georgia, did not prevent its fall, but did prevent its falling with honor. To the infamy of bad ends it added the additional infamy of bad means; and it comes out of an overwhelming general reverse with the mortifying consciousness that its few special victories have been purchased at the expense of its public character. The only way it can recover its prestige is by discarding, not only its leaders, but the passions and ideas its leaders represent.

The moral significance of the struggle which has just closed is thus found in the fact that the good cause was best served by its bitterest enemies. A bad institution, like slavery, generates a bad type of character in its supporters, and urges them blindly on to the adoption of measures which, intended for its defence, result in its ruin. The immense achievement of emancipating four millions of slaves, and placing them on an equality of civil and political rights with their former masters, is due primarily to such men as Calhoun and McDuffie, Davis and Toombs, Vallandigham, Pendleton, Belmont, Johnson, and Seymour. The prejudice in the United States against the colored race was strong enough to overcome everything but their championship ot it. These persons taught the nation that its safety depended on its being just. The most careless glance over the chief incidents in the long contest shows that all the enemies of human freedom needed for success was a little moderation and good sense, but moderation and good sense are fortunately not the characteristics of men engaged in doing the Devil’s work for the Devil’s pay. “The Lord reigns,” — a simple proposition, but one which politicians find it hard to accept, and which they often waste immense energies in the impotent attempt to overturn.