Political Results From the Varioloid: A Leaf of History

I DO not think that any nation was ever, within one single sixth of a century, brought face to face with two questions of more gigantic import, or more embarrassing to unravel, than those which within the last fifteen years have presented themselves to our nation for solution. Two questions: the first already solved rather for us than by us; solved by the appointment of God and the wrath of one portion of our population, far more than by the design or the wisdom of the other portion.

For nearly a century we had been trying, originally against our own will, and under protest,1 an experiment which ultimately failed, because it ought never to have succeeded. Engaged in founding a vast government on the public will, we had sought to reconcile irreconcilable things. Fifteen years ago we had reached a point at which twenty millions of our people were existing under one system, industrial and social, ten millions under another. The twenty millions were still seeking to carry out a declaration made eighty-four years before, touching the equal creation and inalienable rights of man. The ten millions consisted, in nearly equal proportions, of two races: one the descendants of voluntary immigrants who had come to America seeking freedom in a foreign land; the other deriving their blood from ancestors who had been brought hither in chains and been sold as chattels. To these forced immigrants and their descendants laws had denied the rights of property, of marriage, of family, of education, of self-defense, even of self-ownership; the master-race had lived by their labor.

The experiment which we had been trying was whether, over social and industrial elements thus discordant, a republican government could be successfully maintained.

Our long, vain dream that it could be was to he terribly broken; the war-tempest. burst upon us at last. Yet it raged for months, even for a year or two, ere we discerned its mission. When our people, in April, 1861, vindicating their Saxon ancestry, deserted farm and workshop at a day’s warning, they entered the field as sturdy patriots, not as far-seeing reformers. For them the constitution stood in the place occupied under the monarchical system by the sovereign in person, and they had been taught that this supreme object of their loyalty commanded, “Hands off slavery!” Thus they fought, conscience-shackled; “building better than they knew.”

Unfamiliar with the law of war, it was long before they saw clearly that, as the Southern claims to “ service and labor ” — claims imminently threatening the integrity of the Union — had become enemies’ claims, we had a legal right to confiscate them; in other words, to liberate four millions of people. But light came at last. After four years of desperate struggle, at the cost of three hundred thousand lives and three thousand millions of treasure, we had solved the first of the two portentous questions that imperiled the national existence, and we saw our way out. By constitutional amendment we abolished slavery.2

But when we stood, victors, on the hither side of the war-gulf, dark and discouraging still was the outlook ! There confronted us the second of the two fateful questions, clamoring for solution; a question scarcely less threatening than the first, and even more intricate; for it demanded statesmanship to restore peace — a thing harder to find than generalship to conduct war.

The situation was without a parallel in history. A century-old domestic system for ten millions of people had been forcibly broken up. A conquered nation, exhausted and exasperated, almost reduced to anarchy, needing a reconstruction of society, neither in nor out of the Federal Union, awaited our action. A race of men outnumbering four millions, bondmen for generations past, had suddenly become freemen; our duties to them were imminent and bounden. Then we had our own prejudices and enmities to conquer, and the vicious woe-to-the-conquered sentiment to eradicate from our hearts. Was ever problem more vast or more delicate presented to a national legislature ?

Throughout the winter of 1805-66 I had watched, with anxious interest and with some misgivings, the doings of Congress and of her reconstruction committee.3 This committee had made no sign except a “ partial report,”on January 20, 1866, in these words: —

“ Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within the Union according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. Provided that whenever the elective franchise shall be denied or abridged in any State on account of race or color, all persons of such race or color shall be excluded from the basis of representation.”

Nothing more from them during February and March. The principle above set forth was doubtless just and proper, as far as it went; but it touched not the substance of the great problem.

I became restless under this delay. As chairman, during 1863, of a government commission appointed to inquire into the condition of the American freedmen, I had studied the character and the probable future of the negro. I had recognized in his race excellent qualities. I had found our colored population genial, emotional, ruled by the social affections; disposed to cheerfulness and mirth; devotional by feeling; with more humility, resignation under adversity, and trust in Divine Providence than the Anglo-Saxon ; and above all, marvelously free from blood-thirstiness and ill-will toward their oppressors. But I had detected in them, also, grave failings and short-coinings, partly of race, chiefly caused by the condition of servitude: extreme ignorance, of course,— and the ignorant are ever the prey or the tool of the iniquitous schemer; lack of self-reliance, and therefore constant liability to be misled; dim perceptions of property-rights, and therefore need of a training to honesty; deficiency of enterprise, of breadth of views and habits of generalization, and therefore small capability of taking a lead in the material improvement or in the political advancement of society.

Having, in a general way, made up my mind as to what was our ultimate duty toward this race, so long and so grievously oppressed, I had, as early as the spring of 1864, publicly expressed it thus:

“Three fourths of the States might not to-day, but ere long they will, pass some such amendment to the constitution as this: ‘ Slavery shall not be permitted, and no discrimination shall be made as to the civil or political rights of persons because of color.’ ” 4

Toward the close of March — the committee still inactive — I became, to borrow the Quaker term, greatly “ exercised ” in regard to this matter; and I visited Washington, resolved to do what in me lay toward the judicious settlement of so vital a question; not concealing from myself, however, that an outsider, intermeddling in congressional action, must make up his mind to encounter, from members, a certain amount of impatient opposition.

After sounding several of my personal acquaintances in the House and Senate, also Governor Morton 5 (not yet senator), I called, early one morning, on my friend Thad. Stevens (as we were wont to call him), then chairman, on the part of the House, of the reconstruction committee, and read to him the following, as my proposed amendment to the constitution: —


SECTION 1. No discrimination shall be made by any State, nor by the United States, as to the civil rights of persons, because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

SECTION 2. From and after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and seventy-six, no discrimination shall be made by any State nor by the United States, as to the enjoyment, by classes of persons, of the right of suffrage, because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

SECTION 3. Until the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and seventysix, no class of persons, as to the right of any of whom to suffrage discrimination shall be made by any State, because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, shall be included in the basis of representation.

SECTION 4. Debts incurred in aid of insurrection, or of war against the Union, and claims of compensation for loss of involuntary service or labor, shall not be paid by any State nor by the United States.

SECTION 5. Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

“ Read that to me again,” said Stevens, when I had concluded. I did so, and inquired if he had an hour to spare.

“I have nothing half so important to do as to attend to this. Take your own time.”

Then I set before him, succinctly, the chief reasons for the policy embodied in my amendment. “The freedmen,” I said, “ ought to be regarded as the wards of the Federal government.”

Stevens. — Our very first duty is to them. Let the cursed rebels lie on the bed they have made.

Myself. — But we cannot separate the interests and the fate of the negro from those of the planter. If we chafe and sour the whites of the South, the blacks must necessarily suffer thereby.

Stevens. — Is that your reason for proposing prospective suffrage?

Myself. — Not the chief reason. The fact that the negro is, for the present, unprepared wisely to use the right of suffrage, and, still more, incapable of legislating with prudence, is not less a fact because it has occurred through no fault of his. We must think and act for him as he is, and not as, but for life-long servitude, he would have been. We seclude minors from political rights, not because they are unworthy, but because, for the time, they are incapable. So of foreigners; we grant them the privileges of citizenship only after five years’ probation.

Stevens. — I hate to delay full justice so long.

Myself. — Consider if it he not for the freedman’s welfare and good name that he should be kept away from the duties and responsibilities of political life until he shall have been, in a measure, prepared to fulfill these with credit to himself and advantage to the public service. He thirsts after education, and will have it if we but give him a chance, and if we don’t call him away from the school-room to take a seat which he is unfitted to fill in a legislative chamber. If he occupies such a seat prematurely — perhaps before he can read a word of the constitution — and becomes a nuisance or a laughing-stock, we, in case we mismanage our African wards, ought to bear the blame.

Stevens. — You seem to take it for granted that as soon as the negro is admitted to political rights, he will set up as legislator.

Myself. — In South Carolina and Mississippi the blacks outnumber the whites; 6 and in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the numbers approach equality.7 The negro can count, if only on his fingers; and knows well enough when he has the power. Are we reasonable if we expect from uncultured freedmen self-restraint and abnegation of political aspirings which we never find among ourselves?

Stevens. — If the negroes don’t rule, impenitent traitors will. Isn’t that as bad ?

Myself. — I think not; and if either are to make a mess of it and lose character, I 'd rather it should be the planters.

Stevens. — But if they dictate the laws, what security have the freedmen against outrage and virtual return to slavery ?

Myself. — This. We shall have invested them, beyond repeal by law, with political rights, if it he prospectively only; and their former masters will feel that they have now to deal with men who, in a few years, will be able to control elections, make governors and congressmen, and confer office on whom they please.8

Stevens picked up my manuscript, looked it carefully over, and then, in his impulsive way, said : “ I ’ll be plain with you, Owen. We ’ve had nothing before us that comes anywhere near being as good as this, or as complete. It would he likely to pass, too; that ’s the best of it. We have n’t a majority, either in our committee or in Congress, for immediate suffrage; and I don’t believe the States have yet advanced so far that they would, be willing to ratify it. I ’ll lay that amendment of yours before our committee to-morrow, if you say so; and I ’ll do my best to put it through. ”

I thanked him cordially, but suggested that, before be did so, it would perhaps be well that I should see Senator Fessenden and other prominent members of the reconstruction committee on the subject; to which he assented.

Then I laid before him, as supplement to my Article XIV., the following draft of a joint resolution to amend the constitution and to provide for the restoration to the States lately in insurrection of their full political rights: —

Whereas, It is expedient that the States lately in insurrection should, at the earliest day consistent with the future peace and safety of the Union, be restored to full political rights, therefore

“ Be it resolved, etc., That the following article be proposed to the several States as an amendment to the constitution, etc.” (Here my proposed Article XIV. was set forth at length.)

“ And be it further resolved, That whenever the above-recited amendment shall have become part of the constitution, and any State lately in insurrection shall have ratified the same and shall have modified its constitution and laws in conformity with the first section thereof, then and in that ease all laws, or parts of laws, confiscating the property of any of the inhabitants of such State, or imposing on any of them pains, penalties, and disabilities because of their participation in the late insurrection, shall be deemed and held to be repealed and of no effect, so far as the said inhabitants are concerned. And the senators and representatives from such State, if found duly elected and qualified, shall, after taking the usual oath of office, be admitted as such. Provided that no person who, having been an officer in the army or navy of the United States, or having been a member of the thirty-sixth Congress or of the Cabinet in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty, did afterwards take part in the late insurrection, shall be eligible to either branch of the national legislature until after the fourth day of July, 1876.”

Stevens flared up at this. “ That will never do! Far too lenient. It would be dangerous to let these fellows off on such easy terms.”

I reminded him that if the ex-rebel States (as they surely would) postponed negro suffrage till 1876, then, according to the third section of my article, instead of sixty-six representatives in Congress (as under the apportionment then in force), they would be entitled, under a purely white basis of representation, to forty-two representatives only. “ Surely,” said I, “ you can manage that number, even if they should happen to be ultra secessionists.”

“ Perhaps we could,” replied Stevens. “ But you forget the Senate. The eleven insurrectionary States would be entitled to their twenty-two senators, suffrage or no suffrage.”

I admitted the force of this; and I failed to bring him over to my views of a element policy. He had been terribly stirred up, like so many others, by the assassination of Lincoln, and he was ruled by an embittered feeling toward the South.

I found Senator Fessenden, who was chairman of the reconstruction committee on the part of the Senate, the very reverse of Stevens. Cold, deliberate, dispassionate, cautious, he heard me patiently, but with scarcely a remark. At the close, while assenting to the importance of the subject, he withheld any opinion as to my amendment; asked me to leave the manuscript with him, said he would give it careful attention and would be glad to see me again. When, two days later, I called upon him, he told me, in guarded and general terms, that he thought well of my proposal, as the best that had yet been presented to their committee. Washburne (E. B.) agreed to my amendment, with some enthusiasm. Conkling approved it. So, strongly, did Senator Howard. So, in a general way, did Boutwell. So, qualifiedly, did Bingham, observing, however, that he thought the first section ought to specify, in detail, the civil rights which we proposed to assure; he had a favorite section of his own on that subject. All the republican members of the committee received the proposal more or less favorably. The democrats held back.

Stevens adhered strictly to his promise. He submitted my amendment to the Committee, frankly avowed his approval of it as the fittest measure to meet the ease, faithfully pressed its consideration, perseveringly exerting to that end the great influence which, as the oldest member, and one among the most respected members, of the House, he possessed. He had about him none of that petty jealousy which is wont to deter selfish men from earnest advocacy of a measure, because they may have had nothing to do in preparing it. He was rough in expression, had strong prejudices, and was sometimes harsh in his judgments; but he was genuine to the core, upright and patriotic beyond the reach of sinister motive, inflexible and enthusiastic of purpose in the right; above all, he was a stanch friend of the poor and the oppressed, and benevolent at heart, despite outward severity. The public has learned to value in him these last noble qualities since it has become recently known that (with reservation of a few small bequests) his entire estate, valued at from a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, goes by will to found an asylum for orphans; no distinction to be made because of denomination, race, or color.

I called on Charles Sumner. “ I cannot vote for this amendment,” he said frankly; “ it contains a tacit recognition that the ex-slaveholders have a right to withhold suffrage from the freedmen for ten years longer.”

I repeated to him the arguments which I had laid before Stevens. He listened attentively, but they produced no effect upon him. “ It is a question of abstract principle,” he said, “ not of expediency.”

“ Do you believe,” I asked, “ that an amendment providing for immediate suffrage can pass this session, or even the next? ”

“ Probably not, this session; and it may be several years before it does. If so, let the responsibility rest on those who reject it.”

“ But, in the mean time, the negro will not have the protection even of a prospective right.”

“I shall be sorry if that prove so,” answered Sumner. “ I think no one feels the wrongs of the negro more strongly than I do. But not even to mitigate his sufferings for the time can I consent to palter with the right, or to violate a great principle. I must do my whole duty, without looking to consequences.”

I saw that it was useless to say more. Admiring the inflexibility of the man, I held to my opinion that he did not take a practical view of this question. With his colleague, Senator Wilson, I was more successful. He heartily approved the amendment, and said he hoped, for the country’s sake, that it would pass.

During the next two or three weeks I saw Stevens from time to time. “ I am not yet at liberty,” he said, “ to tell you just what has passed in committee; but be assured that it is coming out all right, and that I am neglecting nothing to forward it.” I was greatly encouraged.

On Sunday, April 22, a vague rumor reached me that my amendment had, by the committee, been adopted and ordered to be reported to Congress; but as, in the next day’s proceedings, I could find no reference to it, I supposed that there was a mistake.

On Sunday morning, April 29, I found published the plan proposed by the committee, which was reported next day to Congress. It had evidently been hurriedly thrown together, and it contained no reference whatever to negro suffrage, present or prospective. Greatly vexed, I called on my friend Stevens for an explanation. “ So that was all labor lost? ” said I.

“ Yes,” replied Stevens hotly; “ but not by my vote. Don’t imagine that I sanction the shilly-shally, bungling thing that I shall have to report to the House to-morrow.”

“But how came it? ”

“ It’s all over now, so I need not conceal the particulars.” And this is what he told me.

The amendment had been elaborately debated in committee, the deliberations upon it running through several sessions; then it was taken up section by section, each section being discussed and separately voted on. With some unimportant verbal alterations it had been, on April 18, adopted; but that vote was reconsidered, to give time for further reflection and amendment. Finally on Saturday, April 21, the vote was a second time taken on the plan as a whole, was carried, and it was ordered to be reported to Congress on Monday, the 23d.

“It was actually ordered to be reported? ” I exclaimed.

“ Certainly,” said he, “ on Washburne’s motion. It got every republican vote in the committee except one. We rose to depart.”

“ And then? ”

“Ah, then! Fessenden happened to be absent from our sitting that day, sick of the varioloid, but was reported convalescent. As we were about to leave the room, some one suggested that he would probably be well in a few days, and that it would seem a lack of courtesy if the most important report of the session should be made without his agency.

I had it on the tip of my tongue to say that we ought not to delay the presentation of a great public measure, for a mere matter of form; but I bethought me that, being myself chairman on the part of the House, it would seem uncivil in me to the Senate chairman. So I let it pass, thinking that a few days would make no difference. God forgive me for my folly! ”

“ But what happened? ”

“ Our action on your amendment had, it seems, got noised abroad. In the course of last week the members from New York, from Illinois, and from your State too, Owen, — from Indiana, —held, each separately, a caucus to consider whether equality of suffrage, present or prospective, ought to form a part of the republican programme for the coming canvass. They were afraid, so some of them told me, that if there was ‘ a nigger in the wood-pile ’ at all (that was the phrase), it would be used against them as an electioneering handle, and some of them — hang their cowardice! — might lose their elections. By inconsiderable majorities each of these caucuses decided that negro suffrage, in any shape, ought to be excluded from the platform; and they communicated these decisions to us. Our committee had n’t backbone enough to maintain its ground. Yesterday the vote on your plan was reconsidered, your amendment was laid on the table, and in the course of the next three hours we contrived to patch together — well, what you ’ve read this morning.”

I was silent, thinking to myself how often, in this riddle of a world, results of the most momentous import turn on what seem to us the veriest trifles. But, mortified as I was, I could not help smiling when Stevens, after his characteristic fashion, burst forth, “ Damn the varioloid! It changed the whole policy of the country.”

It remains to supplement this narrative of facts by reminding the reader that nothing was done in the way of granting suffrage to the negro for four years after the above events occurred. On the 30th of March, 1870, was declared adopted the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, providing that the right to vote “ shall not he denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

During the interval — that is, for about two fifths of the ten years’ probation which I had proposed — we had nothing better (beyond the mere abolition of slavery) than the present fourteenth amendment, so disparagingly characterized by Stevens. It embodies, substantially, —

SECTION 1. A declaration who is a citizen: unnecessary, if we had given suffrage to the negro; since there could be no possible doubt that an elector, nativeborn, is a citizen of the United States. Also a specification of the particular civil rights to be assured: out of place, I think, in a constitutional amendment, though necessary and proper in a civil rights bill.

SECTION 2. The same provision which I have above recited as reported by the committee on January 20, only much more clumsily worded; the express enactment being that when the right to vote was denied or abridged by any State to any of the adult males thereof, “ the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which, the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years old in such State,” —a proportion which could not be ascertained except by taking, at the time of such denial, a special census of the inhabitants within the State. My proposal could have been worked out without any difficulty; it being practically this, that if South Carolina, for example, denied suffrage to a single negro, her basis of representation should be reduced, if prior to publication of the census of 1870, by 412,320; if after such publication, then by the total colored population of South Carolina, according to that later census.

But a much graver objection still lies against the above provision. The enactment declares that if the right to vote for president, congressmen, or State representatives by any of the adult males in a State is “ in any way abridged,” the basis of representation shall be reduced accordingly. This is, in fact, to impose a penalty on any State which sees fit to make the ability to read, or the payment of a poll-tax, or any similar restriction, a qualification of suffrage. If this was not intended, the clause is a gross blunder, and the wording should have been, as I had it, that no discrimination shall be made on account of color; if it was intended, then it is a reversal of a policy sanctioned by the framers of the constitution (Art. I., Sect. 2; Art. II., Sect. 1) and ever since held inviolate, namely, that each State shall have the right to determine the qualifications of its electors. It seems probable that it was not intended, or else that public opinion ignores it; seeing that, while various States have abridged suffrage by imposing qualifications,9 no attempt has been made, or is likely to be made, to ascertain how many adult males are thereby excluded, or to deduct, proportionately, from the basis of representation in these States.

SECTION 3. A denial of the right to suffrage and to office of all persons who, having previously held office and taken an oath to support the constitution, did afterwards engage in rebellion or give aid and comfort to the enemy: certainly out of place in a constitution, since such penalties, made repealable by law, should, if needed, have been imposed by law. But aside from this, it was in my judgment a measure of wholesale exclusion, injudicious and unstatesmanlike; even — to take a lower view of it — very impolitic. Why so odious and galling a measure, excluding, not only from Federal offices but from State offices also, every man whom the South had thought worthy of such office, and who did not desert her? To what practical end? The number of Southern representatives in Congress was the important thing, not the shade of opinion held by each individual. In truth, the frank, outspoken opponent was the least dangerous. And after all, the North, for a decade at least, had to depend on her own votes.

SECTION 4. Similar to mine, except that it contains the very superfluous declaration that the Federal government, remaining honest, shall not question the validity of its own debts. In this article, too, crept into our constitution for the first time the word “ slave; ” studiously excluded throughout by its original framers.10

SECTION 5. The same as mine.11

The entire article, crude and verbose, bears abundant marks of its hasty composition. It is a thing very remarkable (though such short-comings are frequent in legislation), that after the reconstruction committee had suffered five months of the session to elapse without definite action in this matter, they should finally have spent but three hours in concocting and adopting their official report on a subject fraught with as much of good or ill to the future destiny of the nation as perhaps any other that was ever presented to an American Congress.

But for one deplorable national misfortune the issue might, I think, have been other than it was. I knew Abraham Lincoln well, and had so often conversed with him on similar topics that I feel assured I should have had his cordial and active aid on this occasion. Add to this that if that noble life had never been attempted by the assassin, the feeling in Congress and throughout the country would have been far less embittered than I found it; and the disposition would have been correspondingly greater to deal liberally with the insurrectionary States. But all this was not to be.

Under the light of the experience that has been gathering throughout the last nine years, and more especially in view of the present political condition in South Carolina, in Louisiana, and in other States with a large colored population, I have often — after seeking to divest myself, so far as one may, of selfish bias toward a favorite scheme — set about reflecting whether the policy of prospective suffrage was the wisest, and, under the circumstances, likely to have worked the best. I distrust my judgment in the matter: we are all dimsighted where self is concerned. Yet it still seems to me that if the project had been another’s I should have supported it heartily and lamented its failure. I have seen no cause to change the views which I expressed to Stevens and his fellow - committeemen: on the contrary, the actual results, political and financial, consequent upon legislation by illiterate and undisciplined negroes, misled by demagogues, have strongly confirmed what, at the outset, were anticipations only.

Nor should it be forgotten that if the time for negro suffrage to take effect had been postponed till July of next year, we should have had during the interim, and should still have, as representatives in Congress from the ex-insurrectionary States, but three fifths as many as now take their seats: surely an item of some importance.

As to the policy marked out in the joint resolution which I proposed, of clemently treating the South, though the reconstruction committee rejected it and though Congress would probably have voted it down, I am not convinced of its unwisdom. It was a terrible crime to levy war against a just government, in order to maintain and perpetuate human bondage; but terribly, also, had that crime been expiated. Our opponents lay prostrate, little needing acts of ours to add penal force to their desolation: never had a people, by their own acts, brought upon themselves more bitter retribution. Precautions it was our bounden duty to take; but to take in the way of defense, not in the spirit of requital. To avert evils in the future better befits a Christian people than to avenge injuries of the past.

I thought it a precautionary measure of vital moment, and not unduly severe, to exclude from the national legislature, during a decade, a few of the chief ringleaders in the rebellion; to wit, those who had stepped from their posts as Federal officials to join the enemy. The list included, in the Cabinet, Howell Cobb, Jacob Thompson, and Floyd, the arch-traitor who, while yet Secretary of War, robbed the arsenals of the nation to place arms and ammunition in the hands of those who sought that nation’s life; in the Senate, such names as Jefferson Davis, Slidell, Mason, Toombs, Benjamin, Hunter, and Yulee; in the House, sixty - six influential politicians, almost all of whom probably owed their elections to their secession proclivities. The entire list embraced more than a hundred persons— the very soul of the insurrectionary movement. These shut out from Congress, I thought then, as I think still, we might take our chance with the remainder. Coupled, as in my proposal the above provision was, with the repeal of all confiscatory laws, I believe the Southern people would have felt that, in going only so far as this, we had treated them with clemency.

It was of moment that they should feel thus toward us. The sword conquers— it does not convince; and the vanquished are not wont to love the victors. It was gravely important that sectional exasperation should not, by any act of ours, be kept alive among those who had been lately our enemies in war, and were now, in peace, our friends. Exasperation, in such a case, when selfcontrol is lacking, breeds outrage; and there is danger that the victors, taking short cuts to repress outrage, may overstep constitutional bounds. There is temptation to resort to enforcement acts; temptation to clothe our chief magistrate with extraordinary and dangerous powers; for example, with permission to suspend, at his discretion, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, even in advance of overt act. It would be lamentable if it should prove that negro suffrage, granted without probationary novitiate, can be maintained only at cost of time - honored safeguards of liberty, and by despotic exercise of executive will. Conciliation, on fitting occasion, is not weakness; it may be an element of strength; and we need from the South more than the consenting act, a consenting mind also.

And here again I have not a doubt that — but for the dread bereavement which had then recently overtaken us — the gentlest and truest heart that ever cared for a nation’s welfare would have cordially approved and sustained some such lenient scheme as I had proposed. We have recent testimony, from an unimpeachable source, disclosing what Abraham Lincoln’s policy toward the deluded secessionists was, as expressed on the very last day of his life. On the 14th of January last, Mr. Frederick Seward, son of the late Secretary, narrated, in the New York Assembly, what passed during the Cabinet meeting which was held on the fatal April 14, 1865; he himself having, on account of his father’s illness, been present as his representative, on that occasion. He tells us that the president, “in that terse and homely mode of speech, the memory of which still lingers pleasantly in the hearts of the American people,” said, “ We can’t undertake to run State governments in these Southern States. Their people must do that, though I reckon at first they may do it badly.” And Mr. Seward adds, “ Secretary Stanton produced some sheets of paper on which he had drafted the outlines of a plan of reconstruction, embodying the president’s views. ... In substance it was that the treasury department should take possession of the custom-houses, and proceed to collect the revenues; that the war department should garrison or destroy the forts, take possession of arms, etc.; that the navy department should occupy the harbors and take possession of navy - yards, ships, and ordnance ; that the interior department should send out its surveyors, land and Indian agents, and set them to work; that the Postmaster-General should reopen his postofiices, and the Attorney-General reëstablish the Federal courts: in short, that the machinery of the United States government should be set in motion, its laws vigorously enforced, and all domestic violence or insurrection be suppressed; but the public authorities and private citizens should remain unmolested, unless found in actual hostility to the government of the Union. . . . That night Abraham Lincoln passed from earth.” 12

It little avails, with the inexorable past behind us, to speculate on what might have been. But if that great and good man whose last address to the people who loved him breathed “ malice toward none, charity to all,” had lived to assist at the coming celebration of the republic’s hundredth birthday, he might perhaps have been called on, in Philadelphia as at Gettysburg, to harangue the assembled multitude; and he might perhaps — who knows? —have had to announce, to a country less distracted than ours to-day, that henceforth, the war-fever over and justice and mercy prevailing, there should be no longer forever among us either political proscription or political exclusion; but for all, without limit of section or race, universal amnesty and universal suffrage.

Robert Dale Owen.

  1. “ The inhabitants of Virginia . . . had again and again passed laws restraining the importation of negroes from Africa ; but their laws were disallowed. ....The king in council, on the 10th day of December, 1770, issued an instruction under his own hand, commanding the governor ' under pain of the highest displeasure to assent to no law by which the importation of slaves should be, in any respect, prohibited or obstructed.’ . . . Virginia . . . resolved to address the king himself, . . . and these were the words : ‘ The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and, under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear, will endanger the very existence of your Majesty’s American dominions.' .. . Thousands in Maryland and in New Jersey were ready to adopt a similar petition ; so were the legislatures of North Carolina, of Pennsylvania, of New York. Massachusetts, in its towns and in its legislature, unceasingly combated the condition, as well as the sale, of slaves.” (Bancroft’s History of the United States, vol. vi., pp. 413-415.)
  2. Namely, by Amendment XIII., approved February 1, 1865, and, declared ratified December 18th of the same year.
  3. Appointed December, 1865, of fifteen members, namely : Senators Fessenden, Grimes, Harris, Howard, Johnson, and Williams ; and Representatives Stevens of Pennsylvania, Washburne of Illinois, Morrill of Vermont, Grider of Kentucky, Bingham of Ohio, Conkling of New York, Boutwell of Massachusetts, Blow of Missouri, and Rogers of New Jersey.
  4. Wrong of Slavery and Right of Emancipation, pp. 197, 198. (By Robert Dale Owen. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1884.)
  5. My plan, which I fully discussed with him, met his approval.
  6. According to the census of 1860 South Carolina had whites, 291,888, and colored, 412,320; while Mississippi had whites, 353,901, and colored, 437,404.
  7. Louisiana, whites, 357,629; colored, 350,373. Alabama, whites, 526,431; colored, 437,770. Georgia. whites, 591,588; colored, 467,693. Florida, whites, 77,748 ; colored, 62,677.
  8. I made memoranda, at the time, of the arguments to be used with Stevens aud others on this subject; and these, with many details touching this matter, I have preserved ; so that I am enabled to state that the above conversation is narrated substantially as it occurred.
  9. Here are a few examples. In the Pennsylvania constitution of 1875 the fourth qualification for an elector is : “ If twenty-two years of age or upwards, he shall have paid within two years a State or county tax ... at least one month before the election.” (Art. VIII., Sect. 2.)
  10. Massachusetts has a similar provision; and among the amendments to her constitution stands the following : —
  11. “ Article XX. No person shall have a right to vote, or be eligible to office, under the constitution of this commonwealth, who shall not be able to read the constitution in the English language and write his name.” Ratified May 1, 1857. But this provision applies only to those who come of age, or enter the State, after the date of ratification.
  12. Finally, in the constitution of Rhode Island (1842) we find a property qualification : an elector must own real estate to the amount of one hundred and thirty-four dollars without incumbrance, or its equivalent in other property. (Art, II., Sect. 1.)
  13. They were careful, even, so to word the article containing a provision for the surrender of fugitives from service and labor, as to exclude the idea that slavery was morally lawful. The provision, as originally reported to the convention, read thus : —
  14. “ No person legally held to service or labor in one State, escaping to another, shall,” etc.
  15. It was amended so as to read : “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping,” etc.
  16. “ This was done,” says Madison, “in compliance with the wish of some who thought the term legal equivocal, and favoring the idea that slavery was legal in a moral view.” (Madison Papers, vol. iii. p. 1589.)
  17. It is doubtful whether, in strictness, the constitution recognized chattel slavery, or only tolerated claims to service or labor in the nature of dues or debts, or of what are technically called choses in action.
  18. For facility of reference, I here reproduce the text of this, the fourteenth amendment of the constitution.
  19. SECTION 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.
  20. SECTION 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. Hut when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a State, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twentyone years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
  21. SECTION 3. No person shall be a senator or representative in Congress, or elector of president and vice-president, or hold an office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two thirds of each house, remove such disability.
  22. SECTION 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for service in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave ; but all such debts, obligations, and claims shall be held illegal and void.
  23. SECTION 5. The Congress shall have power to en force, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
  24. The entire speech from which these extracts, slightly abridged, are taken appeared in The Albany Journal of January 15, 1875.