The Conditions of the Reconstruction Problem
CONDITIONS in the late Confederate states, from “the surrender,” as it is still called in the South, up to the passage of the act of March 2, 1867, overthrowing the Johnson governments, and establishing the congressional plan of reconstruction, were pathetic in the extreme.
Out of a white population of about five million, there had gone into the Confederate array six hundred and twenty-five thousand, and of these two hundred thousand had lost their lives. Many thousands more had been maimed. Many other thousands had enlisted in the armies of the Union, and they also had suffered severely.
Prussia was in a piteous plight at the close of the Seven Years’ War, and so was France at the end of her great Revolution. But Prussia, after her direful disasters, still had a certain amount of currency, and had no debts ; France was left deeply in debt, but she had her currency and her financial institutions; whereas the Confederates, whose bank notes were now worthless, and whose currency and bonds were left without any government behind them, had practically nothing to show for their past savings. There was this further difference : neither Prussia nor France had ever been cursed with slavery; and all the other misfortunes of the South, aggregated, were but fleeting and temporary when compared with the enduring problems, economic and political, which were to come from the sudden manumission of four millions of slaves.
Desolation had followed in the wake of armies. Plough stock had been taken, cattle and provisions consumed, fences destroyed, in places even cotton seed was not to be had; and almost no one had credit, where credit had once been nearly universal. The harvest of death had left nothing but debts and lands, and many landowners were without a dollar that would pay taxes, state or federal. Already in the Union for purposes of taxation, but still out of it politically, the people of the late Confederate states were at once to assume their full share of the debt of nearly three billions of dollars contracted in subjugating them ; they were to pay also their share of the pensions to Union soldiers : and the money thus drained from the South, to be expended in the North during the coming thirty-five years, was to be far more than equal to all the expenses of the Southern state governments, including school funds and interest on state debts. The spring of 1865 witnessed indeed the completion of the transfer of wealth in the United States from the home of the Southern planter, where it was once supposed to exist, to the Northern section of the Union.
There was but one resource left. “ King Cotton,” during the past four years, had grievously disappointed the prophets who had boasted of his prowess ; but now he came out from his hiding places, and showed that, though he could not as a sovereign turn the tide of unsuccessful war, he still could play the part of Santa Claus in time of peace. Never were children more delighted by the gray-bearded king of Christmas than were the helpless and hapless people of the South by the blessings that came to them from the fleecy staple, — absolutely the only relief in sight. The cotton that had in war escaped Federal and Confederate torches, and that could elude the United States government agents, who were seizing it upon the plea, often groundless, that it had been subscribed to the Confederacy, brought high prices ; and the money thus received, though wholly insufficient, was invaluable. It passed rapidly from hand to hand ; for lessons of economy that are learned under compulsion are seldom taken to heart. Most of those who got money for cotton were in a mood for self-indulgence; they must put away the memory of the bitter past, and reward themselves for the sacrifices they had made. Women who had woven and worn homespuns, those who had cut up and sent their carpets to soldiers for blankets, must have silks and satins. Sorghum syrup, substitutes for coffee, and other economic makeshifts were relegated as far as possible to the limbo of the unhappy past.
These were the conditions that awaited the Confederate soldier at home. To appreciate his attitude, it must be recalled that as nine tenths of the Union army had enlisted to save the Union, and would have refused to join in a war having for its sole purpose the abolition of slavery, so five sixths of the Confederates were non-slaveholders, and had fought, not for slavery, but to maintain the old Constitution under an independent government. When it became apparent that independence was impossible, the war ended suddenly. There was no guerrilla warfare, prompted by hatred, as in South Africa or in the Philippines. The issue was decided, and the Confederate soldier turned his footsteps homeward, not ashamed of his defeat, but exulting in the thought that he could call upon mankind to witness he had made a brave fight. His cause was lost and his country desolated, but “ hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Now that slavery and secession were out of the way, he hoped for peace and prosperity in the old Union. One of the most notable features of his home-coming was the strangely intermingled gayety and gloom that everywhere, for weeks and months, pervaded society. The comrade who was never to return had met a soldier’s fate ; for him the tear had fallen as he was buried. Why should not the survivor be happy at meeting again those whom he had often thought he was nevermore to see ? Mother, sister, wife, or sweetheart greeted him with joy, and as a hero who had deserved, if he did not achieve, success ; and never were there gayer routs, dancing parties, and weddings than those which were everywhere witnessed throughout the late Confederacy in the times of which we write. Tables were often thinly spread, but youth and beauty and valor had shaken hands, the long agony of war was over, and the white dove of peace had come again. The theory of Malthus, that after devastating wars population increases with a bound, was being illustrated afresh. Marriages were more frequent than ever. Around camp fires and in lonely prison cells, the soldier, often a bachelor who had never before thought to prove Benedict, had been dreaming of a peaceful home, made happy by the smiles of wife and the prattle of children; and now, whatever else was in store for him, this dream must be realized.
But if the sunshine was strangely bright for some, others were in deepest gloom. Always in sight of the merrymaking that was so common were homes that were wrecked forever, — husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and fortunes, gone ; and it was a matter of common remark that never had the mortality among persons who had passed middle age been so great in the late Confederate states as within the decade following 1865. Everywhere, men and women, brooding over the past, sank brokenhearted into their graves.
Its terrible losses and stinging defeat had naturally caused throughout the South much bitterness toward the North. This is well illustrated by the anecdote of the Virginian whose wife told him, one bright morning, that every negro had left the place; that he must cut the wood, and she must get breakfast. It is not recorded that the wife indulged in any expletives; but the husband, with the first stroke of the axe, damned “old Abe Lincoln for freeing the negroes; ” with the next he went further back, and double-damned George Washington for setting up the United States government; and with the third, going back to the first cause of all his woes, he doubledouble-damned Christopher Columbus for discovering America!
This feeling of vindictiveness, while it pervaded more or less all classes who had sympathized with the Confederacy, was far more intense among non-combatants than with the returned soldiers. These had learned to respect their foes. Courage had been demonstrated to be common to both armies ; kind offices to the wounded and the hungry had been mutual, and the dividing of rations by Grant’s veterans with Lee’s at Appomattox was just what had occurred on a smaller scale many times before. But the non-combatants at the South (and so it must have been at the North, judging from subsequent events) had none of the kindly feelings with which soldiers regarded their adversaries. It was quite common in 1865 to hear a soldier say that, for himself, he had had “ enough of it; but my neighbor, who has been hiding all the time at home behind a bombproof position, has just now begun to get mad. What a pity he could n’t have gotten his courage up before the fighting was over ! ” And now, thirty-five years afterwards, it may be affirmed without reserve that if the soldiers of the two armies had been allowed of themselves, uninfluenced by politicians, to dictate the terms of reconstruction, the history of the United States during the past three decades would have been widely different.
An added cause of bitterness among ex-Confederates was the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, and his treatment in a manner that to the South seemed cruel and without justification. This generation has almost forgotten that, although Mr. Davis, then in feeble health, was doubly safe by reason of the strong casemate at Fortress Monroe and the guards that surrounded him, an officer was required to see him every fifteen minutes, day and night, thus breaking his rest; and that the prisoner was for a long time forbidden books, except the Bible, and all correspondence, even with his wife. Irons were at one time placed on his legs; but though these were soon removed, the condition of the captive, as reported by the post surgeon, caused in May, 1866, a vigorous protest not only in the South, but in prominent Northern journals. Those were days of intense excitement, even in the North. Naturally, the exConfederates looked upon their President as suffering for them, and were much embittered by this incident.
But the North was not always held responsible as the fons et origo of Southern misfortunes in those days, which were so full of gloom to all who took time to consider the conditions that surrounded them. There was a widespread feeling that the secession leaders were answerable for the calamitous situation. Many Whigs retained their old-time prejudices against Democrats, and in every Southern state there had been Unionists. These were disposed to claim the benefit of their superior judgment, and many indeed were now “ Union men ” whose Union sentiments prior to secession their friends were by no means able to recall.
The disposition to put down the secessionists had received a powerful impulse from an unfortunate and unwise law passed by the Confederate Congress, exempting from service in the army, under certain conditions, the owners of twenty negroes, on the ground that they were needed at home to raise food-stuffs. Even in the army it had been bruited about, “This is the rich man’s war, and the poor man’s fight.” In most of the states, the feeling of comradeship among Confederate soldiers would have rendered improbable any very equal division at the outset between secessionists and anti-secessionists; but certain it is that here were lines of cleavage that would inevitably have divided the Southern people into two bitterly hostile factions, had not the sempiternal negro question now appeared again, and this time in a form that was eventually to bring about a greater solidarity, even, than had come from the invasion of Northern armies. The shape it assumed was the suffrage involved in the reconstruction problem.
If the condition of the Southern white in 1865-66 was such as to command, from the present standpoint, the sympathy of the generous-minded, still more strikingly pitiful and helpless was the condition of the freedman. Not in all the imaginings of the Arabian Nights is there any concept so startling as the sudden manumission of four millions of slaves, left unshackled to shift for themselves, — without property, without resources excepting their labor, without mental training, and with no traditions save only such as connected them with bondage and barbarism. What was to become of these people ? Would their energies be properly directed, and would they, as other peoples had done, gradually build up with their strong arms a future for themselves ? Or would they be misdirected and led away from reliance on labor into fields where, by reason of their limitations, success was impossible ? This was not for the freedman to decide. It was a problem for the white man, the Caucasian, who makes and unmakes the laws and governments of the world ; who fashions civilizations, sometimes in comely shape, sometimes awry, but always in moulds of his own making. And it was still further a question as to what white man was to undertake the solution of this problem. Was it to be the white man whose lot was cast in the same land with the freedman, or was it to be the man who sympathized with him from afar, but knew him not ?
Rehabilitation of the states, therefore, involving as it did the future relations of both whites and blacks to the states and the federal government, marked a crisis in our history second in import only to that created by the attempt to secede. The task was delicate, and called for deliberation and wise statesmanship. If, instead, the intense patriotism and philanthropy of the hour were allowed to become only the handmaids of acrimony and political ardor, and if results have proven the policy adopted to have been fraught with evil, the commentator fails of his duty who does not set up a beacon light to warn his countrymen of the dangers that come to the ship of state from venturing, when full-freighted, into the stormy waters of partisanship ; for assuredly the perils of the future are not to be avoided by concealing or glossing over either the errors of the past or the reasoning upon which they proceeded.
Mr. Lincoln, as early as December 8, 1863, had formulated a plan of reconstruction by the Executive,—voters to be those who were qualified “ by the election laws of the state, existing immediately before the so-called act of secession, and excluding all others ; ” but Congress had afterwards passed a joint resolution asserting its own power over reconstruction. Mr. Lincoln, it is true, killed this resolution by a pocket veto; but the great head of his party had been removed by an assassin, and there stood the action of Congress, and the declaration of Mr. Sumner, one of its foremost leaders, on the 25th of February, 1865, that “ the cause of human rights and of the Union needed the ballots as well as the muskets of colored men.”
It was feared in the South that President Johnson, especially after he had said that traitors must be deprived of social position, and “ treason made odious,” would share Mr. Sumner’s views. Mr. Sumner has claimed that for a time he did; but if so, the President soon changed his mind, for on the 9th of May, 1865, he made an order recognizing Mr. Lincoln’s plan in Virginia, and on May 29 he issued his proclamation for the reconstruction of North Carolina, excluding negroes, and recognizing as voters only those qualified by the state law at the date of the attempt to secede.
The continued presence of the military and the aggravating conduct of many of the officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau were causing much dissatisfaction at the time of this proclamation; yet it was an immeasurable relief to feel that the seceded states were to be admitted without putting the ballot into the hands of the ex-slave.
The repugnance of Southern white men to negro suffrage was extreme. Edmund Burke, in one of his speeches in the British Parliament, pointing out the difficulties in the way of the subjugation of the American colonies, explained that in all the slaveholding communities there was an aristocracy of color; every white man felt himself to belong to a superior race, and this pride of race to an extent ennobled and elevated him. It was a true picture, and such a people were naturally prejudiced against meeting their inferior, the negro, as an equal at the ballot box. But their aversion had a better foundation than prejudice. The negro had nowhere shown himself capable of self-government. White manhood suffrage had obtained for years in all the seceded states, and never had the suffrage been purer or given better results. The population was largely of English and Scotch descent. Free schools had not been general, and illiteracy was more prevalent than in the Northern states ; but joint discussions before the people by candidates for office were almost universal, while the code of honor regulating duels, then sanctioned by public opinion, exacted from every speaker rigid responsibility for his statements in debate ; and so it came about that even among those who were uneducated there were unusually correct ideas of the high duties discharged by freemen in casting their ballots. Their suffrages were not for sale, and in self-government the morality and patriotism of voters count for almost everything ; without these, booklearning is a snare.
It is easy enough to write that the success of universal manhood suffrage for whites, although in evidence both North and South, was not a sufficient argument for giving the ballot to every male over twenty-one among four millions of ex-slaves, and to add that a question like this ought to have been decided on its merits, and without regard to its effects on political parties. This is a truth that was recognized by Mr. Lincoln and by Mr. Johnson, each feeling that the burden of decision rested upon him. Individual responsibility sobers and lifts men up to meet great crises. Divided authority, however, weakens the sense of responsibility, and leaves passion full play, especially in a numerous body like Congress ; and never was there so much bitterness between parties, or so much at stake upon the action of Congress. The Confederacy, after a bloody war against the Union, was prostrate. Should ex-Confederates come back with increased membership in Congress, representing all the negroes as freedmen, instead of, as previously, three fifths of the negroes as slaves ? Should the party claiming to be the party of the Union incur the danger of handing over the government to an alliance of ex-Confederates with the Democrats, who in their platform of 1864 had denounced the war for the Union as a failure ? Had not the North freed the slave? Was not this freedman the ward of the nation ? Ought not the government to be keenly watchful of his interests, and was it not a duty to protect him and give him power to protect himself ? The ballot was clearly the remedy, provided the freedman was competent to wield it. This was the question,—competency,—and it called for decision on its own merits; but passion, prejudice, love of power, philanthropy, and a sense of justice to the negro, all combined to obscure the issue, and to make it, as it soon became in Congress, a party question. A few Republicans were to oppose their party in the House and Senate, and be soon driven out of public life. The party that elected Mr. Johnson was to oppose him, and the party that opposed him in the election was to sustain him unanimously in Congress. This President, who had come to his office on account of his services to the Union, was to become the best friend, the adviser, and the leader of the ex-Confederates in a political contest ; and occupying this peculiar attitude, he had uncommon need of tact, in which, unfortunately for his new allies, he was singularly lacking.
The Southern whites looked upon negro suffrage as a crime against Republican government, — a crime against which the people of the North, and if not they, then the President and the Supreme Court, would protect them. They had abandoned in good faith both slavery and secession, all that they thought were in issue, and now they were uncompromising in demanding what they denominated their “ rights ” as conceded by Lincoln and by Johnson. They never once thought of a compromise, but staked all upon the result of the fight between the President and Congress.
From March 4 till December 4, 1865, Congress was not in session, and during all this time Mr. Johnson was busy carrying out in the Southern states Mr. Lincoln’s plan of reconstruction. The result was that when Congress convened, in December, Representatives and Senators from most of the late Confederate states were applying for admission. The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, had been ratified by these states, and new constitutions had been adopted. The issue was thus fairly presented, — whether Congress would recognize reconstruction after the Lincoln-Johnson plan. The new constitutions set up under Johnson all confined suffrage to white men.
It is strange that, inasmuch as the country was yet to pass upon the question, Mr. Johnson, in his message in December, 1865, and elsewhere in his many public utterances, should not have appealed earnestly for support to the memory of his great predecessor, the author of the plan he was pursuing. On the contrary, prompted probably by egotism, he always spoke of the policy as his own.
It has been said that Mr. Lincoln’s Southern birth and association with Southern men naturally inclined him against negro suffrage. Johnson was not only born in the South, but had always lived there. The views of the two Presidents as to who ought to exercise the power to define suffrage, and as to the manner in which that power should be exerted by the Southern states, were almost identical.
Mr. Lincoln wrote to Governor Hahn, when the convention he had called to reconstruct Louisiana during the war was about to assemble : “ I bargly suggest for your private consideration whether some of the colored people may not be let in, as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.” So Mr. Johnson, August 15, 1865, to Governor Sharkey, of Mississippi: “ If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read and write, and who have a certain amount of property, etc., you would completely disarm the adversary, and set an example that other states would follow.”
It would have been wise for Mississippi and the other Southern states to follow the advice given Governor Sharkey. The few negroes qualified under these restrictions could have done no harm, and such a course might have had weight with voters in the North, to whom the general policy Congress was pursuing toward the South was to be submitted before the venture upon negro suffrage was made.
The majority sentiment in Congress did not, at the outset, favor negro suffrage as a condition of rehabilitation, and progress in that direction was not rapid. In the spring of 1865, the New York Tribune, while contending that the negro was entitled to the ballot, was urging the unwisdom of taking issue with a Republican President who had at hand all the patronage of the government. When, however, the 4th of July, the national anniversary, had come, orations were made by such leaders as Boutwell in Massachusetts, Garfield in Ohio, and Julian in Indiana, advocating broadly negro suffrage for the late Confederate states, — and this before a single state convention had assembled under Johnson’s reconstruction proclamations.
In forwarding the claim of the negro for the ballot no factor was more powerful than the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau had been established by the act of March 3, 1865, to take care of the freedmen who were flocking into the Union lines; and as those lines advanced the Bureau had been extended all over the South. Backed by the bayonet, and exercising absolute power to settle disputes between two races where natural friction was easily aggravated, the officers of the Bureau had exceptional opportunities for good or for evil. Many performed their duties faithfully; but many others were in search even then of the offices that were afterwards to come by the votes of their wards. To get these offices, the North must be made to believe that the ballot was a necessity for the negro ; and it was easy, especially for the subordinate officials who dealt directly with the freedman, to encourage discontent among their wards and strife between the races. The Southern white man was frequently impulsive, and, when vexed by negro “ insolence ” and by the stories that came to him of the injustice at Bureau headquarters, where often, in negro language, “ the bottom rail was on top,” he took justice into his own hands, and sometimes it was injustice. Race prejudice was also here and there painfully apparent in superior courts and in juries. Thus there was enough truth in some of the many stories of outrages that were circulated in the North to make them all current at their face value. So it came about that the Freedmen’s Bureau, the real purpose of which was to make contracts for the freedmen, settle questions between them and their employers, and take care of its wards generally, was, through many dishonest and partisan officials who were attached to it, proving to be a prime factor in the manufacture of political opinion during the whole period covered by this article. The reports of Bureau chiefs, where they spoke of quiet, passed unnoticed ; it was the reports of outrages that attracted attention.
The dispensing of supplies without price to able-bodied persons must always tend to produce idleness: this tendency of its own work it was the especial duty of the Freedmen’s Bureau to correct. The greatest crisis that had ever occurred in the lives of four million people had arrived. Slavery had lifted the Southern negro to a plane of civilization never before attained by any large body of his race, — had taught him to be law-abiding and industrious. If the guardians of this man, who was bewildered by his new surroundings, and who was clay, though unwashed clay, in the hands of the potter, had shown him the absolute necessity of continued industry, the negro would have had at this critical moment the best chance of thrift that was ever to come to him. But, unluckily, this was not to be. Instead of being properly directed, the credulous freedman was in many instances encouraged in idleness, while he was deluded by false hopes. General Grant, in a report to the President, after having made a tour of inspection in the South, though he qualified his statement by attributing to “ many, and perhaps a majority of them,” the inculcation of proper ideas, nevertheless said, “ The belief widely spread among the freedmen of the Southern states, that the lands of the former owners will at least in part be divided among them, has come from the agents of this Bureau ; ” and further, “ The effect of the belief in the division of lands is idleness and accumulation in towns and cities.”
Idleness is the prolific parent of hunger, want, and crime, and the widespread idleness prevailing everywhere in the South in the fall and winter of 1865 called loudly for legislation. It was during this period that the legislatures elected under the presidential reconstruction plan were in session, and passed, most of them, vagrancy and apprenticeship laws, some containing very stringent provisions. These statutes embraced, most of them without material variations, the features of the old law of Maine, brought forward in Rev. Stats. of 1883, sec. 17, p. 925, providing that one who goes about begging, etc., “ shall be deemed a tramp, and be imprisoned at hard labor,” etc. ; and the old law of Rhode Island, brought forward in Rev. Stats, of 1872, p. 243, “ If any servant or apprentice shall depart from the service of his master or otherwise neglect his duty,” he may be committed to the workhouse ; and the long-existing law of Connecticut, contained in the Revision of 1866, p. 320, punishing by fine or imprisonment one who shall entice a “ minor [apprentice] from the service or employment of such master.”
In some instances details were harsher than in the New England laws, but existing conditions were without precedent. Southern legislators were excited by the aggravated evils that surrounded them, and they seem never to have thought of political results.
One feature that was in practically all these apprentice laws, and that attracted general attention at the North, was a provision giving preference as masters to former owners of negro minors when before a court to be bound over. This was looked upon by many Northern voters as conclusive evidence of an intent to continue slavery, as far as could be, exactly as it had existed. In reality it was a humane provision. William H. Council, Booker T. Washington, and other leading colored students of the negro question, as it has been bequeathed to us from the days of reconstruction, concur in holding that the negro’s best friend at the South was and is the former slaveholder. But, unfortunately, Southern legislators did not know that here they were outraging the sympathies of Northern voters.
The features of this legislation that met with the most universal condemnation were the Mississippi law of November 25, 1865, requiring every freedman to make a contract for a home and work by the second Monday in January, 1866; a similar law of Louisiana, passed in December; and a statute of Mississippi, punishing unlawful assemblages of blacks, or of whites and blacks mixed. Acts were also passed by Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, forbidding to negroes the use of firearms : in two of these states absolutely, in one except by license, and in the other of such arms only as were “ appropriate for purposes of war.” Recollections of the negro insurrection headed by Nat Turner, coupled with predictions long ago made by Mr. Calhoun, and frequently by others during and preceding the Civil War, had inspired in the South a very general fear that, in favoring localities, the suddenly emancipated slaves might attempt to repeat the massacres of San Domingo. In two of the states thus forbidding or limiting the use of firearms the negro was in the majority ; in the other two there were “ negro belts,” where the few whites would be helpless in case of an insurrection.
The most indefensible provision anywhere found by the writer is a statute of Mississippi, enacting that, while freedmen might hold personal property, they should not be allowed to lease lands or tenements “except in towns or cities, where the corporate authorities shall control the same.” How much of this enactment was the result of pure prejudice, and how much of it came from the bogy of negro supremacy in a state in parts of which the negro was in numbers as overwhelming as he had been in San Domingo, the reader will determine for himself.
Much was yet to be learned about the freedman by both Southerner and Northerner. The one was to find out how peaceful, the other how incapable as a voter, the freedman was.
There was little chance for moderation in public sentiment or for deliberate action by Congress, when Southern people, in constant dread, were watching and guarding against insurrection, which they even feared might be prompted by agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau; and when, at the same time, Northern people, with their hearts full of sympathy for the helpless and hapless freedmen, were daily watching the reports of that Bureau for stories of cruelty by the former masters. The friction, reasonably to be expected, between the master race on the one hand, almost all of them with the domineering blood of the AngloSaxon in their veins, few of them saints and all the rest sinners, and the negro on the other, now dazed by the blinding light of sudden freedom, would naturally be enough, even without official intermeddling, to cause almost any one to believe or to do anything toward which either prejudice or philanthropy might incline him. Nevertheless, there were prominent Republicans who took no stock in the continued scrutiny by the North of the relations between whites and blacks in the South. Among these was the head of Lincoln’s and of Johnson’s Cabinet, Mr. Seward, who said in an interview in April, 1866 : —
“ The North has nothing to do with the negroes. . . . They are not of our race. They will find their place. They must take their level. The laws of political economy will determine their position, and the relations of the two races. Congress cannot contravene those.”
But Mr. Seward and his views were then in a woeful minority.
Only one of the late Confederate states had legislated in relation to the negro when Congress met, December 4, 1865, and yet the members of that body had already made up their minds against Mr. Johnson’s plan of reconstruction.
The first step of this Congress was the passage, by practically a solid party vote, of the celebrated “Concurrent Resolution” to inquire by a Committee of Fifteen into the condition of the late Confederate states ; the next was the passage in the House, December 14, of a resolution referring to that Committee of Fifteen every question relating to conditions in the late Confederate states, and to admit no member from these states until the committee had reported ; then came the defeat of the Voorhees resolution, indorsing the presidential plan. The Republicans, in the votes on all these measures, presented practically a solid front, while the Democrats were unanimous in opposition. The action of the Senate was on like lines. In the language of Mr. Stevens, Congress was already determined “ to take no account of the aggregation of whitewashed rebels who, without any legal authority, have assembled in the capitals of the late rebel states and simulated legislative bodies.”
Reconstruction was already a party question. Mr. Stevens, the leader of the radicals, said, during these proceedings, on the floor of the House, December 14, 1865 : —
“ According to my judgment, they [the insurrectionary states] ought never to be recognized as capable of acting in the Union, or of being recognized as valid states, until the Constitution shall have been so amended as to make it what its makers intended, and so as to secure perpetual ascendency to the party of the Union.”
A sample of the arguments for the Concurrent Resolution is the following, by a prominent member, Mr. Shellabarger, in answer to Mr. Raymond: —
“ They framed iniquity and universal murder into law. . . . Their pirates burned your unarmed commerce upon every sea. They carved the bones of your dead heroes into ornaments, and drank from goblets made out of their skulls. They poisoned your fountains, put mines under your soldiers’ prisons, organized bands whose leaders were concealed in your homes; and commissions ordered the torch and yellow fever to be carried to your citizens and to your women and children. They planned one universal bonfire of the North from Lake Ontario to the Missouri,” etc.
Moderation was out of the question. A few conservative Republicans, who, like Mr. Raymond, of New York, stood out for Mr. Johnson’s policy, were trampled under the feet of the majority. Others, though halting now and then, kept in line with the party which was steadily marching forward to the view that was already held by the radicals, and afterward expressed by Mr. Sumner in debate upon the bill for suffrage in the District of Columbia: —
“ Nothing is clearer than the absolute necessity for suffrage for all colored persons in the disorganized states. It will not be enough if you give it to those who read and write ; you will not in this way acquire the voting force which you need there for the protection of Unionists, whether black or white. You will not secure the new allies who are essential to the national cause.”
To reach this goal there were many obstacles to be overcome, and time was necessary. The plan of the radicals included legislation relating to freedmen ; there was good reason to expect hostility from the Supreme Court, and Southerners did not foresee how a square decision from that tribunal could be avoided ; it included constitutional amendments ; three fourths of the states only could amend the Constitution, and several of the Northern states were hostile to negro suffrage; while, if the policy entered upon should fail, the failure would be disastrous. The Democrats in Congress had allied themselves with the cause of the Southern whites, and, as Mr. Stevens expressed it on the floor of the House, if negroes were not to have the ballot, the representatives from the Southern states, with the Democrats “ that would be elected in the best of times at the North,” would control the country.
The radicals were looking hopefully to the investigation of the Committee of Fifteen, under the Concurrent Resolution, of which Mr. Seward said (Bancroft’s Seward, p. 454) it “ was not a plan for reconstruction, but a plan for indefinite delay.” The committee was composed of twelve Republicans and three Democrats, and of them Mr. Blaine says (Twenty Years in Congress, vol. ii. p. 127) : “It was foreseen that in an especial degree the fortunes of the Republican party would be in the keeping of the fifteen men who might be chosen.”
This committee was appointed in December, 1865, continued its investigations until June, 1866, when, dividing on strictly party lines, the majority made its report June 18, and the minority June 22.
The majority report discussed at length theories of reconstruction, and bitterly condemned the plan of the President. As to conditions in the South, it found that the Freedmen’s Bureau was “ almost universally hated,” and that “ the feeling in many portions towards the emancipated slaves, especially among the uneducated and ignorant, is one of vindictive and malicious hatred. This deep-seated prejudice against color is assiduously cultivated by the public journals, and leads to acts of cruelty, oppression, and murder, which the local authorities are at no pains to prevent or punish.”
The committee went on to recommend that Congress should not admit the late Confederate states to representation “ without first providing such constitutional or other guaranties as will tend to secure the civil rights of all the citizens of the Republic,” the disfranchisement of a portion, etc. As to the nature of the guaranties to be required there was in this report nothing definite. The three minority members, in their report, vigorously combated the views of the majority.
Mr. Stevens had reported, January 31, 1866, and the House had passed, a proposition for a constitutional amendment providing that, whenever suffrage was denied on account of race or color, the persons so denied suffrage should be excluded from the basis of representation. But there was no promise that such amendment, if adopted, should be taken as a settlement. The amendment, however, was never to be submitted to the states, as Mr. Sumner and other radicals joined with the Democrats and conservative Republicans, and defeated it in the Senate.
Both Democrats and Republicans were now treating all measures affecting the South as political, and the late Confederate states were being counted as in the Union for the purpose of passing on constitutional amendments, while their governments were held as “ revolutionary, null, and void ” for all other purposes. Nothing could more conclusively illustrate the intense partisanship of the hour.
The fairest chance the Southern state governments, as set up by Johnson, had to stem the tide that was setting in against them — but it is doubtful whether that could have succeeded — was by unanimously ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment. Had this amendment been accepted by both sides as a settlement, it would have reduced the representation of the late slave states and left them in control of suffrage. But this article disfranchised nearly all Southerners of prominence and experience, and Southern people could not bring themselves to vote for the degradation of those whom they had honored and trusted. Johnson, too, now their friend and political leader, advised against it; so did Northern Democrats. It was a political fight to a finish between the prostrate ex-Confederates, without representation in Congress and without an acknowledged vote anywhere, aided by the President, a handful of Democrats in Congress, and an unknown number of sympathizers in the North, on the one side, and the Republican party in unmistakable control of Congress on the other. The bill for the extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which failed to pass over Johnson’s veto, and the civil rights bill, which did pass over a veto, — these, and the angry discussions over them in the spring of 1866, only intensified, North and South, the bitterness of the struggle in progress.
If Mr. Lincoln had lived, and had carried on, as the speech in answer to a serenade just before his death indicates he would have done, the policy embodied in the North Carolina proclamation, approved by him shortly before his death,1 and used by his successor as the basis of his policy, he would have had before him the same open field and the same nine months preceding the meeting of Congress that were before Johnson ; and though it would have been a strange spectacle to see the great Republican chieftain politically allied with ex-Confederates, one cannot avoid the conclusion that, tactful and at the same time great-hearted as he was, he would have been continually pointing out to Southerners the breakers that they did not, and he did, see ahead. His influence, too, with his own party, after the successful termination of the war, would have given him a measure of control over his party that Johnson did not possess.
Mr. Johnson was much abused for having “deserted” the party that had honored him, and now that the fight was on, instead of the coolness and skill of a gladiator, he manifested only the qualities of an angry bull rushing at a red rag. In a public speech, alluding to some charge that he had played Judas, he said : “ If I have played the Judas, who has been my Christ that I have played the Judas with ? Was it Thad Stevens ? Was it Wendell Phillips ? Was it Charles Sumner ? ”
Numerous conventions, state and national, were now, in 1866, being held, all devoted to the manufacture of public opinion for and against the Johnson plan of reconstruction
No two eras in our history differ more widely than the epoch-making years 1787 and 1866. In the one, statesmen were sitting with closed doors to formulate, uninfluenced by outside discussion, the Constitution which is the most perfect work of man. In the other, with doors wide open, members of both political parties uttering fiery declarations which were echoed and reëchoed all over the land, the two houses of Congress as political bodies, with passion at white heat, shaped the policy according to which the chief corner stone of the old Constitution — the suffrage on which it rested — was to be remodeled ; and the trend of all the work of the session of 1865-66 was in the direction of the guaranties demanded by Mr. Stevens and Mr. Sumner.
That policy, when the session had closed, was submitted to the Northern voters in the congressional elections of 1866. It was overwhelmingly approved ; and at the last session of that Congress the act of March 2, 1867, was passed, reconstructing the states on the basis of universal negro suffrage, to which the Fifteenth Amendment, intended to secure the rights thus granted, was but a corollary, — both, as we have seen, begotten of partisanship out of philanthropy ; and this was not the first, nor has it been the last, of these liaisons.
It is not making any new or startling assertion to say that negro suffrage was a failure. It did not give Republican control at the South, except for a brief period, and it did not benefit, but injured, the freedman ; it made unavoidable in the South the color line, and impossible there two capable political parties, of which all men, North and South alike, now see the crying need.
The negro had, when suddenly emancipated, one recourse: he was by training a good laborer. The pathway was wide open before him to profit by experience based upon the results of continued industry. Laws like those we have noted, repressing idleness, even though unnecessarily severe, as some of them undoubtedly were, would have given him a continuing forward impulse in what was his only possible line of betterment ; for the lesson of self-support is a prerequisite of all development. In Mr. Seward’s language, the negro would have found his place.
To import the ex-slave into politics was to make a parasite of a plant that needed to strike its roots deep into the earth. To implant within him the thought that he might live without work was an egregious error. Influential negroes, those who should have led in industry and thrift, not only themselves deserted the cotton field for the field of politics, but drew others after them to march in processions and listen to discussions no syllable of which was comprehensible save only appeals to race antagonism. The consequences of the mistake then made have come down to this day; and as to some of them, at least, whites and blacks are now working together for relief.
Professor W. H. Council, the able negro president of the college at Huntsville, Alabama, voiced the present best Southern thought when he said, in his annual address to his colored students, in October last: —
“As our footsteps diverge from political walks, they approach industrial success and true citizenship. The negro will grow strong and grow into usefulness in proportion to his contribution to industrial development, and not political strife.”
Hilary A. Herbert.
- 2 “The very same instrument for restoring the national authority over North Carolina, and placing her where she stood before her attempted secession, which had been approved by Mr. Lincoln, was by Mr. Stanton presented at the first Cabinet meeting which was held at the Executive Mansion after Mr. Lincoln’s death, and having been carefully considered at two or three meetings, was adopted as the reconstruction policy of the [Johnson’s] Administration.” (McCulloch’s Men and Measures, p. 378.)↩