Washington During Reconstruction

WASHINGTON during reconstruction was a reflection of the country, as is always likely to be the case when there is a great question pending upon which public attention is fixed. Doubtless a complexity of problems may sometimes occur, when a majority of the people are willing to accept something they do not want in order to secure something they want badly. And it is never quite safe to point confidently to a popular verdict, upon a minor issue of a campaign, in which some overshadowing issue was pending. But there was little contradiction of issues in the North during and immediately after the war, and the North at that time absolutely wielded the political power of the nation. Everything else was lost sight of in the effort, first to save the Union, then to secure freedom, and after these objects had been attained, to establish such a basis of restoration as should effectively guard them both from future danger. The sentiment of the Northern people was fixed beyond change upon the supreme necessity of maintaining freedom and the Union, and there was little danger that upon those questions their representatives would prove unresponsive to their will.

One of the first tasks confronting the statesmen at Washington who dealt with the problem of reconstruction consisted in clearing away the metaphysics with which it was surrounded. The purely theoretical phases of the situation continued for nearly five years. The tendency of masses of men to divide on abstractions, and to become confused by them, was well illustrated in the progress of reconstruction. Whether the Southern states had really been in or out of the Union during the war; whether they were “ dead states,” or their “ practical relations ” to the Union only had been disturbed, were questions of little more practical consequence than some of the distinctions in theology, and yet these were the features of reconstruction which were chiefly discussed until the conclusion of the war. The vital point in the situation was that there had actually been four years of bloody war, in which several hundreds of thousands of lives and some billions of dollars of property had been destroyed. Doubtless an important part of the work of reconstruction consisted in the restoration of the blessings of civil government to the localities which had so long been the theatre of war, but a far more important part was involved in the performance of an obvious duty, alike due to the conquerors and the conquered. How should the nation be protected against a repetition of so terrible a struggle ? How should the good results of the war be made permanent ? For it would certainly have been criminal folly if those responsible for the conduct of the government had, on account of any finespun theory about the legal effect of attempted secession upon the status of the Southern states, neglected to exact the utmost security for the future. There existed, however, a class of difficulties of a constitutional character, which increased the magnitude of the work. The restoration of the supremacy of civil law, after the suppression of a rebellion against a government such as exists in England, would present a much simpler problem. That government would deal directly with individuals, and with them alone ; it would not come in contact with subordinate jurisdictions ; and, as the disturbed areas should become pacified, the military character of the rule would by degrees become mitigated by the gradual restoration of civil rights, until finally the peaceful sway of the laws should be restored. The federal character of our government, as well as the fact that it derived all its vitality through the limited provisions of a written constitution, made our problem a complex one. When the Southern states should be restored to the Union, or if they had never been out of the Union, then when they should again be permitted to participate in the common government, they would resume their equality with the other states and the control of a wide range of governmental powers, free from the supervision of the central government. The mere restoration of courts, sheriffs, and other agencies of civil government was what the task presented, in common with the task of restoration after rebellion against governments simple and unlimited in character. But, in addition to that, it was necessary to provide against results likely to follow the setting in motion of local sovereignties whose powers would be no less firmly secured to them by the Constitution than those of the national government itself. It thus became necessary to provide securities for the future, constitutional in character, and applicable alike to the states which fought for as well as to those which fought against the Union.

The use of so mild a term as “ insurrection ” did not change the character of the struggle, which had been, as a matter of fact, one of the bloodiest and most expensive of wars, from which the nation was fortunate to escape with its life. The Southern states had yielded to no sheriff’s posse, but to an army of two millions of men; and it would have been very little to the credit of the statesmen at Washington if they had permitted the tremendous fact of war to be obscured by some legal phrase, and had devised remedies for the phrase, and not for the exact situation. When the time came for the final solution of the question, theory yielded to fact, and it was treated as a question of grave practical statesmanship, having peculiar and difficult conditions of its own, rather than one to be settled by technical distinctions. The wisdom of the men at Washington who dealt with the problem was, very likely, not so luminous and perfect as that which gentlemen now possess upon the same subject, a generation afterward ; but such wisdom as they had they finally employed with reference to the actual situation, and for the primary purpose of securing to the whole nation whatever good results had sprung out of the war, and of delivering it from the danger of another struggle on account of the same cause. There may be room to question the wisdom of the remedies they devised, but there can be none that they took the proper point of view.

The situation was not lacking in other elements of difficulty. The resistance to the national authority had extended over the vast region stretching from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and containing three quarters of a million square miles of territory. Over this enormous area, greater in extent than Italy, Spain, France, and the German Empire combined, there were scattered four millions of black men, who had been held as slaves and had been made free. If they had been freed by the ordinary peaceful agencies, operating in the territory where slavery existed, the forces which secured their freedom might have been relied upon to protect it; but they had been forcibly emancipated by external agencies. Their masters had not given them up because they desired to do so, but because they had been compelled by overwhelming force; and before the withdrawal of the military arm, and the reestablishment of state governments with their great power over individual liberty, the most careful measures were required to secure the freedom which was the most important outcome of the war. I have referred to some of the salient difficulties which obviously could not have been fully developed until the end of the war, and I will now refer to the principal features of legislation, from which it will appear that there was a constant evolution toward a more radical treatment of the subject. Hostilities had scarcely begun before a discussion was entered upon in Congress which involved the principles on which reconstruction should proceed. At the famous special session, called soon after the opening of the war, both houses of Congress passed the so-called Crittenden Resolutions by nearly a unanimous vote. These resolutions did not embody a basis of reconstruction, but they promulgated principles which would have profoundly affected that process if they had been applied. They declared that the war was not waged for the purpose of conquest or to overthrow the institutions of any state, but to maintain the Constitution and Union “ with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several states unimpaired.” A few men of the more radical wing of the Republican party, among whom were Sumner, Lovejoy, and Stevens, refused to vote for these resolutions. “ Ask them who made the war,” said Stevens, “ what is its object.” Under these resolutions, put forth with such an approach to unanimity, reconstruction would have been an extremely simple process. In fact, it would have been automatic, and it would have rested with any of the seceding states to determine when it should stop fighting and exercise its rights under the Constitution, and among them the right of representation in Congress. Sentiment, however, developed rapidly ; and when, at the beginning of the following session, an attempt was made to reaffirm the same resolutions, they were, upon the motion of Stevens, laid upon the table by a decisive vote of the very House which, but a few months before, had passed them so strongly.

Lincoln’s practical attempt at reconstruction, embodied in the “ Louisiana plan,” was as summarily dealt with by Congress as the Crittenden Resolutions had been. Lincoln, however, at the time he put forth this plan, did not enjoy the prestige which he subsequently gained. It is hardly conceivable that Congress would have dared, even one year afterward, to accord such contemptuous treatment to any important policy which he might have proposed. The terms of the Louisiana proclamation permitted the greater number of those who had borne arms against the government to take part in the work of reconstruction, upon taking an oath to support the Constitution and the laws relating to slavery. The congressional opposition was directed against the liberality of this plan, and especially to the feature of it which accorded recognition to a state if so small a number as one tenth of its voters should comply with the terms of the proclamation. Mr. Henry Winter Davis, of Maryland, was especially hostile, and led the opposition to the policy of the President with conspicuous ability. Lincoln’s policy was set aside, and a bill, advocated by Davis, was passed by both houses of Congress. Mr. Thaddeus Stevens had logically taken the position, from the very outbreak of hostilities, that a condition of war existed, within the meaning of that term in the law of nations ; that the Southern states had forfeited all their rights under the Constitution ; and that after they had been conquered they should be dealt with practically as conquered territory, without any constitutional rights. This was regarded as an extreme doctrine; but in spite of the fact that he found, when he first advocated it, only the slightest support, he adhered to it with remarkable consistency, and in the end it was the theory which found practical acceptance. The constitutional theory involved in this plan was not less simple than that contained in the Crittenden Resolutions, although at the opposite extreme. This was really the important point upon which the so-called radicalism of Stevens was influential. It consisted in adopting the very matter-of-fact policy of doing what the future continuance of the national life, which had been saved by so many sacrifices, demanded, and treating reconstruction as a practical rather than a theoretical question. It obviously did not involve negro suffrage. That might or might not be one of the “ terms ” which should be imposed. Stevens did not originate the idea of imposing negro suffrage as a necessary part of reconstruction, and the opinion entertained in some quarters that he was especially responsible for the introduction of that idea is widely at variance with the facts. His first plan was embodied in an amendment to the Constitution, basing representation upon the number of voters in the different states, and thus making it for the political interest of the states to establish a broad suffrage in order to increase their representation in Congress ; and so late as the 80th of April, 1866, he reported to the House the Fourteenth Amendment in the form in which it now stands in the Constitution, and at the same time a bill declaring that when that amendment should have been incorporated in the Constitution, and any state “ lately in insurrection ” should have ratified it and adopted a constitution and laws in accordance with its terms, it should be admitted to representation in Congress. That policy lacked neither simplicity nor moderation. In the December preceding, Sumner had presented to the Senate a resolution demanding “ the complete enfranchisement of all citizens, so that there shall be no denial of rights on account of race or color.” Lincoln had suggested the suffrage for the freedmen, but on the condition that it should be conferred gradually and as they should become fitted for it, — a condition full of wise policy for the country at large, and of humanity for the negro. But whoever may have been its advocates, negro suffrage resulted from the course of events rather than from the efforts of any individuals.

There was one serious objection to the plan proposed by Lincoln. He treated reconstruction as an executive act, and it was possible that the states complying with the terms of his proclamation might be recognized by the executive department, and at the same time that the two houses of Congress might refuse admission to the members whom the states might choose. A state might thus be reconstructed and again in the Union so far as the Executive was concerned, and unreconstructed and out of the Union so far as the most important function of representation in Congress was concerned. In this very instance, the states which complied with Lincoln’s proclamation were denied representation in Congress. The question of reconstruction thus became still more complicated at the outset, and the foundation was laid for the struggle between the executive and the legislative department which culminated in the impeachment of Johnson. Obviously the process of restoring a state to its practical relations with the Union required the concurrence of both the legislative and the executive department. If the plan so eloquently advocated by Davis, and substituted by Congress for that of the President, had been accepted by Lincoln, the work of reconstruction would probably have been accomplished upon more stringent lines, indeed, than he proposed, but upon lines which were vastly more liberal than those finally adopted. Lincoln, however, by permitting Congress to adjourn without signing the bill of the congressional leaders, practically vetoed it, and nothing was accomplished by this effort in the solution of the question.

Lincoln, just before his death, had prepared a new plan of reconstruction, and there can be little doubt that he would soon have promulgated it if his life had been spared. On his accession to the presidency Johnson accepted Lincoln’s cabinet in its entirety, and he also finally accepted the latter’s plan of reconstruction, although his first utterances had alarmed even the radicals by the hostility of his tone toward the South. This plan, which may fairly be called Lincoln’s second plan, was more severe than that embodied in the Louisiana proclamation, but it repeated the fatal error of treating reconstruction as a function of the Executive. If Lincoln had lived, his great political influence might have been sufficient to secure the adoption of this programme by Congress; but whether Congress had accepted it or not, he would doubtless have had sufficient sagacity not to become involved in the bitter controversy to which Johnson became a party. After the latter, however, had accepted the plan which he received, already prepared, at the hands of Lincoln’s cabinet, he adhered to it uncompromisingly and with very little discretion.

A potent force in overturning this plan was found in the result of its own workings. It had an opportunity to be tested. It was promulgated during a long recess of Congress, and its operation was entered upon free from legislative interference. Before Congress had reassembled it had been put in force in nearly all the Southern states. They had chosen legislatures, had elected Representatives and Senators in Congress, passed local laws, and set up the machinery of government under the protection of the national military forces. Congress was called upon to deal not simply with a proposition for a policy, but with a scheme, already put in execution, which was working somewhat badly. The first attempts at legislation on the part of the new governments were ill advised, to say the least, and were directed to the great question upon which the conscience of the North was thoroughly aroused, — the preservation of the freedom of the negro. The counter revolution, also, seemed to be moving somewhat too rapidly for the Northern people. Its motion may be well illustrated by a single circumstance, by no means exceptional in character. When the session of Congress ended, on the 3d of March, 1865, military operations were being conducted on a broad scale, and Mr. Alexander H. Stephens was Vice President of the Southern Confederacy. When Congress came together at its next session, the credentials of Stephens were presented as Senator elect from Georgia ; and as if this were not sufficiently startling, there were urged on his behalf constitutional reasons why he should be permitted to take the oath of office. Stephens might have made a very acceptable Senator, but the men composing the Republican majority in Congress would have been something less, or more, than human, if, at that time, while the fire of battle was still hot, they could have regarded this spectacle with entire complacency.

The decisive influence, however, which brought about the destruction of the President’s plan grew out of the antinegro laws, which were passed by nearly all of the legislatures chosen in pursuance of it. A bare survey of those laws will convince one of their utter lack of policy, as well as of their gross injustice, and they find no palliation in the poor excuse that has been made for them : that laws with somewhat similar features, relating to apprentices and tramps, may be found upon the statute books of some of the Northern states. There is at the outset the material point of difference that the “ tramp ” and “ apprentice ” laws referred to applied impartially to all races. The few Northern statutes, too, were scattered over a great many years ; they were proportionately less severe in character, and some of them followed reconstruction in point of time. But if they were similar in principle and had preceded reconstruction, still it would surely have been a strange exhibition of political wisdom on the part of the Southern legislatures to extract these scattered precedents and condense the application of them in their very first legislative acts, when the North was anxiously observing how the freedom which had been so expensively purchased should be regarded by the Southern people. Some of those laws established a condition not greatly different from the former slavery, and in some respects it differed for the worse. A condition of public sentiment was soon produced where the solution of the problem of reconstruction that was ultimately reached became inevitable. In the piping times of peace, statesmen may patch up difficulties without much reference to public opinion, for the simple reason that the public is often not aroused upon them, and cares very little how they may be solved ; but it is pretty safe to take for granted that great masses of men, of the same race, will, under similar conditions, take the same action on any great question concerning which they are profoundly stirred. The action of the Southern legislatures was very likely entirely natural, under the circumstances; but it reacted strongly upon the Northern people, and produced a course of action on their part which was also entirely natural. It is a very simple method of treatment to portray the leaders on one side as absolutely judicious and free from fault, and those on the other as malign demagogues, acting under the influence of pure hatred and malevolence. But the course of reconstruction must be accounted for upon broad principles of human nature. It was not a haphazard affair, but sprung inevitably out of the war, the fervent passion for human liberty which appeared again to be in danger, the wrought-up patriotism, and the kindled fury of partisanship in the clashing of the great departments of the government. The men who especially voiced the popular sentiment in Congress were indeed the fit and natural leaders; but if they had retired to private life at the end of the war, events would have compelled substantially the same results under new leaders. They would have been impotent to control, even if they had resisted, the popular forces which were pushing them onward.

The working of Johnson’s plan inevitably destined it to defeat, but how harsh a measure would its failure make necessary ? The first proposal certainly was not a radical one. As has been seen, nearly a year after Johnson put forth his proclamation, Stevens reported to the House the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, together with the bill basing reconstruction upon its acceptance. Before this bill was acted upon by Congress that amendment had been submitted to the states, and every Southern state had contemptuously refused to accept it. What should the statesmen at Washington do ? Propose a plan which had been rejected in advance ? In the meantime, the question had been carried before the people at an election, and the result was to strengthen enormously the hands of the opponents of the President’s policy. A decided impulse was given to the idea that liberty should not be risked by a continuance of such a course of legislation as the first efforts of the Southern legislatures had produced, but that it should be armed with the ballot for its own protection. At the ensuing session of Congress, the policy of complete enfranchisement, without regard to color, which Sumner had put forth in his resolutions of the preceding year, and had supported in one of the most elaborate speeches of even his career, was adopted as a basis of reconstruction. Sumner had advocated the ballot “ as a peacemaker, a schoolmaster, a protector.” Undoubtedly the Northern public had come to regard it especially necessary as a “ protector,” and the final reconstruction act was passed, overturning the Johnson governments, and substituting for them a drastic system of military government, to continue until the new conditions of reconstruction were complied with, and coupling with it a provision for the extension of suffrage to the emancipated blacks. The control of some of the Southern states was thus put in the hands of electors, a majority of whom possessed no education, and had never had the slightest experience in self-government. Among the earliest results of the franchise thus suddenly imposed, public treasuries were robbed, courts paralyzed, property extinguished ; and a point was soon reached where it became apparent that the equality established at the ballot box could be maintained only at the price of civilization. The plan of reconstruction, therefore, was one for which there was a divided responsibility. One event logically followed another, and the people of one section, no less than those of the other, are entitled to credit or blame for what occurred. The Southern people, who had yielded to superior force, but whose hearts were still unsubdued, cannot be reproached for taking that course which was entirely natural, and indeed inevitable, in the conditions that then existed. But, on the other hand, invective should stop short of denouncing another people, — those who had won victory at such a tremendous cost, and who had presented to their view evidence of a clearly defined danger to the freedom which had been gained.

Johnson himself is not to be ignored as a factor in bringing about the result. He cannot be criticised for adopting the plan of Lincoln, but he executed it in a manner that encouraged the Southern people to believe that they had gained to their side, at the threshold of the solution of the war problems, the great powers of the presidency. Undoubtedly there is no room to question his patriotism, which was conspicuous during the war, and no less so when he resisted the encroachments of Congress upon the powers of his office. But if he had possessed something of the spirit of compromise ; something, also, of the political sagacity and the ability to control men that appeared in such large measure in the character of Lincoln, there would certainly have been no collision between the two great departments of the government, and probably reconstruction would have proceeded on the basis which involved the acceptance of the muniments against slavery, and of the great provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. It would then have rested with the Southern states to decide whether those measures should be accepted, or harsher ones applied; and, without the encouragement of executive support, they would probably have accepted the terms which they had declined under the conditions existing when they were offered.

But Johnson’s characteristics were such as to augment rather than to diminish the difference between Congress and himself. He can never be magnified into a great statesman. He was narrow and obstinate, and he made himself all but impossible as a leader, on account of his singular lack of decorum in speech ; but he was honest and unswerving in his adherence to certain great principles of government, and he defended them with a courage which inspires respect for his character. Congress, on its side, proved sufficiently obstinate, and, since the President would not surrender, the twothirds majority in both houses, which made the veto of no consequence, was used to strip him of the great powers of his office. Because he would not yield to this encroachment; because he adhered to the constitutional construction of those powers which had prevailed since the foundation of the government, and which, after his brief term in the presidency, was again recurred to, the leaders of the House saw fit to impeach him. They had been rapidly reducing to a mere governmental figurehead the great constitutional office of the presidency, with its powers as clearly defined as were those of Congress itself, and which existed, not for the man who held the office, but in trust for the whole people. A review of the impeachment proceedings is not within the scope of this article, but they will be referred to, to illustrate the intense feeling which had been engendered between the President and Congress by the struggle over reconstruction, and also to call to mind the personality of those especially concerned in the development of the national policy toward the Southern states. The President, on his part, had acted up to the old Jacksonian models, and made an unsparing use of the federal offices to reward the friends and to punish the enemies of his policy. If he had confined himself to the obstinately maintained lines on which he had battled for his plan of reconstruction, he would doubtless have had his veto overridden, and would have been the constant mark of highly wrought and hostile declamation, but he would probably have escaped impeachment; but when he struck at the offices, he dealt a blow at what was then, as it has always been, a sore spot in the make-up of the average Congressman. A violation of the Constitution is a somewhat general and indefinite crime, the consequences of which do not especially come home to the ordinary member ; but when his district or state is invaded, and his friends are ruthlessly turned out of post offices and clerkships and custom houses, and his enemies put in their places, freedom is very apt to shriek.

Congress responded to the President by the Tenure of Office Act, which put him very securely under the safe guardianship of the Senate in making removals from office. The holders of executive offices thus became responsible, in the last resort, to the Senate, and not to the President, who was the constitutional agent of the people in the execution of the laws. The policy of the new theory was forcibly illustrated in the case of Stanton, who was discharging the important duties of the office of Secretary of War without consultation with his executive chief, and who would occasionally send a message to Congress. Of course, very little would be left of the great office of the presidency under such a system, and whether from purely patriotic motives or a regard for his own personal importance, in which he was not entirely lacking, Johnson refused tamely to submit. He made short work of removing Stanton ; and when the Senate declined to concur, under the Office Act, he treated that piece of legislation as a constitutional nullity, and defiantly removed him again. Stanton represented in his person every postmaster and other federal officeholder in the country who had been confirmed by the Senate. By this act Johnson invited impeachment, and under the tremendous political excitement prevailing at that time, not only in Washington, but throughout the North, over the great measures connected with reconstruction, the invitation was certain of acceptance. The wonder is that, in a Senate of which not one sixth of the members had been elected as Democrats, enough Republican Senators should be found, in a proceeding saturated with partisan spirit, to vote against the position of that party, and acquit the President. For when the final vote was taken, the judicial and legal weight of the party was found on the side of Johnson. I have said the impeachment well illustrated the partisan rancor growing out of reconstruction, and also the personality of the important actors in the reconstruction drama. Johnson was of course the central figure, both in the trial and in the attempts which were made to restore the Southern states to their former standing in the Union. Stanton’s removal was the immediate occasion of the impeachment; and strangely enough, Stanton had been an advocate, and was probably even one of the authors, of the President’s plan of reconstruction. He was a great secretary, and he possessed in a high degree, also, the qualities of obstinacy and imperiousness which distinguished Johnson. Stevens, aptly termed by Mr. Dawes “ a great intellectual gladiator,” represented more strongly than any other man the position of Congress upon the question of reconstruction, and he it was who was fittingly chosen to arraign the President at the bar of the Senate. The cause of the House lost much on account of his inability to take a more prominent part in the trial; for, in a long and stormy public and professional career, he had never come in conflict with his intellectual superior. To Boutwell, who had been chosen as the leading manager, and who, with remarkable self-sacrifice, had refused to accept it, in order to secure full harmony among the managers, must be given the credit of having contributed more by his industry and judicious management toward making the cause of the House successful than any of his colleagues. He also was a conspicuous supporter of the congressional plan of reconstruction. Charles Sumner, the most ornate if not the greatest orator of the Senate, was one of the original advocates of negro suffrage, and he was a bitter and unsparing enemy of Johnson, both in his policy and at his trial. His passionate opinion, filed in the case, in the extreme character of its views upon the proceeding as well as upon the scope of the process of impeachment, is likely to remain one of the curiosities of the trial.

Fessenden, who was shrewd, cautious, statesmanlike, a great debater, an ardent Republican, and yet hostile to the impeachment, probably deserves to be regarded as the greatest Senator of the war period. His course during the trial was most influential. He was also the chairman, on the part of the Senate, of the committee on reconstruction, and signed, with Stevens, the celebrated report, which it is impossible to read and escape the conclusion that the President’s policy of reconstruction was unwise. Trumbull was another strongly partisan Republican, but to his judicial temperament, and to the fact that he was the greatest lawyer in the Senate, it is doubtless due that he opposed the impeachment. He was also uncompromising in his hostility to the President’s policy of reconstruction. Evarts, who managed the President’s defense with such consummate ability, was the most successful trial lawyer of his time, and only escaped being a great orator by an involved method of statement and a diffuseness of style. His influence afterward, as Johnson’s Attorney General, undoubtedly contributed to a suspension of the warfare between Congress and the President. Curtis, who was the principal associate of Evarts in the defense of the President, was not identified with either the legislation or the administration of laws relating to reconstruction. His contribution to the trial was memorable, and very little ground for convicting the President survived the coldly legal argument, running through two days, with which he hopelessly shattered the case of the managers.

Undoubtedly some great evils resulted from the plan of reconstruction that was ultimately adopted, but it by no means follows that any other plan would have worked with absolute smoothness and with no injurious results. However common wisdom after the fact may be, it is not always safe to indulge in it. Looking at the course of events that developed under the brief application of Johnson’s policy, it is apparent that if reconstruction had gone on to the end under that policy, the historian would have had other evils to portray, compared with which the looting of Southern treasuries might be mild indeed. Under the plan that was finally put in execution we have at least secured peace and freedom, and have witnessed a remarkable improvement in the condition of the negro race. That is indeed much, — as much as in a broad view could fairly have been looked for. The statesmen at Washington were not dealing with ideal conditions. Centuries of slavery could not be uprooted in a day without leaving enormous social problems to be solved. And care must be taken not to attribute to the working of legislation those penalties which society must inevitably pay for a long persistence in evil courses.

S. W. McCall.