Reconstruction and Disfranchisement

WITH the paper on The Undoing of Reconstruction, in the present issue of the Atlantic, its series of articles upon the reconstruction period comes to a close. The theme of these papers seems to us so important, and their bearing upon our immediate political future so significant, that we venture to remind our readers of some of the truths suggested by these studies of a troubled epoch.

The frankness of the authors of the reconstruction articles has been noticeable. Representing many sections of the country and many varieties of political opinion, they were asked to review the conditions upon which the Southern states were readmitted to the Union after the close of the Civil War. Some of the writers, like ex-Secretary Herbert and ex-Governor Chamberlain, fought in the war, and played a personal part in the events that followed it. Mr. McCall, the biographer of Thaddeus Stevens, had had occasion to make a careful study of the congressional side of the reconstruction controversy. Mr. Thomas Nelson Page had already illustrated, in his chosen art of fiction, the temper of the Southern people during reconstruction times. Mr. William Garrott Brown and Mr. Phelps had utilized unusual opportunities for studying particular phases of the period in different sections of the South. Professor Du Bois, who wrote upon The Freedmen’s Bureau, had won a reputation among economists for his careful statistical studies of his race. Professor Woodrow Wilson, who began the series, and Professor Dunning, who now closes it, are historians known for their luminous presentation of the vexed questions involved in the reconstruction policy. All of these writers had, of course, the fullest liberty to express their personal opinions. More than thirty years have passed since the legislation of 1870 completed the formal processes of reconstruction, and in spite of the passionate political feelings involved in every step of that procedure, the Atlantic articles have been written both dispassionately and, we believe, with entire candor. Many political motives, hitherto more or less veiled, have been laid bare, but there has been no attempt by the authors of these papers to palliate the errors committed by both North and South, in that confused and trying hour of our national history. They have recognized that we are living in a new age, and that Americans, united by a new national spirit, can now discuss with calmness the mistakes made a generation ago.

The most grave of these errors was the indiscriminate bestowal of the franchise upon the newly liberated slaves. The extent to which partisan purposes entered into the adoption of this policy will always be disputed. Mr. McCall has presented the accepted views of Northern Republicans in upholding the measure as a political necessity. Necessary to the immediate security of a great and victorious party it may have been ; certainly, it was in part a sincere, idealistic effort to render abstract justice to a race that had been deeply wronged. But it is apparent enough to-day that the sudden gift of the ballot to men wholly unprepared to use it wisely was a most dangerous policy, however well intentioned it may have been. It is equally apparent that, in so far as partisan motive was dominant in the transaction, partisanship has paid the penalty. The “ solid South ” is still solid. Reconstruction, particularly in its earlier phases, brought such widespread demoralization to the Southern states that its economic losses are comparable to those of the Civil War. In fact, the whole scheme of reconstruction, so skillfully and in part nobly planned, so boldly carried out, has broken down. Professor Dunning traces for us the various stages that have characterized the systematic undoing of that which was supposed to have been done once for all. He shows precisely how it has come about that in the South to-day “ the negroes enjoy practically no political rights ; the Republican party is but the shadow of a name ; and the influence of the negroes in political affairs is nil.” The constitutional conventions in session during the past summer, in various Southern states, have had for their chief and openly avowed purpose the elimination of the negro from politics, or, in Professor Dunning’s phrase, making the political equality of the negro “ as extinct in law as it has long been in fact.” The final stage of the long reconstruction controversy seems to close, singularly enough, in the reversal of the very process which marked its inception. Reconstruction began with enfranchisement; it is ending with disfranchisement.

Who are left to mourn over this withdrawal of political rights from the negro ? There are at least four classes who regret it : (1.) Intelligent leaders of that race, who recognize that in the breakdown of negro popular suffrage the industrious, property-holding, educated black is likely to suffer the same disability as the ignorant and vicious. This is the intention and the practical result of much of the disfranchising legislation already consummated, however adroitly the fact may be concealed. (2.) Active friends of the negro at the North, spiritual descendants of the abolitionists, — men and women who have never wearied, and surely will never weary, in their efforts to uplift the blacks. These people are giving largely for negro education, of both the industrial and academic type. Though comparatively few in numbers, they command considerable influence, and they resent the forced closure of any avenue that opens the way for negro self-respect and training in self-government. (3.) Some Republicans of the old sort, like those of Iowa lately assembled in convention, who are still faithful to the doctrine of equal rights, and opposed to “all legislation designed to accomplish the disfranchisement of citizens upon lines of race, color, or station in life.” (4.) And a good many persons, North and South, of all parties and no party, who believe that the experiment of republican government in this country is secure only in so far as its fundamental principle of self-government by the masses is allowed unimpeded scope.

Who rejoice over the enforced retirement of the negro from politics ? There are assuredly four classes here: (1.) A horde of ignorant “ poor whites,” mostly of pure “ Anglo-Saxon ” stock, who are being outstripped in the march of civilization even by the negroes, and who imagine that a “ grandfather clause ” will save them from the consequences of illiteracy and degeneracy. They are the most pitiable and the most dangerous element in our composite national life. (2.) Southern Democratic politicians. (3.) The majority of the Southern people, of whom it should be said that they understand the Southern negro as no Northerners can, and who are at least as kindly disposed toward him as the masses of the Northern people. (4.) A good many persons, again of all parties and no party, who secretly rejoice at any expression of the racial superiority of the Anglo-Saxon ; who believe, not in a democratic government, in which all citizens shall participate upon precisely the same terms, but in a “ strong ” or “ white man’s ” government. These people are Americans by accident of birth, but politically they are Europeans, aristocrats and reactionists.

Between these friends and foes of disfranchisement stands a vast body of indifferentists. Some of the indifference is found, it is true, among well-wishers of the colored people, who think that as long as their economical and industrial rights are assured the blacks had better “ keep out of politics ; ” forgetting how closely, in an industrial democracy like our own, political and industrial rights are bound together. The masses of the North belong also to the indifferent class. Northern political feeling upon the negro question, to be effective, must be fused by one of those furnace-glows of moral passion such as was felt forty years ago. Our temporary coldness to the moral issues involved in politics, combined with that world-wide reaction against democracy which has been noted by many recent Atlantic writers, makes it unlikely that any considerable portion of the Northern public will at present seriously bestir themselves in the negro’s behalf.

Nor can he look for help to either of the two great national parties. The leaders of the party of emancipation and reconstruction have apparently decided that it is inexpedient to interfere with what is taking place in the South. Occasional state conventions, like that of Iowa, already referred to, will doubtless reaffirm the historic Republican position with regard to equal rights, and the next national platform will probably contain an unexceptionable and smoothly planed plank of the same texture. There the matter will end. The Democratic party, demoralized at best and absolutely dependent upon the Southern vote, can offer no hope to the negro. The spectacle of Southern Democrats passing resolutions asserting the right of Filipinos to self-government, and at the same instant refusing self-government to men of dark - skinned race in America, was one of the broad jokes of the last campaign. Indeed, it must be confessed that our present national insistence upon our right to administer the affairs of other races, in our newly acquired territory, makes it extremely embarrassing for either party to urge a literal obedience to the Fifteenth Amendment in the South. Whatever blessings our acquisition of foreign territory may bring in the future, its influence upon equal rights in the United States has already proved malign. It has strengthened the hands of the enemies of negro progress, and has postponed further than ever the realization of perfect equality of political privilege. If the stronger and cleverer race is free to impose its will upon “ newcaught, sullen peoples ” on the other side of the globe, why not in South Carolina and Mississippi ? The advocates of the “ shotgun policy ” are quite as sincere, and we are inclined to think quite as unselfish, as the advocates of “ benevolent assimilation.” The two phrases are, in fact, two names for the same thing : government by force, — the absolute determination by one race of the extent of political privilege to be enjoyed by another. There is a great deal to be said for this theory of government, in cases where a civilized people have assumed control of an uncivilized people, and at present it has more friends than at any other time since the close of the Napoleonic wars. But it is not a theory which bodes good to the full manhood of the American negro.

What, then, must be the immediate programme and the ultimate hope of those who believe, as the Atlantic does, in the old-fashioned American doctrine of political equality, irrespective of race or color or station ? The short cut to equality, attempted by giving the negro the ballot before he was qualified to use it, has proved disastrous. It has confused the issue, and cast doubt upon the principle of equality itself. The long way around must now be tried, — the painfully slow but certain path that leads through labor and education and mutual understanding and unimagined patience to the goal of full political privilege. A comprehension of the actual status of the American negro is one step toward the ultimate solution of the race question. The Atlantic will shortly announce a group of papers, to be published during 1902, dealing with disfranchisement and other aspects of the relations of whites and blacks in the South. These articles will be written by representative Southerners, by leaders of the negro race, and by impartial students of American social conditions. The presentation of such a group of papers is the chief service which a monthly magazine can render to any public cause, and yet we may be allowed to point out here what we believe to be the surest ground for hope in the final victory of equal rights.

That hope lies in the good sense of the South. It is obvious that she is being left to herself, to settle the question of disfranchisement in her own way. Terribly destructive of the public respect for law as is her unhindered violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution, disheartening as it is to see some blatant and brutal Tillman take up again the old cry of “ Down with the niggers ! ” all this may be preferable, in the long view, to another epoch of forcible intervention. The South must learn by her own blunders, as she has had to do ere now. Thrown upon her own responsibility, and freed from the jealous fear of Northern interference, there is ground for confidence that she will yet follow her innate sense of justice and of honor. Under normal conditions, she possesses these characteristics to as high a degree as any portion of the Union. Grossly unfair and cruel as the conduct of Southern politicians toward the negro has often been, it is no worse treatment than Northern politicians would have given him, under similar temptation. Remorselessly as the “ color line ” is drawn in the Southern states, it is scarcely less rigid in the North, save in this one matter of the ballot.

At all events, the South is justified in the inference that the country is now willing, for one reason or another, to give her a chance to show her real temper. Southern whites are already making manly confession of the evil that has been wrought upon themselves, no less than upon the blacks, by the systematic falsification of election returns. They are doubtless right in believing that open, avowed suppression of the negro vote — if that vote is to be eliminated — is better for all concerned than a scheme of fraud and chicanery. But some degree of chicanery there must be in each of these new legal devices for contravening the express purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment, and we believe that Southerners will one day take a still more manly and American position, and admit to all the privileges of citizenship any man who proves himself worthy of it. This will require sacrifice of sentiment and tradition. Many years are likely to pass, and possibly many generations, before such a result is attained. But we believe there is too much potential intelligence in the South, and too much love of fair play, permanently to refuse the ballot to colored men of education and property who have attested their value to the community.

Apply to both races equally whatever qualifications for the exercise of the franchise or for holding office each state may see fit to impose : that is the only demand which can wisely be made upon the South. We think she will ultimately grant it, not only because it is the bidding of good sense and of good faith, but also because any other course will mean her moral suicide. To fall back upon a “ grandfather clause ” — to refuse the ballot to a colored farmer or artisan of intelligence and property, and grant it to some illiterate pauper because he is white — is to put a premium upon the ignorance of one race, and a discount upon the progress of the other. The Southern negroes, in spite of every shortcoming and disadvantage, are slowly, but surely, making headway. Every consideration, whether of economics or of humanity, demands that they should have an open road. They will do the traveling.

Mr. Thomas Nelson Page closed his survey of reconstruction, in the preceding number of this magazine, with these admirable words : “ That intelligence, virtue, and force of character will eventually rule is as certain in the states of the South as it is elsewhere ; and everywhere it is as certain as the operation of the law of gravitation. Whatever people wish to rule in those states must possess these qualities.” His tacit assumption, no doubt, is that it will be the whites who are to exhibit these dominant qualities. Yet we imagine that Booker Washington would wish no better motto for the encouragement of his people than those words of Mr. Page. For “intelligence, virtue, and force of character ” are not the endowment of the Anglo-Saxon exclusively. Their roots sink deeper than those of racial peculiarity into the soil of our common humanity. The race that does not bring them to flower is indeed doomed ; and whatever race develops intelligence, virtue, and force by ceaseless moral effort will in due season reap the reward. But in such a noble strife as this each race may help the other. It has hitherto been the curse of the South that she has contained two races living in abnormal relations toward each other. Yet it is not impossible that, remaining, in the terms of Booker Washington’s famous sentence, “ in all things purely social as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” these races may ultimately give not only a signal example of mutual service, but unexpected reinforcement to the old faith that the plain people, of whatever blood or creed, are capable of governing themselves.