Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Reconstruction: Experiments and Ideals

"God uses a good many ugly tools to dig up the stumps and burn off the forests and drain the swamps of a howling wilderness. He has used this old Egyptian plow of slavery to turn over the sod of these fifteen Southern States. Its sin consisted in not dying decently when its work was done. It strove to live and make all the new world like it. Its leaders avowed that their object was to put this belt of the continent under the control of an aristocracy which believes that one-fifth of the race is born booted and spurred and the other four-fifths ready for that fifth to ride. The war was one of freedom and democracy against the institutions that rest on slaves. It will take ten years for the country to shed the scar of such a struggle. The state of society at the South that produced the war will remain and trouble the land until freedom and democracy and the spirit of the nineteenth century takes its place. Only then can we grapple the Union together with hooks of steel, and make it as lasting as the granite that underlies the continent."

These were the brave words of a Southern newspaper, the Galveston Bulletin, in January, 1867, in the mid-throes of reconstruction. So it was that the best minds of the reunited nation foresaw and accepted the path on which we still are slowly mounting; often slipping, stumbling, falling, but still getting upward.

When, on January 31, 1865, the vote of the House completed the ratification by Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, a burst of jubilant cheering swept the whole assembly, and a wave of joy went through the North. Universal freedom seemed close at hand. Two months more, and the Confederate capital fell, on April 3, and still higher rose the triumph. Another week, and the North woke at midnight, to forget sleep and rejoice as over the final consummation,—Lee had surrendered! In those days it seemed to ardent souls that all the sacrifices of the past four years were repaid, and freedom and Union were completely won.

But real freedom of men, true union of a nation, are not achieved by votes of Congress alone, or victories of the sword. The first and worst was over, yet the work was only begun. And these first steps had been by a rough and bitter road, of which the next stage could not be smooth or sweet. The plow of slavery had been followed by the harrow of war,—blossoms and fruitage could not instantly follow.

Lincoln practically made his own the motto ascribed to the Jesuits, "The goal of to-day, the starting-point of to-morrow." Even before to-day's goal was reached, his eye was measuring the next stage. While his patient shoulders were still bowed under the weight of war, his hands were reaching out to the work of reconstruction. In December, 1863, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, he issued another proclamation. In this he offered full amnesty to all who had taken arms against the government, on condition simply of an oath to support the Constitution, and all laws and proclamations concerning slavery until such were legally overruled. From this amnesty were excepted those who had held diplomatic or high military offices in the Confederacy; those who had left Congress or the army or navy to aid the Confederate cause; and those who had maltreated negro prisoners of war. Whether Lincoln in his own mind regarded the official classes as more blameworthy or more dangerous than their followers, we can only surmise; but he doubtless considered that public opinion was not ripe—the war being still flagrant—for a wider offer of pardon.

Further, he invited a return of the seceded States to their former relations, under these conditions: Wherever a number of voters equal to one-tenth of the registered list of 1860, having individually taken the oath of allegiance, shall unite to form a loyal State government, their organization will be recognized by the Federal government. It is desirable to retain as far as practicable the old State boundaries, constitution, and laws. Such a State government may make regulations for the negroes,—if their freedom and education are provided for,—as a "laboring, homeless, and landless class." The admission of representatives and senators must depend on the action of Congress.

Under this plan—regarded by the President as somewhat tentative and provisional, and expressly made dependent on Congress for its consummation by the admission of senators and representatives—within the next twelve months governments were established in three States where the Union arms were partly in the ascendant, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Congress, in July, 1864, passed a reconstruction bill on more radical lines; assuming that the rebel States were by their own act extinguished as States and were to be created de novo; directing that a provisional governor be forthwith appointed for every such State; requiring the new Legislatures to abolish slavery, exclude high Confederate officials from office, and annul the Confederate debt. The President let this bill fail for want of his signature, and in a proclamation explained his objections: He was not ready to accept the "State suicide" theory; he did not want to rest the abolition of slavery on the fiat of Congress (he was looking for the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment); and he was unwilling to sacrifice the provisional governments already set up in Louisiana and Arkansas. If in any other State a movement on the congressional plan was initiated, that might do well; but for any hard-and-fast, all-round plan the time was not ripe. The radicals, led by Wade and Henry Winter Davis, chafed bitterly, but Lincoln was not an easy man to fix a quarrel on.

In the following winter, 1864-5, the new Louisiana Legislature, recognized and encouraged by the President, elected two senators who applied at Washington for admission. The judiciary committee, headed by Lyman Trumbull, reported in their favor, and the large majority of the Senate took the same view. But Sumner was strongly opposed to beginning the readmission of the rebel States to congressional power until the rights of the freedmen were fully and finally established. Aided by two other radicals, Wade of Ohio and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, he "talked against time," and defeated action until the end of the session. Under senatorial usage it was legitimate—but it was exasperating. The little world of Washington, always greatly given to tempests in a teapot, looked for a break between the President and the foremost man of his supporters. What it saw instead was, at the inauguration ball, Mr. Sumner entering in company with the President and with Mrs. Lincoln on his arm! No, Lincoln was not going to quarrel with Sumner—nor with any one, if it lay with him.

Richmond was taken, and through its streets moved the gaunt form of the President, his eyes taking grave, kind note of all. Back to Washington, and the supreme word comes at last. Lee has surrendered, the war is over, the victory won! A cheering, exultant crowd beset the White House. Lincoln came out on the balcony, said a word of response, and invited them to come back two days later for a fuller word. When they came again, he talked to them and to the country. His whole theme was, What is our next duty? Here is the next step, the first of the "erring sisters" to return is to be welcomed back. Louisiana has adopted a constitution abolishing slavery, establishing public schools for black and white alike, and allowing the Legislature at its discretion to extend suffrage to the blacks. Under this constitution 12,000 voters have been enrolled. The Legislature has met and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Can we do better than to accept and restore them to the full privileges of statehood? For them would it not also be wise to extend the suffrage to the most intelligent negroes, and to those who have served in the Union army? As to all the seceded States, the question whether they have ever been out of the Union is "a merely pernicious abstraction." The real question is, how to get them again into proper practical relations with the Union. "Concede that the new government of Louisiana is to what it should be only as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it." Let us be flexible as to our methods, inflexible as to vital principles.

These were his last words to his countrymen. Three days later, April 14, as he sat in Ford's theatre,—the strain of responsibility lightened by an hour of kindly amusement—there fell on him, from an assassin's hand, the stroke of unconsciousness and speedy death. For himself, how could he have died better! At the summit of achievement, hailed by the world's acclaim, in the prime of manly strength, unweakened by decay, unshadowed by fear; a life of heroic service crowned by a martyr's death; a place won in the nation's heart of such love and gratitude as has been given to no other,—how better could he have died?

But never was heavier bereavement than his death brought to the American people. It was not sorrow only, but lasting loss, beyond estimation and beyond repair. We know not how in the sum of things all seeming evil may find place, but to human eyes seldom was man taken who could so ill be spared. By nature and capacity he was above all else a peace-maker. Called to be captain in a great war, his largest contribution to its success had been in holding united to the common purpose men most widely varying among themselves. He said, toward the end, that he did not know that he had done better than any one else could, except perhaps at one point,—he did think he had been pretty successful in keeping the North united. And while he did this, while he kept radicals and conservatives, Abolitionists and Unionists, New Englanders and Kentuckians, loyal to the common cause, he also shaped that cause toward the highest aims that his various constituency would admit. He could not bring them to his own highest thought,—they would not be persuaded to try compensated emancipation and peaceful reunion instead of war to the extremity. But he did lift a war for the Union to a war for freedom also, and so direct it that from the strife should emerge not the old, but a nobler nation. And now, the harder half was to be done! Instead of generalship, statesmanship; instead of animal courage, justice and kindness toward former foes; instead of holding the North together, to bring North and South together; that was the gigantic task now to be wrought. Who so fit for it as he? And for want of him, grievous and slow has been the journey.

From the first thrill of passionate grief, men turned to ask anxiously what the new President was to be. He had been selected with that carelessness as to the Vice-Presidency which is a tradition of American politics. Had the convention which renominated Lincoln chosen with care the man best fitted to aid or possibly succeed him in his work—had they for instance chosen John A. Andrew of Massachusetts—history might have been very different. But they took Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, with little scrutiny of his qualities, but desiring to broaden their ticket by including a Southern Unionist. Johnson had been bred as a tailor, with only the meagerest schooling, with no training in the law, going straight from his trade into politics, and by native force rising to the senatorship. He was regarded, and rightly, as a man of honesty, patriotism, courage, and rough energy. He had been conspicuous in denouncing the seceders with the heat of a border-State Unionist, and something of the uncontrolled temper of the "poor white." "Treason must be made odious," had been his cry, "traitors must be punished." In that war-heated time, there were good men who thought they read the purpose of the Almighty in removing the too kindly Lincoln, that the guilty rebels might be more severely scourged.