Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Reconstruction: the Final Plan

The Congress which met in December, 1866, was the same body as in the previous winter; but the prolonged contest, the President's misbehavior, the South's rejection of the offered terms, and the popular verdict at the November election, had strengthened the hands of the Republicans and intensified their temper. Thaddeus Stevens brought in, February 6, 1867, a bill which was trenchant indeed. It superseded the governments of the ten unreconstructed States, divided their territory into five military districts, placed their commanders under the orders, not of the President, but of the general of the army, and suspended the habeas corpus. It was military rule in its barest form, and for an indefinite period. Blaine moved an amendment, specifying the terms on which the States might be released from this military control and restored to their normal status. But Stevens's despotic sway shut out the amendment and carried the bill through the House. In the Senate, Sherman successfully carried a substitute, much the same as the Blaine amendment. This went back to the House, where a majority of Republicans favored the change, but Stevens still opposed it, and had enough followers to make together with the Democrats a majority that threw out the whole measure. But success by such allies was undesired by the radicals and alarming to the moderate Republicans. There was reconsideration, minor concessions to Stevens, and the bill finally passed February 20, not at all as he had designed it, but in a form due either to Blaine or Sherman. It is singular that so important a measure should be of doubtful paternity. It seems more like a production of Sherman, who in constructive ability was far ahead of Blaine and of most of his congressional colleagues. In its substance it represents apparently the judgment and purpose of the great majority of the Republicans in Congress.

It is remarkable that so vital and momentous a law should have been enacted with so little discussion. It was hurried through, in order that its passage twelve days before the close of the session might prevent the President from "pocketing" it—letting it fail for want of his signature, without risking a veto. The debate, as Blaine reports it in his Twenty Years of Congress, seems to have been mainly for the scheme, and against the far more drastic proposal of Stevens and Boutwell,—in opposing which Blaine himself seems to have done service certainly as creditable as any in his checkered career. But the radical character of the bill as passed, its great advance on all earlier proposals, seems to have called forth hardly any challenge among the Republicans.

In a word, the law put the whole unreconstructed South,—all of the old Confederacy except Tennessee,—under temporary military government, subject to the President; and the commanders were at once to initiate measures for new State organizations. They were to enroll all adult males, white and black, as voters, except only such as the Fourteenth Amendment would shut out from office; these voters were then to elect delegates in each State to a convention; this body was to frame a constitution incorporating permanently the same conditions of suffrage; this constitution was then to be submitted to popular vote; and if a majority ratified it,—if Congress approved it,—if the Legislature elected under it ratified the Fourteenth Amendment,—and if and when that amendment received enough ratifications to enact it,—then, at last, each State was to be fully restored to the Union.

On this plan the States were rapidly and finally reconstructed. Its central feature was the enforcement of suffrage for the negroes throughout the South. Of this tremendous measure, but small discussion appears in the debate over the bill. But it seems to have had behind it the prevailing sentiment of the North. A good witness on this point is the Springfield Republican. That paper had strongly advocated the adoption of the Massachusetts plan, a reading and writing qualification for suffrage—the State's only good legacy from the Know-nothing period. Of such a provision it said January 9: "It would be a most potent stimulus to education, and once made the national rule there would be such a studying of spelling books as never was seen before. . . . There can be no sure reliance on the votes of blacks any more than of whites who cannot read their ballots." But this plan found little popular favor. The objection to it which we now recognize,—that the Southern States might probably have forborne to educate the freedmen, and so left them disfranchised,—was not then prominent. But there had not come to be a general recognition at the North of the danger of ignorant suffrage. Of the actual drift of opinion the Republican said, March 3, that equal suffrage is "the sole condition about which there is any approach to unanimity among our people."

To understand this opinion we must look back a little. The belief in universal male suffrage was part of the Democratic movement that swept almost unchallenged from Jefferson's time till Lincoln's. The mass of ignorant immigrants gave some alarm, but they seemed to be successfully digested by the body politic. Beecher, we have seen, thought suffrage a "natural right," and that was a common doctrine. Besides, it was assumed at the North that the negroes were naturally the friends of the national government and of the party that had given them freedom. There were politicians in plenty who looked to the negro vote to keep the Republicans in control of the national government. Many of these doubtless valued the party organization mainly as a means of self-advancement; while others like Sumner devoutly believed that in the Republican party lay the sole hope of justice and freedom. To the North generally, the convincing argument for negro suffrage was that the ballot would give the black man the necessary weapon for self-protection. On this ground Mr. Schurz favored it in his report of 1865, and in reviewing the situation in 1904 he holds the same opinion. The assumption in this view was that the freedmen and the former master class were, and were to remain, natural enemies. Looking back to slavery, which really combined an element of oppression with an element of protection, the North saw only the oppression. Viewing the present, it was not merely the State laws, but the frequent personal abuse of the negroes which confirmed the idea that they must have the ballot for self-protection.

On broader grounds, the question was reasoned thus: "The logical, the necessary ultimate step in the negro's elevation to full manhood is his possession of the vote. By far the most desirable road to this consummation would be a gradual and educational introduction of the body of freedmen to the franchise. But toward such a course the South shows no inclination. The alternative remains—in the brief period during which the national authority can be applied to organic reconstruction—of establishing universal manhood suffrage; with the drawback of a present admixture of a large ignorant and unfit element; with the great disadvantage, too, of further alienating the two races for the present; but with the possibility and hope that the exercise of the ballot will in itself prove educational, and that the Southern white man and Southern negro will ultimately fare better than if the one is allowed to permanently disfranchise the other." Something like this, apparently, whether wise or unwise, was the predominant judgment of the better class at the North.

With others the argument was simpler. Blaine in his Twenty Years gives a common sentiment, himself in 1884 still concurring in it: "The North believed, and believed wisely, that a poor man, an ignorant man, and a black man, who was thoroughly loyal, was a safer and better voter than a rich man, an educated man, and a white man, who in his heart was disloyal to the Union." The Republican, on the contrary, expressed the opinion: "It is better to be governed by ex-rebels than by fools."

The Fourteenth Amendment had been put forward virtually as an invitation. It was rejected by the South, and the new plan—military government, to give place to new constitutions with universal suffrage—was issued as a mandate. It was promptly carried out. In little more than a twelvemonth, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas had been reconstructed; their State organizations were provisionally accepted by Congress in June, 1868; and as their Legislatures at once ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and secured its adoption, they were fully restored and their senators and representatives admitted in July. Virginia and Mississippi managed to stave off final action, hoping to escape the excluding clauses, until after Grant's election to the Presidency in 1868; and their hopes were justified when Grant gave his influence successfully with Congress against the excluding clauses; so that these two States, with belated Texas, were reorganized in the following year and admitted early in 1870. Georgia had troubles of her own, and a suspension by Congress from full statehood for half a year; and her final admission, on July 15, 1870, marked definitely the end of the reconstruction process. The registration of voters in the ten States had shown that in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the colored voters were in a majority; in Georgia, the two races were about equal; and in Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Texas, one-third or more were colored. The preponderance of voting power had been given to a people just out of slavery. The practical working of the plan, and the six further years of Federal supervision over the South, belong to another chapter.

An episode in this story, though an important feature in a general history, must be the impeachment of President Johnson in the spring of 1868. Though the main questions at issue were definitely settled, the bitterness between the President and Congress lasted and increased. At the same time with the final reconstruction measure, there was passed the "Tenure of Office bill," which took away from the President the power of removing his subordinates which all his predecessors had enjoyed, and required the Senate's concurrence in removals as in appointments. Some exception was made as to Cabinet officers; and the President, exasperated beyond endurance by Stanton, after vainly, though reasonably, asking the Senate to relieve him of his hostile secretary, assumed the right to remove him by his own authority, and appointed Gen. Lorenzo Thomas in his place, February 21, 1868. The House, in which the radical temper had grown stronger than ever, in a blaze of excitement voted the President's impeachment. He was tried before the Senate, the House prosecutors being led by Stevens, Boutwell, and Benjamin F. Butler, whose vindictive and unscrupulous personality had come to the front. The President was defended by a group of the foremost lawyers in the country, including Benjamin R. Curtis, Jeremiah S. Black, and William M. Evarts. The only weighty article in the charge was that concerning Stanton's removal, and upon this a legal defense was made which now seems conclusive. But it has been justly said that the President was on trial nominally for one class of offenses, but practically for another—namely, his persistent opposition to the policy of Congress. Party loyalty was invoked for his condemnation; the general temper of the North was hot against him; wrath and tribulation were predicted for any Republican senator who should vote for his acquittal. In face of the storm, there were a few who quietly let it be known or surmised that they should vote in their capacity as judges sworn to follow the law and the facts, whatever the political consequences. The decisive hour came, May 16, and the result no one could predict; the Democratic senators and the four administration Republicans all would sustain the President; seven additional votes would prevent the decisive two-thirds condemnation. Man after man, Fessenden, Fowler, Grimes, Henderson, Ross, Van Winkle, and Trumbull—Republicans all—voted "Not guilty"; and, by nineteen to thirty-five, President Johnson escaped deposition—to get rid of Stanton finally, and finish his term; to return to the Senate from Tennessee; to take his place in history as an honest and patriotic man, beyond his proper sphere, whose limitations worked a part in the partial failure of reconstruction. The country escaped a dangerous dislocation of the relation of Congress and the executive, and the triumph of an exaggerated radicalism. The seven independent senators sacrificed their future careers, and deserve the perpetual gratitude of their country.

And now it remained for the nation, through a Presidential election, to pass upon the completed work. In the Democratic convention at New York, in July, 1868, the reactionary and the progressive elements strove. A new Democracy was growing, intent on administrative reform and moderate Constitutionalism; Samuel J. Tilden of New York and his allies were among the leaders; their candidate was Chief Justice Chase. Only the incongruity with his judicial position marred the fitness of Chase's candidacy. Lincoln, though he had his own troubles in dealing with him, said, "Of all the great men I have known, Chase is equal to about one and a half of the best of them." He had proved eminent on the bench as in the Cabinet, and under his lead the Supreme Court gave a series of conservative decisions on reconstruction questions which were a most valuable contribution to the national stability and security—a vital, though not to the popular eye a conspicuous service in the reconstruction period. Against him, the candidacy of George H. Pendleton of Ohio represented the element historically unfriendly to the war for the Union, and intensely opposed to the reconstruction measures. He had the support of the Southern delegates, present in full force, and lending to the cheering the dominant note of the well-known "rebel yell." The reactionists got their own way with the resolutions, which declared the reconstruction acts to be "unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void." On the new question which was looming up, of shirking the national debt by payment in promises, the platform leaned strongly toward repudiation. Pendleton's supporters, seeing their candidate could not win, and determined that the other Ohio man, Chase, should not win, thwarted their New York opponents by a clever trick, and successfully rushed through the convention the nomination of its presiding officer, Horatio Seymour of New York, against his protest and to the discomfiture of his associates. An able, accomplished man, but reckoned half-hearted in the war, and not rising to statesmanlike proportions, he could not outweigh the mischievous platform and the Vice-Presidential candidate, the hot-headed Gen. Francis P. Blair of Missouri, who had just proposed measures nothing short of revolutionary to override Congress. Against this combination the Republicans advanced securely to victory. Meeting in Chicago in May, they showed a temper more moderate than that of Congress; they of course condemned the President, but they refused to censure the seven independent senators; and upon Carl Schurz's motion passed a resolution welcoming back all former enemies now become loyal, and favoring the early and rapid removal of disabilities. As to the Presidential nomination, there was no division,—it was given unhesitatingly, unanimously, heartily, to General Grant. His steadfastness and success in war had been matched by his magnanimity in victory and his prudence in the troubled times that followed. Of manly simplicity and solid worth, sagacious and successful wherever he had been tried, he seemed at once an embodiment of past victory and an assurance of future safety. Of the thirty-four States that voted, all but eight were for Grant and Colfax. Seymour had New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Oregon, Georgia, and Louisiana. The popular vote was 3,012,000 for Grant and Colfax to 2,703,000 for Seymour and Blair.

The Republican convention had shirked the question of negro suffrage at the North by referring it to the individual States. Its refusal in many of the Northern States was felt as a discredit after it had been enforced throughout the South. The Republicans in Congress took courage from the election. The Fifteenth Amendment, forbidding the States to deny the right to vote "on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude," was brought forward in Congress in December, and passed February 28, 1869. It was ratified in rapid succession by thirty States out of thirty-seven,—Tennessee not acting, and negative votes being given by California, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon,—and proclaimed as adopted, March 30, 1870.

With Grant's election, and the last touches of reconstruction sure to follow close, the North, as it were, drew a deep breath of relief. It felt that the fundamental issues were settled. The war had preserved the Union and destroyed slavery. The consummation had been fitly rounded out by the changes in the Constitution. The Southern States were restored to their places. Vast tides of material advance were setting in. New questions were rising, new ideas were fermenting. Good-bye to the past,—so felt the North,—to its injustice and its strife. As the nation's chieftain had said, in accepting the call to the nation's Presidency, "Let us have peace."