The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise. — Tacitus

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




Reconstruction: the First Plan

The new President gave at once the best possible reassurance as to his general course by retaining all the members of Lincoln's Cabinet. They remained, not as a temporary formality, but for a considerable time in full harmony with the President. Chase having left the Cabinet for the chief-justiceship, by far the two strongest secretaries remaining were Seward and Stanton. Seward had been struck down at the same time with Lincoln, and dangerously wounded, but after a few weeks was able to resume his duties. Thus the two foremost men, after Lincoln, of the Republican party, Sumner and Seward, had been murderously assaulted, yet neither of them was embittered or altered in his course. Seward probably had great influence on President Johnson's early measures. The degree of that influence is a disputed point among historians, but the internal evidence points strongly to his having had a large share in the President's original plans, and materially aided their execution, though Johnson's strong will and hot temper marred and thwarted Seward's efforts. One of the secretary's special powers was a genial and persuasive skill in conversation; his historic place as the Republican premier gave him influence with the President; he had been in full sympathy with Lincoln's late course; and his constitutional theories and his optimism appear in the reconstruction scheme which the President soon proposed. Responsibility had steadied and sobered Johnson; his vindictiveness toward the South had disappeared,—one guesses with Seward's aid; and his plan looked to a prompt and early return of the seceded States.

His proclamation of amnesty, indeed, issued May 29, was more numerous in its exceptions than Lincoln's; including almost the entire official class throughout the South, and adding all such as held property in excess of $20,000,—which in theory was little other than an attempt to behead the political community of all its intelligent or wealthy members. But the added clause providing for a pardon of such by the President on special application proved in practice more significant than the formal exemptions. Scarcely an application for amnesty was refused, and it is recorded that in less than a twelvemonth 14,000 such applications were made and granted.

On the same day, May 29, President Johnson by proclamation appointed a provisional governor of North Carolina, and ordered an election of delegates to a constitutional convention. By July 13, he had issued similar proclamations for Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. Texas's turn came a little later, the last embers of the war lingering there for a while. In Virginia, the President had recognized a shadowy loyal State government which had kept up a nominal existence. The three other seceded States,—Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee,—had already the State governments established under Lincoln, though unrepresented in Congress.

These overtures for formal reconstruction came to communities impoverished, forlorn, and chaotic, almost beyond imagination. Property, industry, social order, had been torn up by the plowshare of war. The prolongation of resistance until defeat was complete and overwhelming had ended all power and all wish to contend with the inevitable. The people, groping back toward even a bare livelihood,—toward some settled order, some way of public and private life,—met eagerly the advances of the President. Constitutional conventions were elected and met, within the remaining months of 1865; they were chosen on the old basis of suffrage, conditioned by the exceptions to amnesty and by the oaths of allegiance; these conventions based the new constitutions largely on the old; they affirmed the ordinances of secession to be null and void; they repudiated the Confederate debt, and they declared that slavery no longer existed. Legislatures were duly elected, and proceeded to enact laws. They all ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, though Mississippi and Alabama affixed some qualifications to their assent, while Texas was still unreconstructed and could not act; and Kentucky and Delaware gave a negative. The President and Secretary of State, December 18, declared the adoption of the amendment by the vote of 31 States out of 36. Slavery was finally and forever abolished.

President Johnson used his influence to have the new constitutions open the door to a qualified negro suffrage. He telegraphed to the Mississippi convention, urging that the suffrage be extended to all negroes who could read and write, or who possessed $250 worth of real estate. Well would it have been if that appeal had been heeded.

Thus far, reconstruction had moved with singular swiftness and ease. Too swift and easy was the recovery to be trusted—so thought some—where the disease had been so desperate. But the Cabinet, including the grim and jealous Stanton, held with the President. More, the autumn Republican conventions throughout the North passed resolutions cordially approving the President's course and its results—all, with the ominous exceptions of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, controlled respectively by Thaddeus Stevens and Sumner, the leader of the House and the foremost man in the Senate.

Thus was initiated and begun the first of the three successive plans of reconstruction. Before seeing its fate, it is opportune to consider the general ideal of the situation, as presented by two of the greatest men of the North, the two, we may say, who best comprehended the whole case; the one standing in the Church and the other in the State, but alike in breadth of mind and loftiness of spirit—Henry Ward Beecher and John A. Andrew.

During the war, the Northern churches had been centers of inspiration to the national cause, and Plymouth church among the foremost. Beecher had made a series of speeches in England in 1862, which did much to turn the tide of English opinion. The disclaimers by the Federal Government of a crusade against slavery had perplexed and divided the anti-slavery sentiment of Great Britain; the issues at stake were little understood; the stoppage of the cotton supply aroused a commercial opposition to the war; there was some degree of aristocratic sympathy with the Southern oligarchy; and a wider sympathy with the weaker of the two combatants that was fighting pluckily against odds. The North had few strong friends, except a group of radical leaders—Mill, Bright, Cobden and their allies,—and a host of working people, including even the suffering cotton operatives, who instinctively recognized and supported the cause of the common people. Beecher's eloquent and lucid orations went far to convince that the Union cause was the cause of liberty; and no less effect was produced by the splendid courage and self-possession with which he faced and mastered one audience after another where the mob tried to howl him down.

After the close of the war, when a company went down to raise the Stars and Stripes once more over Fort Sumter, Beecher was the chosen orator, and his speech was inspired by the spirit of fraternity and reconciliation. In a sermon in his church, October 29, 1865, he outlined with a master's hand the principles of reconstruction. The South should be restored at the earliest possible moment to a share in the general government. Idle to ask them to repent of secession; enough if they recognize that it is forever disallowed. The best guarantee for the future is the utter destruction of slavery. Let there be no further humbling: "I think it to be the great need of this nation to save the self-respect of the South." What then are the necessary conditions of reconstruction? The Southern States should accede to the abolition of slavery by the Constitution. They should establish the freedman's "right to labor as he pleases, where he pleases, and for whom he pleases," with full control of his own earnings; he should be the equal of all men before the courts. What about suffrage? It is the natural right of all men, says Beecher; but, tempering as usual his intellectual radicalism with practical conservatism, he goes on: It will be useless to enforce negro suffrage on the South against the opposition of the whites. As to the general treatment of the freedmen, "the best intentions of the government will be defeated, if the laws that are made touching this matter are such as are calculated to excite the animosity and hatred of the white people in the South toward the black people there. I except the single decree of emancipation. That must stand, though men dislike it." But beyond that, all measures instituted under the act of emancipation for the blacks in order to be permanently useful must have the cordial consent of the wise and good citizens of the South. "These men (the negroes) are scattered in fifteen States; they are living contiguous to their old masters; the kindness of the white man in the South is more important to them than all the policies of the nation put together." As to suffrage, whatever the colored man's theoretical right, "you will never be able to secure it and maintain it for him, except by making him so intelligent that men cannot deny it to him. You cannot long, in this country, deny to a man any civil right for which he is manifestly qualified." It will be a sufficient beginning if the vote is given to such as can read and write and have acquired a certain amount of property. As a beginning, a stepping-stone to larger things, it might suffice even to give the suffrage to black men who have borne arms for the Union. And, emphatically, the negroes should be given such education as will make them worthy of citizenship. "You may pass laws declaring that black men are men, and that they are our equals in social position; but unless you can make them thoughtful, industrious, self-respecting, and intelligent; unless, in short, you can make them what you say they have a right to be, those laws will be in vain." The work of education should be done for black and white alike; the South is not to be treated as a pagan land to which missionaries are to be sent, but as part of our common country, to which the richer and more prosperous section ought to give aid. "I do not think it would be wise for the North to pour ministers, colporteurs and schoolmasters into the South, making a too marked distinction between the black people and the white. We ought to carry the gospel and education to the whites and blacks alike. Our heart should be set toward our country and all its people, without distinction of caste, class, or color."

Governor Andrew had been the fit leader of Massachusetts through the war period. He was strong as an administrator; he inspired and voiced the patriotism of the people; he supported the forward policy without harassing the President; and he was the first governor to organize negro troops. Now, on his retirement to private life, he gave a valedictory address, January 4, 1866, which was a worthy sequel to his inaugural of five years before. He specially emphasized the need of a generous and inclusive policy toward the Southern people and their recent leaders. "I am confident we cannot reorganize political society with any security: 1. Unless we let in the people to a co-operation, and not merely an arbitrarily selected portion of them. 2. Unless we give those who are by intelligence and character the natural leaders of the people, and who surely will lead them by-and-by, an opportunity to lead them now. . . . The truth is, the public opinion of the white race in the South was in favor of the rebellion." The loyalists were not in general the strongest minds and characters, and when the revolution came they were swept off their feet. For present purposes, there should be no discrimination. "The capacity of leadership is a gift, not a device. They whose courage, talents, and will, entitle them to lead, will lead. . . . Why not try them? They are the most hopeful subjects to deal with in the very nature of the case. They have the brain and experience and the education to enable them to understand the exigences of the present situation."

The ideals thus presented by Beecher and Andrew,—as practical, we see now after forty years, as they were lofty,—were at the time somewhat like what Catholic theologians call "counsels of perfection"—precepts of conduct too high to be practiced except by the saintly. They fell on the ears of a people whose two sections had long been struggling in deadly opposition, and who still surveyed each other through eyes inflamed by the bitter struggle. Could it be hoped that the North would invite co-operation as of fellow-patriots from those whom they had been denouncing as arch-traitors? And was it to be expected that the South, which had seceded and battled on the ground that the negro was fit only for slavery, should at once begin heartily and practically to establish and elevate him as a freeman?