Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Reconstruction: the Last Act

We turn back to the course of national politics. The Republican triumph of 1872 was followed by an overwhelming reverse at the Congressional election of 1874. There was a growing impression of maladministration at Washington. The Credit Mobilier scandal—the easy acceptance by Congressmen of financial favors from the managers of the Union Pacific Railway, followed by disingenuous denials—had especially discredited the party in power. There had been a great financial reverse in 1873, such as is always charged in the popular mind against the ruling powers. The South had increased its Democratic vote. So from various causes, in the new House the Republicans passed from a majority of one hundred to a minority of forty; with New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and even Massachusetts, in the Democratic column.

But the clique of bitter partisans and radicals, with whom President Grant had become closely associated, if they took warning from the election, drew the inference that they must make good use of the brief time left them in the final term of the old Congress. While the Louisiana imbroglio was still seething, the President sent a message, in February, 1875, recommending that the State government of Arkansas be declared illegal. It had held an unquestioned tenure for two years, and the proposal to oust it was simply in the interest of its two Senators, Powell Clayton and Stephen W. Dorsey, who belonged to the Grant faction. At the same time there was brought forward a comprehensive measure, popularly known as the "Force bill," bringing every form of violence or intimidation of the blacks within the jurisdiction of the United States courts; putting elections under supervision and control of the Federal officials, and giving the President large power for the supervision of the habeas corpus. Another long debated measure aimed at the fuller enforcement of civil rights—a bill good in itself, said the moderate Republicans; better if a part of a general pacification; but with its present accompaniment it is "civil rights prodded in with bayonets." In the Republican press of the country, and in the party in Congress as well as the opposition, the battle over these measures was hot. The administration organ in Washington gave big type and prominent display to the paragraph: "The passage of the bill"—the Force bill—"is required to preserve to the Republican party the electoral vote of the Southern States." The President's personal influence was used to its limits. Butler's unscrupulous tactics were all employed. But the weight, if not the numbers, of the House Republicans, rose in opposition. Forty of them, including Garfield, Dawes, the Hoars, Hawley, Hale, Pierce, Poland, and Kasson, joined with the Democrats under the able leadership of Samuel J. Randall. In the House, brains and conscience were beaten by patronage; the bill went through. But it went no further,—in spite of Morton and Conkling the Senate served again the useful function of obstruction. The Arkansas bill was beaten in the House. Only the Civil Rights bill became a law. Independence among Republicans had saved the party from its most dangerous leadership.

It was perhaps this result, following the reverse of 1874, that disinclined Grant to further interference in the South, and held his hand when Governor Ames asked aid in Mississippi. The Louisiana business had so shown the risks of Federal intervention in local affairs, that even the best friends of the freedmen began to recognize that the States were most safely left to themselves. But the sectional fires were not left to die unfanned. When the new Congress met, 1875-6, the Democrats showed themselves conservative enough. They chose two excellent Northern men as speakers: Michael C. Kerr, of Indiana, and upon his death Randall, of Pennsylvania; and they showed themselves chiefly concerned to probe administrative abuses, which, in truth, needed heroic surgery. But for these prosaic matters Blaine, now leader of the opposition, substituted a far more lively tune, when a bill for universal amnesty at the South was brought before the House. There was no serious Republican opposition, but Blaine saw his opportunity,—he moved that sole exception be made of Jefferson Davis, and on that text he roused Northern passion by the story of Andersonville, goaded to exasperation the "Confederate brigadiers" among his listeners, and made himself most conspicuous for the time among the Republican leaders. He eclipsed the foremost of the Grant clique, Morton and Conkling, who after a little fruitless third-term talk were both hoping to be legatees of the Grant influence in the approaching Presidential convention. But at the eleventh hour a cloud swept over Blaine's prospects, in charges of discreditable receipt of favors from railroads looking for political aid. The testimony was conflicting, but Blaine's palpable seizure of his own letters from a hostile witness was hardly outweighed even by his spectacular vindication of his acts before the House. A sudden illness stopped the investigation; and later his transference to the Senate postponed its renewal until it frustrated his ambition in 1884. The convention in 1876 met at Cincinnati, with Blaine the favorite, and Morton and Conkling dividing the Grant strength. The reform element, led by George William Curtis, supported Benjamin F. Bristow, of Kentucky, who had made an honorable record as Secretary of the Treasury, by attacking powerful rings, which through their connection with the President's friends succeeded in driving Bristow out of office. The choice of the convention fell on Rutherford B. Hayes, Union general, governor of Ohio, leader of a State campaign in 1875 which had been a decisive victory for sound money, and a man highly acceptable to the reformers. Against him the Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden, of New York, a statesman in his aims and the craftiest of politicians in his means; tolerant of Tammany Hall while it was a necessary factor in the party, but leader in the fierce and skilful assault which drove the Tweed ring from power. As Governor he had attacked and routed a formidable gang of plunderers connected with the canal management. On the issues which to thoughtful men were becoming paramount,—administrative reform and sound finance,—he offered as good promise as did Governor Hayes.

The two men, and the elements supporting them, stood for the new politics instead of the old,—the replacement of the war issues and their sequels by the matters of clean administration, sound currency, and interests common alike to the whole nation. But the Republican leaders found their best campaign material in what the slang of the time called "waving the bloody shirt,"—reviving the cry of abuse of the freedmen, suppression of the negro vote, and the need of national protection for the nation's wards. It was out of keeping with Hayes's record, and with his later performances,—but he let the campaign take its way, and the sectional temper that was roused provided the atmosphere in which the next act of the drama was played.

Election day came: the returns indicated the election of Tilden; Democrats went to bed jubilant and Republicans regretful. Then, just before the night-editor of the New York Times put his paper to press at 3 A.M., he noticed that the returns from South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida were hardly more than conjectural, and, on the chance of making his tables more complete, he sent a neighborly inquiry to the Republican headquarters as to whether they had definite returns from those States. The inquiry came to the ears of a little knot of the party managers, among them Zachariah Chandler, chairman of the national committee. He caught at it,—"the Democrats are not sure of those States,—we have a chance." Instantly—so the story goes—he sent dispatches to the party managers in the three States, "Claim everything." So they did—and so did he. Next morning, following the first announcement of Tilden's election, came the assertion that the Republicans had carried South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida—which would give Hayes a majority of one vote in the electoral college. All hung on the vote in those three States,—no, on the counting of the votes! The returning-board of Louisiana, which had before been so useful, was in full working order; Florida was similarly equiped; South Carolina was in much the same case. The boards had authority to throw out the entire vote of districts where there was proof that intimidation had tainted the election. The business of merely counting the votes might be supplemented by the operation of throwing out enough districts to leave the prize with the party that did the counting. It soon appeared that the returning boards could be trusted by their friends. With all reasonable speed, they threw out enough votes to give all the doubtful States to Hayes. In each of these States an indignant and protesting opposition sent in a counter set of returns giving the electoral vote to Tilden. And any one of the three States would be enough to insure Tilden's election.

The controversy extended to the state governments—in South Carolina, both Wade Hampton and Chamberlain claimed the Governorship, and each had a Legislature organized to support him. The case was the same in Louisiana, with Nichols and Packard. President Grant refused recognition or active support to either party; but United States troops kept the peace, and their presence prevented the Democratic claimants from summarily ousting their opponents.

The whole country was in a storm of excitement. The returning-boards had done their counting,—but who was to judge the judges? Who was to decide which of the returns of Presidential electors were the valid ones? They were to be passed on by the two Houses of Congress in joint session. But the Senate was Republican, the Representatives were Democratic,—what if they disagreed as to the returns? The President of the Senate is to decide, claimed the Republicans,—on very slender grounds, it must be said. The House of Representatives, said the Democrats,—with more plausible yet doubtful argument. The deadlock was alarming. Then the emergency was met with a self-control, a resourcefulness and efficiency, worthy of the best that is claimed for the American character. By general agreement of the moderate men of both parties, a special tribunal was constituted for the occasion. It consisted of five Senators, five Representatives, and five Justices of the Supreme Court. The Congressmen were evenly divided between the two parties. The justices were two and two, with the fifth place assigned to David Davis, an independent. It was an ideal division. But at the critical moment, Davis was chosen by the Illinois Legislature to the Senate, so that he could not act. As a substitute, Justice Joseph Bradley, was put on the commission. He was a Republican, but in the generous temper which had risen to meet the emergency, there was a general feeling that party lines would be forgotten by the tribunal. The commission consisted of Justices Bradley, Miller, Strong, Field and Clifford; Senators Edmunds, Morton, Frelinghuysen, Bayard and Sherman; Representatives G. F. Hoar, Garfield, Payne, Hunton and Abbott.

The two Houses proceeded to count the electoral votes in the usual form, and whenever the return was contested the case was referred to the commission and debated before it. Each side had its ablest lawyers to plead; for the one party, Evarts, Kasson, McCrary, Stoughton and Matthews; for the other, O'Conor, Black, Field and Tucker. The commission then made its decision; and the result was reported to the two Houses for their acceptance. In the pleading, the Republicans took their stand on legality and the Democrats on equity. The Democrats claimed as the question at issue, For whom did the majority of the people of the State give their votes? The Republicans made it, Whom does the official authority of the State certify as elected? When the commission came to vote, on the preliminary questions, it was apparent that the party line was just as rigid among its members as between the advocates who pled. And it was clear that the Republicans stood upon the narrowest possible construction of the case before them. For example, in the case of Louisiana, it was moved, first, that evidence be admitted that the returning body was an unconstitutional body and its acts void. No, said the Republican eight. Moved, next, that evidence be admitted that the board was illegal because its acting members were all of one party,—No. Moved, that evidence be admitted that the board threw out votes dishonestly and fraudulently,—No. In each case, the Republican eight refused to look a hair's breadth beyond the governor's seal to the returning board's certificate. In the same way they dealt with Florida and South Carolina.

Tilden's friends had contrived an ingenious scheme to put the commission in a dilemma. They had managed that there should be two returns from Oregon,—a Republican State where one of the three electors chosen was claimed to be disqualified,—the return bearing the Governor's seal naming one Democrat along with two Republican electors. They argued, Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; if the Governor's seal is taken as settling everything, we gain the one electoral vote we need; if, confronted by the Oregon case, the commission decide that they may go back of the governor's seal,—that opens the three Southern States to our rightful challenge. But the commission, or its Republican members, were not to be so easily posed; in the case of Oregon, they accepted the seal of the Secretary of State, certifying the three Republicans. As the Springfield Republican bluntly put it, "The electoral commission decided that there was no way of recovering the stolen goods in the Louisiana case; it has found a way of restoring the Oregon vote to its rightful owner."

That the goods were stolen, at least in Louisiana, there can scarcely at this day be any doubt. Whether the commission did its duty in declining to investigate and right the wrong may be debated, but the judgment of history will probably say that neither equity nor statesmanship, but partisanship guided the decision. Undoubtedly in Louisiana, and probably in Florida, the returning board deliberately threw out some thousands of votes for no other reason than to change the State's vote, and the Presidency. The commission refused to correct or even investigate the wrong, on the plea of scrupulous respect for State rights. A great victory for the principle of local rights, argues Senator Hoar in his autobiography. Possibly. But it is also open to say, that the general government having tolerated and supported an iniquitous local oligarchy, a special and supreme tribunal of the nation allowed that oligarchy to decide the Presidency by a fraud.

The popular judgment of the matter at the North was largely affected by the belief that the frauds of the Republicans were offset by intimidation on the part of the Democrats. In various parts of the South, notably in Mississippi and South Carolina, and probably in Louisiana, there was a wide terrorizing of the negro Republicans. "One side was about as bad as the other," was a common feeling. A year or two later, the New York Tribune unearthed and translated a number of cipher telegrams, which disclosed that while the dispute over the result was going on, agents high in the confidence of the Democratic leaders made efforts to buy up a returning board or a presidential elector. So both parties were badly smirched, and the election and its sequel furnished one of the most desperate and disreputable passages in American politics.

Yet the better sentiment of the country, triumphant in the creation of the commission, but baffled by its partisan action, shone clear again when the decision was deliberately and calmly accepted by the beaten party. Congress had reserved to itself the power to reverse by a concurrent vote of both Houses the commission's decision upon any State. But each decision was accepted by a party vote, except that in the case of Louisiana two Massachusetts Republicans, Julius H. Seelye and Henry L. Pierce, spoke and voted against their party. But when the final count gave a majority to Hayes, the formal declaration of the result was supported by all save about eighty irreconcilables, chiefly Northern Democrats, who were overborne in a stormy night session. It had become simply a question between order and anarchy, and the party of order, by a strange chance, was led for the occasion by Fernando Wood, the "copperhead" of earlier days. For the body of the Southern Democrats, Henry Watterson spoke manly words, accepting the inevitable with resolution and dignity. But among the influences that weighed with the Southern Congressmen was the assurance from Hayes's friends that as President he would make an end of military interference in the South. In the giving of the assurance there was nothing unworthy, for the withdrawal of the troops was dictated by the whole logic of recent events, and was in keeping with Hayes's convictions.

So, quickly following the inauguration of President Hayes came the withdrawal of the blue-coats from South Carolina and Louisiana and the Republican State governments tumbled like card houses. Nicholls took the governorship in New Orleans and Hampton in Columbia. But it was not by this act alone that the new President inaugurated a new r?gime. He called to his Cabinet as postmaster-general, David M. Key, of Tennessee, who had fought for the Confederacy. Schurz, liberal and reformer of the first rank, was given the department of the interior. Evarts in the State department; Devens, of Massachusetts, as attorney-general; Sherman in the treasury, to complete the work of resumption; McCrary, of Iowa, and Thompson, of Indiana, for the war and navy; and Blaine, Morton, Conkling, Chandler,—nowhere. The administration went steadily on its way, little loved by the old party chiefs; under some shadow from the character of its title; but doing good work, achieving resumption of specie payments; ending the administrative scandals which had grown worse to the end of Grant's term; reforming the civil service. It was a peaceful and beneficent revolution, and in its quiet years the Southern turmoils subsided, and for better or for worse South Carolina and Mississippi worked out their own way as New York and Ohio worked out theirs.