Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Reconstruction: the Working Out

So the North turned cheerfully to its own affairs—and very engrossing affairs they were—and the South faced its new conditions. It was still struggling with the economic wreckage left by four years of battle, invasion and defeat. It had borne the loss of its separate nationality and the flag endeared by countless sacrifices. It had accepted the sudden emancipation of its servile class by the conqueror's hand. It had been encouraged by President Johnson to resume with little change its old ways of government. For two years it had gone along precariously with State organizations of the earlier pattern, subject to occasional interruption by military authority or officials of the Freedmen's Bureau. Then, in 1867, all State governments were set aside, and military rule pure and simple held the field,—in most States for about fifteen months; in Mississippi, Texas and Virginia, by their own choice, for as much longer. Though as it was generally administered the military government was just, as well as economical, yet its maintenance was a bitter ordeal for a people with the American political habit; a people, too, who had fought gallantly for four years; who had, upon accepting their defeat, been assured that the object of their conqueror was attained in restoring them to their old position, except for emancipation of the slaves; and who now for a year or two longer were held under martial law.

At last—for most of them in mid-summer of 1868—they were again restored to self-government of the American pattern. Self-government for all, thought the North complacently; whites and blacks were equal, not only as subjects of the law but as makers of the law; and so freedom and democracy were established. But the Southern whites asked in dismay, What kind of fellow-lawmakers have we got? The question answered itself. The million or so of new voters were most of them ignorant in a sense of which illiteracy gives but a hint. They were unversed even in genuine family life; skilled only in manual industry; unpracticed in citizenship; utterly untaught in the principles, the facts of history, the theory and art of self-government, which make up the proper equipment of the voter. A great part of them, field hands on the great cotton and sugar plantations, were rude and degraded, trained to live solely under close and constant control.

How were the whites to deal with these new-made voters? From the standpoint of expediency, three courses offered,—to conciliate and educate them; to outvote them by massing the whites together; or to suppress them by force or fraud. From the standpoint of unregenerate human nature, the whites as a body at first took none of these courses,—they stood apart from the whole business of politics, in wrath and scorn. Unregenerate perhaps, but most natural, most human! At first, some crude policy mingled with the sentiment that kept them aloof; there was the hope that if the whites generally abstained from voting, at the elections held in November, 1867, to pass on the question whether to hold constitutional conventions, the proposal might fail for want of the requisite majority of the registered voters. It was a fallacious hope; suppose the conventions were to fail, what better terms were now to be expected from Congress? But the conventions were all held; and as in the same spirit most of the whites refused to vote for delegates, these were chosen from the negroes, their friends from the North, and the few Southern whites who accepted the inevitable.

Is it not the wisest, the manliest course, to accept the inevitable? So asked General Longstreet, in a letter to a friend, June 3, 1867. He had just listened to Senator Wilson, and had been surprised by his fairness and frankness. For himself he says, "I will be happy to work in any harness that promises relief to our discomfited people, whether bearing the mantle of Mr. Davis or Mr. Sumner." Negro suffrage is for the present an established fact; if after a fair trial it works disastrously, we will appeal to Congress to repeal it. "If every one will meet the crisis with proper appreciation of our condition and obligations, the sun will rise to-morrow on a happy people." But his words fell on deaf ears, and when he acted with the Republicans he was visited with ostracism, denunciation, and attack upon his war record. The typical attitude, at first, was that of the planter who, after listening to a discussion of the final reconstruction act, inquired, "Does it say anything about raising cotton?" "No." "Then, damn Congress and its laws! I'm going to raise cotton." So he and a good many others gave themselves to raising cotton, and for a while left the choice of State officers and legislators to "niggers," "carpet-baggers," and "scalawags." A "scalawag" was any Southern white who allied himself politically with the negroes, and a "carpet-bagger" was a Northern adventurer, for whose worldly goods a gripsack sufficed,—or, in general, any Northerner whatever.

For the blacks, the sudden opening of political power and preferment, however designed, was in effect a very doubtful benefit. It turned their hopes and aspirations in a way which was really "no thoroughfare." To the more promising and ambitious it offered sudden and brilliant prizes, instead of the patient apprenticeship which they needed. Of those who quickly rose to office, a few were by character and attainments really fit for their position; many won favor by shallow arts; and others were thrown up like driftwood by the tide. The negroes as a body could follow only a personal leadership,—how many whites, North or South, really follow any other?—could be organized in bodies, attached to a party name and watchwords, and voted in mass by the men who had their confidence. They understood that their freedom and their right to vote had been given them by the North and by the Republican party, and to that party they naturally turned. Their old masters—in many cases their best friends—frankly told them they were unfit to vote, and wanted no dealings with them in political affairs. So they found leadership principally in the men who had come from the North.

There was a Northern immigration which may be classified as business men, teachers and adventurers. A considerable number sought an opportunity in reviving and developing industry,—substantial men and good citizens. Sometimes a patriotic motive mingled with the industrial. Governor Andrew, on retiring to private life as a lawyer, tried for some time to advance a company for bringing into conjunction Southern lands and Northern enterprise and capital. There were various projects of this kind, but they met with little success. Private individuals, however, added something to the industrial and civic forces of the South. A larger class were the teachers. Men and women by hundreds went to the South, some sent by missionary organizations, some independently, to organize schools and to teach the children of the freedmen. Many of them were of the highest character, devoted, self-sacrificing, going to the blacks simply because they supposed their need was greatest. But Beecher's warning proved sound—because as a whole this movement took the negroes as a distinct field, ignoring the needs of the whites, it incurred odium as an alien and half-hostile work. The barbaric element among the whites—and slavery had left a deep taint of barbarism—came out at its worst in insults to the "nigger teachers," with occasional burning of a school-house. The better social elements looked askance at those whose presence was a reminder of conquest and humiliation.

From the business and the educational immigration, a few Northern men were drawn into public affairs, less by choice than by necessity of the situation. With these mingled a different class, men who had been disreputable hangers-on of the army or the Freedmen's Bureau, or who had come for the sole purpose of plunder. It was a very mixed company of whites and blacks that made up the conventions and then filled the legislative halls and the public offices. The constitutions were not badly framed, except as they, for the most part, continued the exclusive clauses. The general legislation was various in its character. There were some excellent features, above all the institution in every State of a genuine public school system, where before there had been only makeshifts or make-believes. Some other good constructive work was done, toward establishing society on the new basis. Certainly nothing was enacted so bad as the "black codes" of a few years earlier, not to speak of the legislation under slavery. There were some unsuccessful attempts at engrafting institutions, like the township system, which had worked well in their native soil but could not be created out of hand. In general the white leadership of the dominant party averted much that might have been expected from the ignorance of its legislators as a mass. But plenty of waste and mischief was wrought. Place a crowd of hungry and untaught men next the public treasury with the lid off, and some results are sure. The men will not be safer guardians of the treasure for having had for most of their lives no property rights of their own, not even the ownership of their own souls and bodies. Yet most of the plunder seems to have gone into the pockets of knaves of the superior race. There was a degree of extravagance, waste and corruption, varying greatly with localities and times, but sufficient to leave a permanent discredit on the Southern Republican governments as a class. To judge accurately of the merits and demerits of these governments is perhaps as difficult a task as historian ever undertook. So fierce is the passion which invests these events in the memory of the present generation, that it is almost hopeless to sift and adjudicate the sober facts. Time has softened much; even the Civil War begins to stand forth in some firmness of outline and clarity of atmosphere. But when we come to reconstruction—grave historians grow almost hysterical, romancers pass the bounds of possibilities, and even official figures contradict one another with sublime effrontery.

Yet this very passion of remembrance, which in one way obscures, in another way illuminates the historical situation. The grievance most profoundly felt in the reconstruction period was not unwise laws nor waste of public money nor oppressive taxes. It was the consciousness by the master class of political subjection to the servile class. It was the spectacle of rude blacks, yesterday picking cotton or driving mules, sitting in the legislators' seats and executive offices of Richmond and Columbia, holding places of power among the people of Lee and Calhoun. Fancy the people of Massachusetts, were the state-house on Beacon hill suddenly occupied by Italian, Polish and Russian laborers,—placed and kept there by a foreign conqueror. Add to the comparison the prouder height of the slaveholder, and the lower depth of his serf. Put this as the case of a people high-strung and sensitive, still fresh from the passion of war, still smarting from defeat. They had fought to exhaustion, and their banner had fallen without disgrace. Now the victors who had won by superiority of force had placed their late bondmen as their rulers. The offices from which their own captains and chiefs were shut out were filled by plantation field-hands.

It was not likely that the first attitude of scornful passivity would long continue, and it did not. The warnings vainly uttered beforehand,—that the natural leaders would surely lead, and had best be won as allies, were proved right when it was too late. Said the Republican, August 10, 1868, in protesting against the plan of the party managers in organizing the Southern wing to consist mainly of the blacks: "The Republican party cannot long maintain its supremacy at the South by negro votes alone. The instincts of submission and dependence in them and of domination in the whites, are too strong to permit such a reversal of the familiar relations and the natural order. The slave-holding element has learned to combine, conspire and command, in the best school on earth, and they will certainly come to the top. Nor is it desirable that such a state of things should continue."

The old official class being excluded—to the number, it was estimated, of 160,000,—and the stand-aloof policy, or drift rather, prevailing in the political field, it was the more lawless element that first began to conspicuously assert the white supremacy. There grew up an organization called "the Ku-Klux Klan," designed at first partly as a rough sport and masquerade, partly to overawe the negroes. There were midnight ridings in spectral disguises, warnings, alarms and presently whippings and even murders. The society, or imitations of it, spread over most of the South. It was at its height in 1868-70, and in the latter year it gradually gave way, partly owing to vigorous measures ordered from Washington, and partly perhaps as legitimate political combinations again occupied the whites. But it is to be noted that throughout the decade of reconstruction, though the present fashion is to lay exclusive stress on the wrong-doing of the negroes and their friends, yet the physical violence, frequent and widespread, was almost wholly practiced by the whites.

From the political torpor, due to discouragement and resentment, there was an early recovery. When it was found that cotton-planting pure and simple, with ignoring of politics, resulted in heavy taxes for the planter; when to the first numbness there succeeded the active smart,—the whites betook themselves to the resource which in most States soon proved adequate,—the ballot, and political combination. In several States the whites were easily in the majority, and where they were slightly outnumbered their superior intelligence soon gave them the advantage. In Georgia, finally readmitted at the end of 1869, the Democrats—constituting the great body of the whites—carried the election in the next year, and remained in control of the State. Virginia, which had advisedly kept under military rule until, with President Grant's aid, she came in without the excluding clauses, early in 1870, passed at once under Democratic rule. In the same year North Carolina became Democratic. Texas and Arkansas remained under Republican sway until the majority shifted to the Democrats in 1874. In Alabama, the Democrats gained the Governorship and the lower House as early as 1870; two years later the result was disputed, the Democrats conceding the Governor but claiming the Legislature, while the Republicans organized a rival Legislature; the Republican Governor-elect called for United States troops, which were promptly dispatched, and with their backing a Republican Legislature was secured. In 1874 a Democratic Governor and Legislature were chosen and installed without dispute. The Federal interference in Alabama, and the experience of others of the reconstructed States,—South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana,—recalls us to that phase of the history which deals with Washington and the national government.

Through the eight years of Grant's administration, the public life of the nation was concerned mainly with clearing away the wreckage left by the war. There was an enormous debt to be handled and an inflated currency to be reduced; there was to be curbed administrative extravagance and corruption, bred of profuse expenditure; a bitter quarrel with England was to be guided toward war or peace; and the disordered South was to be composed. These tasks were encountered by men whose habits and sentiments had been formed in a long and desperate contest, and in an atmosphere slowly cooling from the fiery glow of battle. The soldier had to beat his sword into a plowshare, and small wonder if the blacksmithing was sometimes clumsy.

Grant was too completely a soldier to be changed into a statesman. He could deal with a definite, limited, though gigantic business,—the overcoming of the armies of the Confederacy. But it was beyond his power to comprehend and master the manifold and intricate problems that center in the Presidency. Given a specific, well-defined question, within the reach of his sturdy sense and loyal purpose, and he could deal with it to good effect, as he did with the English arbitration and the Inflation bill. But he was incapable of far-reaching and constructive plans carefully laid and patiently pursued. When he communicated to Congress the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, he urged in wise and forcible language that the new electorate could only be qualified through education, and that to provide such education was a pressing duty of Congress so far as its power extended, and of the people through all the agencies it could command. But having once said this, he let the subject drop. National education for the freedmen was left unnoticed, save by an occasional lonely advocate like Sumner. Nor did President Grant take any personal and positive measures to win and hold the old South to the new order; he failed to invite and consult its representative men, he made no journeys among the people.

In most matters of public policy, save in emergencies, Grant let matters be shaped by the men whom he had taken into his counsel—in his official Cabinet or the "kitchen cabinet"—and by the Republican leaders in Congress, of whom the controlling group, especially in the Senate, were in close touch with the White House. His affiliations were with men of material power, men who had strongly administered civil or military affairs, stout partisans, faithful friends and vigorous haters. His tastes did not draw him to the idealists, the scholars, the reformers. He was accessible to good fellowship, he was easily imposed on by men who were seeking their own ends, and he was very slow to abandon any one whom he had once trusted. Absolutely honest, the thieves stole all round him. Magnanimous at heart, the bitter partisans often made him their tool. Of the great questions of the time, the English quarrel was brought to an admirable healing, under the management of the Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, in 1871, by the joint high commission, the treaty of Washington, and the Geneva award. In the long contest for a sound currency, the inflation policy received its death-blow by the President's veto in 1874, and resumption was undertaken when Sherman carried his bill through Congress in 1875. As to honesty of administration, the president's good intentions were constantly baffled through his misplaced and tenacious confidences. The vast expenditures of the war, the cheating incident to its great contracts, the speculation favored by a fluctuating currency, the huge enterprises invited by the return of peace,—had infected private and public life with a kind of fever; the treasury was an easy mark; and while the people held to Grant for his personal honesty, and re-elected him, an army of rogues throve under his lax administration.

The let-alone policy toward the South, to which Grant was prompted both by his virtues and his limitations, would not on the whole have been unacceptable to the mass of the Southern whites. Left wholly to themselves, those States would soon have righted themselves from the unstable equilibrium in which they had been placed by the imposition of an ignorant electorate. Natural forces,—just or unjust, benignant or cruel,—would soon have reversed the order. But the nation at large would not at once abandon its protectorate over its recent wards, the freedmen. For their greatest need, education, it assumed no responsibility. But when stories were rife of abuse and terrorism under the masquerade of the Ku-Klux, Congress interfered, even if by some stretch of its constitutional power, to bring the raiders under the arm of Federal law. When elections were reported to be controlled by fraud and intimidation, it seemed incumbent on the national government to protect the ballot-box by which its own members were chosen. When rival bodies claimed each to be the legitimate government of a State, it was necessary for the Washington authorities to decide which they would recognize, and it was a natural sequence to back their decision by the military force. And in all of these cases, the maintenance of law and order easily became confused with the support of factions allied politically with the party in power at Washington. As the Southern Republicans were gradually outvoted or overpowered at home, their appeals for help from the general government became more urgent, while the continuance of such interference became more questionable to thoughtful men.

Before this state of things, there was a gradual division of opinion among Republicans at the North, and especially among their leaders. Against the call to protect the freedmen and bridle the slave-holding spirit in its new forms, rose the call to return to the old respect for local rights, and let each Southern State manage its own affairs, as did each Northern State. To this changed attitude came some of the staunchest of the old anti-slavery leaders, and many of the younger generation. During the early years of Grant's administration, the question did not present itself in acute forms. The Ku-Klux law of 1870, though it might strain the Constitution a little, received general acquiescence because the abuse it aimed at was so flagrant. But the ostracism of the entire official class of the old South was growingly recognized as a grievance and a wrong. It was the spirit of proscription that brought on the political crisis of 1872. That proscriptive spirit broke up the Republican party in Missouri; the liberal element, led by Carl Schurz and B. Gratz Brown, held a State convention. Their movement fell in with a strong rising tide of opposition to Grant's administration within the Republican party. Its grounds were various,—chiefly, a protest against wide and gross maladministration, a demand for a reformed and scientific civil-service, opposition to the high tariff, and the desire for a more generous and reconciling policy toward the South. The movement was especially prompted by a group of leading independent journals conducted by very able men,—the New York Evening Post, under William Cullen Bryant; the Nation, edited by E. L. Godkin; the Cincinnati Commercial of Murat Halstead; the Louisville Courier-Journal of Henry Watterson; the Springfield Republican of Samuel Bowles. Sympathetic in the main was Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. In more or less close alliance were a few of the congressional leaders, notably Sumner, who had quarreled bitterly with Grant over the proposed annexation of San Domingo; Trumbull, who was never in close touch with his old party after the impeachment trial; and Carl Schurz, who was now in the Senate.

A national convention was held at Cincinnati, in May, 1872. The Democrats had so little hope of separate success that they stood ready to fall in with the new departure, and this gave greater importance to its action. For its Presidential candidate, the foremost name had been that of the elder Charles Francis Adams. Of the most distinguished family in the country's political annals; one of the founders of the Free Soil party; a conservative but resolute Republican; minister to England through the war, and most serviceable there by his firmness and wisdom; eminent by character, experience, and mental equipment; so indifferent to office that he almost openly scorned the proffered honor,—he seemed to the reformers a nearly ideal candidate, however much his reserved and distant manners might handicap him before a popular constituency.

But the spite of a disappointed aspirant, B. Gratz Brown, and the caprice of the convention, turned its choice by a sudden impulse to Horace Greeley. It was a choice that from the first moment not only defeated but almost stultified the liberal movement. It mattered not much what principles the convention set forth. Tariff reform it had already set aside, and Greeley was a zealous protectionist. For scientific civil-service reform he cared nothing, and to mistakes in his personal choices he was at least as liable as Grant. His revolt against Grant was due partly to a dispute about State patronage. Only in generous sentiment toward the South did he fitly represent the original and best element of the convention. He was dropped at once by the Evening Post, the Nation, and a large part of the liberals. The Democrats, despairing of any other way to success, indorsed his nomination. But the acceptance of a candidate who for thirty years had been showering hard words on the Democracy was almost grotesque. The South was halfhearted in his support. A few of the faithful nominated Charles O'Conor on an independent Democrat ticket. The question was only of the size of the majority against Greeley.

His wisest supporters avowed as the best significance of his candidacy: "It means that the war is really over." Greeley had proved the sincerity of his friendliness toward the South at a heavy cost. President Johnson held Jefferson Davis in long imprisonment, with the aggravation not only of close confinement and even a temporary manacling, but of a public accusation of complicity in the murder of Lincoln. It was treatment wholly unfit for a prisoner of state and a man of Davis's character. Its effect on the South may be judged by imagining how the North would have felt had Lincoln fallen into Southern hands and been kept in shackles and under the charge of assassination. The imprisonment of Davis and the avowed purpose to try him as a traitor were utterly out of keeping with the general recognition that secession and its sequel were to be dealt with as a political wrong and not a personal crime.

Greeley, who on the very morning after Lee's surrender had called for a universal amnesty, showed his faith by his works when at the opportunity in May, 1867, he offered himself, in company with Gerrit Smith, as bondsmen for Davis, thus obtaining his release, and incurring for himself a storm of obloquy. The storm was short-lived, but revived in greater fury when Greeley became a Presidential candidate against Grant, with the support of the Democracy and the South. The campaign was full of bitterness and abuse. In Harper's Weekly, of which the editorial page was conducted by the high-spirited and gentle George William Curtis, Nast assailed the liberals in savage cartoons; in one Sumner was depicted as scattering flowers on the grave of Preston Brooks, and another showed Greeley shaking hands with the shade of Wilkes Booth over the grave of Lincoln. From the other side Grant was attacked with equal ferocity.

Greeley went down in overwhelming defeat, and died of exhaustion and a broken heart before the electoral votes were counted. But something had been gained. There had been a breaking of old lines. And one of the South's main grievances had been almost removed. Within a month after the Cincinnati convention, its call for amnesty was vindicated by a bill passed in Congress removing the disabilities of almost all the excluded class. Out of some 160,000, only about 700 were left on the proscribed list.