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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Reconstruction in the South

Theories about the Position of the Seceded States.—On the morning of April 9, 1865, when General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant, eleven states stood in a peculiar relation to the union now declared perpetual. Lawyers and political philosophers were much perturbed and had been for some time as to what should be done with the members of the former Confederacy. Radical Republicans held that they were “conquered provinces” at the mercy of Congress, to be governed under such laws as it saw fit to enact and until in its wisdom it decided to readmit any or all of them to the union. Men of more conservative views held that, as the war had been waged by the North on the theory that no state could secede from the union, the Confederate states had merely attempted to withdraw and had failed. The corollary of this latter line of argument was simple: “The Southern states are still in the union and it is the duty of the President, as commander-in-chief, to remove the federal troops as soon as order is restored and the state governments ready to function once more as usual.”

Lincoln’s Proposal.—Some such simple and conservative form of reconstruction had been suggested by Lincoln in a proclamation of December 8, 1863. He proposed pardon and a restoration of property, except in slaves, to nearly all who had “directly or by implication participated in the existing rebellion,” on condition that they take an oath of loyalty to the union. He then announced that when, in any of the states named, a body of voters, qualified under the law as it stood before secession and equal in number to one-tenth the votes cast in 1860, took the oath of allegiance, they should be permitted to reëstablish a state government. Such a government, he added, should be recognized as a lawful authority and entitled to protection under the federal Constitution. With reference to the status of the former slaves Lincoln made it clear that, while their freedom must be recognized, he would not object to any legislation “which may yet be consistent as a temporary arrangement with their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class.”

Andrew Johnson’s Plan—His Impeachment.—Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, the Vice President, soon after taking office, proposed to pursue a somewhat similar course. In a number of states he appointed military governors, instructing them at the earliest possible moment to assemble conventions, chosen “by that portion of the people of the said states who are loyal to the United States,” and proceed to the organization of regular civil government. Johnson, a Southern man and a Democrat, was immediately charged by the Republicans with being too ready to restore the Southern states. As the months went by, the opposition to his measures and policies in Congress grew in size and bitterness. The contest resulted in the impeachment of Johnson by the House of Representatives in March, 1868, and his acquittal by the Senate merely because his opponents lacked one vote of the two-thirds required for conviction.

Congress Enacts “Reconstruction Laws.”—In fact, Congress was in a strategic position. It was the law-making body, and it could, moreover, determine the conditions under which Senators and Representatives from the South were to be readmitted. It therefore proceeded to pass a series of reconstruction acts—carrying all of them over Johnson’s veto. These measures, the first of which became a law on March 2, 1867, betrayed an animus not found anywhere in Lincoln’s plans or Johnson’s proclamations.

They laid off the ten states—the whole Confederacy with the exception of Tennessee—still outside the pale, into five military districts, each commanded by a military officer appointed by the President. They ordered the commanding general to prepare a register of voters for the election of delegates to conventions chosen for the purpose of drafting new constitutions. Such voters, however, were not to be, as Lincoln had suggested, loyal persons duly qualified under the law existing before secession but “the male citizens of said state, twenty-one years old and upward, of whatever race, color, or previous condition, … except such as may be disfranchised for participation in the rebellion or for felony at common law.” This was the death knell to the idea that the leaders of the Confederacy and their white supporters might be permitted to share in the establishment of the new order. Power was thus arbitrarily thrust into the hands of the newly emancipated male negroes and the handful of whites who could show a record of loyalty. That was not all. Each state was, under the reconstruction acts, compelled to ratify the fourteenth amendment to the federal Constitution as a price of restoration to the union.

The composition of the conventions thus authorized may be imagined. Bondmen without the asking and without preparation found themselves the governing power. An army of adventurers from the North, “carpet baggers” as they were called, poured in upon the scene to aid in “reconstruction.” Undoubtedly many men of honor and fine intentions gave unstinted service, but the results of their deliberations only aggravated the open wound left by the war. Any number of political doctors offered their prescriptions; but no effective remedy could be found. Under measures admittedly open to grave objections, the Southern states were one after another restored to the union by the grace of Congress, the last one in 1870. Even this grudging concession of the formalities of statehood did not mean a full restoration of honors and privileges. The last soldier was not withdrawn from the last Southern capital until 1877, and federal control over elections long remained as a sign of congressional supremacy.

The Status of the Freedmen.—Even more intricate than the issues involved in restoring the seceded states to the union was the question of what to do with the newly emancipated slaves. That problem, often put to abolitionists before the war, had become at last a real concern. The thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery had not touched it at all. It declared bondmen free, but did nothing to provide them with work or homes and did not mention the subject of political rights. All these matters were left to the states, and the legislatures of some of them, by their famous “black codes,” restored a form of servitude under the guise of vagrancy and apprentice laws. Such methods were in fact partly responsible for the reaction that led Congress to abandon Lincoln’s policies and undertake its own program of reconstruction.

Still no extensive effort was made to solve by law the economic problems of the bondmen. Radical abolitionists had advocated that the slaves when emancipated should be given outright the fields of their former masters; but Congress steadily rejected the very idea of confiscation. The necessity of immediate assistance it recognized by creating in 1865 the Freedmen’s Bureau to take care of refugees. It authorized the issue of food and clothing to the destitute and the renting of abandoned and certain other lands under federal control to former slaves at reasonable rates. But the larger problem of the relation of the freedmen to the land, it left to the slow working of time.

Against sharp protests from conservative men, particularly among the Democrats, Congress did insist, however, on conferring upon the freedmen certain rights by national law. These rights fell into broad divisions, civil and political. By an act passed in 1866, Congress gave to former slaves the rights of white citizens in the matter of making contracts, giving testimony in courts, and purchasing, selling, and leasing property. As it was doubtful whether Congress had the power to enact this law, there was passed and submitted to the states the fourteenth amendment which gave citizenship to the freedmen, assured them of the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, and declared that no state should deprive any person of his life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Not yet satisfied, Congress attempted to give social equality to negroes by the second civil rights bill of 1875 which promised to them, among other things, the full and equal enjoyment of inns, theaters, public conveyances, and places of amusement—a law later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The matter of political rights was even more hotly contested; but the radical Republicans, like Charles Sumner, asserted that civil rights were not secure unless supported by the suffrage. In this same fourteenth amendment they attempted to guarantee the ballot to all negro men, leaving the women to take care of themselves. The amendment declared in effect that when any state deprived adult male citizens of the right to vote, its representation in Congress should be reduced in the proportion such persons bore to the voting population.

This provision having failed to accomplish its purpose, the fifteenth amendment was passed and ratified, expressly declaring that no citizen should be deprived of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” To make assurance doubly secure, Congress enacted in 1870, 1872, and 1873 three drastic laws, sometimes known as “force bills,” providing for the use of federal authorities, civil and military, in supervising elections in all parts of the Union. So the federal government, having destroyed chattel slavery, sought by legal decree to sweep away all its signs and badges, civil, social, and political. Never, save perhaps in some of the civil conflicts of Greece or Rome, had there occurred in the affairs of a nation a social revolution so complete, so drastic, and far-reaching in its results.

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