The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America/Chapter 5
THE RECONSTRUCTION OF FREEDOM
|||How the black fugitive, soldier and freedman after the Civil War helped to restore the Union, establish public schools, enfranchise the poor white and initiate industrial democracy in America.|||
There have been four great steps toward democracy taken in America: The refusal to be taxed by the English Parliament; the escape from European imperialism; the discarding of New England aristocracy; and the enfranchisement of the Negro slave.What did the Emancipation of the slave really mean? It meant such property rights as would give him a share in the income of southern industry large enough to support him as a modern free laborer; and such a legal status as would enable him by education and experience to bear his responsibility as a worker and citizen. This was an enormous task and meant the transformation of a slave holding oligarchy into a modern industrial democracy.
Who could do this? Some thought it done by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment and Garrison with naive faith in bare law abruptly stopped the issue of the Liberator when the slave was declared “free.” The Negro was not freed by edict or sentiment but by the Abolitionists backed by the persistent action of the slave himself as fugitive, soldier and voter.
Slavery was the cause of the war. There might have been other questions large enough and important enough to have led to a disruption of the Union but none have successfully done so except slavery. But the North fought for union and not against slavery and for a long time it refused to recognize that the Civil War was essentially a war against Negro slavery. Abraham Lincoln said to Horace Greeley as late as August, 1862, “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object is to save the Union and not either to save or destroy slavery.”
Despite this attitude it was evident very soon that the Nation was fighting against the symptom of disease and not against the cause. If we look at the action of the North taken by itself, we find these singular contradictions: They fought for the Union; they suddenly emancipated the slave; they enfranchised the Freedmen; they abandoned the Freedmen. If now this had been the deliberate action of the North it would have been a crazy program; but it was not. The action of the American Negro himself forced the nation into many of these various contradictions; and the motives of the Negro were primarily economic. He was trying to achieve economic emancipation. And it is this fact that makes Reconstruction one of the greatest attempts to spread democracy which the modern world has seen.
There were in the South in 1860, 3,838,765 Negro slaves and 258,346 free Negroes. The question of land and fugitive slaves had precipitated the war: that is, if slavery was to survive it had to have more slave territory, and this the North refused. Moreover if slavery was to survive the drain of fugitive slaves must stop or the slave trade be reopened. The North refused to consider the reopening of the slave trade and only half-heartedly enforced the fugitive slave laws.
No sooner then did the war open in April, 1861, than two contradictory things happened: Fugitive slaves began to come into the lines of the Union armies at the very time that Union Generals were assuring the South that slavery would not be interfered with. In Virginia, Colonel Tyler said “The relation of master and ser vant as recognized in your state shall be respected.” At Port Royal, General T. W. Sherman declared that he would not interfere with “Your social and local institution.” Dix in Virginia refused to admit fugitive slaves within his lines and Halleck in Missouri excluded them. Later, both Buell at Nashville and Hooker on the upper Potomac allowed their camps to be searched by masters for fugitive slaves.
Against this attitude, however, there appeared, even in the first year of the War, some unanswerable considerations. For instance three slaves escaped into General Butler’s lines at Fortress Monroe just as they were about to be sent to North Carolina to work on Confederate fortifications. Butler immediately said “These men are contraband of war, set them at work.” Butler’s action was sustained. But when Fremont, in August freed the slaves of Missouri under martial law, declaring it an act of war, Lincoln hastened to repudiate his action; and the same thing happened the next year when Hunter at Hilton Head, S. C. declared “Slavery and martial law in a free country . . . incompatible.” Neverthe less here loomed difficulty and the continued coming of the fugitive slaves increased the difficulty and forced action.
The year 1862 saw the fugitive slave recognized as a worker and helper within the Union lines and eventually as a soldier bearing arms. Thousands of black men during that year, of all ages and both sexes, clad in rags and with their bundles on their backs, gathered wherever the Union Army gained foothold—at Norfolk, Hampton, at Alexandria and Nashville and along the border towards the West. There was sickness and hunger and some crime but everywhere there was desire for employment. It was in vain that Burnside was insisting that slavery was not to be touched and that McClellan repeated this on his Peninsular Campaign.
A change of official attitude began to appear as indeed it had to. When for instance General Saxton, with headquarters at Beauford, S. C., took military control of that district, he began to establish market houses for the sale of produce from the plantations and to put the Negroes to work as wage laborers. When, in the West, Grant’s army occupied Grand Junction, Mississippi and a swarm of fugitives appeared, naked and hungry, some were employed as teamsters, servants and cooks and finally Grant appointed a “Chief of Negro affairs” for the entire district under his jurisdiction. Crops were harvested, wages paid, wood cutters swarmed in forests to furnish fuel for the Federal gun-boats, cabins were erected and a regular “Freedmen’s Bureau” came gradually into operation. The Negroes thus employed as regular helpers and laborers in the army, swelled to more than 200,000 before the end of the war; and if we count transient workers and spies who helped with information, the number probably reached a half million.
If now the Negro could work for the Union Army why could he not also fight? We have seen in the last chapter how the nation hesitated and then yielded in 1862. The critical Battle of Antietam took place September 17th and the confederate avalanche was checked. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that he was going to recommend an appropriation by Congress for encouraging the gradual abolition of slavery through payment for the slaves; and that on the following January 1st, in all the territory which was still at war with the United States, he proposed to declare the slaves free as a military measure. Thus the year 1862 saw the Negro as an active worker in the army and as a soldier. This fact together with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, made the year 1863 a significant year. Not only were most of the slaves legally freed by military edict but by the very fact of their emancipation the stream of fugitives became a vast flood. The Army had to organize departments and appoint officials for the succor and guidance of these fugitives in their work; relief on a large scale began to appear from the North and the demand of the Negro for education began to be felt in the starting of schools here and there.
“The fugitives poured into the lines and gradually were used as laborers and helpers. Immediately teaching began and gradually schools sprang up. When at last the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and Negro soldiers called for, it was necessary to provide more systematically for Negroes. Various systems and experiments grew up here and there. The Freedmen were massed in large numbers at Fortress Monroe, Va., Washington, D. C., Beaufort and Port Royal, S. C., New Orleans, La., Vicksburg and Corinth, Miss., Columbus, Ky., Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere. In such places schools immediately sprang up under the army officers and chaplains. The most elaborate system, perhaps, was that under General Banks in Louisiana. It was established in 1863 and soon had a regular Board of Education, which laid and collected taxes and supported eventually nearly a hundred schools with ten thousand pupils, under 162 teachers. At Port Royal, S. C., were gathered Edward L. Pierce’s ‘Ten Thousand Clients’. . . . In the west, General Grant appointed Colonel John Eaton, afterwards United States Commissioner of Education to be Superintendent of Freedmen in 1862. He sought to consolidate and regulate the schools already established and succeeded in organizing a large system."
The Treasury Department of the Government, solicitous for the cotton crop, took charge of certain plantations in order to encourage the workers and preserve the crop. Thus during the Spring of 1863, there were groups of Freedmen and refugeesin long broken lines between the two armies reaching from Maryland to the Kansas border and down the coast from Norfolk to New Orleans.
In 1864 a significant action took place: the petty and insulting discrimination in the pay of white and colored soldiers was stopped. The Negro began to be a free man and the center of the problem of Emancipation became land and organized industry. Eaton, the Superintendent of Freedmen reports, July 15, for his particular district:
“These Freedmen are now disposed of as follows: In military service as soldiers’ laundresses, cooks, officers’ servants and laborers in the various staff departments, 41,150; in cities, on plantations and in freedmen’s villages and cared for, 72,500. Of these 62,300 are entirely self-supporting—-the same as any individual class anywhere else—as planters, mechanics, barbers, hackmen, draymen, etc., conducting on their own responsibility or working as hired laborers. The remaining 10,200 receive subsistence from the government. Three thousand of them are members of families whose heads are carrying on plantations and have under cultivation 4,000 acres of cotton. They are to pay the government for their subsistence from the first income of the crop. The other 7,200 include the paupers, that is to say, all Negroes over and under the self-supporting age, the crippled and sick in hospitals, of the 113,650, and those engaged in their care. Instead of being unproductive this class has now under cultivation 500 acres of corn, 970 acres of vegetables and 1,500 acres of cotton besides working at wood-chopping and other industries. There are reported in the aggregate over 100,000 acres of cotton under cultivation. Of these about 7,000 acres are leased and cultivated by blacks. Some Negroes are managing as high as 300 or 400 acres. . . .”
The experiment at Davis Bend, Mississippi, was of especial interest: “Late in the season—in November and December, 1864,—the Freedmen’s Department was restored to full control over the camps and plantations on President’s Island and Palmyra or Davis Bend. Both these points had been originally occupied at the suggestion of General Grant and were among the most successful of our enterprises for the Negroes. With the expansion of the lessee system, private interests were allowed to displace the interest of the Negroes whom we had established there under the protection of the government, but orders issued by General N. J. T. Dana, upon whose sympathetic and intelligent co-operation my officers could always rely, restored to us the full control of these lands. The efforts of the freedmen on Davis Bend were particularly encouraging, and this property under Colonel Thomas’ able direction, became in reality the “Negro Paradise” that General Grant had urged us to make of it.”
The United States Treasury went further in overseeing Freedmen and abandoned lands and appointed special agents over “Freedmen’s home colonies.” Down the Mississippi alley, General Thomas issued a lengthy series of instructions covering industry. He appointed three Commissioners to lease plantations and care for the employees; fixed the rate of wages and taxed cotton. At Newbern, N. C, there were several thousand refugees to whom land was assigned and about 800 houses rented. After Sherman’s triumphant March to the Sea, Secretary Stanton himself went to Savannah to investigate the condition of the Negroes.
It was significant that even this early Abraham Lincoln himself was suggesting limited Negro suffrage. Already he was thinking of the reconstruction of the states; Louisiana had been in Union hands for two years and Lincoln wrote to Governor Hahn, March 13th, 1864: “Now you are about to have a convention, which, . . . will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest, for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in, as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone.” Here again the development had been logical. The Negroes were voting in many Northern states. At least one-half million of them were taking part in the war, nearly 200,000 as armed soldiers. They were beginning to be reorganized in industry by the army officials as free laborers. Naturally the question must come sooner or later: Could they be expected to maintain their freedom, either political or economic, unless they had a vote? And Lincoln with rare foresight saw this several months before the end of the war. The year 1865 brought fully to the front the question of Negro suffrage and Negro free labor. They were recognized January 16th, when Sherman settled large numbers of Negroes on the Sea Islands. His order said:
“The Islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John’s river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.
“At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress. By the laws of war and orders of the President of the United States the Negro is free, and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied Negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share towards maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.
“Whenever three respectable Negroes, heads of families shall desire to settle on lands, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined, within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district, and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceful agricultural settlement. The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than forty (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”
On March 3, 1865 the Nation came to the parting of the ways. Two measures passed Congress on this momentous date. First, a Freedmen’s Bank was incorporated at Washington “to receive on deposit therefore, by or on behalf of persons heretofore held in slavery in the United States or their descendants, and investing the same in the stocks, bonds, Treasury notes, or other securities of the United States.” The first year it had $300,000 of deposits and the deposits increased regularly until in 1871 there were nearly $20,000,000. Also on March 3rd, the Freed men’s Bureau Act was passed. The war was over. Sometime the South must have restored home rule. When that came what would happen to the freedmen? These paths were before the nation:
1. They might abandon the freedman to the mercy of his former masters.
2. They might for a generation or more make the freedmen the wards of the nation—protecting them, encouraging them, educating their children, giving them land and a minimum of capital and thus inducting them into real economic and political freedom.
3. They might force a grant of Negro suffrage, support the Negro voters for a brief period and then with hands off let them sink or swim.
The second path was the path of wisdom and statesmanship. But the country would not listen to such a comprehensive plan. If the form of this Bureau had been worked out by Charles Sumner today instead of sixty years ago, it would have been regarded as a proposal far less revolutionary than the modern labor legislation of America and Europe. A half-century ago, however, and in a country which gave the laisser-faire economics their extremest trial the Freedmen’s Bureau struck the whole nation as unthinkable save as a very temporary expedient and to relieve the more pointed forms of distress following war. Yet the proposals of the Bureau as actually established by the laws of 1865 and 1866 were both simple and sensible:
1. To oversee the making and enforcement of wage contracts.
2. To appear in the courts as the freedmen’s best friend.
3. To furnish the freedmen with a minimum of land and of capital.
4. To establish schools.
5. To furnish such institutions of relief as hospitals, outdoor stations, etc.
How a sensible people could expect really to conduct a slave into freedom with less than this is hard to see. Of course even with such tutelage extending over a period of two or three decades the ultimate end had to be enfranchisement and political and social freedom for those freedmen who attained a certain set standard. Otherwise the whole training had neither object nor guarantee.
Naturally the Bureau was no sooner established than it faced implacable enemies. The white South naturally opposed to a man because it practically abolished private profit in the exploitation of labor. To step from slave to free labor was economic catastrophe in the opinion of the white South: but to step further to free labor organized primarily for the laborers’ benefit, this not only was unthinkable for the white South but it even touched the economic sensibilities of the white North. Already the nation owed a staggering debt. It would not face any large increase for such a purpose. Moreover, who could conduct such an enterprise? It would have taxed in ordinary times the ability and self sacrifice of the nation to have found men in sufficient quantity who could and would have conducted honestly and efficiently such a tremendous experiment in human uplift. And these were not ordinary times.
Nevertheless a bureau had to be established at least temporarily as a clearing house for the numberless departments of the armies dealing with freedmen and holding land and property in their name.
As General Howard, the head of the Bureau said, this Bureau was really a government and partially ruled the South from the close of the war until 1870. “It made laws, executed them and interpreted them. It laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crime, maintained and used military force and dictated such measures as it thought necessary and proper for the accomplishment of its varied ends.” Its establishment was a herculean task both physically and socially, and it accomplished a great work before it was repudiated. Carl Schurz in 1864 felt warranted in saying, “Not half of the labor that has been done in the South this year, or will be done there next year, would have been or would be done but for the exertions of the Freedmen’s Bureau. . . . No other agency, except one placed there by the national government, could have wielded the moral power whose interposition was so necessary to prevent the Southern society from falling at once into the chaos of a general collision between its different elements.”
The nation knew, however, that the Freedmen’s Bureau was temporary. What should follow it? The attitude of the South was not reassuring. Carl Schurz reported that: “Some planters held back their former slaves on their plantations by brute force. Armed bands of white men patrolled the country roads to drive back the Negroes wandering about. Dead bodies of murdered Negroes were found on and near the highways and by-paths. Gruesome reports came from the hospitals—reports of colored men and women whose ears had been cut off, whose skulls had been broken by blows, whose bodies had been slashed by knives or lacerated by scourges. A number of such cases I had occasion to examine myself. A veritable reign of terror prevailed in many parts of the South. The Negro found scant justice in the local courts against the white man. He could look for protection only to the military forces of the United States still garrisoning the ‘states lately in rebellion’ and to the Freedmen’s Bureau.”
The determination to reconstruct the South without recognizing the Negro as a voter was manifest. The provisional governments set up by Lincoln and Johnson were based on white male suffrage. In Louisiana for instance, where free Negroes had wealth and prestige and had furnished thousands of soldiers under the proposed reconstruction and despite Lincoln’s tactful suggestion—-“Not one Negro was allowed to vote, though at that very time the wealthy, intelligent free colored people of the State paid taxes on property assessed at $15,000,000 and many of them were well known for their patriotic zeal and love for the Union. Thousands of colored men whose homes were in Louisiana served bravely in the national army and navy and many of the so-called Negroes in New Orleans could not be distinguished by the most intelligent strangers from the best class of white gentlemen either by color or manner, dress or language; still, as it was known by tradition and common fame that they were not of pure Caucasian descent, they could not vote.”
Johnson feared this Southern program and like Lincoln suggested limited Negro suffrage. August 15th, 1865, he wrote to Governor Sharkey of Mississippi: “If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution of the United States in English and write their names, and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars, and pay taxes thereon, you would completely disarm the adversary and set an example the other states will follow. This you can do with perfect safety and you thus place the Southern States, in reference to free persons of color, upon the same basis with the free States. I hope and trust your convention will do this.”
The answer of the South to all such suggestions was the celebrated “Black Codes”: “Alabama declared ‘stubborn or refractory servants’ or ‘those who loiter away their time’ to be ‘vagrants’ who could be hired out at compulsory service by law, while all Negro minors, far from being sent to school, were to be ‘apprenticed’ preferably to their father’s former ‘masters and mistresses.’ In Florida it was decreed that no Negro could own, use or keep any bowie-knife, dirk, sword, firearms or ammunition of any kind’ without a license from the Judge of Probate. In South Carolina the Legislature declared that ‘no person of color shall pursue the practice of art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic or shopkeeper or any other trade or employment besides that of husbandry or that of servant under contract for labor until he shall have obtained a license from the Judge of the District Court. Mississippi required that ‘if a laborer shall quit the service of the employer before the expiration of his term of service without just cause, he shall forfeit his wages for that year. Louisiana said that ‘every adult freed man or woman shall furnish themselves with a comfortable home and visible means of support within twenty days after the passage of this act’ and that any failing to do so should ‘be immediately arrested’, delivered to the court and ‘hired out’ by public advertisement, to some citizen, being the highest bidder, for the remainder year.”
These Codes were not reassuring to the friends of freedom. To be sure it was not a time to expect calm, cool, thoughtful action on the part of the South. Its economic condition was pitiable. Property in slaves to the extent perhaps of two thousand million dollars had suddenly disappeared. One thousand five hundred more millions representing the Confederate war debt, had largely disappeared. Large amounts of real estate and other property had been destroyed, industry had been disorganized, 250,000 men had been killed and many more maimed. With this went the moral effect of an unsuccessful war with all its letting down of social standards and quickening of hatred and discouragement—a situation which would make it difficult under any circumstances to reconstruct a new government and a new civilization. Moreover any human being of any color “doomed in his own person and his posterity to live without knowledge and without capacity to make anything his own and to toil that another may reap the fruits,” is bound on sudden emancipation to loom like a great dread on the horizon.
The fear of Negro freedom in the South was increased by its own consciousness of guilt, yet it was reasonable to expect from it something more than mere repression and reaction toward slavery. To some small extent this expectation was fulfilled: the abolition of slavery was recognized and the civil rights of owning property and appearing as a witness in cases in which he was a party were generally granted the Negro; yet with these went such harsh regulations as largely neutralized the concessions and gave ground for the assumption that once free from Northern control the South would virtually re-enslave the Negro. The colored people themselves naturally feared this and protested, as in Mississippi, “against the reactionary policy prevailing and expressing the fear that the Legislature will pass such proscriptive laws as will drive the freedmen from the State or practically re-enslave them.”
As Professor Burgess (whom no one accuses of being Negrophile) says: “Almost every act, word or gesture of the Negro not consonant with good taste and good manners as well as good morals was made a crime or misdemeanor, for which he could first be fined by the magistrates and then be consigned to a condition of almost slavery for an indefinite time if he could not pay the bill.”
All things considered, it seems probable that if the South had been permitted to have its way in 1865 the harshness of Negro slavery would have been mitigated so as to make slave trading difficult and to make it possible for a Negro to hold property if he got any and to appear in some cases in court; but that in most other respects the blacks would have remained in slavery. And no small number of whites even in the North were quite willing to contemplate such a solution.
In October, the democratic platform of Louisiana said “This is a government of white people,” and although Johnson reported in December that Reconstruction was complete in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama., Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, yet everyone knew that the real problems of Reconstruction had just begun.
The war caused by slavery could be stopped only by a real abolition of slavery. It was as though the Germans invading France had found flocking to their camps the laboring forces of the invaded land, poor and destitute, but willing to work and willing to fight. What would have been the attitude of the successful invader when the war was ended? Gratitude alone counseled help for the Freedmen; wisdom counseled a real abolition of slavery; so far slavery had not been abolished in spite of the fact that the 13th Amendment proposed in February had been proclaimed in December. Freedom and citizenship were primarily a matter of state legislation; and emancipation from slavery was an economic problem—a question of work and wages, of land and capital—all these things were matters of state legislation. Unless then something was done to insure a proper legal status and legal protection for the Freedmen, the so-called abolition of slavery would be but a name. Furthermore there were grave political difficulties: According to the celebrated compromise in the Constitution, three-fifths of the slaves were counted in the Southern states as a basis of representation and this gave the white South as compared with the North a large political advantage. This advantage was now to be increased because, as freemen, the whole Negro population was to be counted and still the voting was confined to whites. The North, therefore, found themselves faced by the fact that the very people whom they had overcome in a costly and bloody war were now coming back with increased political power, with determination to keep just as much of slavery as they could and with freedom to act toward the nation that they had nearly destroyed, in whatever way the deep hatreds of a hurt and conquered people tempted them to act. All this was sinister and dangerous. Assume as large minded and forgiving an attitude as one could, either the abolition of slavery must be made real or the war was fought in vain.
The Negroes themselves naturally began to insist that without political power it was impossible to accomplish their economic freedom. Frederick Douglass said to President Johnson: “Your noble and humane predecessor placed in our hands the sword to assist in saving the nation and we do hope that you, his able successor, will favorably regard the placing in our hands the ballot with which to save ourselves.” And when Johnson demurred on account of the hostility between blacks and poor whites, a committee of prominent colored men replied:
“Even if it were true, as you allege, that the hostility of the blacks toward the poor whites must necessarily project itself into a state of freedom, and that this enmity between the two races is even more intense in a state of freedom than in a state of slavery, in the name of heaven, we reverently ask, how can you, in view of your professed desire to promote the welfare of the black man, deprive him of all means of defense and clothe him, whom you regard as his enemy, in the panoply of political power?”
Again as the Negro fugitive slave was already in camp before the nation was ready to receive him and was even trying to drive him back to his master; just as the Negro was already bearing arms before he was legally recognized as a soldier; so too he was voting before Negro suffrage was contemplated; to cite one instance at Davis Bend, Mississippi. “Early in 1865 a system was adopted for their government in which the freedmen took a considerable part, the Bend was divided into districts, each having a sheriff and judge appointed from among the more reliable and intelligent colored men. A general oversight of the proceedings was maintained by our officers in charge, who confirmed or modified the findings of the court. The shrewdness of the colored judges was very remarkable, though it was sometimes necessary to decrease the severity of the punishment they proposed. Fines and penal service on the Tome Farm were the usual sentences they imposed. Petty theft and idleness were the most frequent causes of trouble, but my officers were able to report that exposed property was as safe on Davis Bend as it would be anywhere. The community distinctly demonstrated the capacity of the Negro to take care of himself and exercised under honest and competent direction the functions of self-government.”
Carl Schurz said in his celebrated report: “The emancipation of the slaves is submitted to only in so far as chattel slavery in the old form could not be kept up. But although the freedman is no longer considered the property of the individual master, he is considered the slave or society and all independent State legislation will share the tendency to make him such.
“The solution of the problem would be very much facilitated by enabling all the loyal and free labor elements in the South to exercise a healthy influence upon legislation. It will hardly be possible to secure the freedman against oppressive class legislation and private persecution unless he be endowed with a certain measure of political power.”
To the argument of ignorance Schurz replied: “The effect of the extension of the franchise to the colored people upon the development of free labor and upon the security of human rights in the South being the principal object in view, the objections raised on the ground of the ignorance of the freedmen become unimportant. Practical liberty is a good school. . . . It is idle to say that it will be time to speak of Negro suffrage when the whole colored race will be educated, for the ballot may be necessary to him to secure his education.”
Thus Negro suffrage was forced to the front, not as a method of humiliating the South; not as a theoretical and dangerous gift to the Freedmen; not according to any preconcerted plan but simply because of the grim necessities of the situation. The North must either give up the fruits of war, keep a Freedmen’s Bureau for a generation or use the Negro vote to reconstruct the Southern states and to insure such legislation as would at least begin the economic emancipation of the slave.
In other words the North being unable to free the slave, let him try to free himself. And he did, and this was his greatest gift to this nation.
Let us return to the steps by which the Negro accomplished this task.
In 1866, the joint committee of Congress on Reconstruction said that in the South: “A large proportion of the population had become, instead of mere chattels, free men and citizens. Through all the past struggle these had remained true and loyal and had, in large numbers, fought on the side of the Union. It was impossible to abandon them without securing them their rights as free men and citizens. The whole civilized world would have cried out against such base ingratitude and the bare idea is offensive to all right thinking men. Hence it became important to inquire what could be done to secure their rights, civil and political.”
The report then proceeded to emphasize the increased political power of the South and recommended the Fourteenth Amendment, since: “It appeared to your committee that the rights of these persons by whom the basis of representation had been thus increased should be recognized by the General Government. While slaves, they were not considered as having any rights, civil or political. It did not seem just or proper that all the political advantages derived from their becoming free should be confined to their former masters who had fought against the Union and withheld from themselves who had always been loyal.”
Nor did there seem to be any hope that the South would voluntarily change its attitude within any reasonable time. As Carl Schurz wrote: “I deem it proper, however, to offer a few remarks on the assertion frequently put forth, that the franchise is likely to be extended to the colored man by the voluntary action of the southern whites themselves. My observation leads me to a contrary opinion. Aside from a very few enlightened men, I found but one class of people in favor of the enfranchisement of the blacks: it was the class of Unionists who found themselves politically ostracised and looked upon the enfranchisement of the loyal Negroes as the salvation of the whole loyal element. . . . The masses are strongly opposed to colored suffrage; anybody that dares to advocate it is stigmatized as a dangerous fanatic.
“The only manner in which, in my opinion, the southern people can be induced to grant to the freedmen some measure of self-protecting power in the form of suffrage, is to make it a consideration precedent to ‘readmission’.”During 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau received over a million dollars mostly from the Freedmen’s fund, sales of crop, rent of lands and buildings and school taxes. The chief expenditure was in wages, rent and schools. It was evident that the Negro was demanding education. Schools arose immediately among the refugees and Negro soldiers. They were helped by voluntary taxation of the Negroes and then by the activity of Northern religious bodies. Seldom in the history of the world has an almost totally illiterate population been given the means of self-education in so short a time. The movement started with the Negroes themselves and they continued to form the dynamic force behind it. “This great multitude arose up simultaneously and asked for intelligence.” There can be no doubt that these schools were a great conservative steadying force to which the South owes much. It must not be forgotten that among the agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau were not only soldiers and politicians but school teachers and educational leaders like Ware and Cravath.
In 1866, nearly 100,000 Negroes were in the schools under 1300 teachers and schools for Negroes had been opened in nearly all the southern states. A second Freedmen’s Bureau act was passed extending the work of the Bureau, and the Freedmen’s Bank which had been started in 1865 and had by 1866 twenty branches and $300,000 in savings.
Congress came to blows with President Johnson. His plan of reconstruction with white male suffrage was repudiated and the 14th Amendment was proposed by Congress which was designed to force the South to accept Negro suffrage on penalty of losing a proportionate amount of their representation in Congress. The 14th Amendment was long delayed and did not in fact become a law until July, 1868. Meantime, Congress adopted more drastic measures. By the Reconstruction Acts, the first of which passed March 2nd, the South was divided into five military districts, Negro suffrage was established for the constitutional conventions and the 14th Amendment made a prerequisite for readmission of states to the Union.
What was the result? No language has been spared to describe the results of Negro suffrage as the worst imaginable. Every effort of historical and social science and propaganda have supported this view; and its acceptance has been well nigh universal, because it was so clearly to the interests of the chief parties involved to forget their own shortcomings and put the blame on the Negro. As a colored man put it, they closed the “bloody chasm” but closed up the Negro inside. Yet, without Negro suffrage, slavery could not have been abolished in the United States and while there were bad results arising from the enfranchisement of the slaves as there necessarily had to be, the main results were not bad. Let us not forget that the white South believed it to be of vital interest to its welfare that the experiment of Negro suffrage should fail ignominiously and that almost to a man the whites were willing to insure this failure either by active force or passive resistance; that beside this there were, as might be expected in a day of social upheaval, men, white and black, Northern and Southern, only too eager to take advantage of such a situation for feathering their own nests. The results in such case had to be evil but to charge the evil to Negro suffrage is unfair. It may be charged to anger, poverty, venality and ignorance, but the anger and poverty were the almost inevitable aftermath of war; the venality was much more reprehensible as exhibited among whites than among Negroes, and while ignorance was the curse of the Negroes, the fault was not theirs and they took the initiative to correct it.
Negro suffrage was without doubt a tremendous experiment but with all its manifest failure it succeeded to an astounding degree; it made the immediate re-establishment of the old slavery impossible and it was probably the only quick method of doing this; it gave the Freedmen’s sons a chance to begin their education. It diverted the energy of the white South from economic development to the recovery of political power and in this interval—small as it was—the Negro took his first steps toward economic freedom. It was the greatest and most important step toward world democracy of all men of all races ever taken in the modern world.
Let us see just what happened when the Negroes gained the right to vote, first in the conventions which reconstructed the form of government and afterward in the regular state governments. The continual charge is made that the South was put under Negro government—that ignorant ex-slaves ruled the land. This is untrue. Negroes did not dominate southern legislatures, and in only two states did they have a majority of the legislature at any time. In Alabama in the years of 1868-69 there were 106 whites and 27 Negroes in the legislature; in the year 1876 there were 104 whites and 29 Negroes. In Arkansas, 1868-69 there were 8 Negroes and 96 whites. In Georgia there were 186 whites and 33 Negroes. In Mississippi, 1870-1, there were 106 whites and 34 Negroes and in 1876, 132 whites and 21 Negroes. In North Carolina, 149 whites and 21 Negroes; in South Carolina 1868-69, 72 whites and 85 Negroes and in 1876, 70 whites and 54 Negroes. In Texas, 1870-71 there were no whites and 10 Negroes. In Virginia, 1868-69, 119 whites and 18 Negroes and in 1876, 112 whites and 13 Negroes.
“Statistics show, however, that with the exception of South Carolina and Mississippi, no state and not even any department of a state government was ever dominated altogether by Negroes. The Negroes never wanted and never had complete control in the Southern states. The most important offices were generally held by white men. Only two Negroes ever served in the United States Senate, Hiram R. Revells and B. K. Bruce; and only twenty ever became representatives in the House and all these did not serve at the same time, although some of them were elected for more than one term.”
The Negroes who held office, held for the most part minor offices and most of them were ignorant men. Some of them were venal and vicious but this was not true in all cases. Indeed the Freedmen were pathetic too in their attempt to choose the best persons but they were singularly limited in their choice. Their former white masters were either disfranchised or bitterly hostile or ready to deceive them. The “carpet-baggers” often cheated them; their own ranks had few men of experience and training. Yet some of the colored men who served them well deserve special mention:
Samuel J. Lee, a member of the South Carolina legislature, was considered by the whites as one of the best criminal lawyers of the state. When he died local courts were adjourned and the whole city mourned. Bishop Isaac Clinton who served as Treasurer of Orangeburg, S. C. for eight years was held in highest esteem by his white neighbors and upon the occasion of his death business was suspended as a mark of respect. In certain communities Negroes were retained in office for years after the restoration of Democratic party control as, for example Mr. George Harriot in Georgetown, S. C. who was Superintendent of Education for the county. Beaufort, South Carolina, retained Negroes as sheriffs and school officials.
J. T. White who was Commissioner of Public Works and Internal Improvements in Arkansas; M. W. Gibbs who was Municipal Judge in Little Rock, and J. C. Corbin, who was State Superintendent of Schools in Arkansas, had creditable records. John R. Lynch, when speaker of Mississippi House of Representatives, was given a public testimonial by Republicans and Democrats and the leading Democratic paper said: “His bearing in office had been so proper and his rulings in such marked contrast to the partisan conduct of the ignoble whites of his party who have aspired to be leaders of the blacks, that the conservatives cheerfully joined in the testimonial.”
Of the colored treasurer of South Carolina, Governor Chamberlain said: “I have never heard one word or seen one act of Mr. Cardoza’s which did not confirm my confidence in his personal integrity and his political honor and zeal for the honest administration of the State Government. On every occasion and under all circumstances he has been against fraud and jobbery and in favor of good measures and good men.”
Jonathan C. Gibbs, a colored man and the first State Superintendent of Instructions in Florida, was a graduate of Dartmouth. He established the system and brought it to success, dying in har ness in 1874. The first Negro graduate of Harvard College served in South Carolina, before he became chief executive officer of the association that erected the Grant’s Tomb in New York.
In Louisiana we may mention Acting-Governor Pinchback, and Lieutenant-Governor Dunn, and Treasurer Dubuclet who was investigated by United States officials. E. P. White, afterward Chief Justice of the United States, reported that his funds had been honestly handled. Such men —and there were others—ought not to be forgotten or confounded with other types of colored and white Reconstruction leaders.
Between 1871 and 1901, twenty-two Negroes sat in Congress—two as senators and twenty as representatives; three or four others were undoubtedly elected but were not seated. Ten of these twenty-two Negroes were college bred: Cain of South Carolina was trained at Wilberforce and afterward became bishop of the African Methodist Church; Revels was educated at Knox College, Illinois, or at a Quaker Seminary, in Indiana; Cheatham was a graduate of Shaw; Murray was trained at the University of South Carolina; Langston was a graduate of Oberlin; five others were lawyers of whom the most brilliant was Robert Brown Elliott; he was a graduate of Eton College, England; Rapier was edu cated in Canada and O’Hara studied at Howard University; Miller graduated from Lincoln and White from Howard University. The other twelve men were self-taught: one was a thriving merchant tailor, one a barber, three were farmers, one a photographer, one a pilot and one a merchant.
Of those who served in the Senate, one served an unexpired term and the other six years. In the House, one representative served one term from Virginia. From North Carolina one served one term and two, two terms. Georgia was represented by a Negro for one term and Mississippi for two terms. South Carolina had eight representatives, two of them served five terms, three two terms, and the rest one term. Beside these there were other Negro office holders who were fully the peers of white men; and those without formal training in the schools were in many cases men of unusual force and native ability.
James G. Blaine who served with nearly all these men approved of sending them to Congress: “If it is to be viewed simply as an experiment, it was triumphantly successful. The colored men who took seats in both Senate and House did not appear ignorant or helpless. They were as a rule studious, earnest, ambitious men whose public conduct—as illustrated by Mr. Revels and Mr. Bruce in the Senate and by Mr. Rapier, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Rainey in the House would be honorable to any race. Coals of fire were heaped on the heads of all their enemies when the colored men in Congress heartily joined in removing the disabilities of those who had before been their oppressors, and who, with deep regret be it said, have continued to treat them with injustice and ignominy.
He cites the magnanimity of Senator Rainey: “When the Amnesty Bill came before the House for consideration, Mr. Rainey of South Carolina, speaking for the colored race whom he represented said: ‘It is not the disposition of my constituents that these disabilities should longer be retained. We are desirous of being magnanimous; it may be that we are so to a fault. Nevertheless we have open and frank hearts towards those who were our oppressors and taskmasters. We foster no enmity now, and we desire to foster none, for their acts in the past to us or to the Government we love so well. But while we are willing to accord them their enfranchisement and here today give our votes that they may be amnestied, while we declare our hearts open and free from any vindictive feelings toward them, we would say to those gen tlemen on the other side that there is another class of citizens in the country who have certain rights and immunities which they would like you, sirs, to remember and respect. . . . We invoke you gentlemen, to show the same kindly feeling towards us, a race long oppressed, and in demonstration of this humane and just feeling, I implore you, give support to the Civil Rights Bill, which we have been asking at your hands, lo! these many days.”
The chief charge against Negro governments has to do with property. These governments are charged with attacking property and the charge is true. This, although not perhaps sensed at the time, was their real reason for being. The ex-slaves must have land and capital or they would fall back into slavery. The masters had both; there must be a transfer. It was at first proposed that land be confiscated in the South and given to the Freedmen. “Forty Acres and a Mule” was the widespread promise made several times with official sanction. This was perhaps the least that the United States Government could have done to insure emancipation, but such a program would have cost money. In the early anger of the war, it seemed to many fair to confiscate land for this purpose without payment and some land was thus sequestered. But manifestly with all the losses of war and with the loss of the slaves it was unfair to take the land of the South without some compensation. The North was unwilling to add to its tremendous debt anything further to insure the economic independence of the Freedmen. The Freedmen therefore themselves with their political power and with such economic advantage as the war gave them, tried to get hold of land.
The Negro party platform of 1876, in one state, advocated “division of lands of the state as far as practical into small farms in order that the masses of our people may be enabled to become landholders.” In the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina, a colored man said: “One of the greatest of slavery bulwarks was the infernal plantation system, one man owning his thousand, another his twenty, another fifty thousands acres of land. This is the only way by which we will break up that system, and I maintain that our freedom will be of no effect if we allow it to continue. What is the main cause of the prosperity of the North. It is because every man has his own farm and is free and independent. Let the lands of the South be similarly divided. I would not say for one moment they should be confiscated but if sold to maintain the war, now that slavery is destroyed, let the plantation system go with it. We will never have true freedom until we abolish the system of agriculture which existed in the Southern States. It is useless to have any schools while we maintain the stronghold of slavery as the agricultural system of the country.” This question kept coming up in the South Carolina convention and elsewhere. Such arguments led in South Carolina to a scheme to buy land and distribute it and some $800,000 was appropriated for this purpose.
In the second place, property was attacked through the tax system. The South had been terribly impoverished and was saddled with new social burdens. Many of the things which had been done well or indifferently by the plantations —like the punishment of crime and the care of the sick and the insane, and such schooling as there was, with most other matters of social uplift were, after the war, transferred to the control of the state. Moreover the few and comparatively indifferent public buildings of slavery days had been ruined either by actual warfare or by neglect. Thus a new and tremendous burden of social taxation was put upon the reconstructed states.
As a southern writer says of the state of Mississippi: “The work of restoration which the government was obliged to undertake, made in creased expenses necessary. During the period of the war, and for several years thereafter, public buildings and state institutions were permitted to fall into decay. The state house and grounds, the executive mansion, the penitentiary, the insane asylum, and the buildings for the blind, deaf and dumb, were in a dilapidated condition and had to be extended and repaired. A new building for the blind was purchased and fitted up. The reconstructionists established a public school system and spent money to maintain and support it, perhaps too freely, in view of the impoverishment of the people. When they took hold, warrants were worth but sixty or seventy cents on the dollar, a fact which made the price of building materials used in the work of construction correspondingly higher.”
In addition to all this there was fraud and stealing. There were white men who cheated and secured large sums. Most of $800,000 appropriated for land in South Carolina was wasted in graft. Bills for wine and furniture in South Carolina were enormous; the printing bill of Mississippi was ridiculously extravagant. Colored men shared in this loot but they at least had some excuse. We may not forget that among slaves stealing is not the crime that it becomes in free industry. The slave is victim of a theft so hate- ful that nothing he can steal can ever match it. The freedmen of 1868 still shared the slave psychology. The larger part of the stealing was done by white men-Northerners and Southerners and we must remember that it was not the first time that there had been stealing and corruption in the South and that the whole moral tone of the nation had been ruined by war. For instance:
In 1839 it was reported in Mississippi that ninety per cent of the fines collected by sheriffs and clerks were unaccounted for. In 1841 the State Treasurer acknowledged himself "at a loss to determine the precise liabilities of the state and her means of paying the same." And in 1839 the auditor's books had not been posted for eighteen months, no entries made for a year, and no vouchers examined for three years. Congress gave Jefferson College, Natchez, more than 46,000 acres of land; before the war this whole property had "disappeared" and the college was closed. Congress gave to Mississippi among other states, the "16th section" of the public lands for schools. In thirty years the proceeds of this land in Mississippi were embezzled to the amount of at least one and a half millions of dollars. In Columbus, Mississippi a receiver of public monies stole $100,000 and resigned. His successor stole $55,000 and a treasury agent wrote: “Another receiver would probably follow in the footsteps of the two. You will not be surprised if I recommend him being retained in preference to another appointment." From 1830 to 1860 southern men in federal offices alone embezzled more than a million dollars--a far greater sum then than now.
There might have been less stealing in the South during Reconstruction without Negro suffrage but it is certainly highly instructive to remember that the mark of the thief which dragged its slime across nearly every great Northern State and almost up to the presidential chair could not certainly in those cases be charged against the vote of black men. This was the day when a national Secretary of War was caught stealing, a vice president presumably took bribes, a private secretary of the president, a chief clerk of the Treasury, and eighty-six government officials stole millions in the Whiskey frauds; while the "Credit Mobilier" filched millions and bribed the government to an extent never fully revealed; not to mention less distinguished thieves like Tweed.
Is it surprising that in such an atmosphere a new race learning the a-b-c of government should have become the tools of thieves? And when they did, was the stealing their fault or was it justly chargeable to their enfranchisement? Then too, a careful examination of the alleged stealing in the South reveals much: First, there is repeated exaggeration. For instance, it is said that the taxation in Mississippi was fourteen times as great in 1874 as in 1869. This sounds staggering until we learn that the State taxation in 1869 was only ten cents on one hundred dollars and that the expenses of government in 1874 were only twice as great as in 1860 and that too with a depreciated currency. It could certainly be argued that the State government in Mississippi was doing enough additional work in 1874 to warrant greatly increased cost. The character of much of the stealing shows who were the thieves. The frauds through the manipulation of State and railway bonds and of bank notes must have inured chiefly to the benefit of experienced white men and this must have been largely the case in the furnishing and printing frauds. It was chiefly in the extravagance for "sundries and incidentals" and direct money payments for votes that the Negroes received their share. The character of the real thieving shows that white men must have been the chief beneficiaries and that as a former South Carolina slaveholder said:
"The legislature, ignorant as it is, could not have been bribed without money; that must have been furnished from some source that it is our duty to discover. A legislature composed chiefly of our former slaves has been bribed. One prominent feature of this transaction is the part which native Carolinians have played in it, some of our own household men whom the State, in the past, has delighted to honor, appealing to their cupidity and avarice make them the instruments to effect the robbery of their impoverished white brethren. Our former slaves have been bribed by these men to give them the privilege by law of plundering the property holders of the state."
Even those who mocked and sneered at Negro legislators brought now and then words of praise: "But beneath all this shocking burlesque upon Legislative proceedings we must not forget that there is something very real to this uncouth and untutored multitude. It is not all shame, not all burlesque. They have a genuine interest and a genuine earnestness in the business of the assembly which we are bound to recognize and respect. . . . They have an earnest purpose, born of conviction that their conditions are not fully assured, which lends a sort of dignity to their proceedings. The barbarous, animated jargon in which they so often indulge is on occasion seen to be so transparently sincere and weighty in their own minds that sym pathy supplants disgust. The whole thing is a wonderful novelty to them as well as to observers. Seven years ago these men were raising corn and cotton under the whip of the overseer. Today they are raising points of order and questions of privilege. They find they can raise one as well as the other. They prefer the latter. It is easier and better paid. Then, it is the evidence of an accomplished result. It means escape and defence from old oppressors. It means liberty. It means the destruction of prison walls only too real to them. It is the sunshine of their lives. It is their day of jubilee. It is their long promised vision of the Lord God Almighty.
But with the memory of the Freedmen's Bank before it, America should utter no sound as to Negro dishonesty during reconstruction. Here from the entrenched philanthropy of America with some of the greatest names of the day like Peter Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Simon P. Chase, A. A. Low, Gerritt Smith, John Jay, A. S. Barnes, S. G. Howe, George L. Stearns, Edward Atkinson, Levi Coffin and others, a splendid scheme was launched to help the Freedmen save their pittance and encourage thrift and hope. On the covers of the pass books is said: “This is a benevolent insti tution and profits go to the depositors or to educational purposes for the Freedmen and their descendants. The whole institution is under the charter of Congress and receives the commendation of the President, Abraham Lincoln.” With blare of trumpet it was chartered March 3rd, 1865; it collapsed in hopeless bankruptcy in 1873. It had received fifty-six millions of dollars in deposits and failed owing over three millions most of which was never repaid. A committee of Congress composed of both Democrats and Republicans said in 1876:
“The law lent no efficacy to the moral obligations assumed by the trustees, officers, and agents and the whole concern inevitably became as a ‘whited sepulchre’. . . . The inspectors . . . were of little or no value, either through the connivance and ignorance of the inspectors or the indifference of the trustees to their reports. . . . The committe of examination . . . were still more careless and inefficient, while the board of trustees, as a supervising and administrative body, intrusted with the fullest power of general control over the management, proved utterly faithless to the trust reposed in them. . . .
“The depositors were of small account now compared with the personal interest of the political jobbers, real estate pools, and fancy-stock speculators, who were organizing a raid upon the Freedmen's money and resorted to . . . amendment of the charter to facilitate their operations. . . . This mass of putridity, the District government, now abhorred of all men, and abandoned and repudiated even by the political authors of its being, was represented in the bank by no less than five of its high officers . . . all of whom were in one way or other concerned in speculations involving a free use of the funds of the Freedmen's Bank. They were high in power, too, with the dominant influence in Congress, as the legislation they asked or sanctioned and obtained, fully demonstrated. Thus it was that without consulting the wishes or regarding the interests of those most concerned—the depositors—the vaults of the bank were literally thrown open to unscrupulous greed and rapacity. The toilsome savings of the poor Negroes hoarded and laid by for a rainy day, through the carelessness and dishonest connivance of their self-constituted guardians, melted away."
Even in bankruptcy the institution was not allowed to come under the operation of the ordinary laws but was liquidated and protected by a special law, the liquidators picking its corpse and the helpless victims being finally robbed not only of their money but of much of their faith in white folk.
Let us laugh hilariously if we must over the golden spittoons of South Carolina but let us also remember that at most the freedmen filched bits from those who had all and not all from those who had nothing; and that the black man had at least the saving grace to hide his petty theft by enshrining the nasty American habit of spitting in the sheen of sunshine.
With all these difficulties and failings, what did the Freedmen in politics during the critical years of their first investment with the suffrage accomplish? We may recognize three things which Negro rule gave to the South:
1. Democratic government.
2. Free public schools.
3. New social legislation.
Two states will illustrate conditions of government in the South before and after Negro rule. In South Carolina there was before the war a property qualification for office holders, and in part, for voters. The Constitution of 1868, on the other hand, was a modern democratic document starting (in marked contrast to the old constitution) with a declaration that "We, the People,” framed it and preceded by a broad Declaration of Rights which did away with property qualifications and based representation directly on population instead of property. It especially took up new subjects of social legislation, declaring navigable rivers free public highways, instituting homestead exemptions, establishing boards of county commissioners, providing for a new penal code of laws, establishing universal manhood suffrage “without distinction of race or color,” devoting six sections to charitable and penal institutions and six to corporations, providing separate property ftir married women, etc. Above all, eleven sections of the Tenth Article were devoted to the establishment of a complete public school system.So satisfactory was the constitution thus adopted by Negro suffrage and by a convention composed of a majority of blacks that the States lived twenty-seven years under it without essential change and when the constitution was revised in 1895, the revision was practically nothing more than an amplification of the Constitution of 1868. No essential advance step of the former document was changed except the suffrage article to disfranchise Negroes.
In Mississippi the Constitution of 1868 was, as compared with that before the war, more democratic. It not only forbade distinctions on account of color but abolished all property qualifications for jury service and property and educational qualifications for suffrage; it required less rigorous qualifications for office; it prohibited the lending of the credit of the State for private corporations —an abuse dating back as far as 1830. It increased the powers of the governor, raised the low State salaries, and increased the number of state officials. New ideas like the public school system and the immigration bureau were introduced and in general the activity of the State greatly and necessarily enlarged. Finally that was the only constitution of the State ever submitted to popular approval at the polls. This constitution remained in force twenty-two years.
In general the words of Judge Albion W. Tourgee, “a carpet-bagger,” are true when he says of the Negro governments: “They obeyed the Constitution of the United States and annulled the bonds of states, counties and cities which had been issued to carry on the war of rebellion and maintain armies in the field against the Union. They instituted a public school system in a realm where public schools had been unknown. They opened the ballot box and jury box to thousands of white men who had been debarred from them by a lack of earthly possessions. They introduced home rule in the South. They abolished the whipping post, the branding iron, the stocks and other barbarous forms of punishment which had up to that time prevailed. They reduced capital felonies from about twenty to two or three. In an age of extravagance they were extravagant in the sums appropriated for public works. In all of that time no man’s rights of person were invaded under the forms of law. Every Democrat’s life, home, fireside and business were safe. No man obstructed any white man’s way to the ballot box, interfered with his freedom of speech or boycotted him, on account of his political faith.”A thorough study of the legislation accompanying these constitutions and its changes since would, of course, be necessary before a full picture of the situation could be given. This has not been done but so far as my studies have gone I have been surprised at the comparatively small amount of change in law and government which the overthrow of Negro rule brought about. There were sharp and often hurtful economies introduced, marking the return of property to power, there was a sweeping change in officials but the main body of Reconstruction legislation stood.
There is no doubt but that the thirst of the black man for knowledge—a thirst which has been too persistent and durable to be mere curiosity or whim—gave birth to the public free school system of the South. It was the question upon which the black voters and legislators insisted more than anything else and while it is possible to find some vestiges of free schools in some of the Southern States before the war yet a universal, well established system dates from the day that the black man got political power. Common school instruction in the South, in the modern sense of the term, was begun for Negroes by the Freedmen’s Bureau and missionary societies, and the State public school systems for all children were formed mainly by Negro Reconstruction governments.
The earlier state constitutions of Mississippi “from 1817 to 1864 contained a declaration that ‘Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government, the preservation of liberty and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’ It was not, however, until 1868 that encouragement was given to any general system of public schools meant to embrace the whole youthful population.” The Constitution of 1868 makes it the duty of the legislature to establish “a uniform system of free public schools by taxation or other wise for all children between the ages of five and twenty-one years.” In Alabama the Reconstruction Constiution of 1868 provided that "It shall be the duty of the Board of Education to establish throughout the State in each township or other school district which it may have created, one or more schools at which all children of the state between the ages of five and twenty-one years may attend free of charge." Arkansas in 1868, Florida in 1869, Virginia in 1870, established school systems. The Constitution of 1868 in Louisiana required the general assembly to establish "at least one free public school in every parish," and that these schools should make no "distinction of race, color or previous condition." Georgia's system was not fully established until 1873.
We are apt to forget that in all human probability the granting of Negro manhood suffrage was decisive in rendering permanent the foundation of the Negro common school. Even after the overthrow of the Negro governments, if the Negroes had been left a servile caste, personally free but politically powerless, it is not reasonable to think that a system of common schools would have been provided for them by the Southern states. Serfdom and education have ever proven contradictory terms. But when Congress, backed by the nation, determined to make the Negroes full-fledged voting citizens, the South had a hard dilemma before her; either to keep the Negroes under as an ignorant proletariat and stand the chance of being ruled eventually from the slums and jails, or to join in helping to raise these wards of the nation to a position of intelligence and thrift by means of a public school system.
The "carpet-bag" governments hastened the decision of the South and although there was a period of hesitation and retrogression after the overthrow of Negro rule in the early seventies, yet the South saw that to abolish Negro schools in addition to nullifying the Negro vote would invite Northern interference; and thus eventually every Southern state confirmed the work of the Negro legislators and maintained the Negro public schools along with the white.
Finally, in legislation covering property the wider functions of the State, the punishment of crime and the like, it is sufficient to say that the laws on these points established by Reconstruction legislatures were not only different and even revolutionary to the laws of the older South, but they were so wise and so well suited to the needs of the new South that in spite of a retrogressive movement following the overthrow of the Negro governments, the mass of this legislation with elaboration and development still stands on the statute books of the South.
Reconstruction constitutions, practically unaltered, were kept in
|Florida, 1868-1885||17 years|
|Virginia, 1870-1902||32 years|
|South Carolina, 1868-1895||27 years|
|Mississippi, 1868-1890||22 years|
Even in the case of states like Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana, which adopted new constitutions to signify the overthrow of Negro rule, the new constitutions are nearer the model of the Reconstruction document than they are to the previous constitutions. They differ from the Negro constitutions in minor details but very little in general conception.
Here then on the whole was a much more favorable result of a great experiment in democracy than the world had a right to await. But even on its more sinister side and in the matter of the ignorance of inexperience and venality of the colored voters there came signs of better things. The theory of democratic government is not that the will of the people is always right, but rather that normal human beings of average intelligence will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience. This is precisely what the Negro voters showed indubitable signs of doing. First, they strove for schools to abolish their ignorance, and second, a large and growing number of them revolted against the carnival of extravagance and stealing that marred the beginning of Reconstruction and joined with the best elements to institute reform; and the greatest stigma on the white South is not that it opposed Negro suffrage and resented theft and incompetence, but that when it saw the reform movement growing and even in some cases triumphing, and a larger and larger number of black voters learning to vote for honesty and ability, it still preferred a Reign of Terror to a.campaign of education and disfranchised Negroes instead of punishing rascals.
No one has expressed this more convincingly than a Negro who was himself a member of the Reconstruction legislature of South Carolina and who spoke at the convention which disfranchised him, against one of the onslaughts of Tillman:
"The gentleman from Edgefield (Mr. Tillman) speaks of the piling up of the State debt; of jobbery and speculation during the period between 1869 and 1873 in South Carolina, but he has not found voice eloquent enough nor pen exact enough to mention those imperishable gifts bestowed upon South Carolina between 1873 and 1876 by Negro legislators—the laws relative to finance, the building of penal and charitable institutions and, greatest of all, the establishment of the public school system. Starting as infants in legislation in 1869, many wise measures were not thought of, many injudicious acts were passed. But in the administration of affairs for the next four years, having learned by experience the result of bad acts, we immediately passed reformatory laws touching every department of state, county, municipal and town governments. These enactments are today upon the statute books of South Carolina.
They stand as living witnesses of the Negro’s fitness to vote and legislate upon the rights of mankind.
“When we came into power, town governments could lend the credit of their respective towns to secure funds at any rate of interest that the council saw fit to pay. Some of the towns paid as high as twenty percent. We passed an act prohibiting town governments from pledging the credit of their hamlets for money bearing a greater rate of interest than five percent.
“Up to 1874, inclusive, the State Treasurer had the power to pay out State funds as he pleased. He could elect whether he would pay out the funds on appropriations that would place the money in the hands of the speculators, or would apply them to appropriations that were honest and necessary. We saw the evil of this and passed an act making specific levies and collections of taxes for specific appropriations.
“Another source of profligacy in the expenditure of funds was the law that provided for and empowered the levying and collecting of special taxes by school districts, in the name of the schools. We saw its evil and by a Constitutional amendment provided that there should only be levied and collected annually a tax of two mills for school purposes, and took away from the school districts the power to levy and to collect taxes of any kind. By this act we cured the evils that had been inflicted upon us in the name of the schools, settled the public school question for all time to come and established the system upon an honest financial basis.
“Next, we learned during the period from 1869 to 1874 inclusive, that what was denominated the floating indebtedness, covering the printing schemes and other indefinite expenditures, amounted to nearly $2,000,000. A conference was called of the leading Negro representatives in the two Houses together with the State Treasurer, also a Negro. After this conference we passed an act for the purpose of ascertaining the bona fide floating debt and found that it did not amount to more than $250,000 for the four years; we created a commission to sift that indebtedness and to scale it. Hence when the Democratic party came into power they found the floating debt covering the legislative and all other expenditures, fixed at the certain sum of $250,000. This same class of Negro legislators, led by the State Treasurer, Mr. F. L. Cardoza, knowing that there were millions of fraudulent bonds charged against the credit of the State, passed another act to ascertain the true bonded indebtedness and to provide for its settlement. Under this law, at one sweep, those entrusted with the power to do so, through Negro legislators, stamped six millions of bonds, denominated as conversion bonds, ‘fraudulent.’ The commission did not finish its work before 1876. In that year when the Hampton government came into power, there were still to be examined into and settled under the terms of the act passed by us and providing for the legitimate bonded indebtedness of the State, a little over two and a half million dollars worth of bonds and coupons which had not been passed upon.
Governor Hampton, General Hagood, Judge Simonton, Judge Wallace and in fact, all of the conservative thinking Democrats aligned themselves under the provision enacted by us for the certain and final settlement of the bonded indebtedness and appealed to their Democratic legislators to stand by the Republican legislation on the subject and to confirm it. A faction in the Democratic party obtained a majority of the Democrats in the legislature against settling the question and they endeavored to open up anew the whole subject of the State debt. We had a little over thirty members in the House and enough Republican senators to sustain the Hampton conservative faction and to stand up for honest finance, or by our votes to place the debt question of the old State into the hands of the plunderers and speculators. We were appealed to by General Hagood, through me, and my answer to him was in these words: ‘General, our people have learned the difference between profligate and honest legislation. We have passed acts of financial reform, and with the assistance of God, when the vote shall have been taken, you will be able to record for the thirty-odd Negroes, slandered though they have been through the press, that they voted solidly with you all for the honest legislation and the preservation of the credit of the State.’ The thirty-odd Negroes in the legislature and their senators by their votes did settle the debt question and saved the State $13,000,000.
“We were eight years in power. We had built school houses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, pro¬ vided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the jails and court houses, rebuilt the bridges and re-established the ferries.
In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity and, at the same time, by our acts of financial reform, transmitted to the Hampton government an indebtedness not greater by more than $2,500,000 than was the bonded debt of the State in 1868, before the Republican Negroes and their white allies came into power.”
So too in Louisiana in 1872 and in Mississippi later the better element of the Republicans triumphed at the polls and joining with the Democrats instituted reforms, repudiated the worst extravagances and started toward better things. But unfortunately there was one thing that the white South feared more than Negro dishonesty, ignorance and incompetency, and that was Negro honesty, knowledge and efficiency.
Paint the “carpet-bag” governments and Negro rule as black as may be, the fact remains that the essence of the revolution which the overturning of the Negro governments made was to put these black men and their friends out of power. Outside the curtailing of expenses and stopping of extravagance, not only did their successors make few changes in the work which these legislatures and conventions had done, but they largely carried out their plans, followed their suggestions and strengthened their institutions. Practically the whole new growth of the South has been accomplished under laws which black men helped to frame thirty years ago. I know of no greater compliment to Negro suffrage, and no greater contribution to real American democracy.
The counter revolution came but it was too late. The Negro had stepped so far into new economic freedom that he could never be put back into slavery; and he had widened democracy to include not only a goodly and increasing number of his own group but the mass of the poor white South. The economic results of Negro suffrage were so great during the years from 1865 to 1876 that they have never been overthrown. The Freedmen’s Bureau came virtually to an end in 1869. General Howard’s report of that year said: “In spite of all disorders that have pre vailed and the misfortunes that have fallen upon many parts of the South, a good degree of prosperity and success has already been attained. To the oft-repeated slander that the Negroes will not work and are incapable of taking care of themselves, it is a sufficient answer that their voluntary labor has produced nearly all the food that supported the whole people, besides a large amount of rice, sugar and tobacco for export, and two millions of bales of cotton each year, on which was paid into the United States Treasury during the years 1866 to 1867 a tax of more than forty millions of dollars ($40,000,000). It is not claimed that this result was wholly due to the care and oversight of this Bureau but it is safe to say as it has been said repeatedly by intelligent Southern white men, that without the Bureau or some similar agency, the material interests of the country would have greatly suffered and the government would have lost a far greater amount than has been expended in its maintenance. . . .
“Of the nearly eight hundred thousand (800,000) acres of farming land and about five thousand (5,000) pieces of town property transferred to this Bureau by military and treasury officers, or taken up by assistant commissioners, enough was leased to produce a revenue of nearly four hundred thousand dollars ($400,000). Some farms were set apart in each state as homes for the destitute and helpless and a portion was cultivated by freedmen prior to its restoration. . . .
"Notice the appropriations by Congress:
|For the year ending July 1st, 1867.||$6,940,450.00|
|For the year ending July 1st, 1868.||3,936,300.00|
|For the relief of the destitute citizens in District of Columbia||40,000.00|
|For relief of destitute freedmen in the same||15,000.00|
|For expenses of paying bounties in 1869.||214,000.00|
|For expenses for famine in Southern states and transportation.||1,865,645.00|
|For support of hospitals.||50,000.00|
|Making a total received from all sources of||$12,961,395.00|
"Our expenditures from the beginning (including assumed accounts of the 'Department of Negro Affairs' from January 1st, 1865, to August 31, 1869) have been eleven million two hundred and forty-nine thousand and twenty-eight dollars and ten cents ($11,249,028.10). In addition to this cash expenditure the subsistence, medical supplies, quartermasters stores, issued to the refugees and freedmen prior to July 1st, 1866, were furnished by the commissary, medical and quartermasters department, and accounted for in the current expenses of those departments; they were not charged to nor paid for by my officers. They amounted to two million three hundred and thirty thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight dollars and seventy-two cents ($2,330,788.72) in original cost; but a large portion of these stores being damaged and condemned as unfit for issue to troops, their real value to the Government was probably less than one million dollars ($1,000,000). Adding their original cost to the amount expended from appropriations and other sources, the total expenses of our Government for refugees and freedmen to August 31, 1869, have been thirteen million five hundred and seventy-nine thousand eight hundred and sixteen dollars and eighty-two cents ($13,579,816.82). And deducting fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) set apart as a special relief fund for all classes of destitute people in the Southern states, the real cost has been thirteen million twenty-nine thousand eight hundred and sixteen dollars and eighty-two cents ($13,029,816.82).”
By 1875, Negroes owned not less than 2,000,000 and perhaps as much as 4,000,000 acres of land and by 1880 this had increased to 6,000,000.
Notwithstanding the great step forward that the Negro had made this sinister fact faced him and his friends: he formed a minority of the population of the South. If that population was solidly arrayed against him his legal status was in danger and his economic progress was going to be difficult. It has been repeatedly charged that the action of the Negro solidified Southern opposition; and that the Negro refusing to listen to and make fair terms with his white neighbors, sought solely Northern alliance and the protection of Northern bayonets. This is not true and is turning facts hindside before. The ones who did the choosing were the Southern master class. When they got practically their full political rights in 1872 they had a chance to choose, if they would, the best of the Negroes as their allies and to work with them as against the most ruthless elements of the white South. Gradually there could have been built up a political party or even parties of the best of the black and white South. The Negroes would have been more than modest in their demands so long as they saw a chance to keep moving toward real freedom. But the master class did not choose this, although some like Wade Hampton of South Carolina, made steps toward it. On the whole, the masters settled definitely upon a purely racial line, recognizing as theirs everything that had a white skin and putting without the pale of sympathy and alliance, everything of Negro descent. By bitter and unyielding social pressure they pounded the whites into a solid phalanx, but in order to do this they had to give up much.
In the first place the leadership of the South passed from the hands of the old slave owners into the hands of the newer town capitalists who were largely merchants and the coming industrial leaders. Some of them represented the older dominant class and some of them the newer poor whites. They were welded, however, into a new economic mastership, less cultivated, more ruthless and more keen in recognizing the possibilities of Negro labor if “controlled” as they proposed to control it. This new leadership, however, did not simply solidify the South, it proceeded to make alliance in the North and to make alliance of the most effective kind, namely economic alliance. The sentimentalism of the war period had in the North changed to the recognition of the grim fact of destroyed capital, dead workers and high prices. The South was a field which could be exploited if peaceful conditions could be reached and the laboring class made sufficiently content and submissive. It was the business then of the “New” South to show to the northern capitalists that by uniting the economic interests of both, they could exploit the Negro laborer and the white laborer—pitting the two classes against each other, keeping out labor unions and building a new industrial South which would pay tremendous returns. This was the program which began with the withdrawal of Northern troops in 1876 and was carried on up to 1890 when it gained political sanction by open laws disfranchising the Negro.
But the experiment was carried on at a terrific cost. First, the Negro could not be cowed and beaten back from his new-found freedom without a mass of force, fraud and actual savagery such as strained the moral fibre of the white South to the utmost. It will be a century before the South recovers from this debacle and this explains why this great stretch of land has today so meager an output of science, literature and art and can discuss practically nothing but the “Negro” problem. It explains why the South is the one region in the civilized world where sometimes men are publicly burned alive at the stake.
On the other hand, even this display of force and hatred did not keep the Negro from advancing and the reason for this was that he was in competition with a white laboring class which, despite all efforts and advantages could not outstrip the Negroes and put them wholly under their feet. By judiciously using this rivalry, the Negro gained economic advantage after advantage, and foothold after foothold until today while by no means free and still largely deprived of political rights, we have a mass of 10,000,000 people whose economic condition may be thus described: If we roughly conceive of something like a tenth of the white population as below the line of decent free economic existence, we may guess that a third of the black American population of 12 millions is still in economic serfdom, comparable to condition of the submerged tenth in cities, and held in debt and crime peonage in the sugar, rice and cotton belts. Six other millions are emerging and lighting, in competition with white laborers, a fairly successful battle for rising wages and better conditions. In the last ten years a million of these have been willing and able to move physically from Southern serfdom to the freer air of the North.
The other three millions are as free as the better class of white laborers; and are pushing and carrying the white laborer with them in their grim determination to hold advantages gained and gain others. The Negro’s agitation for the right to vote has made any step toward disfranchising the poor white unthinkable, for the white vote is needed to help disfranchise the blacks; the black man is pounding open the doors of exclusive trade guilds; for how can unions exclude whites when Negro competition can break a steel strike? The Negro is making America and the world acknowledge democracy as feasible and desirable for all white folk, for only in this way do they see any possibility of defending their world wide fear of yellow, brown and black folk.
In a peculiar way, then, the Negro in the United States has emancipated democracy, reconstructed the threatened edifice of Freedom and been a sort of eternal test of the sincerity of our democratic ideals. As a Negro minister, J. W. C. Pennington, said in London and Glasgow before the Civil war: “The colored population of the United States has no destiny separate from that of the nation in which they form an integral part. Our destiny is bound up with that of America. Her ship is ours; her pilot is ours; her storms are ours; her calms are ours. If she breaks upon a rock, we break with her. If we, born in America, cannot live upon the same soil upon terms of equality with the descendants of Scotchmen, Englishmen, Irishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Hungarians, Greeks and Poles, then the fundamental theory of American fails and falls to the ground.”
This is still true and it puts the American Negro in a peculiar strategic position with regard to the race problems of the whole world. What do we mean by democracy? Do we mean democracy of the white races and the subjection of the colored races? Or do we mean the gradual working forward to a time when all men will have a voice in government and industry and will be intelligent enough to express the voice?
It is this latter thesis for which the American Negro stands and has stood, and more than any other element in the modern world it has slowly but continuously forced America toward that point and is still forcing. It must be remembered that it was the late Booker T. Washington who planned the beginning of an industrial democracy in the South, based on education, and that in our day the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, nine-tenths of whose members are Negroes, is the one persistent agency in the United States which is voicing a demand for democracy unlimited by race, sex or religion. American Negroes have even crossed the waters and held three Pan-African Congresses to arouse black men through the world to work for modern democratic development. Thus the emancipation of the Negro slave in America becomes through his own determined effort simply one step toward the emancipation of all men.
- George W. Williams, History of the Negro Race in America, New York, 1882, Vol. 1, Chapter 15.
- Williams, Vol. 1, pp. 250-1.
- Williams, Vol. 2, pp. 255-7.
- Williams, Vol. I, pp. 257-9.
- Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Sept. 22, 1862.
- Atlanta University Publications, Atlanta, Ga., 1906, No. 8, p. 23.
- John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen, New York, 1907, p. 134.
- Eaton, 165.
- Walter L. Fleming, Documentary History of Reconstruction, Cleveland, Ohio, 1907, Vol. I, p. 112.
- Fleming, Vol. I, pp. 350-1.
- Fleming, Vol. 2, p. 382.
- Report of Carl Schurz to President Johnson, in Senate Exec. Doc. No. 2, 39th Cong., 1st Sess.
- Brewster, Sketches of Southern Mystery, Treason and Murder, p. 116.
- McPherson, Reconstruction, p. 19.
- Atlanta University Publications, Atlanta, Ga., 1901, No. 6, p. 36.
- 16 October 7, 1865.
- McPherson, pp. 52, 56.
- A. U. Publications, No. 12 p. 38; Cf. also Fleming, Vol. I, p. 355.
- Schurz’ Report.
- House Reports, No. 30, 39th Congress, 1st Session.
- Schurz’ Report.
- Journal of Negro History, Vol. 5, p. 238
- Journal of Negro History, Vol. 7, pp. 127ff.
- Journal of Negro History, Vol. 7, p. 424.v
- Jackson, Miss., Clarion, April 24, 1873.
- Walter Allen, Governor Chamberlain’s Administration in South Carolina, New York, 1888, p. 82.
- Journal of Negro History, Vol. 7, pp. 127ff.
- Blaine, Twenty Years in Congress, Vol. 2, p. 515.
- Blaine, Twenty Years in Congress, pp. 513-14.
- Fleming, Vol. I, pp. 450-1.
- J. W. Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi, New York, p. 322. 1901.
- Warley in Brewster's Sketches, p. 150.
- A Liberal Republican's description of the S. C. Legislature in 1871, Fleming, Vol. 2, pp. 53-4.
- Fleming, Vol. 1, pp. 382ff.
- Some of the Reconstruction Constitutions preceding Negro Suffrage showed tendencies toward democratization among the whites.
- Chicago Weekly Inter-Ocean, Dec. 26, 1890.
- Cf. Atlanta University Pub. No. 6 and No. 16.
- This speech was made in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1890 which disfranchised the Negro, by the Hon Thomas E. Miller, ex-congressman and one of the six Negro members of the Convention. The Convention did not have the courage to publish it in their proceedings but it may be found in the Occasional Papers of the American Negro Academy No. 6, pp. 11-13.
- Cf. W. E. B. Du Bois, Reconstruction (American Historical Review, XV, No. 4, p. 871).
W. E. B. Du Bois, Economics of Negro Emancipation (Sociological Review, Oct., 1911, p. 303).
- O. O. Howard, Autobiography., New York, 1907, Vol. 2, pp. 7, 371-2.