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THE TRUE PROBLEM.


THE difficulties attending the problem of reconstruction are so great, and the necessity of doing something is apparently so pressing, that many well-meaning people, in their eager anxiety to accomplish immediate results, are but too apt to forget the future which lies behind the next two or three Presidential elections. That our civil war was a great political and social revolution, and that the Republic of the United States has entered upon a new era in her development, are truths for the statement of which no man can at the present time claim any merit of originality. They are denied only by those who desire to strip our victory over the Rebellion of its most valuable results, and to preserve those elements of strife and disintegration which, had not the Northern people been true to their mission, would have ended the history of this Republic at a moment when the fundamental principles of our democratic system of government were on the point of rising from the level of mere abstraction to that of living reality. The changes which the great Revolution has wrought in the organism of the Republic stand in so strong a contrast to the constitutional ideas generally accepted before this period that, as soon as the moment had arrived for drawing up the balance-sheet of the past and tracing a new channel for our future career, a corresponding modification of our fundamental laws was pointed out by the unerring instinct of the popular mind as an absolute necessity. The abolition of slavery was accordingly sanctioned by an amendment to the Constitution. But no thinking man could fail to perceive that this mere negative step was far from completing the transformation of a community consisting of masters and bondmen into a community of citizens equal before the law. Measures of a more thorough-going character were felt to be necessary to prevent American society from relapsing into those antagonisms between the vital principles of democratic government and anomalous social and political institutions, which in our past history had wrought so much danger and disaster. A new constitutional basis had to be found for the development of the Republic, broad enough for whatever increase of population and diversity of interests the future might bring us, and strong enough to stand above the danger of being subverted by local hostility or any combination of perverse aspirations. And this was, and is now, the true problem to be solved by what is commonly called the work of reconstruction.

The Republican majority in Congress applied itself to the task. Had they not found in their way a President who, with the maturest incapacity to understand the great tendencies of the times, unites an almost idiotic ambition to control them by autocratic action, and with the temper of a despot the profligate unscrupulousness of a demagogue, the Republicans would probably have acted upon their true instincts with boldness and consistency. But their situation was full of embarrassments. Their continuance in power was felt to be necessary to save the most important results of the war. They were threatened in front and rear by the Northern allies of the South, and a President whom they themselves had put upon the road to power. The danger appeared, perhaps, greater than it really was, and, in order to save their ascendency, and with it the power of doing better in the future, the Republicans in Congress made a compromise with the traditional prejudices of the people, to which the President and his followers were artfully appealing. Andrew Johnson failed in defeating the Republican party before the people, but in the struggle for power he succeeded in forcing it to content itself for the time with a mere expedient. The result was the Constitutional Amendment now submitted to the State Legislatures for ratification.

The third and fourth sections of that Amendment, excluding certain classes of Rebels from office, and confirming the validity of the national debt, are only of temporary value, and have no bearing upon the great principles which are to govern the future development of the Republic. The first, intended to engraft the main provisions of the Civil Rights Act upon the Constitution, throws the shield of the national authority over those rights of the emancipated slave, the denial of which would virtually reduce him to his former condition, and forms thus a necessary complement of the abolition of slavery. But only the second section of the amendment, restricting the basis of representation in those States which exclude the colored race from the elective franchise, touches the great question of the source of political power in our system of government. It touches it only to leave it unsolved. And just there is the pivot upon which the whole problem of our day turns.

In our political discussions we have fallen into the habit of speaking much of loyalty and disloyalty, as if disloyalty were a primitive and independent condition of a man's mind or heart. But it is only the symptom of a distemper, not the distemper itself. The cause of Southern disloyalty must be obvious to every thinking observer. It consisted in this, that in the South there existed peculiar institutions and interests which were antagonistic to the fundamental principles of our system of democratic government, and that the Southern people cherished those peculiar institutions and interests far above those which they had in common with the rest of the American people. And why was not disloyalty eradicated by the mere abolition of slavery? Simply because the habits of life and modes of thinking connected with slavery have not yet completely yielded to the habits of life and modes of thinking characteristic of free-labor society; because the Southern people, deluded by false hopes, are still struggling to restore as much as possible of the old order of things, instead of devoting their energies to a prompt and vigorous development of the new one; in other words, because the revolution, in its constructive phase, is not yet fully accomplished. As soon as the South, in obedience to recognized necessity, shall thus have fulfilled in her social and political organization all those conditions which form the basis of free-labor society, and as soon as the status of all classes of the Southern people shall be unalterably fixed in harmony with the ruling principles of our democratic system of government, we need no longer distress ourselves about their disloyalty. Loyalty will then become as natural to them as it is to us now.

A great social revolution, like the abolition of slavery and the substitution for it of free-labor society, can be carried through only in two ways. Either the power which has originated it must keep entire control of its development until it is completed and firmly established in all its results, or the emancipated class must be endowed with political rights sufficient to enable it to protect itself. There is no third method. The Czar of Russia, when emancipating the serfs, naturally adopted the former. He issued and enforced by his imperial authority all the decrees necessary for arranging and defining the status of the emancipated class, and held the whole development of the great reform in his powerful hand. This was entirely in accordance with the principles of the Russian government, but it would not be in harmony with the genius of our institutions. We may, indeed, by the direct action of our general government, remove the most dangerous obstacles standing in the way of the ends to be attained; but we cannot long continue to control the great transformation in all its details, without seriously changing the character of our governmental system. Whatever the Republicans may attempt to do during this period of transition, which is naturally somewhat revolutionary in its character, they must, while in power, take into consideration the possibility of losing it, and prepare for turning over the matter to the regular operations of self-government. Here the alternative appears, of either abandoning the results of the social revolution to the almost exclusive control of the Southern whites, which would be absurd as well as criminal, or of investing the emancipated class with the political power enabling it to protect itself, and to co-operate in the control of the revolutionary results. In a government founded upon suffrage, this power can consist only in the right of voting; and it is obvious that the addition to the number of freemen and citizens brought about by emancipation must necessarily be accompanied with a corresponding enlargement of the democratic basis of our government.

In this respect the plan laid down by Congress in the second section of the Constitutional Amendment falls lamentably short of the exigencies of the case. It provides, indeed, that when in any State a class of citizens is excluded from the exercise of political rights, those excluding it shall not have the privilege of using it as a source of political power; but it does not provide that no class of citizens shall be excluded from political rights. It provides, indeed, that if the South wrongs the negro, the act shall result in a curtailment of Southern, and an increase of Northern, power in the national government; but it fails to establish the great principle, that in every State all the citizens must have the political means wherewith to make their rights respected. It provides, indeed, that no State may establish a government of classes with impunity, but it fails to provide that no State shall establish a government of classes at all. It indeed stigmatizes the arbitrary disfranchisement of millions of citizens with the disapprobation of Congress; but in recognizing the right of States to disfranchise citizens, it fails to lay down the great rule, the necessity of whose observance was proved by the Rebellion, that no State shall be recognized as truly republican whose organization does not rest upon a truly democratic basis, in harmony with the fundamental principles of our political organism. However serviceable it may have been as a makeshift, it is worth nothing as the basis of reconstruction.

That the intentions of those who passed it were good, we have no reason to doubt; but that these good intentions will go for nothing in the final result is hardly less doubtful. Many of the Republicans who voted for the Constitutional Amendment may have thought to arrive at universal suffrage by a circuitous route. But they forgot that the route might he so circuitous as to lead around the end, but not to it. Will not the Southern people be loath to suffer so heavy a reduction of their Congressional representation? No doubt they will. And will they not be willing to do something to avert so undesirable a result? Certainly. But whether they will accept the alternative presented by the Constitutional Amendment, and admit the negro to the ballot-box, is another question. It may turn out that the proposed effect of the Constitutional Amendment can be evaded. Already we learn that the public whipping of negroes for paltry offences is carried on in North Carolina on a large scale, for the reason that by the laws of that State every man who has been publicly whipped is excluded from the right of voting; so that, if equal suffrage should be imposed upon that State by the Constitutional Amendment, or other legislation not sufficiently guarded, a large proportion of the colored population would find itself disfranchised by the mere infliction of a barbarous punishment. How much time it would require thus to disfranchise every negro in the State is a mere arithmetical problem for the consciences of slavery-loving and negro-hating juries; and judges would probably not obstruct the operation. If the impartiality of such laws were questioned, they might go so far as to pick out here and there a worthless white vagabond, or perhaps an obnoxious Abolitionist, for the whipping-post.

But it may be said that such an evasion may be frustrated by Congressional legislation. We will admit this for argument's sake. But may not other tricks be invented leading to new perplexities? And even if the most ingenious contrivances could be overcome by the untiring watchfulness of a Republican Congress, is it so certain that the control of the national legislature will never fall into the hands of a party inclined to wink at them, and to favor a reaction against the results of the war? And even if such a danger could be averted for many years to come, do not the Southern States still remain free to submit rather to a curtailment of their representation than to the enfranchisement of the colored race? Is it not just possible, nay, even probable, that they will rather be satisfied with the reduced political power they are sure to wield themselves, than, by endeavoring to enlarge it, to put the whole at the mercy of the colored vote? Will not three votes in Congress controlled by the whites exclusively be far more satisfactory to the aristocracy of South Carolina and their followers, than five or six controlled either wholly or in part by their late slaves? Is it well, then, that the completion of the great reform should be made dependent upon the will of those who once already have carried on the most reckless war against the vital ideas of the age?

From whatever point of view we may look at it, the Constitutional Amendment, as it stands, is rather calculated to complicate the problem than to solve it; and its worst feature is, that, by implication, it recognizes the right of a State to maintain an undemocratic government, instead of making it obligatory on all to harmonize their institutions with the fundamental principles upon which the political system of the Republic rests.

The question whether Congress has, under the Constitution, the right to regulate the franchise in the several States, has been ably argued in favor of the proposition. But, whatever may be said, it is certain that the uniform practice of the government is an almost insuperable argument against the assumption. It is true, there is a clause in the Constitution which, if we could disconnect it from all historical precedent, and consider it as an isolated and independent proposition, would seem to affirm the right of the supreme law-giving authority of the Republic to say how far the right of suffrage in the States must be extended, and how far it may be restricted. It is this: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government.” What is a republican government? In answering this question upon its own merits, we should find it needless to consider what a republican government may have been understood to mean centuries ago; we should govern ourselves by the lights of to-day, and say that modern republicanism is democratic republicanism, — a government which, in all its ramifications, derives its powers from the suffrages of the people. The duty of the United States to guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government might then justly be argued to include the duty of seeing to it that each State, in the regulation of the franchise, complied with all the conditions of true democratic republicanism. But our history is against this interpretation. There is no precedent from which it could derive any strength. That the republican theory was fallacious where slavery existed, was already observed by Madison; but the idea of abolishing slavery by Federal action, on the ground that the constitutional duty of guaranteeing a republican form of government to every State must be fulfilled, was never countenanced by an American Congress. That most unrepublican institution of slavery was suffered to exist, and the words of the Constitution were accepted as meaning only that no State should be permitted to have a non-elective head. Nor is it probable that the judicial branch of the national government, which still delights in incasing itself in walls of musty precedents, impervious to the sunlight of a new era, will, as at present constituted, sanction a construction more in accordance with the requirements of the times.

And yet nothing can be clearer than that the constitutional provision above quoted ought to mean something more. If the United States are to be a republic in the true sense of the word, they must be composed of none but truly republican parts. If the Republic of the United States is to be an harmonious whole, its central organ must have the power, as well as the duty, to guarantee to the people of the different States local governments republican not only in form, but republican in spirit, — in harmony with the principles underlying the whole political structure. And if the Constitution, according to the accepted construction, does not give the general government the power to enforce that guaranty, it is a defect, an incongruity in our constitutional system, which ought to be remedied in a manner so clear that even the Supreme Court cannot explain it away. In one word, the national Constitution must make it binding upon every State to comply with certain requirements without the fulfilment of which no government can have a truly democratic republican character.

There are two things which must be considered the main pillars of democratic republican institutions, — self-government on the broadest basis, exercised by suffrage, and popular instruction. The two serve as complements to one another. Self-government making it the duty as well as the privilege of the citizen to take part in the administration of public affairs, and thus inducing him to give his attention to matters outside of the narrow circle of his domestic concerns, is an incitement to mental activity and the acquisition of knowledge, while popular instruction, in its turn, fits the people for an intelligent exercise of the functions of self-government. Without the latter, the former would lack its most potent stimulus; without the former, the operations of the latter would be clumsy and erratic. To give these progressive forces their full effect, it is essential that their enjoyment should not be restricted beyond what is demanded by the nature of things. Human reason can devise no argument to justify the exclusion of any human being from the benefits of education; and as to the right of voting, by which self-government is exercised, no restrictions should be imposed which cannot easily be overcome by means placed within the reach of every man. These are the fundamental conditions of democratic republicanism according to the enlightened philosophy of this age, and they are the life-element of American civilization; and just these are the points upon which the duty of the United States to guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government should be made to bear.

In order to accomplish this, an article should be added to the Constitution embodying the following features: that no State shall impose restrictions upon the right of voting which cannot easily be overcome by every citizen, — except on the ground of idiocy, high crimes, etc., — thus guarding not only against distinctions of color, race, etc., but also against all qualifications which would exclude large numbers of citizens from the franchise; that each State shall be bound to establish and maintain a system of common schools, placing the benefit of primary instruction within the reach of every inhabitant without distinction of race, color, creed, or condition; that Congress shall have power to enforce the foregoing by appropriate legislation, in case of contravention or default by any State; and that the Senators and Representatives of any State which does not fully comply with the foregoing requirements shall not be admitted to Congress, such State not being regarded as republican in the meaning of the Constitution. For these propositions, here crudely expressed, a form might be found, so careful in its wording as to leave neither room for evasion nor arbitrary construction.

It will be objected that the execution of this plan would he an encroachment upon the rights of the States. The objection is absurd. True, it would go directly against that doctrine of State rights which has so long been cherished by the South and the Democratic party. But how does that doctrine appear in the light of history and human reason? It held that original sovereignty had its seat in an artificial organization called a State, forgetting that original sovereignty rests in the individual, and is only conferred upon the State in a limited measure by the collective individual, the people. It insisted that a State must have the right to inflict wrong upon its people. It proclaimed as a good “Democratic” tenet, that a State must have the right to institute and maintain an undemocratic government. It demanded, in the name of self-government, that if a State, by its assumed authority, made local self-government a sham and a mockery, no national authority should have a right to prevent or correct the mischief. This doctrine was forever consigned to ridicule, when Abraham Lincoln annihilated Senator Douglas's “great principle of non-intervention” by the pungent definition: If A attempts to make B a slave, C shall have no right to interfere. And there we leave it.

No man who understands the distinguishing features of our political system will deny that there are legitimate State rights which ought not to be infringed. No State ought to be restricted in the right to protect the liberties of its citizens. We might even go so far as to say, that if the general government should attempt to violate the natural rights of man, the machinery of local self-government in the State organization should furnish means of redress and a safe measure of protection. As an individual has the undoubted right to do right in accordance with the general laws of society, but has no right to do wrong, so a State must not only have the right, but it must be considered its duty, to do right in accordance with the fundamental principles ruling the society of States, but not to do wrong in violation of those principles. In the very nature of things, it is ridiculously absurd, it is utterly impossible, that, as a member of a democratic republic, a State should have the right to establish and maintain its government upon an undemocratic basis.

Nor can it be truthfully said that a constitutional amendment like the one here proposed would put the government upon the course of a centralization of power. It leaves the States to arrange their home concerns, subject to certain injunctions and restrictions. Such restrictions are by no means without precedent. The Constitution says, that no State shall grant any title of nobility, or coin money, or maintain a military force in time of peace, or enter into any agreement or compact with another State, or pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, etc. Why all these restrictions? Because the things prohibited would violate the ruling principles and impair the stability of our system of government. Why then not prohibit other things which would violate the principles of the government in no less flagrant a manner? Would the granting of titles of nobility, distinguishing a few persons, be more dangerous to the Republic than a restriction of the franchise, degrading and rendering politically helpless millions of citizens?

Nor can it be said that a constitutional provision demanding the establishment and maintenance of a system of common schools in all the States would put the government upon the course of consolidation. It demands only what most of the States have already done, and what all of them ought to have done. That it is the interest as well as the duty of a democratic State to promote the education of the people, no thinking man will deny. Will it render a State weaker, if it does something to make its citizens more intelligent? On the contrary, it will render the State stronger in culture, in justice, and in all that constitutes true moral power. Far from desiring a centralization repulsive to the genius of this country, it is in the distinct interest of local self-government and legitimate State rights that we urge these propositions; and nothing can be more certain than that this is the only way in which a dangerous centralization of power in the hands of our general government can be prevented.

Observe the doings of Congress. In the absence of laws enabling the emancipated class in the South to protect itself by the appliances of local self-government, Congress has undertaken to provide for its protection by the machinery of the general government. Nor could, under the circumstances, Congress do otherwise. The Republic having emancipated the slaves, and promised them true freedom forever, the protection and enforcement of their rights is for Congress not a matter of choice, but a matter of duty. As long as the present condition of things continues, this duty will present itself again and again, in an endless variety of aspects, and lead to legislation directly interfering with the local doings of the Southern States. This will be the result as long as that duty is appreciated by the national legislature, — that is, as long as the ascendency of Northern sentiment continues. That ascendency may be temporarily interrupted by the accident of defeat; but it will soon be restored, for the simple reason that the natural centre of gravity in this Union is and will remain in that part of the Republic which most truly represents its democratic principles. Such acts derive a sufficient degree of constitutional authority from the Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery. But is it not certain that the continued necessity of interference with the doings of the late Rebel States for the protection of the emancipated class, the wards of the nation, will gradually create a habit of overriding State rights in many respects? And yet this necessity cannot be obviated as long as the duty of the Republic toward the emancipated class remains the same. But as soon as the wards of the nation are declared of age, as soon as, by the extension of the franchise and by provisions for their education, they are enabled to protect themselves, this duty will cease. The matter is then turned into the broad channel of self-government, where every wrong finds its remedy, and the States, at last organized upon a truly democratic basis, can and will be left to administer the affairs properly belonging to the sphere of local action without interference from above. The danger of centralization, greatly to be apprehended while the present condition of things lasts, and growing as it continues, will then have passed away; and, by strictly acknowledging and faithfully performing their constitutional duties, the States will save their rights.

How the passage and ratification of such a constitutional amendment by a sufficient number of States can be accomplished, it is not our purpose to discuss here at length. The perplexities of our situation, which arise not only from the obstinate prejudices of the Southern people, but from the factious temper of the President, which baffles the sagacity of the psychologist, and the stagnant dulness of a Supreme Court whose reasonings might be considered a fit subject for the investigations of the antiquarian, may prolong themselves in a struggle of years, unless cut short by the most determined and vigorous action on the part of the representatives of the people. The objects to be immediately accomplished are many. Crime must be repressed, and security must be given to loyal men wherever they are in danger. A prompt removal of the Southern State governments instituted by the autocratic action of Andrew Johnson, and the substitution for them of new organizations upon a loyal basis, will go far towards accomplishing these ends. The same measure would undoubtedly also secure the ratification of any constitutional amendment judiciously proposed by the Congress of the United States. But whatever may be the vicissitudes of the political struggle, let those who have the work of reconstruction in hand never forget that they have not only to provide ingenious expedients to overcome the embarrassments of the moment, but that they have to build for coming centuries. The rejection of the Constitutional Amendment of the last session by the Southern States is one of the happiest incidents of this great crisis. Congress is again free to act. Since the formation of the Constitution, there never was so great an opportunity for American statesmanship. If it be thrown away, it may not again occur for generations.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.