The Writings of Carl Schurz/To President Johnson, June 6th, 1865


Bethlehem, Pa., June 6, 1865.

The passage in your Executive order concerning the provisional government of North Carolina, to which I had the honor to call your attention at our last interview, has, as I then anticipated, been generally interpreted as a declaration of policy on your part adverse to the introduction of negro suffrage. So far, it is treated with calmness by most of the papers, but it is sure to become a subject of general and fierce discussion—not only among extremists but among men of moderate views—as soon as the old pro-slavery and disloyal element, I mean the oath-taking rebels, will have reasserted their influence in the Southern States. This will be the case as soon as, under the present system, any independent political action is allowed in the South, as it is now in Virginia. The question of negro suffrage will then become the burning issue and is likely to have great influence upon the attitude of political parties and upon the relations between Congress and the Executive. It will depend upon events whether any difference of opinion will assume the character of direct opposition to the Administration, and events, if we may judge from present symptoms, bid fair to give sharpness to the controversy.

This would be an unfortunate thing. It is important that your views on this point should not be misunderstood by the country. There will soon be an opportunity for an open declaration. The line of policy you have followed with regard to North Carolina cannot be applied to her neighbor South Carolina. The reason is simple. The elective franchise and eligibility are limited by the old South Carolina constitution by a property qualification consisting in the ownership of a certain quantity of land and a certain number of slaves. Suppose then, when the turn of South Carolina comes, you order that, whereas the property qualification prescribed by the old constitution of South Carolina can no longer remain in force in consequence of the emancipation of the slaves, and there being no other rule in the laws of that State to guide the Executive, the task of restoring the State of South Carolina be placed in the hands of her whole people, and that at the election of delegates to a convention all loyal inhabitants of South Carolina without distinction be permitted to vote. The reasons for this course will be clear and acceptable to every fair-minded man, and, as the order applies to South Carolina, not even the Democrats will find fault with it.

This will be consistent with the theory that secession never carried the State out of the Union, and also with the fundamental principle that all constitutive action must proceed from the people. In theory as well as fact, this procedure will be far more democratic than the policy you have adopted with regard to North Carolina. It may be argued without doing violence to the rules of logic that, although secession never carried any of the States out of the Union, it did break up the existing State governments and completely suspended the Constitutional relations of the seceded States with the Government of the United States. This was a revolutionary proceeding, which placed the Government of the United States in a condition, and imposed upon it a task, not foreseen in the Constitution. Nor does the Constitution point out any remedies except those lying within the sphere of the military power. Strictly speaking, the appointment of a civil governor for a State by the Executive of the United States is an extra-Constitutional act; nor has, according to the accepted Constitutional theory, the President the power to order a governor of a State to call a convention of the people. You rely upon the implied powers and obey the necessity arising from the extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances. Now I ask, is not in this extra-Constitutional condition of things the most natural, and also the most democratic remedy to be found in a direct appeal to the original source of sovereignty, the whole body of the people of a State? And in what way can that be done more effectually than by calling State conventions to be elected by all the inhabitants of the respective States without distinction of rank, property or color, excluding only those who have disqualified themselves by acts of rebellion?

I think of elaborating these ideas and laying them before the public in a series of letters. By the time Congress meets, the necessity of taking a broad ground will probably have so far disclosed itself, that views like the above will be shared by a large majority of that body, and it would be very desirable to have a cordial understanding and coöperation established between that body and the Executive. When publishing those letters I should like to address them to you, unless it be disagreeable to you. It would not commit you in any way, but prepare the public mind for what inevitably must come. Have you any objection to it?[1]

Meanwhile pardon me for saying that, under existing circumstances, every measure which does not place the business of reconstruction upon the broadest ground will, in my humble opinion, tend to increase the difficulties which necessarily must arise, and hamper your future action.

It seems you have dropped the idea of appointing some one to supervise and aid the political action of our military commanders in the South. I still think it would be an excellent arrangement for keeping the Government well informed of what is going on, for keeping the military commanders well advised of what is expected of them, for facilitating business generally and for preventing a great many mistakes which otherwise are very likely to be made.

  1. This question seems never to have been answered, except very indirectly by calling Schurz to Washington and requesting him to make the Southern trip that soon followed.