The Republican Party/Chapter VII

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The first great question before the nation at the close of the Civil War was that of the restoration of the southern states to a normal status under the Constitution. They had attempted to secede and withdraw entirely and permanently from the Union and the Constitution. But the Republican party had insisted that they had no right to do so and that in fact they could not do so. Its contention in that respect was settled by the war. In its view the seceding states had not been out of the Union and therefore did not need formal readmission to it. But they had for four years ceased to be represented in the government of the nation and a majority of their citizens had renounced allegiance to the Federal Union and its Constitution. The question was, therefore, through what process and on what terms and conditions they were to resume their normal relationship to the Union and their participation in its national government.

Before and preliminary to this, indeed, there arose the question of the authority to determine the terms and conditions of such restoration, and over that there arose a vigorous controversy. Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded to the Presidency on the assassination of Lincoln, coming of Democratic antecedents and having an exaggerated estimate of the powers and functions of his office regarded such determination as a purely administrative prerogative. During the recess of Congress in the summer of 1865 he put into effect a plan of his own devising, concerning which he had not so much as consulted Congress, and in the fall, at the opening of the session, he submitted it to Congress for its approval.

This approval it did not receive. While some of its features were commendable others were decidedly objectionable. It was felt by the great majority of Republicans in Congress and throughout the country that it did not sufficiently confirm and safeguard the results of the war, either in invalidating secession or in protecting the enfranchiseed negroes in their freedom. It did not, in brief, adequately guarantee fulfilment of Lincoln's resolution “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” In addition to that, it was the Republican contention that this was a matter for Congressional rather than Presidential determination. It was something in which the whole people were intensely interested and in which they had a right to be heard through their chosen representatives. For the President to determine it would be an exercise of one-man autocracy repugnant to the principles of a democracy. During the war, under military exigencies, the President had exercised extraordinary powers, even to the temporary and local suspension of the right to the writ of habeas corpus. All that was permissible under his war powers as Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy. But with the ending of the war and the return of peace these extraordinary powers must cease, and the affairs of the nation must be conducted according to the normal methods of the Constitution, with all laws made by Congress, interpreted by the judiciary and executed by the President. That was the policy of the Republican party as against the attempted autocracy of the misguided President and it was supported by the overwhelming mass of the American people. In the conflict which arose over it the House of Representatives presented a bill of impeachment against the President and he narrowly escaped conviction and removal from office.

The Republican majority in Congress was sufficiently large to enable it to enact legislation over the President's veto, and it accordingly set itself to the task of reconstruction with little regard for his vagaries. His stubborn refusal to co-operate with Congress, however, and a certain unaccommodating spirit which his course had provoked and fostered in the lately seceding states, greatly added to the arduousness of a task which in any case would have been of enormous difficulty, with the result that the ensuing years of the "Reconstruction Era” were marked with some regrettable incidents and circumstances not properly chargeable to the Republican government and party. On the other hand, as direct results of the application of Republican principles, those years were conspicuously marked with some of the finest achievements in reconciliatory and reconstructive statesmanship that the world has ever seen.

The first principle was to treat the lately seceding states as having always remained members of the Union. There was no thought of altering their boundaries, their names, their divisions, their capitols. The map of the United States was to remain unchanged. Their citizens, too, were held always to have remained American citizens, though certain of their civil rights had been temporarily forfeited by their own acts. There was no proscription nor attainder, there was no confiscation of property, there were no punitive measures. All that was required was that they should in good faith abandon their pretensions of secession and declare their loyal allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. On their doing this full amnesty was freely granted with the complete restoration of all civil and political rights. In consequence of this unprecedented generosity of treatment, in the course of a few years many seats in both Houses of Congress; in the President's Cabinet, and on the bench of the Federal courts were filled by men who had been commanders of the Confederate army and high officers of the Confederate government. In such a spirit of confident generosity did the Republican party through its Congress effect the reconstruction of the nation after the storm and stress of the Civil War.

There was something more to be done. After safeguarding the Union, there must be a safeguarding of the freedom which had been given to the slaves. The slaves had been set free, as an incident of the war, and their re-enslavement would be forbidden by constitutional amendment. An amendment to that effect was proposed to the states by the Republican Congress on February 1, 1865 and was ratified by the votes of the Republican states—some Democratic states refusing to ratify it—December 18, 1865. But Republican statesmanship did not contemplate merely setting the negroes free and setting them adrift to shift for themselves. They were ignorant, propertyless, helpless. Under President Johnson's ill-devised scheme of “reconstruction” they would have been subject to vagrancy laws which would have made their condition even more deplorable than it had been under slavery. Republicans held that it was not for such an end that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued and the war fought to a triumphant finish. The abolition of slavery had been an act of the nation. The anti-slavery amendment to the Constitution was an act of the nation. It was therefore incumbent upon the nation, and was not to be left to the states, to protect the men who had been set free, to safeguard their civil rights and to give them a “square deal” and a fair chance to enjoy the privileges of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In pursuance of this wise and humane policy the Republicans in Congress enacted, despite Democratic opposition, a bill establishing a Freedmen's Bureau as a part of the national administration, thus giving national guardianship to the negroes as temporary wards of the nation. Following this came a Civil Rights law which recognized negroes as citizens of the United States—they had long been citizens of many of the states—safeguarded them in their rights of person and of property and forbade discrimination against them by any state laws. The purpose was to extend to the different races the same noble principle of democracy that the Republican party had adopted among individuals in society, of “equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” The purpose was to require the states of this Republic uniformly thus to treat their citizens, regardless of the color of their skins. The fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence was to be the fundamental principle of the nation of which that declaration was the primal charter. That was Republican statesmanship in dealing with the aftermath of human slavery.

In order to make this principle secure against any possible repudiation by a subsequent Congress of a different political faith, the next step taken was the incorporation of it in an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This fourteenth amendment was proposed to the states by the Republican Congress on June 16, 1866 and its ratification was proclaimed on July 28, 1868. It was promptly ratified by the votes of twenty-three northern and Republican states; three Democratic border states and ten Democratic southern states at first rejected it but the southern states aferward ratified it. This amendment provided that all persons born or naturalized in the United States should be citizens of the United States and of the states in which they lived; and that no state should abridge the privileges or immunities of any citizen, nor deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. In this there was no reference whatever to “race, color or previous conditions of servitude” or to the right of suffrage; the latter being left for subsequent action.

In the same amendment, the most elaborate ever adopted, there were included several other important provisions for the permanent and immutable readjustment of national issues affected by the result of the war. One had to do with representation in Congress. According to the Constitution Representatives in Congress were apportioned among the states according to their population and not according to the number of their actual citizens or of the votes case; but the population was to be reckoned as consisting of all the free persons and three-fifths of the slaves. That arrangement was always repugnant to Republicans because it violated the principle of equality of suffrage, making the vote of a white citizen of a slave state much more powerful than of a citizen of a free state. To retain that principle in the Constitution after the abolition of slavery would make the conditions still worse. For then representation would be based upon not merely three-fifths but the whole number of negroes in the former slave states, while the right to vote would be enjoyed by only the whites. Thus in a state in which half the population was black, each white voter would have two or three times the voting power of one in a state where there were few or no blacks. To cite precise figures: In a northern state there would be one Representative to every 127,000 voters, while in a southern state there would be one Representative to every 45,000 voters. The southern Members of Congress would thus represent not only the white men who actually voted for them but also a larger number of negroes who were not permitted to vote.

This was obviously unfair. It gave the southern states an undue advantage over the northern. Accordingly it was provided in the fourteenth amendment that if in any state the right of suffrage was denied to male adults for any cause save crime, the number of Representatives apportioned to that state should be correspondingly reduced. That meant that representation would be based not upon gross population but upon the voting population. It did not interfere with the right of a state to make its own suffrage laws and to exclude citizens from the exercise of that right, but it served notice that for such exclusion a state would have to pay a penalty in reduced Congressional representation. It made straight for what afterward became known as “equal suffrage,” the principle that every responsible adult person should be a citizen in the complete sense of the term, that every citizen should have one vote and no more, and that all votes should be of equal value.

The third section of this amendment provided that no person should hold office under the United States or under any state who, having previously held office and having therefore taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, had thereafter engaged in insurrection against the Constitution or had given comfort or aid to its enemies. But, it was added, Congress might, by a two-thirds vote of each House, remove such disability. The real purpose of this section was embodied in the last clause. It was not so much to impose the disabilities upon participants in the Civil War from the southern side as to vest in Congress, rather than in the President, the power to remove those disabilities; which the Republican Congress thereafter proceeded to do with a promptness and a completeness not approximated in similar circumstances by any other nation in the world.

Still another section had to do with public debts. It declared that the validity of the legally authorized public debt of the United States, including that incurred for bounties. and pensions for the national soldiers in the Civil War, should never be questioned; but that on the other hand neither the United States nor any state should ever assume or pay any debt contracted in aid of insurrection against the United States, or any claim for loss through the emancipation of any slave. This was intended to prevent any attempt to secure payments of the debt incurred on the bonds issued by the late Confederate States an attempt which, but for that provision of the Constitution, would doubtless have been made.

This formidable amendment, comprising these four topics, was purely of Republican authorship and advocacy. Proposed to the states in June, 1866 it was naturally the foremost political issue before the people in the Congressional campaign of that summer and fall, and was very widely debated upon the stump and in the press. The President, having broken with the Republican party, threw all the influence of his administration against that party, and in consequence of that circumstance the Republicans that year organized for the first time the Congressional Campaign Committee which has in every second year since then played an important part in national politics. The contest was between the “Congressional Party” and the "Presidential Party,” the former consisting of the great mass of the Republican party and a few “War Democrats,” and the latter of the mass of the Democratic party and a few Republicans who followed the President in his vagaries. The result of the polling was ing a more than two-thirds majority of the new Congress. Obviously, the nation repudiated the President and his policy and approved the Republican party and its plans for the reorganization of affairs.

The rejection of the fourteenth amendment by the ten southern states temporarily prevented the ratification of that instrument. It also indicated the revival of the sectional spirit which had in the past been so prolific of evil. The Republican leaders therefore determined to adopt more rigorous measures for the reconstruction of the South and the settlement of the issues of the war. Thus far the lately seceded states had been under governments and constitutions approved by the President but never sanctioned by Congress, and they were implacably hostile to the proposed establishment of universal citizenship and equal rights. Congress accordingly set aside those governments and substituted a temporary military administration, which made it clear that the restoration of the states to their normal place in the Union was dependent upon their acceptance of the results of the war as set forth in the fourteenth amendment. They must establish equal manhood suffrage, without regard to race. This they presently did and of course under such suffrage the fourteenth amendment was promptly ratified by them. By 1870, five years after the end of the war, the last of the formerly seceding states was fully reestablished in its place in the Federal Union.

Meantime, another constitutional amendment was deemed needful to complete the work of reconstruction. The states had granted the suffrage to the former slaves, but there was lacking sufficient guarantee that they would not at some future time withdraw it. Accordingly the fifteenth amendment was drafted by the Republican leaders, adopted by the Republican majority in Congress and proposed to the states on February 27, 1869 and was proclaimed as ratified on March 30, 1870. It was brief, and to the point, providing that “The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” The southern states being then generally under Republican Control, the amendment was ratified by nearly all of them. Tennessee did not act upon it at all. Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, California and Oregon rejected it. New Jersey at first rejected but afterward accepted it. New York ratified it and then rescinded its ratification. With the secure embodiment of this amendment in the Constitution, the legislative work of the Republican party for confirming the results of the war and for adapting the nation to the new conditions which followed the war seemed to be complete.