Facts of Reconstruction, The



After the Presidential election of 1872 no one could be found who questioned the wisdom or practicability of the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction, or who looked for its overthrow, change or modification. After that election the situation was accepted by everyone in perfect good faith. No one could be found in any party or either race who was bold enough to express the opinion that the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction was a mistake, or that negro suffrage was a failure. To the contrary it was admitted by all that the wisdom of both had been fully tested and clearly vindicated. It will not be denied even now by those who will take the time to make a careful examination of the situation, that no other plan could have been devised or adopted that could have saved to the country the fruits of the victory that had been won on the field of battle. The adoption of any other plan would have resulted in the accomplishment of nothing but the mere physical abolition of slavery and a denial of the right of a State to withdraw from the Union. These would have been mere abstract propositions, with no authority vested in the National Government for their enforcement. The war for the Union would have been practically a failure. The South would have gained and secured substantially everything for which it contended except the establishment of an independent government. The black man, therefore, was the savior of his country, not only on the field of battle, but after the smoke of battle had cleared away.

Notwithstanding the general acceptance of this plan after the Presidential election of 1872, we find that in the fall of 1874 there was a complete and radical change in the situation,—a change both sudden and unexpected. It came, as it were, in the twinkling of an eye. It was like a clap of thunder from a clear sky. It was the State and Congressional elections of that year.

In the elections of 1872 nearly every State in the Union went Republican. In the State and Congressional elections of 1874 the result was the reverse of what it was two years before,—nearly every State going Democratic. Democrats were surprised, Republicans were dumbfounded. Such a result had not been anticipated by anyone. Even the State of Massachusetts, the birthplace of abolitionism, the cradle of American liberty, elected a Democratic Governor. The Democrats had a majority in the National House of Representatives that was about equal to that which the Republicans had elected two years before. Such veteran Republican leaders in the United States Senate as Chandler, of Michigan, Windom, of Minnesota, and Carpenter, of Wisconsin, were retired from the Senate. When the returns were all in it was developed that the Democrats did not have a clear majority on joint ballot in the Michigan Legislature, but the margin between the two parties was so close that a few men who had been elected as independent Republicans had the balance of power. These Independents were opposed to the reëlection of Senator Chandler. That the Democrats should be anxious for the retirement of such an able, active, aggressive, and influential Republican leader as Chandler was to be expected. That party, therefore, joined with the Independents in the vote for Senator which resulted in the election of a harmless old gentleman by the name of Christiancy. The Michigan situation was found to exist also in Minnesota, and the result was the retirement of that strong and able leader, Senator William Windom, and the election of a new and unknown man, McMillan.

What was true of Michigan and Minnesota was also found to be true of Wisconsin. The same sort of combination was made, which resulted in the retirement of the able and brilliant Matt Carpenter, and the election of a new man, Cameron, who was not then known outside of the boundaries of his State. Cameron proved to be an able man, a useful Senator, a good Republican and an improvement, in some respects, upon his predecessor; but his election was a defeat of the Republican organization in his State, which, of course, was the objective point with the Democrats.

It was the State and Congressional elections of 1874 that proved to be the death of the Republican party at the South. The party in that section might have survived even such a crushing blow as this, but for subsequent unfortunate events to which allusion has been made in a previous chapter, and which will be touched upon in some that are to follow. But, under these conditions, its survival was impossible. If the State and Congressional elections of 1874 had been a repetition of those of 1872 or if they had resulted in a Republican victory, Republican success in the Presidential election of 1876 would have been a reasonably assured fact. By that time the party at the South would have included in its membership from forty to fifty per cent of the white men of their respective States and as a result thereof it would have been strong enough to stand on its own feet and maintain its own independent existence, regardless of reverses which the parent organization might have sustained in other sections. But at that time the party in that section was in its infancy. It was young, weak, and comparatively helpless. It still needed the fostering care and the protecting hand of the paternal source of its existence.

When the smoke of the political battle that was fought in the early part of November, 1874, had cleared away, it was found that this strong, vigorous and healthy parent had been carried from the battle-field seriously wounded and unable to administer to the wants of its Southern offspring. The offspring was not strong enough to stand alone. The result was that its demise soon followed because it had been deprived of that nourishment, that sustenance and that support which were essential to its existence and which could come only from the parent which had been seriously if not fatally wounded upon the field of battle. After the Presidential election of 1872 Southern white men were not only coming into the Republican party in large numbers, but the liberal and progressive element of the Democracy was in the ascendency in that organization. That element, therefore, shaped the policy and declared the principles for which that organization stood. This meant the acceptance by all political parties of what was regarded as the settled policy of the National Government. In proof of this assertion a quotation from a political editorial which appeared about that time in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion,—the organ of the Democratic party,—will not be out of place. In speaking of the colored people and their attitude towards the whites, that able and influential paper said:

"While they [the colored people] have been naturally tenacious of their newly-acquired privileges, their general conduct will bear them witness that they have shown consideration for the feelings of the whites. The race line in politics would never have been drawn if opposition had not been made to their enjoyment of equal privileges in the government and under the laws after they were emancipated."

In other words, the colored people had manifested no disposition to rule or dominate the whites, and the only color line which had existed grew out of the unwise policy which had previously been pursued by the Democratic party in its efforts to prevent the enjoyment by the newly-emancipated race of the rights and privileges to which they were entitled under the Constitution and laws of the country. But after the State and Congressional elections of 1874 the situation was materially changed. The liberal and conservative element of the Democracy was relegated to the rear and the radical element came to the front and assumed charge.

Subsequent to 1872 and prior to 1875 race proscription and social ostracism had been completely abandoned. A Southern white man could become a Republican without being socially ostracized. Such a man was no longer looked upon as a traitor to his people, or false to his race. He no longer forfeited the respect, confidence, good-will, and favorable opinion of his friends and neighbors. Bulldozing, criminal assaults and lynchings were seldom heard of. To the contrary, cordial, friendly and amicable relations between all classes, all parties, and both races prevailed everywhere. Fraud, violence, and intimidation at elections were neither suspected nor charged by anyone, for everyone knew that no occasion existed for such things. But after the State and Congressional elections of 1874 there was a complete change of front. The new order of things was then set aside and the abandoned methods of a few years back were revived and readopted.

It is no doubt true that very few men at the North who voted the Republican ticket in 1872 and the Democratic ticket in 1874 were influenced in changing their votes by anything connected with Reconstruction. There were other questions at issue, no doubt, that influenced their action. There had been in 1873, for instance, a disastrous financial panic. Then there were other things connected with the National Administration which met with popular disfavor. These were the reasons, no doubt, that influenced thousands of Republicans to vote the Democratic ticket merely as an indication of their dissatisfaction with the National Administration.

But, let their motives and reasons be what they may, the effect was the same as if they had intended their votes to be accepted and construed as an endorsement of the platform declarations of the National Democratic Convention of 1868, at least so far as Reconstruction was concerned. Democrats claimed, and Republicans could not deny, that so far as the South was concerned this was the effect of the Congressional elections of 1874. Desertions from the Republican ranks at the South, in consequence thereof, became more rapid than had been the accessions between 1872 and 1875. Thousands who had not taken an open stand, but who were suspected of being inclined to the Republican party, denied that there had ever been any justifiable grounds for such suspicions. Many who had taken an open stand on that side returned to the fold of the Democracy in sackcloth and ashes,—upon bended knees, pleading for mercy, forgiveness and for charitable forbearance. They had seen a new light; and they were ready to confess that they had made a grave mistake, but, since their motives were good and their intentions were honest, they hoped that they would not be rashly treated nor harshly judged.

The prospects for the gratification and realization of the ambition of white men in that section had been completely reversed. The conviction became a settled fact that the Democratic party was the only channel through which it would be possible in the future for anyone to secure political distinction or receive official recognition,—hence the return to the ranks of that party of thousands of white men who had left it. All of them were eventually received, though some were kept on the anxious seat and held as probationers for a long time.

It soon developed that all that was left of the once promising and flourishing Republican party at the South was the true, faithful, loyal, and sincere colored men,—who remained Republican from necessity as well as from choice,—and a few white men, who were Republicans from principle and conviction, and who were willing to incur the odium, run the risks, take the chances, and pay the penalty that every white Republican who had the courage of his convictions must then pay. This was a sad and serious disappointment to the colored men who were just about to realize the hope and expectation of a permanent political combination and union between themselves and the better element of the whites, which would have resulted in good, honest, capable, and efficient local government and in the establishment and maintenance of peace, good-will, friendly, cordial, and amicable relations between the two races. But this hope, politically at least, had now been destroyed, and these expectations had been shattered and scattered to the four winds. The outlook for the colored man was dark and anything but encouraging. Many of the parting scenes that took place between the colored men and the whites who decided to return to the fold of the Democracy were both affecting and pathetic in the extreme.

The writer cannot resist the temptation to bring to the notice of the reader one of those scenes of which he had personal knowledge. Colonel James Lusk had been a prominent, conspicuous and influential representative of the Southern aristocracy of ante-bellum days. He enjoyed the respect and confidence of the community in which he lived,—especially of the colored people. He, like thousands of others of his class, had identified himself with the Republican party. There was in that community a Republican club of which Sam Henry, a well-known colored man, was president. When it was rumored,—and before it could be verified,—that Colonel Lusk had decided to cast his fortunes with the Republican party Henry appointed a committee of three to call on him and extend to him a cordial invitation to appear before the club at its next meeting and deliver an address. The invitation was accepted. As soon as the Colonel entered the door of the club, escorted by the committee, every man in the house immediately arose and all joined in giving three cheers and a hearty welcome to the gallant statesman and brave ex-Confederate soldier who had honored them with his distinguished presence on that occasion. He delivered a splendid speech, in which he informed his hearers that he had decided to cast his lot with the Republican party. It was the first public announcement of that fact that had been made. Of course he was honored, idolized and lionized by the colored people wherever he was known.

After the Congressional elections of 1874 Colonel Lusk decided that he would return to the ranks of the Democracy. Before making public announcement of that fact he decided to send for his faithful and loyal friend, Sam Henry, to come to see him at his residence, as he had something of importance to communicate to him. Promptly at the appointed time Henry made his appearance. He did not know for what he was wanted, but he had a well-founded suspicion, based upon the changed conditions which were apparent in every direction; hence, apprehension could be easily detected in his countenance. Colonel Lusk commenced by reminding Henry of the fact that it was before the club of which he was president and upon his invitation that he, Lusk, had made public announcement of his intention to act in the future with the Republican party. Now that he had decided to renounce any further allegiance to that party he thought that his faithful friend and loyal supporter, Sam Henry, should be the first to whom that announcement should be made. When he had finished Henry was visibly affected.

"Oh! no, Colonel," he cried, breaking down completely, "I beg of you do not leave us. You are our chief, if not sole dependence. You are our Moses. If you leave us, hundreds of others in our immediate neighborhood will be sure to follow your lead. We will thus be left without solid and substantial friends. I admit that with you party affiliation is optional. With me it is not. You can be either a Republican or a Democrat, and be honored and supported by the party to which you may belong. With me it is different. I must remain a Republican whether I want to or not. While it is impossible for me to be a Democrat it is not impossible for you to be a Republican. We need you. We need your prestige, your power, your influence, and your name. I pray you, therefore, not to leave us; for if you and those who will follow your lead leave us now we will be made to feel that we are without a country, without a home, without friends, and without a hope for the future. Oh, no, Colonel, I beg of you, I plead with you, don't go! Stay with us; lead and guide us, as you have so faithfully done during the last few years!"

Henry's remarks made a deep and profound impression upon Colonel Lusk. He informed Henry that no step he could take was more painful to him than this. He assured Henry that this act on his part was from necessity and not from choice.

"The statement you have made, Henry, that party affiliations with me is optional," he answered, "is presumed to be true; but, in point of fact, it is not. No white man can live in the South in the future and act with any other than the Democratic party unless he is willing and prepared to live a life of social isolation and remain in political oblivion. While I am somewhat advanced in years, I am not so old as to be devoid of political ambition. Besides I have two grown sons. There is, no doubt, a bright, brilliant and successful future before them if they are Democrats; otherwise, not. If I remain in the Republican party,—which can hereafter exist at the South only in name,—I will thereby retard, if not mar and possibly destroy, their future prospects. Then, you must remember that a man's first duty is to his family. My daughters are the pride of my home. I cannot afford to have them suffer the humiliating consequences of the social ostracism to which they may be subjected if I remain in the Republican party.

"The die is cast. I must yield to the inevitable and surrender my convictions upon the altar of my family's good,—the outgrowth of circumstances and conditions which I am powerless to prevent and cannot control. Henceforth I must act with the Democratic party or make myself a martyr; and I do not feel that there is enough at stake to justify me in making such a fearful sacrifice as that. It is, therefore, with deep sorrow and sincere regret, Henry, that I am constrained to leave you politically, but I find that I am confronted with a condition, not a theory. I am compelled to choose between you, on one side, and my family and personal interests, on the other. That I have decided to sacrifice you and yours upon the altar of my family's good is a decision for which you should neither blame nor censure me. If I could see my way clear to pursue a different course it would be done; but my decision is based upon careful and thoughtful consideration and it must stand."

Of course a stubborn and bitter fight for control of the Democratic organization was now on between the antagonistic and conflicting elements among the whites. It was to be a desperate struggle between the former aristocrats, on one side, and what was known as the "poor whites," on the other. While the aristocrats had always been the weaker in point of numbers, they had been the stronger in point of wealth, intelligence, ability, skill and experience. As a result of their wide experience, and able and skillful management, the aristocrats were successful in the preliminary struggles, as illustrated in the persons of Stephens, Gordon, Brown and Hill, of Georgia; Daniels and Lee, of Virginia; Hampton and Butler, of South Carolina; Lamar and Walthall, of Mississippi, and Garland, of Arkansas. But in the course of time and in the natural order of things the poor whites were bound to win. All that was needed was a few years' tutelage and a few daring and unscrupulous leaders to prey upon their ignorance and magnify their vanity in order to bring them to a realization of the fact that their former political masters were now completely at their mercy, and subject to their will.

That the poor whites of the ante-bellum period in most of the late slaveholding or reconstructed States are now the masters of the political situation in those States, is a fact that will not be questioned, disputed or denied by anyone who is well informed, or who is familiar with the facts. The aristocrats of ante-bellum days and their descendants in the old slave States are as completely under the political control and domination of the poor whites of the ante-bellum period as those whites were under them at that time. Yet the reader must not assume that the election returns from such States indicate the actual, or even the relative, strength of the opposing and antagonistic elements and factions. They simply indicate that the poor whites of the past and their descendants are now the masters and the leaders, and that the masters and the leaders of the past are now the submissive followers.

In the ranks of those who are now the recognized leaders is to be found some of the very best blood of the land,—the descendants of the finest, best, most cultivated, and most refined families of their respective States. But as a rule they are there, not from choice, but from necessity,—not because they are in harmony with what is being done, or because they approve of the methods that are being employed and pursued, but on account of circumstances and conditions which they can neither control nor prevent. They would not hesitate to raise the arm of revolt if they had any hope, or if they believed that ultimate success would be the result thereof. But as matters now stand they can detect no ray of hope, and can see no avenue of escape. Hence nothing remains for them to do but to hold the chain of political oppression and subjugation, while their former political subordinates rivet and fasten the same around their unwilling necks. They find they can do nothing but sacrifice their pride, their manhood, and their self-respect upon the altar of political necessity. They see, they feel, they fully realize the hopelessness of their condition and the helplessness of their situation. They see, they know, they acknowledge that in the line of political distinction and official recognition they can get nothing that their former political subordinates are not willing for them to have. With a hope of getting a few crumbs that may fall from the official table they make wry faces and pretend to be satisfied with what is being done, and with the way in which it is done. They are looked upon with suspicion and their loyalty to the new order of things is a constant source of speculation, conjecture, and doubt. But, for reasons of political expediency, a few crumbs are allowed occasionally to go to some one of that class,—crumbs that are gratefully acknowledged and thankfully received, upon the theory that some little consideration is better than none at all, especially in their present helpless and dependent condition. But even these small crumbs are confined to those who are most pronounced and outspoken in their declarations and protestations of loyalty, devotion, and subservient submission to the new order of things.

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