Facts of Reconstruction, The



It was during the administration of President Harrison that another effort was made to secure the enactment by Congress of the necessary legislation for the effective enforcement of the war amendments to the National Constitution,—a Federal Elections Bill. Mr. Lodge, of Massachusetts, was the author of the bill. But the fact was soon developed that there were so many Republicans in and out of Congress who lacked the courage of their convictions that it would be impossible to secure favorable action. In fact there were three classes of white men at the South who claimed to be Republicans who used their influence to defeat that contemplated legislation. The white men at the South who acted with the Republican party at that time were divided into four classes.

First, those who were Republicans from principle and conviction—because they were firm believers in the principles, doctrines, and policies for which the party stood, and were willing to remain with it in adversity as well as in prosperity,—in defeat as well as in victory. This class, I am pleased to say, while not the most noisy and demonstrative, comprised over seventy-five per cent, of the white membership of the party in that part of the country.

Second, a small but noisy and demonstrative group, comprising about fifteen per cent of the remainder, who labored under the honest, but erroneous, impression that the best and most effective way to build up a strong Republican party at the South was to draw the color line in the party. In other words, to organize a Republican party to be composed exclusively of white men, to the entire exclusion of colored men. What those men chiefly wanted,—or felt the need of for themselves and their families,—was social recognition by the better element of the white people of their respective localities. They were eager, therefore, to bring about such a condition of things as would make it possible for them to be known as Republicans without subjecting themselves and their families to the risk of being socially ostracized by their white Democratic neighbors. And then again those men believed then, and some of them still believe or profess to believe, that southern Democrats were and are honest and sincere in the declaration that the presence of the colored men in the Republican party prevented southern white men from coming into it. "Draw the race line against the colored man,—organize a white Republican party,—and you will find that thousands of white men who now act with the Democratic party will join the Republicans." Some white Republicans believed that the men by whom these declarations were made were honest and sincere,—and it may be that some of them were,—but it appears not to have occurred to them that if the votes of the colored men were suppressed the minority white vote, unaided and unprotected, would be powerless to prevent the application of methods which would nullify any organized effort on their part. In other words, nothing short of an effective national law, to protect the weak against the strong and the minority of the whites against the aggressive assaults of the majority of that race, would enable the minority of the whites to make their power and influence effective and potential; and even then it could be effectively done only in coöperation with the blacks. Then again, they seemed to have lost sight of the fact,—or perhaps they did not know it to be a fact,—that many leading southern Democrats are insincere in their declarations upon the so-called race question. They keep that question before the public for political and party reasons only, because they find it to be the most effective weapon they can use to hold the white men in political subjection. The effort, therefore, to build up a "white" Republican party at the South has had a tendency, under existing circumstances, to discourage a strong Republican organization in that section. But, even if it were possible for such an organization to have a potential existence, it could not be otherwise than ephemeral, because it would be wholly out of harmony with the fundamental principles and doctrines of the national organization whose name it had appropriated. It would be in point of fact a misnomer and, therefore, wholly out of place as one of the branches of the national organization which stands for, defends, and advocates the civil and political equality of all American citizens, without regard to race, color, nationality, or religion. Any organization, therefore, claiming to be a branch of the Republican party, but which had repudiated and denounced the fundamental and sacred creed of that organization, would be looked upon by the public as a close, selfish and local machine that was brought into existence to serve the ends, and satisfy the selfish ambition of the promoters and organizers of the corporation. Yet there were a few well-meaning and honest white men in some of the Southern States who were disposed, through a mistaken sense of political necessity, to give such a movement the benefit of their countenance. But the movement has been a lamentable failure in States where it has been tried, and it cannot be otherwise in States where it may yet be tried. Men who were in sympathy with a movement of this sort took a pronounced stand against the proposed Federal Elections Bill, and used what influence they had to prevent its passage; their idea being that, if passed, it would have a tendency to prevent the accomplishment of the purposes they had in contemplation.

Third, a group that consisted of a still smaller number who were Republicans for revenue only,—for the purpose of getting office. If an office were in sight they would be quite demonstrative in their advocacy of the Republican party and its principles; but if they were not officially recognized, their activities would not only cease, but they would soon be back into the fold of the Democracy. But should they be officially recognized they would be good, faithful, and loyal Republicans,—at least so far as words were concerned,—until they ceased to be officials, when they would cease at the same time to be Republicans. Men of this class were, of course, opposed to the proposed legislation for the enforcement of the war amendments to the Constitution.

Fourth, a group that consisted of an insignificantly small number of white men who claimed to be national Republicans and local Democrats,—that is, they claimed that they voted for the Republican candidate for President every four years, but for Democrats in all other elections. Of course they were against the proposed legislation. These men succeeded in inducing some well-meaning Republican members of Congress, like Senator Washburne, of Minnesota, for instance, to believe that the passage of such a bill would have a tendency to prevent the building up of a strong Republican organization at the South. Then again, the free silver question was before the public at that time. The Republican majority in the Senate was not large. Several of those who had been elected as Republicans were free silver men. On that question they were in harmony with a majority of the Democrats, and out of harmony with the great majority of Republicans. The Free Silver Republicans, therefore, were not inclined to support a measure that was particularly offensive to their friends and allies on the silver question. After a careful canvass of the Senate it was developed that the Republican leaders could not safely count on the support of any one of the Free Silver Republicans in their efforts to pass the bill, and, since they had the balance of power, any further effort to pass it was abandoned. It was then made plain to the friends and supporters of that measure that no further attempt would be made in that direction for a long time, if ever.

I wrote and had published in the Washington Post a letter in which I took strong grounds in favor of having the representation in Congress,—from States where the colored men had been practically disfranchised through an evasion of the Fifteenth Amendment,—reduced in the manner prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. In that letter I made an effort to answer every argument that had been made in opposition to such a proposition. It had been argued by some fairly good lawyers, for instance, that the subsequent ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment had so modified the Fourteenth as to take away from Congress this optional and discretionary power which had been previously conferred upon it by the Fourteenth Amendment. I tried in that letter,—and I think I succeeded,—to answer the argument on that point. It was also said that if Congress were to take such a step it would thereby give its sanction to the disfranchisement of the colored men in the States where that had been done. This I think I succeeded in proving was untrue and without foundation. The truth is that the only material difference between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments on this particular point is that, subsequent to the ratification of the Fourteenth and prior to the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, a State could legally disfranchise white or colored men on account of race or color, but, since the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, this cannot be legally done. If, then, Congress had the constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment to punish a State in the manner therein prescribed, for doing what the State then had a legal and constitutional right to do, I cannot see why Congress has not now the same power and authority to inflict the same punishment upon the State for doing or permitting to be done what it now has no legal and constitutional right to do.

No State, in my opinion, should be allowed to take advantage of its own wrongs, and thus, by a wrongful act, augment its own power and influence in the government. To allow a majority of the white men in the State of Mississippi, for instance, to appropriate to themselves through questionable methods the representative strength of the colored population of that State, excluding the latter from all participation in the selection of the representatives in Congress, is a monstrous wrong, the continuance of which should not be tolerated.

For every crime there must be a punishment; for every wrong there must be a remedy, and for every grievance there must be a redress. That this state of things is wrong and unjust, if not unlawful, no fair-minded person will deny. It is not only wrong and unjust to the colored people of the State, who are thus denied a voice in the government under which they live and to support which they are taxed, but it also involves a grave injustice to the States in which the laws are obeyed and the National Constitution,—including the war amendments to the same,—is respected and enforced. I am aware of the fact that it is claimed by those who are responsible for what is here complained of that, while the acts referred to may be an evasion if not a violation of the spirit of the Constitution, yet, since they do not violate the letter of the Constitution the complaining parties are without a remedy, and therefore have no redress. This contention is not only weak in logic but unsound in law, even as construed by the Supreme Court of the United States, which tribunal seems to be the last to which an appeal can be successfully made, having for its object the enforcement of the Constitution and laws so far as they relate to the political and civil rights of the colored Americans. That a State can do by indirection what it cannot do directly, is denied even by the Supreme Court of the United States.

That doctrine was clearly and distinctly set forth in a decision of the Court rendered by Mr. Justice Strong, which was concurred in by a majority of his associates. In that decision it was held that affirmative State action is not necessary to constitute race discrimination by the State. In other words, in order to constitute affirmative State action in violation of the Constitutional mandate against distinction and discrimination based on race or color, it is not necessary that the State should pass a law for that purpose. The State, the Court declared, acts through its agents, Legislative, Executive and Judicial. Whenever an agent or representative of the State acts, his acts are binding upon the State, and the effect is the same as if the State had passed a law for that purpose. If a judge, for example, in the selection of jurors to serve in his court should knowingly and intentionally allow a particular race to be excluded from such service on account of race or color, the effect would be the same as if the State, through its Legislature, had passed a law for that purpose. The colored men in the States complained of, have been disfranchised in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution, either by affirmative State action, or through and by the State's agents and representatives. Their acts, therefore, constitute State action as fully as if the Legislature had passed a law for that purpose.

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