Facts of Reconstruction, The



The defeat or abandonment of the Lodge Federal Elections Bill was equivalent to a declaration that no further attempts would be made for a good while, at least, to enforce by appropriate legislation the war amendments to the Constitution. Southern Democrats were not slow in taking advantage of the knowledge of that fact.

My own State, Mississippi, was the first to give legal effect to the practical nullification of the Fifteenth Amendment. On that question the Democratic party in the State was divided into two factions. The radical faction, under the leadership of Senator George, advocated the adoption and enforcement of extreme methods. The liberal or conservative faction,—or what was known as the Lamar wing of the party under the leadership of Senator Walthall,—was strongly opposed to such methods. Senator George advocated the calling of a Constitutional Convention, to frame a new Constitution for the State. Senator Walthall opposed it, contending that the then Constitution, though framed by Republicans, was, in the main, unobjectionable and should be allowed to stand. But Senator George was successful, and a convention was called to meet in the fall of 1890. In order to take no chances the Senator had himself nominated and elected a member of the Convention.

When the Convention met, it was found that there were two strong factions, one in favor of giving legal effect to the nullification of the Fifteenth Amendment, and the other opposed to it. The George faction was slightly in the majority, resulting in one of their number,—nullificationists, as they were called,—Judge S.S. Calhoun, being elected President of the Convention. The plan advocated and supported by the George faction, of which Senator George was the author, provided that no one be allowed to register as a voter, or vote if registered, unless he could read and write, or unless he could understand any section of the Constitution when read to him and give a reasonable interpretation thereof. This was known as the "understanding clause." It was plain to every one that its purpose was to evade the Fifteenth Amendment, and disfranchise the illiterate voters of one race without disfranchising those of the other.

The opposition to this scheme was under the leadership of one of the ablest and most brilliant members of the bar, Judge J.B. Christman, of Lincoln County. As a substitute for the George plan or understanding clause, he ably and eloquently advocated the adoption of a fair and honest educational qualification as a condition precedent to registration and voting, to be equally applicable to whites and blacks.

The speeches on both sides were able and interesting. It looked for a while as if the substitute clause proposed by Judge Christman would be adopted. In consequence of such an apprehension, Judge Calhoun, the President of the Convention, took the floor in opposition to the Christman plan, and in support of the one proposed by Senator George. The substance of his speech was that the Convention had been called for the purpose of insuring the ascendency of the white race,—the Democratic party,—in the administration of the State Government through some other methods than those which had been enforced since 1875.

"If you fail in the discharge of your duties in this matter," he declared, "the blood of every negro that will be killed in an election riot hereafter will be upon your shoulders."

In other words, the speaker frankly admitted, what everyone knew to be a fact, that the ascendency of the Democratic party in the State had been maintained since 1875 through methods which, in his opinion, should no longer be sanctioned and tolerated. These methods, he contended, were corrupting the morals of the people of the State and should be discontinued; but the ascendency of the Democratic party must be maintained at any cost. The George plan, he urged, would accomplish this result, because if the negroes were disfranchised according to the forms of law, there would be no occasion to suppress his vote by violence because he would have no vote to suppress; and there would be no occasion to commit fraud in the count or perjury in the returns.

Notwithstanding this frank speech, which was intended to arouse the fears of the members of the Convention from a party standpoint, the defeat of the Christman substitute was by no means an assured fact. But the advocates of the George plan,—the "understanding clause,"—were both desperate and determined. Contrary to public expectation two Republicans, Geo. B. Melchoir and I.T. Montgomery, had been elected to the Convention from Bolivar County. But their seats were contested, and it was assumed that their Democratic contestants would be seated. Still, pending the final disposition of the case, the two Republicans were the sitting members. Montgomery was colored and Melchoir was white. But the George faction needed those two votes. No one suspected, however, that they would get them in any other way than by seating the contestants. The advocates and supporters of the Christman substitute were, therefore, very much surprised and disappointed when they learned that Mr. Montgomery, the only colored member of the Convention, intended to make a speech in favor of the adoption of the George plan, and vote for it; which he did. Why this man, who had the reputation of being honest and honorable, and who in point of intelligence was considerably above the average of his race, should have thus acted and voted has always been an inexplicable mystery. It is difficult to believe that he was willing to pay such a price for the retention of his seat in the Convention, still it is a fact that the contest was never called and Montgomery and his colleague were allowed to retain their seats.

The adoption of the George plan was thus assured, but not without a desperate fight. The opponents of that scheme made a brave, though unsuccessful, fight against it. But it was soon made plain to the advocates of the George plan that what they had succeeded in forcing through the Convention would be defeated by the people at the ballot-box. In fact, a storm of protest was raised throughout the State. The Democratic press, as well as the members of that party, were believed to be about equally divided on the question of the ratification of the Constitution as thus framed. Since it was well known that the Republicans would be solid in their opposition to ratification, the rejection of the proposed Constitution was an assured fact. But the supporters of the George scheme felt that they could not afford to have the results of their labors go down in defeat. In order to prevent this they decided to deny the people the right of passing judgment upon the work of the Convention. The decision, therefore, was that the Convention by which the Constitution was framed should declare it duly ratified and approved, and to go into effect upon a day therein named. The people of that unfortunate State, therefore, have never had an opportunity to pass judgment upon the Constitution under which they are living and which they are required to obey and support, that right having been denied them because it was known that a majority of them were opposed to its ratification and would have voted against it.

But this so-called "understanding clause," or George scheme, is much more sweeping than was intended by its author. The intent of that clause was to make it possible to disfranchise the illiterate blacks without disfranchising the illiterate whites. But as construed and enforced it is not confined to illiterates but to persons of intelligence as well. No man, for instance, however intelligent he may be, can be registered as a voter or vote if registered, if the registering officers or the election officers are of the opinion that he does not understand the Constitution. It is true, the instrument is so worded that no allusion is made to the race or color of those seeking to be registered and to vote; still, it is perfectly plain to everyone that the purpose was to enable the State to do, through its authorized and duly appointed agents and representatives, the very thing the Fifteenth Amendment declares shall not be done. According to the decision of the Supreme Court, as rendered by Mr. Justice Strong, the effect is the same as if the instrument had declared in so many words that race or color should be the basis of discrimination and exclusion.

The bitter and desperate struggle between the two factions of the Democratic party in the State of Mississippi in this contest, forcibly illustrates the fact that the National Republican party made a grave mistake when it abandoned any further effort to enforce by appropriate legislation the war amendments to the Constitution. In opposing and denouncing the questionable methods of the extreme and radical faction of their own party, the conservative faction of the Democrats believed, expected, and predicted that such methods would not be acquiesced in by the Republican party, nor would they be tolerated by the National Government. If those expectations and predictions had been verified they would have given the conservative element a justifiable excuse to break away from the radicals, and this would have resulted in having two strong political parties in that section to-day instead of one. But when it was seen that the National Republican party made no further opposition to the enforcement of those extraneous, radical and questionable methods, that fact not only had the effect of preventing further opposition on the part of the conservative Democrats, but it also resulted in many of the politically ambitious among them joining the ranks of the radicals, since that was then the only channel through which it was possible for their political aspirations to be gratified.

The reader cannot fail to see that under the plan in force in Mississippi there is no incentive to intelligence; because intelligence does not secure access to the ballot-box, nor does the lack of it prevent such access. It is not an incentive to the accumulation of wealth; because the ownership of property does not secure to the owner access to the ballot-box, nor does the lack of it prevent such access. It is not a question of intelligence, wealth or character, nor can it be said that it is wholly a question of party. It is simply a question of factional affiliation. The standard of qualification is confined to such white men as may be in harmony with the faction that may happen to have control for the time being of the election machinery. What is true of Mississippi in this respect is equally true of the other States in which schemes of various sorts have been invented and adopted to evade the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.



The Congressional elections of 1890 resulted in a crushing defeat for the Republicans. This was due, no doubt, to the McKinley Tariff Bill which became a law only about a month before the elections of that year. Congress convened the first Monday in December, 1889, and that session did not come to a close until the following October. The Democrats in Congress made a bitter fight against the McKinley Tariff Bill, and, since it was a very complete and comprehensive measure, a great deal of time was necessarily consumed in its consideration and discussion. When it finally became a law the time between its passage and the elections was so short that the friends of the measure did not have time to explain and defend it before the elections took place. This placed the Republicans at a great disadvantage. They were on the defensive from the beginning. The result was a sweeping Democratic victory.

But, strange to say, the same issues that produced Democratic success and Republican defeat at that election brought about Republican success and Democratic defeat at the Presidential and Congressional elections in 1896. The McKinley Tariff Bill of 1890 was so popular six years later, that the author of that measure was deemed the strongest and most available man to place at the head of the Republican ticket as the candidate of that party for President. His election was a complete vindication of the wisdom of the measure of which he was the author and champion. In 1890 his bill was so unpopular that it resulted in his own defeat for reëlection to Congress. But this did not cause him to lose faith in the wisdom and the ultimate popularity of the bill which he was proud to have bear his name.

"A little time," said McKinley, "will prove the wisdom of the measure." In this he was not mistaken. His defeat for reëlection to Congress ultimately made him President of the United States; for the following year the Republicans of his State elected him Governor, which was a stepping-stone to the Presidency. All that was needed was an opportunity for the merits of his bill to be thoroughly tested. Shortly after its passage, but before it could be enforced or even explained, the people were led to believe that it was a harsh, cruel, and unjust measure, imposing heavy, unreasonable, and unnecessary taxes upon them, increasing the prices of the necessaries of life without a corresponding increase in the price of labor. The people were in an ugly mood in anticipation of what was never fully realized.

It is true that the tariff was not the sole issue that resulted in such a sweeping Republican victory in the National elections of 1896. The financial issue, which was prominent before the people at that time, was one of the contributory causes of that result. Still it cannot be denied that McKinley's connection with the Tariff Bill of 1890 was what gave him the necessary national prominence to make him the most available man to be placed at the head of his party ticket for the Presidency that year.

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