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RECONSTRUCTION: THE WORKING OUT
So the North turned cheerfully to its own affairs—and very engrossing affairs they were--and the South faced its new conditions. It was still struggling with the economic wreckage left by four years of battle, invasion and defeat. It had borne the loss of its separate nationality and the flag endeared by countless sacrifices. It had accepted the sudden emancipation of its servile class by the conqueror's hand. It had been encouraged by President Johnson to resume with little change its old ways of government. For two years it had gone along precariously with State organizations of the earlier pattern, subject to occasional interruption by military authority or officials of the Freedmen's Bureau. Then, in 1867, all State governments were set aside, and military rule pure and simple held the field-in most States for about fifteen months; in Mississippi, Texas and Virginia, by their own choice, for as much longer. Though as it was generally administered the military government was just, as well as economical, yet its maintenance was a bitter ordeal for a people with the American political habit; a people, too, who had fought gallantly for four years; who had, upon accepting their defeat, been assured that the object of their conqueror was attained in restoring them to their old position, except for emancipation of the slaves; and who now for a year or two longer were held under martial law.
At last-for most of them in mid-summer of 1868—they were again restored to self-government of the American
pattern. Self-government for all, thought the North complacently; whites and blacks were equal, not only as subjects of the law but as makers of the law; and so freedom and democracy were established. But the Southern whites asked in dismay, What kind of fellow-lawmakers have we got? The question answered itself. The million or so of new voters were most of them ignorant in a sense of which illiteracy gives but a hint. They were unversed even in genuine family life; skilled only in manual industry; unpracticed in citizenship; utterly untaught in the principles, the facts of history, the theory and art of self-government, which make up the proper equipment of the voter. A great part of them, field hands on the great cotton and sugar plantations, were rude and degraded, trained to live solely under close and constant control.
How were the whites to deal with these new-made voters? From the standpoint of expediency, three courses offered, to conciliate and educate them; to outvote them by massing the whites together; or to suppress them by force or fraud. From the standpoint of unregenerate human nature, the whites as a body at first took none of these courses,—they stood apart from the whole business of politics, in wrath and scorn. Unregenerate perhaps, but most natural, most human! At first, some crude policy mingled with the sentiment that kept them aloof; there was the hope that if the whites generally abstained from voting, at the elections held in November, 1867, to pass on the question whether to hold constitutional conventions, the proposal might fail for want of the requisite majority of the registered voters. It was a fallacious hope; suppose the conventions were to fail, what better terms were now to be expected from Congress? But the conventions were all held; and as in the same spirit most of the whites refused to vote for delegates, these were chosen from the negroes, their friends
from the North, and the few Southern whites who accepted the inevitable.
Is it not the wisest, the manliest course, to accept the inevitable? So asked General Longstreet, in a letter to a friend, June 3, 1867. He had just listened to Senator Wilson, and had been surprised by his fairness and frankness. For himself he says, “I will be happy to work in any harness that promises relief to our discomfited people, whether bearing the mantle of Mr. Davis or Mr. Sumner." Negro suffrage is for the present an established fact; if after a fair trial it works disastrously, we will appeal to Congress to repeal it. “If every one will meet the crisis with proper appreciation of our condition and obligations, the sun will rise to-morrow on a happy people.” But his words fell on deaf ears, and when he acted with the Republicans he was visited with ostracism, denunciation, and attack upon his war record. The typical attitude, at first, was that of the planter who, after listening to a discussion of the final reconstruction act, inquired, “Does it say anything about raising cotton?" "No." "Then, damn Congress and its laws! I'm going to raise cotton.” So he and a good many others gave themselves to raising cotton, and for a while left the choice of State officers and legislators to "niggers," "carpet-baggers," and scalawags." A "scalawag ” was any Southern white who allied himself politically with the negroes, and a “carpet-bagger” was a Northern adventurer, for whose worldly goods a gripsack sufficed, or, in general, any Northerner whatever.
For the blacks, the sudden opening of political power and preferment, however designed, was in effect a very doubtful benefit. It turned their hopes and aspirations in a way which was really “no thoroughfare.” To the more promising and ambitious it offered sudden and brilliant prizes, instead of the patient apprenticeship which they needed.
Of those who quickly rose to office, a few were by character and attainments really fit for their position; many won favor by shallow arts; and others were thrown up like driftwood by the tide. The negroes as a body could follow only a personal leadership,-how many whites, North or South, really follow any other ?—could be organized in bodies, attached to a party name and watchwords, and voted in mass by the men who had their confidence. They understood that their freedom and their right to vote had been given them by the North and by the Republican party, and to that party they naturally turned. Their old masters -in many cases their best friends-frankly told them they were unfit to vote, and wanted no dealings with them in political affairs. So they found leadership principally in the men who had come from the North.
There was a Northern immigration which may be classified as business men, teachers and adventurers.
A considerable number sought an opportunity in reviving and developing industry,—substantial men and good citizens. Sometimes a patriotic motive mingled with the industrial. Governor Andrew, on retiring to private life as a lawyer, tried for some time to advance a company for bringing into conjunction Southern lands and Northern enterprise and capital. There were various projects of this kind, but they met with little success. Private individuals, however, added something to the industrial and civic forces of the South. A larger class were the teachers. Men and women by hundreds went to the South, some sent by missionary organizations, some independently, to organize schools and to teach the children of the freedmen. Many of them were of the highest character, devoted, self-sacrificing, going to the blacks simply because they supposed their need was greatest. But Beecher's warning proved sound—because as a whole this movement took the negroes as a
distinct field, ignoring the needs of the whites, it incurred odium as an alien and half-hostile work. The barbaric element among the whites—and slavery had left a deep taint of barbarism—came out at its worst in insults to the “nigger teachers," with occasional burning of a school-house. The better social elements looked askance at those whose presence was a reminder of conquest and humiliation.
From the business and the educational immigration, a few Northern men were drawn into public affairs, less by choice than by necessity of the situation. With these mingled a different class, men who had been disreputable hangers-on of the army or the Freedmen's Bureau, or who had come for the sole purpose of plunder. It was a very mixed company of whites and blacks that made up the conventions and then filled the legislative halls and the public offices. The constitutions were not badly framed, except as they, for the most part, continued the exclusive clauses. The general legislation was various in its character. There were some excellent features, above all the institution in every State of a genuine public school system, where before there had been only makeshifts or make-believes. Some other good constructive work was done, toward establishing society on the new basis. Certainly nothing was enacted so bad as the "black codes" of a few years earlier, not to speak of the legislation under slavery. There were some unsuccessful attempts at engrafting institutions, like the township system, which had worked well in their native soil but could not be created out of hand. In general the white leadership of the dominant party averted much that might have been expected from the ignorance of its legislators as a mass. But plenty of waste and mischief was wrought. Place a crowd of hungry and untaught men next the public treasury with the lid off, and some results are sure. The men will not be safer guardians of the