Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

424

WAS CONGRESS TO BLAME ?

bers, and it may be said the entire Democratic party, answered unanimously in the negative, and neither the majority of the Republican leaders nor the rank and file of the party were prepared to answer in the affirmative. The innovation was too sweeping, except for the radical Republicans. Moreover, it reversed the practice of the country since the foundation of the National Government, and, indeed, even from a more remote past; for, in colonial times, the right to vote had been regulated by the several assemblies and not by Parliament. The momentum of political custom must always be taken into account when innovations are under discussion. It has often been asked in later times, why, when Congress was enacting the Fifteenth Amendment, it did not boldly and explicitly put the regulation of the elective franchise and of the right to hold office wholly under the control of the National Government?

The Fortieth Congress has been blamed, by those who call themselves Nationalists, because it neglected to perfect the work of reconstruction by passing a Fifteenth Amendment of this kind. The objections to Senator Williams' amendment are a sufficient reply to these later day critcisms. The Fortieth Congress contained an unusual number of men possessing wide political knowledge and experience in public affairs; it was not under the control of the Radicals, though these were present in respectable numbers and frequently gave utterance to their political faith with such eloquence and power that their extreme notions have become a great tradition in our history. The controlling minds of that Congress well knew the difficulties and dangers of attempting so radical a change in our political institutions as to give to the National Government the power to control the elective franchise and the right to hold office. The long established doctrine of

POLICY OF THE OPPOSITION.

425

residuary sovereignty in the States checked every effort of the Republicans to effect the innovation. For nearly a hundred years that doctrine had gathered strength and at last had permeated nearly every State constitution and every election law in the country. It was too firmly embedded in the political mind and in the political traditions of the people to be obliterated by so sudden a procedure as an act of Congress in the form of a joint resolution, which, to become a part of the Constitution, must be ratified by three-fourths of the States. The civil war, though profoundly affecting the thought of the country, had not prepared the public mind to accept so radical an innovation.

The policy of the opposition was therefore clear; it could not defeat a suffrage amendment in some form, but it might largely determine the form. Fully conscious of the practical value of the doctrine of residuary sovereignty in the States, it could compel the Republicans to so word their amendment as to recognize that sovereignty, and thus, practically, continue to the States the right to regulate the elective franchise. Senator Sumner, who in his political creed paid little respect to dictionaries, warned the Senate against making any regulation of elections which would work the disfranchisement of the black race. The case, he said, was one of human rights, against State rights. The national idea as embodied in the Constitution forbade discrimination against any race, and he argued from our national history, that both the letter and spirit of the Constitution were universal and humane. Because the United States was empowered to guarantee to every State in the Union a republican form of government, it was empowered, he said, to enforce the guarantee, through the regulation of the elective franchise. He well knew that the opposition would insist on that defi

[blocks in formation]

nition of republican government found in the State constitutions at the time the national Constitution was adopted, but, by citations from the debates in the Federal Convention, from the Federalist, from the decisions of Chief-Justice Marshall, from the debates on Civil Rights Bill and on the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, he was satisfied that colored persons were citizens of the United States; that no State could abridge their privileges and immunities, and that the National Government had the original right to regulate the suffrage.

Sumner was a firm believer in the higher-law doctrine which Seward, now Secretary of State, had laid down, much to the consternation of the slavocrats, at the time of the admission of California. But the practical difficulty with this doctrine was that it went too far. Sumner, like Jefferson, considered the Constitution as of little more importance than an act of Congress, but the very broadness and comprehensiveness of his political views, and their humanity was unbounded,—made them difficult to reduce to practice, and though he rarely supported measures not his own, the inferential bearing of his opinions practically hindered rather than helped the proposition which Senator Williams had made. Sumner's earnest plea for the equal treatment of the black and white races involved him now in an encounter with Senator Vickers, of Maryland, whom he forced to confess that, the two races, being different, could not exist prosperously and happily together, and that it would be better that the blacks should be sent to the tropics where they would thrive and develop all their faculties;' that ours was a white man's government, and discrimination against the black race was based upon a sound political philosophy. These opinions were not new; they had been held and

1 Globe, 905.

[blocks in formation]

often uttered by Senators from northern, middle and southern States alike; but, uttered at this time, they significantly gave voice to the political creed of the opposition, and clearly showed that all the changes which the last eight years had wrought had not changed the opinions of a powerful constituency. Their reiteration intensified the zeal of the Republicans to extend to the black race, ere it was too late, the protecting arm of the Constitution.

The Maryland Senator, unconsciously playing the part of a prophet, ridiculed Sumner's opinion that the extension of the right of suffrage to the negro would give the country peace. Such a violation of the Constitution, he declared, would be “but the beginning of strife;" and he contrasted the sentiments and the constitutional position of Sumner with the principles and doctrines of the constitutional law "which were promulgated by his illustrious predecessor, and which had secured to him the appellation of the expounder and defender of the Constitution.” Not one word had Webster ever spoken, he said, on the latitudinarian views, which Sumner and other radicals now expressed on the subject of construing the Constitution.

Members, less learned but more tactful than Senator Sumner, who were willing to support a suffrage amendment, whether in the language of the House or of the Senate Committee, were well represented by Senator Willey of Connecticut. The main purpose of the amendment, he said, was clear-the enfranchisement of the colored race. As it was a maxim of the fathers that all just government must rest on the consent of the governed, the colored people of the country must be recognized as citizens, be held subject to its laws, and have a right to participate in the administration of its government. To tax them for its support and compel them to bear arms in its defense, would violate the principle which the Revolution itself had estab

[blocks in formation]

lished—that taxation without representation is tyranny. As long as the negro remained disfranchised, it was idle to hope for his advancement. The welfare of the white race, no less than that of his own, required his immediate admission into all the privileges and immunities of civil and political life. The amendment would settle, for all time, the question of negro suffrage in the insurgent States, where it had lately been extended under the pressure of congressional legislation; and would preclude the possibility of any future denial of the privilege by any change in their constitutions. In those States in which the colored race was numerous, the adoption of the amendment would remove a source of danger. Merely to emancipate the race and to exclude it from participation in political privileges must intensify a sense of degradation, breed a spirit of revolt and produce a degenerate and burdensome population. The enfranchisement of the negro would remove him from the arena of national politics, and relieve the nation from those conflicts of opinion and outbursts of passion which had retarded its prosperity ever since the Revolution. The right to vote was the only sure guarantee which the

negro could have, in many sections of the country, for the enjoyment of his civil rights. Without it his freedom would be imperfect, “if not in peril of total overthrow." The ballot would be a safer shield than the laws. Moreover, the adoption of the amendment would place all the States on an equality. The exigency of imposing negro suffrage on the insurgent States had necessarily grown out of the late rebellion. Other States had involuntarily enfranchised the negro, and the adoption of the amendment would effect a like change in the remaining States. The political enfranchisement of the colored race was clearly demanded by national policy and expediency. But the demand was even louder and clearer in consideration of

« AnteriorContinuar »