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CONGRESS AND THE “BLACK CODES
CONGRESS assembled at the beginning of December, 1865, and at the very outset declared that the work of reconstruction must pass under its hands. Before the President's message was read, Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the House, moved that a joint committee of fifteen on reconstruction, be appointed by the House and Senate; and that until that committee had reported no senator or representative from the lately seceded States should be admitted. This action was taken at once, by a large majority in both houses, and the committee was promptly appointed, with Senator Fessenden at its head. Then the President's message was read,-a very able paper, broad and statesmanlike in tone, recounting the President's action and the choice of conventions and Legislatures in the seceded States; their repudiation of secession and slavery; the inauguration of loyal State governments ;-this, with an invitation to Congress to accept and co-operate in this policy, and a hopeful view of the general situation. The message was favorably received, and for a moment it looked as if the President and Congress might work in harmony.
But the claim of Congress to a paramount voice in the settlement was well based, not only in constitutional theory, but in the immediate facts. Congress came fresh from the people; its members knew how the currents of popular thought and feeling ran. The President was comparatively out of touch with the nation; he had, so to speak, no personal constituency; he was a Southern loyalist, apart from
the mass of both South and North. Further, this Congress was personally a strong body of men. They represented in an unusual degree not merely the average sentiment but the better sentiment of the North. To glance at a few of their leaders: Thaddeus Stevens was a Pennsylvanian, a leader at the bar, active in anti-slavery politics, conspicuous by his successful defense of the State's public school system; a man of strong convictions and strong passions, a natural fighter; skillful in parliamentary management; vigorous and often bitter in debate; not scrupulous in political methods; loyal to his cause and his friends, and vindictive to his enemies; an efficient party leader, but in no high sense a statesman. Up to his death in 1868 he exercised such a mastery over the Republican majority in the House as no man since has approached. He is sometimes spoken of as if he had been the ruling spirit in reconstruction, but this seems a mistake. He was a leader in it, so far as his convictions coincided with the strong popular current; but his favorite ideas were often set aside. He was an early advocate of a wide confiscation, but that policy found no support; and at the crucial points of the reconstruction proceedings he was often thwarted and superseded by more moderate men.
Charles Sumner was a high-minded idealist and a scholar, devoted to noble ends, but not well versed in human nature. He was a lover of Man, but with men he was not much acquainted. His oratory was elaborate and ornate, and he unduly estimated the power of words. Sometimes, says Senator Hoar, he seemed to think the war was to be settled by speech-making, and was impatient of its battles as an interruption—like a fire-engine rumbling past while he was orating. But he had large influence, partly from his thoroughly disinterested character, and partly because beyond any other man in public life he represented the ele
ments of moral enthusiasm among the people. His counterpart was Henry Wilson, his colleague in the Senate. Wilson had risen from the shoe-maker's bench, and knew the common people as a cobbler knows his tools. He was genial in temperament; public-spirited and generous in his aims; a most skilful tactician, and not over-scrupulous. He joined the Know-nothings, with no sympathy for their proscriptive creed, but in the break-up of parties using them for the anti-slavery cause, and to secure his own election to the United States Senate. He was a good fighter, but without rancor; and he was an admirable interpreter of the real democracy. Senator Hoar, in his autobiography, graphically describes how at some crisis Wilson would travel swiftly over the State, from Boston to Berkshire, visit forty shops and factories in a day, talk with politicians all night, study the main currents and the local eddies; and after a week or two of this—seeming meanwhile to be backing and filling in his own mind-would "strike a blow which had in it not only the vigor of his own arm, but the whole vigor and strength of the public sentiment which he had gathered and which he represented.”
Prominent in the Senate was "bluff Ben Wade” of Ohio, an old-time anti-slavery man, radical, vigorous, a stout friend and foe. Another conspicuous radical was Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. He was born in New Hampshire, went West early in life, and was a chief organizer and leader of the Republican party in Michigan. He was a mixture of Yankee shrewdness and Western energy; patriotic, masterful, somewhat coarse-grained and materialistic; and, like many of his associates, better suited for controversy and war than for conciliation and construction. Of a higher type were three men who stood near the head in the Senate,- John Sherman of Ohio, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, and William P. Fessenden of Maine. In the
qualities for solid work, few men of his time surpassed Sherman. He was wise in framing legislation, and good administrator,-an upright, moderate, serviceable man. Trumbull, of Connecticut birth, was well trained in the law and eminent as a constitutional lawyer. He made his serious entrance into public life along with Lincoln, and was his near friend and adviser. He was an able though not a brilliant debater; a man of independent convictions and thorough courage. Fessenden, like Trumbull, was entitled to rank as a real statesman. Like Trumbull he had no popular arts, and where Trumbull was reticent and withdrawn in manner, Fessenden was austere and sometimes irascible. In private character both were above reproach. Fessenden had a finely-trained and richly-equipped mind. In an emergency, after Chase's retirement, he accepted the secretaryship of an almost bankrupt treasury, and handled it well. His devotion to duty was unreserved; he was an admirable debater; and he had the high power of framing legislation. His was the most important work of the reconstruction committee, and Trumbull, as chairman of the judiciary committee, had a chief hand in the other leading measures. The Democrats were few and not strong in leadership; their ablest man was Reverdy Johnson of Maryland,-highly educated and large-minded. With these were other senators of repute; and in the House there were abundant men of mark,—Colfax, Blaine, Banks, Boutwell, Dawes, Conkling, Henry J. Raymond, Randall, Hayes, Garfield, Bingham, Shellabarger, Voorhees, Elihu B. Washburn;-space is wanting to name others, or to individually characterize these.
In estimating the work of reconstruction we must take account of the character of the men who shaped it. Taking these leaders as a body, they fall into groups,-Sumner for the uncompromising idealists; the radicals by temperament,
like Stevens, Wade, and Chandler; the men of higher training, minds of the statesman's type, and a certain austerity of temper, such as Fessenden, Trumbull, and Sherman. Among them all there was a deficiency of that blending of large view, close insight, and genial humanity, which marked Lincoln. Small discredit to them that they were not his peers,—but the work in hand demanded just such a combination.
It is to be remembered that all of these, like the mass of the Northern people, had been for many years contending with all their might for certain ends, and in keenest hostility to the Southern whites. They had fought for the Union and freedom; the South had fought for the Confederacy and slavery. By sheer overpowering physical force the Southern armies had been beaten down, and peace restored, and in name at least the national authority re-established. But by conviction, habit, instinct, these opponents yet hot from the battle-field would scrutinize with jealous care the real success of their principles and the disposition of their late foes.
The President's policy, as laid down in his message, was at once challenged in Congress. Stevens opened the debate in the House, and, without directly assailing the President, antagonized his theory that the States, like the Union, were indestructible, that secession had only temporarily suspended their relation, and that they now by right recurred at once to their normal position. Against this Stevens maintained that by their rebellion these States had, as organizations, committed suicide, that they now were in the position of conquered territory, and that out of this territory Congress was to create new States on whatever terms it judged most expedient. The President's theory found an able supporter in Henry J. Raymond, who had just exchanged the editorship of the New York Times for a seat in Congress. But