May 17, 1865: Reconstruction of Virginia

Andrew Johnson

Johnson takes a hard line on Virginia.

The executive order of President JOHNSON respecting Virginia, makes thorough work. It is a complete wiping out of four years of the civil history of the State, as far as rebels had to do with it in any way. It makes null and void every legislative act, every judicial act, every executive act, of whatever character. Of course, thousands of these acts had no bearing whatever upon the rebellion. They were laws and judicial decisions which related solely to the ordinary affairs of society, and which might have been made in any loyal State with the same propriety. Every will or title deed acknowledged before a public notary, commissioned by the Richmond Governor, is made worthless. Every judgment in a civil suit, every sentence in a criminal case, made by a magistrate or court appointed by the Richmond Legislature, or sworn in its name, is of no force. Every public and private bill added to the statute book is only so much waste paper. The loyal Legislature of Virginia, which met first in Wheeling, afterward in Alexandria, never undertook to legislate beyond the actual necessities of the loyal people, and passed very few general laws. The loyal Governor did not attempt to grant civil or judicial commissions within the rebel lines, for the very simple reason that no one, however loyal, would have dared to act under them. Thus, to more than a million of the people of Virginia, there is a complete abrogation of every act done during the last four years, under the supposed sanction of law.

This must certainly work an immense amount of hardship; yet it is unavoidable. It is impossible to discriminate between the good and the bad acts of the rebel State Government. If any are invalid, all are. The invalidity lies primarily in the lack of qualification of those who professed to act officially. State Legislatures, and State Governors, repudiating the Constitution of the United States, cease to have any authority that can be recognized under that constitution. Whatever they do is, in the eye of law, as if it were never done. It will devolve upon subsequent loyal Legislatures to remedy, so far as they can, the hardships that spring from the canceling of the harmless, as well as the traitorous pages, of this spurious legislation of the last four years. They will reenact all the so-called laws required by private justice, or the public good. Yet they cannot give this new valid legislation a retroactive effect. A great deal of the spurious legislation has been carried out into such practical shapes that it cannot be undone. So too of the proceedings of legal tribunals. The decisions of a court not rightly appointed, or rightly sworn, are as invalid as the votes of a Legislature not rightly elected, or rightly sworn. Yet thousands of such decisions in Virginia have taken effect, either wholly or partially. The unsettling of these must, at best, work a vast amount of confusion and damage. But whatever the ill effect, it is one of the natural consequences of a monstrous crime, and is thoroughly deserved. It must be taken as one of the forms of the punishment Virginia receives, and another illustration of the great truth, that “the way of transgressors is hard.”

After all, it is the mildest plan of reconstruction. The first shock will be severe, but it will quickly restore Virginia to her full State powers. Had the scheme of reducing the Southern States to the condition of Territories prevailed, it would have been an incubus upon them, and a humiliation, for an indefinite number of years. They would have been mere dependencies of the National Government, half-paralyzed limbs of the body politic. As it now is, they will quickly be in the possession of every function, and it will be their own fault if they do not soon make themselves as strong and prosperous as ever. Nearly all of the Southern States hold their elections under the old laws, in early August. There is no good reason why they may not prepare themselves, by that time, to exercise the franchise as of old, and to elect Governors, members of Legislature and members of Congress. To accomplish this, they have only to cooperate in good faith with the initiatory movements now made by the national authorities.

This plan of treating as absolutely void the ordinances of secession, and everything done by the legislators and all public functionaries acting under them, is the only logical sequence of the original principle that no State has a right to secede. It is the only plan which saves the supremacy and dignity of the constitution, and which is free from all mischievous precedent. To admit that the Southern States have been out of the Union, is to admit their power to put themselves out. It is to say that an act may be done counter to the constitution, and yet have a legal effect. If this be possible on a large scale, it must be no less possible on a small scale. If States can act with legal effect against the constitution, so can individuals.

The simple fact is that President JOHNSON had no alternative to this mode of rehabilitation. He could not, if he would, treat these States as dissevered from the Union; nor could Congress either. If the constitution does not permit secession, neither does it permit the government to recognize secession. Whatever is done against the constitution is void; and the government has no more power to treat it otherwise than the offender has to make it otherwise. This truth is too palpable to be obscured by any sophistry, senatorial or unsenatorial. President JOHNSON had but one road to take toward reconstruction, and he has taken it. He might, indeed, have stood still. If these States are still determined not to meet him on constitutional grounds, he may still consider them in a rebellious condition, and hold them under military rule. That mode of government may be prolonged just so long as necessity requires it. But when left, it must be in only one direction — precisely that which President JOHNSON has taken. The constitution allows no other. Many impediments may present themselves, but with a little patience, they will be cleared away; and, in the end, a grand success will vindicate the constitution here as gloriously as it has been vindicated on the field of battle.

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