August 25, 1865: The Boston Letter

Jared Sparks
Jared Sparks

The letter below was signed by a large group in Boston. It makes a detailed argument for black suffrage, based both on justice and expediency. The signers include Jared Sparks, president of Harvard University from 1849-1853, Nathaniel Thayer, fellow of the Harvard Corporation 1868-1875, Theophilus Parsons, Dane Professor of Law at Harvard 1848-1870, Emory Washburn, Bussey Professor of Law at Harvard 1862-1876, Peleg W. Chandler of the Massachusetts Historical Society, John B. Alley, US Representative from Massachusetts, and others. It was published in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.

The Liberator, August 25, 1865, p.2

The Rebellion forced upon the loyal States a long war, costly in blood and treasure. The military conflict has ended, and we all rejoice at its termination. Most of the States which were rebels are held in military possession. We shall rejoice when this also terminates. You have repeatedly expressed and distinctly indicated a strong desire to relax and remove your military grasp of those States. With this desire we have the fullest sympathy. The sooner peace, with all its relations and with all its blessings, can be established, the sooner will every part of this great country be active in promoting its own prosperity, and the prosperity of every other part and of the whole.

We believe, however, that no one knows better than you do, that peace itself will be only an illusion and a mischief, and not that peace over which we may all rejoice, if it be precipitated to the neglect of those terms and conditions which the safety and security of the whole country demand, and which it is therefore equally the right and the duty of the whole country to insist upon.

The questions presented by the present attitude of the States which rebelled against the nation are numerous and have many aspects. We have no doubt that they, and whatever may be suggested to you in relation to them, will receive from you due consideration. We ask now to offer to you some views upon the safety, prosperity and the good faith of the whole country.

The National Constitution gave to the white men of those States votes for three-fifths of the slaves. It was there, a compact: the free States admitted its binding force, and would never have interfered with the exercise of this right in those States bad they not voluntarily renounced by rebellion this and all their constitutional rights. But we cannot think it would be either just or prudent to restore to them now those three-fifths, and at the same time make them a present of the other two-fifths. All reasons founded upon the principles of free and equal republican institutions are against this; and, instead of a necessity for doing it, the whole country appears to us to be under that necessity which a due regard to our safety and security creates, not to do it.
We have made the slaves freemen, free citizens of the United States. They must therefore all, at the next and subsequent apportionments of representatives, be counted among those whose number measures the right of national representation. It might well be asked, Would it be right—we ask now only would it be safe, —to permit all the votes of these colored men to be cast, but to require that all their votes should be cast for them by the white men living by their side? There would be injustice, and we think there would be Insecurity, in saying to one hundred men of any of the loyal States, You shall cast one hundred votes; but a hundred men in one of the disloyal States shall cast two hundred votes, because there live among them a hundred men of a different color. The hundred men in that State will cast, it is true, but one hundred votes; but it is equally true that they will be two hundred votes in their influence and power, or that those hundred voters will, through their representation in Congress, exert the same influence over the national legislation or the national policy as the two hundred voters who reside in the other State. For example, let us compare some of the Southern States with those of the Northern States which come somewhat near them in population on the basis of the last census. If we take the whole population of each State as the number which measures the right of representation, and suppose that the white men alone of the Southern States cast the votes of the States, a brief calculation will show that every hundred of the white inhabitants of South Carolina will have as much power through their representatives as two hundred and forty of the people of Iowa; one hundred white men in Mississippi will equal two hundred and twenty-three men in Wisconsin ; one hundred white men in Louisiana will equal one hundred and ninety-eight in Maine; one hundred white men in Alabama will equal one hundred and eighty-three in Connecticut ; and one hundred white men in Alabama and Louisiana together will equal one hundred and eighty-nine in Indiana. It is therefore apparent that if, as the Constitution requires, the colored men of the South are all counted in to measure the right of representation, and are then all disfranchised, this must operate a proportional disfranchisement of the people of the North and West. How long can it be believed that this inequality will be endured? On what right or reason does it rest? If it be that the colored race of the South are all wholly disfranchised because wholly unfit for the right of suffrage, is it also true that the white voters of South Carolina are about two and a half times better fitted to exercise this right wisely and patriotically than the people of Iowa?

In the above estimate it has been assumed that the number of white voters bears about the same proportion to the whole number of the white population in all the States. The results above stated would be somewhat affected in some of the Free States by the fact that in them colored persons who do not vote are enumerated to determine the number of representation; but in none of them it their number sufficient to make a material difference – probably not enough to offset the larger proportionate loss of the white men of the South than of the colored men in the war.

The class from whom we should withhold the right to cast their votes are enthusiastically loyal; and the class whose alone we should permit to vote and to whom we also give the votes of the other class, have maintained with marvelous unanimity, and with remorseless determination, broken only by utter defeat, a war which had for its single object escape from that Union which they hated. And we are now asked by this last class to withhold all political right and power from that class whose loyalty is certain, who will vote by its inspiration on the great national questions offered to them, and especially as to the great burden of our debt, which they can never forget was the price of their freedom. And we are asked not merely to confine the privilege of voting to the disloyal class, but to invest them with the votes of the disfranchised; and thus to double the political strength of that class so lately in fierce rebellion, and which cannot be expected, if human nature is with them what it is everywhere, to be now, or very soon, animated by a love of our common country; and especially, in regard to our great debt, must be expected to feel it, not as a burden only, but a burden a thousand-fold heavier because it was incurred for their defeat; and therefore, it must be feared, will he disposed to assail it through all the years that it may rest upon us; to assail the debt, the taxation necessary to sustain it, and so the credit, and good faith, and prosperity of the country.

It would be a strange thing if we had not the right to be more just than to do so great a wrong, and more wise than to expose the country to such dangers. Was it wrong in the Government to abolish slavery? and is it wrong now in you to insist upon its abolition? Certainly, unless we have and had a right to do so. But what right can any one imagine, excepting that which arose from our military power, coupled with our necessity, or a due regard to our security? The right thus founded was and is a perfect right. And the Government has, and you, as its military and executive head, have an equally perfect right, resting on precisely the same foundations, and of precisely the same extent, to require and to insist that political rights in those States shall not be determined by race or color, if the safety and security of the country require such a provision.
Justice is always the most expedient thing we can do, although it may not always be possible to see how it is expedient. In the present case we can. We have passed through a war marked by the most deadly conflicts of history. We needed absolutely, and we at last yielded to the necessity of asking, military aid from the colored race; and when we asked it, gladly did they hear and answer. No man doubts that the army of colored men was useful to us; although we may not say as the defeated rebels say —it was that which turned the scale and made their defeat inevitable. If we ask what does justice now demand for the race which rendered us this valuable assistance, the answer certainly would not be, that we should use the victory which they helped us to win to cast them helpless and powerless by disfranchisement into the hands of those who were the enemies of the Union, and whom the assistance they have rendered to us has made their enemies.

But if this be the answer of justice, that of expediency is quite as certain. There are conflicts of peace as well as conflicts of war. In the conflicts which threaten us we shall need their ballots quite as much as we needed their bullets in the conflicts of war. The questions are curiously similar. We felt that we needed—we waited until we were compelled to feel that we needed—their assistance in the war, before we accepted it; but when we accepted it, victory came with it; certainly with it, whether because of it or not. And again we need their aid. If we permit, in the conflicts that await us, the assistance they will gladly give, it will certainly add greatly to the safety and strength of our country. If we reject it, we can do so only by a wrong, of which the retribution must be to lessen our strength and increase our danger, and, may be, to defeat and destroy those interests on which the prosperity and the good faith of the country are founded; to defeat and destroy those interests, because we see fit to take from the loyal the force which of right belongs to them, and give it all to the disloyal, to increase their strength.

Nor let it be said that we cannot be sure that the colored voters will not be led in the exercise of their rights by the whites. For, in the first place, it is certain that they will not all be so led. Men, whether from ambition or patriotism, will be candidates on the side of the national honor and the national interests, and will seek the votes of colored men; and slavery is not there to prevent the use of sufficient means for acquainting the voters with the true nature of the questions before them. If white men control the votes of colored men, then, if the whites are divided, the colored men will be divided; and, if the white vote all together, they will be no stronger if all the colored men vote with them. On large plantations the relation of employer and employed may operate, to some extent, to give to the owner some undue control of the laborers. So it has been said that our large mill-owners, and others employing many workmen, held them in political bondage. If this mischief existed in any places, or to any extent, it has certainly been greatly exaggerated in some minds; but he who thought the worst of it never imagined that be found in it a reason for disfranchising any class of our laboring men. The white men of the South know better than we can, whether, if the colored men vote, white men can control their votes; and if they really believe that they shall effectually control them, their determined opposition to freedman suffrage indicates an indifference to their own power, and a willingness to lose what would be an instrument in their hands, which is, to say the least, very remarkable.
We have had and exercised a perfect right to emancipate the slaves, growing out of our necessity; but this gave us no right whatever to emancipate them for our own security and to their danger, for our own benefit and perhaps to their destruction. And who can deny that a new danger, and an appalling one, hangs over that race, if, on the one hand, we take from them all the protection and defense they found in slavery, while it made it the interest of their owners to take care of them, and, on the other, take from them by disfranchisement all power, self-protection and self-defense? Already we see, and by no means dimly, in the measures adopted or proposed in some of those States, while still held in strict military possession, what kind of legislation over and against the colored race must be expected when the nation has abandoned all power to annul or check it, and has given no power to that race to resist it. Can this be honest, or prudent or sate? Can we endure the disgrace of calling on that race to go with our own loyal soldiers to peril and to death, and, after they have fought our battles, leave them utterly disfranchised?

It is to be hoped that commercial relations and commercial intercourse may be fully established-between the South and the North, and as connected with this, and necessary to it, free and kindly, social and personal intercourse. All must remember how these things have stood for many years. Liberty of speech was wholly lost. Whoever went from a free State to a slave State, went in peril of bit life; a peril, it is true, to be easily guarded against by one to whom it was easy to conceal his thoughts or falsify them, or by one whose opinions and feelings could be molded by his interests, and who, coming from a home of freedom, could act and speak as a lover of slavery, and so purchase his safety, and with it the contempt of the better class among them who tolerated him. Instances which cannot be forgotten proved that, for the Northern man, there was no freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the courts. All this, it may be said, was caused by slavery, and slavery is gone. But if slavery has left behind it vast class-distinctions; if to the master-class is left the whole power of legislating to preserve and deepen these distinctions; to the same class which will possess the power of molding society and all its feelings and usages into that form which shall give the utmost possible force and permanence to these distinctions and the political supremacy they confer, —is it not certain that what has been will return again? that the abyss between the thought and feeling of the free States and of the slave States, which no man could pass over, will still be open and kept open ? Is it not certain that both social and commercial intercourse will be hampered and obstructed? Is it not sad, that when enough of treasure and blood have been cast into this abyss to close it, and this country has but to say this day, let it be closed, and it will be closed, there can be any danger that we may say, No, let it still be open, still be the barrier that it has been?

We suppose there are in the Free States few who do not think, and very few who would say, the colored race are such by nature that they should be permanently disfranchised. We hear and read only that they are now wholly unfit for the right of suffrage; and we must wait until they are better prepared, and then give it to them. If they who say this mean it, they must desire that they be prepared and then receive it. But we would ask them what preparation, what improvement can be hoped for, when the whole power of legislation, and the whole power of determining the relations between these classes, is given to the master-class, and is given to them on the condition that they retain this supremacy only so long as they can prevent all preparation and all improvement? Distant, very distant, will that generation be which sees the race enfranchised if we leave them disfranchised!
And, viewing the question in its most general form, is it not plain that the nation cannot do so great a wrong without exposing itself to an equal penalty? Slavery was protected by the Constitution : we endured it, and we had much excuse for enduring it: we could reach it only by breaking down the law ; and the reverence for law in our country is as just and salutary at it is powerful ; and in this instance it was, or was thought to be, fortified by interest. Now all this barrier has gone. The right, the justice, the expediency, are all united. We have said, by that right, Slavery shall be no more, and it is no more. We have but to say in the same right, Slavery shall not leave behind it disfranchisement ; and it will not. How can we say instead Slavery shall not die, but shall only change its skin, and live on with all its venom? How can we say Slavery we will not have, but we will accept disfranchisement, and permit it to do the work of Slavery? How can we say this and do this in utter antagonism to every principle of our American institutions, and to that settled opinion and feeling which has been gradually growing for generations in the Free States, until it drove Slavery into Rebellion? How can we lay this and do this, and not be sure that we leave to our children and to their children abiding and disastrous conflicts and probable convulsion?

But, while we think that the importance of this question is inexpressible, we admit that its difficulties are great. They are so, mainly, for two reasons—the unpreparedness of the population of the Rebel States, either to resume their old rights, or to exercise new rights, safely for themselves or for the country, at present, and certainly not without patient and cautious considerations as to what restrictions or limitations upon those rights are requisite end proper. The other reason is the unpreparedness of the Free States to decide at once, and finally, this great question which has sprung upon us by the sudden collapse of the Rebellion. Public opinion is rapidly ripening. It is beginning to see that the true question is, whether, in such a country as this, political rights should be dependent on race or color. Men are ranging themselves on one side or other of this question. We think, however, that the people cannot now be ready, not merely to decide the general question, but to see clearly the details and consequences which belong to any determination of it. The inference we draw is the certain and absolute necessity of delay, of patient, calm, and sufficient delay, before the country comes to such practical conclusions as will take from the whole country all power to retrace its steps or amend its errors; for when those States are rehabilitated in all their constitutional rights, there can be no further interference with their internal concerns. State rights remain unimpaired just what they were, in fact, although not what some thought they were, before the Rebellion.

Those States do not now possess and exercise those rights. You have, most properly the judgment of all men, appointed Provisional Governors for them; although, if a State has any right at all, it is to elect its own Governor. You have prescribed who shall vote at the election of a Convention, and have interfered in important particulars with the right of suffrage. You did all this because you had the power to do it, and because the safety and security of the country required you to do it, and gate you a perfect right to do it. We do not see how it can be doubted that you have both the power and the right to interfere further, and on the same grounds, with the same right of suffrage, either by restriction or by enlargement.

Let us compare the possible harm with the probable good of delay, and even, should it be necessary, a somewhat protracted delay. The authorities you have provided, and who will act under your constant oversight, will do nothing to obstruct or retard the returning prosperity of those States. All their judicial and municipal institutions may be reorganized and made operative. Let time do its beneficial work, and your power be exerted, if need be, to prevent regulations or practices certainly wrongful, and all the channels of trade will be opened and filled, the new relations between the inhabitants of those States, with the new rights they give and the new duties they impose will be understood and acknowledged. Labor will be encouraged, compensated and made productive of—and will be seen to be productive of—benefit to employer and employed. Where war has passed along, leaving behind its destruction, the renovating power of peace will cover the traces of desolation; and the wounds of war, if they do not wholly heal, will at least ache less. If you now permit those States to resume the full exercise of all their former rights to white men, you give them to men accustomed not to labor, but to despise labor; to men whose contempt and dislike of that part of the country which had not their peculiar institutions, have been exasperated to intensity by a fierce and destructive war, ending with total defeat. Let time be granted them to became less passionate in their aversion to begin, at least, to forget an irrecoverable past; to be reconciled to the inevitable; to acknowledge and understand, and make the best of circumstances which cannot be changed. And the colored race will, in the mean time, have learned practically that the freedom given them is the freedom of voluntary self-support. Education, which many of them seek greedily; and habits of care for themselves, and for those for whom bound to care; the possession of property by some; the possibility and the hope of acquiring it with more: all these, and other causes, will raise them far above their present condition. And thus the beneficial influence of delay will make all classes of the inhabitants of these States better prepared than they now can be to have and to exercise all political rights, with advantage to themselves, and with safety to the country. We have no desire for, and we have no thought of, vengeance or punishment. It may, however, be said, when we remember the past, that those States, if dealt with so mildly, have no right to complain.

You have taken the ground that those States hare now either no constitutions, or none which the country can recognize; and you require them to bring to you new constitutions. We cannot for a moment suppose that the new constitutions they will offer will be regarded by you as going at | once into force by their own power and, efficacy, if only they are republican, as judged by the standard of any State that did not enter into rebellion; for then they might include, by the example of Kentucky and Delaware, even Slavery. It would seem to be certain that they must be passed upon, adjudicated and approved. And it would seem equally certain, that, whatever be the tribunal which judges of them, if they do not contain the provisions, which the safety and security of the whole country require, they mast be rejected, and the States retained within military possession until such constitutions are presented. Over the loyal States the country has no power and no right and no desire to exercise any power. Over the Rebel States we have both power and right; our duty most be commensurate with our power and right; and both mast be measured by the requirements of the best interests of the country. And, in offering these views for year consideration, we beg leave to express our confidence in your judgment, your firmness, and your fidelity to duty.

Signed by Nath’l Thayer, John B. Alley, J. H. Forbes, Peleg W. Chandler, Henry A. Rice, S. Frothingham, jr., Jared Sparks, Theophilus Parsons, Sam’l O. Ward, Charles O. Loring, Willard Phillips, Lane, Lampion & Co. Emory Wasbburne, R. H. Dana, jr., and 200 others.

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