September 28, 1865: A response to the Boston Letter

Andrew Johnson
(I don’t have a picture of the writer, so here’s Andrew Johnson, to whom the response is addressed.)

In late August of 1865, a group of some 200 Bostonians, including a US Congressman, a former president of Harvard, and several Harvard law professors, published a letter advocating black suffrage in the Liberator.

A Cape Girardeau resident, Thomas Wilson, wrote a lengthy response which was published in the Cape Girardeau Argus. I’ve transcribed it, correcting OCR issues by reading the original PDF. I think that all syntactical problems (and there are several) are those of the author, not mine. He also seems to misread (perhaps willfully) the meanings of the original letter in a number of points — I recommend reading the original first for comparison. I’m looking into Thomas Wilson, but his unfortunately common name makes it tough to find out who he was. Still, though his views are those of a single individual, I think it’s fair to assume that he speaks for many in the former slave states who opposed suffrage.

The Boston Meeting

To the President of the United States:

Respected Sir: In a late number of a Boston paper I find a letter addressed to you, purporting to have emanated from a meeting lately held in the city of Boston, Mass., inviting your attention to their views in the matter and manner of reconstructing the once rebellious States.

On a subject of so much delicacy, where the wisest, and possibly the best men of our country, are found occupying different standpoints, it seems that I should express my thoughts with becoming diffidence and modesty and in a special manner, when addressing your Excellency, as the great executive head of my country.

Should this communication appear to your understanding a seeming officiousness, in your onerous and responsible duties, I console myself fiwth the reflection that, had not the Boston Meeting Letter appeared, this would not have been written.

Emanating from one not represented on the Bench, at the Bar, nor in the political annals of the country, but merely a private, (and I might add,) obscure citizen, nevertheless I flatter myself in possessing that patriotic ambition which desires the happiness, peace, and prosperity of our common country.

It appears by the record, that the meeting was held at the rooms of the Board of Trade, in the city of Boston, and composed of merchants and others, for the purpose of “soliciting your Excellency’s postponing the mode of reconstruction until the country, North and South, is better prepared to determine wisely and safely, the various questions presented, and especially the matter of suffrage.”

In reading the preamble of the meeting, two propositions were first submitted – namely: Reconstruction and suffrage. But, on further thought, the meeting took a larger field. However, as they are closely connected, we will now consider. The meeting unmistakably sympathizes with you in your desire to relinquish your military authority over those States lately in rebellion – for, says the meeting “the sooner peace, with all its relations, can be established; the sooner every part of this great country will be active in promoting its own prosperity, and that of the whole.” Here, your Excellency will perceive, all your acts are fully considered and sanctioned, and in a special manner your great desire in restoring peace to a distracted country with as little delay as possible, and the civil tribunals take the place of military necessity. But the meeting, immediately after the preceding, says: “We believe, however, that no one knows better than your 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 it is therefore equally the right and duty of the whole country to insist upon.”

Now, as the “whole country” has not as yet instructed you, sir, as to the mode and manner of the peace desired, it is presumed the Constitution of your country, and the laws thereof, will be your criterion. Unfortunately for the meeting, or the wording of the epistle in discussing the question of representation, in regard to the three-fifth property rule vested in the negro, they have become alarmed for fear the old regime or law is yet in force and may be restored. But to relieve their minds of this incubus, I take pleasure in reminding them of a certain Proclamation, issued by your illustrious predecessor, and sanctioned by you. I believe it is a well established principle in national law, that a people being held in bondage made free by the constituted head of the nation, are forever free. I hope our patriotic fellow citizens of Boston do not intend to convey the idea that your Excellency contemplates this design; nor do I think they would sanction such a proceeding; unless, possibly, they were removed from the Granite Hills to the sunny South Carolina. If the gentlemen have any misgivings as to the legality of the Proclamation, Congress has stepped in to their relief, so that their minds may be composed in this dilemma.

Again, the meeting, in their reasonings, (as I infer,) declare that the former status of the States alluded to is still in force, or at least fearful of being so. Admit this and you admit the power and the authority to restore every heretofore slave in the rebellious States to their former owner – an assumption beyond the power of the Boston meeting to sustain in law, logic, or equity.

One thing the meeting seemed to overlook in regard to the colored population of the South – namely: Their condition in regard to suffrage. The difference in a legal point of view between an inhabitant of a country and a citizen of the same, has been distinctly defined by the learned minds of the country, and I think overlooked by the numerously attended meeting of Boston. But admit that the fact of the negro being, in the eye of the law, entitled to the right of suffrage – what then? Why, the meeting fears, in consequence, that the disloyal whites will use them for their own nefarious designs, in annoying the Government.

The meeting points to many imaginary difficulties, and among these I freely confess, some real ones; but at the same time your humble fellow citizen has more confidence in your Excellency’s abilities and your distinguished Cabinet, than my Boston contemporaries. However, being an advocate of majorities, (fairly expressed) governing, measuring by this rule two hundred and 13 against one, I am left in a precarious situation, if I was not well assured that Boston is not the nation, nor my State (Missouri) the Granite Hills. It has been, and is equally believed in the West, that Massachusetts, and more especially Boston, strongly favored the right of suffrage to the negro; but the purport of the letter addressed to you, Mr. President, presents views on this subject in rather an obscure light. I am not gifted to see clearly the primary object of the letter, nor do I claim a penetrating judgment, of the motives and actions of men; but I do claim, the detection of a seeming want of consistency in the letter addressed to you. But as the subjects of representation are yet to be finally acted upon, I leave these propositions to the legal tribunals of the country, to whom they properly belong, with implicit confidence that the wisdom of the different departments of government, in arranging these matters to their own honor, and consequently to that of the nation.

If your patience is not exhausted, respected sir, I will take up the subject of the third proposition – namely: The negro. In doing so, my intention will be to avoid any complication of the subjects, but come boldly up to the question in as brief and concise a manner as my ability will permit. “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 security to their changes, for their own benefit, and perhaps to their destruction.” – There is a part of the above quotation that admits of criticism, for the act of emancipation was undoubtedly for the salvation of the nation, and not, as some suppose, for the sole freedom of the negro; but as a war measure, in order to cripple the enemy, in two modes, by increasing our own army, and depriving the enemy of the labor of the colored man. The right of self-defense is the same in a nation as in an individual, and this being the paramount object of the nation, other means were used in furthering this design, and the slave of the South was selected as the great auxiliary to our military advancement.

If the effect produced by the exertion of the nation for life and existence, endangered the colored man, it cannot, with any degree of fair reasoning, charge the Government with unfair dealing concerning the negro, even if their destruction followed. “An appalling danger hangs over that race, if we take from them, by disfranchisement, all power of self-protection and self-defense.” The Boston letter, from the above quotation, strongly favors negro suffrage, which, heretofore, was obscure; but in their laudable desire they are advocating a principle, if carried out to their letter, would eventually exterminate the unfortunate sons of Africa – a thing not desired by the intelligent gentlemen composing the meeting.

There is not the least doubt, in my mind, Mr. President, but the meeting has expressed to you its conscientious convictions. The better course I presume, however conversant an individual may be in the affairs of his own section, he may have formed a very common opinion in regard to the material composing that of another. Man, indeed, at his best estate is prone to error in judgment, and it may be possible that the signers of the said letter unfortunately embraced this opportunity. The people of this state have formed a new constitution, now in full force, expelling from its territory every trace of slavery, and with wisdom rarely excelled, excluded for the time being the suffrage of the negro. As there were some features in the new constitution to me objectionable, I consequently did not support it; but I candidly confess the convention has presented to the citizens of Missouri a document which will be a monument to their wisdom and fame more lasting than an Oriental sarcophagus. “Learn to be wise from the errors of others, and vice versa, we will be truly wise.” Speaking on the subject of disfranchising the negro the letter says: “Can we endure the disgrace of calling on that race to go with our loyal soldiers to peril and death, and after they have fought our battles, have the, utterly disfranchised?”

Here your Excellency will observe a strong appeal to the sympathies of our natures, and I rejoice exceedingly that even in the solitude of the unfriendly climate of a northern region it is no exotic. Disfranchising the negroes of the south, lawyers would term a misnomer, for they never were enfranchised — hence you cannot deprive a man of a thing he does not possess, though the thing itself may be unjust, according to the natural rights of man. But to conclude this part of the subject, my State has accomplished more for the colored race to prevent their extinction, and restoring them a degree of liberty compatible with their present position, their safety of person and property well worthy of the attention and consideration of the statesmen of the present day, and a higher civilization.

Intercourse. — After commenting commercial relations and intercourse established between the North and South, and as connected with this, and necessary to it, free and kindly social and personal intercourse, if the letter addressed to your excellency had closed here on this subject, it would have given to the Southern mind a high opinion of the addressors, and I have no doubt been met in a similar spirit; at least, it would have had the effect of oiling the machinery of the irritated human mind by defeat, and causing less friction. “All must remember these things have stood many years,” if they are so unfortunate as to remember, it would be better for the peace and happiness of the country it was silently and privately buried in the tomb of the Capulets.

“Whoever went from a free state to a slave state went in peril of his life — a peril, it is true, easily guarded against by one to whom it was easy to conceal his thoughts, or falsify them, or by one whose opinions an feelings could be moulded 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 those who tolerated him.” This assertion places in no enviable light the natives of free States living in the South, and as I have not the honor of a personal acquaintance with any of your addressers, I do not appropriate any portion of it to myself.

How well founded this charge may be, I am not fully prepared to say, but I believe there is room for the truth of the assertion. A reflection presents itself to mind just at this point, that there must be a great radical wrong in the education of that man or society of men who will sacrifice honor, probity of character and principle for pecuniary interest, or even life itself, is not a proper subject to vindicate and sustain our form of government though he may have come from a land of boasted intelligence. “All this was occasioned by slavery, and slavery is gone.” Let us, then, lose sight of the carcass, and time will accomplish the remainder.

Mr. President, when an advocate presents his cause to the jury he is much disposed to conceal the weak points in his case, and throws on the client of his opponent all the errata surrounding the cause of action. In pursuing this course an intelligent jury will come to the conclusion that he has affirmed too much, and to his mortification a verdict is returned in direct antagonism with his expectations.

It is not my intention to call up from the recesses of past history fugitive slave laws, nor personal liberty bills, nor of a certain Burns of Boston notoriety, and the distribution of inflammatory publications interfering with the domestic affairs of States, nor the John Brown insanity – no, no — these are not calculated to heal the wounds of a nation which has passed through an ordeal of fire, “scorched but not killed.”

In closing this proposition, I beg to remind the Boston meeting of the loss of life of the prime of the nation in consummating the freedom of the colored race, and entailing on the superior race rising three billions of dollars. If this sacrifice is not sufficient to gratify the recipients of those wonderful and astounding favors, and also their great advocates, my mind is at fault.

The main question submitted by the Boston meeting for your Excellency’s consideration being touched upon, I pass on to the concluding one in the letter – namely: Expediency of delay. The letter says “that the importance of this question is inexpressible, and that its difficulties are great — and for two reasons they are so – The population of the rebellious states, the unpreparedness of the free states.” Hasty legislation is admitted, especially on such a momentous question as the one involved in this controversy; but on the other, history presents numerous instances where procrastination cost the liberties of a whole people. “You have appointed Provisional Governors for them; although if a State has any right at all, it is to elect its own Governor. — By the act of secession those rights have been sacrificed and they will remain in a territorial capacity till they are restored to loyalty. “You have provided those who will act under your constant oversight, will do nothing to retard the returning prosperity of those States. You have taken the ground that those States have now either no constitutions, or none which the country can recognize; and you require them to bring to you new constitutions.” Kentucky and Maryland was not included in the proclamation of Mr. Lincoln, consequently there cannot be drawn any similarity in their cases. The people of the Provisional States are well assured in presenting their new Constitutions, if the subject of African slavery is not excluded, Congress would reject the proposition, and they would be forced to remain as they now are for years, or until they presented a proper document for their approval. Over the rebel States the Government has control, for the very obvious reason that they sacrificed their former tights by taking up arms against a legally constituted Government, and hence they “cannot take advantage of their own wrong.” having extended this letter beyond the limits designed, your Excellency will pardon me for not executing the task in a more workmanlike manner. We have sustained the same political principles till we separated prior to the first election of that good and benevolent man (now no more,) your predecessor, which, by his unprecedented martyrdom, has dimmed the lustre of the American name. You took for your standard bearer Jno. C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, and I for mine Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois. You followed the dictates of your conscience — I followed mine. Your candidate is now an exile and wanderer from his native land, followed by the execrations of a too confiding people, branded with the signature of ——, but I forbear. Turn your eyes, respected sir, to yonder lake on the confines of the State of Illinois, and there behold the contrast – there, in the silent bosom of his mother earth, sleep the remains of a lover of his country, its peace and prosperity — his last dying request: “Teach my children to obey the Constitution and laws of my country.”

I do not introduce these political reminiscences to cause an uneasy pang in the bosom of a patriotic heart, but in order to point out the contrast to the generation which is shortly to assume the position and places of the present occupants. You have been placed in such surroundings that your personal safety was endangered, but you quailed not, but shouldered the responsibility in defendjng your country and you countrymen, without regard to the party who placed you on a pedestal of eminence, worthy of them and worthy of you. I am no idle spectator of the great labor and responsibilities attached to your position in the present condition of the country, yet still I possess that confidence in your integrity of character and soundness of judgment, which assures me you will direct the country to a haven of peace and rest.

That a kind Providence may bestow on your Excellency health and strength for the consummation of these desires, is the wish of your humble fellow citizen and servant,

Thos. Wilson.

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One Response to September 28, 1865: A response to the Boston Letter

  1. Courtney Kisat says:

    How interesting!

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