May 3, 1866: Montgomery Blair on Reconstruction

Montgomery Blair

The Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus of May 3, 1866 ran a lengthy essay by Montgomery Blair denouncing the Civil Rights Act and the Freedmen’s Bureau as unconstitutional impositions on the powers of the southern states. His argument starts with a long comparison of the treatment of Maine residents after the war of 1812 to the treatment of former Confederates. It seems to me that this comparison elides the crucial difference in the circumstances. Mainers were forced to cooperate with a superior force of British troops. Southerners were the troops, and can hardly argue that they were coerced by outside forces. It’s a “good Germans” argument.

As for the issues he raises against the Civil Rights Act, it may indeed grant special protections to black southerners — but we know what happened when those protections were removed. He concludes by claiming that the Radicals want to rule the south like Britain rules Ireland, because apparently the Irish, like black Americans, constitute an inferior race that can be easily manipulated by puppeteers in the dominant region.

The entire essay, to me, suffers from the crucial fault of all the “presidential Reconstruction” arguments; it fails to consider the rights or needs of black Americans in a restored “happy Union”.

Address of the National Johnson Club to the People of the United States

To the people of the United States:

One year ago the bloody civil war that threatened the ruin of our happy government closed. The generals and soldiers on both sides met on the field of battle and gave the world the highest example of magnanimous feeling, when the blood had ceased to flow, that was ever exhibited. There was not a look of hostility interchanged. The victors, who were well supplied, gave to the vanquished whatever was necessary to their comfort; and both, with a just appreciation of the noble courage and sense of patriotism which had animated each army through the four years’ struggle, were justly proud that they were a kindred race, and the offspring of the free institutions which had made them heroes. They knew what all the world now knows, that it was a dark, long brooded conspiracy through which ambitious politicians had secured control of the powers of government in two remote sections of the country, north and south, madly excited by the slave question, that producing collision, had brought the men on each part to the rescue of their homes and the governments that were dearest and nearest to them.

Ought not such a close of the war, under such leaders as Grant and Sherman — tendering friendship, peace, and honorable terms to their rivals of the same school, Lee and Johnston, for themselves, their armies, and the country, confirmed by pledges that the result was accepted by the vanquished as deciding forever against them the issues on which the battle was joined — be considered conclusive that nothing should be demanded but what had been staked on the event and has since been fully surrendered?

Has not the right of secession boon repudiated? Has not the institution of slavery been renounced, and the freedom of the slaves confirmed by constitutional amendments, state and national? Has not the Confederate debt been annulled and the obligations of both sections to pay the national debt been admitted? Have not the newly acquired rights of the freedmen been provided for by state legislation as promptly as possible in the section lately in war and anarchy? Have not the whole people with the exception of a few outcasts, robbers and cut throats — the shirks thrown off by the embode [sic] hosts that represented the principle of the contest on either side as unworthy of the cause — followed the example of their leaders, and consented that all the aims of war, as proclaimed by the national legislature and executive during its continuance, should be accomplished? And now, what hinders the consummation of the main object — the communion of the States in the happy harmony which made the new continent the glory of the world for almost a century.

There is a fragment of a party in the northeast which, like the junto created by Calhoun, the Catiline of the south, were never contented with the constitution of the United States. The Essex junto of Boston dominated in New England, as the Calhoun junto of Charleston dominated over the slave oligarchy of the South — both these factions were imbued with the British principle at war with the spirit of democracy inherent in our constitution — and how invariably the instinct of aristocracy works to the same end will be seen by, a glance at the juntos of Boston and Charleston in producing the severe ordeals to which they have subjected the constitution of our country. The war of 1812 was the war brought on by the Essex junto — the Henry-Hartford convention conspiracy, brought to a head by the Charleston secession ordinance. the British government made the difficulties with our government, in sympathy with the malcontents of New England, whom the triumphs of the democracy under Jefferson and Madison had banished from power. They became a British faction bent on severing the union with the united states — uniting with Canada and prosecuting their unembargoed tree trade under the British flag, the British having compelled the embargo restriction on our government to produce the state of feeling in New England to enable the conspirators to drive the people to a separation. The Hartford convention was the development of this scheme. Maine was taken possession of by a British force. Its power was recognized throughout New England. The government of the United States was interdicted from levying forces in New England to meet the enemy. The British soldiers in Canada, and all along our frontiers to the far west were supplied with everything from New England, while the American soldiers were perishing for the want of food and clothing amid the snow storms along the Canada line. At such moment the commissioners of the Hartford Convention appeared at Washington to proclaim their purpose of secession to President Madison, to use the phrase of one of them, “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must!” Mr. Foresyth and his brother commissioners from the south followed this precedent when they came to Washington, spent a month in negotiation with Messrs Seward, Holt and Stanton asking “audience to adjust (to use their own words) in a spirit of amity and peace the new relations springing from a manifest and accomplished revolution in the government of the union,” and as an earnest, acknowledging the fact the surrender of fort Sumpter was demanded, and it was acceded to by Mr. Seward, who gave Judge Campbell assurance, authorizing him to say to the commissioners, “I feel entire confidence that Fort Sumpter will be evacuated in the next five days.” Fortunately in the days of the Hartford convention there was a Gen. Jackson, as there is now a Gen. Grant. The British had felt his power throughout the war in the southwest, as well as the vigor of the navy on the seas, and when the Essex junto commissioners arrived in Washington to renounce the government, the victory of New Orleans and the news of peace met them. They lost the voice which they came to utter when they found the roar of the British lion hushed on the ocean and on the plains of New Orleans. They went home, but they were not proscribed. The governments of New England had sympathized with the foreign enemy, but the mass of the people had not as yet been forced into the ranks of the enemy — their means had been largely contributed to support the British power under the awe its presence inspired and the influence of the traitors among them exerted. But none of these men were punished. Maine, which was in fact under the paw of its ensign as a conquered country, was not considered out of the union. Its officials, although they obeyed orders emanating from British authority, and rendered important service to that government, and were in fact guilty of treason, if the power of compulsion, though not extorted, had not justified it, were not questioned by our government farther than to draw from our courts decisions that submission to a power that could not be resisted rendered treasonable acts justifiable.

But now the tables are turned, and there is no such allowance for the people of the South, who were under duress while the conspirators were establishing an absolute usurpation over them by military force, and the leading men in the administration going out and that coming in, at Washington, were both united in a negotiation with that usurpation to acknowledge “peace and amity” with it, as the result of a “manifest and accomplished revolution in the government of the union,” and this confirmed by the promise of the Premier that the strongholds of the United States in the harbor of Charleston should be surrendered to that usurping Government. The men who stood by the union in the south until the whole region was given over by the Government bound to protect them, but which,instead of interfering in their behalf, was capitulating for their surrender, had no alternative when thus permitted to be environed within the military lines of the foe, which expelled everything union beyond their border, but submission. What right has the national government now to hold those men subject to penalties for acquiescing in their enforced condition, and yielding to the will of the state governments and the military power thus established, and going into the war, more than the United States had to hold the men of Maine liable to punishment for giving aid and comfort to the British army there in the war of 1812? The districts there found no difficulty after the war was over in getting a representation in Congress. There was no test oaths imposed to exclude them. Why should the conspiracy of the Calhoun junto bring greater punishment on its innocent victims than did that of the Essex junto and its Hartford convention? The scheme of each was equally criminal — a dissolution of the union — but the means of the latter were much more invidious, for a foreign force was introduced into the heart of the country, hostile to all the essential principles of our republican system.

And is there no atonement in the calamities with which the unfortunate masses of the south have been visited from the despotism of the usurpation which would never have been put over them had not the treachery and collusion of our national Government assisted? Nothing in the utter ruin which succeeded the invasion of our army, which necessity made destroyers, to plead for justice and generosity to the victims of a war guiltless of its provocation? The whole South has been a field of battle — all its agriculture has been to a great extent, prostrate for four years; towns and homesteads innumerable have been swept away in flames; half a million of its most vigorous youth have perished in battle; countless millions of money, invested in the means of production, have been lost, and its proudest cities are ruins. Charleston remains, like the ruins of Carthage of old, an appropriate monument of the perfidy which has sunk the Sunny South in darkness and desolation. Meantime the North has risen in increasing grandeur and wealth throughout the progress of the war. What hearts those men must have, who standing aloof from the war and enjoying the glory and blessings of the victories won by our gallant armies, without sharing their toils and perils, now instead of imitating the soldiers’ magnanimity in lifting up a fallen brother, would strike down the helpless; and who demand spoil, confiscation, more blood, and would have it shed on a scaffold, where they could enjoy the tragedy at ease, as in a theatre.

How differently felt that true friend of the union — President Lincoln! — His humane instincts taught him that the bleeding gashes made by the sword, which had severed for the time the affections of the country, were best cured when soonest bound and healed with the first intention. He looked upon the States as members of the same body, still united to it by all the indestructible ligatures of the Constitution, but suffering, under the weight of the usurpation, a suspended animation. That removed, the states were in a condition to resume their functions with all the rights and faculties imparted to them by the Constitution. When the military power had done its duty delegated by the supreme law, and had suppressed the insurrection, had extirpated its cause, and all impediments to their normal prescribed action, by what right did Congress interpose assume to prescribe conditions not to be found in the supreme law which was a law of congress itself, and which established the state rights in derogation of which Congress attempted to legislate?

It was upon this attempt that Lincoln put his veto [Presumably the “pocket veto” of the Wade-Davis plan]. Congress undertook to enact conditions not in the Constitution of the United States, upon which the southern states should act with their sisters of the North. This the president considered sheer arrogation. It was presuming that the States were dead; that the general Government had failed in its duty to suppress the conspiracy and insurrection under which they were compelled to succumb for a time, the States had committed suicide — had become mere outlying territories conquered from a foreign enemy. The whole pretext was built up of false assumptions. The President proclaimed that the war was waged by the nation on the principle that the states in which the rebellion reigned were parcel of the nation — could nor should not be separated from it by their own or any other power; that neither the Congress of the United States, nor that of the usurping Confederacy, could alter their status in the union. Upon this issue, elaborately argued over the country and in Congress, the President was nominated for re-election by the Republican convention at Baltimore, which reaffirmed his principles. Leading members of the party in Congress protested against the doctrine, called it in question in an able manifesto, which was an appeal to the people against it, but their vote ratified it at the polls. [by re-electing Lincoln? It’s not as if there had been a stricter Reconstruction option for them to choose.] It was brought up at the last session of Congress for practical application in the admission of Louisiana, and was only defeated by a sort of revolutionary tactics on the part of Mr. Sumner and five other senators, who when the bill was on its passage, took the floor and announced the determination to speak out the session and lose the bills necessary to support the government and carry on the war.

Now, the whole Radical Party have assumed, as their party principle, the anti-constitutional doctrine that the States put in abeyance by rebellious usurpation shall only be recognized as in the Union when submitting to terms described by an act of Congress. This attains the point at which the Essex junto — the high-flying Federalists of the North, at the beginning of the Government, have fixed the power of the General Government. The whole policy of this aristocratic body of politicians has ever been and is now the consolidation of the supreme power in the hands of Congress. Its legislation is to pervade the states and supplant that of their legislatures. They make a full manifestation of their design in the Freedman’s Bureau bill and their Civil Rights bill, by which they undertake to establish a nation of negroes, among a nation of whites, and render them independent of the laws and courts of the states in which they reside — and in contempt of all sense of justice and humanity, their revolutionary measures invading the rights of the States, and annulling their municipal laws, by excluding them from their rights in the Union, and their representation from the halls of Congress, and governing them as England once governed Ireland, refusing to heat her voice in the Imperial Parliament. As Ireland was governed by laws sent to her from England, so the eleven states of the South, still excluded from representation in Congress, although they have given proof of entire submission to the laws and Constitution, and acquiescence in all the issues determined by the war, are governed by laws shaped in a caucus, and passed by a Congress representing another section of the country exclusively.

The Constitution expressly provides that the President of the United States and congressional representatives shall be chosen by the votes of persons in each State authorized by it to elect the popular branch of its legislature. This right is expressly reserved to each state to prevent the consolidation of all power in the Congress of the United States. If that body had the right to make the votes empowered to elect it, the British parliament would not be more omnipotent. The leaders in the present Congress have repeatedly declared that the only loyal men in the South are the negroes, and they insist that they shall be entitled to universal suffrage, while every white man should be excluded who cannot take the test-oath, denying that he had ever sympathized with any one engaged in rebellion. Congress has not yet ventured to annul the clause in the Constitution giving the creation of electors to the several States; but Mr. Sumner, who speaks for the Senate, has asserted that the late emancipation amendment to the Constitution warrants the concession of suffrage to the negroes, and a measure has been introduced in the House of Representatives to deny it to all the white people disqualified by the test-oath. But neither of these expedients need be resorted to now. Congress, by excluding from the national legislature the whole race in the south that fought the battle for our independence, and who contributed largely in founding what has hitherto been looked upon as the white man’s Government, established by his courage, intelligence and labor as his own freehold, and as the inheritance of his children, renders any further disfranchisement superfluous, and his degradation is completed by putting the negroes upon higher ground than the whites in other respects, educating their children at the national expense, feeding, clothing, and sheltering the hundred thousands who reject the tempting wages which invite them to return to employment in the South — according to them seats in the galleries of the two houses the males attired in every variety of costume, the females, (at least the better looking of them) rustling in silks (it is to be hoped not at the expense of the Treasury); the men repaying with applause the recognition by Senators of their service that saved the country, and the women repaying by bouquets the glances with which they are honored from below. It is reasonable, indeed, that they should occupy positions in the chambers from which multitudes of men and women of our kindred are turned away daily. The legislation being directed for the most part to put up the blacks and degrade the white race in the proscribed States, it is proper that the favorites who take the deepest interest in the debates should be preferred as the audience.

This preference of race is exhibited, it is true, in the name of perfect equality. The phrase is a thin disguise. The measures which are proposed to produce this equality are all fraught with injustice and violation of fundamental law. The Freedmen’s Bureau bill proceeded on confiscation of the lands of the South, without trial and conviction of the owners, in violation of the express terms of the Constitution. It established tribunals and created a municipal code, multitudes of judicial and executive officers to execute it, in derogation of the rights of the States, and for the benefit of a whole people to whom the courts of the whole States were open, but which were curtailed in their rightful jurisdiction by the intervention of Congress, which the army was to be called in to carry into effect by forcing submission to the judgment of the head of each bureau – a judgment from which there was no appeal. The law wan simply an agrarian law to plant the black race to supplant the white, and make a new government with an army to enforce it over the prostrate States. How much better and wiser would it be to provide homes and a country and a refuge on the vacant domain of the government for the inferior race, where they might enjoy an actual equality under the instruction and protection of the great Republic; where they might assert substantial independence and be stimulated by the highest motives to cultivate the nobler faculties of man? The vacuum left by these transplantations would, as Jefferson contemplated in this event, be supplied from the North and from our Northern kindred nations. No part of the earth is more inviting to the white race than the Sunny South. All its products are golden, and of cheaper acquisition than gold itself in the richest mines, and nothing has prevented this rich region from being filled with such a population but the protection which has been extended to the black race whilst held as slaves by the strong arm of the white race. Such an exchange of population, whilst advantageous to both races, would make our government homogeneous and secure in peace by peaceful methods. This result is inevitable. Radical policy may hasten it by causing it to force itself on by that inhuman process which delivered the non-civilized portion of our continent from the barbarian tribes its original possessors. But it is altogether better that the wiser course pointed out by Mr. Jefferson should be adopted.

The Civil Rights bill is a scion of this more formidable predecessor. It purports to grant civil rights to the blacks — to place them as citizens on perfect equality with the whites. Its dictum is that there shall be no discrimination in the races in regard to civil rights, and yet the very first step in the code takes from the State Courts their independence as judicial tribunals and breaks down the authority of the people who created them. If the judges of the State Courts decide against any of the grants or immunities conferred upon the freemen by the Civil Rights bill, the judge is to be fined or imprisoned for it, no matter how conscientious his decision, or whether it be founded on his views of the Constitution or the laws of the State which he is sworn to administer. There is no such penalty affixed in case of a judgment against a white man whose person or property may be involved in the judge’s decision. In case a white citizen of a state sues another he is confined to seek justice in a State Court. The negro is privileged to prosecute in the State Court, in the District Court of the United States, or the Circuit Court of the United States. So he may drag the white man through all the tribunals of the country. Is not this discrimination? But there is another of still more practical importance. The bill requires that commissioners be appointed throughout the States to become prosecutors of suits for freedmen litigants. The new tribe of pursuivants of litigation are to receive a premium from the treasury of $10 for every suit they can induce the freedman to permit to be brought in his name, and $5 additional is to be paid on the warrant when issued. For similar services a State justice receives 25 cents. A poor white man nowhere in the world has such assistance in asserting his rights or redressing his wrongs. He has to pay the tax and fees when he appeals to the Courts for justice and the lawyers for counsel, but for the freedmen there is a host of commissioners provided, to instigate and prosecute suits prompted by fees in advance, which alone would make a lucrative pursuit, to say nothing of what might be obtained from the plaintiff or extorted from the defendant. There seems to be some discrimination of races where we find the purse of the nation opened to one race and stimulating huntsmen to hunt the other as a sort of prey. This must be meant as retaliation on the whites (although paroled and promised peace at their homes) for the cruelties of Senator Mason’s fugitive slave bill. The latter, however, only reached a few individuals. The hired beagle of the civil rights bill will hunt the white man down at his home or drive him from it, and he is commissioned to drag State Judges from their courts to trial before United States courts, and thence to the punishment they adjudge, for error of opinion.

It is obvious from the course of Congress, as already manifested that it means to maintain the power now held over the national Government and tyranny over the South, by the use to which the African population is to be converted. Mr. Stevens made this evident when he asserted in his speech that giving them franchise would defeat the weight of the South in the Government. It is clearly the design of the measures already broached to subordinate the South to the North as Ireland is subordinated to England by the hostilities and distraction that inevitably arise between two distinct nations brought to confront each other in the same State and Government, asserting an association on terms of an equality which the nature, habits, prejudices, the very from, complexion, as well as the education and status of the races in , the Government, from its origin to this hour render incompatible. England has her Orangemen and Irishmen in eternal strife, and arbitrates between them with the sword. It is the policy of the rump parliament to produce the same relations between the two sections of our country, instead of the happy union which Lincoln and Johnson have labored to renew.

The congress is now a revolutionary convention. The President’s comment on the scheme it proposes is as just as that in which he rebuked Davis and his followers when they abandoned ibej senate to broach the the Senate to broach the extinct rebellion. He raised his warning voice then against their designs in the speech which be made in the presence of the conspirators. He characterized their crime by the name with which the world now brands it. The Johnson club, now inaugurated, predicates its political action on the principles and policy avowed in his messages and on his views of the schemes of the enemies of the Government, disclosed in his speech on the 22d of February, from which we quote the passages which may be considered prophecy. He says:

“The rebellion is put down by the strong arm of the government but we are almost in the midst of another rebellion there is an attempt to concentrate the power of the government in the hands of a few and thereby bring about a consolidation which is equally dangerous and objectionable with a separation. We find that in effect, by an irresponsible central directory nearly all powers of government are assumed without ever consulting the legislative or executive department of the Government by resolution reported by a committee upon whom all the legislative power of the government has been conferred. That principle in the constitution which authorizes and empowers each branch of the legislative department to be judge of the election and qualification of its own members has been virtually taken away from these departments and conferred upon a committee, who must report before they act under the Constitution and allow members, duly elected, to take their seats. By this rule they assume that there must be laws passed, that there must be recognition in respect to the State in the Union with all its practical relations restored, before its representatives are admitted.” * * * I stand prepared, so far as I can, to resist these encroachments upon the constitution and government.

Montgomery Blair, President.
Chas. Mason, Cor. Sec’y.

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