Harper's Weekly 03/11/1865
It is remarkable that one of the most import-
ant questions of the war was lately decided for
the present in Congress by an extremely close
vote, and almost without exciting public atten-
tion. The bill for reconstruction, involving the
very consequences of the war, was lost by a ma-
jority of five or six.
There is certainly no subject upon which the
public mind should be more fully enlightened
before legislative action than this, and therefore
we can not regret the present postponement of
a final decision, which gives the country time
for ampler consideration.
One thing is clear. Whatever the special
terms of any system of restoration may be, and
whether there be one law covering all cases
or not, yet the essential point must be the se-
curity of peace. No mere theory of the Consti-
tution will suffice. The practical point is that
the nation, after the tremendous struggle for its
life, shall take care that it does not yield to
political arts what arms have not been able to
extort from it.
Fernando Wood gives us the rebel theory
of solving the question. “Congress has no
power to make conditions on which a State may
resume its position in the Union. Whenever
the people of a State shall lay down their arms
and recognize the Federal Constitution and laws,
and send representatives to Congress, I should
like to see the power which would prevent the
return of those States.” Here we have the rebel
view of the matter, and Fernando Wood hav-
ing said what he thinks we should do, every
loyal American citizen knows exactly what
ought not to be done.
It is for the Government, not for the rebels,
to decide when it may withdraw its troops and
when it is no longer in danger from rebellion.
This is a point which can not be determined by
oaths, but by experience. The Government
must decide what tests to employ. It is not
bound to remove its troops from a region full
of rebels, nor is it to assume that they are loyal
because they say so. As the national army ad-
vances it recovers the various States. Provi-
sional Governors will be of necessity appointed.
They hold by the national authority. They
summon the people to an election, and, of ne-
cessity, they determine by the same authority
who shall vote and under what conditions. This
or anarchy is the alternative.
In any system of restoration whatever, which
contemplates permanent order and actual quiet,
the national Government takes the initiative,
and holds the State until it is satisfied that with
perfect safety to the country its hold may be re-
laxed. The practical question is, therefore,
what tests are satisfactory. Is it enough that
the voters swear allegiance to the Government?
Is it enough that emancipation be accepted by
the State Legislatures? Is it necessary to
enfranchise certain other classes?
But whatever may be decided upon these
points one end is paramount—the national safe-
ty; and the whole movement proceeds by one
authority, that of the nation. Of course it is ex-
ceptional. Of course it is abnormal. Of course
it would be absurd to say that in a time of pro-
found peace the national Government could al-
together supersede the State authority. But of
course it would be still more absurd to contend
that in the settlement of this civil war it could
not. The engrossing consideration now is na-
tional safety, not State rights. To insure the
tranquil operation of the States in their spheres
hereafter, it is necessary to adjust them by the
national authority now. The loyal citizens of
any State in rebellion are, in the eye of the na-
tional Government, the State; and to defend
them against the conspiracy within and without
the State, and to secure them in their defense,
the national Government will justly do what-
ever the vital necessity of the case, not State
precedent, demands. And of that necessity the
Government is the judge.
The bill reported by Mr. Ashley was lost,
as we understand, for two reasons. The Oppo-
sition voted against it as an unconstitutional in-
vasion of State rights, and some friends of the
Administration because they did not like its
terms. The bill seemed to some of these last
too sweeping in disfranchisement, and to others
unjust because it did not allow the black popu-
lation to vote. Consequently so radical a Union
man as Mr. Julian, of Indiana, was found vot-
ing upon the same side with Fernando Wood.
There is a similar anomaly in the Senate, where
Mr. Sumner and Mr. Powell, of Kentucky,
both oppose the Louisiana bill. Mr. Powell,
because the State election was held under terms
prescribed by the national authority, and Mr.
Sumner, because those terms excluded the col-
ored population from the polls.
We are glad that the present defeat of the
bill enables us all to consider the subject more
maturely. The principle of such a bill is be-
yond debate. Congress would be treacherous
or imbecile if it did not provide for the inevita-
ble emergency. Public opinion must now indi-
cate what terms the bill shall prescribe.