Harper's Weekly 12/22/1866


THERE is no royal road to restoration. The
social and political systems and traditions
of a State can not be violently torn up by the
roots and new systems introduced without long
delays and patience and prudent deliberation.
There is no magical word that will conjure the
difficulty away. Universal suffrage alone, or
impartial suffrage alone, is no more a sure solu-
tion than universal amnesty or universal dis-
franchisement of the late rebels. Suffrage, in-
deed, is an essential element in the process of
restoration, but it is only a part of it. The
question is very complicated. It can be settled
only gradually and by the increasing light of
experience as we advance. The chief danger
of the situation is impatience. A year ago it
was confidently asserted by intelligent men that
if the work of reconstruction were not accom-
plished by the end of the last session of Con-
gress the people would put the Union party
out of power. The event has hardly justified
the prediction. Those intelligent men were
profoundly mistaken. The country is just as
patient and steady as it was during the war;
and while it hopes and wishes for the earliest
possible restoration, it means to make no leap
in the dark.

We lately showed that the ineligibility to
office of certain specified leaders of the late re-
bellion at the pleasure of Congress, and without
depriving them of the vote, was a cardinal neces-
sity of the method of restoration. There is an-
other of the utmost importance, and that is the
enfranchisement of the colored citizens of the
unrestored States. The political object of this
is twofold. First, to avoid the inevitable con-
sequences of depriving a vast population of po-
litical power in the midst of those who have the
power and are hostile to the unenfranchised;
and, second, to create a large and, in some quar-
ters of the lately disturbed section, a controlling
body of loyal voters. The authority to do any
thing toward this result, like that of the Presi-
dent's action in appointing Provisional Govern-
ors, is derived from the necessity of providing
for the public safety after a severe and pro-
longed war, which is not at an end, whether
there are forces in the field or not, until the
people by their representatives so declare.

It is therefore merely a question of policy,
and not of principle, as has been sometimes
stoutly asserted, how this enfranchisement shall
be procured—whether it shall proceed directly
from the National Government, or whether ef-
ficient motives shall be presented to persuade
those who at present exercise the political pow-
er to enlarge it. Undoubtedly, as a matter of
fact and experience, it is always wiser that rad-
ical political changes should proceed from the
immediate political community to be affected by
them. But this is not always practicable; es-
pecially when such changes are essential to pur-
poses over which those communities have no
control, and to which they may even be op-

It is equally a point of expediency whether
the suffrage, by whatever authority established,
shall be limited only by age residence, and le-
gal innocence of crime, or whether the capacity
of reading and writing shall be added. The
imperative rule is merely that, whatever the
qualification, it be truly equal, in order that
no privileged political class shall be created.
Those who claim that suffrage is a natural right
do not deny that it must be regulated by certain
uniform conditions which do not work a depri-
vation of the right. Thus, a certain maturity
of age is always deemed indispensable, and is a
provision approved by universal common sense.
So the ability to read and write is urged by many
Americans as a further qualification, upon the
ground that in this country no citizen has
reached the age of twenty-one and is unable to
read and write except through a willful rejection
of the opportunities equally afforded him with
every other man. But this is true only of what
were lately called the Free States. In the late
Slave States there was no general public provi-
sion of education, and it was a legal offense to
teach the laborers to read or write. And this
brings us to the practical bearing of the subject.

Senator Morrill has introduced a bill regu-
lating the electoral franchise in the District of
Columbia. The action of the Senate will be
significant as showing its views of the whole
question. But we hope that, while there will
be the amplest comparison of views, no action at
this time will be allowed to establish a prece-
dent. The subject should be left unfettered;
for it may be very proper to do in the District
of Columbia what would be extremely unwise
in some of the unrestored States. The bill of
Senator Morrill, according to the statement
from Washington, provides that every male
adult, legally innocent, who is a citizen of the
United States and has lived six months in the
District, who can write his name and read the
Constitution of the United States, and who took
no voluntary part in the rebellion, shall be a
voter. This may be an admirable and timely
provision in the District, but how would this
serve as a system of suffrage in the unrestored
States, bearing in mind that the object is to de-
velop a numerical loyal vote for the Govern-
ment, and to move toward actual pacification?

It is indisputable that if Congress should
enfranchise only every loyal male adult in the
late Slave States who could read and write,
the political power in all of them would be in-
trusted to an insignificant fraction of the peo-
ple. Of course if the bulk of the educated class
and those who have had the habit of leader-
ship and superiority were altogether excluded
from political power, it would be necessary to
maintain an imposing national military force to
protect the political class. But if, as is plain
in any event, the army must remain for a long
time in the unrestored States, would not the
chance of general pacification be greatly in-
creased, not by disfranchising the vast majority
of the citizens, but by disabling certain persons
from office, and by politically opposing one part
of the population to another, the loyal to the
disloyal. The moment the colored citizens are
enfranchised and are so securely protected that
they will not fear to exercise their rights, they
will, by laws which are entirely superior to
pride and prejudice, gradually come to be po-
litically treated as the foreign voters are treated
in the city of New York.

The question of suffrage in the unrestored
States is to be regarded politically, in connec-
tion with other questions, in its bearings upon
the most prompt and permanent restoration of
the Union. We must not be superstitious.
We must not suppose that the mere ballot is
the open sesame of the situation. If Congress
enfranchises the colored citizens of the unre-
stored States, it must not only defend them
with rifles but with education. In the long-run,
the ballot is a wise weapon only in intelligent
hands; and while at present the same instinct
which kept the hands of the colored people true
to the Union would undoubtedly keep their
votes no less true, there would be demagogues
enough who would strive to hold them in igno-
rance that they might hereafter control them
more easily. Extension of political power to
the freedmen is essential to the national peace.
If it can not well be compassed by just but in-
direct coercion of their neighbors, it must be
accomplished directly by the national power,
and that power must secure the object of its
action by providing education also.

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