Harper's Weekly 02/02/1867


THE debate upon the Nebraska and Colorado
bills has shown the necessity of a final re-
moval of the chief objection to the constitutions
offered by those Territories—a removal which
can be best effected by an amendment of the
organic law. If, however, any one is inclined
to look with distrust upon another proposition
of constitutional amendment, let him reflect
that the abolition of slavery necessitates certain
constitutional changes, and that all of them are
to be considered simply as inevitable adapta-
tions of the organic law to the changed situa-
tion of the country. Slavery is fallen, and all
its works must fall with it. The laws which
imply slavery—which were the growth of a con-
dition in which a large part of the population
were held as chattels—which are an insult and
a crime in a nation of equal freemen—must be
annulled as rapidly and as radically as possible.
The simplest and surest method is a constitu-
tional amendment forbidding political disability
in any State by reason of race or color.

It is upon this point that the battle is now
fighting in this country. Nothing is clearer
than that the war sprang from the absence of
such a fundamental provision. If at the be-
ginning the equal political rights of every indi-
vidual had been secured we should have had no
war. It will be urged that we should have had
no Union either. Very likely; but we have
now tried a Union without that provision, and
its absolute necessity has been demonstrated.
Henceforth peaceful Union without equal polit-
ical rights is impossible. However we may
theorize about ignorance and degradation, the
fact which shines like the sun is, that the com-
mon rights of human nature are not safe in a
large part of the country without this defense,
and it is sheer folly to suppose that the con-
science and intelligence of the American peo-
ple will tolerate such a condition. If any thing
is certain, it is that there will be a tremendous
agitation until the venom of slavery is expelled
from the electoral law. There can be no doubt
of the final result of such an agitation. The
spirit of caste will be exorcised from our insti-

In March, 1864, Congress passed an enabling
act for Nebraska, and offered to admit the Ter-
ritory as a State upon compliance with certain
conditions. In January, 1867, Congress ac-
cepts the Constitution so framed, and admits
Nebraska upon further condition that the State
Legislature abolishes the disabling distinction
of color. But the vigorous and able debate
upon this proposition proved a wide difference
of opinion among the best lawyers in Congress
as to its practical operation, and showed a very
general doubt of its legal force. In any case
it is easy to see how serious a question might
arise under it, and what grievous delays and
excitements it would be very sure to produce.

Meanwhile the very terms of the bill of ad-
mission, as it passed the Senate and the House,
should be very gravely considered. The Con-
stitution of Nebraska, as presented to Congress,
is declared to be “republican in its form of gov-
ernment.” Is that strictly true? At this time,
in this country, is any form of government prop-
erly republican which denies political rights on
account of color? In other words, is a gov-
ernment founded upon caste republican in the
American sense? Venice was called a re-
public, and so was Florence under the Medici.
But in this country, which secured its inde-
pendent national existence by a declaration of
the inalienable and universal equality of rights
among men, and declared the consent of the
governed to be the only legitimate authority of
the Government, neither an oligarchy like Ven
ice nor a Ducal despotism like the Medician
Florence can be accounted republican.

It is useless to insist that we have hitherto
called Slave States republican. Even if we
were now to be absolutely bound by precedent,
it would be enough to say that if a State in
which half of the people were slaves, but in
which also the whole of the freemen were vot-
ers, could be called republican. yet the very
same State, disfranchising half its freemen,
could no longer be called so. But we are not
to be bound by this kind of precedent. If, as
the very terms of the present argument and the
facts of all political history show, the word re-
publican is vague and inexact, and used with
very various meanings, the Congress of the
United States, constitutionally bound to provide
a republican form of government for the States,
must, when the question arises, determine for
itself what, under all the circumstances, in the
light of reason and experience, and in the spirit
of the Constitution, is truly republican.

If, therefore, it shall declare that a constitu-
tion is republican which politically disables a
part of the population because of the color of
the skin, it must be governed by its own prin-
ciple. Now it is utterly unnecessary to say it.
Every consideration of principle and policy
pleads against it. But if, in the judgment of
Congress, it be republican to deny political
power to colored citizens in Nebraska and Col-
orado, it is equally republican to deny it to the
same citizens in Georgia and Mississippi. Such
a settlement settles nothing. The question re-
mains as peremptory as ever. The action of
Congress will merely have hindered the pacifi-
cation of the country. And if North Carolina
asks restoration to the Union upon a constitu-
tion altogether satisfactory except in this sin-
gle point of exclusion, Congress will have pre-
scribed its own action, and can not fairly re-
fuse. The fact that there may be fewer colored
citizens in Nebraska than in North Carolina is
of no importance. The United States is bound
to be as just to one man as to one thousand

It seems to us that the phrase “republican
form of government” should have been stricken
out of the bill. The original error, indeed, was
in passing an enabling act so framed that Con-
gress was apparently committed by the accept-
ance of its conditions to receive the State and
to declare its Constitution republican. But one
error can not justify another. That we have
begun wrong is no reason for continuing. Of
course we understand the good intention of the
amendments of Senator Edmunds and of Mr.
Boutwell in the House. It was to enable
Congress to respect an implied pledge, and at
the same time to secure something which was
not a condition of the pledge. The effort will
probably fail. The bill will be vetoed, and in
view of its doubtful operation, it will hardly be
carried against the veto. Such a result will
not be a misfortune. Congress will not admit
either Nebraska or Colorado until they have
adopted a republican form of government. But
we hope that, as the Constitution requires Con-
gress to guarantee such a form, the Constitu-
tion will be amended to declare what it means
by a republican government in a State.

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