Reconstruction: The Danger of the Hour

Reconstruction: The Danger of the Hour

Reconstruction: The Danger of the Hour

What exactly will be reconstructed? don’t know


The whole question of the wisdom or folly of President Johnson’s plan of reconstruction, as he is at present carrying it out, turns upon the amount of confidence which ought to be reposed in the good faith and good intentions of the Southern people. He is evidently of opinion, if we may judge by his action in the Sharkey-Slocum case in Mississippi, as well as by his language to the Southern delegations, that there is not and ought not to be any limit to this confidence. We are given to understand that before very long he means not only to permit the militia to be called out in all the Southern States, but to recall the Federal troops, except a few garrisons, and leave our Southern brethren entirely to their own devices.

Those who defend his course and his opinions do so by ridiculing the notion that there is any danger of a renewed attempt at insurrection in the South, but this is simply fighting a man of straw. There are very few people at the North who apprehend anything of the sort. The Chicago Tribune the other day showed, by an elaborate calculation, that the permission to call out the Southern militia would place 161,000 men under arms, most of them disbanded rebel soldiers, smarting under their defeats and still fired by the passions of the struggle, and gave its readers plainly to understand that it was fair to anticipate from these people a fresh effort to throw off the “Yankee yoke.” We think this arming of the Southern militia to be unquestionably a very unwise and dangerous proceeding, but not because we expect it to lead to a fresh revolt.

There is nobody who has the least knowledge of the actual physical and moral condition of the South but must treat all such apprehensions as chimerical. There has probably never been a people, since the Gauls, so thoroughly beaten in war as the Southerners have been. The completeness of their overthrow has been in the exact ratio of the vigor and obstinacy of their resistance, and resistance more vigorous and more obstinate was probably never offered by any population of the same size. This generation is certainly completely at the mercy of its conqueror, and incapable of offering the least opposition to his mandates. Should it be able to bequeath its passions and hopes to the next one, there might be a possibility of the latter renewing the struggle, but the next generation is twenty years away, and we are not disposed to look forward so far.

What we fear from the President’s policy is, not a renewal of the war, but the restoration of the state of things which led to the war. We, of course, do not anticipate a revival of slavery “pure and simple”; but it was not the fact of slavery in itself which led to the revolt, but the state of feeling and of manners which slavery bred—the hatred of democracy, the contempt for human rights, the horror of equality before the law, the proneness to violence which always results from inequality, the tone which all these things communicated to Southern manners, literature, education, religion, and society. What we fear now is the reconstruction at the South, not of “slave society,” properly so called, but of a society so closely resembling slave society as to reproduce most of the phenomena which made slave society, politically, so obnoxious, and so dangerous, to the public peace and prosperity. The great lesson which we have learned from the war, if we have leaned any lesson at all, is that homogeneousness, social as well as political, is the first condition of our national existence. This government, we now know as well as we know anything, cannot be carried on, if any portion of the population which lives under it is legally kept in degradation, or legally excluded from the enjoyment of any of the rights or privileges possessed by the rest of the community.

The great question to be answered, therefore, by those who propose handing the South over immediately to the control of the Southern whites, is not whether they can be trusted not to revolt again, or not to restore slavery again—we know them to be physically unable to do either of these things—but whether they can be trusted to establish among them that form of social organization which we know to be necessary to the peace and happiness of the nation, to the vindication of our own principles before the world, and to secure which we have spent millions of treasure and torrents of blood. Nobody will venture to answer this in the affirmative. Nobody has answered it in the affirmative. The partizans of the South content themselves with calling attention to the resignation with which they gave up slavery, after it had been destroyed by force, and the alacrity with which they laid down their arms, when further resistance meant slaughter or starvation. But can they be trusted to take measures for putting the negro fairly under the protection of the laws—that is, giving him, weak, helpless, and degraded as he has been, those guarantees for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which the white race, strong, rich, powerful, and energetic as it knows itself to be, declares to be essential for its liberty and security? Can they be trusted with the sole management of one of the most difficult and delicate of political processes, the endowment of slaves with the feelings and aspirations of freemen, when they have up to the last moment fought against it sword in hand, and at this moment make no secret of the loathing and rage which it excites in them, of their confidence that it will fail, and of their hopes that it may fail?

He must be a very sanguine or very simple person who will say yes to all this, when we see that all through the South the men whom the people elect to take charge of the work of reconstruction which Mr. Johnson is committing, as we believe, most recklessly to their hands, are those who are notoriously most thoroughly impregnated with the old pro-slavery vices, the old pro-slavery passions, hates, and prejudices. The most popular man in South Carolina to-day is Wade Hampton, and there is not another in the South who hates freedom, and the North, and the Union more thoroughly. We might go through every one of the revolted States and cite cases of the same kind. The men who are animated by Northern ideas are either nobodies or persons in whom their neighbors have no confidence. The men whom President Johnson has put in office are often like the redoubtable Perry, persons who make speeches in Charleston which are not intended to be heard in Washington. This personage, as our readers may remember, avowed himself at Greenville a humiliated, outraged, unrepentant, Yankee-hating Southerner, who believed that “freedom would be a curse to the negro”; but on receiving his appointment as provisional governor, two days afterwards, he made his appearance at Washington, with eight friends, in the character of a “wandering sheep,” and matched himself to bleat “Union sentiments” against any loyal wether in the capital.

What we fear is, that we are now about to witness a phenomenon for which many calm and shrewd observers have all along looked with fear and trembling: the free States once more overcome by that disposition to temporize, compromise, and put off the evil day, and hope for the best, to which whatever of shame, humiliation, and disaster there has been in the history of the last forty years may be directly traced. We are all more or less affected by the languor which was sure to follow the prodigious efforts of the war. The public mind is a little weary of contention and agitation; trade is rapidly reviving, and Southern orders are just as sweet and as soothing, Southern tongues just as glib and as smooth, as ever they were. The restoration of a Union of some kind or other seems within easy reach and it is no more difficult for Southern orators and traders to persuade their Northern friends that all trouble is over and that the political millennium is at hand, than it was to persuade them ten years ego that the very existence of Northern society depended on Southern favor and encouragement. We are but witnessing to-day, in the impression produced on Northern opinion by Southern professions, a fresh display of that consummate political ability which, for half a century, laid a large, acute, intelligent, and industrious community prostrate at the feet of a few thousand slaveowners, the product of a society on which civilization had left only the faintest traces. And we run great risk at this moment of being dragged into compromises, the consequences of which our children will rue, as we have rued those of our fathers.

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