Condition of the South at the Close of the War (part three)
We continue with General James Harrison Wilson‘s accounting to the U.S. government, at the close of the Civil War, of the difficulties in bringing the south to reconciliation, both with its nation, and its newly expanded free population. (Blacks were given citizenship under the 14th amendment, ratified 1868.) Again, the work gives the best illumination I have seen of 1860s attitudes on race, among whites who wanted to do right, in accord with what they believed was the proper character of the United States, and what they believed was the will of God. The times we’re living through show us how far we’ve progressed.
CONDITION OF THE SOUTH AT THE CLOSE OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION
A REPORT MADE TO THE WAR DEPARTMENT, Macon, Georgia, November 23, 1865
No clearly defined instructions were given to the conventions to guide them in the duty they were called upon to perform; they were left perfectly free to exercise their own intelligence and judgment in selecting the course they might think best adapted to their condition. In the interval between the appointment of the provisional governors or the ending of hostilities, and the meeting of the first convention, a reaction set in in Georgia headed by the younger men who had but little experience in public life, and supported by a few of the returned officers more “irrepressible” than the rest, aided by that class of men who had remained at home during the war, and had not, therefore, been “subjugated”.
Through the agency of this reaction, gaining head every day, the people soon began to imagine that they might possibly obtain better terms than they first expected. They adopted readily the idea that their States had not been out of the Union, and, therefore, might claim the full benefits of the fact, and that, after all, they were still sovereignties capable of doing a variety of things independent of national dictation. The new men were ambitious to obtain place, and the old leaders were sagacious enough to put them forward to undo the work of rebellion and receive whatever odium might be attached thereto. This was the case particularly with such of the new men as had claimed to be originally conservative or for the Union. When the conventions finally assembled, the reaction had progressed so far that the question was not, “How much shall be done to put our section right and engraft upon its organic laws the principles settled by the war?”, but, “How little can we do and get our States recognized!”
Most of the conventions had in them an unusually large number of gray-haired men, noted for their intelligence as well as devotion to the Union and conservative tendencies during the war. Among these men there were not wanting experienced legislators, who saw plainly their duty to the loyal States as well as to their own people, and who exerted their influence to secure such action by the conventions as would prove acceptable to Congress and obtain for the States recently in rebellion a speedy restoration of the privileges of representation and government. But these men, although supported by the advice of the President, could neither overcome the noisy exponents of secession and State rights nor control public sentiment. The action of Georgia is sufficiently like that of the other states to be taken as a fair example. Her convention “repealed” the ordinance of secession, instead of declaring it “null and void”; “repudiated” the debt accumulated in conducting war against the United States, instead of pronouncing it “illegal and fraudulent”. They “abolished” slavery and failed to adopt the constitutional amendment to that effect, instead of asserting that it had ceased to exist by virtue of the President’s Proclamation and the acts of Congress giving the force of law thereto.
They failed to define and render sacred the rights of freedmen, but passed a resolution reciting their obligation to give “efficient protection to the freedmen”, and “to promote among them the observance of law and order, habits of industry, and moral improvement,” and appointed a commission of five persons “to prepare and report a code or system of laws” for their government and regulating how and in what cases they might be permitted to testify in the courts. The temper displayed by this convention was the reverse of grave, dispassionate, and dignified; its legislation was marked by illiberality, bad taste, defective judgment, and absence of the spirit of loyalty; many of the speeches were rebellious in tone, and couched in language peculiar to the chivalry of other days, and one member went so far as to denounce the President’s telegram advising the repudiation of the rebel war debt, as an attempt “to dictate to a sovereign convention”.
Since the termination of the convention, the members who were loyal enough to advocate the adoption of the President’s views have been condemned by public sentiment. Not a single representative to Congress has been elected who can take the test oath. It is clear the Southern people have failed to appreciate the magnanimity of the Government, and have voluntarily rejected its measures of reconciliation. They do not seem to have realized the changes which have taken place in the last four years, either in their own condition or that of the loyal States. It is hard for them to perceive, at a glance, the difference between a negro man free and a negro man enslaved, or to understand that by the laws of the United States a freedman is a free man, and that justice is color blind. The “manifold infirmities of the flesh” are not yet subjugated, even in the North; the prejudices of race, the passions of the ignorant, and the aggressive tendencies of unbridled arrogance and cruelty, fostered by years of mastership, cannot be uprooted in a day, much less can they be expected in a day to yield to a spirit of forbearance and justice.
We can see now that the Government in its blindness had committed a grave error, very natural and therefore excusable. It should have exercised its military right “to dictate the terms”, not “advise” them, and to compel their adoption as a “condition precedent” to the complete restoration of civil functions to the rebel States. Had the internal condition of the South been similar to that which generally obtains in a territory during its natural growth to the importance of a State, the President would not have misplaced his confidence in “the sagacity, intelligence, and loyalty of the people”. An executive proclamation, enforced, if necessary, by the military forces of the Government, would have been received with more consideration than has been accorded the spoken admonitions of the chief magistrate. It is now clearly the duty of Congress to see that the conditions herein set forth shall be adopted by all the states recently in rebellion, and that they shall embody them in their organic laws without further evasion or indirection, before they are admitted to the full enjoyment of the privileges of the loyal States.
In the performance of this duty Congress may also require each State to present satisfactory evidence of an intention to provide for all classes of its citizens the means of educating their children. No government which neglects this high and solemn duty can justly claim to be republican in form, since upon the intelligence of the people it must depend for its very existence. Congress should also take care to see that every member of either House is required to present satisfactory evidence in the form of an oath that he has abjured all sympathy with the doctrines of secession and rebellion; is sorry for his past acts in opposition to the national authority; that he will henceforth and forever, in word, thought, and act, bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and protect, preserve, and defend the Constitution and the laws enacted thereunder against all their enemies and opposers, whether foreign or domestic.
They should go farther and declare that all cabinet ministers, members of Congress, generals, and judges of the so-called Confederate States, and all governors of either of them, are forever disqualified from holding any office or trust under the Government of the United States. Having done all this, they may repeal the test oath as it now stands, and leave to the separate States the question of negro suffrage, that it shall be properly and intelligently exercised for the advancement of local interests as well as the national honor and glory. This still leaves the negro question, in its practical aspect, unsolved. As far as we have proposed to provide by forms of law for the primary rights of the freedmen, and however liberal may be these laws, they must depend for their effect upon white men, who have shown but little interest in them, and who find it so hard to understand the difference between the freedman and a slave.
But under our system of government this is the best we can do; and under the most favorable circumstances the negro must be more or less subject to the passions and prejudices of white men. I have no idea that any system, either under the general government or that of a State, can be devised which will secure exact justice to the black race, or immunity from abuse and oppression; so it may be safely assumed that the problem of the moral, intellectual, and social regeneration of the negro is by no means simple or free from serious complications. In order that philanthropy and enlightened effort may accomplish the greatest possible amount of good toward a work of such great importance, it is necessary that the public should understand the difficulties likely to be encountered and that they should not lose sight of the indolence and inferior aptitude, either natural or induced in the negro by years of bondage, while endeavoring to counteract the vice and prejudices of white men.
It has been said, and it is widely believed, that the negro is physiologically different from the Caucasian, and inferior to the latter in mental and physical activity, so that, if left entirely free from extraneous influences, we need not expect as high a state of social, moral, and intellectual development as that attained by the white people among whom his lot is cast. Whatever may have been his moral condition in ages past, or whatever progress may become possible for him in the future, is a matter of speculation; but close observation leaves me no doubt that “the humanizing influences” of slavery, even in the South, have not tended to develop his intellectual and moral qualities to the degree claimed by Southern men of intelligence and fairness.
Among women and another class of men, the following remark, in discussions touching the negro character, is very common: “You Northern people do not understand this question; you are ignorant of the negro’s true character; he is lazy, deceitful, dishonest, and improvident, utterly worthless now that he is free, and only useful as a slave”. Without undertaking here to investigate the truth of this analysis of character, or, if true, how it became possible, it is not unfair to suppose that Northern men of intelligence, free from the bias of interest and other natural predisposition to prejudice, are quite as apt as Southerners to judge the question in all its bearings, dispassionately and practically.
James Harrison Wilson
(2021, Stephanie Foster)