Reconstruction in North Carolina: Thoughts by Zebulon B. Vance, 1890

Reconstruction in North Carolina: Thoughts by Zebulon B. Vance, 1890
Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War

Few eras in U.S. History are as acrimonious as Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Reconstruction can be divided into two approaches: Presidential Reconstruction and Congressional Reconstruction. It's fair to say that the South's surrender happened under the relatively mild overtures from the Lincoln administration.

Of course, Lincoln was assassinated: Shot on April 14th while attending a play at Ford's Theater, he died the next day. Andrew Johnson succeeded him at President and continued Lincoln's Reconstruction policies as he understood them. However, Congress had other plans.

The Southern states were under the impression, based on Lincoln's policy, that surrender and submission to the Union, repeal of secession ordinances, and the reconstitution of their respective states restored the Union. However, the 1866 election filled Congress with Radical Republicans who approached Reconstruction from the point of view of conquerors.

The Radicals refused to seat the Senators and Representatives from the erstwhile Confederacy and, among other actions, expelled their states from the union, imposed military rule, disenfranchised vast numbers of participants in the war, and demanded ratification of the 14th Amendment.

These actions took Reconstruction in a completely different direction than what was envisioned and executed under presidential leadership. Generally, it caused outrage . . . and violence . . . in the South as the citizenry chafed under "carpet-bagger" governments.

This excerpt was taken from "Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and its Results." The work was compiled, edited, and published by Hilary A. Herbert in 1890. Herbert gathered essays from each Southern state. The excerpt included in this post was written, as listed in the title, by Zebulon B. Vance, and is fairly representative of the experience in the other former Confederate states.

As Hilary A. Herbert wrote, "Like causes produce like effects."

This post is longer than most on this site and is intended for the ambitious reader or those with a great deal of interest in the Civil War.

August Glen-James, editor

Each assertion was a lie so palpable and monstrous, that the historian will wonder at the hardihood which induced men to base momentous actions upon it.

The destruction of the flock by the shepherd; the robbing of the ward by the guardian ; the scandalizing of religion by a dissolute priest—are all crimes which find their most appropriate punishment in that public contempt which is society's excommunication.

In this catalogue is to be placed the betrayal of constitutional liberty, in its supreme home and by its especial guardians, in what is falsely termed the reconstruction of the Southern states.

This was a crime against the principles of free government for which no adequate punishment is provided by law. In fact, the criminals assumed to be above the law which they enacted, and the law itself was the crime.

The criminals sat in the law-making chamber, on the bench and in the jury-box, instead of standing in the dock.

It is with the hope that at this distance and in these more dispassionate times [i.e., 1890], I may aid in directing upon that movement at least a portion of that execration which it so richly deserves, that I have consented to write this article.

It is an episode in American history that not only should not be forgotten, but which deserves to be studied by every considerate patriot in the United States.

It is not necessary or pertinent to argue the original question of the right of a state to secede. In the very brief allusion I shall make to the subject, I propose to treat it from the Northern standpoint as settled, and that such a right never existed under the unamended Constitution. With this understanding I shall submit a few observations on the legality and propriety of the reconstruction acts of 1867.

The Southern states, believing they had a right to secede and depart from the Union, attempted to do so by repealing the ordinances of their conventions by which they had severally accepted the Constitution and become members of the Union. The remaining states, possessed of the autonomy of the Federal Government, said “No, you cannot do that; your ordinances of repeal are void; you are still in the Union and subject to the Constitution, and your attempt to maintain the validity of your ordinances by force is simply insurrection and rebellion, which we are bound by the constitution to suppress.” Accordingly they waged war to suppress it and did suppress it. The slogan from the day when the first ordinance of secession was passed until the firing of the last shot in the war, had been the restoration of the Union. That had been the cry everywhere when men were appealed to enlist:— “Join the army and help restore the Union.” Was it not restored when the “rebellion” was suppressed and Lee gave up his sword to Grant? Everybody supposed so then; but yet it seems that Congress thought not, for the eleven states were declared by Congress to be out of the Union. Now it is well known that during the contest, so great was the aversion of the popular mind to the coercing of sovereign states and the invasion of their soil, that nothing but this appeal for restoring the well-beloved Union could have succeeded in filling the armies which were necessary to effect it. When that war, therefore, was closed, was the Constitution in any way changed? Or were the relations of the offending states themselves to the Constitution and the Union (their guilty officials having been supplanted) in the slightest degree altered? Had not the Northern idea triumphed? Was not the Constitution supreme over the insurrectionary states? If so, where were they, in the Union or out of the Union? There were only two ways by which they could possibly have gotten out:-legally, by virtue of their ordinances or by force of arms. As the legality was denied and the resort to force was a failure, the conclusion is unavoidable, that they were in the Union, subject to all the requirements and entitled to all the privileges of the Constitution.

Individuals might indeed have been punished if they had committed treason, but the states in their corporate capacity could commit no wrong and therefore were not subject to punishment. Under our theory their existence was immortal, and the moment the individuals who had done wrong in the name of the state had been disposed of, they moved onward with their ancient laws and institutions restored,—subject in the language of Justice Nelson, “only to the new reorganization, by the appointment of the proper officers to give them operation and effect.” This view was acknowledged and acted upon by the Government in all its branches, from 1865 to 1867. President Johnson (by what authority is not precisely known), immediately after the termination of the war, appointed temporary Governors for the states, with authority to appoint all needful officials; and directed them to call primary conventions, form Constitutions and reorganize the state governments in all their branches; and he also invited them, under their new Constitution, to elect Senators and Representatives in Congress in the usual and regular way.

This was promptly done by North Carolina, and her new government was recognized by the President. It was also recognized by Congress in so far as the submitting of the proposed Constitutional amendment to her State Legislature for ratification was a recognition. [This is referring to the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery.] So far also as any cases were brought before it, the judicial authority of the United States treated these state governments as valid.

In the case of Amy Warwick, before the United States District Court of Massachusetts, Judge Sprague, referring to the supposed effect of the belligerent rights which it was conceded belonged to the Government during the rebellion, by giving it, when suppressed, the rights of conquest, used the following language: “This is an error, a grave and dangerous error. Belligerent rights cannot be exercised where there are no belligerents. Conquest of a foreign country gives absolute, unlimited sovereign rights, but no nation ever makes such a conquest of its own territory. If a hostile power either from without or within takes and holds possession and dominion over any portion of its territory, and the nation by force of arms expel or overthrow the enemy and suppresses hostilities, it acquires no new title and merely regains the possession of that of which it had been temporarily deprived. The nation acquires no new sovereignty, but merely maintains its previous rights. When the United States takes possession of a rebel district they merely vindicate their pre-existing title. Under despotic governments, confiscation may be unlimited; but under our government the right of sovereignty over any portion of a state is given and limited by the Constitution, and will be the same after the war as it was before.” If this doctrine be true, and I imagine it will not be denied, of course the existing state authorities at the time were the only power which the Courts could recognize for the administration of law, for the Constitution had conferred none in such cases upon the Federal Government.

Still stronger is the language of Mr. Justice Nelson, of the Supreme Court, in the application of James Egan for a habeas corpus to be discharged from imprisonment imposed upon him by the sentence of a military commission in South Carolina for an offense committed within that state. He promptly discharged the prisoner and said among other things: “For all that appears, the civil, local courts of the State of South Carolina were in the full exercise of their judicial functions at the time of this trial, as restored by the suppression of the rebellion some seven months previously, and by the revival of the laws and the reorganization of the state, in obedience to and in conformity with its constitutional duties to the Union. Indeed, long previous to this, the provisional government had been appointed by the President, who is Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States (and whose will under martial law constituted the only rule of action), for the special purpose of changing the existing state of things and restoring the civil government over the people. In operation of this appointment a new Constitution had been formed, a Governor and Legislature elected under it, and the state placed in the full enjoyment, or entitled to the full enjoyment of all her constitutional rights and privileges. The constitutional laws of the Union were thereby enjoyed and obeyed, and were as authoritative and binding over the people of the state as in any other portion of the country. Indeed, the moment the rebellion was suppressed and the government growing out of it was subverted, the ancient laws resumed their accustomed sway, subject only to the new reorganization by the appointment of the proper officers to give them operation and effect.

This organization and appointment of public functionaries, which was under the superintendence and direction of the President, the Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the country, and who, as such, had previously governed the state from imperative necessity by the force of martial law, had already taken place, and the necessity no longer existed.

In the language of Mr. Reverdy Johnson, who wrote the minority report upon the reconstruction bills: “We submit that nothing could be more conclusive in favor of the doctrine for which they are cited than these judgments,”—that is, the doctrine that these new state governments were both, de facto and de jure, the legal and proper governments of the states lately in insurrection.

Notwithstanding all this, Congress, for purely partisan purposes, proceeded to treat these states as outside of the Union; and as alien communities who were to be dealt with anew under the laws of conquest and admitted to the Union on conditions of its own imposing. They happened to be Democratic in their politics; and it was not desirable to have the Union restored by the admission of eleven Democratic states; that would seriously endanger the Republican party.

They could not longer refuse them to representation in Congress, which was the obvious constitutional right of these states, but they determined on conditions which would strengthen, not weaken, the Republican party. To do this they dissolved the Union by an Act of Congress, declaring that as they were out, they should only be readmitted on the formation of new constitutions and the adoption of certain amendments to the Federal Constitution. They were to be placed under military rule, every vestige of civil authority was to be abolished, and every civil magistrate displaced. Suffrage was to be made universal, except that every citizen was to be excluded from all participation in the primary proceedings who was proscribed by the proposed Fourteenth Amendment. All this was done and more, several years after the war had ended, without the slightest provocation on the part of the Southern states, save only that they would vote the Democratic ticket.

North Carolina, who had already, in obedience to the President's invitation, held a convention and remodeled her government in conformity with the changed condition of affairs, and who had elected a full corps of Federal and State officials, became a part of “Military District No. 2.” Orders from “Headquarters” in Charleston, South Carolina, dissolved her state government, framed after her ancient custom and traditions, overturned her laws and displaced her officials. Anarchy reigned, tempered only by the will of a military satrap. A new convention was called by his authority.

The excuse given for this legislation was that the states lately in insurrection were in a state of complete anarchy, entirely without civil law and a republican form of government. Each assertion was a lie so palpable and monstrous, that the historian will wonder at the hardihood which induced men to base momentous actions upon it.

North Carolina had a republican form of government, framed by a convention of qualified members, who had been chosen by her legal electors; and under the Constitution thus formed, civil officers of every grade had been elected and installed; courts had been opened; justice was everywhere administered, and order secured in the usual way.

In addition to this, her duly chosen Senators and Representatives stood waiting for admission at the doors of Congress. To deny all this would justify the denial of any event of the past. No fact of history is more notorious. Naturally there could be no other than the worst of consequences attending a procedure thus begun in fraud and false pretense, and supported by force. A saturnalia began. Our English-speaking race has not known its like since, the plunder of Ireland in the sixteenth century. Detachments of the army were stationed at various points to overawe the people. Almost every citizen of experience of affairs in the state was disfranchised, and over the others hung the threat of confiscation. Under such circumstances the new convention was called by military orders: the qualification of its members, its electors, and the persons to hold the elections, the time and place, were all prescribed by the same authority. Many of the poll-holders were candidates, whilst their associates were negroes who could neither read nor write.

The returns, instead of being compared in public, as was customary, were sealed up and sent to “headquarters” in Charleston, South Carolina. There they were examined in secret and the result announced.

That result was 110 Republicans and 10 Democrats!

The voting population of the state, as ascertained by the census two years afterwards, was 214,222; the registration for that election in 1868 was 103,060 whites and 71,657 negroes— total 174,717. The result shows that about 40,000 were either disfranchised or in some other way were deterred from voting.

Of the 110 Republicans who were announced by General Canby to be elected and pronounced by the sergeant who kept the door to be “duly qualified,” were thirteen (13) negroes, and eight (8) strangers, who came to be wittily called “carpet-baggers.” They were not citizens of the state and were in no way entitled to the privilege of making laws for North Carolina; but they came to officer the negroes and to teach loyalty to the whites. The rest were disaffected white natives, mostly without property to be taxed or sympathy with their race, or regard for the misfortunes of their country.

The language of the registration oath is a sufficient indication of their character. They met in January, 1868, and framed a Constitution after those of Ohio, Illinois and other Northern states, ignoring much of that of our fathers.

But little more than thirty days' notice of the election for ratification was given. But now comes the most iniquitous part of this entire, shameful proceeding. They had succeeded in stifling the voice of the people, by enforcing the disfranchising clauses of the reconstruction acts.

Congress went no further, and plainly meant to go no further, than to provide the machinery for a primary convention as the initial point of the new government. It assumed the right to prescribe the qualifications of the voters that far only. To have done so one moment after that convention met would have justified Federal control of the suffrage in every state and for all time. Accordingly, the new Constitution provided that all males of legal age should both vote and be eligible to office, except when convicted of felony. But to make sure of their hold on the state and the plunder which they meditated, by collusion with the military despot, they held the election for state officers at the same time with that for ratification, and applied the same disfranchisement to both ! In this way at least 40,000 citizens, by a pure fraud, were deprived of the right to vote for the Constitution of their country and the officers elected under it, although it expressly provided in terms that they should vote.

It is difficult to imagine a more despotic proceeding, or a precedent more dangerous to constitutional liberty. Here the foundation was laid for all the corruption and misrule which followed. Had the suffrage been free and honest, as the organic law required, there can be no doubt but that the Legislature at least would have represented the property and character of the state and both been safe.

On the 4th of July, 1868, the new government was inaugurated. With a clean sweep of all the state officials and nearly all the counties, and a large majority of the Legislature, and backed by the army of the United States, they had it all their own way.

The Senate stood thirty-eight Republicans and twelve Democrats. The House stood eighty Republicans to forty Democrats. Of the Republicans there were twelve carpet-baggers and nineteen negroes—several of whom could not read or write. They made loud promises of a new generation of progress; and they were soon to bring about “a new heavens and a new earth.” They told how the old order of things had been weighted down by slavery, and the poor had been oppressed by an aristocracy based upon it; and they declared that their divine mission was to regenerate a vast state and awaken the latent energies of a sleeping people and develop the hidden resources of buried wealth!

The better to do this, a number of outside carpet-baggers were called in to assist in the great work of progress by manipulating the negroes and the purchasable whites. Prominent among these strangers were one Milton S. Littlefield, Dewees and others—men whose reputations at home, if they ever had a home, entitled them to the contempt of their neighbors, and who, in their wanderings in search of plunder in the wake of devastating armies, left everywhere behind them a stench of foulness and corruption.

They immediately organized for a raid upon the depleted treasury of an impoverished people. It was soon stripped of every available dollar; then the school fund was robbed, its investments were sold to pay their per diem, which was spread out indefinitely by their protracted and unusual sittings.

All bold-faced emphases and italics were added by August Glen-James.