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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

The President had been using his veto freely


The

provisions of this amendment were threefold. One, for which a precedent had been afforded by the President's own action, declared that the public debt incurred by the Federal Government should never be repudiated, and also that no State should pay or accept responsibility for any debt incurred for the purpose of waging war against the Federation. Another, probably unwise from the point of view of far-sighted statesmanship but more or less in line with the President's policy, provided for the exclusion from office of all who, having sworn allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, had given aid to a rebellion against its Government. The third, which was really the crucial one, provided a settlement of the franchise question which cannot be regarded as extreme or unreasonable. It will be remembered that the original Constitutional Compromise had provided for the inclusion, in calculating the representation of a State, of all "free persons" and of three-fifths of the "other persons"--that is, of the slaves. By freeing the slaves the representation to which the South was entitled was automatically increased by the odd two-fifths of their number, and this seemed to Northerners unreasonable, unless the freedmen were at the same time enfranchised. Congress decided to recommend that the representation of the South should be greater or less according to the extent to which the Negro population were admitted to the franchise or excluded from it. This clause was re-cast more than
once in order to satisfy a fantastic scruple of Sumner's concerning the indecency of mentioning the fact that some people were black and others white, a scruple which he continued to enforce with his customary appeals to the Declaration of Independence, until even his ally Stevens lost all patience with him. But in itself it was not, perhaps, a bad solution of the difficulty. Had it been allowed to stand and work without further interference it is quite likely that many Southern States would have been induced by the prospect of larger representation to admit in course of time such Negroes as seemed capable of understanding the meaning of citizenship in the European sense. Such, at any rate, was the opinion of General Lee, as expressed in his evidence before the Reconstruction Committee.

The South was hostile to the proposed settlement mainly on account of the second provision. It resented the proposed exclusion of its leaders. The sentiment was an honourable and chivalrous one, and was well expressed by Georgia in her protest against the detention of Jefferson Davis: "If he is guilty so are we." But the rejection of the Amendment by the Southern States had a bad effect in the North. It may be convenient here to remark that Davis was never tried. He was brought up and admitted to bail (which the incalculable Greeley found for him), and the case against him was not further pressed. In comparison with almost every other Government that has crushed an insurrection, the Government of the United States deserves high credit for its magnanimity in dealing with the leaders of the Secession. Yet the course actually pursued, more in ignorance than in malice so far as the majority were concerned, probably caused more suffering and bitterness among the vanquished than a hundred executions.

For the Radicals were more and more gaining control of Congress, now openly at war with the Executive. The President had been using his veto freely, and, as many even of his own supporters thought, imprudently. The Republicans were eager to obtain the two-thirds majority in both Houses necessary to carry measures over his veto, and to get it even the meticulous Sumner was ready to stoop to some pretty discreditable manoeuvres. The President had taken the field against Congress and made some rather violent stump speeches, which were generally thought unworthy of the dignity of the Chief Magistracy. Meanwhile alleged "Southern outrages" against Negroes were vigorously exploited by the Radicals, whose propaganda was helped by a racial riot in New Orleans, the responsibility for which it is not easy to determine, but the victims of which were mostly persons of colour. The net result was that the new Congress, elected in 1866, not only gave the necessary two-thirds majority, but was more Radical in its complexion and more strictly controlled by the Republican machine than the old had been.


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