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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Of what citizenship implied they had


So

far, in discussing the Slavery Question and all the issues which arose out of it, I have left one factor out of account--the attitude of the slaves themselves. I have done so deliberately because up to the point which we have now reached that attitude had no effect on history. The slaves had no share in the Abolition movement or in the formation of the Republican Party. Even from John Brown's Raid they held aloof. The President's proclamation which freed them, the Acts of Congress which now gave them supreme power throughout the South, were not of their making or inspiration. In politics the negro was still an unknown factor.

There can be little doubt that under Slavery the relations of the two races were for the most part kindly and free from rancour, that the master was generally humane and the slave faithful. Had it not been so, indeed, the effect of the transfer of power to the freedmen must have been much more horrible than it actually was. On the other hand, it is certain that when some Southern apologists said that the slaves did not want their freedom they were wrong. Dr. Booker Washington, himself a slave till his sixth or seventh year, has given us a picture of the vague but very real longing which was at the back of their minds which bears the stamp of truth. It is confirmed by their strange and picturesque hymnology, in which the passionate desire to be "free," though generally apparently invoked in connection with a future life,

is none the less indicative of their temper, and in their preoccupation with those parts of the Old Testament--the history of the Exodus, for instance--which appeared applicable to their own condition. Yet it is clear that they had but the vaguest idea of what "freedom" implied. Of what "citizenship" implied they had, of course, no idea at all.

It is very far from my purpose to write contemptuously of the Negroes. There is something very beautiful about a love of freedom wholly independent of experience and deriving solely from the just instinct of the human soul as to what is its due. And if, as some Southerners said, the Negro understood by freedom mainly that he need not work, there was a truth behind his idea, for the right to be idle if and when you choose without reason given or permission sought is really what makes the essential difference between freedom and slavery. But it is quite another thing when we come to a complex national and historical product like American citizenship. Of all that great European past, without the memory of which the word "Republic" has no meaning, the Negro knew nothing: with it he had no link. A barbaric version of the more barbaric parts of the Bible supplied him with his only record of human society.

Yet Negro Suffrage, though a monstrous anomaly, might have done comparatively little practical mischief if the Negro and his white neighbour had been left alone to find their respective levels. The Negro might have found a certain picturesque novelty in the amusement of voting; the white American might have continued to control the practical operation of Government. But it was no part of the policy of those now in power at Washington to leave either black or white alone. "Loyal" Governments were to be formed in the South; and to this end political adventurers from the North--"carpet-baggers," as they were called--went down into the conquered South to organize the Negro vote. A certain number of disreputable Southerners, known as "scallywags," eagerly took a hand in the game for the sake of the spoils. So of course did the smarter and more ambitious of the freedmen. And under the control of this ill-omened trinity of Carpet-Bagger, Scallywag, and Negro adventurer grew up a series of Governments the like of which the sun has hardly looked upon before or since.


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