The Lost Museum Archive

"The Absolute Equality of all before the law, the only true basis of Reconstruction," William Dickson, 1865

When the Civil War officially ended in April, 1865, the nation’s attention turned toward the vexing questions of how to reunify the sundered nation and “reconstruct” the states of the former Confederacy. While this address on Reconstruction was delivered by William M. Dickson (a lawyer, judge, and informal advisor to President Lincoln), at Oberlin College in December, 1865, it is included here as an example of the national debate about the central questions of the early Reconstruction period: how to readmit the former Confederate states to the Union and whether to extend suffrage to the emancipated slaves. Barnum also spoke publicly in support of “Negro suffrage” in May, 1865. While Dickson turned out to have been overly optimistic in some of his predictions, these excerpts from his speech reflect a moment in U.S. history when the answers to profound questions about government and citizenship were not entirely clear.

Fellow Citizens:--The long war with its destruction of precious life, its fearful waste, its harrowing anxieties, is now happily over. It has not been a failure. The object for which it was waged, has been completely attained. The rebellion is suppressed, and the territorial integrity of the Union is secure. The Constitution and laws made in pursuance thereof, are every where supreme. All this, too, has been accomplished without any degrading or embarrassing compromise. The original purpose,in this respect, of loyal men has been carried out to the letter. The rebellion has gained nothing by its violation of law, nothing by its appeal from the decision of the ballot-box to the trial by battle. Its results hold out no premium for a future one; and it is a precedent not likely soon to be followed. . . .let us rejoice that the war has not indeed been a failure, that the rebellion is suppressed, and that the national authority is every where re-established.

But, my friends, our work is only half done; reconstruction remains.

Force produces physical unity; this is not the basis of our institutions. We may not, with safety to ourselves, maintain permanently military control of rebel States. Pro-consular Governments are often alien to our system. Yet the rebels have invoked the war power; it is not for them to say when or how we shall lay it aside. We may not do this until the public safety permits. War powers are the defensive armor of a free people, to be put on in times of danger, but to be laid aside as soon as the danger is past. All patriots must desire that the eleven seceding States, shall, as speedily as the public safety will permit, become in fact as well as in form, members of our common body politic, equal in right with the other members and clothed with the powers of self-government. How this shall be done is the problem of our politics, that now presses for solution.

. . .

The fact is, and we might as well look it squarely in the face, with a few unimportant exceptions, the Southern whites yield sullenly and reluctantly to the decision of the sword. They are conquered, not converted.

Do not mistake me; I ask them of no unmanly self-abasement. I would not have them otherwise than proud of the prowess they have exhibited in the contest. But before I would give them a voice in the affairs of the nation, a vote to control your and my concerns, I would have a guaranty that this voice and this vote would be directed to the common good, that these would not be merely new and more dangerous weapons in their hands, to carry on the war against the Union.

Is it wrong that I should require this guaranty? It is contrary to the laws of human conduct, that these mortified and embittered and unconverted men should use their voices in the national councils, rather in the direction of their desires and special interests than in behalf of the common good? For example, many of these men are largely interested in the rebel debt. Can it be expected that they will vote for the repudiation of this debt and the payment of the National debt, incurred in their coercion? Nay, would not their fifty-eight votes in the House of Representatives, almost one-fourth of the whole number, and their twenty-two in the Senate, nearly one-third of the whole number, be a constant quantity for repudiation. . . . Our free institutions cannot permanently survive so gross a breach of faith, as the repudiation of our war debt. I would not give these eleven States a vote in the National councils, unless I had a guaranty that this vote would not be for this breach of faith.

These rebel men have been accustomed all the days of their lives to eat their bread by the sweat of another's face; to make this condition of things perpetual, they have imbrued their hands in a brother's blood. They have failed; henceforth they must share the common doom of the sons of Adam. They must work. The slave is free; and the immortal proclamation pledges the public faith, by the most sacred of obligations, to the maintenance of his freedom. Now may we rationally expect these men to labor faithfully, to make this pledge good? Yet the Republic can not permanently survive the breach of this plighted faith. I would not give them power in this matter, until I had a guaranty that this power would not be used for this breach of faith. But what then? Will you forever exclude these States? If not, what guaranties do you want? Upon what conditions would you admit them? Fortunately these questions can be satisfactorily answered.

At the commencement of this war, it was a common declaration of those who were in sympathy with the rebels, that the rebellion could not be put down; that history did not furnish an example of eight or ten millions of people determined on independence being conquered. These opinions were generally held by the rulers of Europe. But there was one important element left out of the calculation, namely, nearly one half of the population of the rebel States, were the determined enemies of the rebellion, and this half constituted the laboring class . This half neutralized, in the long run, the other half.

While I am not one of those who place the bravery of the negro soldiers above that of the white, it is a fact which will hardly denied, that but for the opposition of the entire negro population to the rebel cause, We could scarcely have succeeded; surely, had this force been added to the rebel side, we could not. Mr. Lincoln's proclamation of emancipation, derided at the times as a Pope's Bull against the comet, was death blow of the rebellion.

This loyal half still remains; they, who never in a single instance failed the Union cause, are now as loyal and faithful as ever. We have seen that this half of the southern population neutralized the other half in the war. I would have it continue this good work. I would so reconstruct the Southern States, that while I gave to the disloyal half their full equality before the law, I would paralyze their disloyal purposes by giving a like equality to the loyal half. What wrong is there is this? I give to the men who, for four years have been to destroy the nation full rights--the same which you and I have. The only condition imposed, is, that their loyal follow citizens shall have the problem of reconstructions is full harmony with the representative principle and all our institutions. It will in a brief time remove pro-consular governments, and restore the normal condition of all the States. The country can then rest satisfied that a full guaranty against any efforts of the rebels to do injury, under a restored government. This solution introduces no new element, no new principle into our government. It is but the complete application of the principles of our fathers, set forth in the declaration of independence.

The exception which they reluctantly permitted against the negro is removed. It gives representation to those whom we subject to drafts and taxes. It rests upon the golden rule of right. It is but doing unto others what we would that they should do unto us.

Why shall it not be adopted? And here the false theory of State rights is again thrust forward, by certain parties , in the precise same sense, and for the same purpose with which it was introduced at the beginning of the war, to support the proposition that the government had no right to defend against rebellion. Then the Government had no power to resist those who sought its life! Now these being captured, it has no power to require them to give bonds to keep the peace! Here again the true relation of things is perverted. Grant indeed, not Lee, has surrendered; the Union forces, not the rebels, have been disarmed.

. . . The rebels well knew, when they appealed to the tribunal of the sword, what the judgment must be, if the decision should be adverse to them. By the universal laws of war, the conquering power may impose such conditions of settlement, looking to its own safety and welfare, as it pleases; only these must not be in violation of the laws of humanity. This principle clearly gives the Government power to adopt the plan of reconstruction proposed. Surely it is not variance with the laws of humanity. This power also, maybe deprived from the present condition of the rebel States, and the peculiar structure of our Government. . . .

. . . What other objection is there to the plan of reconstruction under consideration?

It is said there is a deeply rooted antagonism between the black and white races, forbidding their remaining together in the same country. If this is a fact, it is a very sad one; but it would not furnish an objection, specially against the plan of reconstruction under consideration. It would seem to apply equally to all plans. It is rather the statement of an insurmountable difficulty, than the solution of one. It is as if one were to complain of the light of the sun, or of the alternation of the seasons. For this is not a question of introducing four millions of negroes here; they are here now, and all plans that have ever been suggested for effecting their separation are purely chimerical. They cannot be separated, and yet, the declaration is, they cannot remain together. The ease would seem to be hopeless. But happily this declaration is not true. The prejudices between these races are not different in character from other prejudices. There are prejudices between Irishmen and Englishmen; between Catholics and Protestants: between Christians and Jews. These have often been very violent and wars have grown out of them. Not, however, because of their differences but because one race sought to subordinate to itself another, or one sect sought to impose its tenets upon another. Peace prevailed when each race and each sect attended to its own business. When our fathers framed our Constitution, they understood these principles and applied them. They the different races and sects, by securing to each absolute equality before the law. They, however, expected the negro race, it being then in slavery, and they seeing no way of securing its freedom, permitted this violation of their principles to remain. But now we have the opportunity of applying these principles to this race and of thus removing the last exception. I would make the application. Prejudice yields to power and interest. The votes of the black men will be too valuable to be slighted.

It is said, however, that the blacks could only vote at the point of the bayonet, that the Southern whites would not otherwise permit them. Then the rebellion is not subdued; we have a truce, not lasting peace. If this is the case, the sooner we know it the better; at least it were better to know it before we disband our armies. But I do not believe this; doubtless the masters are averse to the negroes voting; not any more however, than they were to their freedom. They profess to acquiesce in the latter, they will also in the former. The rebels are not now in a condition to fight the United States and the freedmen at the polls. And in a short time the soldiers of the Government can be safely removed. Every day the negro will acquire knowledge and power, all of which will be respected at the polls. This thing of fighting is an easy matter to the armed dominant party over his unarmed subordinate. But between equals, it is a very different affair. Men count the cost. The capacity to do this is attained at a very early age. My son, said a father the other day in my hearing to his little boy in his first breeches, "why did'nt you strike Sam?" "Well, father," replied the urchin, "wouldn't he have hit me back?" In those rebel States in which the negroes are the more numerous, the whites will be slow to provoke a contest. They will, everywhere, rather endeavor in a different way to control the negro votes; they will seek them by kindness. Such is human nature. I expect to see the day when a Southern Democrat, will be seen "carrying" arm in arm to the polls, two negro voters. For the white race has no monopoly of worthless men. They belong to all races.

Again, it is objected, that the Southern negro is ignorant and unfit to vote. He seems to have been intelligent enough to be loyal, which was more than his master was. But I do not deny the ignorance; their condition of slavery forbids that it could be otherwise. Yet they share this ignorance in common with the poor whites; and I would be willing to apply to both these classes an educational test. Still I would not recommend this. Freedom is the school in which freemen are to be taught, and the ballot-box is a wonderful educator.

We cannot too constantly keep in our minds, that this is not a question as to the policy of introducing into our country four millions of ignorant negroes. They are here, are to remain with us in the indefinite future. We cannot escape if we desired, their influence upon our civilization. Were it possible for them to remain with us, and yet be so excluded from us, that they could have no influence upon the common welfare, then we might selfishly put them into such imaginary condition, and relieve ourselves of all further trouble concerning them. But we cannot do this. Their force must enter as one of the constituent elements in the formation of our American civilization. . . . As the force of the negro must enter into the formation of our civilization, it is to the interest of the white man not less than of the black man, that this force should be for good. It cannot be, however, unless the negro is moral, intelligent and industrious. How can we give him these desirable characteristics? We have only to consider the conditions under which white men have become moral, intelligent, and industrious, and apply these to the black man.

Our proposition thus becomes very simple; we must educate him and place before him the rewards of good conduct and the penalties of bad conduct. We must give him entire equality before the law and all these things will follow. Let not the law be a respecter of persons. The humbler the man the greater the necessity that the law should not oppress him. The rich and great can take care of themselves. With all the opportunities of equal laws, the poor man's lot is hard enough. He requires the protection of the law and the self respect which an equality of right before the law engenders. In a country where equality is the rule, we cannot have an exception founded on caste. The ballot is here the evidence of manhood; when we deny it to a race we at once degrade that race in the respect of others, and what is of greater consequence, in its own respect. Every man, the humbler he is the more, requires the right of suffrage for his protection. And the negro, as the most unprotected of all, needs it most of all. We must educate him, and give him the condition of self-respect, if we would have his influence for good upon our civilization.

But while we thus see the necessity of giving to the negro equality before the law, even upon the assumption that his presence is a necessary evil, let us not forget that this is indeed far from the truth. We need his labor in the South and we need the protection of his ballot against the ballot of his former traitorous master.

And further, if we educate him and place him in a position in which he will respect himself, we may expect the most gratifying results to the common good. In an economic view this is a matter of the greatest moment. The increased production of an intelligent, self-respecting and industrious population can hardly be estimated. In the South thrift will take the place of waste; voluntary labor directed by an enlightened self-interest will take the place of compulsory labor directed by the lash; provident abstinence will save for a reserved fund, that which has heretofore been lost in careless expenditure. Fixed capital will thus arise; towns will spring up; the industrial arts will be cultivated; and prosperity and wealth will abound where want and poverty have prevailed. That rich southern soil with its generous climate, is a mine of untold wealth. It needs but the hand of free industry to bring it forth. All this would greatly contribute to lightening the load of our debt. These grateful people would gladly aid in the payment of the ransom for their redemption.

My friends, every consideration which ought to influence human conduct, requires that the ballot should be given to the black man.

The protection of the black man himself requires it; gratitude for his devoted loyalty requires it; the protection of our civilization from the influence of a degraded and barbarous element requires it; the protection of ourselves from the insidious rebel ballot requires it; the speedy restoration of the rebel states to their proper relation to the General Government requires it; the fundamental principles of our Government require it; the Golden Rule of our most holy religion commanding us to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us, requires it. Can we withhold it?

My friends, when I leave here should you think of what I have said, remember that I have not proposed to take anything from any man,--no, not even from the rebels. I indeed propose to them, their full restoration to all the rights of citizenship, as fully as we possess them our selves. I seek nothing which need be offensive to them; nothing which is unknown to their own history. In their better days, before slavery became their absorbing thought, free black men voted in many if not all the Southern States. While we are in the way of restoring the forfeited rights of the rebels, let us give to the loyal black man, now free, his ancient right to vote--a gift that costs no one anything, but the withholding of which from him makes him poor indeed. Nay, it is for the interest of the South far more than of the North that this should be done. There is no safety between absolute slavery and absolute freedom. If this plan of reconstruction is adopted a great and happy and prosperous future is open to the South. But if the contrary course is taken; if the negro is to continue a poor and despised being, with no rights which a white man is bound to respect; if he is to be the subject of insult and outrage, with no other protection than the strength of his arm,--then indeed the future of the South is very dark. The negro will soon know too much, know his strength too well, to submit.

Our fathers, yielding to the embarrassments of the day permitted negro slavery to remain, with the expectation, it is true, that it would soon pass away. Alas, what a fearful mistake! This action has been the cause of all our woe. Shall we repeat this mistake? Shall we learn no lesson from this sad experience? God grant that it may be otherwise. Let us catch the inspiration of our Martyr President at the field of Gettysburgh; let us join in his prayer "That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Source: Library of Congress