Reunion Without Compromise

This book by Michael Perman considers Southern views of Presidential Reconstruction and the early years of Congressional Reconstruction. In the Preface, he tells us, “The post-war status and position of the Confederacy’s political leadership was what Northern policy-makers believed reunion and reconstruction were all about. Should the post-bellum South continue to be led by the men who had held positions of power and leadership during the Confederacy and in the years previous to it when secession was being debated? Or should it be governed after the war by some of these former leaders only, namely those who had publicly opposed secession and been critical of the Confederate government? Or should all previous officeholders be removed from power, regardless of distinctions and differences among them, and a new group, unacquainted previously with political power, be installed instead of them? This was the nub of the problem. Suffrage for the freedmen was secondary; it was a weapon which could be used in the post-war struggle to curb the Confederate leaders, but it could never take priority over the matter of political office and its tenure in the post-war South.”

According to Professor Perman, at the end of the war most Northerners believed the right policy was to be lenient to the former confederates and to be sensitive to their views. “Prevalent was the assumption that the Confederates and their allies could undergo a change of attitude and accommodate to the facts of their own defeat and Northern supremacy. … Since slavery had now been abolished, the argument ran, and the existence of slave labor in the South had after all been the only cause of friction between the sections, there was no major obstacle to reunion. By contrast there were some who doubted that the abolition of slavery had ended all but superficial distinctions. But they also were often sympathetic to the adoption of a conciliatory policy on the grounds that if the sections were fundamentally distinct, coercion and interference in the South would obviously be productive of nothing but tumult and further antagonism. So even those people who believed that despite the cessation of hostilities the sections were still basically out of alignment were amenable to policies which were conciliatory.” [p. 3]

To be sure, not everyone shared this view. “James Russell Lowell said he could discern a large body of opinion favorable to a course which would involve minimal action by the Federal government, and naturally this policy would be conciliatory in its tone and intent. This aggregation of sentiment, he said, consisted of three groups: those who sympathized with slavery; those ‘who hope even yet to reknit the monstrous league between slavery and a party calling itself Democratic;’ and, a larger segment yet, those ‘who seem to confuse their minds with some fancied distinction between civil and foreign war. Holding the States to be indestructible, they seem to think that, by the mere cessation of hostilities, they [the Confederates] are to resume their places as if nothing happened, or rather as if this had been a mere political contest which we had carried.’ Despite this growing body of influential opinion, Lowell warned that ‘the public mind should be made up as to what are the essential conditions of real and lasting peace, before it is subjected to the sentimental delusions of the inevitable era of good feelings in which the stronger brother is so apt to play the part of Esau.’ ” [pp. 4-5]

Another voice crying in the proverbial wilderness was that of Senator Charles Sumner. “Equally worried at this development was Charles Sumner who warned, in a December article for Atlantic Monthly, that ‘Clemency has its limitations; and when it transcends these, it ceases to be a virtue, and is only a mischievous indulgence.’ These limits had been reached, he explained, when magnanimity began to impinge on or threaten the ‘general security,’ the guarantee of which was ‘the first duty of government.’ Furthermore, as a guide to the scope and meaning of clemency Sumner suggested two aphorisms–‘Nothing for vengeance; everything for justice’ and ‘Be just before you are generous.’ A further danger to be cautioned against, Sumner urged, was that in seeking to end hostility and war, the government might escape from Charybdis only to rush upon Scylla. The Scyllas that he could perceive penetrating above the eddies of public discussion were numerous. Among them were ‘that old rock of concession and compromise which from the beginning of our history has been a constant peril;’ the cry that States cannot be coerced and that instead their rights must be respected, an anomalous argument after four years of military coercion; the fear that governmental ‘centralism’ would be the outcome of schemes to interfere in the South and to enfranchise the freedmen, despite the fact that the government had already used immense power to free them; the reminder that ‘military power must yield to the civil power and the right of self-government;’ and, finally, the solemn protestation that ‘we must trust each other,’ even though ‘In trusting them, we give them political power, including the license to oppress loyal persons, whether white or black.’ ” [p. 5]

These warnings, however, went by the wayside. “Instead, all of the policies pursued by the Federal government after the war embodied conciliation and provided for the cooperation and consent of the Confederate leadership. This applied not only to Johnson’s policy but more surprisingly to that of Congress as well. In 1865 the President restored self-government to the Confederates on condition that they would do certain things indicative of their readiness to coexist in the Union and of their fitness to govern their own section. In its alternative proposal, the Fourteenth amendment which was formulated a year later, Congress left with the South and its better judgement [sic] the option of acceptance or rejection. And since the details of Congress’ terms were highly threatening to the Confederate’s [sic] security and position of the leading Southerners, there was far less incentive to approve than there had been in 1865. Even Congress’ second, and more severe, set of terms, the Reconstruction Act of 1867, included in its provisions procedures for the Confederates to register either their cooperation and approval or alternatively their opposition. Refusing to countenance reconstruction by men and groups from outside the South’s traditional rulers because that would imply coercion and dictation, the conservative and moderate Republicans insisted continually, over the objection of the radicals, that Southern reorganization had to be engineered with the cooperation and concurrence of the very men their legislation intended to curb.” [pp. 5-6]

Perman discusses the political calculations of southerners in deciding whether to resist or to cooperate with Federal Reconstruction policies at various points. They made rational decisions at each point, decided how they could best benefit. Normally they chose resistance to the Reconstruction policies. For example, “In their choice of Congressmen there appeared to be an element of concession and cooperation on the part of the Confederates. This approach synchronized with the intention of the Johnson policy of bringing to the forefront those who had opposed secession, the moderate element in Southern politics, but it was not aimed at meeting the demands of Congress nor did it involve bringing war-time Unionists and loyalists into power, Anti-secessionists and Whigs rather than secessionists were to be at the head of Southern affairs in 1865. The precipitators of the rebellion had to play a subordinate role, not merely because their policies had been found wanting after 1861 but also in the interest of Southern unity and readmission. So, it was the opponents of secession who would be sent to Congress, men such as William A. Graham.” [pp. 165-166] This view would change for many, though. “There was, beneath Southern suspicion, confidence in the fundamental magnanimity of the North. Therefore, to bide its time was better policy than to supply eighty Congressmen who would swell the radical ranks. To the Raleigh Sentinel, as for most Southern political leaders, the alternatives were unmistakable–‘the South would vastly prefer no voice in Congress in the next five years, rather than submit to negro suffrage.’ If aid could not be given the conservatives in Congress, it would certainly be denied the radicals. Only able, discreet, representative politicians could be sent to Washington. To send ‘oath-swallowers’ was to abandon the issue, not only in Congress but in the States as well. Indeed, better no representation than misrepresentation. And this was what resulted. Secession was thus a fait accompli, the Union remained severed, and the traditional politicians of the South were in power.” [p. 168] Former confederates sought to understand Congress and the factions therein to figure out what their best course of action should be. “As far as they could discern, public figures divided into two categories on the Southern question. First of all, there was the vast majority which wanted reunion to be speedily accomplished with few restrictions on Southern autonomy and with confidence placed in the Confederates’ ability to act wisely and conciliatorily. Consisting of the Democrats and the majority of Republicans, proponents of this approach endorsed a program of the kind introduced by President Johnson. Offsetting these, however, was a small but influential and vocal group in the Republican Party which was adamant that major changes be made within the South before that section could be considered sufficiently reconstructed to reenter Congress with safety. While they all agreed on the need for Negro suffrage, though often not stating this goal in public, this radical group was at variance over other measures that might accompany this, such as Confederate disfranchisement or disqualification from office, and military rule supplemented by prolonged Southern exclusion from Congress. Perceiving these divisions in approach to the South and the relative strength and support which each had, the South’s political leaders reasoned that readmission on terms and under conditions satisfactory to themselves would be impossible if the second group, the radical Republicans, were in ascendancy. … In the meantime, their existence was of little concern to the South. If anything it was advantageous that there was division in the North. Moreover the threat of the radicals and their policies could be used on occasion to keep the South united and cohesive. … Since the radicals were not viewed as an imminent threat and since their views were so antipathetic to the interests of the South, there was nothing to be gained from attempts to conciliate them. There was no necessity, indeed it would be dangerous and inviting trouble, to attempt appeasement in order to neutralize or satisfy their demands.” [pp. 168-169]

The book is an excellent analysis of the political calculations made by all sides, but especially the former confederates, regarding Reconstruction policies. I can highly recommend it for those wishing to learn more about Reconstruction, but be aware one won’t gain a complete understanding of Reconstruction here. It will, however, give a good understanding of political reasoning in the early years of Reconstruction.


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