northern opponents of reconstruction -- 9/27/21

Today's selection -- from The Last American Aristocrat by David S. Brown. Following the Civil War, a number of Northerners did not support Reconstruction and instead were supportive of the position of new president Andrew Johnson:

"[Massachusetts Governor Charles Francis and scion of the presidential family Henry Adams supported] no congressional Recon­struction, radical or otherwise. He thus joined his father and older brothers in warming to the attractively besieged Andrew Johnson, like them a quixotic outlier in the either/or partisan pattern. Elevated to the presidency upon Lincoln's death, Johnson, direct in manner, blunt in opinion, and intolerant of others' views, was a Tennessee Democrat utterly at odds with the radical Republican agenda. His list of (con­gressionally overturned) vetoes included the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, and the First, Second, and Third Military Reconstruction Acts. Combined, these crucial legislative achievements extended federal assistance to the freed peoples, defined citizenship to include African Americans, and established the requirements by which Rebel states could reenter the Union. Not insignificantly, this pivotal reordering of American law enlarged appreciably the powers of the central government.

"Taking a strict constructionist line, the Adamses joined Johnson in looking to the South to restore itself. For a while [Massachusetts Governor] Charles Francis doubted even the legality of slavery's elimination. Though he believed black bondage an obvious evil, he pedantically questioned Lincoln's presidential powers to end the institution. Having spent the terrible war years overseas, he appeared upon his return punctilious, tone deaf, and unable to grasp the great and permanent changes brought about by the conflict. Writing shortly after the war to the Massachusetts lawyer Richard Henry Dana, author of the popular memoir Two Years before the Mast, he raised serious doubts about the Emancipation Proclama­tion's juridical standing and Congress's right to determine the fate of the defeated Confederate states: 'The President's proclamation as well as most of the plans of reconstruction of the state authorities which were offered in Congress seem to me to rest upon a mistaken idea of the powers vested by the Constitution. As President, Mr. Lincoln unquestionably had no power to emancipate a single slave. Neither had Congress the smallest right in my mind to meddle with the reconstruc­tion of a single state.' Such an idle, inert response on the Governor's part to southern secession and the futures of some four million former slaves lacked verve, courage, and imagination. Shamelessly stubborn, it conformed, rather, to the by now cast-off compromise politics of the not so distant past. …

"'When I think of the [Reconstruction] legislation;' he wrote to Charles, 'my blood boils;' and he promised Gaskell that even though the Governor and his sons were now on the outside looking in, they 'mean[t] to be seen and be heard.' What seems to be most conspicuously lacking from the Quincy [Massachusetts] perspective is simple compassion. To a man, the Adamses appeared curiously incapable of recognizing the humanity of the former slaves. Their sympathies and energies, rather, were invested in 'defend­ing' the Constitution from presidential emancipation and 'extra-legal' congressional legislation affirming African American citizenship and equal protection under the law. At bottom, and for all their education, erudition, and reputation as men committed to liberty, they lacked the moral vision to grow beyond their now dated prewar principles. In effect, they were championing an older interpretation of the Con­stitution, one that had allowed the southern planter class to pilot the Union for the three generations bookended by the elections of Jeffer­son (1800) and Lincoln (1860). But in destroying such southern arti­cles of faith as the Three-Fifths Compromise (by counting slaves for purposes of representation, the South received additional congressional seats and electoral votes), the Fugitive Slave Law (requiring northern participation in the capture of runaways), and the Dred Scott decision (the infamous 1857 Supreme Court case that denied both black citizen­ship and Congress's capacity to keep slavery out of the nation's territo­ries), the Civil War had also destroyed that Constitution and given rise to another, codified in the passage of three freedom-enlarging amend­ments between 1865 and 1870.

"Ironically, many scholars today remember Adams as a remarka­bly capacious historian, one comfortable gauging the grand sweep of time from the medieval Virgin to the modern dynamo. Yet on the race question he made far too little of slavery's corrosive and all-pervading impact on America."



David S. Brown


The Last American Aristocrat




Copyright 2020 by David S. Brown


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