Controlling Elections in the Postwar South
The letter below reveals the intent behind the Reconstruction Acts enacted after the radical Republicans refused to seat the freely-elected representatives of the Southern States—the same ones they refused to let peacefully leave the perpetual Union. Thus the military regimes in the South could control Southern elections with the freedmen’s vote, which carried Grant to power in 1868 and helped maintain the one-party rule that lasted until Democrat Grover Cleveland’s election.
The closeness of the 1868 popular vote showed the dire need for those black votes controlled by the corrupt carpetbag regimes in the South—3,013,421 for Grant, 2,706,829 for Horatio Seymour. On June 23, 1867, Frances Butler Leigh wrote this letter which is a commentary on the Congressional Reconstruction Policy which had just been decided upon.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
Controlling Elections in the Postwar South:
“We are, I am afraid, going to have terrible trouble by-and-by with the Negroes, and I see nothing but gloomy prospects for us ahead. The unlimited power that the war has put into the hands of the present Government at Washington seems to have turned the heads of the party now in office, and they don’t know where to stop. The whole South is settled and quiet, and the people too ruined and crushed to do anything against the government, even if they felt so inclined, and they are all returning to their former peaceful pursuits, trying to rebuild their fortunes and thinking of nothing else.
Yet the treatment we receive from the government becomes more and more severe every day, the last act being to divide the South into five military districts, putting each one under the command of a United States general, doing away with all civil courts and law. Even D___, who you know is a Northern republican, says it is most unjustifiable, not being in any way authorized by the existing state of things which he confesses he finds very different from what he expected before he came. If they would frankly say they intend to keep us down, it would be fairer than making a pretense of readmitting us to equal rights, and then trumping up stories of violence to give a show of justice to treating us as conquered foes of the most despotic Government on earth, and by exciting the Negroes to every kind of insolent lawlessness, to goad the people into acts of rebellion and resistance.
The true reason is the desire and intention of the Government to control the elections of the South, which under the constitution of the country they could not legally do. So they have determined to make an excuse for setting aside the laws, and in order to do this more fully,—(they have disenfranchised) the whole white population while the Negroes are allowed to vote en masse….Meanwhile, in order to prepare the Negroes to vote properly, stump speakers from the North are going all through the South, holding political meetings for the Negroes, saying things like this to them: “My friends, you will have your rights, wont you (“Yes!” from the Negroes), “Shall I not go back to Massachusetts and tell your brothers there that you are going to ride in the street car with the white ladies if you please?” (“Yes!, and applause). This I copy verbatim from a speech made at Richmond the other day, since which there have been two serious Negro riots there, and the General commanding had to call out the military to suppress them.”
(Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation After the War,” R. Bentley and Son, London, 1883, pp 66-70)
"You do not propose to enter into our States, you say, and what do we complain of? You do not pretend to enter into our States to kill or destroy our institutions by force. Oh, no… You propose simply to close us in an embrace that will suffocate us… The day for adjustment has passed… We desire, we beseech you, let this parting be in peace… you can never subjugate us; you can never convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!"
Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana