Part V

       There were some features in the new constitutions adopted and in the laws being passed by the legislatures under these constitutions, which were to be seized upon by the Republican party as an excuse for a more severe reconstruction by Congress I mention first that suffrage was confined to the whites alone; even the most conservative element, which had taken the lead in restoring the States, did not think their recent slaves fit subjects for the great boon of the ballot. A good many of the Northern States did not allow negroes to vote; in fact, several States even after the war defeated acts proposing to give them the ballot, when there were only a few negroes within their borders. This suffrage feature had much to do with the States not being admitted. Public opinion at the North, under the lead of Mr. Thaddeus Stevens., of Pennsylvania, and other extreme partisans, was fast drifting in favor of universal suffrage and the adoption of a disciplinary and coercive legislation toward the South, forgetting that nearly all negroes lived at the South, with but few at the North to be affected by such legislation. It was a great problem, yet hostility toward the South turned the scale to the enfranchisement of the negro and disfranchisement of enough whites to create negro domination in the South.
       General Grant, in his description of the Freedmen’s bureau, stated enough to show that legislation was necessary to check the demoralization among the negroes, and to influence them to return to habits of industry and self-support. As he stated, large numbers had quit work in the fields, and considered their newly-acquired freedom as relieving them from labor. Somehow they felt that the government would feed, clothe and care for them. This was being done by the bureau, and large numbers had assembled in cities and towns to be supported.
       If the new State governments were to take charge, as State governments did in other States, and as was the case before secession, wisdom admonished the legislators to provide for this condition of things and correct it. The Southern people had lived with the negroes; they understood them far better than did the Northern people and the politicians of the North. Some legislatures, to meet this condition of affairs, passed certain laws known as vagrant laws, similar to many found on the statute books of the Northern States, possibly a little different because the surroundings were different. The North, however, in the desire to protect the negro from imposition, not fully understanding matters, took great offense at this, and felt that it was an effort to re-enslave the negro, and defeat the purpose of his freedom. A careful analysis of these vagrant laws, so called, and similar laws on the statute books of the North framed to meet conditions far less aggravated and void of the prejudices and bad blood of the time, will show there was no ground for this excuse seized upon to defeat presidential reconstruction. These laws were of little import anyway, for the bureaus of refugees, freedmen and abandoned lands, backed by military force, were overriding everything in a supposed protection of the rights of the negroes, encouraging them in idleness and inculcating vicious ideas and hostility toward the Southern whites.

This Page last updated 01/26/02