Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Live-blogging the Fifteenth Amendment: December 10, 1868

 - by New Deal democrat

In the Senate, the two proposals for a Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution were referred to the Judiciary Committee.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. James G. Blaine made the following speech (in relevant part):

And now that victory, complete and unsullied, has been won [in the elections of 1868], ... it may not be unprofitable . . . to make a brief summary of the points that have been solemnly adjudicated and permanently settled by the American people in the election of General Grant to the presidency.
.... The election of 1868 is the last in which the lately rebellious section, even if it could be wholly controlled by rebels, will have sufficient power in the electoral vote in the country to make it the object either of hope or fear on the part of political organizations striving for the government of the nation. . . . . The withdrawal of northern Democratic support for these [ten rebel] States will give to the loyal inhabitants, who are a clear majority in each of them, the power of governing them in the interest of loyalty . . . .  The Union was actually saved by General Grant’s actions in the field. The menace of its destruction ceases with his victory at the polls.
[ ] The reconstruction laws of Congress have been vindicated and sustained by General Grant’s election. The State governments created under those laws will be upheld and the basis of impartial loyal suffrage, without regard to race or color, will be accepted as the permanent rule in the lately rebellious States, as it will be at no distant day throughout the entire Union. This result is certain to be achieved either through the amelioration of prejudice and the conquering force of justice in the individual States or by the comprehensive influence of a constitutional amendment which shall affect all the States equally and alike. . . .  The rebellious element in those States, seeing the hopeless folly of longer resisting the mandate of the nation, will acquiesce in the decision, if with no better grace than merely accepting the inevitable. .... The better minds even among the rebel leaders recognize and admit that as a question of practical statesmanship it is too late to discuss negro suffrage; for having been granted it is impossible to recall it. Between originally withholding a franchise from large masses of people and annulling it after it has been conceded, wise men can see a vast difference . . . . So that even excluding from the case the abstract and unchanging element of justice which underlies it, it is demonstrably impracticable to withhold suffrage from the southern negroes now that they have exercised it, without involving consequences which would would destroy all security for life or property in that section for generations to come. Negro suffrage then [has] be[en]  of necessity conceded . . . .
[Source: Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 3rd Session, pp. 43, 57-58

With the hindsight of 150 years, Congressman Blaine’s triumphalism can be seen as wildly overoptimistic to say the least. But he was hardly alone. The writings of Frederic Douglass at the time have the same triumphal tenor. As it turned out “Negro suffrage” wasn’t conceded at all, as the low level guerrilla insurgency by the KKK and others in the South ultimately wore down northern Republicans, most of whom may have abhorred slavery but did *not* believe in actual racial equality.

Note also, however, that Blaine’s speech completely cuts the feet out from beneath Chief Justice Roberts’ holding in Shelby County that there is some amorphous and inchoate requirement in the Constitution that all States be treated equally. As Blaine pointed out, States undergoing reconstruction were treated far differently than the others, including other slave States, as it was mandatory that their constitutions enshrine black suffrage, whereas, e.g., the loyal slave States of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri faced no such obligation.

Previously: December 7, 1868