The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
»First Vetoes

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Harper's Weekly,
May 26, 1866, page 322

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The Trial of the Government
It seems to us they greatly mistake the temper of the loyal majority of the American people who suppose that because there are differences among them upon certain points of policy, they will, therefore, from sheer impatience, grow careless of securing the victory they have won. If the correspondent of the London Times reports truly, even the President himself makes the mistake of considering the loyal majority as aiming merely at a party advantage and not at the public welfare. He forgets that he could be as easily accused of holding his course merely with a design to secure his own re-election. Indeed the freedom with which the President assails the motives of those who decline to receive his views as the perfection of statesmanship is one of the unpleasantest episodes of this interesting time.

The truth is, that, with the utmost magnanimity and a cordial desire of restoring the Union to its normal condition, there is no considerable number of faithful Union men in the country who believe that the late rebel States should be restored to their national relations without further condition. Those who hold that they should be, are the late rebels, their Copperhead allies, and a very few who have hitherto acted with the Union party, and of whom Senator Cowan, of Pennsylvania, is a representative. These all believe with Alexander H. Stephens, that as Congress did not consent to Secession the seceding States had a continuous right to resume all their relations with the Union at their pleasure. There is no middle ground between this preposterous opinion and the position of the faithful citizens who sustained the war and elected Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Johnson. As Mr. John L. Thomas, Jun., of Maryland, said, in his manly and admirable speech of the 21st of April, the late rebels "are either to be consulted as to what conditions will best please them, or we are to make known to them upon what terms we please to receive them….We are either to exact no guarantees for future security, or we are to impose such guarantees as Congress in its wisdom may deem best for the public good."

In determining these guarantees there is no limit to the authority of the Government but its own discretion. The rebel forces have surrendered, but the Government has not laid down its arms and General Sheridan assures us that it will be long before they can be safely relinquished. The right to defend its own existence against armed assailants, which is inherent in the Constitution and in the nature of Government itself, authorized the Government to wage war against the rebels, and the authority to maintain its security by exacting guarantees of defeated rebels is a necessary part of the same inherent right. There was no express verbal provision of the Constitution for emancipation or for any other measure of war, nor for the appointment of Provisional Governors by the President. But the power of the Government is not limited by its enemies. Its rightful action is not subject to their discretion. Because they lay down their arms, they can not compel the Government to connive at its own subversion. The Union is restored, and the rights of the States are resumed not when Alexander H. Stephens and the Copperheads say so, but when the loyal people of the United States in Congress assembled are content to declare it.

That declaration should be made only after the most careful investigation and reflection. It is not surprising that the late insurgent States should still seethe with angry passions. It was to be expected that Union men would still be hated and maltreated. It is natural that men like Henry A. Wise should continue to rave and swear at the Union, against which they have so long plotted and declaimed. It is not strange that conspicuous rebels should be enthusiastically elected to the highest local office, and that men whose hands are still trembling with the effort to overthrow the Government should insolently denounce those who have maintained it at the most costly sacrifice as enemies of the Constitution. It was above all to be expected that the freedmen, whose fidelity to the Union has been proved, should be the victims of those whose war for slavery has ended in emancipation.

All these things are natural phenomena of the situation. There was no thoughtful man who did not anticipate them, and only the foolish are disappointed now that they are every where apparent. But these phenomena are contemplated without anger as without surprise. They serve to admonish us all that the conditions upon which States full of such a spirit may resume their national relations must be determined with great sagacity and prudence. Great risks are of course to be taken. That is the inevitable law of the situation. "Bring us back!" sneered Louis Wigfall in the dark days of 1860, when the Senate chamber to which his comrades now again seek admission, rang with contemptuous fury of secession: "When you undertake that, and have accomplished it, you may be like the man who purchased the elephant – you will find it rather difficult to decide what you will do with the animal." None of us supposed that the end of the war would solve all problems. The question to be decided would plainly then be the one which we are now reaching, whether, the attempt of forcible secession having failed, and the rebel States having resumed their relations upon prescribed conditions, the controlling majority of the American people would still maintain the Government and the Union under the constitutional forms, or permit it to be subverted.

We have now, therefore, to decide under what conditions that final and crucial experiment shall be tried. Sooner or later the normal condition of the country must be restored, and there is no conceivable method by which the strain and friction of the trial that will follow can be avoided. Certain conditions we may see at once would be useless. General disfranchisement, for instance, simply postpones the experiment. Holding the suspended States as conquered provinces, also, prolongs and complicates, but does not obviate the peril. The only rational solution of the problem is to confide the experiment of a popular government to its principle in such a way that it shall have the fairest trial. Then, if it fails, it is not we but human nature which is responsible. If the lawfully-expressed will of the people of the Unites States is that this Union shall end and the Government dissolve, there is no further alternative or appeal. But to ascertain this will, to satisfy the conditions of the trial, the whole people must be consulted. It will not do to follow James M. Mason’s advice to Virginia, and hang or shoot every man who votes in a certain way, or Clingman’s promise that in North Carolina Union men should be hushed by "the swift attention of Vigilance Committees."

The risk that we undertook when we fought to defend the Government and save the Union was not, if we succeeded, to govern half of the country as a subjugated province or colony without national rights or representation, but it was to trust the Union to the people of the Union, some of whom hated it and had fought against it, and would doubtless vote against it. The less delay in the trial the better; for delay endangers a just decision by breeding impatience among loyal citizens anxious to renew their old activity and repair their fortunes. The important element of the experiment was thus evident. It was the late slave population. The war had made them freemen and citizens. If the old order of the national system were restored, and they were not consulted, and the Government were embarrassed or ruined by an alliance of the late rebels with the Copperheads, the experiment of a popular government would be as far from satisfactory solution as ever. It can be satisfactorily tried only by an equality of electoral right among the whole population. The experiment is not satisfactorily tried evidently if 631,000 citizens, as in North Carolina, are invested with political power to the exclusion of 331,000 who have the same qualifications except color; or if, as in Virginia, 719,000 may exclude 533,000; or, as in Alabama, 596,000 may exclude 437,000; or, in Georgia, 591,000 may exclude 465,000; or in Louisiana, 357,000 may exclude 350,000; or, in Mississippi, 353,000 may exclude 436,000; or, in South Carolina, 291,000 may exclude 411,000.

Under the circumstances of the case, as we have defined them, this electoral equality may be secured either directly or indirectly. Congress may, as a measure of national security, determine who shall vote, either by express specification or by sanctioning the provisions of a State Constitution, and guarding against its unfair operation. This is obviously a purely exceptional measure. In the normal operation of our system the regulation of suffrage is left to the States, and it would be touched by the National Government in this instance for the same reason that property in slaves was touched – for the public safety. The right of a State to regulate suffrage is no more sacred than that of a property holder to his property. The Constitution protects neither when in extreme national peril its sacrifice becomes necessary. Congress has chosen, and we think wisely, to leave the regulation of the suffrage to the State, but proposes to reduce the basis of representation in proportion to the number of male adults disfranchised except for rebellion. The reason for proposing this rather than directly establishing impartial suffrage is purely one of expediency. It saves friction.

This is the substance of the amendment suggested by the Committee of Reconstruction. This enables us to meet the inevitable risk in the safest way. This, also, undoubtedly commends itself to every loyal man in the country. This is the logical completion of the measures already taken. And when this has become a part of the fundamental laws, then, with an executive which will honestly defend the equal civil rights of all citizens, and confide the national offices to hands which have always faithfully upheld the nation, we shall be ready to encounter the sharpest peril to which a popular system of government has ever been exposed.

Articles Relating to Johnson's First Vetoes:
A Long Step Forward
January 27, 1866, page 50

February 10, 1866, page 83

Education of the Freedmen
February 10, 1866, page 83

The Veto Message
March 3, 1866, page 130

The Freedmen’s Bureau
March 10, 1866, page 146

The President’s Speech
March 10, 1866, page 147

The Political Situation
April 14, 1866, page 226

The Civil Rights Bill
April 14, 1866, page 226

The Civil Rights Bill
April 21, 1866, page 243

The Congressional Plan of Reorganization
May 12, 1866, page 290

The Trial of the Government
May 26, 1866, page 322

Making Treason Odious
June 2, 1866, page 338

The Final Report of the Reconstruction Committee
June 23, 1866, page 387

The Report of the Congressional Committee
June 23, 1866, page 386

The Case Stated
August 4, 1866, page 482

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