Introduction

The first stages of what came to be known as Radical Republicanism included the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment. As these measures were debated and passed, race riots in Memphis during May and in New Orleans in July killed scores of blacks. State governments did little to find those guilty of the crimes. President Andrew Johnson spoke vociferously against the civil rights measures in the run up to the midterm elections of 1866, and he did not execute these important laws with zeal or efficiency. The Republicans took their case to the people in the elections of 1866 and won a decisive victory. With their veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Republicans sought to expand and deepen Reconstruction in the South with the aim of better securing civil rights and making race riots a thing of the past. In time, Republicans would pass Reconstruction Acts that superseded the existing Southern governments brought back under Johnson’s plan (See Proclamation on Reorganizing Constitutional Government in Mississippi and Johnson’s First Annual Address). They acted so that rebels would have less of a place in the new order. They also extended the franchise to blacks in Washington D.C. and tried to end state racial discrimination in voting (See the 15th Amendment). Many other more extensive proposals were made.

Still, Johnson would be the one to implement any laws and his heart was clearly not in it. Something had to be done about his dogged opposition to Reconstruction, or so Republicans thought. This line of criticism would, a year or so later, lead to Johnson’s impeachment. For now, Charles Sumner (1811-1874) Republican Senator of Massachusetts, long one of the chief advocates in the Senate for emancipation, extended his criticisms of Johnson in a speech to the people of Boston in the fall of 1866.


Source: Charles Sumner, “The One Man Power vs. Congress!” Address of the Honorable Charles Sumner at the Music Hall, Boston, October 2, 1866 (Boston: Wright & Potter, State Printers, 1866). Available at https://goo.gl/E4npRT.


It is now more than a year since I last had the honor of addressing my fellow-citizens of Massachusetts. On that occasion, I dwelt on what seemed to be the proper policy towards the States recently in rebellion – insisting that it was our duty . . . to obtain at least security for the future; and this security . . . could be found only in the exclusion of ex-rebels from political power, and in irreversible guarantees especially applicable to . . . the freedman. During the intervening months, the country has been agitated by this question, which was perplexed by an unexpected difference between the President and Congress. The President insists upon installing ex-rebels in political power, and sets at naught the claim of guarantees and the idea of security for the future, while he denies to Congress any control over this question, and takes it all to himself. Congress has asserted its control, and has endeavored to shut out ex-rebels from political power and to establish guarantees, to the end that there might be security for the future. Meanwhile, the States recently in rebellion, with the exception of Tennessee, are without representation in Congress. Thus stands the case.

The Two Parties in the Controversy

The two parties in the controversy are the President on the one side, and the people of the United States in Congress assembled on the other side. . . . It is the One Man Power vs. Congress. Of course, each of these performs its part in the government; but, until now, it has always been supposed that the Legislative gave the law to the Executive, and not that the Executive gave the law to the Legislative. Perhaps this irrational assumption becomes more astonishing when it is considered that the actual President, besides being the creature of an accident, is inferior in ability and character, while the House of Representatives is eminent in both respects. . . . Thus, in looking at the parties, we are tempted to exclaim: Such a President dictating to such a Congress! . . .

Irreversible Guarantees Must Be Had

The question at issue is one of the vastest ever presented for practical decision. . . . It is a question of statesmanship. We are to secure by counsel what was won by war. Failure now will make the war itself a failure; surrender now will undo all our victories. . . .

. . . [T]oday, I protest again against any admission of ex-rebels to the great partnership of this Republic, and I renew the claim of irreversible guarantees especially applicable to the national creditor and the national freedman. . . . Our first duty is to provide safeguards for the future. This can be only by provisions
. . . which shall fix forever the results of the war – the obligations of government – and the equal rights of all. Such is the suggestion of common prudence and of self-defense. . . . States which precipitated themselves out of Congress must not be permitted to precipitate themselves back. They must not be allowed to enter those halls which they treasonably deserted, until we have every reasonable assurance of future good conduct. . . .

A Lost Opportunity

From all quarters we learn that after the surrender of Lee, the rebels were ready for any terms, if they could escape with their lives. They were vanquished, and they knew it. . . . Had the national government merely taken advantage of this plastic condition, it might have stamped Equal Rights upon the whole people, as upon molten wax, while it fixed the immutable conditions of permanent peace. The question of reconstruction would have been settled before it arose. It is sad to think that this was not done. Perhaps in all history there is no instance of such an opportunity lost. . . .

The Presidential Policy Founded on Two Blunders

Glance, if you please, at that Presidential Policy . . . and you will find that it pivots on at least two alarming blunders . . . first, in setting up the One Man Power, as the source of jurisdiction over this great question; and secondly, in using the One Man Power for the restoration of rebels to place and influence, so that good Unionists, whether white or black, are rejected, and the rebellion itself is revived in the new governments. . . .

The One Man Power

[First]. . . [T]he President has assumed legislative power, even to the extent of making laws and constitutions for States. You all know that at the close of the war, when the rebel states were without lawful governments, he assumed to supply them. In this business of reconstruction he assumed to determine who should vote, and also to affix conditions for adoption by the conventions. . . .

. . . [I]t is one thing to govern a State temporarily by military power, and quite another thing to create a constitution for a State which shall continue when the military power has expired. The former is a military act, and belongs to the President. The latter is a civil act, and belongs to Congress. On this distinction I stand. . . .

Giving Power to Ex-Rebels

The other blunder is . . . giving power to ex-rebels, at the expense of constant Unionists, white or black, and employing them in the work of reconstruction, so that the new governments continue to represent the rebellion. . . .

. . . [T]he President began his work of reconstruction by appointing civilians to an office absolutely unknown to the law, when besides they could not take the required oath of office; and to complete the disregard of Congress he fixed their salary and paid it out of the funds of the War Department. . . .

. . . From top to bottom these States were organized by men who had been warring on their country. Ex-rebels were appointed by the governor or chosen by the people everywhere. Ex-rebels sat in conventions and in legislatures. Ex-rebels became judges, justices of the peace, sheriffs and everything else, while the faithful Unionist, white or black, was rejected. . . .

Partisans of the Presidential “policy” are in the habit of declaring that it is a continuation of the policy of the martyred Lincoln. This is a mistake. Would that he could rise from his bloody shroud to repel the calumny! But he has happily left his testimony behind, in words which all who have ears to hear can hear. On one occasion the martyr presented the truth bodily when he said, in a suggestive metaphor, that we must “build up from the sound material;”1 but his successor insists upon building from materials rotten with treason and gaping with rebellion. On another occasion the martyr said that “an attempt to guarantee and protect a revived State government, constructed in whole or in preponderating part from the very element against whose hostility and violence it is to be protected, is simply absurd.”2 But this is the very thing which the President is now attempting. He is constructing State governments, not merely in preponderating part, but in whole from the hostile element. Therefore, he departs openly from the policy of the martyred Lincoln. . . .

The President Inconsistent With Himself.

Such are two pivotal blunders of the President. It is not easy to see how he has fallen into these – so strong were his early professions the other way. The powers of Congress he had distinctly admitted. Thus, as early as 24th July, 1865, he had sent to Sharkey, acting by his appointment as Provisional Governor of Mississippi, this despatch: “It must, however, be distinctly understood, that the restoration to which your proclamation refers will be subject to the will of Congress.” . . . He was equally positive against the restoration of rebels to power. You do not forget that, in accepting his nomination as Vice-President, he rushed forward to declare that the rebel States must be remodelled; that confiscation must be enforced, and that rebels must be excluded from the work of reconstruction. His language was plain and unmistakable. Announcing that “government must be fixed on the principles of eternal justice” he went on to declare, that, “if the man who gave his influence and his means to destroy the government should be permitted to participate in the great work of reorganization, then all the precious blood so freely poured out will have been wantonly spilled, and all our victories go for naught.” . . . Then, in words of surpsising energy, he cried out, that “the great plantations must be seized and divided into small farms,” and that “traitors should take a back seat in the work of restoration.” . . .

How the President Fell

. . . Then ensued a strange sight. Instead of faithful Unionists, recent rebels thronged the Presidential ante-chambers, rejoicing in a new-found favor. They made speeches at the President, and he made speeches at them. A mutual sympathy was manifest. On one occasion the President announced himself a “Southern man,” with “Southern sympathies,” thus quickening that sectional flame which good men hoped to see quenched forever. . . . Instead of telling the ex-rebels that thronged the Presidential ante-chambers, as he should have done, that he was their friend ; that he wished them well from the bottom his heart; that he longed to see their fields yield an increase and peace in all their borders, and that, to this end, he counselled them to devote themselves to agriculture, commerce and manufactures, and for the present to say nothing about politics;—instead of this, he sent them away talking and thinking of nothing but politics, and frantic for the re-establishment of a sectional power. Instead of designating officers of the army as military governors, which I had supposed he would do, he appointed ex-rebels, who could not take the oath required by Congress of all officers of the United States, and they in turn appointed ex-rebels to office under them, so that participation in the rebellion found its reward, and treason, instead of being made odious, became a passport to power. . . .

The Presidential Madness

. . . The evil that he has done already is on such a scale that it is impossible to measure it, unless as you measure an arc of the globe. I doubt if in all history there is any ruler, who in the same brief space of time has done so much. There have been kings and emperors, proconsuls and satraps, who have exercised a tyrannical power; but the facilities of communication now lend swiftness and extension to all evil influences, so that the President has been able to do in a year what in other days would have taken a life. Nor is the evil that he has done confined to any narrow spot. It is co-extensive with the Republic. Next to Jefferson Davis stands Andrew Johnson as its worst enemy. The whole has suffered; but it is the rebel region which has suffered most. He should have sent peace; instead, he sent a sword. . . .

What Remains To Be Done

. . . [L]et me tell you plainly what must be done. In the first place, Congress must be sustained in its conflict with the One Man Power, and in the second place, ex-rebels must not be restored to power. Bearing these two things in mind the way will be easy. Of course, the constitutional amendment must be adopted. As far as it goes, it is well; but it does not go far enough. More must be done. Impartial suffrage must be established.3 A homestead must be secured to every freedman . . . If to these is added education, there will be a new order of things, with liberty of the press, liberty of speech and liberty of travel. . . . Our present desires may be symbolized by four “E’s,” standing for Emancipation, Enfranchisement, Equality and Education. Let these be secured and all else will follow. . . .

Impartial Suffrage Must Be Secured by the Nation
and Not Left to the States

You are aware, that from the beginning I have insisted upon impartial suffrage as the only certain guarantee of security and reconciliation. I renew this persistence and mean to hold on to the end. Every argument, every principle, every sentiment is in its favor. But there is one reason, which at this moment I place above all others; it is the necessity of the case. You will require the votes of colored persons in the rebel States in order to sustain the Union itself. Without their votes you cannot build securely for the future. . . . Give the ballot to the colored citizen and he will be not only assured in his own rights, but he will be the timely defender of yours. . . .

But it is said, leave this question to the States; and State rights are pleaded against the power of Congress. This has been the cry – at the beginning to prevent efforts against the Rebellion, and now, at the end, to prevent efforts against the revival of the Rebellion. . . .

But there are powers of Congress, not derived from the rebellion, which are adequate to this exigency, and now is the time to exercise them and thus complete the work that has been begun. It was the nation that decreed emancipation, and the nation must see to it, by every obligation of honor and justice, that emancipation is secured. It is not enough that slavery is abolished in name.  The Baltimore platform, on which President Johnson was elected, requires “the utter and complete extirpation of Slavery from the soil of the Republic ;” but his can be accomplished only by the eradication of every inequality and caste, so that all shall be equal before the law. . . .

. . . Surely it is not natural to suppose that people, who have claimed property in their fellow-men – who have indulged that wild and guilty fantasy that man can hold property in man – will become at once the kind and just legislators of freedmen. It is contrary to nature to expect it. Even if they have made up their minds to emancipation, they are, from inveterate habit and prejudice, incapable of doing justice to the colored race. . . . People do not change suddenly or completely. . . .

I claim this power for the nation. If it be said that the power has never been exercised, then, I say, that the time has come when it should be exercised. I claim it on at least three several grounds.

(1.) There is the Constitutional Amendment.4 . . . Every argument . . . by which you assert the power for the protection of colored person in what are called their civil rights, is equally strong for their protection in what are called their political rights. In each case you legislate to the same end, that the freedman may be maintained in that liberty which has so tardily been accorded to him, and the legislation is just as “appropriate” in one case as in the other.

(2.) There is also that distinct clause of the Constitution, requiring the United States “to guarantee to every State in the Union a republican form of government.” . . . Let it be declared, that a State which disfranchises any portion of its citizens by a discrimination in its nature insurmountable, as in the case of color, cannot be considered a republican government. The principle is obvious, and its practical adoption would ennoble the country and give to mankind a new definition of republican government.

(3.) But there is another reason which is with me peremptory. There is no discrimination of color in the allegiance which you require. Colored citizens, like white citizens, owe allegiance to the United States; therefore, they may claim protection as an equivalent. In other words, allegiance and protection must be reciprocal. . . .

In this cause I cannot be frightened by words. There is a cry against “centralization,” “consolidation,” “imperialism,” all of which are bad enough when dedicated to any purpose of tyranny. As the House of Representatives is renewed every two years, it is inconceivable to suppose that such a body . . . can become a tyranny, especially when it seeks safeguards for Human Rights. . . . There can be no danger in Liberty assured by central authority; nor can there be any danger in any powers to uphold Liberty. Such a centralization, such a consolidation – aye, Sir, such an imperialism would be to the whole country a well-spring of security, prosperity and renown. To find danger in it is to find danger in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself, which speaks with central power; it is to find danger in those central laws which govern the moral and material world, binding men together in society and keeping the planets wheeling in their spheres. . . .

Study Questions

A. What is Senator Sumner’s critique of President Johnson? What extensions of federal policy does Senator Sumner envision? What would he like to do, and what would he like to undo? What are his reasons for departing from what has been done? What role of the national government does he envision during Reconstruction? Why does he think Congress should take the lead in Reconstruction?

B. How does Senator Sumner go beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment? How does Senator Sumner’s treatment of the political situation in 1867 compare with Representative Thaddeus Stevens’s treatment (See Thaddeus Stevens Speech on Reconstruction and Damages to Loyal Men)?

Footnotes

  1. We have not identified the source of this Lincoln quotation. It may be a reference to the Lyceum Address.
  2. Abraham Lincoln, Third Annual Message, December 8, 1863.
  3. Sumner refers to the 14th Amendment (Document 14), not yet ratified in October 1866, and what would become the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that the right to vote will not be abridged “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
  4. Sumner refers to an amendment protecting the vote, what would become the 15th Amendment.