The victorious Radicals in the North were faced with a practical dilemma as they punished the South for seeking political independence. Should the freedmen be left alone with their former masters they would vote with them and possibly remove the Republicans from power. The infamous Union League was then unleashed on Southern blacks to hold their white neighbors in contempt and vote against their interests – a sad result still in evidence today. In 1868, Grant was narrowly elected over Democrat Samuel Tilden with 500,000 freedmen-provided votes.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Radical Reconstruction and Negro Suffrage
“The reconstruction of the Southern States . . . is one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of government. As a demonstration of political and administrative capacity, it is no less convincing than the subjugation of the Confederate armies as an evidence of military capacity.
The Congressional leaders – Trumbull, Fessenden, Stevens, Bingham and others – who practically directed the process of reconstruction, were men of as rugged a moral and intellectual fiber as Grant, Sherman and the other officers who crushed the material power of the South.
In the path of reconstruction lay a hostile white population in the South, a hostile executive at Washington, a doubtful if not decidedly hostile Supreme Court, a divided Northern sentiment in respect to Negro suffrage and an active and skillfully-directed Democratic Party.
With much the feelings of the prisoner of tradition who watched the walls of his cell close slowly in from day to day to crush him, the Southern whites saw in the successive developments of Congress’ policy the remorseless approach of Negro rule. The fate of Southern whites, like that of the prisoner of tradition, may excite our commiseration; but the mechanism by which the end was achieved must command an appreciation on its merits.
The power of the national government to impose its will upon the rebel States, irrespective of any restriction as to means, was assumed when the first Reconstruction Act was passed, and this assumption was acted upon to the end.
That the purpose of reconstruction evinced as much political wisdom as the methods by which it was attained, is not clear. To stand the social pyramid on its apex was not the surest way to restore the shattered equilibrium in the South.
The enfranchisement of the freedmen and their enthronement in political power was as reckless a species of statecraft as that which marked “the blind hysterics of the Celt,” in 1789-95. But the resort to Negro suffrage was not determined to any great extent by abstract theories of equality.
Though Charles Sumner and the lesser lights of his school solemnly proclaimed, in season and out, the trite generalities of the Rights of Man, it was a very practical dilemma that played the chief part in giving the ballot to the blacks.
By 1867 it seemed clear that there were three ways available for settling the issues of the war in the South: first, to leave the [Andrew] Johnson governments in control and permit the Southern whites themselves, through the Democratic Party, to determine either chiefly or whole the solution of existing problems; second, to maintain Northern and Republican control through military government; and third, to maintain Northern and Republican control through Negro suffrage.
The first expedient was . . . grotesquely impossible. The choice had to be made between indefinite military rule and Negro suffrage. It was a cruel dilemma. The traditional antipathy of the English race toward military rule determined resort to the second alternative. It was proved by the sequel that the choice was unwise. The enfranchisement of the blacks, so far from removing, only increased, the necessity for military power.
Seven unwholesome years [to 1877] were required to demonstrate that not even the government which had quelled the greatest rebellion in history could maintain the freedmen in both security and comfort on the necks of their former masters. ”
(Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics, William A. Dunning, The Macmillan Company, 1898, pp. 247-252)