E.L. Godkin Asesses Reconstruction, 1871

From The Nation. 13: 336 (December 7, 1871). 364-365.

It is comparatively easy to reform the tariff or the civil service, or reduce the taxes, or return to specie payments, or civilize the Indians, or protect the immigrants, or get the overdue instalment [sic] form Venezuela, or bring Mexico to reason on that matter of "the free zone"; but it is almost as hard to give order, peace, and security to the southern half of American society as to medicine to a mind diseased, or pluck the rooted sorrow from the brain. We do not need to tell any of our readers what the state of things in that region is. It is not simply that men suddenly raised from a condition of bestial servitude, inheriting the weakness of barbarism, aggravated by the weaknesses of slavery, have been admitted to participation in the rights and responsibilities of free society; it is that they have been put in full and exclusive control of that most delicate and complicated piece of mechanism known as the government of a civilized State, with its debts, its credit, its sysem of taxes, its system of jurisprudence, its history, its traditions, its thousand knotty social and political problems. We say "exclusive control," because we do not call the division of power which the negroes have made with the Northern carpet-baggers a real division. The carpet-bagger is not a politician; he has no aims, opinions, ideas, passions, or prejudices; he is simply a man who has not succeeded in any of the ordinary walks of industry, and who, while travelling in quest of better luck, has got employment from the Southern negroes in managing the machine which the war threw into their hands, and with the nature of which they are not themselves familiar; and he does this with the firm determination of making all he can out of the job, and with no other determination whatever.

      The condition of the negro after emancipation--that is, his ignorance and want of experience, combined with his position of estrangement from or hostility towards his white neighbors--attracted the carpet-bagger as naturally as a dead ox attracts the buzzard. . . . But then we hastened his coming by our legislation. We deliberately, and for an indefinite period, excluded all the leading Southern men from active participation in the management of their local affairs, by a discrimination not unlike that which would be worked in this city (New York), but very much worse, if every man who had not at some time belonged to the Tammany Society were declared incapable of holding office. It was before the war the time-honored custom of the Southern States, and a very good custom too, to put their ablest men, and men of the highest social standing and character, in office. The consequence was that it was these men who figured most prominently in the steps which led to the rebellion and in the rebellion itself. When the war was over, we singled these men out, and not unnaturally, for punishment by the Fourteenth Amendment and other legistlation, but we forgot that, as the President points out, they were no worse, so far as disloyalty went, than the rest of the community. They broke their oaths of allegiance to the United States, but the other white men of the South would have done the same thing if they had got the chance of doing it by being elevated to office, either under the United States or under the Confederacy. We forgot, too, that when putting a mutinous crew in irons, the most justly indignant captain leaves at liberty enough able-bodied seamen to work the ship.

      There were, in short, two ways, and only two, of dealing with the South after the war, neither of which was adopted. One was to treat the whole community as hostile or diseased and disorganized and take charge of it from top to bottom, administer its justice, manage its finances, provide it with security of life and property, until such time as we were satisfied that it was competent to take charge of itself. . . .

      The other way was to treat the whole community as made up of unfortunate Americans, equally entitled to care and protection, demoralized by an accursed institution for which the whole Union was responsible, and which the whole Union had connived at and, down to 1860, had profited by; rent and desolated by a bloody war; disorganized by the most radical social and industrial revolution ever witnessed. . . . We adopted neither plan, however, but a combination of the two, and the worst possible combination, the results of which have been positively infernal. In the idea that we were befriending the negroes, we gave them possession of the government, and deprived them of the aid of all the local capacity and experience in the management of it, thus offering the States as a prey to Northern adventures, and thus inflicting on the freedmen the very worst calamity which could befall a race newly emerged from barbarism--that is, familiarity, in the very first moments of enfranchisement, with the processes of a corrupt administration, carried on by gangs of depraved vagabonds, in which the public money was stolen, the public faith made an article of traffic, the legislature openly corrupted, and all that the community contained of talent, probity, and social respectability put under a legal ban as something worthless and disreputable. We do not hesitate to say that a better mode of debauching the freedmen, and making them permanently unfit for civil government, could hardly have been hit on had the North had such an object deliberately in view. Instead of establishing equal rights for all, we set up the government of a class, and this class the least competent, the most ignorant and inexperienced, and a class, too, whose history and antecedents made its rule peculiarly obnoxious to the rest of the community.

      Out of this state of things Ku-kluxing has grown as naturally as Whiteboyism grew out of Orange rule in Ireland, and Klephtism out of Turkish rule in Greece. . . . We cannot gain-say anything anybody says of the atrocity of riding about the country at night with one's face blackened, murdering and whipping people. But we confess we condemn Ku-kluxing very much as we condemn the cholera. We are opposed to the cholera. It is a loathsome disease, and brings terrible suffering on any community which it assails; nothing too bad can be said about it. But we know that it originates in filth and bad drainage, and if anybody proposed to us to proclaim martial law in the alleys in which the filth was found, and imprison the people who made it, we should refuse to support such a measure . . . .

There is no more place for passion in dealing with South Carolina than in setting a broken limb or tying up an artery. We care nothing about the stories brought back by the Ku-klux Committee--very likely they are every word true; but they do nothing towards the solution of the problem before us. If when a mangled man was brought to a hospital the house-surgeon refused to bandage him until he had sent out a party of his assistants to find out exactly how he came by his injuries, whether it was in a fight, and if so, who began it, we should all be very angry, if we did not laugh; and yet the late Congressional investigation is something not very dissimilar.

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