Interview with George L. Stearns on the Restoration of the Southern States and the Status of the Negro
I have just returned from an interview with President Johnson, in which he talked for an hour on the process of reconstruction of rebel States. His manner was as cordial, and his conversation as free, as in 1863, when I met him daily in Nashville.
His countenance is healthy—even more so than when I first knew him.
I remarked that the people of the North were anxious that the process of reconstruction should be thorough, and they wished to support him in the arduous work; but their ideas were confused by the conflicting reports constantly circulated, and especially by the present position of the democratic party. It is industriously circulated in the democratic clubs that he was going over to them. He laughingly replied: "Major, have you never known a man who for many years had differed from your views because you were in advance of him, claim them as his own when he came up to your standpoint?"
I replied: "I have often." He said: "So have I," and went on: "The democratic party finds its old position untenable, and is coming to ours. If it has come up to our position I am glad of it. You and I need no preparation for this conversation; we can talk freely on this subject, for the thoughts are familiar to us; we can be perfectly frank with each other." He then commenced with saying that the States are in the Union, which is whole and indivisible.
Individuals tried to carry them out but did not succeed, as a man may try to cut his throat and be prevented by the bystanders, and you cannot say he cut his throat because he tried to do it.
Individuals may commit treason and be punished, and a large number of individuals may constitute a rebellion and be punished as traitors. Some States tried to get out of the Union and we opposed it, honestly, because we believed it to be wrong; and we have succeeded in putting down the rebellion. The power of those persons who made the attempt has been crushed, and now we want to reconstruct the State governments, and have the power to do it. The State institutions are prostrated, laid out on the ground, and they must be taken up and adapted to the progress of events; this cannot be done in a moment. We are making very rapid progress— so rapid I sometimes cannot realize it; it appears like a dream.
We must not be in too much of a hurry. It is better to let them reconstruct themselves than to force them to it; for if they go wrong, the power is in our hands and we can check them at any stage, to the end, and oblige them to correct their errors. We must be patient with them. I did not expect to keep out all who were excluded from the amnesty, or even a large number of them; but I intended they should sue for pardon, and so realize the enormity of the crime they had committed.
You could not have broached the subject of equal suffrage, at the North, seven years ago; and we must remember that the changes at the South have been more rapid, and that they have been obliged to accept more unpalatable truth than the North has. We must give them time to digest a part; for we cannot expect such large affairs will be comprehended and digested at once. We must give them time to understand their new position.
I have nothing to conceal in these matters, and have no desire or willingness to take indirect courses to obtain what we want.
Our Government is a grand and lofty structure; in searching for its foundation we find it rests on the broad basis of popular rights. The elective franchise is not a natural right, but a political right. I am opposed to giving the States too much power, and also to a great consolidation of power in the central government
If I interfered with the vote in the rebel States, to dictate that the negro shall vote, I might do the same thing for my own purposes in Pennsylvania. Our only safety lies in allowing each State to control the right of voting by its own laws, and we have the power to control the rebel States if they go wrong. If they rebel we have the army, and can control them by it, and, if necessary, by legislation also. If the general government controls the right to vote in the States, it may establish such rules as will restrict the vote to a small number of persons, and thus create a central despotism.
My position here is different from what it would be if I was in Tennessee.
There I should try to introduce negro suffrage gradually; first, those who had served in the army; those who could read and write, and perhaps a property qualification for others, say $200 or $250.
It will not do to let the negroes have universal suffrage now, it would breed a war of races.
There was a time in the Southern States when the slaves of large owners looked down upon non-slave owners because they did not own slaves; the larger the number of slaves their masters owned the prouder they were, and this has produced hostility between the mass of the whites and the negroes. The outrages are mostly from non-slaveholding whites against the negro, and from the negro upon the non-slaveholding whites.
The negro will vote with the late master whom he does not hate, rather than with the non-slaveholding white, whom he does hate. Universal suffrage would create another war, not against us, but a war of races.
Another thing. This Government is the freest and best on the earth, and I feel sure is destined to last; but to secure this we must elevate and purify the ballot. I for many years contended at the South that slavery was a political weakness, but others said it was political strength; they thought wo gained three-fifths representation by it; I contended that we lost two-fifths.
If we had no slaves we should have had twelve representatives more, according to the then ratio of representation. Congress apportions representation by States, not districts, and the State apportions by districts.
Many years ago, I moved in the Legislature that the apportionment of representatives to Congress in Tennessee, should be by qualified voters.
The apportionment is now fixed until 1872; before that time we might change the basis of representation from population to qualified voters, North as well as South, and in due course of time, the States, without regard to color, might extend the elective franchise to all who possessed certain mental, moral, or such other qualifications, as might be determined by an enlightened public judgment.
The above having been submitted to the President, received the following endorsement:
"I have read the within communication and find it substantially correct. I have made some verbal alterations.
Source: John Savage, "Life and Public Services of Andrew Johnson".
Andrew Johnson, Interview with George L. Stearns on the Restoration of the Southern States and the Status of the Negro Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/355906