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This is a reminder that while there is value in looking back through a modern lens, if that is the only set of lenses we use our vision will be blurred, flattening our history, reducing people to cardboard figures designed to fit predetermined categories, and, in the end, making our history and our humanity less understandable. Unfortunately, large parts of our society seem intent on taking that path.
On April 5, 1864, Reverdy Johnson, 67-year-old Democratic Senator from Maryland, rose to speak on the floor of the Senate.
(Reverdy Johnson, from Wikipedia, a chick magnet, no doubt)
Senator Johnson already had a long and distinguished career, as a lawyer in Baltimore were counted among his friends and colleagues was Roger Taney, later to be Attorney General and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; as U.S. Senator from 1845 to 1849; Attorney General of the United States under President Zachary Taylor; representing the slave-owning defendant in the Dred Scott case; and as a prominent supporter of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential election.
After secession began, Johnson was among those who kept Maryland in the Union. In 1862, President Lincoln asked Johnson to go to New Orleans to review the controversial actions of General Benjamin Butler. In 1863 he was returned by the Maryland legislature to the Senate.
Johnson remained in the Senate until 1868. In 1865 he undertook the defense of Mary Surratt, one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators though, despite his efforts, Mrs. Surratt was convicted and hanged. After the war, Johnson became the only Democrat to vote for the Reconstruction Act of 1867, though he voted against the proposed 14th Amendment.
He left the Senate to become Minister to the United Kingdom, returning to law practice where he defended Ku Klux Klan members against indictments brought under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and opposed Radical Reconstruction. In 1876 while a dinner party guest at the Maryland Governor’s Mansion he died after falling downstairs and hitting his head.
On that day in April 1864, Senator Johnson rose to give an address in “Support of the Resolution to Amend the Constitution so as to Abolish Slavery“.
When the newly elected Thirty-Seventh Congress met in December 1863, Ohio representative James Ashley introduced legislation to end slavery, followed by a similar proposal from Senator John Hale of New Hampshire in the other chamber. Both failed on the grounds that Congress did not have authority under the Constitution to take such action.
The debate over slavery resumed in February 1864, the following month the Republican-controlled judiciary committee reported out a proposed Constitutional amendment banning slavery, and debate resumed in the Senate chamber.
For Johnson, a highly respected senator from a slaveholding state, to break with his party and support the amendment with a major address was a significant moment in the debate.
He began by confronting the importance of the measure and setting out the terms by which it should be evaluated:
“To manumit at once nearly four millions of slaves, who have been such by hereditary descent during their lives, and who because they were such, it being one consequence of their condition, have been kept in a state of almost absolute ignorance, is an event of which the world’s history furnishes no parallel. Whether it will be attended by weal or by woe, the future must decide. That it will not be followed by unmixed good or by unmixed evil, is perhaps certain; and the only questions in my view for a statesman to consider are, first, whether the measure be right, independent of its possible consequences, and secondly, whether those consequences may be such as to render it improper to do what is right.“
In making his argument, Johnson stressed the same point as Lincoln during his 1858 Senatorial campaign; the country’s revolutionary founders, “considered slavery not only as an evil to any people among whom it might exist, but an evil which it was the duty of all Christian people, if possible, to remove because of its being a sin, as well as an evil“. This was contrary to the view of Justice Taney in his Dred Scott opinion that the founders meant to exclude all Africans from the freedoms guaranteed in the Declaration and Constitution.
Johnson went on to state that if the Founders had anticipated the current condition of the country, “they would have provided by constitutional enactment that the evil and that sin should at a comparatively unremote day be removed.“
Further, the members of the Constitutional Convention, though the majority opposed slavery, made the judgment that without recognizing its current status the Union could not be formed, but:
“Whether this opinion was right or not, it is now useless to inquire; . . . But, if it was otherwise, if the Union could have been formed without the recognition of the institution, if its gradual extirpation could, on the contrary, have been provided for, no one who is a spectator of the scenes around us and is a friend of humanity and freedom, can fail to regret that it was not done.“
The Senator made clear he differed with some of his colleagues who blamed all the disasters of the U.S. since its founding on the institution of slavery. Johnson believed the Civil War could have been averted but for the hot-heads on both sides; abolitionists in the North and the crazed secessionists in the South.
Though he opposed slavery, absent the war, he would have been willing to wait for, what he believed, its certain demise at some point in the future.
“If there be justice in God’s providence, if we are at liberty to suppose that he would not abandon man to his own fate, and suffer his destiny to be worked out by his own means, and by his own lights, I never doubted that the day would come when human slavery would be extinguished, either through the mild though powerful influences of that high and elevated morality which the Christian religion teaches, or by a convulsive and successful effort at their liberation on the part of the bondsman.”
Johnson later references his 1847 speech in which he stated his belief that slavery will cease to exist “before a century shall have passed“, and blames northern abolitionists for causing a reaction in the south.
The Marylander then undertakes a direct assault on the doctrine of the late Senator John C Calhoun of South Carolina with whom he debated during his first Senate term in 1847, recollecting;
“That distinguished statesman at that time endeavored to satisfy the Senate, having, I have no doubt, satisfied himself by his own sophistry, that republican freedom could not exist without African slavery, and proclaimed his attachment to the Union and to the Constitution upon the ground, chiefly, that the later recognized the existence of slavery.”
Calhoun was proclaiming his theory of African slavery as a positive good, both for the slave exposed to the benefits of white civilization and for the white man, who learned to value liberty and freedom because he had in front of him the example of what happened when these were not available. It is also striking how much in this argument and in other aspects of his political philosophy today’s Woke echo Calhoun.
Johnson concluded his 1847 response to Calhoun with these sentiments:
“. . . I differ with the honorable Senator from South Carolina as to the conservative influence of slavery upon our free political institutions. I do not hold with him that they depend in any degree upon the existence of slavery. If I did, I should value them infinitely less than I do. In my judgment, they rest upon the virtue and intelligence of the people, and have their firmest support in the blessings which they impart.”
Calhounian doctrine appears again later in Johnson’s address where he repudiates the South Carolina senator’s view that the United States was formed by the sovereign states, rather than the people.
Returning to the present, the Senator states that although he would have opposed such an amendment prior to the war, “now, that that war is upon us; that a prosperous and permanent peace cannot be secured if the institution is permitted to survive“, later adding:
“. . . as we at present are, I cease to hope that the Government can be restored and preserved so as to accomplish the great ends for which it was established, unless slavery be extinguished. If it be permitted to remain, it will ever continue a subject upon which treason may be able to excite the madness of the southern mind.”
In his view, neither Congress nor the Executive has the power to abolish slavery. It could only be done by Amendment to the Constitution.
He proceeds to take on the view of some senators that the Constitution itself does not allow any amendments that would interfere with the right of property. After responding to this claim on statutory and constitutional interpretation grounds, Johnson moves onto high rhetoric:
“But further, looking to the preamble of the Constitution . . . can any reasonable doubt be entertained that the measure upon your table may be adopted? What is the question before us? It is, can an institution which deals with human beings as property, which claims a right to shackle not only the body but the mind and the soul, which brings, or may be used so as to bring to the level of the brute, a portion of the race of man; ceases to be within the reach of the political power of the people of the United States, not because it was not at one time within it, but because at that time they failed to exert it?”
“The very clause under which we now claim the authority to terminate slavery, the amendatory clause may have been inserted from a conviction that the time would come when justice would call so loudly for the extinction of slavery that disobedience to her call would be impossible, when the peace and tranquility of the land would demand its destruction, and when the sentiment of the Christian world would become so shocked at its existence under a government as far as the white man is concerned, one of the freest upon the habitable globe, and resting upon principles utterly inconsistent with slavery in any form, that the voice of that world would be spoken in thunder tones against its continuance, and that if not listened to it would cause us to be in all time in the view of an enlightened humanity the scoff and scorn of mankind.”
“I am not to be answered, Mr President, by being told that our fathers considered the African race, because they differed in color from themselves, not entitled to the rights which for themselves they declared were inalienable . . . The present advocates of slavery in this country, in the South, and in some of the pulpits, preach the doctrine that slavery of the black race is of divine origin. The moral and religious mind of the country has become nauseated by the teaching that scripture authorizes and approves slavery . . . Were the words of our Savior, which these men rely upon, when addressing Himself to the condition of master and servant, applicable only to servants or slaves of the black race? Was slavery at the period of His advent and His sojourn on earth confined to that race? Were not the white races equally subjected to it? We know that they were.”
“The doctrines He taught, more ennobling and humanizing than any that the world, enlightened as it was before his coming, had been able to discover, will all be found inconsistent with slavery. They taught man the duty of brotherhood. They announced that he was to do to others as he would have others do to him, and these teachings were addressed to the whole human family . . . He came to save the whole. He came to effect the Christian civilization of the race of, and He Spoke to all upon earth, and His Book now stands as a promise of mercy upon duty performed by man to man and by man to God, to every being upon the earth or who shall be upon the earth throughout all time, without regard to the differences of complexion which climate or other causes may have created.”
And the African race in America had demonstrated its common human traits in the ongoing conflict:
“Can it be said in truth that they are not fit for, because they are incapable of enjoying, the blessing of human liberty. Are they incapable by nature, or has their treatment in our land made them incapable? Are they or have they become so mentally and morally deficient that they are unable to appreciate the blessings of freedom?
“What do we see? Wherever the flag of the United States, the symbol of human liberty goes, there flock around it men, women, and children flying from their hereditary bondage and praying for its protection. Do they do this because they anticipate greater physical comfort, and do they remain because they obtain it? The mere physical condition of the man in many cases whilst under the control of his master, was better than that which he at times meets beneath the protection of our flag; but whilst in the former the iron of oppression he feels had pierced his soul, in the other he is gladdened by the light of liberty . . . with reference to the sentiment of love of freedom, all men are alike – are brethren. Look to the illustrations which the times afford. How do they prove that in that particular we differ from the black man? Do we not see that he is willing to incur every personal danger, which promises, if successfully met, to throw down his shackles and to make him stand upon God’s earth, upon that earth created for all, as a man and not as a slave. It is truly an instinct of the soul. For ages and centuries, tyranny may suppress it, the pall of despotism may hang over it, but the feeling is ever there. Instead of being annihilated, it kindles into a flame in the very furnace of affliction, and avails itself of the first opportunity that promises the least chance to obtain it, and wades through blood and slaughter for the purpose, and whether succeeding or failing, vindicates in the very effort the inextinguishable right to liberty.”
Reading this last paragraph reminds me of George W Bush’s stirring meditation on American slavery in his 2003 speech at Goree Island in Senegal, an address striking many of the same themes. With its sentiments on the basic human feelings and aspirations of blacks it surprisingly also echoes ideas expressed by Confederate General Patrick Cleburne in his January 1864 proposal to end slavery in the Confederacy in an effort to achieve southern independence.
Towards the end of the speech, Johnson returns to this theme, attacking the hypocrisy of those who now object to end slavery on the grounds that blacks are currently not capable of handling freedom:
“The unimproved moral and intellectual condition of the slaves is urged as an objection, and to a certain extent it is, to their immediate emancipation. They are uneducated, in a great degree; their moral sense instead of being awakened and improved has been designedly kept in a state of perfect paralysis . . . Why have these poor creatures been kept in absolute ignorance? Why has education, the most trivial, been denied them? Why penal, severe penal laws, forbidding it? Why have the Holy Scriptures been kept from their hovels? Why has it been made to them a sealed book? Why the sacrament of marriage and its holy ties denied them? There can be but one answer, and that palpably exhibits the unlawfulness, the immorality, the irreligion of the institution. It is that if they knew what knowledge imparts, if they knew what the good and the great and the pious teach, if they knew what the Gospel of our Saviour inculcates as the duty of all men, they would sooner of later obtain their freedom by violence or die in the effort.”
Reverdy Johnson closed with a reminder of the freed blacks already fighting for the Union.
“That some material evils may temporarily result from the measure upon your table, may be true; but they will be, I think, but briefly temporary . . . Slavery is already fatally wounded, If permitted to survive at all, it can survive only to fester and to trouble us. That many thousands of its late victims are at present free, and will remain free, no man with a heart not ossified will deny. We have called upon them to aid us in maintaining the Government. We have brought them around our standard, and have marched and are marching them under its folds to assist in its protection, and to aid in its triumph. To suffer these men to be reduced to bondage again would be a disgrace to the nation . . . Upon a question like that, the heart gives the answer in advance of the intellect. It would proclaim at once in a tone that would fill the land, carrying rebuke strong and crushing to whoever may assert the contrary, ‘no, no, never; freedom once enjoyed, none but a brute in this age of the world would take away.”
The proposed 13th Amendment passed easily in the Senate, with only six Democrats in opposition. The House was a different matter, and it was only with a further series of machinations that it passed in January 1865, events portrayed in the 2012 movie Lincoln.
Reverdy Johnson’s speech and his entire career are yet another reminder that the figures of the past did not live in our 21st century world. They were of their time and the configuration and constellation of their views may look odd to us today, but we need to understand them in the terms of their times and how they understood themselves. Johnson was a strong adherent of the pre-Civil War constitution which strictly limited the scope of the Federal government; in that regard his views were similar to the founders of the Confederacy; but he believed the Union indissolvable and, once war occurred, slavery needed to end. His post-Civil War career demonstrates an ambivalence about the scope of freedom for the newly liberated slaves, or at least a higher relative value on preventing federal interference with the rights of the states compared to ensuring full freedom for blacks.Published in