Harper's Weekly 07/08/1865


THE PUBLIC SAFETY.

Five years ago, when the Government of
the United States was threatened with destruc-
tion, a large party declared that it had no con-
stitutional right to defend itself, but must con-
sent to its own overthrow. The Government—
in other words, the people acting through their
lawful authorities—declined to be destroyed, and
after a long and terrible struggle, which took all
the forms and proportion of war, has succeeded
in subduing the armed insurrection against its
authority. Having thus, at the cost of a quar-
ter of a million of lives, an enormous public
debt, and a universal derangement of affairs,
once more established that authority, it is now
told that it has no constitutional right to secure
it. This assertion is not made by the adher-
ents and apologists of the rebellion only, but in
the New York Daily Times we find this extraor-
dinary statement: “We do not assent, there-
fore, to Mr. Dana's position, that we may right-
fully impose upon the Southern States any re-
quirements which we may deem essential to the
public safety.” That is to say, the Government
of the United States must submit to any meas-
ures which “the Southern States” may choose
to adopt in their reorganization, even if it con-
siders them to be destructive of the public safety.


Fortunately for the country this is not the
ground taken by the President of the United
States. Slavery, he said to the South Caro-
lina delegation, composed of citizens who have
been rebels for four years and more—slavery is
dead. Whatever you may think about it—
whatever your State Constitution may say about
it, it is still true, said President Andrew John-
son
, speaking in the name of the United States,
that “there is no hope that the people of South
Carolina can be admitted into the Senate or the
House of Representatives until they afford evi-
dence by their conduct of this truth.”


The President imposes the condition of eman-
cipation on the State reorganization because the
public safety requires it. Upon what other
ground than the public safety has the Government
waged war? What was the war but the main-
tenance of the national authority against local
action, which was incompatible with public safe-
ty? And in that part of the country which was
the seat of war what political authority exists at
this moment but that of the nation? If it be
asserted that States can not cease to be States,
we should like to know in the present situation
who is to decide that point? If it be assumed
that certain loyal citizens constitute the States,
we should like to know who settles that ques-
tion? Clearly the people of the United States
through their lawful Government; and while
undoubtedly those people desire that State gov-
ernments may be organized as speedily as the
public safety will permit, they are resolved with
equal unanimity that no local government shall
be established any where in the country except
upon conditions which they may deem essential
to the public safety.


If the political authority of the United States
be not at this moment absolute over every square
inch of South Carolina, then some other author-
ity is paramount there. If so, what is it? Is
it the State authority? If that be the case,
then the State Constitution regulates it, and reg-
ulates it independently of all other. But if
there be another authority which refuses to rec-
ognize any validity in the State Constitution ex-
cept upon prescribed conditions, then that au-
thority is paramount, and it may prescribe a
reformation in parts or altogether of that Con-
stitution. If the Times be correct, the procla-
mations of President Johnson are unconstitu-
tional, because he has imposed upon the South-
ern States requirements which he deems essen-
tial to the public safety—a course which seems
to us to be both that of the Constitution and of
common sense.


Suppose that a certain number of persons
living in the State of South Carolina should
call a convention, reaffirm the Constitution, take
an oath of fidelity to the Union, and claim to
be reorganized as the State of South Carolina.
The whole country would laugh at them for
their pains. Before the total ruin of the rebel-
lion this was the kind of advice given to the
rebels by the New York World. “Summon
your Legislatures,” it said, “repeal the act of
secession, lay down your arms, and Lincoln
can do nothing. Elect your Senators and Rep-
resentatives; send them to Washington; and
as the House is not organized they will have a
voice in the organization.” If the Times be
correct, this was sound advice. If the country
can not impose upon the reorganization of rebel
States such conditions as the public safety may
require, then the public safety is at the mercy
of those rebel States.


If, again, it be alleged that although all the
people in the State have by the State attitude
of rebellion forfeited their political rights, and
that they are restored by the pardoning power
under certain conditions, the whole argument
falls to the ground by its own terms. For,
manifestly, if all the people in a State have for-
feited their political rights there is nobody which
can rightfully exercise political power there, ex-
cept by the will of the national authority, and
under such conditions as it may impose with a
view to national peace and security.


That is precisely the cardinal point in the
labor of reorganization, which is now plainly
apparent. The United States having over-
thrown the armed resistance to its authority is
now to secure that authority wherever it has
been denied and assailed upon such conditions
as it conceives essential to the public safety.
Those conditions may be entirely unknown to
any State Constitution in the recovered district.
Indeed, in every instance thus far they are un-
known to those Constitutions. In Mississippi,
for instance, the State law ordains that every
free white male of a certain age shall be deem-
ed a qualified elector. But the President sets
aside fourteen classes of such electors, and ad-
mits to vote only those of the remainder who
shall take an oath unknown to the letter and
abhorrent to the spirit of the State Constitution.
Why are these requirements, in the words of the
Times, “imposed upon the Southern States?”
Simply because in the President's estimation the
public safety requires it. Does any body sup-
pose that if, in his estimation any other condi-
tion had been essential, he might not have re-
quired it? Might he not equally have required,
as a pledge of fidelity, that the Constitution to
be formed for the State shall not disfranchise
any innocent citizen because of the shape of his
nose or the color of his face?


The President has, however, decided to im-
pose no other conditions than those we have
named. But he has not declared that any Con-
stitution which may be submitted by the electors
whom he has qualified, even if accepted by the
State, shall therefore be received as final. He
reserves to himself and to Congress, that is, to the
people of the United States in their government
—the ultimate decision. And what will govern
that decision? Considerations of the public
safety. The highest constitutional duty of both
President and Congress is to provide for that,
and in taking every measure which a terrible
experience has shown to be essential to the pub-
lic safety, they may rely upon the unfaltering
and undivided support of every true Union man
in the country.



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