The Old Flag: What was Surrendered? What was Won?
The Compromise of 1877 effectively ended reconstruction in the South. The Republicans
agreed to pull troops out of the South in exchange for Rutherford B. Hayes being awarded the disputed presidential election.
Tensions were running high, and some Republicans like Senator James G. Blaine were warmongering. Opposing a resumption of hostilities, Chamberlain argues in favor of
the compromise and peace. Believing, as did President Hayes, that by the Constitution this was their only course of action.
The tone of this speech seems very different from his speeches and writings after the war where he said,
"It seems little else than absolute madness to hasten to reinvest with political power the very men
who precipitated upon us the horrors of civil war; and little else than cowardly wickedness to turn our backs upon the
millions whose humble and despised condition did not prevent them from befriending the country
when it was most in need of friends, and yet this very madness and this very wickedness constitute to-day
the main feature of a policy urged upon the country with the full strength of the party which,
pretending to oppose the war during its continuance, did in reality encourage and prolong it by moral
support, and now that the war is ended in triumph, so contrary to their predictions, seeks to rob that
victory of the fruits we had supposed secure."1
Chamberlain was not alone in his change of tune, although he still believed in equal rights for African Americans,
he and many others did not want to renew violence to attain them. A few months before President Grant had refused to use the military
to keep the Republican governments in the South in power. Stating, "I want to avoid anything like an unlawful use of the military."2
Grant, like Chamberlain even bemoaned the passage of the 15th Amendment stating it "had done the negro no good, and had been a hinderance to the South , and by no means a political advantage to the North."3
Noting the abandonment of the fight by the North, no matter how legitimate their reasons may or may not have been,
it is easy to see why many African American historians call the Compromise "The Great Betrayal."
The nail was in the coffin of reconstruction even before the Compromise of 1877. The Supreme Court case United States v. Cruikshank
overturned federal charges against white Democrats who massacred a militia of freedmen, stating that the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to state action,
not to actions by individual citizens. It concluded that the plaintiffs had to rely on state courts for protection.
To make matters worse the Democrats had regained a majority in the House making further civil rights legislation unlikely.
We see in this speech that Chamberlain embraces Hayes' Southern Policy, a policy that in hindsight too optimistic
and its trust in "best white southerners" misguided. However Hayes believed according to the law it was his only course of action.
A website describes it,
"First, he wanted to eliminate acts of violence committed against Blacks in the name of politics. Secondly, Hayes believed that the "best white southerners" would adhere to the three amendments relating to Black rights.
Thirdly, he advocated education and federal aid to bolster the southern economy. Lastly, he endorsed strong, honest local self-government in the region. He believed that by making Black votes necessary for office,
white southerners would work vigorously to protect Black voters."4
This speech has both the best and worst of Chamberlain. While on one hand he says many great antislavery statements like,
"Slavery and freedom cannot live together." He also offers one of his most cringe worthy statements,
"The free country - first the men that made it so, and then the men who are cast upon it. Yes, I say it. The men who have made a country what it is or given it character and built their very
lives into its history are to have the foremost hand if we would keep the country true to its mission, true to its ideal. The voting business and the South will regulate itself."
This is very different from what he said as Governor in 1867,
But we are struck with amazement, and thrown upon our guard when we see those who with scorn and contumely spurned
the Constitution and defied the Government, and sought with violence and cruelty to destroy the Union,
now demanding, with equal effrontery and the same spirt of violence, without and apology for the past,
without a guaranty for the future, the unconditional restoration of their rights under the Constitution, their place
in the Union and their prestige in the Government.5
And then in 1869,
"In the recent decision of the people at the critical hour when the great issues which have
distracted the country were to be finally determined, they have shown that they are not willing to give the Government
over to the hands of our adversaries as a rebuke for our errors and weaknesses; and that neither the renewal of violence nor of
treachery shall cause them to lose sight of the high mission
laid on them for the enfranchisement of man. The firm hand raised up by providence to quell the violence of Rebellion,
is chosen once more to guide in the victories of Peace."6
What caused this sudden shift? Was it motivated by a desire to prevent another war?
Or the belief that with power returned to the Southern states the Constitution no longer allowed the army to take action?
Or, as some historians believe, was Chamberlain secretly harboring these ideas the whole time?
In 1872 Chamberlain certainly had had the opportunity to join with the Liberal Republicans in voting for Horace Greeley who
wanted to end reconstruction and return power to the South, but Chamberlain stuck by President Grant and Reconstruction as is seen here
Chamberlain was right that according to the law once Reconstruction ended their hands were tied, the only way to protect
African American voting rights would be another war or a long fight in Congress and the courts.
But nonetheless his sentiment is discouraging.
In his Boothbay speech
the following year we see Chamberlain still sees the mistreatment of the former slaves as "unenlightened" and "evil,"
"Great evils cannot be cured in a day. The true education of the people will not be hastened by hate. Our brethren
of the South must learn that violence never gives strength but the reverse. The South is full two centuries behind what it ought to be in enlightenment,
but you cannot fight men into civilization, and we shall not hasten anything by anger."
Frustrated with rabble rousing and calls to take up arms, Chamberlain was perhaps thinking of hypocrisy in his own party when he states,
But some say we cannot have peace here because the negroes do
not have good treatment in the South, and because the Rebels are back again in Congress.
The negroes are abused in the South, it is true, but so are the Chinese in California, so are
the 40,000 poor girls in London, so are the Indians.
Chamberlain was firmly against mistreatment of, and immigration laws against the Chinese.7
However his opponent James G. Blaine, who he refers to as "the Senator",
would lobby to restrict immigration of the Chinese saying they were, "impure and lewd far beyond the Anglo-Saxon
conception of impurity and lewdness."8
Recalling an 1870 amendment to the naturalisation laws that allowed
emigrants from Africa to become citizens but denied citizenship to the Chinese, Blaine would state emphatically, "I am opposed to the Chinese coming here; I am opposed to making them citizens;
I am opposed to making them voters."9
(For political cartoons depicting Blaine turning his back on the Chinese see: CIVILIZATION OF BLAINE 1879
and BLAINE LANGUAGE, 1879